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.