Question: I have been thinking about the importance of George Washington’s presidency and wonder if you agree that it is because the U.S. didn’t have to fight a war during his time in office, unlike the next three presidents Adams (who fought the Quasi War against the French), Jefferson (who fought the Tripolitan War), and Madison (who fought the War of 1812)?
From: Tina A. of Berkeley, CA
Date: February 21, 2005
Gleaves answers: You make an excellent point: one of the reasons George Washington’s presidency is significant is that he kept us out of war during the country’s first eight years, when we were not strong enough (or foolish enough) to get entangled in the superpower chess match between France and Britain. He knew that our nation could best build up its strength in peace, and his policies, such as the Proclamation of Neutrality, adhered to that principle. I’ll develop this point further in a bit.George Washington has justly been called the “indispensable man” to both the American Revolution and to the first years of nationhood.[1] His two-term administration (1789-1797) is consistently ranked among the three most important presidencies in U.S. history (the other two being Abraham Lincoln’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s). Washington, in the words of eulogist Richard Henry Lee, was “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” To this, Brown University historian Gordon Wood adds that it is even more important that he was first in the presidency.[2]It is hard to imagine the United States being successfully founded without Washington. And yet, a close examination of his life casts this commonplace in a puzzling light. He was hardly the most talented of the founders. Historian Joseph Ellis has put the paradox well: “Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior.”[3]

The paradox thickens the more you look at Washington’s life. His character as a young man was less than sterling; puffed up with vainglory, he was willing to stoop to advance his career. Moreover, his early military experience in the French and Indian War was chock-full of blunders that resulted in the unnecessary loss of life of his men. Nor had he been a great general during the War for Independence; of the nine battles he fought, he won only three; he succeeded in winning the war by not losing the war — either to disease or through an irreversible strategic blunder. In his generalship he resembled the Roman, Fabius the Delayer — hardly the stuff of which great legends are made. Nor did Washington seem especially interested in playing the lead role in nation-building; viewing himself as a planter first and foremost, he was happier back home at Mount Vernon tending his own business than in the nation’s capital running the country.

And yet, Washington became an extraordinary leader, famous throughout Europe in his day, and renown throughout the world to posterity. Why?

1. Although George Washington served as president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, his mere presence in Philadelphia shaped Article II governing the office of the president. The delegates were fairly sure that the former general of the Continental Army would become the new republic’s first chief executive, so they composed Article II with Washington’s character, reputation, and abilities in mind. Because Washington had proven that he didn’t need power, the delegates gave the office power. This was especially evident when they made the president commander in chief of the armed forces.

The delegates were thinking of Washington’s reputation. During the Revolutionary War, there had been occasions when Washington could have become the dictator of the republic, as Caesar and Cromwell had. He rejected the temptation, instead becoming a modern-day Cincinnatus. Indeed, he had attracted the notice of the Western world after he had put down the Newburgh conspiracy, refused Lewis Nicola’s suggestion that he become king, and returned his commission to the Continental Congress. When King George III heard these stories about Washington’s character, he ventured that the American was “the greatest man in the world.”[4]

As the first president, Washington successfully stared down constitutional, diplomatic, political, economic, and cultural challenges that no other president has ever faced. Gordon Wood’s thought on this point is worth reviewing. He believes that Washington “was probably the only person in the country who could have dealt with those problems.” That he succeeded “in the midst of a revolutionary world at war, and did it without sacrificing the republican character of the country, is an astonishing achievement, one that the achievements of no other president, however great, can begin to match.”[5]

1. First and foremost, Washington had to help found a new nation. He had to start by altering the political culture Americans were used to; they had only known monarchy, so they had to retool their thinking to be good republicans in which the law and not the king was sovereign. Washington thus had to lead not just the executive branch of government, but also the effort to inculcate a republican culture. “Somehow,” observes Wood, “Washington had to satisfy their [Americans’] deeply rooted yearnings for patriarchy while creating a new, elective, republican president. Those were unique circumstances that no president has faced since. Since the United States had never had an elected chief executive like the one created by the Constitution in 1787, Washington had virtually no precedents to follow.” The stakes were unbelievably high. Certainly the world was skeptical that America’s grand experiment in self government would last long. “That he did all

2. Washington also had to flesh out the office of the presidency. Create a cabinet….

3. Washington also had to keep in mind that all his efforts were potentially precedent setting. Taking the oath of office on a Bible, adding the words, “so help me God” to the oath, kissing the Bible, composing a farewell address — all these were powerful examples that would become precedents.

[1]James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974), p. ix.

[2]Gordon S. Wood, “Washington,” speech at the National Council for History Education, at the National Museum of American History, October 19, 2001.

[3]Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Knopf, 2004), p. xiv.

[4]Ellis, His Excellency, p. 139; for a vivid picture of Washington returning his commission on December 23, 1783, in Annapolis, MD, see Douglas Southall Freeman, Washington (New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1995), pp. 509-10.

[5]Wood, “Washington,” whose observations provide the framework for this response….