American Portraits

Under My Vine and Fig Tree: George Washington’s Resignation and Integrity

In this lesson, students will learn about the presidency of George Washington and how it was shaped by integrity. Through this example, students will learn how they can pursue integrity in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

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

Narrative

In the late spring of 1792, President George Washington sat down in Philadelphia to write a letter to Representative James Madison. He faced a momentous decision that would affect both his personal life as well as his young country. As he wrote frequently while commander of the Continental Army in 1783, he once again ardently wished to finish the rest of his days “on the banks of the Potomac, and under the shadow of my own Vine and my own Fig tree, free from…the busy scenes of public life.” He wished to resign after doing his duty for one term as president….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can the example of George Washington’s integrity inspire you to act with integrity in your life?

Virtue Defined

Integrity is personal consistency in moral goodness.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the presidency of George Washington and how it was shaped by integrity. Through this example, students will learn how they can pursue integrity in their own lives.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze George Washington’s actions while the President of the United States
  • Students will understand how acting with integrity can affect their purpose and identity
  • Students will apply this knowledge to the pursuit of integrity in their own lives.

Background

In 1789, George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the new nation after state conventions in 1787 and 1788 ratified the Constitution. Americans trusted Washington to hold the position of executive because of his character and humility.

Although republican political principles united Americans, they divided quickly over specific policies and laws. The assumption of state debts by the national government, the National Bank, and taxes were some of the domestic policies that split the new government into political parties. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, supported a more powerful central government while the Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson wanted most power to remain with the states.

The debate over foreign policy was even fiercer. The Federalists aligned themselves generally with the British while the Democratic-Republicans sided with the French during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of the 1790s and 1800s. They split over whether Washington could issue a Proclamation of Neutrality and whether the Jay Treaty adequately addressed British violations of American neutrality.

All of the partisan contentions gravely concerned President George Washington. He had a reputation for integrity and unifying the country around republican principles. He worried about the fate of the republic, fearing that the partisanship that was dividing the country would eventually tear it apart.

Vocabulary

  • Partisan
  • Contention
  • Farewell address
  • Precedents
  • Rooted
  • Harrowing
  • Lament
  • Approbation
  • Promulgated
  • Averred
  • Dissention
  • Animosity

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was George Washington?
  • Why did Washington choose to retire instead of staying in office until his death?
  • What do George Washington’s actions say about his personal integrity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Allen, William B. George Washington: A Collection. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988.
  • Brookhiser, Richard. Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. New York: Free Press, 1996.
  • Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2010.
  • Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Knopf, 2004.
  • Johnson, Paul. George Washington: The Founding Father. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.
  • Knott, Stephen F. and Tony Williams. Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America. Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2015.
  • Morrison, Jeffry H. The Political Philosophy of George Washington. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
  • Rhodehamel, John. George Washington: Writings. New York: Library of America, 1997.
  • Spalding, Matthew and Patrick J. Garrity. A Sacred Union of Citizens: George Washington’s Farewell Address. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield, 1996.

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