The Uncrowned King of Virtue

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The Uncrowned King of Virtue

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Americans have always looked to George Washington, the first president of the United States (1789-1797), as one of the country's greatest leaders. He set a strong example of civic virtue—the set of ideal character traits for the exercise of freedom under just government.

He previously led American forces against the British in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). "The other George" in the conflict, Britain's King George III, asked American-born painter Benjamin West, who was working under royal commission in London, what George Washington would do after winning the war. Would he declare himself king? No other leader in history who created a new nation through war did not then make himself the king, emperor or dictator. But West answered, "Oh, they say he will return to his farm." To which the king replied, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."

And indeed, rather than seizing power, Washington did resign when the war was finalized in 1783. Yet he would be called back into further public service.

So why didn't George Washington choose to become king? What did he stand for that made him such a great leader—second in impact to only one other as a positive influence on the nation?

Washington's commitment to virtue

In 1783 many officers of the Continental Army were frustrated that Congress hadn't paid them their Revolutionary War wages yet. They planned a coup d'état in what is called the Newburgh Conspiracy. At a meeting General Washington scolded them for losing faith in the idea of America and encouraged them to adhere to the rule of law as leaders of a free and noble people. That principle has been described as Washington's "non-negotiable foundation of a free republic."

Washington's lifelong pursuit of virtue and idealism made the thought of seizing power, abolishing Congress and becoming the king of America repulsive to him. Those who knew him had no doubts about his integrity. They knew he would follow through on his commitment. His virtue of trustworthiness was the reason many powerful and famous American leaders—like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams—chose him to be the president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

When Washington refused to be crowned king, he mentored countless American and other leaders in the standards of virtuous behavior. Few, if any, ever lived up to the standard as he did. But his intention was that we all need these traits.

Washington had respect for other's opinions and reputations. He was committed to fair and transparent procedures. Because of these virtues he carefully and skillfully guided the Constitution-building process. He helped create the remarkable governmental system—arguably the foremost in world history—that helped guide two centuries of American greatness. He dedicated himself to preventing abuse of the enormous powers of the future United States. He believed it would be the greatest nation in history if its citizens lived lives of personal and civic virtue.

But Washington's quality of character didn't come from a desire to be the greatest man in history. It came from his personal belief in and commitment to being a virtuous person.

He believed in the virtue of public service, even to the point of sacrificing himself for others' welfare and freedom. He was personally and deeply committed to the act of loving and respecting your neighbor as yourself.

Of course, such commitment to virtue was not inherent within himself but was derived from a higher source—the Bible, the Word of God. With Bible-based personal conviction, Washington resisted the human tendency to abuse public power for personal advantage. He believed God wanted every man to act according to this way. By doing so he believed that America could become a positive example to all nations.

Was Washington America's greatest?

In terms of what he actually accomplished and stood for, George Washington was the foundational leader in American history. He helped America become a great country. Because of his virtuous leadership, for America's first hundred years her citizens considered him the model of leadership and justice, second only to Jesus Christ in positively influencing the country.

Jesus Christ, of course, is the greatest leader in human history. As a man, He was God made flesh to be our example of living by the highest standard in the pursuit of virtue. Jesus has all virtues. We need to work to develop them all in our goal of becoming like Him (1 Peter 2:21).

George Washington believed that Jesus' example and the Bible ought to be the model of the American character and lifestyle. He wrote, "I now make it my earnest prayer that God would . . . most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific [peaceable] temper of the mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion."

Washington understood that living by true virtues as Jesus did was ultimately God's purpose for America and the world. In his 1796 farewell address after a second term as president, he made it clear that good government requires a spiritual framework:

"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

He then made the point that America needed God's virtues and morality to remain a free nation, stating: "It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?"

Sadly, America has fallen far from that ideal. But the Bible continues to be the best source of what is universally right and noble in the world. As Washington believed, it really is 100 percent necessary for true leadership and living a virtuous life.

Washington well understood humanity's need for "Providence"— divine guidance—stating, "Mankind, when left to themselves, are unfit for their own government." In essence, he predicted that America wouldn't survive without virtuous citizens and leaders. It may well be America will not survive this generation for that reason.

Washington refused to be crowned king of America. But figuratively he wears another, greater crown. He urged everyone to seek virtue. Whether American or not, we need to hear his words and consider his leadership. It is for good reason that George Washington can be called America's—and, in terms of this world's exemplary human leaders, the world's—uncrowned king of virtue.