Paternal Virtue: George Washington

Gina Loudon
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Posted: Jun 17, 2012 8:19 PM

An excerpt from Ladies and Gentlemen: Why the Survival of Our Republic Depends on the Revival of Honor, by Dr. Gina Loudon and Dr. Dathan Paterno.

Fortunately, we have been blessed with men and women throughout history whose lives reflect most of the virtues that must be reclaimed if our Republic is to survive. Their biographies are enhanced by towering excellence in multiple traits. Equally important, the blemishes on their life story are few and underwhelming.

We examined many men and women for the honor of being the quintessential gentleman and lady. All of them had excellent resumes; several of them could arguably have been chosen. Two stood out above the rest: George Washington and Abigail Adams. We examine the virtuousness of Washington, the man whom Americans were describing as “the Father of the Country” since before he was even that country’s first president.

Three of Washington’s most endearing and impressive virtues stand out on this Father’s Day.

The first is his commitment to family. In an age when so many fathers abandon their families—either leaving them or spending inordinate time playing golf and pursuing other pleasures —Washington’s decisions are noteworthy. When Washington was twenty-six, he married Martha DandridgeCustis, who had been widowed two years prior and had two children. It was apparent that his marriage was of the utmost importance to him, as he wrote twenty-five years later, “I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.” While only one letter between the two has survived, several of Washington’s letters to others refer to his wife in nothing but the most caring and tender terms.

In terms of Martha’s two children, George immediately adopted them as his own. Not a distant father by any means, he was intimately involved in decisions regarding their education, health, and other matters. He personally interviewed the children’s tutors. He also referred to them lovingly in letters.

There is evidence that Washington’s patterns of amusements significantly narrowed upon marriage and fatherhood. For example, he no longer attended cockfights and rarely joined hunting expeditions. The family, instead, spent time together exploring the countryside, especially the mountains and springs of Virginia.

Washington’s familial care extended past his nuclear family. He managed and provided for the financial care of his aging widowed mother. There are several letters of correspondence between him and his brothers that make his concern for them quite clear. Finally, he included his adopted grandchildren in his will: “The two whom we have reared from their earliest infancy, namely: Eleanor ParkeCustis, and George Washington Parke Custis.”

Given his position of power and his overwhelming responsibilities, plus the tendency during that era for most fathers to be somewhat distant and uninvolved, it would be understandable if he had committed less of his time and devotion to family. But a consummate gentleman puts his family first. Such is Washington’s legacy.

The second virtue we celebrate on Father’s Day ismasculinity. There was nothing effeminate about Washington. He was a man’s man. While he was accomplished at dancing and horsemanship—two activities considered masculine at the time—his wrestling skills were legendary in his home state of Virginia. His diaries fondly describe episodes of hunting, fishing, canoeing, and other competitive, typically manly pursuits. He was also trained as a swordsman.

The third virtue Washington modeled for both his country and his family is self-sacrifice. All the Founding Fathers sacrificed when they decided to declare independence from England. All knew that they not only were sacrificing financially and risking financial ruin but were literally risking their necks. Washington’s risk was no less than his fellow countrymen.

After the Revolution, Washington could easily have become king. In fact, many Americans—even some fellow patriots—wanted him to become just that. But Washington was not at all interested in such an increase in power. By declining the understandable impulse to feed his ego, he evidenced his greater desire for a peaceful republic. He retired from his nearly all-powerful post to remove himselffrom politics.

Of course, he was brought back into the political maelstrom to help lead the Continental Congress, which was busy forming the new government and the constitution of the United States. As exhausting as this work was, Washington felt it was his duty. Throughout his life, he evidenced a singular commitment to carrying out his duties.

Washington’s virtue was so stellar, so impeccable, that he garnered praise from friend and foe. It is difficult toimagine one of our current political leaders being described as Thomas Jefferson described Washington:

On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance.

Let us be grateful today for those fathers in our life—biological, step, political, Heavenly, and other male role models—who committed to these and other virtues and lived them out for us to see and learn.

Happy Father’s Day.