I have written several articles on our Presidents and Vice-Presidents. A list of the links have been provided at the bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional Presidents and their places in history.
The fact that Washington became the first president of the United States does not automatically mean he was a great one. Compared to other political leaders of his time, such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Washington was far from outstanding. He had little formal education. He knew no foreign languages. He had never traveled to Europe. Personally aloof, even cold, he was not a great thinker, writer, or speaker. Despite these shortcomings, Washington still places near or at the top of the list of great presidents even today.
In many ways President George Washington must be put into a class by himself. Unlike the other founding fathers, Washington was a true non-partisan. He hated it when people divided into hostile groups, and he tried to avoid taking sides during political disputes. As president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he contributed almost nothing to the heated debates that took place. Instead, he used his considerable prestige to calm people down and get them back to their main job: creating a new form of government for the United States.
When it came time during the Convention to design the executive branch of the federal government (Article II of the Constitution), virtually everyone assumed Washington would become the first president. Indeed, the writers of the Constitution created the office of president with Washington in mind. For his part, Washington reluctantly accepted the presidency. Jefferson told him: “We cannot, Sir, do without you.” None of the other founding fathers, despite all their brilliance, could command the respect and trust George Washington did. Washington became the first and only president to be unanimously elected.
Washington was inaugurated as president on April 30, 1789. He dedicated himself to being leader for the whole country, not for just one region, one economic class, or one political group. He usually spent a lot of time asking people for their advice before he made up his mind. His two closest advisers were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, two men who bitterly disagreed almost daily over every important issue facing the nation. At the end of these arguments, however, it was Washington who decided what was best for the country and all the people. Just 10 weeks after Washington’s inauguration, the French Revolution began. When word reached the United States, many Americans felt that the US should help France by declaring war on their old enemy, King George III.
Washington looked at the issue quite differently. He realized that the United States was weak. Most of the soldiers who had fought in the revolution had left the army long ago. The United States did not have a navy. Economically, the United States could ill afford to fight in Europe or even at home if the British decided to invade. To Washington, the choice was a clear one. In his mind, the young country needed time to develop, grow, and prosper, a vain hope if it was mixed up with Europe’s unending wars. On April 22, 1793, Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality, declaring that the U.S. would support neither France nor England. Washington later explained that it was “the sincere wish of the United States to . . . live in peace and amity with all the inhabitants of the earth.” With this decision, Washington established the first foreign policy of the United States.
Washington did not escape criticism of his policy. Many newspapers accused Washington of turning his back on a friend and ally. Members of Congress, especially the followers of Jefferson (now calling themselves Republican-Democrats) charged that Washington had no constitutional power to issue such a proclamation. They claimed that the proclamation demonstrated Washington’s secretly held desire to become an all-powerful king. Mobs of people gathered in the streets of Philadelphia and threatened to drag the president from his house. Despite this shocking display of hostility toward Washington, the Proclamation of Neutrality stuck. America did not go to war, at least while Washington was in office.
Some historians hold that the Proclamation of Neutrality was Washington’s most important decision as president. American energies were needed for building, not warring. Washington understood this better than most of his fellow citizens. He gave his country the time it needed. Another of Washington’s goals was to make the new Constitution work. One year after issuing the Proclamation of Neutrality, he personally led 13,000 militiamen to enforce a federal tax law. Backwoodsmen in western Pennsylvania refused to pay an excise tax on the making of whiskey. Soon, violence erupted. Washington feared that if a small group could tell the government what to do “nothing but anarchy and confusion is to be expected thereafter.” He remembered Shay’s Rebellion eight years before, which had prompted the formation of a stronger central government under the new Constitution in the first place. Washington realized that if the United States were to survive, the authority of the federal government had to be obeyed and respected. In this case, Washington’s show of force caused the Whiskey Rebellion to collapse. without bloodshed.
Washington could have had a third term as president. But he chose to step down, once and for all ending the idea that he wanted to be a lifetime king. By giving up political power, he made his final major political contribution to our constitutional form of government. Biographer James Thomas Flexner has called George Washington “the indispensable man.” Flexner meant that Washington, and no one else, was needed to lead the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and the United States as its first president.
Washington appears to have been one of those rare individuals in world history who fit the needs of his time. What made Washington a great leader was his understanding of what had to be done. As president, Washington realized that the new Constitution had to be made to work if democracy was to take root in American soil. This would not happen if he had chosen to become a lifetime king or if federal laws were ignored. It was also clear to Washington that the new experiment in representative government would likely fail if the infant nation became involved in European conflicts. Washington is in a class by himself. His style of non-partisan leadership perfectly fit the needs of the new republic. He warned against “the spirit of party” in his Farewell Address, but it went unheeded. Soon party politics would dominate American democracy. For a few years at its beginning, President George Washington made it possible for the United States to survive and grow. In that was his greatness. George Washington was truly “the indispensable man” for his time. We often say that George Washington was a great president. That’s wrong: He was a great man and a good president. Washington was good precisely because he refused to make himself a great president.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Sources: blog.acton.org, “Why is George Washington the greatest president,” By Ray Nothstine; quora.com, “What made George Washington a great President?” By Garit Boothe; catholiceducation.org, “What Made George Washington Great?, By John Rhodehamel