When I am asked who I think was the most ethical President of the United States, my answer is the man whose birthday President’s Day preempts: George Washington. He was not our most brilliant or eloquent President, and it often took him a while to find his way to the right thing to do, slavery being the most important example. Still, the United States was extraordinarily fortunate to have such a principled and instinctively wise leader as its first. He created the template that, though weakened by time and inferior successors, continues to exert a powerful influence over our choice of Presidents. He was honest. He was civil. He was dignified and insisted on respect, but never worship: his simple decision that America’s Chief Executive be called, humbly, “Mr. President” had immense consequences for the nation’s attitudes toward executive leadership. Perhaps most important of all, Washington was a gifted leader but a reluctant one. He believed that a citizen should heed the nation’s call when needed, but he was a reluctant public servant, and condemned those who sought power for its own sake.
I am always amazed, when I return to Washington’s writings and speeches, how sure, persuasive and perceptive his statements remain, so long after they were made.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from our most ethical President.
Happy Birthday, approximately, General Washington.
- “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.”
- “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”
- “To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.”
- “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
- “It will be found an unjust and unwise jealousy to deprive a man of his natural liberty upon the supposition he may abuse it.”
- “Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder. ”
- “No pecuniary consideration is more urgent, than the regular redemption and discharge of the public debt: on none can delay be more injurious, or an economy of time more valuable.
- “In politics as in religion, my tenets are few and simple. The leading one of which, and indeed that which embraces most others, is to be honest and just ourselves and to exact it from others, meddling as little as possible in their affairs where our own are not involved. If this maxim was generally adopted, wars would cease and our swords would soon be converted into reap hooks and our harvests be more peaceful, abundant, and happy.”
- “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence – it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and fearful master.”
- “Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause. I had hoped that liberal and enlightened thought would have reconciled the Christians so that their religious fights would not endanger the peace of Society.”
- “We must consult our means rather than our wishes.”
- “Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or to the little peanut they will give up their secrets, but I have found that when I silently commune with people they give up their secrets also – if you love them enough”