Today, we should come to praise the man who could have been Caesar, in hopes that his deeds will never be buried, but remain first in the hearts of his posterity.
For, on this President’s Day, friends, Americans, countrymen, we commemorate not just the birth, but also the character, of George Washington.
Character was a lifelong concern of Washington. He was unflinching in exemplifying it himself and was devoted to its development throughout the nation.
Many Americans know a fair amount about our first president. Washington could have been king, but chose not to be, because he was a statesman who loved the republic, rather than a tyrant who loved his own glory.
He was a remarkable general, against all odds defeating the most formidable military of his time. For his troubles, he was afforded a presidency characterized by numerous calamities, with his every decision determining the authority and confines of the office.
But his most unprecedented move was stepping down from power. Twice.
Against all these remarkable deeds, we must take care not to overlook or underestimate Washington as a thinker.
Washington’s understanding of republican government was no less comprehensive or consistent than his fellow Founders. While he had little formal education, he determined to offset that disadvantage with his own efforts. Like Jane Austen’s character Elizabeth Bennet, in his books Washington had “all the masters that were necessary” for his edification, and at the end of his life, he left behind 1,200 titles.
Washington’s enduring enterprise was to establish a national character. He did this with deliberate purpose and philosophical understanding. In his Circular to the States in 1783, he explained that there were four pillars essential to America’s well-being:
1st. An indissoluble Union of the States under one federal Head.
2ndly. A sacred regard to Public Justice.
3dly. The adoption of a proper Peace Establishment, and
4thly. The prevalence of that pacific and friendly Disposition among the People of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and, in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community.
At that point in the nation’s history, many Americans still thought of themselves as citizens of a particular state, rather than of a unified nation. Establishing a people united in their defense of and adherence to republican principles was an act of character formation that necessitated the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution working on Americans over time.
Required more immediately were common interactions among citizens. With that in view, one of the major initiatives Washington championed was the Potomac River project.
Washington, along with James Madison, sought to link the East and the West through river improvements, opening up trade as well as travel. The purpose of the project was not merely to improve infrastructure, but to strengthen the union. Citizens from seemingly disparate parts of the nation could come together in commerce and travel, forget their local prejudices, and build goodwill as countrymen.
To establish a “sacred regard to Public Justice,” Washington believed just conduct on the national level would need to replicate virtue on the individual level. For example, Congress paying its war debts was a matter of duty, and Washington urged for that “debt of honor and of gratitude” to be met with honesty, dignity, and energy.
More fundamentally, if American citizens “should not be completely free & happy, the fault will be entirely their own. … [I]t is in their choice, and depends upon their conduct, whether they will be respectable and prosperous, or contemptible and miserable as a nation. … This is the moment to establish or ruin their national character forever.”
America would not become a self-governing nation by simply winning independence. A republican system requires that the people accept their requisite duties by developing in themselves a character equal to the task of citizen rule.
Reason governs the passions of such a people while they themselves abide by the law.
In promoting such public justice, Washington began with himself. The result, as Rep. Daniel Webster once remarked, was that America “furnished to the world the character of Washington! And if our American institutions had done nothing else, that alone would have entitled them to the respect of mankind.”
Throughout his life, Washington was determined to prevent weaknesses in his own character and serve as a model for others. As a young man, he copied “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” because he took manners seriously as reflective of underlying principles.
As a commander, he was cognizant of being an example for his officers and demanded they do the same for the troops. Washington achieved with the army what he later sought to do with the nation: bring together disparate groups of people and unite them in adherence to good conduct.
Washington’s character suited him for this purpose. No other Founder, for all their distinct and significant contributions, embodied the virtues Americans admire quite like Washington.
Indeed, there was nothing small about Washington. In addition to his physical height of six feet and ramrod posture, Washington was courageous, dutiful, and generous.
As a Washington scholar once explained to me, “What we admire about Washington is simply this: He gave everything for his country, and asked of us nothing in return.” But though he never asked, perhaps we can offer him something. It is within us, and us alone, to ensure the character of America’s general lives on after him.
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