On the Character of George Washington

george-washington1Gary Scott Smith, a history professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, discusses the character of George Washington.  This piece was published in 2010, but it still resonates.

Here is a taste:

Although scholars criticize Washington’s personal ethics, sexual behavior, vanity, and ownership of slaves, his moral character, especially his refusal to yield to temptation, set him apart from most others in the late 18th century. He took the standards of his age very seriously and diligently strove to be virtuous. To many, the crowning achievement of Washington’s character was his simultaneous resignation in 1783 as the commander in chief of the American army and his retirement from the world of politics. Throughout the Western world, his unprecedented relinquishing of power (which he did a second time when he declined a third term as president) was widely heralded. Unlike other victorious generals, he did not expect a political or financial reward for his military exploits. Washington’s character, Jefferson argued, probably prevented the American Revolution from subverting the liberty it sought to establish. The Virginian had a sterling reputation for integrity and honor, dedication to duty and his country, and remaining above the political fray.

Eulogists and early biographers imputed many virtues to Washington. They praised his wisdom, judgment, astounding courage on the battlefield, and dignity. Congress elected him the first chief executive, principally because its members trusted his moral character. Assessments of Washington applauded his military zeal and political passion on the one hand and his self-restraint and civil moderation on the other. Blending Stoic and Christian traditions, eulogists extolled Washington’s perseverance in the midst of setbacks.

Many admirers considered Washington’s self-control the key facet of his character. He could master events because he had mastered himself. Despite being surrounded by fear, despair, indecisiveness, treason, and the threat of mutiny, he remained confident and steadfast. Eulogists also heralded his self-sacrifice, devotion to the common good, compassion, generosity, and benevolence.

As president, Washington strove to establish public confidence in the new government and to demonstrate that political leaders could act virtuously. He believed his character was much more important to the success of the republic than his policies, and he spent much of his adult life creating and preserving a reputation for integrity and uprightness. In 1788, the planter wrote to his trusted confidant Alexander Hamilton, “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.” His character helped hold the other founders together in the midst of tremendous trials and reassured them that they could construct a workable republic. His example of self-sacrifice, discipline, and moral goodness helped elevate the status of the presidency.

Read the entire piece here.