Heroes and Villains

George Washington and Self-Governance

A look at the virtue of self-governance through the life of George Washington. Self-governance is defined as being self-controlled, avoiding extremes, and to not be excessively influenced or controlled by others. This lesson explores how George Washington’s self-governance influenced the early republic and how it influences what we value in both citizens and leaders.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Suggested Launch Activity

CENTRAL QUESTIONS: How did George Washington’s self-governance influence the early republic? How did it influence what we value in both citizens and leaders?

Before class, post pictures of the Jean-Antoine Houdon sculpture of George Washington and of the John Trumbull painting of General Washington resigning his commission.

Separate the class into two groups. Distribute Close-Reading Washington in Houdon’s Art to one group, and Close-Reading Washington in Trumbull’s Art to the other group.

Have students work in pairs or trios to analyze their assigned work of art using the questions provided.

Once students have completed their analyses, post a photo of the sculpture and invite the students who close-read it to explain it to the students who did not study it. Invite additional observations from other students. Do the same with the Trumbull painting.

Introduce this definition of self-governance: To be self-controlled, avoiding extremes and to not be excessively influenced or controlled by others.

Transition to the George Washington and Self-Governance narrative by asking: Given what you have “read” in this sculpture and this painting, how did George Washington’s character influence the early U.S. republic? How did it influence what our society values in its citizens as well as its leaders?

About Launch Activities

The optional introductory activity above is designed to support you in the classroom. However, the primary narratives and photos in the section that follows can be used with or without this introduction.

Lesson Background

It was 1783, and George Washington’s troops were stationed at Newburgh, New York. At this late stage of the conflict, Congress was flat-out broke, and the army had not been paid for months….

Essay PDF


Excerpts from Washington’s Farewell Address, Class Activity
An optional class activity variation: Make a set of cards in one color, with one civic virtue on each card. Make another set of cards in a second color, with one constitutional principle on each card. Duplicate some constitutional principles so that you have the same number of cards in each set, and make enough cards for each student to have one.

Conduct an “inside-outside circle” activity. Students form two concentric circles with the inner circle facing out, and the outer circle facing in. Two “matched up” students (one inner circle, one outer) show each other their cards and explain how that civic virtue and constitutional principle relate to each other. Then, the outer circle rotates clockwise one person while the inner circle stays in the same position. Repeat the process until the circle has made a full rotation and each student has had at least one “match-up” conversation.

Sources and Further Reading

Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Vintage, 2005.

Leibiger, Stuart. Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.

Washington, George. “Farewell Address.” September 19, 1796

Washington, George. George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior. N.p.: CreateSpace Independent Platform, 2013.

Virtue Across the Curriculum

Below are corresponding literature and film suggestions to help you teach this virtue across the curriculum. A sample prompt has been provided for the key corresponding work, and you are encouraged to create your own prompts for other suggested works.

“If” by Rudyard Kipling
How does the author define manhood? Are these qualities important only for men?

Emma by Jane Austen
“Go Forth to Life” by Samuel Longfellow
Henry IV, part 1 by William Shakespeare
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Rediscovering George Washington directed by Michael Pack, narrated by Richard Brookhiser
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

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