What I Learned In Washington D.C.

Last fall, my wife and I decided that this summer we’d take a family vacation to Washington D.C. So we recently loaded the 4 kids into the minivan and began our trek that included a stop in Canton, OH to see the NFL Hall of Fame. Arriving in D.C. on July 1, we packed in as much as possible in the five days we were there.

I was really surprised by how much my kids enjoyed the trip. While some of them predictably said that their favorite attraction was the Spy Museum, they less predictably enjoyed the tours through the White House and Capitol, loved going up in the Washington Monument, and even liked seeing the original copies of Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Constitution. While I probably was most affected by the Holocaust Museum (I think that’s due in part to having just finished Hunting Eichmann–a book that I definitely recommend), my wife most enjoyed Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington’s home in Virgina.

I can see why. Waking around Mount Vernon, I couldn’t help but be impressed with George Washington the man. First there was his hospitality: He and Martha entertained countless guests at their home including strangers. Second was his humility: Against the wishes of many of his contemporaries who wanted to make him king, he resigned his commission as general of the continental armies. Third was his commitment to his roots: A crypt was prepared in the basement of the capitol for Washington’s body but he refused the offer making it clear in his will that he wanted to be buried at Mount Vernon next to Martha.

And then just this week, David Brooks wrote about Washington and dignity in the New York Times (I believe it was the most widely read story in the history of the Times website). Here is how it starts…

When George Washington was a young man, he copied out a list of 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Some of the rules in his list dealt with the niceties of going to a dinner party or meeting somebody on the street.

“Lean not upon anyone,” was one of the rules. “Read no letter, books or papers in company,” was another. “If any one come to speak to you while you are sitting, stand up,” was a third.

But, as the biographer Richard Brookhiser has noted, these rules, which Washington derived from a 16th-century guidebook, were not just etiquette tips. They were designed to improve inner morals by shaping the outward man. Washington took them very seriously. He worked hard to follow them. Throughout his life, he remained acutely conscious of his own rectitude.

In so doing, he turned himself into a new kind of hero. He wasn’t primarily a military hero or a political hero. As the historian Gordon Wood has written, “Washington became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”

I was re-impressed and re-inspired by the people and ideals that founded our country. But by itself, I don’t think that’s an entirely appropriate Christian response. More on that next week.

Thanks for reading.

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