Not Naive

In January 1789, the newly elected President George Washington wrote to his dear friend, Marquis de Lafayette, the following words.

While you are quarreling among yourselves in Europe – while one King is running mad – and other acting as if they were already so, but cutting the throats of the subjects of their neighbours; I think you need not doubt, My Dear Marquis we shall continue in tranquility here – And that population will be progressive so long as there shall continue to be so many easy means for obtaining a subsistence, and so ample a field for the exertion of talents and industry.

Washington, like so many of his countrymen, saw the American abundance of land and resources as a way to ensure the avoidance of foreign chaos, specifically the chaos that derives from overcrowding and the ills such chaos inspires. He wrote, “I see a path, as clear and as direct as a ray of light…Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry, and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people.”[1]

Men like Washington felt strongly that certain key moral principles would flourish in a land as abundantly blessed as America. As a leader of men for most of his adult life, he would not have been blind to the tendencies of human nature, but clearly he believed that those men dedicated to “industry and frugality” would prevail over those who sought slothful pursuits.  The United States was predominantly agrarian during those early years. Commerce, especially the trade of raw materials for finished goods, may have dominated the sea side areas of the new nation, but industrialization had not yet lured workers from the fields and into cities. Subsistence farming was still both the predominant occupation and an occupation that did not tolerate slothful pursuits. Washington was able to envision generations of “tranquility” rather than the chaos that derived from congested cities and limited resources. However, he was not naive to the realities of human nature; he simply could not foresee how quickly the world would change once industrialization took hold.

[1] George Washington, George Washington: Writings, vol. 91, Library of America (New York: Library of America, 1997), 717 – 718.

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