The Honest President

I set out to write again about George Washington but was detoured by a piece on the news rating the presidents from worst to best. I read through the whole list before I came upon Washington. When he came up as number two, I was somewhat dissappointed.

This morning I read a piece written after the death of Washington by John Marshall *, a friend and neighbor to George for many years, in which he spoke about the character and greatness of our first President. It is the character of George Washington that impresses me the most. I don’t think that any of our leaders since have come close to measuring up to him. I will record here just a few of the things Marshall  said of him:

His manners were rather reserved than free; though on all proper occasions he could relax sufficiently to show how highly he was gratified by the charms of conversation, and the pleasures of society. His person and deportment exhibited an unaffected and indescribable dignity, unmingled with haughtiness of which all who approached him were sensible; and the attachment of those who possessed his friendship and enjoyed his intimacy, though ardent, was always respectful.

His temper was humane, benevolent, and conciliatory: but there was a quickness to his sensibility to anything apparently offensive, which experience had taught him to watch and correct. 

(Marshall  praised him for his personal frugality and resistance to opulence even though his status would warrant it.)  

(Washington) had no pretensions to that vivacity which fascinates, or to that wit which dazzles…(was) more solid than brilliant, judgment rather than genius constituted the prominent feature of his character.

(His) integrity was…incorruptible, … (his) principles more perfectly free from contamination of those selfish and unworthy passions which find their nourishment in the conflicts of party. His ends were always upright, and his means were pure. He exhibits the rare example of a politician to whom wiles were absolutely unknown. In him was fully exemplified the real distinction between wisdom and cunning, and truth of this maxim that “honesty is the best policy.”

I  am reminded of the one story I recall from my childhood about Washington that, after he was confronted by his father about cutting down an apple tree, he said, “I cannot tell a lie.” The one consolation I have to his coming in second in the above rating of Presidential greats is that the first was “Honest Abe” Lincoln. At least to some who evaluate our leaders, it seems that truth-telling is still considered an attribute.

*Published in “America: Great Crises In Our History Told by Its Makers, a Library of Original Sources” Volume IV.


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