George Washington was the indispensable president, the man who, as historian Forrest McDonald eloquently observes, “endowed the presidency with the capacity—and the awesome responsibility—to serve as the symbol of the nation, of what it is and what it can aspire to be.” Without Washington, it is difficult to envision the American Revolution succeeding, or the proposed Constitution being accepted by his fellow citizens, or these same citizens embracing the new office of the presidency. It is truly a shame that many commemorate Washington with a generic “President’s Day” that places him on par with the likes of Franklin Pierce. George Washington deserves a national holiday that is truly his alone.
Washington’s presidential legacy is unmatched: he created the cabinet, and what a remarkable cabinet it was; he affirmed the principle that the president possessed the sole power to remove executive branch officials; he exercised the first use of the veto power; he took the lead in matters of foreign affairs and national security, including creating a secret service fund to conduct clandestine operations abroad; and he implemented economic policies that launched the United States on the path to becoming an economic superpower in less than a century. Perhaps most importantly, Washington convinced his fellow citizens to abandon their parochial attachments and consider themselves citizens of the United States of America. As his closest confidant Alexander Hamilton put it, Washington worked to convince his fellow Americans to “think continentally.”
There is another aspect of Washington’s legacy that is particularly important for Americans to appreciate in 2018. He observed during the first year of his presidency that his “greatest fear” was that “the nation would not be sufficiently cool and moderate in making arrangements for the security” of liberty. Washington’s commitment to reason and moderation began when he was a teenager, when he had copied by hand over one hundred “rules of civility,” including the following passage: “Let your conversation be without malice or envy…and in all causes of passion admit reason to govern.” Policies produced from passionate impulses were at odds with the national interest, and it was the duty of statesmen to resist these impulses, Washington believed.
Washington’s service to the nation was bookended by appeals for moderation and for “reason to govern.” Within days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Washington condemned the mob that pulled down the statue of King George III in New York City on July 9, 1776, and beheaded “His Highness”:
Though the General doubts not the persons, who pulled down and mutilated the Statue, in the Broadway, last night, were actuated by Zeal in the public cause; yet it has so much the appearance of riot and want of order, in the Army, that he disapproves the manner, and directs that in future these things shall be avoided by the Soldiery.
Washington was devoted completely to the rule of law, as seen in his deference to civilian authority throughout the American Revolution and his decision to relinquish power on multiple occasions, making him a truly unique statesman for his time, and perhaps ours. But he was aware that there may not always be another Washington among his successors. In his Farewell Address published on September 17, 1796, the ninth anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, Washington warned of the propensity of demagogues to exploit factions or interests for their own self-interest. “Cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” will “subvert the power of the people” and “usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust domination.” These “ambitious and unprincipled men” were inclined to appeal to the passions of the people to assist in their rise to power.
In light of these beliefs, Washington shunned direct appeals to the public, setting him apart from modern chief executives. In Washington’s view, such appeals were “demagogic” in nature and inappropriate for a constitutional republic. Washington’s authority as President derived from the Constitution, and he “refused to talk policy,” as Jeffrey Tulis notes in his groundbreaking study The Rhetorical Presidency. Washington was aware that he would be setting many precedents, and he was devoted to ensuring that these precedents were rooted in the Constitution, not in public opinion.
The presidency of sober expectations created by Washington offers a model for contemporary Americans to emulate. That office possessed enough power to defend the nation from foreign and domestic threats, and in fact launched the United States on the path to becoming a superpower. But Washington’s presidency also acknowledged certain restraints and limitations on the office and the officeholder. Washington served as a unifying head of state who was respectful of the dignity of his office and who refrained from stoking partisan divisions and becoming a captive to public opinion, always paying due regard to the Constitution.
Washington’s model is still within our reach. But it would require a renewed appreciation for the limits of the presidency, the limits of politics, and a renewed focus on the importance of character. The American people would also have to be weaned from the politics of passion, embrace Washington’s belief in reason and moderation, and acknowledge that for self-government to work the citizenry must govern themselves, govern their passions.
Stephen F. Knott is a professor at the United States Naval War College.
Image Credit: Detail of General George Washington at Trenton, 1792, by John Trumbull. Via Wikimedia Commons.