George Washington (1732-1799), the first president of the United States (1789-1797) and one of the most important leaders in United States history. His role in gaining independence for the American colonies and later in unifying them under the new U.S. federal government cannot be overestimated. He was a leading influence in persuading the states to participate in the Constitutional Convention, over which he presided, and he used his immense prestige to help gain ratification of its product, the Constitution of the United States.
George Washington was born into a mildly prosperous Virginia farming family in 1732. After his father died when George was eleven, George’s mother, Mary, a tough and driven woman, struggled to hold their home together with the help of her two sons from a previous marriage. Although he never received more than an elementary school education, young George displayed a gift for mathematics (Freeman 1948). This knack for numbers combined with his quiet confidence and ambition caught the attention of Lord Fairfax, head of one of the most powerful families in Virginia. While working for Lord Fairfax as a surveyor at the age of sixteen, the young Washington traveled deep into the American wilderness for weeks at a time (Freeman 1948). Tragedy struck the young man with the death of his half brother Lawrence, who had guided and mentored George after his father’s death. George inherited Mount Vernon from his brother, living there for the rest of his life.
Washington was elected by the Virginia legislature to both the First and the Second Continental Congress, held in 1774 and 1775. In 1775, after local militia units from Massachusetts had engaged British troops near Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress appointed Washington commander of all the colonial forces.
Following winning his country’s independence, Washington quelled a potentially disastrous bid by some of his officers to declare him king. He then returned to Mount Vernon and the genteel life of a tobacco planter, only to be called out of retirement to preside at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. His great stature gave credibility to the call for a new government and insured his election as the first President of the United States (McDonald 1974). America’s first presidential campaign was really its citizens’ efforts to convince Washington to accept the office. Letters poured into Mount Vernon — from citizens great and small, from former comrades in arms, even from other shores. Many told Washington that his country needed him more than ever and that there was no justification for his refusal. Keenly aware that his conduct as President would set precedents for the future of the office, he carefully weighed every step he took. He appointed Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to his cabinet. Almost immediately, these two men began to quarrel over a wide array of issues, but Washington valued them for the balance they lent his cabinet. Literally the “Father of the Nation,” Washington almost single-handedly created a new government — shaping its institutions, offices, and political practices (McDonald 1974).
As specified by the Constitution, the President was chosen by the Electoral College. In 1788, the method for selecting electors was decided by each state legislature — by public vote in some states and by legislative selection in others. Each state had as many electors as senators and representatives. The election was administered only in ten of the states because Rhode Island and North Carolina had yet to ratify the Constitution and a quarreling New York failed to choose electors in time (McDonald 1974). Each elector was given two votes to cast for President. Washington received the support of every one of the electors, each of whom cast one of the two ballots for him. John Adams, who received thirty-four votes, was the runner-up and was thus named vice president. Washington badly wanted to retire at the conclusion of his first term in 1792. He was now sixty years of age, his eyesight and hearing were deteriorating, and the peace and quiet of Mount Vernon beckoned. But he slowly realized that it was not to be, for many crucial issues remained unresolved. For example, there were ongoing problems stemming from the continuing French-British rivalry.
Additionally, the political schism between America’s northern and southern halves was so severe that there was even talk that the southern states might try to form a separate nation. Washington’s advisers warned him that the times were too volatile to risk surrendering the presidency to someone lacking his popularity and moderation. Thus, one more time he won an election with a unanimous vote. Adams was again elected vice president. George Washington had to borrow money to relocate to New York, then the center of American government (Northen, et al.1965). His presidential inauguration was held near New York’s Wall Street in late April 1789. A tremendous crowd showed up to see the man now known as “the Father of His Country.” Borrowing a custom from English monarchs, who by tradition address Parliament when its sessions open, Washington gave a brief speech. It was the first inaugural address and the first of many contributions that Washington would make to the office of the presidency. But this would be no monarch; the new leader wore a plain brown suit. At every turn, Washington was aware that the conduct of his presidency would set the standard for generations to come (Northen, et al.1965).
The American government in particular, the presidency was in a remarkably primitive state. But Washington’s performance in those early years was both surefooted and brilliant. He went to one session of the Senate to receive its advice about a treaty but was annoyed because senators felt uncomfortable in his presence and would not debate its provisions. Washington withdrew angrily and swore he “would be damned if he went there again,” thus ensuring a tradition of separation
between the executive and legislative branches (Northen, et al.1965). Departments of State, War, and Treasury were established, along with the office of Attorney General, each headed by a trusted presidential adviser. These advisers collectively became known as the cabinet. Washington strove for ideological balance in these appointments, thus augmenting their strength and credibility. He signed the first Judiciary Act of 1789, initiating the development of the judicial branch.
A Supreme Court was created, headed by a chief justice and originally five associate justices, who were chosen by the President and approved by Congress. A network of district courts was also established. Congress sent the President ten amendments to the Constitution that became known as the Bill of Rights; these amendments strengthened civil liberties. It is the substantial consensus among historians that Washington’s tenure in office set the nation on a path that has endured now for over two centuries, longer than any other republic in history. He established precedents that would last for generations and did more to flesh out the skeleton of the presidential office than anyone could have expected or predicted. As one scholar has said, he “invented tradition as he went along.” His actions, more than those of any other Founding Father, became a part of the “unwritten Constitution” (McDonald 1974).
Washington’s reliance on department heads for advice, similar to his war council during the Revolution, set a precedent for including the cabinet as part of the President’s office. Moreover, because Congress did not challenge his appointments or his removal of appointees, principally out of respect for him, the tradition was planted to allow the President to choose his or her own cabinet. By his actions and words, Washington also set the standard for two presidential terms, a practice that lasted until 1940. When John Jay resigned as chief justice of the Supreme Court, Washington selected his successor from outside the bench, disregarding seniority and thus allowing future Presidents to draw from a diverse pool of talent beyond the Court’s aging incumbents. When the
House of Representatives sought records related to negotiations surrounding the Jay Treaty of 1795, Washington refused to deliver all the documents. In doing so, he set the precedent for invoking what became known as executive privilege. In leading federal troops against the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington presented a clear show of federal authority, established the principle that federal law is the supreme law of the land, and demonstrated that the federal government is empowered to levy and collect taxes.
Although he sponsored and supported legislative proposals submitted to Congress for enactment, he carefully avoided trying to dictate or unduly influence the judicial and legislative branches of the government. In not vetoing bills with which he disagreed unless there were constitutional questions, he set a precedent of executive restraint that would be followed by the next five Presidents. Moreover, by keeping Vice President Adams at arm’s length — not even inviting him to attend cabinet meetings — Washington set the tradition by which the vice president’s role is largely ceremonial.
Also, although Washington hated partisanship and political parties, he tolerated dissent, vicious attacks on his reputation and name, and a divisive press — all in the interest of freedom (McDonald 1974). There is little reason to suggest that Washington, unlike so many of his successors, ever sought to use his office for personal empowerment or gain. Neither did he shelter his friends for the sake of their friendships when conflicts of interest arose.
Perhaps most importantly, Washington’s presidential restraint, solemnity, judiciousness, and nonpartisan stance created an image of presidential greatness, or dignity, which dominates the office even today. He was the man who could have been a king but refused a crown and saved a republic.
George Washington lived only two years after leaving the presidency. Mount Vernon had been neglected for decades, and Washington spent most of his remaining days trying to make it solvent and functional. As relations with France worsened in mid-1799, however, the former President was again called to public duty when President Adams named Washington commander of the American Army. But the old general was now showing his age, and his duties were limited to largely symbolic tasks. He insisted on leaving control of the Army to Hamilton. On December 12, 1799, Washington noted in his diary, “At about ten o’clock it began to snow, soon after to hail, and then to a settled cold rain” (Freeman 1948). For five hours that day, Washington had been outdoors on horseback, inspecting his property. The next day he complained of a sore throat, and that night he became deeply ill. Doctors, heeding the medical tenets of the day, extracted blood from him and performed other practices that did him more harm than good.
Yet Washington never complained of the pain. He calmly gave orders to servants and apologized for the trouble he was causing everyone. Around midnight he breathed his last breath. Washington’s funeral was not the simple ceremony he had requested. Thousands of mourners attended the services, a band played, and a ship anchored in the Potomac fired a grand salute. He was buried in the family tomb at Mount Vernon. His forty-two page will, which he had personally drafted in 1799, left his estate, which was valued at $500,000, to Martha. Martha Washington had two young children from her first marriage, Martha and John. She had no children with George Washington. Washington thought it his duty as a stepfather to be “generous and attentive” (Freeman 1948), and expensive orders to London merchants during the childhoods of “Jacky” and “Patsy” reveal doting, caring parents.
Martha would pass the house to George’s nephew, Bushrod Washington. He freed his personal slave, William, with a $30 grant of money to be paid him every year for life, and he ordered the rest of his slaves freed upon Martha’s death. Washington left some of his wealth to a school for poor and orphaned children and other amounts to support the construction of a national university in Washington, D.C. His two grandchildren received large, choice tracts of farmland in Virginia, and he left his numerous friends gifts drawn from his household and personal effects. Washington’s five nephews inherited his five swords along with the instructions to never “unsheathe them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defense, or in defense of their Country and its rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof” (Freeman 1948).
In my opinion during Washington’s eight years in office, he laid down the guidelines for future presidents. George Washington is best known as the “Father of our Country”. He cared for this country much like a parent would care for a child. During his presidency, he solved many noteworthy problems. His achievements led to a democratic, wonderful country we like to call The United States of America. Although he’s not thought of as glamorous, George Washington is looked upon with the utmost respect and awe by all countries of the world. He symbolized qualities of discipline, aristocratic duty, military orthodoxy, and persistence in adversity that his contemporaries particularly valued as marks of mature political leadership.
The successful war hero was known among his peers to ask his top advisers for advice and suggestions on how to proceed. Then he would analyze the information and make the final decision. Just like the modern approach we use today. It was actually the way George Washington, a general and the first U.S. President, worked as a leader, and it was among the reasons he was able to defeat the British Army to win the Revolutionary War. His Presidency was somewhat tough. Like any President, he didn’t have as much control over everything that he would have liked to have. It really came down to his integrity, character, and moral courage. He relied a lot on the fact that throughout his whole life, he always put the country first. People could trust him to stand above the politics, stand above the fray, and keep the interests of the country in mind. One of the things Washington very much did not want to see was the formation of parties, known as factions at the time. He was hoping very much that the U.S. would not go down that path. Of course, it ended up doing that.
If George Washington was able to see the turned out of the country he helped create, I think he would have several things to say. I think he’d be really impressed by the success it has had in the world commercially, in terms of its prominence in foreign affairs. He would be unhappy about the formation of political parties. He would be happy that we’re militarily strong. He would be a little bit worried about how much we’re spending on the military, given that there was always this fear on behalf of all the founding fathers about having a big military Establishment. However, he’d be proud that for the last few hundred years, the military has always been under civilian control and has always submitted to that and never tried to overthrow that.
I think he would be happy that we eventually solved the slavery issue. I think that issue troubled him. He was fearful of the country breaking up because different parts of it had different needs. I think he would not be thrilled that it took the Civil War to solve it. But he’d be happy to see the union continued.
I think he’d be happy with the freedoms that we continue to have. If you look back at his farewell address, he had a number of points in there. He was a strict constructionist. His view was that if you wanted to change the Constitution, that’s great, but you need to follow the process laid out in the Constitution. You can’t read things in there that are not there. He would probably say that we moved away from the original meanings of the Constitution.
Through out Washington’s adult life in public service he earned the unlimited confidence of those early citizens of the United States. His refusal to accept a proffered crown and his willingness to relinquish the office after two terms established the precedents for limits on the power of the presidency. He new alone what would be the best for his country. The position he played in the acquisition of the American independence and his ability of joining the colonies in the federal system could never be overvalued. George was one of the most venerated men of his time. Still today he is held in the highest of esteems even in comparison to the forty-three presidents that preceded him. He was an exceedingly talented leader that was able to persuade the states to take part in the Constitutional Convention and approve to the U.S. Constitution’s realization. Washington’s profound achievements built the foundations of a powerful national government that has survived for more than two centuries. Historians agree that his achievements qualify him for a place among the great leaders of world history.
Freeman, Douglas. George Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. New York: Scribner’s, 1948-1957.
McDonald, Forrest. The Presidency of George Washington. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1974.
Northen, Frank Magill. Loos, John L. and Irons-Georges, Tracy. ” The American Presidents: United States History: ” (2000): 45-46.