George Washington’s Diagnosis Of Human Nature Should Inform Our Pandemic Response

George Washington’s Diagnosis Of Human Nature Should Inform Our Pandemic Response  By  for The Federalist

Appeals to the common good have always resurfaced when a problem arises in society, but difficulties emerge when different people have varied opinions about what to value.

Two men huddled against the cold on a dark night in January. Even in relative obscurity, the fresh snow reflected enough light to see the vapors of breathing, evidence of the bitter temperatures. But it was still too dim to see the shock on the shorter man’s face at what he had just heard.

“Mr. Dana, Congress does not trust me. I cannot go on thus.”

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The men were getting some fresh air after spending an evening having dinner and intense conversation about the course of the revolution and, by extension, the principles that would carry the young nation forward.

Part of a small delegation of men, Francis Dana had been sent from Congress to find good reason to fire the man in charge. Thousands of people had already died that winter at Valley Forge. However, the reason for the inquiry into Gen. George Washington’s leadership had less to do with loss of life and more to do with politics.

Yet at some point during that dinner at Valley Forge, Dana had been swayed by Washington’s reasoning. Yes, many died that winter, but something much larger was at stake. Addressing the significance of that moment, American historian Thomas Fleming wrote that Washington “was revising the basic philosophy of the American Revolution, as enunciated by college-educated ideologues such as John and Sam Adams.”

Washington Understood Human Nature

Washington’s argument during that pivotal evening is as relevant during today’s pandemic as it was that night. It was an argument for the soul of the American venture: that a revolution of freedom from tyranny was not just about principles and ideas, but about real lives and livelihood. In the report that Dana and the delegates carried back to Congress, Washington outlined his core argument (bold added for emphasis):

A small knowledge of human nature will convince us, that, with far the greatest part of mankind, interest is the governing principle; and that, almost, every man is more or less, under its influence. Motives of public virtue may for a time, or in particular instances, actuate men to the observance of a conduct purely disinterested; but they are not of themselves sufficient to produce a persevering conformity to the refined dictates and obligations of social duty. Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good. It is in vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account — the fact is so, the experience of every age and nation has proved it, and we must, in a great measure, ch⟨ange⟩ the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise. ⟨No⟩ institution, not built on the presumptive truth of these ma⟨xims,⟩ can succeed.

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