Happy Birthday George! Please come back!
Today is Presidents' Day, and tomorrow is the birthday of our first U.S. president, George Washington, who was born 279 years ago in Westmoreland County, Virginia.
Like never before we need another George Washington, a man of such duty and honor that he would not cling to power and was willing to stand for principle rather than toe the party line. He was a man who preferred farming to warfare, but would fight if necessary with unrivaled will and cunning.
As an adult, Washington would be the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War against England, and later the new nation’s first president.
The first title proposed for our founding president was the grandiose “His Highness, President George Washington, Protector of our Land and Freedoms." In the end, he settled for simply “President”.
If the real measure of a man is his ability to let go of power, Washington was a man of admirable integrity. During America’s infancy, some wanted the new nation to establish a monarchy, with George Washington ruling as king in place of the old King George.
Washington didn’t crave the life of a public figure after the Revolutionary War ended, according to an article at whitehouse.gov. Rather, he “longed to retire to his fields at Mount Vernon.”
He left retirement out of a sense of duty, not motivated by political ambitions. States whitehouse.gov, “He soon realized that the Nation under its Articles of Confederation was not functioning well, so he became a prime mover in the steps leading to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787.”
After reciting the oath of office at his inauguration, Washington spontaneously added the words, “So help me God," and these words became a part of the traditional swearing in ceremony.
During his presidency, the French Revolution broke out. Many wanted America to get involved. Washington refused the advice of pro-French cabinet members as well as pro-British cabinet members, firmly believing America should stay out of European affairs. He said the newly formed nation should first safeguard America’s own interests.
Though the Constitution at that time put no restriction on how many terms a president could serve, Washington chose to retire after two terms in office. As Vincent Wilson Jr. says in The Book of the Founding Fathers, “After eight years, when he refused a third term, he helped to create the departments and traditions of the new republic. Although reserved and solemn, Washington embodied the essentials of the Constitutional Presidency, and he relinquished the power of the Presidency as firmly as he did that of the conquering General—another first, and one that set a compelling example for his successors.”
Washington and political parties
Washington is our only president to ever be elected unanimously by the Electoral College. He also is the only president to pre-date the existence of political parties.
The framers of the Constitution never envisioned rival parties. This is exemplified by their original arrangement for choosing the vice-president. It wasn't to be by party affiliation as the president-elect's running mate, but rather the vice president would be whichever presidential candidate got the second highest vote total. (Imagine Hillary Clinton serving as Donald Trump’s vice-president! The idea that the winner and the runner up might cling to opposing ideologies just wasn’t something the framers conceived of.
By the end of Washington’s second term, two parties were forming—the Federalists, which favored a strong central government, and the Democratic-Republicans, which wanted a small, less controlling central government.
In the early days of America, Alexander Hamilton embodied the ideals of the Federalists. At the constitutional convention, he had advocated that presidents be elected for life, and that presidents appoint governors for each state, rather than having them be elected by the people.
Thomas Jefferson embodied the ideals of the opposing ideology. His philosophy was “That government is best which governs least.” His reflections on the role of government sound like the standard pitches for the modern day Libertarian Party.
Washington fiercely opposed the existence of political parties. His farewell address is one long denouncement of parties. In it, he said that parties “serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.”
Given the political climate of 2018, Washington sounds prophetic.
It is difficult for the “will of the people” to prevail among elected officials because all too often leaders prioritize loyalty to their party over loyalty to what voters themselves want. Washington foresaw a time when “factions” would obstruct people’s ability to govern themselves.
Later in his farewell address, Washington said, “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Washington died of a throat infection at the not terribly old age of 67, having enjoyed a meager three years of retirement.
At Washington’s funeral in December of 1799, Col. Henry Lee famously eulogized Washington to the crowd gathered, describing him as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen". This was an apt description in 1799, and it continues to be all these years later.