Washington the Thinker
General. President. Philosopher?


Was America’s greatest general and first president also a political philosopher? Regent University professor Jeffry H. Morrison says yes, in his just-published book, The Political Philosophy of George Washington. He recently took questions from NRO’s John J. Miller. 

JOHN J. MILLER: George Washington was a lot of things — a general, a president, a symbol of hope and inspiration for people with wooden teeth — but was he also an intellectual? Did he actually develop a political philosophy?

JEFFRY H. MORRISON: He was and he did, though it sounds a little highfalutin to put it that way. Washington developed a simple but coherent and consistent political philosophy — for example, nonpartisanship and cooperation of church and state at home, neutrality abroad — during his half-century public career. He wasn’t in the same class as Jefferson or John Adams in terms of education or intellectual horsepower. But even Jefferson ranked Washington’s Farewell Address with The Federalist Papers as one of the best texts of American political principle — texts he wanted taught in law classes at his University of Virginia, by the way. 

MILLER: Didn’t James Madison and Alexander Hamilton have a hand in writing the Farewell Address?

MORRISON: They did, and so did John Jay — coincidentally the three authors of The Federalist Papers. But Washington was clearly the superintending intelligence behind the address. He owned every idea in it, and he made plenty of changes to the various drafts, deleting and adding language of his own. 

MILLER: Have scholars downplayed the philosophical side of Washington? Why?

MORRISON: They did for many years, though in the last generation scholars have shown an increasing appreciation of Washington’s mind. Washington was very self-deprecating, and that didn’t help his reputation. He was always embarrassed by his lack of formal education — he never went to college. But, of course, you can have an excellent mind without a lot of schooling. Washington actually had a keen practical intelligence, it was just untutored. 

MILLER: What books influenced Washington’s thinking?

MORRISON: Seneca’s Morals, Joseph Addison’s Cato and Spectator essays, and to a surprising degree, the Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Washington didn’t have time to become a bookish person, but he was a self-educator, and he read when he could. Judging from the way he wrote, those are some of the things he did read and internalize. 

MILLER: Sophisticated people laughed at George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign when he cited Jesus as his favorite philosopher. Would Washington have cackled, too?

MORRISON: No, he would not have cackled. But I think he would have been puzzled. George Bush is a 21st-century Evangelical; Washington was an 18th-century nominal Anglican (and Stoic), and those cultures are very different. Contemporary Evangelicals have an intensely personal relationship with Jesus and they verbalize it. Anglicans of Washington’s day were more restrained. And besides, Jesus himself said, “my kingdom is not of this world” — not the sort of thing one might expect a political philosopher to say. So our first “George W.” probably would not have cited Jesus that way.  

MILLER: And what’s the deal with Cato? This play was very important to Washington. How come nobody ever stages it nowadays?

MORRISON: It’s a tragedy, and Americans prefer happy Hollywood endings. Also, Cato’s virtues are of the self-denying sort — he kills himself rather than submit to Caesar’s tyranny — and they don’t fit our consumer culture. And, though it has violence, there’s no sex in it.  


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