Birthday of a Giant: Where Have you Gone George Washington?

It is February 22nd, the birthday of our first President, George Washington.

I don’t celebrate “President’s Day.” I celebrate the presidents individually, not the whole gaggle of them at once. But I most certainly don’t celebrate George Washington, the father of our country, as just another president. These days, George Washington has been relegated to that “truth telling guy” to be seen on the one dollar bill and on TV commercials at the end of February or that guy lumped in with Lincoln on “President’s Day.” And that is a shame, indeed, for, without George Washington, our presidency and nation might have become a far different place.

What made Washington such a giant for our times as well as his? For one thing, he knew how to act in public.

Back in the 1700’s

In the year 1759 a man named William Robertson wrote a book called The History of Emperor Charles V. It was a book that some claim was the standard after which modern historical study and writing has come to be patterned. Mr. Robertson, who became Principle of the University of Edinburgh in later years, introduced a salient point into the era of the Scottish Enlightenment. That idea was that “Politeness” in society would result in becoming a civilized nation. And it was a politeness perpetuated and spread through capitalism that was the best avenue to achieving that civilized level.

He wrote “In proportion as commerce made its way into the different countries of Europe they successively … adopted those manners, which occupy and distinguish polished nations.” So, as the theory goes, by his very nature man craves material possession and property. To accumulate that property he must work for it with his best skills. To make use of these skills he must rely on neighbors to get supplies to employ such skills as well as to become the customers for his skills. This leads man to act in a solicitous manner of his neighbors so that they will be disposed to employ him and his abilities. This self-interested “politeness” employed by the individual inculcates the action in society at large which, in turn, enlarges that field of involved persons to counties and then the country in general, neighboring countries and, ultimately, the world and the governments they create.

Yet, even before the intelligencia of Scotland waxed eloquent on the reasons and why-fors of commerce, civilization, and conduct, religions had already realized that such concepts, if even on a personal level, simply made sense. As early as 1559 the French Jesuits has compiled a series of maxims to govern human interaction many based on the Bible’s teachings. These maxims became all the rage in the mid 1600’s when they were spread throughout Europe.

So, with the theory of politeness in its various vestiges firmly entrenched in commerce and foreign and interpersonal relations it became obvious that one needed codes of conduct agreed upon by all to govern the rules of the game. This code of conduct became to be known by the word “ethics” in business and politics. In personal conduct it became known as etiquette. It is etiquette that underlies political ethics. Without etiquette, ethics struggles to exist. Unfortunately it is etiquette that seems to have died in modern society.


A few months ago I was walking through an itinerant book store, an empty store front temporarily rented by entrepreneurs who have bought returned books or close out books at cut-rate prices to sell cheaply to the public. In the history section I saw there the usual Clinton apologist books, Bush Hatemonger’s screeds, and the Obama-lover books that no one wanted, the dry collegiate studies of the fall of the Roman Empire, and the coffee table compilation books that have recently fallen out of favor. Suddenly I spied a spare little book edited and commented upon by Richard Bookhiser called Rules of Civility, The 110 Precepts That Guided Our First President In War And Peace. This 90 page hardback book sported the price of only $4.00 so I picked it up.

I took it home and spent the few minutes it took to read the Rules that were said to have governed the life of George Washington and found myself wondering what the heck happened to civility in this country? What happened to the etiquette that, once upon a time, governed civil society?

Mr. Brookhiser points out in his forward that Washington was the best of both worlds in a revolutionary leader. He was able to lead a rebellion as well as govern the new country after the rebellion succeeded. It was once remarked by a European diplomat’s wife that Washington had, “perfect good breeding and a correct knowledge of even the etiquette of a court.” High praise, indeed, from a haughty European in the days when they were so sure the United States of America were doomed to ignominious failure.

Today many of the rules seem archaic as they laid out rules on how to eat in public, When to wear a hat and when not to, the correct posture and the like. But even in these seemingly pointless “rules” one gets the distinct impression that the training to be imparted by these precepts are meant to work from the personal to the interpersonal informing the whole man, not just the public man. A concept we seem to have totally lost in our day of “rights” and desires. We have come to an age where what we “want” supersedes good posture, delicate eating habits and proper dress. We tell ourselves we are more than what we wear or how good our table manners are and so we dispense with such “nonsense.” But is it nonsense? In our arrogance, do we give ourselves short shrift when we ignore such once common ideals of conduct? It might become obvious as we view how people treat each other in public, while we feel the palpable anger in the air as each person seems so sure that they are not getting the “respect” they deserve. But do they treat others with the same respect they are so sure they deserve in return? Often they don’t.

As you read further into the rules you’ll find a road map to polite social discourse and comportment that you will just know have been lost to society. Here are a few of them for the purpose of comparison to today’s standards:

22) Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy … Be NICE, even when you win.

25) Superfluous compliment and all affectation of ceremony are to be avoided, yet where due they are not neglected … Real ceremony is a matter of respect not an end in itself, as Mr. Brookhiser notes.

36) Artificers and persons of low degree ought not to use many ceremonies to lords or others of high degree, but respect and highly honor them, and those of high degree ought to treat them with affability and courtesy, without arrogancy …. At first sight this might tend to enrage today’s man yet when you truly look at it this rule commands everyone, both high and low, to treat people with good grace and respect something that seems sorely lacking today.

80) Be not tedious in discourse or in reading unless you find the company pleased therewith … How many blow-hards do you find droning on about their theories and feelings today?( Hey wait a minute, don’t look at ME!)

81) Be not curious to know the affairs of others, neither approach those that speak in private … Don’t be a nosy gossip. That would erase most of TV and the newspapers report, I would imagine.

84) When your superiors talk to anybody hearken not, neither speak nor laugh … of course that would presuppose we HAVE superiors these days. It seems everyone assumes that no one is their “better” these days.

89) Speak not of the absent for it is unjust.

109) Let your recreations be manful not sinful.

Naturally these are just a few examples but don’t they all ring with a sense of delicacy, justice and common decency? Can you see how social discourse would improve with wide acceptance of such precepts? I would urge each of you to find this book or others like it and read General Washington’s maxims. It can do nothing if not improve your life.

Let me close this with the last rule in the series. One that is definitely forgotten these days …

110) Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

Happy birthday, sir, but where have you gone George Washington, indeed?

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  • jim_m

    We once had giants leading this country. Today we have ants. Sadly, our current President Ozymandias has no clue as to how small his capacity and intellect are.

  • ackwired

    Happy Birthday George! Thanks for persevering against the most impossible odds in the world. Thanks for rejecting the US crown when it was offered. Thanks for establishing the limited presidency and government OF the people. Thanks for warning us about the evils of the two party system.
    Mr. Huston, I am happy to learn that you value treating others with respect.

    • MartinLandauCalrissian

      Too bad you and your left-wing pals don’t.

      • ackwired

        That’s me and my moderate libertarian pals, friend.

  • Paul Hooson

    Has anyone here read my Wizbang Pop piece for President’s Day, “The Unglamorous Story Of George Washington”? It’s still posted today. There’s a story of a hardcore political boss who makes convicted criminal congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. look like “Honest” Abe Lincoln by comparison.

    Washington once spent what would be the same as $8,000 today to bribe voters to elect him to one political office, The House Of Burgesses. He was accused of embezzlement of federal money during the French & Indian War. He conned some wealthy Jewish friend of his, Haym Solomon, to loan the federal government $20,000 to win the battle of Yorktown, but never paid him back. He had Haym Solomon recruit wealthy Jewish families in Europe like the Rothschild’s to make a huge loan to the U.S. federal government, which was also never paid back.

    Washington had his friends appoint him president, general of the revolutionary army and chaplain of this army, and used the threat of floggings to force poor peasant soldiers in his revolutionary to fight to their death so that Washington, the wealthiest man in American, worth an estimated half billion dollars, could grab power. There was a phony piety about many of the Founding Fathers, who either had mistresses, or like Benjamin Franklin, chose to spent a lot of money hiring what he called “strumpets”, or prostitutes for an evening of sexual entertainment.

    Washington attempted to look saintly by claiming that he would not accept a salary to be the head of the revolutionary army, but instead asked for an expense account. Washington charged up this account, paid for by the federal government for so much personal goods for himself, that what he charged this account far exceeded any acceptable salary that he would have been paid as general. It was a pretty good example of what a manipulative hardcore political boss he was. He always knew some way to milk the system for his benefit and always knew some way to leave with more power and money both.

    True, Washington helped to found this country. But, with his immense wealth and hardcore political boss instincts, he was little more than just some ruthless autocrat. The country has since reformed elections, ethics for public officials and other worthy reforms. Under these new laws, Washington would certainly have been indicted and jailed as little more than just some crook. Any view that Washington was some dreamy, wonderful and honest leader falls far short of the reality here. Washington made more modern era political bosses from Chicago and other areas look like choir boys by comparison. He was as ruthless and hardcore as they come for an old time politician.

    Washington did build a government basis for other more ethical politicians to reform and improve. And men and women now serve our military out of service to the country, not some fear of being flogged if they don’t. All of that is a far cry from what Washington founded. It’s other men like Lincoln and others who really reformed our nation, and our government, and made it more fair and honest for everyone. Washington deserves credit for being ruthless enough to make this country an independent nation, but even a country like Canada sure displays a great deal of independence from England, despite being technically under the rule of the Queen, who is little more than just some figurehead today. Without Washington, the U.S. would probably be pretty similar to what it is today, although U.S. civil liberties are probably technically better because of The Bill Of Rights. Religious freedom is probably the most notable area of better civil liberties than old England, although some groups such as the Mormons faced so much religious persecution in the 1800’s that they had to settle wilderness areas like Utah to practice their faith in freedom.

    • jim_m

      I don’t read left wing revisionist history.

      Your critique of Washington is BS. Your characterization of Washington’s appointment as General of the Continental Army and his treatment of the soldiers is ignorant of history and the general practice within the British military that Washington had been trained in. You might as well be criticizing him for the treatment of Gays and women in the military that is how ignorant your assessment is.

      Your comments on Canada are pig ignorant. Canada remained under the thumb of the crown for a very long time and its relatively complete independence is a post WWII change.

      Your whole post reeks of hate America first leftist BS.

      • Paul Hooson

        The late Dr. D. James Kennedy, a pretty good historian on Washington, who has written extensively on Washington, actually praised him for threatening his troops with floggings for mild behaviors such as using God’s name in vain. But, Kennedy never bothered to mention that many of the officers who were better paid who expected excellent behavior by the rank and file troops, were often visited by traveling prostitutes called “camp followers” or Washington’s own abuse of his federal expense account.

        Discontent with Washington as general of the revolutionary army were enough that there was some move by some other rival generals, notably, General Thomas Conway. to want to remove Washington as the head general of the revolutionary forces. And a few other top military leaders were also discontented with Washington’s military leadership as well, especially after the 1777 fall of Philadelphia to the British forces, where Washington’s skills as a general appeared to be lacking, and the Second Continental Congress was forced to move to York, Pennsylvania and operate from there in exile. By contrast, General Horatio Gates had proven himself to be an exceptional general and scored a huge victory over British forces where an entire army of the British surrendered after the Battles Of Saratoga.

        If some here are willing to overlook that Washington was a far less capable general than some others, abused his “expense account” as general, was thought to have embezzled by others, and was little more than just some ruthless political boss who used his immense wealth to get his way, then fine.

        My point is that Washington had a few warts that some purposely want to ignore here. It seems that some are using an ideology to write their version of the facts here, rather than letting the historical facts write the whole picture of Washington, for good and bad. He was a mixed bag is my opinion. He knew how to get things done. But, wasn’t always entirely ethical on how he did it.

        Political bosses know how to manufacture a win. And Washington was able to get the independence from England that he wanted, the power for himself that he wanted, and the personal financial enrichment for himself that he wanted as well. He got things done. But, wasn’t nearly as neat and clean about that as most people really think.

        At any rate, my views make for a good discussion point here. Sometimes I agree with the post’s viewpoint, but this time I do not. But, if I was going to teach a history lesson on Washington, it would be a mixed picture of someone who was the founder of the nation on one hand. But, also of a ruthless old time political boss on the other. Certainly, Washington achieved a great deal. But, the devil is in the details here.

        • jim_m

          My point would be that people are people and even great men have failings. Your post amounted to little more than denying the greatness of the man while deliberately choosing to only recognize the failings and to amplify those by refusing to examine them in light of the culture that he lived in.

          Like many lefties your solution was to spit on the grave of a great man on the anniversary of his birthday for no better reason than to demonstrate that you are an ass.

    • No.

    • MartinLandauCalrissian

      Read it. It was terrible.