Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: George Washington set the example

Eleventh in a series.
George Washington (1732–99) was not an intellectual. He did not attend college. He did not read books; he was not a great orator, and wrote nothing that might become a classic. As Joseph Ellis has written in his excellent biography, fittingly entitled “His Excellency”: “Benjamin Franklin was wiser; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute,” yet they were unanimous in regarding Washington as their superior. And in historical memory, Washington surpasses them all. His very figure in the American memory evokes awe: His height, physical strength, his firm and steady gaze were majestic. Washington’s manner and bearing were such that it was said by those who knew him that if he had appeared in the company of any of the ruling monarchs of Europe, they would have been mistaken for his valets.
But the quality that made him preeminent among his peers was his surpassing virtue or moral excellence, and it is this quality that makes him a fit subject for an exploration of the life of the mind in America; it is by virtue of his moral excellence.
Our moral vocabulary derives from the Greeks. The Greek word for virtue (arete) is commonly translated excellence; virtue or moral excellence was believed to be a sure way to achieve surpassing stature among one’s peers — Greek: kat’ exokhen, French: par excellence, preeminence. Likewise, the Greek words for beauty (kalon; also translated “noble” or “fine” as in “fine art”) and goodness (agathon), were joined; (kalon k’agathon) was a term used to express a perfect life: a life that is noble or good. And this expressed the moral ideals of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Washington exemplified them in his person; he was noble and good, handsome and fine. It seemed proper to address him as “your Excellency.”
Although he was no scholar, he flourished during the Enlightenment, and like all public persons during that era he was infused with Greek and Roman virtue. Washington may have lacked the intellect of a scholar, but he had a deep moral passion, and total self-control.
He was not perfect. He possessed slaves, and grew rich from their unrequited labor, in spite of the moral scruples he had against the institution of slavery and its practice. In this respect, he was a hypocrite. Besides, he lied on occasion. He was unfaithful. He carried on a long flirtation with Sally Fairfax, the wife of one of his best friends, an infidelity that his conscience made him confess to his wife, Martha, whom he revered.
Washington was, by profession, a soldier. He aspired to obtain a regular commission in the British army, but that required influence or standing that he lacked as an American provincial, and he obtained only a lowly commission in the territorial army. He saw action during the French and Indian War and was aide-de-camp to General Braddock on his disastrous mission to capture Fort Duquesne from the French. From this and other experiences, Washington observed how the French gained military advantage by employing the tactics of their Native American allies. When he was given command of the Continental Army in 1775, he adopted these tactics as part of his overall strategy. He avoided set battles, for he knew that he would lose them. Harassment and ambush rather than frontal attack was his method; they would wear down and dishearten the enemy, whose forces were well trained in the practices of formal European warfare.
During the French and Indian War, after his first taste of battle, he wrote to his brother that he “heard the bullet’s whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” This was the boast of a young, ambitious 22-year-old soldier thrilled by his baptism by fire; but further events proved that he was fearless in battle. In battle during the Revolutionary War, his visible presence on horseback gave courage to his troops, although he was a target to the enemy. During the Battle of Monmouth when it appeared that all was lost, he rode out into the field of battle waving his sword and rallied the Continental forces. He saved the day, proving that he was “first in War.”
As the first President of the United States, he established the nation, shaped its institutions, and guaranteed its survival under the rule of law. He ennobled the office of president without making himself king. He became a public servant; fulfilling a task that he regarded more as servitude than as a situation of grandeur. What enabled him to do this was his practice of not confusing his high office with his person, something that he achieved not by nature but by discipline. For Washington was one of the most disciplined of men, notwithstanding his great pride and passion. He could command others, because he ruled himself. And so he became first in peace.
For the past four years, the high office of President of the United States, once held by George Washington, has been filled by a base scoundrel, a cheat and a liar, a man who knows no shame, who routinely scorns the rule of law whenever it serves his selfish interests, who willfully violated his oath of office, and soiled the office of the President of the United States with the muck and slime of his dismal self. Now he is gone. And the nation will have to undergo a great cleansing and restoration of its institutions.
The restoration must begin at the beginning, with a patriotic spirit, infused with a passion for justice and all the virtues. Washington was infused with this passion, and while he and the other founders were not perfect, their virtue added splendor to all that they accomplished. That passion for all that is noble, beautiful, just, and good must become infused in us all. God bless America! God help us all!
As for Donald Trump, let the judgment of Washington be final: “No punishment is too great for a man who would build his greatness upon his country’s ruin.”

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