Washington, D.C. — Congress is currently scrutinizing the family of Donald Trump for interactions with a hostile foreign government, and that should disturb all Americans.
So much has transpired since the surprise election of Trump that it is easy to forget the principles of meritocracy on which our country was founded.
Our nation’s Founding Fathers envisioned a government staffed with educated, often self-taught persons possessed of talents matched to the needs of the new nation. They were to guide a new republic, which was preferable to the flawed oligarchies and monarchies, which dominated Europe.
During my writing of Riding with George: Sportsmanship & Chivalry in the Making of America’s First President, I learned why our first president came to object to the idea of “blood ties” in government.
For Washington, the idea of an American meritocracy, which would exclude any form of favoritism, particularly nepotism, was grounded in his own unusual 18th Century experiences.
Though he was not born into one of Virginia’s so-called “First Families,” George’s mother, Mary, insisted that through decent and genteel behavior, her young son could gain acceptance across society and in elite circles. George’s chances for a solid formal education in England fell to wayside when he was just eleven years old with the death of his father. However, his interest in manners and chivalry persisted.
He followed his mother Mary’s and older half-brother Lawrence’s advice closely, studying proper comportment and fair play. He also had a lucky break when the British peer, Lord Thomas Fairfax and his extended family took young George under their wing and helped polish his manners and sportsmanship as he aimed for a career in the service of the Crown.
After several brushes with death in the French and Indian War, where he saw American frontiersmen outperform well-trained British officers, young Washington married Martha Custis, one of the wealthiest widows in Virginia.
Although all may have been “fair in love and war,” Washington did not come to see it that way in politics where individual talent was essential to create a new nation.
During the Revolutionary War, General Washington encouraged the Continental Army to read and listen to the lines made famous in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which cautioned against the venality of inherited power and monarchical habits.
After Washington had achieved outright fame, he dismissed his relatives' petitions for favors by explaining that all men needed to earn their standing through their own character and accomplishments in life.
To the future Supreme Court justice Bushrod Washington, his nephew, Uncle George wrote that even if he could have helped him attain a senior legal post he aspired to in Virginia, he would not do so for “kin.”
In this case, Bushrod had merely asked for a favor from his favorite uncle. He was the son of George’s full brother, John Augustine, my direct relative, whose side of the family would inherit Washington’s cherished home at Mount Vernon.
Later in life, and with no children of his own, George Washington was, in many ways, the best and most credible Founder to promote an American meritocracy, which he did consistently throughout his public service.
Before taking office in his first term, from his home at Mount Vernon, he wrote to a close friend Benjamin Harrison in 1789 that our head of state should “discharge [his] duties with the impartiality and zeal of public good, which ought never to suffer connections of blood and friendship to intermingle.” He added that nominations and appointments should never be made in line with motivations based on “amity and blood.”
Washington’s adamancy is still relevant, but such are the troubles we now face in the city of his name on the Potomac, that even President Trump’s fellow Republicans are now calling on him to reconsider his early decisions to elevate his family members into prominent positions within the White House.
Even when family members, like his daughter Ivanka, are diligent and focused on important causes, including the elevation of women in commerce and politics, their participation in the Trump Administration raises eyebrows and rightfully so.
The White House should be run by elected officials serving the public good, not a regal coterie of “First Family” members with extensive business interests abroad.
More disturbing, however, are the implications of how Mr. Trump’s own son and son-in-law may have assisted malevolent Russian designs to pervert our democracy.
At a minimum, we know that Donald Trump Jr. expressed glee at the possibility of gaining Russian help. Meanwhile Jared Kushner, Ivanka's husband, sits in a presidential advisory role normally reserved for the most devoted and seasoned public servants.
As President Trump attempts to clean up a mess of his own making, George Washington’s caution against blood ties in government still stands as a useful guide for all government leaders.
For one, Washington preferred the notion of an “even playing field” for men and women of merit to rise in society and enter into higher service -- a belief consistent with his own rise in as a young officer, attributable for the most part to his aplomb and bravery under fire.
In that vein, Washington refused to help even his talented and well educated relatives to obtain appointments because he knew that granting them was both wrong and would unleash accusations of favoritism, including nepotism.
Above all, Washington valued the national ideal of a meritocracy, and set an example that can and should still shine in the marble corridors of American power.
Philip Smucker is a Fellow at the National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon and also a fifth-great grandnephew of George Washington.