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July 3, 2008

Self-Command and Self-Denial: The Moral Compass of George Washington

by Dave Malnes

When we think of George Washington we  picture a frozen-faced portrait seen on paintings and depicted in statues. We tend to view him as one being larger than life — even faultless.

In  “Washington’s War,” an article written by Marvin Olasky, he makes the point that what is most impressive about Washington was his ability to fight off the strong impulses and opportunities to make wrong choices in life. His strength of character allows him to carry out a great task that goes way beyond his self.

In his early years, Washington gained the reputation of being a womanizer with the moniker, “Stallion of the Potomac.” He had eyes on several young ladies and wrote them many heart-felt sonnets. Later, in his early twenties, he admired a young married woman by the name of Sally Fairfax. He stopped this courtship by marrying a recently widowed Martha Custis — a marriage that lasted for 41 years.

“Washington became known not for being passionless but for refusing to give in to his passions.” He had a handkerchief in his possession that bore the inscription “self-command and self-denial.” He demanded the same from the group of men he formed to be his soldiers. He made sure there was no cursing or swearing out of respect for God’s providence and even demanded the appointment of chaplains to assist in the spiritual welfare of his troops.

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Washington knew that he needed to have tough standards. He needed to instill within his largely volunteer army that this was a holy cause and only those who were totally committed could make the effort successful.

Olasky drew a stark contrast to conduct of the military leaders of the British army. General Howe seemed much more interested in his mistress than the affairs of war. There was even a song circulating that implored Howe to “leave your little filly and open the campaign.”

The First Lord of the Admirality, John Montagu, was a notorious womanizer and regularly took bribes. British Secretary of State George Sackville-Germain, who was responsible for the land war in America, seemed to be pre-occupied in a homosexual affair than military matters. There were also rumors of immorality among other leading generals of the British army followed by promotions of unworthy commanders based on unscrupulous decisions.

Maybe a person might suggest that it wasn’t necessarily American winning a war, but England going to great lengths to lose it.

After the war, Washington was revered by the general public. His next great battle was with his ego. During this time his church attendance switched from being erratic to being quite regular. Perhaps this was in response to a battle that he knew he wouldn’t be able to overcome on his own – his pride. Again, a response to the message inscribed on the handkerchief, “self-command and self-denial.” This certainly could be a phrase that all of us could claim as our own.

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