Power & Market
January 20 marks the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s swearing in as the 44th person to succeed George Washington as President. Looking back, we can see that not only were the principles of civility that animatedWashington as America’s “indispensable man,” in historian Forrest MacDonald’s words, missing from the electoral process, neither our President nor his often harsh critics (particularly those who have given rise to what is now called Trump derangement syndrome), has since reflected the demeanor that helped make Washington “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
We see this in the tooth-and-nail verbal melee the beltway is today, where even basic civility is routinely violated between members of opposing factions. Given the importance of comity to every form of social cooperation (supposedly advanced by the gargantuan Washington apparatus), perhaps a somewhat different approach may help. The hordes of finger-pointers and rhetorical bomb-throwers there could all benefit from reading GeorgeWashington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. Written before Washington was 16, it summarized important facets of necessary for him to behave “according to the custom of the better bred.”
Consider some of George Washington’s advice to himself and its relevance today for our current President, his admirers, and his attackers.
- Every action...ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
- Speak not when you should hold your peace.
- Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another.
- Always submit your judgment to others with modesty.
- Undertake not to teach your equal in the art [he] professes; it savors of arrogance.
- In reproving, show no sign of choler but do it with all sweetness and mildness.
- Take all admonitions thankfully.
- Mock not nor jest at anything of importance.
- Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself.
- Neither curse nor revile.
- Let your conversation be without malice or envy...And in all causes of passion admit reason to govern.
- Utter not base and frivolous things amongst...very difficult questions or subjects.
- Speak not injurious words, neither in jest nor earnest.
- Detract not from others.
- Be not obstinate in your own opinion.
- Reprehend not the imperfections of others.
- Think before you speak.
- Undertake not what you cannot perform.
- In disputes, be not so desirous to overcome as not to give liberty to each one to deliver his opinion and submit to the judgment of the major part.
- Contradict not at every turn what others say.
- Be not tedious in discourse, make not many digressions, nor repeat often the same manner of discourse.
- Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
George Washington’s commitment to decorum has been thoroughly trampled in America’s ongoing political uncivil war whose post-inauguration phase is now celebrating (or, more frequently, denigrating) its first anniversary. Americans could benefit greatly from deflating the incivility that besets us, in his honor. However, even more important to our well-being would be once again looking to the principles Washington articulated for governing.
- The cause of America [is] liberty.
- Express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our Country.
- Liberty will find itself...where the Government...[will] maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.
- Under [government’s] protection; everyone will reap the fruit of his labors; everyone will enjoy his own acquisitions without molestation and without danger.
- [Government] has no more right to put their hands into my pockets, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into yours.
- Government is not reason. It is...a dangerous servant and a terrible master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.
George Washington’s character was important to our founding, but even more so, his actions were essential to our revolution’s success and the creation of America as “this land of equal liberty.” Both helped provide America with what he celebrated as “the fairest prospect of happiness and prosperity that ever was presented to man.” His core principles would provide a far more useful model for the city named for him than what we are witnessing today.