We all want America to flourish and prosper, but disagreements on “how” keep tripping us up. How is much more than picking between policy prescriptions – at its core it involves how we treat each other, and particularly those we disagree with.
The person most essential to realizing America in the first place thought about this issue a lot. It’s time to revisit his legacy.
George Washington was incredibly wealthy, physically imposing and a war hero of epic proportions. He probably could have gotten away with being a total jerk and still been revered! The fact is, many Americans wanted to give him almost limitless power. Some even wanted to make him a king.
His response? To a degree unprecedented in history (with all due respect to Cincinnatus), he put nation ahead of personal power and glory. Was it because he wasn’t ambitious? Was it because he never felt like knocking Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s heads together and telling them to just behave? Absolutely not. He had the same desires and frustrations we all struggle with.
In fact, Washington was a highly emotional person who worked incredibly hard to manage his impulses.
He started cultivating self-control and interpersonal wisdom at an early age. At just 16, he created a book for himself now called “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." In it he transcribed 110 guidelines for personal conduct, manners and social relations. Reading them now, I’m struck by how relevant they are to today’s political challenges – and the degree to which we’re systematically ignoring them. Below are a few that would contribute enormously to authentic American greatness, if only we put them into practice:
At a profound level, Washington recognized that discipline and respect for others are essential to achieving greatness as a person or a nation. We’ve strayed too far from these principles – and that represents an existential threat to our democracy.
Too many of us have allowed “our side” winning to triumph over the best interests of America as a whole. The political dysfunction we suffer today has its roots in this toxic, zero sum mentality. Is there a way forward? The jury is out, but I can’t think of a better guide for all of us than the saying George Washington wrote down last:
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