George Washington's Legacy: He Always Knew His Role as President of All the People Came First

Roundup: Talking About History

Ron Chernow, in the NYT (Feb. 22, 2004):

As the Democratic primaries reach a critical stage, partisan spirit is running high, and the presidential campaign is already verging on blood sport. George Washington's birthday today serves as a reminder of how presidents can transcend politics and embody the national spirit.

From the time he was recruited as commander in chief in 1775, Washington personified the often tenuous hope of unity among the 13 fractious colonies. With most of the early patriot blood spilled in Massachusetts, the second Continental Congress wanted a Southern general who could lend a national imprint to the struggle. Washington shed his Virginia identity and forged a Continental Army that tutored its green recruits into thinking of themselves as Americans.

It is impossible to assess Washington's career without stumbling over the words"unity" and"unanimity" at every turn. He was unanimously chosen as president of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where he presided with customary tact. Since it was assumed that Washington would be the first president, his taciturn but resolute presence reconciled many skittish delegates to the vast powers invested in the executive branch. Twice in a row, in 1789 and 1792, the Electoral College elected him president by a unanimous vote, confirming his status as a political deity who seemed to hover above the petty feuds of lesser mortals.

Nevertheless, Americans today tend to take George Washington for granted. He seems less soulful than Lincoln, less robust than Theodore Roosevelt, less charismatic than Franklin Roosevelt. His bloodless image as a remote, Mount Rushmore of a man — partly a byproduct of the craggy face recreated endlessly by Gilbert Stuart — has worked to obscure the magnitude of his achievement. Too often Washington seems a dull, phlegmatic figure, wooden if worthy, whose self-command stemmed from an essential lack of inner fire.

In fact, Washington was a strong-willed, hot-blooded personality."I wish I could say that he governs his temper," a rich Virginian told Washington's mother when George was 16 years old."He is subject to attacks of anger and provocation, sometimes without just cause." The young man mastered his wayward emotions by reading history, studying deportment, and learning how to dance and dress smartly. Like other founders, Washington was an ambitious, insecure provincial, committed to a strenuous regimen of self-improvement.

Over time, Washington would retreat behind an iron mask of self-control. Alexander Hamilton, his chief aide for four years during the Revolution, glimpsed the well-concealed inner man and found him unbearably moody and irritable. As with many passionate but guarded personalities, Washington sometimes burst out unexpectedly in anger....

The prodigious self-restraint enabled Washington to rise above the sectional strife that threatened to tear the 13 states apart. He adopted a detached, even cryptic facade to resist association with any particular faction or interest. In a noisy world of blustering politicos, he possessed the"gift of silence," as John Adams phrased it. Washington articulated his secret succinctly:"With me it has always been a maxim rather to let my designs appear from my works than by my expressions." ...

In his farewell address in 1796, Washington warned against"the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party." By this point, however, it was abundantly clear that the two-party system was here to stay. During his single-term presidency, John Adams, a nominal Federalist, tried in vain to perpetuate the notion of a president above party labels. When his successor, Thomas Jefferson, was inaugurated, he intoned famously,"We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists" — a neat rhetorical flourish that thinly disguised his status as the first president to head a political party.

Ever since, the occupants of the White House have experienced an uneasy tension between their role as party leader and as president of all of the people. George Washington never doubted which role should come first.


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