A Lesson About Duty from General George Washington

By Katie Lebert, The Washington Papers

Recently, someone contacted the Washington Papers for help with locating a specific document. They were looking for a letter in which George Washington explained why patriotism was not enough to win the Revolutionary War. Fair payment for the men who fought was also needed:

“We must take the passions of Men, as nature has given them, and those principles as a guide, which are generally the rule of action. I do not mean to exclude altogether the idea of patriotism. I know it exists, and I know it has done much in the present contest. But I will venture to assert, that a great and lasting War can never be supported on this principle alone—It must be aided by a prospect of interest or some reward. For a time it may, of itself, push men to action—to bear much—to encounter difficulties; but it will not endure unassisted by interest.”

If the notion of self-interested soldiers did not strike his correspondent as elegant, it was because Washington’s thoughts on the subject were influenced by prudent practicality: Washington knew he could not win the war on faith alone.

Yet, when reading these words, I was still yearning for that notion of greatness, that sentiment which outstrips any one individual’s desires and self-interest. It was not until I viewed a recently released documentary on George Washington that I realized this commitment to practicality was only one part of the General’s leadership style.

On May 20, Research Editor Alicia K. Anderson and I had the privilege to attend the premiere of The First American, a documentary produced by Gingrich Productions. Premiering a little more than a week before Memorial Day, the documentary thoughtfully renewed that sentiment I was looking for—the sense of purposeful duty.

The First American 
primarily focused on Washington’s role in the Revolutionary War, encouraging reflection on Washington’s extraordinary persistence in fighting and leading despite hardships and failures.3 But it was one specific instance that provoked my deeper appreciation for Washington as a leader who could balance noble ideals and everyday practicality.

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