George Washington Learned Morality from a Prominent Judge (among other sources of course)


[The following excerpt is taken from a book published in 1879 entitled "Washington and the American Republic" by Benson J. Lossing (1813-1891), Volume I, Part I, pp. 29-34. It includes quotes from a writing of a prominent British judge entitled "Contemplations, Moral and Divine," originally printed in 1676. This was the last year of Justice Hale’s life, having reached the age of 70 years. It offers a unique retrospective on his life and his intentions for performing his public duties. It has particular relevance to the character and actions of George Washington, as discussed below. – John M. Huff]

[George Washington’s mother Mary’s] attention, when not occupied with the various and complicated affairs connected with their several estates, was given as largely as possible to the education of her five young children, of whom the oldest had but just entered his twelfth year when she became a widow. One of the means to which she resorted for this purpose was that of reading to them every day lessons of religion and morality from some standard author, and it is known that her favorite book on such occasions was the "Contemplations, Moral and Divine, by Sir Matthew Hale, late Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench." The copy that she used, in which is written with her own hand her name, Mary Washington, was preserved with filial care by her son, who exemplified in so striking a manner the admirable maxims for outward action as well as self-government, and it is still shown among the cherished relics at Mount Vernon. Mr. Paulding [historian] remarks that one of the chapters appears to have been selected as an ordinary lesson, and is marked for that purpose in the table of contents. It is entitled "The Great Audit," and we may well believe that it had much influence in the formation of George Washington’s character. Some parts of this chapter are so noticeable for their harmony with the life they contributed to form that it is thought proper here to extract them. In histories of the development of the noble natures what more significant fact can be cited than that any one of them was guided and strengthened in boyhood by such words as these:

"As touching my conscience, and the light thou hast given me in it, I have been very jealous of wounding, or grieving, or discouraging or deadening it. I have therefore chosen rather to foster that which seemed but indifferent, lest there should be somewhat in it that might be useful; and would rather gratify my conscience with being too scrupulous than displease or disquiet it by being too venturous. I have still chosen, therefore, what might be probably lawful, than to do what might possibly be unlawful; because, though I could not err in the former, I might in the latter. If things were disputable, whether they might be done, I rather chose to forbear, because the lawfulness of my forbearance was unquestionable.

"Touching human prudence and understanding in affairs, and dexterity in the arranging of them: I have ever been careful to mingle justice and honesty with my prudence, and have always esteemed prudence, actuated by injustice and falsity, the arrantest and most devilish practice in the world, because it prostitutes thy gift to the services of hell, and mingles a beam of thy divine excellence with an extract of the devil’s furnishing, making a man so much the worse by how much he is wiser than others.

"I always thought that wisdom which, in a tradesman or a politician, was mingled with deceit, falsity, and injustice, deserved the same name, only the latter is so much the worse, because it is of the more public and general concernment. Yet because I have often observed great employments, especially in public affairs, are sometimes under great temptations of mingling too much craft with prudence, and then to miscall it policy, I have, as much as may be, avoided such temptation, and if I have met with them, I have resolutely rejected them.

"I have always observed that honesty and plain-dealing in transactions, as well public as private, is the best and soundest prudence and policy, and commonly, at the long-run, over-matcheth craft and subtilty. And more advantage is derived from possessing the confidence of mankind, than can ever be made by deceiving them.

"As human prudence is abused if mingled with falsity and deceit, though the end be never so good, so it is much more debased if directed to a bad end, to the dishonor of thy name, the oppression of thy people, the corrupting thy worship or truth, or to practise any injustice toward any person.

"It hath been my case as not to err in the manner, so neither in the end of the exercising of thy providence. I have ever been esteemed thy prudence best employed when it was exercised in the preservation and support of thy truth, in contemning, discovering, and disappointing the designs of evil and treacherous men, in delivering the oppressed, in righting the injured, in preventing of wars and discords, in preserving the public peace and tranquility of the people where I live, and in all those offices laid upon me by thy providence, under every relation.

"When my end was most unquestionably good, I ever then took most heed that the means were suitable and justifiable. Because the better the end was, the more easily are we cozened into the use of ill means to effect it. We are too apt to dispense with ourselves in the practise of what is amiss; we are apt, while with great intenseness of mind we gaze upon the end, not to take care what course we take so we attain it; and we are apt to think that God will dispense with, or at least overlook the miscarriages in our attempts, if the end be good.

"Because many times, if not most times, thy name and honor do more suffer by attempting a good end by bad means, than by attempting both a bad end, and by bad means. For bad ends are suitable to bad means; they are alike – and it doth not immediately as such concern thy honor. But everything that is good hath somewhat of thee in it, thy name, thy nature, and thy honor is written upon it; and the blemish that is cast upon it, is, in some measure, cast upon thee. The evil, and scandal, and ugliness that is in the means, is cast upon the end, and doth disparage and blemish it, and consequently, is dishonor to thee. To rob for burnt-offerings, or to lie for God, is a greater disservice to thy majesty, than to rob for rapine, or to lie for advantage."

"Touching my eminence of place and power in this world, this is my account. I never sought or desired it, and that for these reasons. First, because I easily saw that it was rather a burden than a privilege. It made my charge and my account the greater, my contentment and my rest the less. I found enough in it to make me decline it in respect to myself, but not any that could invite me to seek or desire it.

"That external glory and splendor that attended it I esteemed as vain and frivolous in itself, a bait to allure vain and inconsiderate persons to affect and delight – not valuable enough to invite a considerate judgement to desire or undertake it. I esteemed them as the gilding that covers a bitter pill, and I looked through this dress and outside and easily saw that it covered a state obnoxious to danger, solicitude, care, trouble, envy, discontent, unquietness, temptation, and vexation.

"I esteemed it a condition which, if there were any distempers abroad, they would be infallibly hunting and pushing at it; and if it found any corruption within, either of pride, vainglory, insolence, vindictiveness, or the like, it would be sure to draw them out and set them to work. And if they prevailed, it made my power and greatness not only my burden but my sin; if they prevailed not, yet it required a most watchful, assiduous, and severe labor and industry to suppress them.

"When I undertook any place of power or eminence, first, I looked to my call thereunto to be such as I might discern to be thy call, not my own ambition. Second, that the place was such as might be answered by suitable abilities in some measure to perform. Third, that my end it might not be the satisfaction of any pride, ambition, or vanity in myself, but to serve Providence and my generation honestly and faithfully.

"In the holding or exercising these places, I kept my heart humble; I valued not myself one rush the more for it. First, because I easily found that that base affectation of pride, which commonly is the fly that haunts such employments, would render me dishonorable to thy majesty, and discreditable in the employment. Second, because I easily saw that great places were slippery places, the mark of envy. It was, therefore, always my care so to behave in them as I might be in a capacity to leave them; and so to leave them, as that, when I had left them, I might have no scars and blemishes stick upon me. I carried, therefore, the same evennes of temper in holding them as might become me if I were without them. I found enough in great employments to make me sensible of the danger, trouble, and cares of them; enough to make me humble, but not enough to make me proud and houghty.

"I never made use of my power or greatness to serve my own turn, either to heap up riches, or oppress my neighbor, or to revenge injuries, or to uphold injustice. For, though others thought me great, I knew myself to be still the same, and in all things, besides the due execution of my place, my deportment was just the same as if I had been no such man; for I very well and practically knew that place, and honor, and preferment are things extrinsical, and have no ingredience into the man. His value and estimate before, and under, and after his greatness is still the same in itself – as the counter that now stands for a penny, anon for sixpence, and anon for twelve pence is still the same counter, though its place and extrinsical denomination be changed."

"Though I have loved my reputation, and have been careful not to lose or impair it by my own neglect, yet have I looked upon it as a brittle thing that the devil aims to hit in an especial manner; a thing that is much in the power of a false report, a mistake, or misapprehension to wound and hurt, and notwithstanding all my care, I am at the mercy of others, without God’s wonderful overruling providence.

"And as my reputation is the esteem that others have of me, so that esteem may be blemished without my default. I have, therefore, always taken this care not to set my heart upon my reputation. I will use all fidelity and honesty, and take care it shall not be lost by any default of mine, and if, notwithstanding all this, my reputation be foiled by evil or man, I will patiently bear it, and content myself with the serenity of my own conscience.

"When thy honor or the good of my country was concerned, I then thought it was a seasonable time to lay out my reputation for the advantage of either, and to act with it, and by it, and upon it, to the highest, in the use of all lawful means. And upon such an occasion, the counsel of Mordecai to Esther was my encouragement, - "Who knoweth whether God hath not given thee this reputation and esteem for such a time as this?"

These sentences might readily be taken for a reviewal by Washington of his own history.