America's First Gentleman
Independence Day is on its way to unite us in blissful, explosive summer patriotism. What better way to celebrate the anniversary of the declaration of our independence than to look back on the life-lessons of one of our nation’s most celebrated gentlemen? He held many titles – Architect of the Declaration of Independence, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and First President of the United States of America. He was so respected that delegates of the first Continental Congress referred to him as a “compleat gentleman” (times change, and so does spelling). The stern, emerald visage that graces every one-dollar bill hardly does him justice – I’m referring, of course, to George Washington.
In Washington’s time, a gentleman was expected to be many things: modest, honorable, enlightened, courteous to all, virtuous in morality, disinterested in public service, brave in battle. Also in this list are wealth and good breeding, yet these alone do not a gentleman make. Washington happened to be all of the above.
Like the heroes of folklore, he lived by a creed. This he translated from the writings of a 17th century French Jesuit when he was in his teens. The 110 rules were published under the title, “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” and Washington shaped his life according to its tenets. The first rule is essentially this:
“Every action done in public should be done with some sign of respect for those present.”
To exercise this rule effectively, you need to be aware of both your own actions and the people in your company. You also need to anticipate and care about the way in which your actions will affect the people around you. As Richard Brookhiser pointed out in a 1997 reprinting of Washington’s Rules, such practice is in stark contrast to what he called today’s “cult of authenticity” – the idea that it’s best to be completely honest and true to one’s nature at all times, even at someone else’s expense. Maybe we can blame the 1960’s. Or reality TV.
Washington, as you might have guessed, was a master at rule #1. His self-restraint and grace was well known to his colonial cohorts. His portraits hints strongly at this demeanor as well, due partially to an unfortunate artistic trend at the time and not entirely to the uncomfortably large dentures he sported later in life. In fact, so powerful was his sense of honor and self-mastery that he forbade his soldiers to celebrate when the British surrendered at Yorktown, saying, “Do not cheer; History will huzzah for us.” He found it detestable to gloat in the face of an enemy, another of his 110 rules. On the other hand, I’m sure all the war-beaten colonial soldiers would probably have preferred to do some huzzah-ing themselves.
He was also incredibly humble, despite his monumental historic achievements. In his correspondence with his wife, Martha, he admitted his reluctance to assume the presidency, “…not only from my unwillingness to part from you and the family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity.” Yet assume the presidency he did. Washington was so great a leader that the delegates begged him to serve a third term, which he graciously declined. King George III of England, Washington’s former foe, considered him the greatest man alive for relinquishing his office. He was offered absolute power, and refused. If that’s not downright heroic, I don’t know what is.
Of course, even a man as great as George Washington had his faults. Even a hero can buckle under pressure. His personal secretary claimed his occasional cursing fits were as severe as his composure was usually serene. Perhaps we can allow him that – he had to set up the presidential cabinet from scratch and if you think criticism is harsh today, try being close friends with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
So what can the modern gentleman-patriot take from all this? Strict Washingtonianism (I think I made that up) is a bit stiff for today’s culture, but the take-home message is a not-so-hidden pattern of restraint in Washington’s life that won him the respect of nations, near and far. His disciplined adherence to his simple rules developed in him a cool head, a just disposition, and a dignified name. As you’ll find in Washington’s rulebook: “In all causes of passion, permit reason to govern.” And remember to celebrate safely.