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George Washington and Civic Virtue

1. Civic Knowledge

The American Founders built into the Constitution of 1787 a number of mechanisms that would curb the power of the national government, making it difficult for government to violate the liberties and rights of citizens. These were things such as separation of powers, checks and balances between the three branches, staggered elections and varying terms of office, and federalism. As important as these improvements were over past governments, however, they were at best “auxiliary precautions,” according to James Madison. As Madison wrote in Federalist 51. “A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government.” The primary responsibility for keeping American government within the confines of the Constitution, and therefore protecting the liberty of the American people, belongs to the American people themselves. Or, as Ben Franklin once quipped, the Americans have been blessed with a wise and free republican form of government, “if they can keep it!”

Citizens have a number of ways to maintain control over the government. The most obvious way is voting into office candidates who will defend the Constitution. But citizens can also influence those officials already in office by writing them letters or e-mails, or calling them on the telephone. Also, citizens can run for office themselves, and challenge in the next election those who currently hold office. And, finally, if a government persists in violating the rights of citizens, and there is no peaceful way (such as free elections) for citizens to redress their grievances, citizens might choose to exercise their natural right of revolution, overthrowing the current government and replacing it with a government more likely to protect their rights. With all these options, and so many ways of exercising each of them, how is a person supposed to know what he should do? How, for example, should he vote in an upcoming election, or what kind of letter should he write to his Representative or Senator? Questions such as these point to the first kind of civic virtue, civic knowledge.

First and foremost, citizens must understand what the Constitution says about how the government works, and what the government is supposed to do and what it is not to do. We must understand the basis of our responsibilities as citizens, no less than our rights. We must be able to recognize when the government or another citizen infringes upon our rights. This civic knowledge was to form the core of education for young people. In the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, for example--the first federal law governing the western territories—it was stated that, “religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

In his First Annual Address to Congress, President George Washington said that the people must be taught to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority…to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness – cherishing the first, avoiding the last; and uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with inviolable respect to the laws.

In his Farewell Address, delivered at the end of his second term of office, President Washington said, “Promote then as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” Washington knew that republican government required the participation of enlightened citizens to survive. In his First Inaugural, he described what was, and still is, at stake: “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”


2. Self-restraint

Washington and the other founders knew that for citizens to live in a free society with limited government, each citizen must be able to control or restrain himself; otherwise, we would need a police state—that is, a large, unlimited government—to maintain safety and order.

When he was sixteen years old, Washington copied a list of “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” into his school notebook. Most of these 110 rules deal with common etiquette. The last rule reads: “Labor to keep alive in your breast the little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” By “conscience” he meant our ability to understand and reason about moral right and wrong. In his First Inaugural Address, Washington said, “the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality….” He continued by saying, “there is no truth more thoroughly established that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.” In other words, to be truly happy requires one to be a virtuous or moral person. The “happiness” that comes from doing things that are wrong—such as ingesting drugs, stealing from others, or engaging in reckless or irresponsible behavior—is really not true happiness at all, but is merely temporary physical pleasure. If a person continues to engage in such behavior, he will not discover happiness, but more likely misery: He will probably end up in jail, or sick, or friendless. From the point of view of Washington's First Inaugural Address, individual or private morality and virtue are necessary for the country to prosper: “The propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of right and order, which heaven itself has ordained….” Given all the freedom that comes with a limited government, a people that live rightly and virtuously will probably end up living happily with all the goods, material and otherwise, that make the difference between living and living well. If a people violate the “rules of right and order which heaven has ordained,” they will probably end up living unhappily, with little to ease their misery.

Washington demonstrated self-restraint in his private and public life. The most dramatic examples of his self-restraint can be seen when he commanded the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War. Although he had the power of the army behind him, Washington always deferred to the authority of the civilian government—the Continental Congress—that was often unresponsive to the needs of his army. When one of his officers, Lewis Nicola, suggested that the army disregard the civil authority and make Washington a king, Washington was filled with anger. But he exercised great restraint over his own temper. He wrote a letter—reasoned and even-handed—rebuking Nicola.

Later, when Washington’s unpaid troops at Newburgh, New York again contemplated overthrowing or abandoning the civilian authorities, Washington urged restraint on the part of the army. He called on the army to seek justice in a lawful, constitutional manner.

Washington’s self-restraint was again displayed at the end of the Revolutionary War. Instead of asking for a high office or political power, Washington relinquished power as Commander in Chief of the army. He wrote a circular letter to the state governments, and asked only that he be allowed to return to his private life at Mount Vernon.

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