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Character Counts

We are a nation borne of character, specifically Washington's, on what can be considered the most important day in American History: March 15, 1783. The following speech is about 850 words. Seven minutes.  As always, it is offered without restrictions.

We learned in school that the Revolutionary War was won in October of 1781, when Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown. But it would be another two years until the British recognized our independence in the Treaty of Paris.

A year after Yorktown, things were in a mess. Most soldiers hadn't been paid in months, and a promise to pay officers a pension in lieu of unpaid salary was stalled in a Congress unable to raise the revenue even to pay the interest on the country's war debts. Some officers feared the army would be disbanded. Without pay. Without recognition of their sacrifices.  And leaving the country undefended against the British army that was still encamped in New York while treaty negotiations were underway in Paris.

It became known as the Newburgh Conspiracy. A group that probably included two of General Washington's top generals and members of congress (including a former officer named Alexander Hamilton) who favored a strong central government laid plans for a military coup that would disperse Congress and install Washington as head of state.

A meeting was called for March 15, when 500 angry officers crowded into the town hall at Newburgh, New York, where the army was encamped. Tensions were high. The room fell silent when Washington unexpectedly appeared through a side door and asked to speak. It turns out Washington had spent the previous day drafting a speech. He'd never been seen wearing spectacles but on this night he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair; to make sure his men heard every word. While he adjusted them, he looked out at the assembled officers and said: "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles for I have not only grown grey, but almost blind in the service of my country."

Remember that these officers were tough soldiers who survived a seven-year war.  Yet many began to weep as Washington read his remarks, in which he reminded everyone why they suffered and fought. He ended with this:

"And you will, by the dignity of your conduct, afford for posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to mankind: 'Had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.' ”

In other words: This is bigger than just you or me.

Washington left the room, and any plans for a conspiracy vanished with him. Instead the men pledged their loyalty to the Congress and to the nation.

Think about it: No one understood the fecklessness of the Confederation Congress better than Washington, who pleaded with them for seven years to adequately supply and pay his men. And now here he was, the unchallenged hero of the nation, with a chance to fix it all: take over, establish a central government and do things his way.

At the apex of his power, Washington demonstrated his greatness by surrendering his power.

No individual act in human history (other than the first-century preaching of a man from Galilee) has resulted in such far-reaching consequences.

That was the moment republican government finally took root in the world. Without Washington there would be no Constitution, no Bill of Rights, no United States. Not because of his brilliance or vision, but because of his character.

The boy scouts have a saying: Character Counts. The kids seem to get it. So should we.

Because, in the third century of the nation conceived by Washington's selfless act, everywhere we see the consequences of poor character in our politics. The national debt threatens our prosperity. Two-thirds of the typical state budget -- medicaid and education -- is out of control. In our towns, drivers suffer through a ruinous gauntlet of potholes and speed traps because local governments haven't the money to maintain the streets, and need your money to meet their payroll and pension obligations. Municipal bankruptcies are commonplace.

The blame rests on both sides of the political aisle. One side profits from the problem by accusing the other of "throwing grandma off the cliff" or "stealing your retirement" or "hurting our kids", when none is remotely true. The other side shrinks from the problem because they fear electoral power of these accusations. So the finger-pointing continues. And the problems worsen.

It takes character to speak the truth, to tell people what they don't want to hear.

It takes character to pick a fight with the powerful interests that dominate government. It takes character to follow Washington's example and conclude: If George Washington considered himself expendable, what does that say about me?

Just ask the Republicans in Wisconsin. They enacted modest reforms and stirred up a hornets' nest, forcing the governor, lieutenant governor and several legislators into painful, expensive recall elections in 2012. One legislator (a fellow from Racine named Van Wanggaard, who should be remembered as a hero) lost his seat but the others prevailed.

When Washington spoke to his men on that momentous night of March 15, 1783, he was also speaking to us through the ages:

The byproduct of Character is Respect. Where there's respect, there's leadership. And where's there's respected leadership, there's real Power.


Washington and slavery -- Usually when Washington's character is discussed, someone in the room will bring up his slaveholding. That because in the politically-correct backwaters of Hollywood and academia, we often hear that Washington's greatness is exaggerated because he owned slaves, and that slavery will forever remain a foul stain on our national character. A foul stain?  Does anyone remember that 350,000 Union soldiers died in the Civil War to end slavery? Slavery dominated American politics for most of the country's first century and the Constitution clearly represented a compromise on the issue. It was a compromise because slavery was widespread only in 6 of the13 original states. True, Washington owned slaves and in fact spent considerable effort re-capturing those who escaped. The surrender at Yorktown included about 500 escaped slaves under British protection; most were returned to their owners by Washington's men. However, Washington in his later years expressed some regret and revulsion over slavery, and in his will emancipated those he owned. He was the only one among the Virginia founding fathers to do so.