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The Prime Meridian of American Character

Posted By Connie Moody, Sunday, February 10, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2013

Excerpt from the ORATION OF ROBERT C. WINTHROP given February 21, 1885 upon The Dedication of the Washington National Monument  


Who can delineate it worthily? Who can describe that priceless gift of America to the world in terms which may do it any sort of justice, or afford any degree of satisfaction to his hearers or to himself?

     Modest, disinterested, generous, just—of clean hands and a pure heart—self-denying and self-sacrificing, seeking nothing for himself, declining all remuneration beyond the reimbursement of his outlays, scrupulous to a farthing in keeping his accounts, of spotless integrity, scorning gifts, charitable to the needy, forgiving injuries and injustices, brave, fearless, heroic, with a prudence ever governing his impulses and a wisdom ever guiding his valor—true to his friends, true to his whole country, true to himself—fearing God, believing in Christ, no stranger to private devotion or public worship or to the holiest offices of the Church to which he belonged, but ever gratefully recognizing a Divine aid and direction in all that he attempted and in all that he accomplished—what epithet, what attribute could be added to that consummate character to commend it as an example above all other characters in merely human history!…

      … [T]he Glory of Washington will remain unique and peerless until American Independence shall require to be again achieved, or the foundations of Constitutional Liberty to be laid anew.…[Italics added.]

     … A celebrated philosopher of antiquity, who was nearly contemporary with Christ, but who could have known nothing of what was going on in Judea, and who alas! did not always "reck his own rede”—wrote thus to a younger friend, as a precept for a worthy life: "Some good man must be singled out and kept ever before our eyes, that we may live as if he were looking on, and do everything as if he could see it.”

     Let me borrow the spirit, if not the exact letter, of that precept, and address it to the young men of my Country: "Keep ever in your mind and before your mind’s eye the loftiest standard of character. You have it, I need not say, supremely and unapproachably, in Him who spake as never man spake and lived as never man lived, and who died for the sins of the world. That character stands apart and alone. But of merely mortal men the monument we have dedicated to-day points out the one for all Americans to study, to imitate, and, as far as may be, to emulate. Keep his example and his character ever before your eyes and in your hearts. Live and act as if he were seeing and judging your personal conduct and your public career. Strive to approximate that lofty standard, and measure your integrity and your patriotism by your nearness to it or your departure from it. The prime meridian of universal longitude, on sea or land, may be at Greenwich, or at Paris, or where you will. But the prime meridian of pure, disinterested, patriotic, exalted human character will be marked forever by yonder Washington Obelisk!”

      Yes, to the Young Men of America, under God, it remains, as they rise up from generation to generation, to shape the destinies of their Country’s future—and woe unto them if, regardless of the great example which is set before them, they prove unfaithful to the tremendous responsibilities which rest upon them!1  


1 Hall, V. M. (2000). George Washington: The Character and Influence of One Man. Chesapeake, VA: Foundation for American Christian Education. 283-4.

Tags:  character  Robert Winthrop  Washington  Washington Monument 

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