Could George Washington Be Elected Today?
Everyone lies, so what's wrong with it?
Posted Feb 16, 2020
George Washington won his two terms in office as president with the unanimous consent of the Electoral College. In fact, he ran unopposed. What made him so popular? Although Washington was the commander in chief of the Continental Army, he wasn’t the best general in the Continental army. And while not a dullard, many of his contemporaries were far smarter than he. And although he was the president of the Constitutional Convention, he was far from the best politician.
Washington’s popularity rested elsewhere.
Some context helps understand Washington’s great appeal.
The country had won its independence from Great Britain and no one wanted to return to a regime of tyranny. So the original conglomeration of states formed the Articles of Confederation, a variation on a parliamentary system in which the head of state is dependent upon the legislature.
Discussions at the Constitutional Convention about the impeachment clause considered hypothetical situations, one of which was what would happen if the president were to deceive or lie in order to gain office. The response was clear, according to Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a co-author of Impeachment: An American History, and author of When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War. The person should be removed from office.
A president should be removed from office if they use the power of that office for their own personal gain. Impeachment is possible when the president puts themselves above the state.
Washington was chosen as president because when the quasi-parliamentary approach to the national government was scrapped for one with three independent but competing branches, of which the presidency was one, he was the person most trusted to carry out the duties of that office without fear of a power-grab that would essentially re-instate the tyranny that had been gotten rid of.
What put Washington ahead of his opponents was his rectitude, the qualities that made him, above all else, an ethical person. In 18th century terms, he was a virtuous person. The prime virtue sought in the president and one which they found in Washington was a person willing to sacrifice his own needs for the needs of the people, the opposite qualities of self-dealing which many today, mistakenly, take as a given of human nature.
Parson Weems created the cherry tree legend, having the young Washington say “I can’t tell a lie,” when confronted with the damaged tree by his father. The story is, of course, fiction, told in the service of showing the boy that grew through the habit of truth-telling into the virtuous person that led a ragtag army to final victory and won the hearts of his countrymen as the country’s first and perhaps greatest president ever.
So what’s wrong with lying? Fundamentally, it robs others of their freedom to choose rationally. A rational choice depends upon having information that is accurate. The ability to choose wisely for oneself, is undermined because it misleads and opening the possibility that they would have decided otherwise had they known the truth. In other words, lies can be seen as an attack on human dignity.
Lies can be trivial, such as that told to keep secret a surprise party, or significant, when, for example, presented on a witness stand. Lies may be necessary—deceiving an enemy about a planned invasion (think Normandy). Many lies are exaggerations meant to burnish a person’s image. Lies are troublesome, even when small or occasional. Friedrich Nietzsche points to the problem when he wrote, “I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.”
Nietzsche overstates the case. We understand the small lies meant to protect another person and we can even forgive the big lie when it is uncharacteristic, but this doesn’t excuse those who habitually lie. At some point, a person isn’t merely someone who isn’t perfect but rather someone who is a liar.
Marriages can’t exist when partners lie; students can’t learn when teachers aren’t committed to the truth; citizens can’t be informed when the media lies. And communities can’t function when government leaders are liars.
Those who supported Washington for president didn’t necessarily like him. And they didn’t necessarily support his policies. They stood behind him because they could trust him. He was an honorable person, to be counted on to put others before himself, He was a person of integrity. He wasn’t perfect—it is difficult to understand how he could hold others as human chattel. But it is a fair question to ask: Who today chooses the president based upon the candidate’s character? Would those who voted for Washington stand behind today’s officeholders?
Truth-telling was once viewed as a necessary virtue. It is still a necessary quality for a society that holds together based on trust and mutual respect.