J. Scott Applewhite, AP
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer, becomes emotional as he finishes a day of testimony to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 27.

A weary nation watched as the exhausting theater of the bizarre continued to play out in the House Oversight Committee’s hearing featuring convicted felon Michael Cohen. His testimony included inflammatory statements about and alleged actions by businessman, candidate and now President Donald Trump. Members of the committee, from both parties, gave long, bloviating remarks that rarely contained truth-seeking questions, but instead were filled with demonizing political rhetoric.

Meanwhile, the world waits for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to conclude his long-running investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Through all of the political antics of late, officials have spent millions of dollars, lives have been ruined and Americans have lost trust in their institutions. Could any of this have been prevented? The founders of the nation would have said, "yes."

Two of the Founding Fathers, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, spent considerable time and effort to shed light on principles for developing character that might have changed the challenges faced today by Cohen, President Trump, the media, members of Congress and ultimately every American.

Consider this list of principles taken from Washington’s "Rules of Civility," which he penned when he was a teenager:

  • Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.
  • Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for 'tis a sign of a tractable and commendable nature, and in all causes of passion permit reason to govern.
  • Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest; scoff at none although they give occasion.
  • Think before you speak.
  • Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof.
  • In disputes, be not so desirous to overcome as not to give liberty to each one to deliver his opinion.
  • Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
  • Being to advise or reprehend any one, consider whether it ought to be in public or in private, and presently or at some other time.
  • Mock not nor jest at anything of importance.

That's sound advice for anyone wishing to remain on the proper side of the law, let alone for those striving to be an amiable, thoughtful leader.

Or consider this selection from Franklin's list of 13 virtues to develop personal character:

  • Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  • Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  • Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  • Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  • Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  • Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Though not without their faults, Washington and Franklin nevertheless came from an epoch where pursuing truth, developing character and seeking enlightenment guided the thought leaders of the day.

39 comments on this story

America needs more of that.

Numbing the conscience leads to poor choices, bad behavior and in some cases criminal activity. In an age of moral relativism, “situational ethics” and narcissistic justification for impropriety, it would do Americans well to review Washington's and Franklin's advice.

If nothing else, internalizing Washington’s final rule for civility ought to prevent any further Cohen-like character crises: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”