George Washington: The First (and Best?) President

In Philadelphia, the summer of 1787, the members of the Constitutional Convention, following the lead of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, decided that the office of a single executive, with his power checked and balanced by the Congress and Courts, was too advantageous to negate. The assumption among the members was that the president of the convention, George Washington, would be the first President of the United States. There was no better choice. Washington combined patriotism, self-sacrifice, and devotion to the cause and his duty with the same fears of his countrymen in excessive, unrestrained power. Washington was the perfect person, the “indispensable man,” to trust with such power at such a delicate time, when the new United States of America had just won independence yet was vulnerable both in foreign as well as in domestic affairs.

The debate over the Constitution in the state of New York during the autumn of 1787 led to the writing of the Federalist Papers by three statesmen, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. These papers set out in logical and historical detail the basis for the Constitution, explaining the reasons for a strong executive, bicameral congress, and independent judicial, the purpose of the electoral college, and how the Constitution would be able to mitigate factions, which is the root of evil in governments. Alexander Hamilton of New York wrote a series of papers describing the Executive Branch, and the power of the President.

Hamilton had served under Washington during the War, became a close adviser, then the first Secretary of the Treasury. He was the leader of the Federalist faction. The Federalists believed in the importance of having a strong central government focused on order, but not at the expense of liberty. They believed in a flexible interpretation of the Constitution, that words and phrases in the document, such as “necessary and proper” in Article I, Section 8, imply rights and powers that the federal government can use. They argued that a focus on states’ rights had already been tried with the Articles of Confederation, and had failed. The Federalists advocated a strong executive enforcing the laws. They believed that the government should encourage the economic development of the United States and expanded world trade. They tended to focus their attention on the health of the economy, and believed that as the richer became more wealthy, the economy as a whole, hence the poor, would be helped as well. Because of the Federalist focus on manufacturing and trade, they tended to have more support in the northern states, and quickly became the party in opposition to slavery.

George Washington perceived his role as President to eschew taking part in the factionalism of political parties, to rise above such disputes to provide an anchor for the ship of state amid the storms of political controversy. Such controversy was, ironically, a repeated occurrence during his presidency, as his two chief advisers, Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, were inveterate enemies of one-another, both personally and politically. Jefferson constantly advised the President to take a strict interpretation of the Constitution, to use restraint in the role of Commander in Chief, to make friends and be at peace with the two great powers of the day, the British and the French. Jefferson especially advised Washington not to push the French away, even though that country was engaged in a Revolution that swept away the power of the king, aristocracy, and church in a bloody series of executions. Hamilton, on the other hand, abhorred the disorder of the French Revolution, advising Washington to prefer the stability of the English. Hamilton believed that the Constitution implied powers to the federal government, and that the President should provide an example of firm, military leadership in domestic as well as foreign affairs.

Washington tended to listen to Hamilton more than Jefferson, as he feared disorder and chaos, and believed that the federal government, and the President, must provide for the safety and security of the citizens of the United States. Even so, he refused to identify himself with one particular political faction, and tried to hold himself aloft in such disputes. The President therefore often seemed aloof and removed, which was Washington’s intention. He believed the office of the Presidency was one of great symbolic force, that the President should not appear to be a political animal, rather a leader of state not swayed by the opinions and feelings of the moment.

Washington was aware of the burden he carried, for as the first President of the United States his actions would establish the policies and traditions of the office for years to come. Of the many titles by which he could be addressed–your excellency, your highness, your grace–he chose to be addressed in simple fashion, as “Mr. President.” Washington’s Cabinet of executive branch officials answering to him–Secretary of State overseeing foreign policy, Secretary of Treasury overseeing finance, Secretary of War overseeing military affairs, and Attorney General overseeing the enforcement of laws–became the kernel of the cabinet of the executive branch that now comprises fifteen departments. Opponents of the Presidency feared that the president could be re-elected continuously, becoming little more than a king. Washington laid this fear to rest by declining to run for a third term. His standard of two terms at the most held up until 1940, When Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to break with tradition and run for an unprecedented third term. Six years after his death the 22nd amendment made the two-term limit law.

Washington’s decision not to run for a third term was expressed in his Farewell Address to the American People at the end of his second term, in which he also assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the American Republic, and advised the American people on what course to set to accomplish their aims of peace, order, and tranquility. Washington addressed the concern, expressed since the United States was formed and the Constitution was adopted, that the American Republic was too large. He believed that the Union of such a large country worked toward its advantage rather than disadvantage. He argued as well that a strong republic with a strong executive provided the leadership and power to accomplish successful foreign policy, such as treaties with other countries, including Great Britain and Spain, who were jealous of America’s rise to power. One concern that Washington had, expressed by other Americans as well, was the party spirit, or factionalism, that threatened to tear the republic apart. In Federalist #10, James Madison had argued that the biggest threat to a free nation is factionalism, that is, the formation of interest groups that push their own ideas and try to achieve their own ends. One phrase in Madison’s essay, “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire,” was precisely the point of contention between the two emerging parties during Washington’s presidency. The Federalist response was to control the effects of faction. The Democratic Republican response was to allow liberty its fullest extent, for to control it was to snuff out its flames.

Washington, influenced more by the Federalists, argued in his Farewell Address that the order of government was the means to control the effect of faction. Washington also warned the Americans of conniving people who would try to change the Constitution and the nature of government to fit their own ends. He counseled that patience and experience would indicate that the Constitution should rarely be altered, or amended. He believed that religion and morality are the cornerstones of good government and liberty. Further, Washington counseled wise expenditures in government to prevent the build-up of a national debt. He advised Americans to have a disinterested view toward other countries, to let reason not passion dictate foreign affairs. Americans should avoid alliances with other countries that entangle us in their affairs.

The symbol of George Washington the President long outlasted Washington the man. His name came to symbolize the capitol of the United States; a state; the highest mountain in northeast America (Mount Washington, New Hampshire); and countless towns and places throughout America. After his death biographers rushed to put out glorified accounts of his life. Some, such as clergyman Mason Weems, produced fabricated accounts of Washington’s life including stories (such as Washington and the cherry tree) that have become inextricably linked with Washington’s life.

There have been 43 other Presidents since Washington left office in 1797. How does he rank next to his predecessors? Was he as great a leader as Lincoln? Did he have the same force of personality as Theodore Roosevelt? Did he have the same genius as Jefferson? Was he as much of a consummate politician as FDR?

Besides the many other things I have written about Washington above, in favor of my vote that he was the best, is the following: First, he was admired by contemporaries in a way no one living today has seen a President admired. When Washington made journeys to the South and North after his inauguration, the crowds who assembled, the hymns written, the verse composed, the joy at his coming, were incomparable. People saw him as the savior of the United States, the man who had guaranteed Independence. At the same time people believed him modest, and humble before God, knowing that he was, after all, but a man. Second, and most important, is my belief that Washington was perhaps the only person who served as President who did not seek the office. He served because the people wanted him to serve.

Think of it: a person who serves as President not because he/she is hungry for power, not because he/she is arrogant and narcissistic and immodest enough to seek the office of the most powerful person in the world, but for the simple reason that the American people think that such a person is best, and, notwithstanding the individual’s humility and modesty, he/she agrees to serve, knowing that the work and pain will overwhelm the glory and pleasure. Such a person was George Washington.

 

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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