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It’s a perfect time to reflect on George Washington’s attitude toward permanent power

Aside from the annual official observance, we have a special reason to appreciate George Washington just now. He knew how to leave power. And he set an example that may have much to do with the remarkable durability of democracy in America. Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Khadafy, etc., not so much.

As a young man always drawn to iconoclasm, I had a less-than reverential view of the Father of our Country. He was a rich planter whose fortune was mostly the result of his marriage to a wealthy widow and who benefitted from slave labor. He fought for the King of England in the French and Indian Wars and had a mixed record but seems to have committed at least one costly major blunder. I don’t consider him to have been a military genius.

By most accounts, his selection to lead the Continental Army had a lot to with his impressive appearance, especially when seated on a horse. His early leadership of the Army was unsuccessful and hampered by his unwillingness to use guerrilla-like tactics that would give the rebels their only chance against the better-trained British and mercenary forces. Nonetheless, he eventually did adapt, showed great courage and stamina, and succeeded (although the decision by France to enter the war on our side was very likely the key).

In the aftermath of the war, Washington bravely and firmly quashed a brewing mutiny of his former officers against the civilian leadership of the fledgling nation. If Washington had chosen otherwise, he could easily have ended up as military dictator, maybe even king. But Washington was sincerely committed to republican ideals and embraced — as few in his position had done in the history of the world — the value of absolute civilian control over the military as a necessary characteristic of a free nation.

As riots and crackdowns spin across the Middle East, as we consider a wider history of democracy and its failure to take root in many parts of the world, one of the recurring themes is that someone came to power — often by military means — and then decided to keep it forever, and even to pass it on to their kids. It is sometimes said that America is fortunate that Washington had no sons. But I prefer to give him credit for principled decisions.

Washington returned to life as a gentleman planter of Virginia. He was extremely protective of his unsullied reputation and his place in history. While this aspect sometimes makes him seem a bit vain, I’m also thinking of how many men, having achieved an act of greatness, would have been better off if they decided to preserve their good name rather than cash in on it or seek excessive power based on it.

A few years later, his younger friends Alexander Hamilton and James Madison recruited him to come out of political retirement to participate in the Constitutional Convention. Washington agreed that the country was suffering from a weak, ineffectual national government. But he worried about investing his reputation in a project the success of which was far from guaranteed.

His young friends nonetheless convinced him and he was, naturally, chosen to preside over the convention. (He used that as a reason to abstain from taking positions on any of the key questions.) I have little doubt that Washington’s association with the project was among the reasons the proposed document won its eventual narrow ratification.

The office of the president was designed with Washington in mind, and it was understood that he would be chosen. In fact, he was named on every single elector’s ballot in 1789 and 1792. Washington seemed to genuinely not enjoy the presidency, and almost didn’t agree to a second term. He insisted on retiring after two terms, even though he could surely have been elected again and as often as he chose. This is the second occasion on which Washington set a great example about not seeking permanent power.

You probably know that the current constitutional limit of two terms was not adopted until 1951, in reaction to FDR’s four terms. But until FDR, every single two-term president declined to seek a third term because (among other reasons) of Washington’s example.

It’s a little hard to imagine that if he had stayed in office, Washington would eventually have been the subject of demonstrators in the streets demanding that he leave, as just happened to Hosni Mubarak.

But, for me, this particular Presidents Day seems a good one to celebrate the particular Washingtonian quality of knowing when and how to leave power.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Gary Thaden on 02/21/2011 - 04:27 pm.

    Great piece! Thank you for writing it and highlighting this aspect of his life. I just finished a biography of Robert Morris (one of three signers of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and U.S. Constitution). Your opinions of Washington, both his strengths and weaknesses, match what Charles Rappleye wrote in “Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution”.

  2. Submitted by James Warden on 02/21/2011 - 05:00 pm.

    Good post overall, but I gotta take exception to this because it’s a persistant, inaccurate myth that dates back to the Revolutionary War itself:

    “His early leadership of the Army was unsuccessful and hampered by his unwillingness to use guerrilla-like tactics that would give the rebels their only chance against the better-trained British and mercenary forces.”

    In fact, the Americans’ only chance came through conventional battles like Saratoga (which brought the French into the war, and transformed the conflict into a global one) and conventional campaigns like Yorktown (which trapped Cornwallis and eliminated the last major British force in the South). It would likely have been almost impossible for the Americans to win foreign support by slowly bleeding the British dry.

    Guerrilla warfare *was* an important adjunct to the conflict. Nathaniel Greene used it to whittle away at the British in the South. But his campaign that really sucked the life out of their force was a strategic retreat deep into the Carolinas that stretched the British to the breaking point. Napoleon would come to know this strategy in Russia three decades later.

    Movies like Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot” have made a virtue of militia. But this conflates the way forces were raised with the way they fought. True, militia often fought using guerrilla tactics. But at Cowpens, the battle on which “The Patriot’s” climactic scene is based, the commander’s great genius was not that he used guerrilla tactics. It was that he found a way to compel militia to fight more-or-less conventionally—namely by backing them up against a river so they couldn’t run away. The commander certainly used trickery, but the battle was a line-on-line fight Frederick the Great would have recognized.

    Remember, the Revolutionary War was also a civil war. A large portion of the “British” forces were actually Loyalists who were essentially the same as their American counterparts. There’s no real reason the Americans actually would be superior to the British. When Americans and Loyalist forces met, as in the American victory at Kings Mountain, they tended to do it head on. In fact, you could make a strong argument that the Indian alliance with the British arguably gave that side a superior use of guerrilla warfare.

    The importance of American guerrilla tactics actually has far more to do with our national character and belief in rugged individualism than it does with historical reality. Washington’s and his successors’ skepticism of guerrilla warfare would be vindicated in the War of 1812 and the years leading up to it, when militia using both conventional and unconventional tactics would fail miserably.

    That same war offers another lesson on national myths: The failures of 1812-1815 eventually led to a professional army when leaders realized that the “rugged individualism” that citizens so cherished wasn’t all that good at actually protecting the country.

  3. Submitted by Dan Spock on 02/22/2011 - 03:14 pm.

    This is also a perfect time to see the new exhibtion “Discover the Real George Washington” at the Minnesota History Center. The exhibit covers many of the historical events outlined in this column. You can also see amazing recreated models of Washington at different stages of his life, learn about his family and business career, his ambivalence about slavery (though he didn’t free his slaves until after his death), his military exploits–with many defeats and victories to his credit, the role he played in defining the presidency and his terrible dental health. It’s a great way to learn about our nation’s first president!

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