History, History Column

The Content of Character

©2017 Sarah Becker

The Content of Character





“It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy,” John McCain wrote with Alexandrian Mark Salter in Character is Destiny. “That is all that really passes for destiny. And you choose it.” McCain, a former Navy flier and maltreated prisoner of war, spent 5 ½ years in North Vietnamese prison camps including the “Hanoi Hilton.”

Romans 5:3-4, NIV Archaeological Study Bible: “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope…”

The Oxford dictionary defines character “as the collective qualities or characteristics, especially mental or moral that distinguish a person.” It is a quality associated with leadership. Author Bil Holten, Ph.D., describes character as “accelerated principle, underwritten by superior habits and polished by experience.”

Perhaps no one has investigated contemporary character more completely than Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Reviewing success literature published within the last 150 years, Covey found that “almost all the [early] literature focused on the Character Ethic—things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule.”

“In contrast,” Covey explained, “the success literature of the past 50 years was filled with social image consciousness, techniques and quick fixes.”

“Shortly after World War I the basic view of success shifted from the Character Ethic to the Personality Ethic,” Covey continued. “Success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviors, skills and techniques.”

Said Covey: “The Personality Ethic—personality growth, communication skill training, and education in the field of influence strategies and positive thinking—is secondary. Only basic goodness gives life to technique.”

One of the best examples of early success literature is Benjamin Franklin’s The Art of Virtue. It “is the story of one man’s effort to integrate certain principles and habits deep within his nature.” Franklin’s message, Covey fears, is mostly lost on younger generations.

“…it may be proper to observe that a good moral character is the first essential in a man,” President George Washington wrote nephew George Steptoe Washington in 1790. “Your conduct [at the college] may stamp your character through life. It is therefore highly important that you should endeavor not only to be learned but virtuous.”

“Acquiring the qualities of virtue requires consistent effort,” Franklin observed. “Pleasure, position, popularity, wealth and appearance are among the whistles in life…for which many people pay too much.” Franklin considered character and integrity to be one.

“…I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man,” General George Washington wrote Alexander Hamilton in 1788.

Proverbs 24:26: “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips.”

“The satisfaction arising from the indulgent opinion entertained by the American People of my conduct, will, I trust, be some security for preventing me from doing any thing, which might justly incur the forfeiture of that opinion,” President George Washington told the Bishops, Clergy, and Laity of the Protestant Episcopal Church of New York in August 1789. “And the consideration that human happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected, will always continue to prompt me to promise the progress of the former, by inculcating the practice of the latter.”

“[Recent] success literature tends to compartmentalize [character] rather than recognize it as foundational and catalytic,” Covey concluded.

Management expert Jim Collins divides leaders into two categories: clock makers and time tellers. The latter are people whose achievements are timed to market cycles. The former are successful leaders Built to Last. Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick stopped the clock when George Washington died, yet two hundred years later the clock maker’s legacy continues.

“One of the most admirable aspects of Washington’s character was his sense of humility,” James Rees wrote in George Washington’s Leadership Lessons. “In today’s celebrity-driven society, is anyone ever given credit for dignified modesty?”

Character is what makes a person outstanding. Unlike promotional strategies character is born within, of substance. It constantly radiates.

Said General Winfield Scott of Captain Robert E. Lee: he was “gallant and indefatigable,” his “physical and moral courage the greatest.”

It is the determination to succeed that yields results. Not process. Character is a prerequisite for leadership and neither Washington nor Lee’s endurance failed them.

“One’s true happiness,” Franklin penned, “depends more upon one’s own judgment of one’s own self…than upon the applause of the unthinking.” To what extent are self-respect and self-control part of your persona?

“We now stand an Independent People, and have yet to learn political Tactics,” General George Washington wrote The Marquis de Lafayette. “We are placed among the Nations of the Earth, and have a character to establish; but how we shall acquit ourselves time must discover.”

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character,” The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., told a gathering of civil rights activists in 1963. British author Charles Dickens satirized “the ludicrous side of the American character” in Martin Chuzzlewit in 1844. The British Empire ended colonial slavery in 1833.

“In America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character—on integrity and tolerance towards others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives,” President George W. Bush said in his 2005 Inaugural address. “The edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained by…the varied faiths of our people.”

“George Washington imprinted his character on his nation, and in that sense we are all his descendants, a people famous for our constant struggle to improve,” McCain and Salter concluded.

Visit George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate this holiday season, www.mountvernon.org.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com.

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