Term in Office: 1st president, 1789-1797
Party: Non-Partisan on paper, Federalist in practice
Home State: Virginia
Presidents’ Day has come and gone in the U.S., and although I am too late to celebrate it with a new post in our almost-completed Ranking of the Presidents, I think I am close enough to George Washington’s birthday to have this count as a belated birthday gift.
Every subsequent generation has treated Washington as a god who briefly deigned to walk among mere mortals for a time. We have put him on our coinage. We made his birthday part of a national holiday. We have named states, counties, and even our nation’s capital in his honor. He is the man nobody can criticize, the man nobody wants to criticize (although this plucky account from Drunk History gives us insight into how dangerous Washington could be when he felt wronged or crossed, as one young, inebriated historian tells the tale of the lengths GW went to unsuccessfully recover a runaway slave.)
No doubt, Washington would be pleased with our general acquiesce to his legend. His statuesque visage over America’s story is partly a mythology he spent his lifetime making. The George Washington who appears in Gore Vidal’s historical novels starting with Burr is probably a shade closer to the truth: a man of considerable but limited skill, better at stonewalling rival politicians and Continental Army generals than defeating divisions of redcoats. I am reminded of what my friend, former Bishop James Armstrong, once said of Billy Graham: a man who, while pretending to be above it all, uses his influence in the most partisan of ways.
More than anyone else I can think of from the founding generation, Washington spent his life posing and preening for posterity. In particular, Washington was enamored of classical culture, the revival of Greek and Roman republicanism in the mid-1700s that established the parameters and the argot for the American Revolution. He ordered the play Cato to be shown at Valley Forge, showing the embodiment of republican virtue and sacrifice necessary to preserve self-government and liberty at the expense of tyranny. Rather like Reagan, Washington spent his public career acting a part out: if Reagan play-acted a competent and poised president, Washington play-acted the role of Cincinnatus in the drama of the American Revolution.
If you aren’t familiar with the legend of Cincinnatus, let me explain it to you. One of the great stories that generations of Romans told their young ones is that of the semi-mythical figure of Cincinnatus who lived during the age of the Roman republic. An old retired farmer who loved nothing more than to toil at his plow. One day, he was met at his plow by a delegation from Rome. With an impending invasion, the Senate had chosen to make Cincinnatus a dictator for six months to deal with the threat. Cincinnatus dispatched the invading tribes in two weeks, then resigned his office, going back to his plow. Believe me, the legend of Cincinnatus resonated in the Early Republic days of the United States. The most prestigious organization a Revolutionary War vet could join was called the Order of the Cincinnati. The famous Ohio city of Cincinnati was so named in the hopes that all of its citizens could emulate the virtue of this great Roman. (Alas, even a short visit to Cincinnati is enough to disprove this aspiration.)
And so, Washington spent his life molding himself after this early antique Roman. He feigned reluctance to lead the Continental Army, he played the dilettante when called to lead the Constitutional Convention, and he finally professed hesitance when elected unanimously to the presidency. This was, again, partly to make himself look good in future history schoolbooks, but it was also because of a deep-seated belief that the wisest, and most counter-intuitive thing that a powerful person can do is to abdicate that power, to step down, to retire to one’s plow.
It was with that same sense of posterity-mindedness that Washington conducted his administration. In fact, the very office of the presidency was designed in Philadelphia with the tacit understanding that Washington would be the first man to occupy it. A group of republicans who held monarchy in the deepest contempt would scarcely have designed the presidency to be as powerful as it was unless they could be sure of Washington setting a good example with his time in office.
And so, George Washington had to establish a very delicate balance. He had to avoid appearing overtly monarchial or despotic, but he couldn’t allow the country to fall into the rudderless gridlock that befell it under the unworkable Articles of Confederation. And he certainly could not appear partisan (although he certainly favored what would eventually be called the Federalists.)
This often meant letting underlings handle the dirty work, preferring to levitate above much of the bickering that took place in the first Congresses. He allowed Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison arrive at a grand bargain- exchanging the federal assumption of state debt for a plan to put the nation’s capital on the Potomac- far away from the corrupting financial centers of Philadelphia and New York. He let John Jay tackle the thankless job of negotiating a treaty with Great Britain, allowing the former chief justice to draw the fire when the best he could do was get a treaty that didn’t really deal with impressment but averred war between the two powers.
If anything, Washington, again like Reagan, kept too much distance from the details. Out of all the cabinet, he took Alexander Hamilton’s advice the most often- to the point where it sometimes looked like a parliamentary system does today, where you might have a president whose purpose is largely ceremonial, but also a prime minister with less prestige but more policymaking clout. Hamilton was, in some ways, that kind of prime ministerial figure.
Hamilton was, to be sure, a financial genius who helped codify the nation’s precarious finances. We take it for granted how good he was; we remember crisis-solvers, but rarely remember crisis-preventers quite so fondly. Unfortunately, this came with some drawbacks. Hamilton worked in ways that privileged lenders and financiers over the backwoods areas of the country. He helped his banker friend Robert Morris engineer a scheme whereby financiers would buy Revolutionary War vets’ worthless IOU payments they received throughout the war, then turned around and made the IOU’s redeemable for hard currency. Adding insult to injury, this scheme was funded by an excise tax of whiskey, which was disproportionately used by backwoods Appalachian Revolutionary War vets. Some of the most financially precarious people in the U.S. were being taxed to pay for a policy that fleeced them. So, I have very little good to say about Washington’s famous action to restore order in the Whiskey Rebellion, aside from Washington’s decision to prosecute almost no one for treasonable activities. The angry rednecks of hill country had, for once, every right to be aggrieved; the Washington administration took them for a ride. In this, Washington played only a small, symbolic role- riding into Pennsylvania on horseback to put down the rebellion; he left the details to Hamilton- a capable man, but in some ways, a dangerously Anglophile, slightly monarchial, and unabashedly partisan figure. Still, it was a great good cop/bad cop routine while it lasted.
With Washington’s obsession with looking ahead, we need to spend a few moments looking at his approach to foreign policy. We often remember his farewell address endorsing neutrality in foreign affairs- or at the very least, unilateralism, putting America’s interests first. It has become a cliche to point out that this was a wise course of action, but in this case, the cliche is true. The idea of neutrality did, I think, serve the country in good stead, allowing us to stay more or less out of Napoleonic geopolitics (with some important exceptions) and even allowed us to play major European powers against one another. An overlooked aspect is often the Citizen Genet crisis, where a representative from Revolutionary France attempted to stir up American privateer support for the Directory, even to the point of strong-arming popular support against the Washington administration (shades of Netanyahu’s work in turning American foreign policy into a partisan exercise today?) Washington put a kibosh on that (although he generously allowed Genet to stay in America when it was clear he would be executed if he returned to Jacobin France.)
I’ve picked Washington’s administration apart, but it is above question that he had a monumentally difficult task. If we are going to continue using “Value Over Replacement Player” as a metric, Washington’s score is astronomically high; there isn’t a single American of his time- possibly any time- that could have done so well, and commanded so much respect at such a critical moment, and had the good sense to leave at the proper time. Fundamentally, you needed consensus for this constitutional experiment to work, and he was the only man who could provide it. Forrest MacDonald of the University of Alabama is partly correct when he says that Washington’s greatness was not so much what he did or the policies he pursued as much as the example that he left behind. In that sense, he was great because he stepped down, MacDonald argues; he set the precedent of serving for only a short while, emulating Cincinnatus one last time.
It is easy to forget that the late 18th century was filled with petty princelings, would-be despots, and dangerous revolutionaries. With only small and rather weak republics to use as models, Washington had to figure out how a large republic would work for the first time in the history of the modern world. He succeeded beyond expectation by an apolitical veneer, appointing competent people based on merit, and using his symbolic authority as America’s leading citizen. His latent biases toward financiers over small farmers, the British over the French, and central authority over states’ rights, are forgivable- and in some ways, deeply human- complications to an administration that got an awful lot right. In virtually every respectable ranking of the presidents I have seen, he’s in the top three, and I see no reason to change that.