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George Washington and Civic Virtue
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Lesson Plan
George Washington and Civic Virtue

Suggested Procedure:
  1. Write “civic virtue” on the board. Ask students what they think the phrase means.
  2. Tell students to count off 1-2-3-4 and to move to four groups in different parts of the room (“group one in this corner,” group two in that corner,” and so on). Give each group one of the four civic virtues from the reading to discuss: civic knowledge, self-restraint, self-assertion, and self-reliance. Tell students to use their own knowledge, dictionaries, or other resources to define their term. Then, each group should discuss how a citizen today might exercise this virtue.
  3. Distribute copies of the reading “George Washington and Civic Virtue.”
  4. Read the introduction aloud to the students. Discuss why the founders thought civic virtue was important to a free society. Tell students to read about the four civic virtues in relationship to George Washington and answer the discussion questions.
  5. Tell groups to compare their earlier discussion about their assigned civic virtue with what they learned about Washington and that virtue from the reading. Have groups report on their discussions to the class.
  6. **As an extra exercise, print and distribute copies of Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior or have students read it online. Have students list rules that they think might lead to more civil and decent behavior in today’s society.

George Washington and Civic Virtue

At the end of The Federalist 55, James Madison observed that “republican government presupposes the existence of [civic virtue] in a higher degree than any other form.” The American Founders understood that political freedom requires a limited government—that is, government should leave people alone, for the most part, in their private associations such as family, religion, and business. But the Founders also understood that limited government is risky: When people are left alone, they might use that freedom to violate the rights of others; or they might simply live irresponsibly, depending on others with money and resources to care for them. Thus limited government requires certain kinds of civic virtue, no less than political freedom requires limited government.

George Washington in many ways was, and remains, the model of what it means to be an American citizen. He embodied the civic virtues that Madison described as indispensable for a self-governing republic. These virtues can be divided into four categories:
  1. Civic Knowledge
  2. Self-restraint
  3. Self-assertion
  4. Self-reliance

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