America’s Birthday: What Were America’s First Leaders Like 241 Years Ago Today?

 

WPCNR PROFILES IN CHARACTER. By John F. Bailey. July 4, 2017 Reprinted from the WPCNR Archives:

It is the 241st birthday of our  nation, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776.

I usually run this column on George Washington’s birthday, however, in light of the character-challenged behavior being shown lately by our leaders and congress in Washington, it is instructive to look at our first leader, George Washington, the father of our nation.

One cannot help be reminded of the snowy winter at Valley Forge, when the bedraggled, poorly equipped rebel army suffered but held together, and attacked the Hessians in Trenton on Christmas Eve, 1776, crossing the Delaware River at night.

What kind of man was he that George Washington could inspire his troops against all odds?

Washington was a man of tremendous character. Where did he get this character? He specialized in self-control at an early age.

Reenacters Marching to Raise Old Glory at Purdy House in Honor of George Washington’s Birthday. Photo, 2003 WPCNR News Archive.

According to The American President, Washington, at sixteen, had formed a code of conduct. He had written a book of etiquette with 110 “maxims” to guide his conduct in matters. In this etiquette book he had written,

Every action done in company ought to be done with a sign of respect to those who are not present. Sleep not when others speak; sit not when others stand; speak not when you should hold your peace; walk not when others stop;…Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave…Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.

According to the character sketch provided by the authors of The American President, this personal “rulebook” was a book that Washington wrote over the years and referred to it often,

“for self-control, to avoid temptation, to elude greed, to control his temper. Reputation was everything to him. It had to do with his strength, his size, his courage, his horsemanship, his precise dress, his thorough mind, his manners, his compassion. He protected that reputation at any cost.”

Honor Guard Strikes the Colors to a Drum Roll. Photo, WPCNR News.

Earning respect by example. Quelling rebellion with a few words.

Washington inspired by example. He lived with his troops. He shared hardships with them, and so much was there respect for him that he was able to talk them out of armed rebellion at the end of the American Revolution.

Washington had been asked by the army to join them to over throw the Continental Congress, and make himself King.

Washington had been asked by one of the officers of the rebels to join them, and he wrote them,

You could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable. Banish these thoughts from your mind.

Hearing that the rebels who were planning insurrection against the new country due to not having been paid by the Continental Congress, Washington rode to Newburgh, New York, on March 15, 1783, to meet with the dissident insurgents. Washington spoke to the rebellious group, saying,

“Gentlemen, as I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common Country; as I never left your side one moment, but when called from you on public duty; as I have been the constant companion and witness of your Distresses…it can scarcely be supposed …that I am indifferent to your interests. But…this dreadful alternative, of either deserting our Country in the extremest hour of her distress, or turning our Arms against it…has something so shocking in it that humanity revolts from the idea…I spurn it, as every Man who regards liberty…undoubtedly must.”

The would-be rebels fell silent, digesting what he had said. Then Washington withdrew a letter from Congress, but could not read the text, withdrawing some eyeglasses from his tunic, remarking,

“Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

The men present were reported to have tears in their eyes at this gesture of Washington’s and abandoned their plot out of respect for their leader.

Washington retired from the military, surprising the entire new country. His action surprised King George III of England, who was astonished that Washington had refused to hold on to his military authority and use it for political or financial gain. The defeated King of England, remarked, “If true, then he is the greatest man in the world.”

 Members of Common Council, 2003: Tom Roach, Rita Malmud, Benjamin Boykin and Glen Hockley, (center of Picture) and observers of the ceremony salute the Colors. Photo, WPCNR News.
Seeker of Diverse Views

As President, George Washington invented the Presidential Cabinet, whom he referred to as “the first Characters,” persons who possessed the best reputations in fields and areas of the jobs he was filling. Washington said on political appointments,

“My political conduct and nominations must be exceedingly circumspect. No slip into partiality will pass unnoticed…”

Washington tolerated the relentless clashes between Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, but lectured them on the necessity for tolerance and moving beyond partisanship:

“I believe the view of both of you are pure, and well meant. Why then, when some of the best Citizens in the United States, Men…who have no sinister view to promote, are to be found, some on one side, some on the other…should either of you be so tenacious of your opinions as to make no allowances for those of the other? I have great esteem for you both, and ardently wish that some line could be marked out by which both of you could walk.”

The Constitution Should be Protected

When George Washington left office after two terms, he made a farewell address which warned future generations of Americans about foreign entanglements and partisanship in the republic:

I shall carry to my grave the hope that your Union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the Constitution may be sacredly maintained; and that free government…the ever favorite object of my heart…will be the happy reward of our mutual cares, labors and dangers.”

Washington died in 1800, three years after leaving office in 1797. He was saluted on the floor of congress as being “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

His comments above resonate today in some of the most cantankerous rhetoric and partisan stands the country has experienced in years.

We should also remember that the signers of the Declaration of Independence in Independence Hall in Philadelphia today in 1776, were putting their lives at risk be meeting and discussing, arguing, the Declaration wording, despite knowledge that if British occupying troops learned of the meeting, they could have been arrested and hung.

That is a pressure the crybaby congress of today which cannot seek a way to compromise and seek compassionate solutions to the health care debate, and are “on recess,” do not have on them.

Compromise and respect for the other point of view and the millions who will be affected by what some would say are “reckless,” “feckless,” “cruel” and “dangerous” changes to traditional American policies are missing in today’s political discourse, if you can dignify it with that remark.

I’d like to introduce a new term, “transminder,” the ability to listen to those whose views are opposite of yours. Find between you what you feel is the ultimate goal of a policy change and how the good can be accommodated and the bad eliminated, without hurt with fairness to all. The more you talk in terms of the common good, the better what you come up with gets.

Can we do that?

I challenge every person in government to read the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and the Constition carefully today. It will not take long. Then measure your hates, prejudices, positions, and behaviors against those documents.

And, for all you “leaders” out there, wherever you are, George Washington’s word above are what you should measure yourself against.

He was the greatest leader of them all.

 

Comments are closed.