George Washington was an avid theater-goer, and he was very clear about his favorite plays – Thomas Brinsley Sheridan’s “School for Scandal” (1777), for instance, was a work he prized above others for its wit, but Joseph Addison’s “Cato: A Tragedy” (1713) was his all-time favorite. Washington’s speeches and letters are recurrent with citations to passages of this, Addison’s magnum opus. And among them figure these lines in act IV, curiously important to a man whose career was marked so heavily by generous and self-denying public service:
When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway,
The post of honour is a private station.
The lines reflect an ancient Roman’s sense of virtue. Public service was the high path of any career, but a virtuous man should take care to refrain from offering his services at a time when the power of the state is held by men of poor moral character.
For Washington, the idea of Republic was a sort of solution to the dilemma of the bad ruler. A professional civil service would owe its allegiance not to an autocratic ruler, but to a Republican ideal—just as impractical old Cato preferred death and service to the Republic to Caesar’s offer of clemency and life coupled with acceptance of the rule of the dictator. As Washington said in his famous letter to Edmund Randolph of September 1789, it was vital that those selected for civil service be chosen purely on the basis of their merits, without regard to personal sentiment or attachment.
The process we see underway in America today is the subversion of that precept of our Republic. And what must in all likelihood follow is precisely what Washington foresaw: the best among us will disdain public service and turn from it, just as John McKay and David Iglesias predicted in their appearance yesterday at the University of Seattle Law School. The betrayal by the attorney general and his coterie thus amounts to a double blow. O tempora, o mores.