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Let’s restore the lost art of civic virtue

The Founding Fathers lived by public civic virtue. Our country can’t survive without it

SHARE Let’s restore the lost art of civic virtue

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

George Washington was the most heroic figure in our nation’s founding and the foremost of the Founding Fathers. As great as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others were, it was the “Father of our Country” who led the way — not only as the commander in chief of the Continental Army, and as president of the Philadelphia or Constitutional Convention — but as an exemplary gentleman and a champion of civility.

He was a leader in every sense of the word — a giant among men. 

In an 1814 letter to Walter Jones, Jefferson wrote an inspiring description of George Washington. These are excerpts from his letter: 

His mind was great and powerful . . . and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. . . he was incapable of fear . . . his integrity was most pure . . . in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, & a great man . . . on the whole, his character was, in its mass perfect, in nothing bad . . . and it may truly be said that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great . . . I felt on his death, with my countrymen, that ‘verily a great man hath fallen this day in Israel.’

It goes without saying that Washington’s accomplishments were monumental and historic. But it is notable how much of Washington’s greatness Jefferson attributes to his character.

Washington lived his life by a set of principles, many of which were based upon his “Rules of Civility” — rules that engendered trust and admiration. It is unsettling that Washington’s “Rules of Civility” have become something of a lost art in the public square, replaced by cynicism and a contagion of vicious incivility. Will our country survive the moral pandemic witnessed in modern-day politics, news outlets and social media? 

Our country desperately needs leaders like Washington whose example of civility helped overcome the political divisiveness of his day to unite the colonies. 

‘Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior’

At age 16, George Washington hand copied 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” which originated from a French etiquette manual written by Jesuits in 1595. 

Below are a few of the 110 rules of civility to provide a sense of the principles that helped shape Washington’s character and public manner and earn him the love and admiration of generations.

1. Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present.

19. Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave.

22. Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.

40. Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.

49. Use no reproachful language against any one neither curse nor revile.

58. Let your conversation be without malice or envy ...

59. Never express anything unbecoming, nor act against the rules moral before your inferiors.

65. Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest scoff at none although they give occasion.

89. Speak not evil of the absent for it is unjust.

110. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

Can you imagine the impact it would make in our country today if political debates and deliberations followed such lofty principles, and we could eliminate the corrosive divisiveness that has become pervasive in society?  

Divide and conquer

You have heard the Pogo quote “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It could be argued that the greatest threat to our country’s stability lies from within. 

Tradition attributes the origin of the “divide-and-conquer” battle strategy to Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. It is a scheming and successful battle tactic that is said to have been used through the centuries by numerous military strategists including Julius Caesar and Napoleon.

The cunning of the divide-and-conquer strategy is that it turns a nation’s strength against itself. It is achieved by sowing seeds of contention and creating insurrection and in-fighting. The enemy hardly needs to lift a finger as they mockingly watch their foe self-destruct from within.

We could say the opposite of divide-and-conquer is E. Pluribus Unum — Latin for “out of many, one” — which is written on the Great Seal of the United States and the principle that helped unite 13 very different colonies. The Constitutional Convention is a good case study illustrating how unity can be achieved through compromise; or of how common consent with differing opinions can be achieved in a civil manner.

We can agree to disagree without being disagreeable and find a wise and fair middle ground for all — for the common good.

In his last public speech, given in March of 1799, Patrick Henry said, 

“Let us trust God, and our better judgment to set us right hereafter. United we stand, divided we fall.” Or as the Good Book says, “If a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”

John Adams identified what he thought was the greatest threat to the new U.S. Constitution: 

“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

What foresight!

Being uncivil to others doesn’t define them, it defines us

“Language most shows a man: Speak, that I may see thee … No glass renders a man’s form or likeness so true as his speech.”  

As a rule, most people are civil and kind — most of the time. That is the normal side of their personality — the Doctor Jekyll side. Occasionally however, when under stress or when irritated or angered, the Mr. Hyde side emerges baring his ugly face. But a crisis doesn’t create Mr. Hyde, it simply reveals him. The test of a truly great person is how one acts under pressure in a crisis and in stressful situations. The great twentieth century author, C.S. Lewis, shares this wise insight on “rats in the cellar”: 

When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected: I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself. . . On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man: it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light.

Because none of us are perfect, we each have “rats in the cellar.”  It is painful for each of us to reflect on this quote attributed to the actor and comedian Groucho Marx: “If you speak when angry, you’ll give the most (memorable) speech you’ll ever regret.”

Consider Your Ways

For our public servants, and for each of us, it would be wise to “consider your ways” and to see how far we may have strayed from the example of the Founding Fathers. 

Like Washington, Franklin desired to pattern his life based upon a set of principles he believed would make him a better man and public servant.

In 1726, at age 20, Franklin had identified his “Plan of Conduct.” Two of the principles of civility he wanted to live by were: 

To endeavour to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action—the most amiable excellence in a rational being.

I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of everybody.

As we consider civility in our public discourse, consider these additional quotes by some of the other founders:

James Madison: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

Thomas Jefferson: “No government can continue good but under the control of the people … (who are) to be encouraged in habits of virtue and deterred from those of vice.”

Samuel Adams: “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue.”

John Adams: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality . . . Avarice, ambition, revenge . . . would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

These insights of the Founders are not only wise advice to maintain the stability of our country, but a warning that we cannot remain strong in the absence of virtue, morality, and civility. It is imperative that we return to our roots of civility. The Founders would never have reached consensus without them, and neither can we survive going forward without them. Our country is traversing a minefield of vile incivility and taking hits by “friendly fire” on every side. 

Whatever their faults and imperfections, and they were human just like us, there is hope in the legacy of civility left by our Founding Fathers. May their example inspire us, and especially our public servants, to be civil to one another — our future depends on it. 

Elder Lynn G. Robbins is an emeritus General Authority Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  

A shortened version of this story appears in the March issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.