Historians on America:Rising by Falling: George Washington
America.gov | 2013-01-23 10:37

The concept of a limited presidency

Washington is inaugurated president of the United States in New York City, 1789.

In 1797, King George III of England, the British king who had been George Washington's enemy during the U.S. Revolutionary War, appraised his former foe's resignation from the presidency of the United States in March. Referring to this event – and looking back also at Washington's earlier resignation as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental army upon concluding the Revolutionary War, in 1783 – George III concluded these two resignations had placed Washington "in a light the most distinguished of any man living." Indeed, the King added magnanimously, that he esteemed Washington "the greatest character of the age."

King George doubtless did not have in mind Machiavelli's strategic advice concerning retirement. In his writings, the Italian Renaissance scholar and cynic advised that any general who had won a war for his prince or country should anticipate suspicion. In which case, Machiavelli wrote, the warrior-statesman could save himself in one of two ways: to resign his military powers, thus avoiding envy; or to use those powers to establish himself in supreme office. Resigning, Machiavelli astutely noted, would operate not only to defend against suspicion but also to create a reputation for probity.

Whether George Washington, the first president of the United States, ever read Machiavelli or not, it is clear that he used the power of resignation throughout his career to further his reputation – and his goals for the emerging nation he seemed destined to lead – in ways Machiavelli might have recognized.

Washington began his pattern of resignations from public office when still a youthful commander of the Virginia militia in the early 1750s. His objective at that juncture was to pressure the colonial governor and assembly into providing men and mat – el to defend the frontiers against Indian attacks. Yet by the time of his resignation as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in 1783, the more sophisticated Washington had clearly learned to establish concrete political goals that could be advanced by retreating to private life intermittently – just as his goals were advanced by holding public office.

The drama of his public roles combined with the drama of his relinquishments – and his statements at these junctures – magnified the powerful effect his character and example were to have on the entire structure of American government and the future course of American civilization. Notably and crucially, Washington spurned invitations to establish an American kingship in 1782. Following that, when he resigned the military command in 1783, he also made clear that he aimed to continue as a private citizen to found a unified, democratic nation that could secure its "national character" – i.e. a liberal democracy – into the distant future. In his "Circular Address to the Governors of the Thirteen States," of June 14, 1783, Washington phrased his final prayer for his countrymen from the Old Testament verses to be found in Micah 6:8, yet changed those humble words ["What does God ask of man, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?"] so as to embrace the benevolent side of human ambition. Washington prayed:

That [God] would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we [could] never hope to be a happy nation.

Washington's phrasing thus converted Micah's humble prayer into a program to shape the liberal character of the United States.

Washington's Ambition
Washington's intellectual ambition sprang from, and was intertwined with, a characteristic personal diffidence noted throughout his career in civil and military office. It has been accepted by historians that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 [see the essay in this volume] was finally able to settle on a constitutional structure containing a strong presidency because of the expectation that Washington would be the first president. Nevertheless, Washington had to be persuaded to attend the convention and then to accept the presidency. Washington during the convention seemed honestly uncertain whether events were unfolding around him – giving credibility to his opinion that "a greater drama is now acting on this theatre than has heretofore been brought on the American stage, or any other in the world" – or whether he himself – no longer a military leader – was still a major player in the drama.

Nonetheless, having been unanimously elected the first president of the United States by the Electoral College in January, 1789, Washington left his Mount Vernon country home on April 16, 1789, and bade farewell to his friends and neighbors in Alexandria, Virginia, with a clear intent to establish an enduring republic. George Washington sought in every way to produce a government for the newly unified states of America that differed from European kingships. In May 1789, he indicated his thinking in a letter to James Madison, one of the primary authors of the new Constitution: "As the first of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent, it is devoutly to be wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles."

Thus, the first inaugural address of his presidency focused almost exclusively upon the responsibilities – not the powers of the officers of the new U.S. government. However, Washington realized that democracy, if wary of autocracy, could scarcely tolerate anarchy. Corresponding with the growth of political parties and increasing dissension in the new republic as the years passed, Washington devoted much thought to the survival of the nation as a successful political entity, including his much remarked 1794 "State of the Union" address in which he condemned "self-created democratic societies" that had been implicated in the Whisky Rebellion. This minor revolt of 500 farmers in Pennsylvania against a federal liquor tax had been one of the first tests for the new national government. When Washington ordered troops into the area, the opposition collapsed without a fight. Still, these "self-created democratic societies" seemed to him at the time to contain the potential for something like the terror spawned by the French Revolution. Besides protesting a federal tax on distilled spirits with populist, rejectionist political rhetoric, the farmers had seemed to be influenced by the French ambassador, Edmond Genet, who had directly challenged Washington's authority by threatening an appeal to the people to override Washington's "Proclamation of Neutrality" in the looming war between England and France.

In addition, Washington realized a successful democracy would require a competent and forceful executive. Washington's attempt to balance humility with firmness was not always easy to achieve. Organizing the new government with exquisite attention to the symbolic significance of every word and deed for subsequent practice required fortitude and an iron will. The U.S. Constitution mandates that the executive branch will seek the "advice and consent" of the Senate to treaties with foreign powers. Thus, Washington as president once determined to "advise and consult" with the Senate on a treaty matter involving negotiations with Indian tribes. Accompanied by his secretary of war, Henry Knox, the president presented himself before the Senate while the clerk read out the main points that concerned Washington – thus seeking the point-by-point constitutional "advice and consent." Following this dramatic entrance, Washington was ushered out of the chamber and cooled his heels outside while what was later to become known as the "world's greatest deliberative body" debated how to proceed. Realizing he'd made a mistake that could limit the power and authority of future presidents, the president turned on his heels and left the building – never to return personally before the Senate for such purposes. By doing so, Washington took a firm step towards creating a presidency that is strong, dignified, and autonomous within a system of checks and balances, while responsive to Congress through intermediaries. This simple act helped define the future balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government.

Moderation and Magnanimity
While aware that the success of the new federal government depended on a strong presidency, Washington, as noted, took steps to make sure future presidents would not become autocrats. He did this by attempting to define the character of the new federal government as much as the office of the presidency – or, as he put it, "to express my idea of a flourishing state with precision; and to distinguish between happiness and splendor." That distinction had already constituted the animating theme of the 1783 "Circular Address" – democratic self-government understood as requiring a spirit of moderation to survive and thrive. To moderation, he had added a spirit of "magnanimity," a spirit that enables democratic government to seek restraint and compromise, and to avoid demanding total power. (Washington later praised and encouraged the same "magnanimity" in his 1796 Farewell Address.)

Parsing the history of the Declaration of Independence, Washington declared in the 1789 draft inaugural address:

I rejoice in a belief that intellectual light will spring up in the dark corners of the earth; that freedom of enquiry will produce liberality of conduct; that mankind will reverse the absurd position that the many were, made for the few; and that they will not continue slaves in one part of the globe, when they can become freemen in another.

He continued in the 1789 draft inaugural address to set forth his intentions for the presidency. Washington desired, he explained, to assume the presidency in the company of fellow citizens, entering a path that would yet prove "intricate and thorny," but which would "grow plain and smooth as we go." It would grow so, he held, because of adhering to that "eternal line that separates right from wrong." When the time came, therefore, for his retirement from the presidency in 1796, which established the precedent of the two-term (eight year) presidency, all the elements of a moral view of the office and the entire federal structure had been established to give his retirement the decisive and dramatic significance that it has had ever since in the United States.

Washington's administration of the presidency under the new federal Constitution was not untroubled. During the eight years he held office, the founding of a new nation itself was consummated, yet, during that same time, Americans witnessed the birth of what ultimately became political parties. Washington's unanimous election to the presidency by the representatives of a grateful nation was never to be repeated, as other statesmen of the era discovered room to contest his "administration" of the government within the protective confines of the Constitution. As the new democracy splintered into what he called "factions," Washington himself became the tacit head of the Federalist Party, direct heir to the Federalists, the advocates of the new Constitution who had prevailed in the struggle over whether the states would ratify it.

The opposition party, the Democratic-Republican Party, was headed by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. For all but the first two years of Washington's time in office as president, growing party discord figured as the most significant and most pressing political development. The country witnessed the emergence of party presses and party organizations. Whereas nowadays it is assumed that the executive branch of government consists of the president's supporters, in those days, the executive branch itself was divided. Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, managed the Federalists, while Thomas Jefferson spearheaded the opposition Republicans, even while he was secretary of state in Washington's cabinet. Madison, whose 1791-92 essays in the National Gazette laid out the Republican platform, had previously been the principal Federalist spokesman in Congress. To all appearances, therefore, the cemented union for which Washington had so long labored was being fractured in a contest over the spoils of victory. While maintaining the principle of energetic debate, Washington sought to contain the damage of uncontrolled division, praying that "the cup which has been presented may not be snatched from our lips by a discordance of action." The fact that this discord of the early Republic was ultimately contained "within the walls of the Constitution" is perhaps the single greatest achievement of the founding, and of Washington's presidency.

A Definitive Retirement
With a presidential election and the prospect of a third term of office looming before him, Washington determined to retire in 1796. While making this decision, he planned how his retirement in this instance could become a permanent advantage to the new American state. On May 10, 1796, he asked Alexander Hamilton to help prepare a valedictory address. Washington sent to Hamilton a draft, parts of which had been authored by James Madison four years earlier (prematurely as it turned out). After four months of correspondence, Washington's objective had been achieved, and he published the "Farewell" on Monday, September 17, 1796 – Constitution Day – in Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser.

Washington confidently speaks of "the happy reward of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers" in his "Farewell Address," making it clear that he was leaving the office of the presidency with no less ease of spirit than he mustered when he resigned his military commission in 1783. On the earlier occasion Washington declared that he resigned "with satisfaction the appointment [he] accepted with diffidence." Washington presented his retirement from the presidency in the following light:

1. The period for a new election to the presidency was drawing near, and Washington chose to "further public deliberation" by declaring his unavailability.

2. His was the path of "duty" as well as "inclination."

3. Previously, duty had always overridden inclination, as in the case when the critical posture of "our affairs with foreign nations" prevented a retirement in 1792.

4. By 1796 the people's "external and internal" concerns were compatible with releasing him.

5. He had explained in his first inaugural address the end that he had in view and retired believing that he had succeeded, but attributed success to "the people."

6. He was grateful for the success of "your" efforts and wished that "your union" and "brotherly affection" might be perpetual; so that the free constitution which was the work of "your hands" might be sacredly maintained; and so that "the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty," might be made complete by "so prudent a use of this blessing."

Finally, desiring "the permanency" of "your happiness as a people," he offered disinterested advice similar to that he urged when he disbanded the army.

On that occasion, Washington, drafting his 1783 "Circular Address," was responding to the urgings of several of his colleagues to leave his countrymen a political testament to guide their future considerations. Washington acknowledged these urgings in a letter to Robert Morris on June 3, 1783, by stating that he would "with greatest freedom give my sentiments to the States on several political subjects." He followed the same model in 1796, upon leaving the presidency, without need of urging.

Washington's retirement from the presidency in 1796 after two four-year terms in office was important because it cemented the concept of a limited presidency. Washington could have used his military stature and his enormous popularity to become an autocrat; yet, he refused to do so. His modesty certainly appealed to the public. The spontaneous and universal acclaim that welcomed him home from the Revolutionary War in 1783 was duplicated on this occasion.

This time, however, he had completed a much more trying task, the increasingly bitter party strife having made even him an open target. Not only had the country been solidified and its finances put in order, but also ominous threats of foreign war that loomed over his last five years in office had greatly declined even while the country had been strengthened. Washington also took satisfaction that resignation removed him from that unfamiliar position of being held up to public scorn and ridicule by "infamous scribblers," a source of grief and irritation to every president since Washington as well.

The Rise of the People
In evaluating the strength of Washington's character in the presidency, and his contribution to the foundation of a democratic republic, one might mention an incident from his earlier years. He had ended his military career as the revolutionary commander with a poignant farewell to the officers who had served faithfully under him. Woodrow Wilson noted that, in the final years of the Revolutionary War and "the absence of any real government, Washington proved almost the only prop of authority and law." How this arose from Washington's character was displayed fully in Fraunces Tavern, November 23, 1783. The British had departed New York, and the general bade farewell to his men. At that emotional moment, at a loss for words, according to contemporary accounts, Washington raised his glass: "With heart full of love and gratitude, I now take my leave of you." He extended his hand, to shake the hands of his officers filing past. Henry Knox stood nearest and, when the moment came to shake hands and pass, Washington impulsively embraced and kissed that faithful general.

Then, in perfect silence, he so embraced each of his officers as they filed by, and then they parted. This dramatic end to eight years of bloody travail demonstrates Washington's instinctive wish to build concord out of conflict, and his ability to recognize the merit and value of others, as well as his own.

When Washington declared, upon retiring from the presidency decades later, that "`Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government," he stated in words what his earlier actions symbolized: that the success of the democratic enterprise depends on a certain willingness to give others their due and to relinquish some claims of the ego and of power. The very first condition for the preservation of a democratic republic, Washington believed, is the foundation within the individual of prudent reason. Speaking of the people as a whole, Washington ultimately called this quality "enlightened opinion" and "national morality." By commending morality and reason to the American people as he left office, Washington hoped that the power of his example had made them capable of following duty over inclination. By limiting his own behavior and prerogatives in office and by enduring conflict without resorting to tyranny, Washington made it clear that he wished his legacy to be a true democracy, and not a reversion to traditional autocracy. His refusal to seek a third presidential term cemented that. Washington's "falling" in 1796 was his people's rising. Continuing respect for the two-term presidential precedent in the United States (now enforced by constitutional amendment) represents continuing affirmation of the people's authority.


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