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Washington: First prez set the bar

Washington: First prez set the bar

WWU professor explains honor as Washington defined it

January 22nd, 2017 by Jenny Gray in Local News

WWU history professor Craig Bruce Smith speaks with students following his lecture on George Washington on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.

Photo by Jenny Gray /Fulton Sun.

It seems as if everybody's all about Alexander Hamilton these days, but on 2017 Inauguration Day at William Woods University, it was about the nation's first POTUS: George Washington.

Hamilton, however, did serve as the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury under Washington, according to WWU history professor Craig Bruce Smith, who presented an animated and scholarly lecture Friday at noon.

"I chose Inauguration Day on purpose," he admitted at the first of three presidential-inspired lectures to be hosted at the college.

Smith has one book, "Rightly to Be Great: Honor, Virtue, Ethics and the American Revolution," which is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. He's also researching two new projects: "'The Greatest Man in the World': A Global Perspective on George Washington" and "Redemption: The American Revolution, Ethics, and Abolitionism in Britain and the United States."

The next two lectures will be conducted by other invited lecturers, but Smith kept Washington for himself.

"I refuse to have someone speak on something I know about," he said, laughing.

Friday's presentation drew on the theme of "honor," once something men with swords felt they had to defend. Washington was one of the first leaders, Smith said, who gave to new meaning to the term.

"It's honor as akin to ethics, rather than something more violent," he added. "One of the most important traits of Washington was honor."

While the term was hard to define in 1700's Colonial America, to Washington, honor was a virtue encompassing things like dignity and reputation, duty and valor and proper conduct. It was something "to be," not something to defend.

Smith's first example illustrating Washington's definition of honor came while the man lay dying.

"Let me start at the end," Smith said.

Washington, 67, was at Mount Vernon, ailing in bed. He'd gotten cold and wet during a winter blizzard and hadn't warmed himself properly once home. He got a cold, and, despite the medical "cures" of the day, worsened. By the afternoon of Dec. 14, 1799, two days later, the battle was ending.

"He knew the end was near," Smith said. "His last words weren't about family or country. They were to provide comfort for a slave."

Upon his death, papers Washington has drawn up freeing his personal slaves were revealed, as well. Washington died just days before the start of the next century.

"He was a man who defines the 18th century, and he doesn't make it to the 19th century," Smith said.

But the beginning, while it was not a humble start, it soon became a humble life after his father died when George was 11 years old.

"He complains throughout his life to having a defective education — humble schooling," Smith said. "He turns to literature."

He studies "Contemplations: Moral and Divine" by Sir Matthew Hale. Finally, his esteem is advanced when a brother marries well. Eventually Washington is appointed a district adjutant, a major, in the Virginia militia, and he also becomes a Freemason. He becomes a surveyor.

As part of a writing exercise, he hand-letters a copy of a code of conduct, "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation."

"He begins to embrace the concept that honor is a form of courage," Smith said. "Through honor, you could advance."

When the French and Indian War begins, Washington is sent out as a diplomat and leader of men. In those days, most American men didn't learn their soldiering skills on the ground, but rather, from manuals. Washington learns military, political and leadership skills and strategies in the midst of disasters, retreats and successes. After the war he goes home, marries Martha, and begins to grow up.

"The young Washington is very different than the old Washington," Smith said. "The young Washington was interested in his own goals, not that of a nation."

The woes of the upcoming American Revolution fall upon the Colonies, and Washington leaves Mount Vernon to command the uniformed Continental Army.

"(Washington said, I) go to war for my country's honor and my own character," Smith said. "He wants moral men (as soldiers)."

Washington redefined honor. Previously, victory in battle brought honor, and soldiers were expendable. To this Commander, however, victory meant staying alive, not wasting men's lives.

"Preserve your army," Smith said. "Maintain the lives and goodwill of your soldiers."

He positively spun the treachery of traitor Benedict Arnold, who tries to sell the future West Point land for 20,000 British pounds so he could get a commission in King George III's military. When the war is won, he defended his American soldiers' rights to promised pensions. He demanded civilian authority over the military — and then he astonishes the world.

"One of the most important moments in American history is when Washington surrenders his commission as major general," Smith said. "Washington turned over his power at a moment when he could have become king. He gives up a crown (in) the best interest of the nation."

Washington didn't run for the office of the presidency.

"You didn't campaign," Smith said. "You stood for office."

He didn't believe in a presidential platform. As America's first president, he was blazing a new path in a new democracy.

"He is in charge of protecting the country, this country he's fought to create," Smith said.

He becomes president — and serves just two terms.

"Every move he makes, he sets a precedent," Smith added.

Washington despised political parties, too. He filled his cabinet of advisers with people like Thomas Jefferson and Henry Knox and yes, Hamilton, all men of wildly different perspectives.

"All of these individuals have different political beliefs," Smith said. "Washington takes all these different views and makes decisions based on what he thinks is best for the country."

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At the end of his second term, he gave his farewell address. Washington warned against regional loyalties, such as those of the North or the South.

"He said the greatest danger was the rise of political parties," Smith said. "He said political parties would harm America because they would take away the focus from what was best for the nation."

He stunned the world a second time by willingly giving up power and retiring to Mount Vernon.

"With this, Washington goes from man to God," Smith said. "By giving up power, he was acting in the best interest of the nation. He set the bar for liberty and freedom and happiness."

Student Nina McKee said she is taking another course from Smith, the subject being Alexander Hamilton. She said she learned a lot from Smith's Washington lecture, however.

"I didn't realize how close the connection was between Washington and French soldier Marquis de Lafayette, who assisted Washington in the American Revolution. "I always thought Lafayette was more associated with Hamilton."

The second in the Presidential Lecture Series will be 4 p.m. Jan. 30, with Jay Sexton speaking of Lincoln.