As a history major, I am intrigued by the origins of our great country. George Washington is a logical place to start.
On Presidents' Day, we celebrate his and Abraham Lincoln's February birthdays. But what do we really know about this Founding Father who led our country through the Revolutionary War?
In 2002, Stephen Kinzer wrote in the New York Times: "By comparing textbooks used in the 1960s with those of today, researchers at Mount Vernon [Washington's home in Virginia] have concluded that Washington is now accorded just 10 percent of the space he had then."
This is a shame, because, besides many other reasons, some of the business lessons that Washington espoused are still relevant today. He was the definition of a pragmatist. He was very practical and had a straightforward, matter-of-fact approach. He was always focused on reaching a goal.
He was incredibly smart and shrewd. As commander-in-chief of the American forces, Washington refused a regular salary and worked for expenses only. When offered the U.S. presidency, he volunteered to work for expenses again — but this time Congress insisted he have a fixed salary.
Among his writings was this advice to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, on Jan. 15, 1783: "Be courteous to all, but intimate with few; and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence. True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation. Let your heart feel for the afflictions and distress of every one, and let your hand give in proportion to your purse, remembering … that it is not everyone that asketh that deserveth charity; all, however, are worthy of the inquiry, or the deserving may suffer."
And to Gen. William Woodford, he wrote: "Be strict in your discipline; that is, to require nothing unreasonable of your officers and men, but see that whatever is required be punctually complied with. Reward and punish every man according to his merit, without partiality or prejudice; hear his complaints, if well founded, redress them; if otherwise, discourage them, in order to prevent frivolous ones. Discourage vice in every shape, and impress upon the mind of every man, from the first to the lowest, the importance of the cause, and what it is they are contending for."
His leadership lessons are worth noting also.
One reason the U.S. Congress has two houses can be found in the following conversation attributed to Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, who did not attend the Constitutional Convention, was not happy with the proposed bicameral system for the legislative branch of the new government. During a visit to Washington at his home, Jefferson argued for the French unicameral system, one legislative house.
After much discussion around the tea table, Washington turned sharply to Jefferson and said, "You, sir, have just demonstrated by your own hand the superior excellence of the bicameral system."
"How is that?" asked Jefferson.
"You just poured your tea from your cup into its saucer to cool. In the same manner, we want the bicameral system to cool things. A measure originates in one house, and in heat is passed. The other house will serve as a wonderful cooler, and by the time it is debated and modified by various amendments, it is much more likely to become an equitable law. No, we can't get along without the saucer in our system."
Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.