George Washington’s legacy invites many reasons for reflection on the anniversary of his birth, not the least being the exhortations he made to his fellow citizens in the early days of the republic.
One such exhortation was Washington’s challenge to take civic education seriously. It was a recurring theme in his public addresses to Congress, beginning with his first message delivered in the Senate Chamber of Federal Hall in New York City in 1790. The points Washington made then about education and democracy, knowledge and citizenship, are well worth reconsidering today, over two centuries later.
“Knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness,” Washington said in that first address. “In one in which the measures of government receive their impression so immediately from the sense of the community as in ours, it is proportionably essential.” In other words, education is universally important, Washington was arguing, but in a self-governing society where the people rule, it is indispensable.
Washington then presented a detailed description of the kind of education that is essential to “the security of a free constitution”—what we would call civic education. To begin with, he said, we should focus on “convincing those who are entrusted with the public administration, that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people.”
But it’s not just the people who serve in public office who need a framework for thinking, Washington added. Every American ought to be a thinking citizen. According to America’s first president, every American should be equipped to think about six things (I have added numbers in brackets):
 to know and to value their own rights;
 to discern and provide against invasions of them;
 to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority;
 between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience, and those resulting from the inevitable exigences of society;
 to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness—cherishing the first, avoiding the last;
 uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws.
We should pay attention to the words Washington chose to use: “know,” “value,” “discern,” and “distinguish.” In his mind, and in the minds of other Founders, citizenship requires a constant pursuit of learning.
To advance a “free constitution,” and to advance “public happiness,” we need a certain kind of reasoning knowledge. Washington was saying that the formation of intellectual capital is indispensable to citizenship, that there are certain things citizens should know, certain habits of mind that they should be prepared for, and certain realizations that are essential to the health of the republic.
When we consider the kinds of civic knowledge all citizens should possess, we might think first about certain facts—the three branches of government, how many members sit in Congress, how a bill becomes a law. There is no question that we should know these things as citizens. But the civic knowledge George Washington described went beyond factual knowledge—he was talking about the “why” of civics.
For a statesman-general like Washington, deep reflection about freedom was essential. He left the home he loved for years at a time to serve in the face of death on a battlefield. He knew what it meant to fight tyranny, to choose liberty, and to stand for good at the risk of everything he held dear. And Washington did it all for an idea—that every person is “created equal.”
Washington also understood the moral dimension of humanity. During the Revolution, he experienced the baseness of the human heart—consider Benedict Arnold’s betrayal—but also the human spirit’s positive resilience—crossing the Delaware River in the dead of winter. Subsequently, Washington could not call for a morally neutral civic education. Rather, he taught his countrymen that the fate of the American nation is bound up in the difference between moral right and moral wrong, freedom and tyranny.
Washington was unrelenting in his work to promote civic education. From his first address in 1790 to his final message to Congress in 1796, civic education was his constant theme. Civic education also prompted Washington’s emphasis on the need for a national university. Though it has never materialized, the purposes Washington expressed for such an institution remain as relevant in our day as they were in 1796. “A primary object of such a national institution should be, the education of our youth in the science of government,” Washington argued, before posing the question: “In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important?”
The principles of the American Founding are not artifacts of the past. And they are not mere abstractions. In the self-evident truths Washington fought for, we can find a practical guide to how we relate to one another, how we find our place in the world, and how we govern ourselves in the 21st century. Reading George Washington’s agonizing letters about the weighty moral decisions he had to make at critical junctures is inspirational for any American, even 250 years after the fact. Washington was a man of action in our history if ever there was one, but he was a man who gave serious thought to his actions. He shows us by example what it is to be a thinking citizen.
Today, we need a new generation of thinking citizens, in our schools, workplaces, public institutions and voluntary organizations. In America, this is not merely an option—rather, it is a necessity, if we hope to preserve our republic. Civic education is thus a concern and a responsibility for each one of us: Each one of us can, and each of us must, answer Washington’s call to “the security of a free constitution.”
Hans Zeiger is president of the Jack Miller Center, a nationwide network of scholars and teachers dedicated to advancing the core texts and ideas of the American political tradition.
Image: George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait), Gilbert Stuart, 1796. (National Portrait Gallery)
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