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George Washington and Civic Virtue

3. Self-assertion

Self-assertion means that citizens must be jealous of their rights, and have the courage to stand up in public and defend their rights. Sometimes a government may usurp the very rights that it was created to protect. In such cases, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish” that government. George Washington asserted himself in the American struggle against the British government. As a young man Washington had served in the British army and considered himself a loyal British subject, yet later he became convinced of the need to end British rule of the American colonies. Although at first reluctant to take up arms against the British, Washington boldly wore his military uniform to the First Continental Congress where he was selected as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. As the Second Continental Congress finished its work on the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, Washington was in the field with his army. He challenged his men to assert themselves in defense of liberty against their British enemy:

"Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission. This is all we can expect. We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die. Our own country’s honor, all call upon us for a vigorous and manly exertion, and if we now shamefully fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world… Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the world, that a freeman contending for liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth."

After the Revolutionary War, as the new nation languished under the weak Articles of Confederation, Washington stepped forward to preside at the Constitutional Convention and assured ratification of the new Constitution with his endorsement. He then left a comfortable retirement at his beloved Mt. Vernon to serve for eight years as the nation’s first president. When the Whiskey Rebellion threatened the stability of the young republic, Washington asserted his authority as president to raise an army and preserve the rule of law. Both in war and peace, George Washington repeatedly demonstrated the civic virtue of self-assertion in the service of his country.

4. Self-reliance

In addition to civic knowledge, self-restraint, and self-assertion, citizens must possess the civic virtue of self-reliance. In order to be truly free, citizens must be able to provide the basic necessities of life for themselves and their families. Citizens who cannot provide for themselves will need a large government to take care of them. And as soon as citizens become dependent on government for their basic needs, the people are no longer in a position to demand that government stay limited within the confines of the Constitution. Self-reliant citizens are free citizens in the sense that they are not dependent on others for their basic needs. They do not need a large provider-government, which has the potential to become an intrusive or oppressive government, to meet those needs.

George Washington understood the need for citizens to be self-reliant. In a letter to a recent immigrant, Washington wrote of the benefits available in America to self-reliant, virtuous citizens: “This country certainly promises greater advantages, than almost any other, to persons of moderate property, who are determined to be sober, industrious, and virtuous members of society.” Washington knew, and our national experience has shown, that only a strong self-reliant citizenry is able to fully enjoy the blessings of liberty.

Discussion Questions:

Why did Washington and the other founders believe that citizens must possess civic virtue?

Why do citizens need civic knowledge?

What results when citizens do not have self-restraint or self-control?

How did Washington show his self-restraint during the Revolutionary War

When must citizens be self-assertive?

What is the relationship between self-reliance and freedom?

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