Yes it was easy enough for a private citizen to be a staunch Republican and grumble: “Why, what could there be simpler than to choose a moment of general tranquility, resign and turn the government over to the Senate.” The difficulty could only be understood if that private citizen were to become Emperor himself. It lay in the phrase “moment of tranquility” there were no moments of tranquility.
Robert Graves Claudius the God 1935
It has become fashionable for some historians to play down George Washington as president and raise more recent people above him. Abe Lincoln due to his victory in the Civil War gets high marks, FDR’s win in WW 2 and Reagan’s in the Cold War both make them loom large particularly since both Reagan & FDR are still in living Memory and George Washington is from an age so remote to many his presidency becomes ancient history . You were dealing with a smaller country, less communication,
But to really appreciate Washington the president and the leader you have to look at three specific things.
First Washington at the end of his military career.
Up to the time of Washington and afterwards as well history abounded with examples of leaders of armies who used those armies to take absolute power. At the end of the War Washington was the single most popular person in America. As a man with just about everything the only thing he didn’t have was a crown or a title.
It was in his grasp, all he had to do is reach out to have it and he would be the head of an American constitutional monarchy.
And he declined.
It was a move worthy of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus and a shock to the powerbrokers of Europe.
But as much as it impressed the men of Europe it impressed his countrymen more he presided at the constitutional convention having very little confidence in the resulting system but accepted the presidency when elected unanimously.
This was the 2nd phase. Despite the lack of confidence in the system he governed with discretion and skill knowing every action that he would take would be the model for the country to follow and acting in a manner that aided rather than retarded a system that he thought would fail measuring carefully words and deeds for the sake of future generations .
The third phase was the end of his term. It’s one thing to refuse imperial power when you’ve never had authority, but Washington now had two full terms under him. He could keep power with the veneer of republicanism he might have justified serving a 3rd term simply to delay the decent into parties and partisan divisions that already existed.
He did not and when he gave his farewell address assigned the credit for all of his success to the people:
In looking forward to the moment, which is intended to terminate the career of my public life, my feelings do not permit me to suspend the deep acknowledgment of that debt of gratitude, which I owe to my beloved country for the many honors it has conferred upon me; still more for the steadfast confidence with which it has supported me; and for the opportunities I have thence enjoyed of manifesting my inviolable attachment, by services faithful and persevering, though in usefulness unequal to my zeal. If benefits have resulted to our country from these services, let it always be remembered to your praise, and as an instructive example in our annals, that under circumstances in which the passions, agitated in every direction, were liable to mislead, amidst appearances sometimes dubious, vicissitudes of fortune often discouraging, in situations in which not unfrequently want of success has countenanced the spirit of criticism, the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts, and a guarantee of the plans by which they were effected. Profoundly penetrated with this idea, I shall carry it with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that Heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; than, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete, by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing, as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation, which is yet a stranger to it.
In this Washington didn’t just equal Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus who twice gave up power over Rome, he exceeded him by not only giving up power but crediting his success to the people.
It would be 144 years before a president was arrogant enough to consider himself in indispensable. In closing think of the leaders and the pols of today. If any of them had the chance for permanent power do you imagine any of them would surrender it?
The nation has seen greatness in the White House, but it has not seen the greatness of a Washington.