Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2/22/2022: Happy Birthday, George Washington, And Thanks To The Lesser Men Who Succeeded Him

Today is our first President’s real birthday, and if anyone deserves two celebrations, it’s George Washington. One way to celebrate this unique and essential man is by refreshing oneself on the principles that guided his moral and ethical development from childhood to adulthood, George Washington’s 110 Rules, one of many ethics resources in the right hand column that nobody reads. The best is #110: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

Unfortunately I did not see this fatuous and obnoxious article on Politico before I had posted regarding President’s Day. Writes John Harris, a veteran political journalist who simply does not know what he is talking about:

A democracy really shouldn’t be mythologizing presidents at all. From the left it seems obvious that we don’t need a holiday honoring 46 presidents, all of them men. From the right it seems obvious that we don’t need to be honoring the aggrandizement of Washington-based politicians.

I have been studying and writing about U.S. Presidents since I was ten years old. My honors thesis—you can find it in Widener Library if you’re in the vicinity of Cambridge,Mass., argued the case that the American culture selects out remarkable, talented leaders who become President, and that the vast majority of them share special traits in their background and character. It’s a strong case, though still a controversial one, and currently out of fashion (just like so many of my other passions, like baseball, Gilbert and Sullivan, satire, blogs, courage, integrity, and ethics.) Still, I know these guys. The worst of them were devoted patriots, and did the best job they could—well, maybe not Bill Clinton—to make the country they loved better as they saw it. Some were wrong, some made terrible blunders, but all of them accepted a nearly impossible job that somebody had to take on.  It was also a killing one until recently: well into the latter half of the 20th Century, the average life span of Presidents after leaving office was frighteningly short. The job also has the highest rate of murder attempts of any job in the nation; I count ten in which the would-be assassin got close enough to do the job. Ten out of 46. The thanks for taking on a job that puts a target on your back is, for the last six decades or so, almost ceaseless abuse and criticism.

Honoring the Presidents doesn’t “mythologize” them. And based on my study and analysis, recognizing that most of the elected Presidents, even the flops, were superior individuals worthy of respect and emulation isn’t mythologizing them either. They did great things; collectively, they made the United States the wonder of the world against all odds.

The current fetish of dwelling on the flaws and missteps of our greatest historical figures isn’t good history, it’s bad citizenship, indeed it is stupid citizenship. It weakens the country; it warps priorities and values. The fact that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were slave-holders is the least important fact about them, as far as their crucial roles in building America goes.

Earlier in his essay, Harris says,

Lincoln is the best example. For a century and a half he has defied most efforts to dismantle his historical reputation. Yet as his San Francisco critics know it is not hard to find unheroic elements of his record.

Here is the man school children know as the “Great Emancipator” at the famous 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races.”

What an asshole. There isn’t a real life hero in world history who didn’t have unheroic moments. Big deal, and so what? Those “San Francisco critics,” several of whom lost their jobs last week in a recall, were, like all the statue-topplers, attacking figures like Lincoln as part of a larger effort to tear down U.S. culture and values. Literally every single white American at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debate was certain that blacks were an inferior race. Bias makes you stupid, but the mark of a great human being is the ability to rise above personal biases. Lincoln was a great man, a towering intellect with stunning perception and the capacity to grow and change. Those who criticize Lincoln today for not instantly perceiving a new ethical construct that only seems obvious after 170 years in part because of him are arrogant, smug and ignorant fools.

I want to look John Harris in the eyes and ask him, “What is your position on Martin Luther King Day? Are we “mythologizing” him? Abe Lincoln was a saint in his personal life compared to King. How do you justify honoring his birthday while you denigrate Lincoln?”

Harris was doing nothing but pandering to his favored progressive, anti-American, anti-white crowd. Of course King deserves to be honored, but for his best moments, not his worst, and no more than Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. We also owe at least one day to all the other Presidents who accepted a job that comes with a guarantee of regrets and an inevitable  measure of failure.

16 thoughts on “Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2/22/2022: Happy Birthday, George Washington, And Thanks To The Lesser Men Who Succeeded Him

  1. “Literally every single white American at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debate was certain that blacks were an inferior race.”

    Most (not all) of your Post-Modern-Neo-Lefties are convinced that they’d have been prescient Gosh I’m Nice outliers who saw the light which had escaped everyone else.

    Not buying it; most (not all) of them are rigidly hive-minded and would have (IMO) quickly embraced the group-think without a second thought.

    • Just like the modern-day Christians who think they wouldn’t have doubted Moses in the desert or run away like the disciples did upon the arrest of Christ, people love to look at the past with the certainty of presentism and think they would be able to defy human nature and ignore the pressure to conform.

      It reminds me of Jordan Peterson’s lecture that points out that “You are the Nazi”. For most of us, pretending that we would not have look the other way in order to get along is unrealistic. We are human beings. We are capable of great courage when motivated enough. The rest of the time, we are abject cowards.

  2. To quote another president:
    “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
    —Theodore Roosevelt

  3. Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. -Winston Churchill

    Those who learn from history should refrain from denigrating those who taught the lesson. -JutGory


  4. Very good post Jack. I am struck by how James Buchanan, a respected statesman in his day, is vilified by “scholars” because he couldn’t solve the almost unsolvable problem of 1850’s slavery and its economic consequence, a problem that it took our greatest or second greatest president to tackle. The slavery problem, reconstruction, equal rights, etc is a problem that is still not solved 160 years later. Not that Buchanan was a good president, but to your point, I think, all should be, if not respected, at least acknowledged for trying the best they could; yes, even Bill Clinton. It may just be contemporary bias or myopia, but you just have to wonder about the 2021 version of the incumbent.

    • I should explain the reference to Bill. I felt that he had the unique skills, intellect, and centrist instincts to unify the country and accomplish great things. He was in the right job at the right time, and he threw away his chance by his venality, low-class sliminess (like renting out the Lincoln Bedroom), and inability to behave like a grown-up. Buchanan’s match is Bush I, a lifetime functionary and bureaucrat who was good enough at everything but leadership, the Peter Principle at work. (John Adams was similar, but more perplexing, because he was brilliant.)

      • If I can throw in my useless opinion, Bill Clinton, like Teagan had what seems to be the unique gift of knowing how to be a politician.

        They knew how to deal with disagreement and how to compromise, while still moving forward with their agenda.

        Bush 41 did not gave that skill. Bush 43 tried to do that with immigration reform and it disabled him. Obama was too inexperienced to be a good politician. You cannot easily go from activist to leader without experience.

        Trump might have been a good politician, if he had been given a chance. He could compromise and still get what he wants.

        Biden might have been good at this (back in 2008).

        I dislike Clinton, but we are sorely lacking in politicians of his type (and Reagan’s) these days.


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