On Monday, we celebrate George Washington’s official birthday.
Each year on this occasion, I remind readers that Washington’s Birthday is the legal U.S. and Maine government holiday. In remembering all presidents, some outright failures, the day meant to honor Washington has become “Presidents’ Day,” a commercial holiday.
Upon taking office as president, Washington realized that he would set precedents for his successors and have a deep impact on his country’s political evolution.
The presidency had been designed for Washington, after he had turned down the opportunity to be the new American king. He was committed to the republican form of government in which the people, not the monarch, would be sovereign.
This new form of government existed nowhere else in the world and consequently, the American system of government was considered an “experiment.” It still is.
Washington was its first leader, though the founders were wary of a president with powers to rival a king. Washington set out to limit the exercise of his authority, often deferring to congressional policy initiatives. He did not believe the Constitution gave him unlimited power.
He created the presidential cabinet and believed in executive privilege when it came to his communications with department heads. Still, he said that privilege did not apply in cases of impeachment.
President Washington put people who shared his views on the Supreme Court. Long after the opposition party led by Thomas Jefferson took control of the federal government, Washington’s Federalist appointees dominated the Court.
Washington believed in “big government.” During the Revolutionary War, he had depended on voluntary state financial and military contributions. The experience made him a supporter of a strong national government.
He agreed with constitutional drafters who argued that the United States could only become a great nation if powers were transferred from the states to the federal government. He advocated the expansion of the government he led.
He faced strong opposition from those worried that the national government would override states’ rights and individual freedoms. Washington accepted the Bill of Rights as an essential part of the deal to make a new country.
Washington worried about the growth of political parties that he witnessed. He predicted “the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension ….” He concluded that strong partisanship could undermine the functioning of government.
In proposing an accord with the British, his former enemy, Washington subscribed to a view later formulated by a British statesman: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” Jefferson and his supporters disagreed, years later launching the disastrous War of 1812 against the British.
Jefferson attacked him openly. Though Washington would ultimately cut off contact with him, he refrained from any personal attacks on his fellow Virginian. Such values seem lost in today’s politics.
In a country populated mostly by white Protestants, he advocated equality for all groups. He even opposed the use of the word “tolerance,” because it implied the superiority of one group over others.
Washington, a southern slave owner, agonized over slavery. He recognized that the country might break apart over the issue. If it did, a friend reported in 1795, “he had made up his mind to remove and be of the northern.”
He believed that slavery would disappear as the nation’s economy developed, though he was overly optimistic about its end. He recognized that the future lay in the development of wage labor in manufacturing, already beginning in the North.
Thus, 70 years before Lincoln’s willingness to compromise on slavery to save the Union, Washington used his national standing to hold the country together. His will freed his slaves soon after his death, and, against Virginia law, he left money for their education.
He resigned as general, accepted no pay as president and declined to serve more than two terms. When Britain’s King George III, America’s old enemy, was told that Washington would walk away from high office, he said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
No American has ever enjoyed more prestige in his own lifetime than Washington. But he wore the mantel of power with modesty and showed great respect for the views of others.
Perhaps above all, Washington created the aura of the presidency. As chief of state as well as partisan head of government, he believed the president should try to represent all Americans and the national interest.
Since his time, most presidents have tried to retain that dual role. But his legacy wanes in bitter partisanship promoted by the self-proclaimed “greatest” president. Washington’s successor next year may face the task of restoring the presidency itself.