Americans have begun voting in the process to select the 44th person to succeed George Washington as President. Unfortunately, missing from the process have been the principles that animated Washington as America’s “indispensable man,” in historian Forrest MacDonald’s words. The character that made him “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen” has been violated far more than venerated.
This lack of character has been widespread in America’s nomination free-for-all, but the deficiency is most striking in the case of Donald Trump, whose “Make America Great Again” slogan should reflect our founding ideals. It is perhaps best illustrated by the chasm between what citizens have witnessed and Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, written before the first U.S. president was 16 years old, which focused on behaving “according to the custom of the better bred.” Consider, for example, how little the following rules have been honored (spelling and punctuation updated):
Every action...ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
Speak not when you should hold your peace.
Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another.
Always submit your judgment to others with modesty.
Undertake not to teach your equal in the art [he] professes; it savors of arrogance.
In reproving, show no sign of choler but do it with all sweetness and mildness.
Take all admonitions thankfully.
Mock not nor jest at anything of importance.
Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself.
Neither curse nor revile.
Let your conversation be without malice or envy...And in all causes of passion admit reason to govern.
Utter not base and frivolous things amongst...very difficult questions or subjects.
A man ought not to value himself of his achievements.
Speak not injurious words, neither in jest nor earnest.
Detract not from others.
Be not obstinate in your own opinion.
Reprehend not the imperfections of others.
Think before you speak.
Undertake not what you cannot perform.
In disputes, be not so desirous to overcome as not to give liberty to each one to deliver his opinion and submit to the judgment of the major part.
Contradict not at every turn what others say.
Be not tedious in discourse, make not many digressions, nor repeat often the same manner of discourse.
Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
Washington’s commitment to decorum has been trampled in the rush to November 2016. But that is not all that has been left underfoot. Trump has also helped lead the stampede to abandon the principles of government that Washington stood for—principles that defend our liberties and property. Trump’s endorsement of eminent domain abuses and ethanol mandates are just two examples. To see this, one need but contrast Trump’s positions with Washington’s words, such as the following:
The cause of America [is] liberty.
Express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our Country.
Liberty will find itself...where the Government...[will] maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.
Under [government’s] protection; everyone will reap the fruit of his labors; everyone will enjoy his own acquisitions without molestation and without danger.
[Government] has no more right to put their hands into my pockets, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into yours.
Government is not reason. It is...a dangerous servant and a terrible master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.
George Washington’s actions were essential to our revolution’s success. His commitment and character were equally important to the creation of our country as what he called “this land of equal liberty.” And he helped provide America what he celebrated as “the fairest prospect of happiness and prosperity that ever was presented to man” by his precedent of governing without eviscerating our core principles. Unfortunately, “Trumping” Washington is no way to make America great again.