Though his image still is widely recognizable, and his name adorns cities, counties, towns, and streets across the country, today’s students assuredly know more about Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber than the victorious commander of the American Revolution and the first president of the United States.
Worse, while most scholars admit that George Washington was an indispensable figure, they consider him a facilitator of lesser mind than those who debated and enunciated the great ideas and theories of the day and wrote all the articles, essays, and pamphlets that are the hallmark of the founding era.
And now that the postmodernists are tearing down statues and deconstructing what is left of the past, the all-but-popularly-forgotten and academically maligned Washington is to be reimagined as the white male patriarch who launched this dreadful nation of systemic racism.
Not that this imagined history has anything to do with reality, mind you.
The study of a great political figure like Washington makes apparent the complete inadequacy of modern political science to appreciate the human condition.
During his lifetime, Washington was literally at the center of every major political event of the day. From 1775 on, he was the de facto leader of the whole colonial struggle and soon became the personification of the American Revolution. As commander of the Continental Army, General Washington led a ragtag army to victory against the strongest and best-trained military force in the world. Washington pushed the effort in nation building and was crucial to the success of the Constitutional Convention, and his election to the presidency was essential to the successful establishment of a self-governing republic. “Be assured,” James Monroe once reminded Thomas Jefferson, “his influence carried this government.”
Throughout, Washington was the central hub of correspondence among the leading minds of the day. He wrote by far more than any of the other founders, constantly dispatching orders, issuing commands, and writing letters. Washington owned slaves, but he early on came to detest the practice, wished for “a plan adopted for the abolition of it,” and freed all the slaves on his family estate. Along with his wartime Circular Address of 1783 and his First Inaugural Address, Washington’s Farewell Address remains one of America’s greatest state documents.
What explains the disconnect between actual history and modern perception? Familiarity might breed contempt, as the saying goes, but the real culprit is bad ideas.
A clue is found in a description of Washington written by Thomas Jefferson. “His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though not so acute as that of Newton, Bacon or Locke,” Jefferson observed, “and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder.” This seems a backhanded compliment from the effete Jefferson, but here’s the clincher: “Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose whatever obstacles opposed.” Washington was no theorist, but he was prudent, and that made him “a wise, a good, and a great man.”
For Aristotle, prudence is the cardinal virtue of politics, connecting the here and now, through deliberation and judgement, to the good of human happiness; indeed, prudence is necessary for the moral virtues to be virtues. It was Niccolò Machiavelli who famously attacked the ancients for aiming too high and redefined prudence as the interchangeable use of virtue or vice to achieve and maintain power. And it was his follower Thomas Hobbes who elaborated a new theory for that “brutish” world to replace the politics of prudence with a science of power centered on the leviathan state. Immanuel Kant sought to destroy prudence outright, severing altogether its focus on practical experience and concrete particulars from the categorical imperative of universal moral reasoning.
To make a long story short, we are left in a world deeply confused about both the means and the ends of politics. Modern political theory has become abstract rationalism separated from reality, just as today’s practical political science has become less practical and more scientific, all techne and no phronesis. Rather than statesmanship, which is looked upon nowadays as hero worship akin to Greek mythology, we insist on leadership, the “science” of business-management-style decision-making with an added flair of charisma. Think of the modern administrative state instinctively following visionary leaders in the pursuit of endless historical progress. Thank you, Woodrow Wilson.
This is all absurdly misguided, of course, but also rather dangerous. Modern rationalism is fanatically rigid and leads to fanatical ideologies. Recall of the French Revolution, which Washington wisely avoided. Rationalism combined with scientism is especially despotic — witness the communists and the Nazis. What’s next, rule by nameless bureaucrats and regulatory algorithms to enforce racial diversity and gender equity? But I digress.
While what “prudence … dictate[s]” is often bold in action, it is ultimately moderate in its aims, aware of the frailties and ambitions of human nature.
The serious study of a great political figure like George Washington — one of those individuals Winston Churchill called “the stepping-stones of historical narrative” — makes apparent the complete and utter inadequacy of modern political science to comprehend politics and appreciate the human condition. Theory must always be supplemented by practical wisdom because reason detached from reality is manifestly unable to guide human activity and is innately prone to tyranny. We are always in need of that form of thinking that reasons from unchanging principles to particular conclusions, making moral and political choices in an endless variety of changing circumstances, constantly seeking the human good. And while what “prudence … dictate[s],” as it says in the Declaration of Independence, is often bold in action, it is ultimately moderate in its aims, aware of the limits of man’s knowledge as well as the frailties and ambitions of human nature.
The high standard of prudential statesmanship is about the character of political actors; the quality of their deliberation, judgment, and decisions under the circumstances in which they find themselves; and their understanding of what Washington called the “indissoluble union between virtue and happiness” that “exists in the economy and course of nature.”
To study the actual life of Washington, then, is to gain a full understanding of politics, to learn about the true meaning of constitutional liberty, and to realize the palpable difference between political mediocrity and human greatness.
That is why we should remember George Washington.
Matthew Spalding is vice president of Hillsdale College and dean of its Van Andel Graduate School of Government in Washington, D.C.
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