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George Washington and Self-Governance

100 min

Guiding Questions

  • How did George Washington’s self- governance influence the early republic?
  • How did it influence what we value in both citizens and leaders? 


  • Students will understand what self-governance means.  
  • Student will know how George Washington incorporated self-governance in early American government. 
  • Students will describe how this idea of self-governance has an impact on the world today. 

  • Contribution
  • Courage
  • Humility
  • Integrity
  • Justice
  • Perseverance
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Self-Governance


Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Vintage, 2005.

Leibiger, Stuart. Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.

Washington, George. “Farewell Address.” September 19, 1796

Washington, George. George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior. N.p.: CreateSpace Independent Platform, 2013.

Have students read Self-Governance: George Washington and Self-Governance Essay, and have students read the Excerpts from Washington’s Farewell Address (found on the Virtue in Action Class Activity worksheet.) 

Before class, post pictures of the Jean-Antoine Houdon sculpture of George Washington and of the John Trumbull painting of General Washington resigning his commission. 

Separate the class into two groups. Distribute Close-Reading Washington in Houdon’s Art to one group, and Close-Reading Washington in Trumbull’s Art to the other group. 

Have students work in pairs or trios to analyze their assigned work of art using the questions provided. 

Once students have completed their analyses, post a photo of the sculpture and invite the students who close-read it to explain it to the students who did not study it. Invite additional observations from other students. Do the same with the Trumbull painting. 

Introduce this definition of self-governance: To be self-controlled, avoiding extremes and not to be excessively influenced or controlled by others. 

Transition to the George Washington and Self-Governance narrative by asking: Given what you have considered in this sculpture and this painting, how did George Washington’s character influence the early U.S. republic? How did it influence what our society values in its citizens as well as its leaders? 

Activity 1 (30 minutes)

Working in groups of 2 – 4, students talk through the Discussion Guide Questions accompanying the George Washington and Self-Governance Essay. Instruct each small group to select up to 3 questions that they think are most important for whole-class discussion in light of the significance of civic virtue in a republic. After students have had a chance to talk through all the questions, take a quick poll to identify which questions the class as a whole is most interested in discussing. Then invite the whole class to weigh in on their responses to the most-recommended questions.

Activity 2 (30 minutes)

Divide the students into 3 groups and ask each group to focus on one of the three pages of the Farewell Address excerpts (Virtue in Action Class Activity). Each group should talk through their specific assigned section of the Farewell Address, using the Critical Thinking Questions.

Reconvene the class as a whole. Ask each of the three groups to report their answer to Critical Thinking Question #3: Which civic virtue and constitutional principle was most apparent in their section of the Farewell Address? 

Keep notes on the board list in the virtues and principles students identify. 

Engage the whole class in a discussion of the last question on the page: In what way are the civic virtuewe’ve identified an important part of maintaining a form of government based, in part, on that particular constitutional principle?  

Option 1: Self-Governance Writing Prompt 

Provide this prompt for a writing exercise that encourages students to make a personal application of the big ideas in this lesson: Self-governance integrates self-reliance and moderation. What relationship do you see between individual self-governance and political self-government? In what ways can you govern yourself to ensure the success of American self-government?


Option 2: Performance based assignment 

Students will produce a performance-based assignment (PowerPoint, poster, video, etc.of their own choice showing their understanding of the essential question: How did George Washington’s self- governance influence the early republic? How did it influence what we value in both citizens and leaders?

Excerpts from Washington’s Farewell Address, class activity variation (for students who have some prior background in constitutional principles): 

  • Make a set of cards in one color, with one civic virtue on each card. Make another set of cards in a second color, with one constitutional principle on each card. Duplicate some constitutional principles so that you have the same number of cards in each set, and make enough cards for each student to have one. 
  • Conduct an “inside-outside circle” activity. Students form two concentric circles with the inner circle facing out, and the outer circle facing in. Two “matched up” students (one inner circle, one outer) show each other their cards and explain how that civic virtue and constitutional principle relate to each other. Then, the outer circle rotates clockwise one person while the inner circle stays in the same position. Repeat the process until the circle has made a full rotation and each student has had at least one “match-up” conversation. 

Optional Extension: Project and read the following excerpt from Federalist No. 55 and respond to the questions that follow. 

“As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.” —James Madison, Federalist No. 55 

Discuss: What could happen in a self-governing society if citizens don’t have self-restraint? If elected leaders, and those they appoint, don’t have self-restraint? 

Optional Extension: Virtue in Action Individual Activities

All citizens must play a role for self-government to succeed. For the next month, make a special effort to be aware of and act in ways that promote your own self-governance. 

  • Write a personal mission statement and a plan for living it out.
  • If you start or lead a club, a business, or any new initiative, find ways to ensure it can continue to endure without you there.
  • If you play a team sport, be aware of your chance to work with teammates. Instead of trying to make every shot, pass the ball to others who are better positioned. 
  • Thomas Paine said, “Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.” Draft a written response to Paine’s statement, identifying areas where you find it applicable in your own life. 

Student Handouts

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