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Lessons from the first president

Posted: February 26, 2012 - 1:02am

“The name of American ... must exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any local (partisan) label. With slight shades of difference, through common dangers, sufferings, and successes, you have fought and triumphed together.’

– From George Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796

Though I consulted many resources on the founders of our country, and have just finished reading Bill O’Reilly’s new best-seller Killing Lincoln, by the time I turned to a collection of essays called “Founders’ Wisdom,” I was so stunned by the words of George Washington that I scratched everything else I had planned to include in thoughts about Presidents Day to concentrate on the timeless wisdom of this one man.

By his own admission, Washington didn’t start out in brilliance, nor did he ever claim to reach such a milestone. But from the time the teenager penned his 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” until he gave his post-presidential “Farewell Address” five decades later, we detect one constant thread of ambition: making his country and the world a better place to live.

First, for your amusement, some of those rules:

• In the presence of others sing not to yourself with a humming voice, or drum with your fingers or feet.

• Sleep not when others speak; sit not when others stand; speak not when you should hold your peace.

• On visiting the sick, do not play the physician if you be not knowing therein.

• Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.

• Being set at meat, scratch not, neither spit, cough nor blow your nose except there be a necessity for it.

By 1789, after Gen. Washington had put aside his arms for an even greater challenge. Unlike the bravado of today’s presidential candidates, we find a reluctant and self-effacing new president delivering his first Inaugural Address:

“No event could have filled me with greater anxieties than the notification (his election) I have received. ... On the one hand I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love. ... On the other hand, the magnitude of the trust could not but overwhelm one who, inheriting inferior endowments (and) conscious of his own deficiencies, (embarks upon) the weighty and untried cares before me.”

But embark he does, after calling upon “that Almighty Being who rules over the universe ... to execute with success the functions allotted to (his) charge” for the next eight years.

Finally, as he nears the end of “45 years of my life dedicated to (my country’s) service,” he delivers his farewell address.

First, true to form, the man of great accomplishment in no way extols his own abilities, nor neglects to express his gratitude to those who chose him as their leader:

“In the discharge of this trust, I have contributed the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable, not unconscious of the inferiority of my qualifications. ... Nor do I suspend that debt of gratitude which I owe to my beloved country for the many honors it has conferred upon me. The constancy of your support was the essential prop of (my) efforts and the guaranty of the plans by which they were effected.”

But what surprised me the most was the parting advice he gave those “beloved” citizens more than two centuries ago, and how helpful it would be if we could hear again those same vital words. Invoking the blessing of heaven he prays:

• That your union and brotherly affection in every part of our country – Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western – may be perpetual. It is, indeed, little else than a name where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction.

• That the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained.

• That you avoid the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another.

• That of all the dispositions which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

• That you cherish public credit (by) using it as sparingly as possible and avoid, likewise, the accumulation of debt.

• That you cultivate peace and harmony with all nations, being guided always by an exalted justice and benevolence.

And, as he leaves willingly to enter retirement, this benediction:

“As a man who views in (this land) the native soil of himself, I anticipate ... partaking, with my fellow citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.”

(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer, and the author of the recently published book, As Long As the Rivers Run: Highlights from Columbia County’s Past. Email comments to seabara@aol.com.)

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