April 30, 2014, marks the 225th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States.
Characteristically, Washington entered the highest office with humility, even trepidation. “No event could have filled me with greater anxieties,” he admitted in his inaugural address, than having been “summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection,” to become president. [i]
But when the Articles of Confederation were scrapped and the Republic was essentially reestablished under the Constitution in 1789, there had been little question as to who the first national executive would be. Only Washington had the reputation, indeed the gravitas, to set the nation upon its new course, and this was reflected in the fact that the electoral college had voted unanimously for Washington – a feat as yet, and most likely never, to be repeated.
Perhaps what made Washington the best choice for the office of President was that he had walked away from power once already. Just as he had promised when appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in 1775, and having been given virtually absolute dictatorial power when the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia after its fall in 1777, Washington resigned his commission in 1783, retiring from public life. Just months earlier, he had diffused a potential coup d’etat by the Continental officers at the army’s encampment in Newburgh, New York, reducing the young hot-heads to tears with a somewhat melodramatic demonstration – while reading a letter to the assembled officers, Washington stopped, and pulled out a pair of glasses. “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind”[ii]
George Washington is often compared with the ancient Roman general and statesman, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, for having willingly ceded dictatorial power that had been granted in time of crisis. In December of 1783, Washington appeared before Congress, then sitting in Annapolis, Maryland, and resigned his commission. It was an astonishing event. George III, the British monarch who Washington had just defeated, is reputed to have remarked upon hearing that the American general was voluntarily retiring, “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”[iii]
Called back to public life again for the Constitutional Convention, and again to serve as President once that Constitution was ratified, Washington’s greatest legacy is that he continued to walk away. Few military commanders who have won rebellions (and that is what the American Revolution was) have been able to resist the temptation to seize absolute power and set themselves up as lifelong dictators. Despite the veneration – described as “Father of his Country” from as early as 1776, and whose birthday was a national holiday until the generic “President’s Day” was instituted in the late 1980s – Washington never wavered in his deference to civilian and Constitutional authority. And so, at the end of his second term as President, Washington again demonstrated himself to be the greatest man in the world when he wrote in his farewell to the people of the United States:
The period for a new election of a citizen, to administer the executive government of the United States, being not far distant, and the time actually arrived, when your thoughts must be employed designating the person, who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprize you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.[iv]
[i] Washington’s Inaugural Address of 1789, transcription from the National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals/inaugtxt.html.
[ii] Quoted in Minor Myers, Liberty without Anarchy, A History of the Society of the Cincinnati, p.14.
[iii] Joseph Ellis, “The Farewell, Washington’s Wisdom at the End”, in Washington Reconsidered, ed. Don Higginbotham, p.221.
[iv] Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796