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.”
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.
Samuel Adams, like many of the highly educated thought-leaders of the American Revolution, believed true revolutionaries should be motivated by “pure virtue,” without concern for the personal necessities of making a living, owning property, or any expectation of potential benefit outside freedom itself. While from an academic perspective, John Adams may be correct 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 reaction to the health crisis has shifted the zeitgeist of society’s core principles into the notion that we all should sacrifice our personal interests for the common good. For this reason, worshipers are fined and arrested for going to church, mothers are arrested at playgrounds, weddings are broken up by police officers, and dads are handcuffed for playing catch with their children.
What Is the Common Good?
Appeals to the common good have always resurfaced when a problem arises in society. Monarchs, governments, and dictators have long used “the common good” as a rallying cry to unanimity. Experts, epidemiologists, academics, and social commentators everywhere claim our most fundamental societal problems arise from too much individual interest and not enough widespread dedication to the common good. But difficulties emerge when different people have varied opinions about what to value and what conditions represent the common good.
In 2020, many Americans have sacrificed for the so-called common good, willingly or not. More than 30 million people have filed for unemployment in the last six weeks. The equivalent of every job created in the last 10 years has been eliminated. Domestic abuse is skyrocketing. Alcohol and substance abuse are growing. Child abuse is rising rapidly. More people are committing suicide, and more people will “covidivorce.” We are giving everything, and it is taking everything from us.
But on a frigid winter in the middle of the American Revolution, 18 miles from the enemy, Washington and his ragged crew fought for a different idea: Perhaps the common good was best supported by individual rights and interests. If what is most important is that people have the right to pursue their livelihood, feed their children, pay their bills, speak their mind, gather with others, and worship as their conscience dictates, then that individual liberty actually contributes to the best society.
Nearly 10 years later, Washington finally had the opportunity to confirm the opinions he had broached around a late-night dinner table. But before signing the Constitution, he spoke for his first time at the assembly, expressing his wish that amendments be eventually included for a Bill of Rights that would ensure personal freedoms.
After the signing, Washington later wrote in his diary, “[T]he members adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together and took a cordial leave of each other.” Perhaps this is exactly what we all should do right now.