The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

June 27, 2017

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George Washington: Today’s Indispensable Man
Forrest McDonald - 02/16/09

Washington satisfied this need, and not least because he looked the part. Tall and powerfully built, he was “the most graceful figure . . . on horseback,” as Jefferson put it, and was instantly recognized as the commander in chief even by soldiers who had never seen him before. When Abigail Adams finally met him in 1789 she was moonstruck. She gushed, as had the Queen of Sheba when first setting eyes on Solomon, “the half was not told me.”

His physical appearance was complemented by an aura, not merely of strength, but of invincibility. His immunity to gunfire seemed almost supernatural. Early in his career a treacherous guide fired at him from point-blank range—and missed. Once he rode between two columns of his own men who were firing at one another by mistake and struck up their guns with his sword—the musket balls whizzed harmlessly by his head. Time and time again during the Revolutionary War musket balls tore his clothes, knocked off his hat, shredded his cape, horses were killed under him, but he was never touched. What mortal could refuse to entrust his life to a man whom God obviously favored? What country could refuse to do so?

But if it was his natural gifts that made others prone to trust him, there remains the question, how did he come to be worthy of trust? The answer is, he made himself that way. To understand how he did it, we must turn to the prevailing ideas about the nature of the human animal. Virtually every American at the time believed in God—the God of both the Old Testament and the New—which meant that, while they believed in the possibility of redemption in the hereafter, they also believed in original sin, in the inherent baseness of man.

And yet, though man could not escape his nature, there were a number of ways he could improve himself. All of them rested on the premise that the social instinct is a primary force; the desire to have the approval of one’s peers ranked with the physical appetites in motivating people. A perceptive person could turn this instinct into an engine for self-improvement, which is what Washington did. As a child he devoutly wished to become a country gentleman (a status he was by no means born to) and toward that end he recorded and followed “110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” These rules were a manual of etiquette for circumstances ranging from being at the dinner table (“Being Set at meat Scratch not neither Spit Cough or blow your Nose—except there’s a Necessity for it”) to being “In Company of those of Higher Quality than yourself.”

Notice the adolescent Washington’s phraseology: “those of Higher Quality than yourself.” Eighteenth-century Virginia society was highly stratified, as was society throughout Europe. Washington was acutely conscious of his own social position, for as a teenager he had been taken under the wing of a wealthy, titled family, the Fairfaxes. From watching them, and also from a play he saw for the first time in his late teens, he learned to aim higher than just seeking the approval of his peers. The play was Joseph Addison’s Cato, and its message was clear: Addison advised young Washington to follow precisely the opposite course from that recommended by Shakespeare’s Polonius. In Hamlet, Polonius says: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Shakespeare put those words in the mouth of a prattling fool, and Addison’s message is that, for public men, they are foolish words. Rather, he says: Do not trust in your own righteousness. Instead, be true to others; seek the esteem of the wise and the good, and it follows that you cannot then be false to yourself—or to your country.

Washington made that a guiding star for his own conduct. Later, when circumstances and his achievements made it possible, he aimed his sights even higher, and he sought by conscious design to earn the esteem of posterity, of generations of discerning and virtuous people yet unborn.

That was one way Washington improved himself. Another was through the concept of character. The term character was rarely used in the eighteenth-century as we use it, to refer to internal moral qualities. Rather, at least in polite society and among people in public life, it referred to a persona or mask that one deliberately selected and always wore: one picked a role, like a part in a play, and sought to act it unfailingly, ever to be in character. If one chose a character with which one was comfortable, and if one played it long enough and consistently enough, it became a “second nature” that in practice superseded the first. One became what one pretended to be.

The results, for good or ill, depended upon the character or characters chosen and upon how well one acted the part. Washington chose to play a progression of characters, each grander and nobler than the last, and he played them so successfully that he ultimately transformed himself into a man of almost extrahuman virtue.

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