Mohler: George Washington’s public virtue, though laudable, is insufficient
George Washington, the first president of the United States of America, embodied classic public virtues but also had one significant, staining flaw: his views on race. This is according to R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, who made this argument to a packed Heritage Hall on the campus of Southern Seminary during the Leadership Briefing, April 26.
Mohler suggested that, in many ways, Washington is the consummate American success story: He overcame great disadvantages in his upbringing and became a leader fit for a new model of government. Washington was not the most educated, eloquent, or ambitious of the Founding Fathers — but he left behind perhaps the strongest legacy.
“People listened to Washington because of his character and because of the importance of what he was saying — not how he would say it,” Mohler said.
Yet Washington owned over 150 slaves by his death, and although he wrote privately about his distaste for the institution of slavery, he did not have the moral fortitude to speak publicly about his private convictions. Despite Washington’s character and rich leadership legacy, any Christian historical recounting must grapple with Washington’s failure to deal with the greatest moral problem of his time, Mohler said.
“How could someone like George Washington [and the other Founding Fathers], who so prized liberty and claimed that all human beings possess inherent natural rights, then deny those very natural rights to an entire class of human beings whom they would not only exploit, but whom they would treat as chattel slaves?” Mohler said.
“As important and indispensable as classical virtue is to public leadership, it’s not enough,” he said. “The moral frame by which we must be guided, to which we must be committed, and by which we will be judged is not just a set of classical virtues.”
Like many great presidents after him, Washington understood that the whole world was watching him and the great American experiment, Mohler said. Washington knew that it was his responsibility to exhibit honest and virtuous living for the world to pattern itself after.
“Washington and others saw themselves as actors on a world stage,” Mohler said. “They also saw the United States, the young nation, as an actor on the world stage. They thought the new nation was living before the world.
“We would all be better off ... if we understood — at all times, under all administrations, throughout all the decades since George Washington — that the president and all the political leaders understood that the United States is an actor on a world stage, with the world watching.”
The presidential awareness of the importance of public virtue started with Washington. Mohler recounted how, as a 16-year-old, Washington wrote a list of 110 maxims of good behavior he sought to follow the rest of his life. In 1767, he was one of many to argue that the British Monarch was ruling improperly, eventually leading to the Revolutionary War. He became the central figure both in the war and in the early days of the new country.
After the war ended, Washington resigned his commission and retired, acutely aware of how absolute power over a military force could be used for corrupt ends, Mohler said. As the new nation developed, the writers of the Constitution understood a balance was needed. The nation required a chief executive, but that leader could not possess too much power. In order to have national self-government, the leader needed to display personal self-government. The “democratic monarch” they chose to lead the United States needed to exhibit sobriety of personal ambition, according to Mohler. Only one man was fit to lead.
“The presidency in the U.S. Constitution was not defined in the end by ideas or principles, but rather by a person,” Mohler said. “The U.S. Constitution’s definition of the role of the presidency was defined around the person of George Washington. It becomes clear that those who framed the Constitution were looking to Washington and then were reflecting and projecting their hopes of what a democratic monarch would look like.”
Washington inspired a new nobility — a self-made leader who did not inherit a hereditary throne, but an elected office, Mohler said. Washington cultivated this new nobility even as a teenager, making him the obvious choice to be the first president. He not only resigned his command of the Continental Army, but he also resigned from the presidency after two terms, refusing to run a third time.
“He was the indispensable man, as James Thomas Flexner has argued, but the indispensable man decided that he was not indispensable,” Mohler said. “He knew the nation could never have a successful experiment in self-government if the persona supposedly serving as this democratic chief executive stayed until his death.”
Regarding Washington’s religious life, he was a man of his time, Mohler said. His faith was public and he regularly attended church. He was an Anglican all his life and participated as any good, distinguished Anglican at the time would have. His private beliefs are often opaque to historians — no historian is sure whether he took the Eucharist, and he was also a loyal Free Mason, Mohler said. He was not, as is popularly understood, a theological deist, according to Mohler. He believed in the specific application of divine providence, and wrote about that belief frequently.
Mohler referenced a disparity between ancient and modern perceptions of character influence on leadership. The ancients understood one could not lead without publically embodied virtue, but modern culture pushed to redefine character as private authenticity. To ancient thinkers, character formed from publically demonstrating virtue, regardless of private beliefs; to modern thinkers, the private self must fit the outer self, Mohler argued. Washington was a visible figure of virtue whose inner life is largely lost to history.
Despite all of Washington’s virtues, he fell short of distinctly Christian virtue, Mohler said. He is one of the most outstanding figures in American history, but his legacy is polluted by his short-sighted views on slavery and race.
He held private reservations regarding slavery, and wrote that he inherited slaves from his wife’s estate “very repugnantly to [his] own feelings,” Mohler said. Toward the end of his life, Washington arranged for all his slaves to be freed immediately after he died. None of this, however, is nearly enough to justify the ownership of other human beings made in God’s image, Mohler said.
Although Washington was deeply concerned with public virtue, he failed to supplement that quality with a robust inner sense of justice. He cared what others thought of him but didn’t display a truly biblical sense of virtue when it didn’t correspond with the existing, conventional view of the age, Mohler said.
Washington understood that the institution of slavery must eventually pass away but failed to speak openly about his convictions. He knew slavery was immoral, Mohler said, but all his self-made virtue was insufficient to equip him for the great leadership challenge of his day.
“The founders would say that you can’t have national self-government without personal self-government, and that the loss of those classical virtues would be disastrous,” Mohler said. “But we also know that those classical virtues are not enough, and that’s what distinguishes even great political leadership from lasting Christian leadership. For us, it’s not just the verdict of history; it’s also the verdict of God.”
Audio of the Leadership Briefing is available through the Southern Equip page.