General George Washington’s Diagnosis: Should Inform Our Pandemic Response
2 men huddled against the dark on a 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 believe me. I cannot go on this.”
The men were out for some fresh air after spending an evening having intense conversation and dinner regarding the course of the revolution and, by extension. These principles would drive the young nation forward.
Part of a tiny delegation of men, Francis Dana, had been delivered from Congress to find a good reason to remove the man in charge.
Thousands of people had already passed away that winter at Valley Forge. However, the reason for the question into Gen. George Washington’s leadership had less to do with a loss of life and more to do with politics.
At a certain point during that supper at Valley Forge, Dana had been persuaded by Washington’s reasoning. Yes, many died that winter, but something much more significant was at stake. Directing the importance of that moment, American historian Thomas Fleming composed that Washington “was revising the fundamental 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 significant evening is as crucial 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.
Drives of Public Virtue may, for a time, actuate men to the observance of conduct purely disinterested. Still, they are not of themselves sufficient to generate a courageous conformity to the refined obligations and dictates of social duty. Several men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views advantage, or private interest, to the common good.
It is in vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account – the experience of every nation and age has proved it, and we must, in a great measure, change the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise. (No) an institution not built on the likely truth of these maxims can succeed.
Samuel Adams, like many of the educated thought-leaders of the American Revolution, thought real revolutionaries should be driven by “pure virtue,” without concern for the personal interest of owning property, or any expectation of potential benefit outside freedom itself, or making a living
While from an academic perspective, John Adams may be right that his cousin Samuel had “the most thorough understanding of liberty,” no less important to the equation was Washington’s understanding of human beings and what motivated them.
In our current national predicament, we face a different challenge than that which confronted the revolutionaries of the colonial United States. But some of the important elements remain the same: a common enemy, political intrigue, casualties, and at the center, a national conversation about the common good, public duty, and the conflict that arises among safety, freedom, and private interest.
In the midst of this struggle, Washington’s warning rings true: You may be able to get everyone to suspend personal responsibilities to the benefit of all for a short while, but people will inevitably be compelled to take care of the needs of themselves and their family.
To claim this behavior is selfish or ignorant is pointlessly cruel. It is human nature. To ignore this fact is disastrous to a nation’s future.
It is important to remember that our leaders’ response to the Wuhan virus, not the virus itself, created our disastrous economy.
Our response to the virus crisis has adjusted the zeitgeist of society’s core principles into the notion that we all should sacrifice our private interest for the common good. For this reason, worshipers are arrested and fined for going to church, mothers are arrested at playgrounds, weddings are covered by police officers, and dads are detained for playing catch with their children.