Books have been written about the Revolutionary War
and George Washington
‘s role as the first commanding general of the Continental army for almost as long as America has been a republic. The greatest act of his life, other than leaving a Will and Testament that not only freed the slaves of Mount Vernon, but insured of their well-being when freed; was his resignation as commander-in-chief of the American forces that stunned the world and even impressed the British crown. This act was followed by a circular letter to the states in which he proclaimed,in writing, his retirement. No American leader has matched that legacy, and despite this and other aspects of the quality of his character, he has been attacked by “historians” – authors of books set out to defame his position of honor as not only the first President of the United States, but probably the best that ever served in that office.
After the peace treaty was signed and the British recognized American independence, Washington amazed the world and impressed Americans when he surrendered his sword, ceremoniously, to Congress on December 23rd, 1783, and retired to his beloved plantation farm at Mount Vernon. It was a symbolic act and a silent proclamation that he desired to leave the world of politics. Many believe that Washington, if it was in his character, could have become a monarch or dictator, but he made it clear he wanted none of it. He preferred to live out his days at Mount Vernon. King George III even praised his character. 1
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1784 that . . .
The moderation and virtue of a single character . . . probably prevented this revolution form being closed, as most other have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish. 2
Washington worked at guarding his reputation for all of his life, which seemed, at times, excessive and egotistical to fellow founders and associates, as well as those who wrote about our First President of the United States and First Commander-in-chief. Other historians would work at dispelling the myths and legends that surrounded Washington, while others chose to defame our national hero for whatever their personal reasons that was not in the name of
historical accuracy at times.
Along with a deep concern of his reputation, Washington was sensitive to criticism wherever it originated, even if it was constructive criticism. He judged himself and his actions upon what people thought of him, and since he had become a public hero, it became an ever-present objective. This made him cautious in dealing with the public, and he often sought advice from others.
In the winter of 1784-1785, Washington was presented 150 shares of the James River & Potomac canal businesses through the Virginia Assembly in recognition of his services to the state. This caused Washington deep stress. He wrote to many fellow patriots: Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, William Grayson, Benjamin Harrison, George William Fairfax to Nathaniel Greene – even to Marquis de Lafayette in France to seek advice on what to do with the shares. Washington ended up giving the shares to the college named after him.
Washington was also disturbed when he was invited to attend the Philadelphia Convention in 1767. When the convention met, Washington was immediately offered to be president of the convention. He said very little during the proceedings and debates, and at the end he spoke in favor of reducing the minimum number of people for a representative. It was unanimously agreed upon. Washington’s presence provided the convention prestige and his support of the Constitution was essential to obtain ratification.
While acting as the commanding general of the Continental army, Washington never accepted a salary, but when he became president, Congress made him accept a salary, despite his protest. He made it clear that he wanted that decision entered upon the congressional record.
|Washington and Cabinet members
Supporters of the new Constitution called themselves “federalists” and knew that limited power must be obtained in order to limit democracy (pure democracy is rule by the mob, not the law), and that power was familiar as a monarchy demonstrated before the Revolution.
Benjamin Rushwas in favor of a diluted form of monarchy. Alexander Hamiltonand other Federalists were aware of the consequences of a pure democracy and considered forming a type of monarchy that was founded upon the principles of a republic. Privately they hoped to create a Roman-type republic like Augustus Caesar – a republic with a monarch. 3
Since the executive or chief magistrate had been the source of tyranny, the creation of an office of the president were viewed with suspicion among the American people, but they had become accustomed to congresses that operated the government during the American Revolutionary War. [‘War of Independence’]
George Washington was the only American in 1789 that possessed the required dignity, patience, restraint, and reputation – virtues required of leadership of a republic; despite the thought of Washington being a president for life, as Jefferson and others looked at him as an elected monarch. 4
However, the founders also knew what happened to the Roman republic and how evolution of states and societies could progress into not what would be originally designed to be.
The journey from Mount Vernon to the capital in New York in the spring of 1789 was similar to a royal procession one might see in England, saluted by cannons and citizens celebrating via ceremony accompanied by cheers of the people; mostly shouting:
Long live George Washington!
He was viewed as an elected king by the general populace, but Washington frowned upon such a notion. He had become sensitive to the talk of
royal ambitions from his colleagues, especially that of vice president John Adams, who had supposedly had personal jealousy towards Washington being chosen as President of the United States, being a commanding general with less education and qualities that Adams possessed; but this did not deter John Adams from giving honor to Washington in public or viewing him as a political enemy of the new government, for nothing is mentioned that he showed this in public or in the presence of Washington. It was only a personal and private emotion that Adams kept to himself. As time went on he
learned to respect Washington and John Quincy Adams named one of his sons after George Washington.
Washington named Alexander Hamiltonas his secretary of treasury and often asked for his advice as well to ensure his conduct as president was applicable to a Republic. Hamilton thought that only heads of departments, diplomats, and senators should have access to the president. He often referred to Washington as Your Excellency – despite Washington’s protests. Even Vice President Adams, in showing him honor and respect, wanted Washington to show “Splendor and Majesty” while officiating his office.Washington knew he had to make the presidency “respectable”, but was uncomfortable with ceremony and pomp affairs. He spent $2,000 of his presidential salary on liquor and wine for entertaining. When he appeared in public it was in an elaborate coach drawn by four horses, and sometimes six horses, attended by four servants and an entourage that followed with family in separate coaches.
The 4th of July became the national celebration of independence and Washington’s birthday received the same fanfare that continued until
recent times when Congress changed Washington’s birthday celebration into President’s Day, which took over the traditional honor to George
Washington, the first president.
In other matters of state, the English monarchy, which the Americans had seceded from, was the model for the new republic. The senate closely
resembled, in the beginning, the House of Lords, and who attempted to have all American coins depict the head of George Washington.
Today, it is the quarter that honors him.When before a Senate committee, the president was announced as: “His Highness the President of the United States of America” – encouraged by John Adams. When Jefferson learned of Adams’ obsession with titles, he shook his head and remarked to Benjamin Franklin that Adams means well for his country, is honest, often wise,
but sometimes in some things he was absolutely out of his senses. 5
Washington was relieved when the House of Representatives fixed his title as “Mr. President”.
Hamilton set up a financial program with the government funded debt and the Bank of the United States, much like that in England. To Americans it appeared that British
monarchy corruption had stayed in America.
The first ten years under the new American Constitution was filled with apprehension of monarchy and corruption; indeed a series of crises almost destroyed the national government that had been painstakingly created to succeed. The Republic of the United States was a new political experiment never tried before and everyone, Americans and foreign people alike, were aware of it. All political theories and historical accounts were against its success. George Washington even remarked at the end of the Constitutional Convention, along with Benjamin Franklin, that the new federal government probably not last more than twenty years; even political leaders of the 1790s had their doubts of the union surviving. 6
The uneasy and fearful atmosphere is reminiscent of the doubts of Americans today, wondering how long American can survive the assault upon constitutional law and the republic from those who are insistent that a democratic-socialist government works better; when in fact, history proves differently. America, as a republic has lasted over
100 years longer than the Roman republic, although it is a different type that was designed with checks and balances, of which modern politicians have ignored and too many Americans have stood by and did nothing. Some in a state of apathy while others thinking that being under the yoke of government is a sense of personal security – woe
to them for being so naïve, and woe to the rest that must suffer with those ignorant and blind sheep. The silent majority has finally arisen, but they are facing a larger amount of citizens under the spell and control of government and its media, when it comes to voting responsibly, obtaining information, or just wanting benefits paid by others instead of securing it on their own as free-spirit Americans have in the past. Look upon the tribulations of the nation of modern Greece, and you will see what comes of a socialist government, nanny state where too many citizens get aid at the expense of others paying all the taxes – eventually the money runs out.
The two major and surviving political parties that formed as groups of political philosophy in the 1790s were the Federalists and the Republicans. Not many thought that the creation of political entities they called “parties” would be a good thing; and national leadership tried to prevent any forming.
The Federalists were under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who were also reluctant in forming an official political entity, an organized political party. They believed it was a temporary measure to prevent the United States from becoming a federalist British-backed monarchy. Partisan bitterness ensued between Hamilton and Jefferson that became, at times, quite bitter.
Some people today are not aware that in the 1790s that there was passion and partisan rivalry as far back as that period that almost became a civil war, long before 1861 rolled around.Washington, more than any of the other founders, held the divided country together. With rivalries of Hamilton and Jefferson in the cabinet, Washington was able to use good judgment to restrain fear, limit political intrigues, and other factors that could have led to outright violence. After all, Washington had commanded a large army of troops, who kept them together in trying times and periods of suffering, like at Valley Forge, in order to win the revolution.
In 1794, Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion, an uprising of hundreds of farmers that became violent in western Pennsylvania over
a whiskey tax to support the rising cost of the federal government. It would be the only time a United States president, as commander-in-chief, physically led troops. Wearing his old Continental army uniform and riding his white horse, a sight that war veterans were familiar with, he was able to quell the uprising with little or no further violence.
It was the people’s trust in and respect for George Washington that kept the new government from dividing itself and collapsing. It was also
Washington who in the capacity of a benevolent republican monarch that was responsible for making the presidency the executive power of
the United States. Even the skeptical British observed and conceded that Washington possessed great leadership qualities. 7
As president, Washington ran the office of the president as he did at Mount Vernon – as an energetic administrator. He kept accurate
records and communicated regularly with his department chiefs, to whom he delegated considerable authority. Yet he made it clear that they were his assistants and only responsible to him.
Washington was surrounded and blessed with brilliant advisers he had chosen carefully himself, which included Hamilton as secretary of treasury
and Jefferson as the secretary of state; consulting them frequently because he was aware of their genius, college education, experience in matters of state, and attributes that he did not possess – and he always made careful decisions, to some being too slow. He should be the model to follow for all presidents that followed, but in light of recent history, this is not so. When it came to take action, George Washington was not slow, but did it decisively and quickly as possible. It was those important aspects of George Washington that made him a role model to follow, as well as a legendary historical figure.
In August of 1789, President Washington went to the Senate to get its advice and consent to a treaty he was negotiating with the native American Creek tribe. Instead of providing advice and consent in the manner performed during the Revolutionary War, the senators decided to debate each part of the treaty, which made the president glare impatiently at them all the while. One senator at the end moved to submit the treaty to a committee for study and Washington jumped up from his seat and in exasperation angrily declared: This defeats every purpose of my coming here!
After calming down, he left the Senate chamber, but was overheard to say he would be damned if he ever went there again.8
Washington, of course, returned, a few days later, but neither he nor the Senate liked the confrontation. The Senate’s role in providing advice had been shelved. When the president issued his Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793, he didn’t ask for consent of the Senate, and thus established the executive authority in dealing with foreign affairs;
although the Senate must ratify the treaty before it becomes legal.
In matters of foreign affairs, Washington was a realist like Thomas Jefferson. His philosophy was, as he stated in 1775, at the beginning of the war against Britain:
We must make the best of mankind as they are, since we cannot have them as we wish. 9
If any person could be held responsible for establishing the American republic and keeping it on a steady course, it would be George Washington. He understood human nature. He wrote:
The motives which predominate most human affairs are self-love and self-interest. 10
Washington was a president who respected diversity of religious groups and made it a practice while president to attend church services of various denominations, including Roman Catholicism; and held a liberal view of that time period. He assured the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island that America was an enlightened place where –
…everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
Washington made two cross-country tours in 1789 and again in 1791 in order to bring the government to the farthest points of American civilization that existed at the time. This reinforced the people’s respect, admiration, and loyalty; some of which had never seen him. 11
As early as 1795, Americans felt there was going to be a division in the nation, mostly between northern and southern states; and Washington was also aware of this danger to unity. It was over the issue of slavery, something that did not belong in a free republic. He told his secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, in 1795 that if the United States dissolved, he would join the North – attesting to his evolution of attitude toward slavery. 12
The nation’s capital was originally in New York, and after 1790, in Philadelphia. George and Martha Washington brought social life within the “republican court” and even acted as matchmakers that brought together couples from different parts of the United States. They arranged sixteen marriages, which included the marriage between James
Madison and Dolly Payne. 13
George Washington instituted the sense of the Union like Lincoln and others later would uphold. As far as his career as president and commander-in-chief, his highlight as president was when he finally retired and could not be talked into remaining in office. His moral authority helped establish the republican aspect of the Constitution.
Washington wanted to retire in 1792, but his friends and advisers convinced him not to. However, when he announced his retirement in 1796, no one could persuade him otherwise. Washington had served two terms, and FDR is the only president who served three terms, the third starting in 1940; which led to the passing of the 22nd
amendment in 1951 to ensure that no one served more than two consecutive terms.
… was an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule. There has been no president quite like him, and we can be sure that we shall not see his like again. 14