Everything Politicians in the Trump Era Need to Know George Washington Knew as a Boy

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Suzy Evans is a literary agent, attorney, and author who holds a Ph.D. in history from UC Berkeley. Her books include "Machiavelli for Moms" (Simon & Schuster) and "Forgotten Crimes: the Holocaust and People with Disabilities." Suzy can be reached at suzy@dijkstraagency.com and @thehistorychef.


One of the saddest things about the Age of Trump is that there has never existed more of a need to bridge the gulf that separates the founders’ vision of what America could and should be — "a city on a hill” — and the combative, fact-free, world-gone-mad in which now live.

Of all the founders, none wrote more openly about virtue than Benjamin Franklin. In his Autobiography, Franklin described how, at the age of 20, he chose to embark on “a bold and arduous Project of arriving at Moral Perfection.” Toward that end, he selected thirteen virtues to cultivate — temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility — and then created a little chart book with these virtues plotted in columns.

Each week, Franklin would note whether he practiced a particular virtue or fell short with some sort of vice. But Franklin had more than his own moral perfection in mind as he believed that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” “As nations become more corrupt and vicious,” he wrote, they “have more need of masters” whereas “virtue makes government easy to sustain.”

Drawing from Franklin’s example, perhaps our current leaders in Washington, D.C. would be well advised to identify some virtues to cultivate — including temperance, order, resolution, sincerity, justice, moderation, and humility — for the sake of maintaining a safe and stable, well-ordered civil society.

Even more so than Franklin, George Washington stands as a paragon of virtue, and he set out on this path at an early age. As a schoolboy in Virginia, he was given a list of “110 Rules” to live by. To practice his penmanship, the young Washington carefully wrote out each rule and committed it to memory.

Among them were such admonishments as: "Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace”; "Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation for 'tis better to be alone than in bad company” and "Every Action done in Company ought to be with Some Sign of Respect to those that are Present."

Originally written by French Jesuit priests in the 1590s, the list was later published in a booklet entitled George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. And while these rules might be a bit fussy, they reflect a civic virtue that’s increasingly difficult to find in American politics and society today. Fussy or not, they all have in common a focus on the well being of others rather than the narrow focus of our own self-interests.

Moving from virtue to vice, we turn to Alexander Hamilton, one of the most controversial men of his age. A brilliant statesman brought down by his own "fatal flaws” of stubbornness, arrogance, abrasiveness, and extreme candor, his life was defined by a spectacular rise to power (he was an illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean), scandal (he publicly confessed to an extramarital affair), controversy, (marked by bitter feuds with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams) and tragedy (brought on by his deadly duel with Aaron Burr).

Holding up Hamilton as an example, perhaps our current leader in Washington, D.C. would be well-advised to consider how certain vices — e.g., stubbornness, arrogance, abrasiveness, vindictiveness, viciousness, vitriol, and extreme candor — can dramatically impact the entire course of one’s life, be it a famous Founding Father or an increasingly embattled, 21st century American president.



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