Started From the Top, Now We’re Here?
After this week’s political action, I feel compelled to talk about the true O.G. — George Washington. It’s been a fun experience to read and study Ron Chernow’s fantastic biography of Washington, all while this bizarre presidential campaign unfolds. The first president of the United States didn’t really want the job, and lived in a time when it was considered unbecoming to outwardly campaign for political office. Contrast that to today’s political climate and you have a fun juxtaposition.
Here are my favorite excerpts from the book and why I believe more politicians need to look for some guidance from our first president.
While Washington owned slaves his entire life he arranged to have them freed upon his wife’s death. Today that sounds like too little too late, but as a prominent southern landowner and the most famous man in the country, it was a brave decision:
“By freeing his slaves, Washington accomplished something more glorious than any battlefield victory as a general or legislative at as president. He did what no other founding father dared to do, although all proclaimed a theoretical revulsion at slavery. He brought the American experience that much closer to the ideals of the American Revolution and brought his own behavior in line with his troubled conscience.”
On productivity and self-improvement:
“As president, he lectured a young relative about to enter college that “every hour misspent is lost forever” and that “future years cannot compensate for lost days at this period of your life.”
Without much formal schooling, Washington was later subject to condescension from some contemporaries, especially the snobbish John Adams, who disparaged him as “too illlterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation.” Washington has suffered from comparisons with other founders, several of whom were renowned autodidacts, but by any ordinary standard, he was an exceedingly smart man with a quick ability to grasp ideas. He seized every interval of leisure to improve himself and showed a steady capacity to acquire and retain useful knowledge. Thorughout his life, he strenuously molded his personality to become a respectable member of society. As W.W. Abbot aptly expressed it, ‘More than most, Washington’s biography is the story of a man constructing himself.’”
How he controlled his temper and always displayed sound judgement:
“Politics gave him more time to deliberate than did warfare, and he made fewer mistakes as president than as a general on the battlefield…Hamilton concurred that the president,”consulted much, pondered much; resolved slowly, resolved surely.” By delaying decisions, he made sure that his better judgement prevailed over his temper. At the same time, once decisions were made, they “were seldom, if ever, to be shaken,” wrote John Marshall. Jefferson agreed, saying that Washington’s mind was “slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion….” Jefferson did not rank Washington as a first-rate intellect on the order of Newton, Bacon, or Locke but he admitted that “no judgement was ever sounder.”
Washington was a perceptive man, who behind his polite facade, was unmatched at taking the measure of people. People did not always realize how observant he was…Edward Thornton, a young British diplomat, who added that Washington “possesses the two great requisites of a statesman, the faculty of concealing his own sentiments, and of discovering those of other men.’”
“George Washington possessed the gift of inspired simplicity, a clarity and purity of vision that never failed him. Whatever petty partisan disputes swirled around him, he kept his eyes fixed on the transcendent goals that motivated his quest. As sensitive to criticism as any other man, he never allowed personal attacks or threats to distract him, following an inner compass that charted the way ahead. For a quarter century , he had stuck to an undeviating path that led straight to the creation of an independent republic, the enactment of the Constitution, and the formation of the federal government. History records few examples of a leader who so earnestly wanted to do the right thing, not just for himself, but for his country. Avoiding moral shortcuts, he consistently upheld such high ethical standards that he seemed larger than any other figure on the political scene. Again and again the American people had entrusted him with power, secure in the knowledge that he would exercise it fairly and ably and surrender it when his term of office was up.He had shown that the president and commander in chief of a republic could possess a grandeur surpassing that of all the crowned heads of Europe. He brought maturity, sobriety, judgement, and integrity to a political experiment that could easily have grown giddy with its own vaunted success, and he avoided the backbiting, envy, and intrigue that detracted from the achievements of other founders. He had indeed been the indispensable man of the American Revolution.”
“By 1814 Jefferson would arrive at a more balanced verdict on Washington: ‘On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may be truly said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great.’”
We’re all fed up with our political process. But after reading about Washington’s life it’s clear that American politics have always been insane. Things ultimately work out. Things work out because of the few great men our country has had to lead it — those who are ready to rise to the occasion when the decisive moment comes.
It started with Washington — where does it go from here? I don’t know what’s going to happen, but when it comes time to vote for our next leader, look for the person who brings “maturity, sobriety, judgement, and integrity” to the job. We need as much of that as we can get moving forward.
Originally published at www.mkhjr.com on February 22, 2016.