On the heels of Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House last month, and President’s Day a week ago, we celebrate his presidency and those of his 42 predecessors. First and foremost is the man who molded the position, “His Excellency,” George Washington, born 277 years ago yesterday. This namesake was used throughout the Revolutionary War as he willed the Colonial Army to an unlikely victory against the British in an elongated eight-year campaign. It is also the title of a 2004 book
written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Joseph Ellis
Ellis’ 275-page tome is a manageable retrospective on the most essential member of the Founding Generation. It removes the veneer of the fairy tale story of George Washington, but also the tarnish that revisionists have since attempted to unleash on the “Father of Our Country.” The story winds through his life, emphasizing his humble roots, the military exploits as a British subject that would pave the way for future use against the crown, and his decision to “marry up,” choosing Martha Custis, the wealthiest woman in Virginia over his true love.
At heart, Washington was a pragmatist, for unlike his revolutionary peers (Adams, Jefferson, and Madison to name a few); he was not formally educated or beholden to established theories. Washington was a man of action who learned by doing. He had a keen ability to see greatness in others, delegating to offset his own weaknesses, while maintaining the respect and undying loyalty of his subordinates.
Of the charter members of our Founders, Washington is perhaps the most difficult to get to know on a personal level in spite of the immense scholarship that lies in his wake. He was comfortable with silence and a reluctant participant in the political arena. Indeed, he preferred the peaceful serenity of Mt. Vernon over the charades occupying the first two national capitals of New York and Philadelphia.
During the War, his requests were most often left unfulfilled by the Continental Congress, and he was forced to make due with a defensive strategy that eventually broke the will of the British occupiers. He made several blunders, especially early on, that placed the safety and frankly the fate of his army in severe peril. Fortunately, the British failed to go for the jugular time and again, and Washington repeatedly dodged bullets, often literally, as if there was something inevitable about the cause he led and the country he built.
The importance of Washington’s presence at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787 cannot be overstated. Though he preferred to sit back and oversee the proceedings in silence, His Excellency’s support for the final product legitimized the document and culminated his revolutionary work as first in war, and in peace.
His ascension to the presidency was a natural outgrowth of his legendary service to the country. It is now difficult to fathom, but Washington was uncontested in the race for chief executive, and was elevated unanimously by the Electoral College. At the time, public campaigning was viewed as unbecoming to the importance of the office, and Washington loyally answered the call of his countrymen one final time to serve as our nation’s first president.
Before there was a President Lincoln or Obama, Washington built his own team of rivals. John Adams served as his Vice President and generally shared his affinity for a strong central government. Alexander Hamilton, his aide de camp during the Revolutionary War, was his adopted son and source of ideological justification for the policies he pursued. Through his post as the Secretary of Treasury, Hamilton remade the credit of the fledgling country and established its first national bank.
Thomas Jefferson was his Secretary of State, and often worked privately against the professed policies of his boss. Throughout Washington’s two terms in office, Jefferson teamed with James Madison to lay the foundations for the first political party known then as the Republicans. There were others, too, but these internal power struggles should inform Obama and others who subscribe to this concept that with a coalition of brilliant and powerful minds comes individual agendas sometimes at odds with that of the president.
At the conclusion of his second term in office, Washington turned it his proverbial sword once more, establishing a precedent that would go unbroken until the trying times of the Great Depression and World War II, and later be institutionalized in the 22nd Amendment. Vice President Adams was elected as his successor, and the transition marked the fact that the United States would forever be a nation of laws, not men.
Of the men who led this nation, Washington will always stand among the greats, and no man was more integral to the military and legal foundations of this great nation. More than two hundred years after he died on an estate mere miles from the new national capital soon to bear his name, Washington’s claim on the title “His Excellency” remains unchallenged.