Who was George Washington? Most people have been programmed to answer this question without much thought. He was the first president. He fought against the British in the American War for Independence. He cut down a cherry tree but could not tell a lie. Ask people who President Washington was, though, and you may not get so many colorful stories.
Many people seem to know that Washington commanded the Continental Army, that he presided over the Constitutional Convention, and that he had wooden teeth. In regards to the matter of his actual governing of the nation between 1789 and 1797, though, most people simply assume a blank stare. Most other presidents have the benefit of actually being president when they performed the deeds that they are famous for. Lincoln had the civil war. Roosevelt had the New Deal. Bill Clinton had Monica Lewinsky. Such presidential events loom large in the public’s shared memory, but few people can name more than one or two things that occurred when Washington was president.
Washington was perhaps in that class of men whose best days were behind them by the time they assumed the presidency. The administrations of Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were all mediocre at best and disastrous at worst. They brought the nation such blights as Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson’s Embargo, and Madison’s War of 1812. It may very well be that Washington belongs in this category of the formerly glorious as well. It was Washington’s tax policies that precipitated the Whiskey Rebellion. It was Washington’s debt policy that benefited the urban “stock-jobbers” at the expense of the rural farmers. And it was Washington who gave the nation a National Bank that likely funneled illegal money to members of the Federalist Party. In the end, Washington was anxious to leave office. Criticism of his administration had become so rampant that it was becoming clear that Washington might have to actually campaign against Jefferson in order to win the 1796 election. He happily stepped aside. Washington was no retail politician.
In spite of some of Washington’s illiberal economic policies, some good things were going on during his tenure. The Bill of Rights was passed and ratified, and Washington’s steady hand helped avoid a socialist counter-revolution being fomented by American supporters of the French Revolution. Washington also helped set a long lasting precedent of Presidential restraint by leaving after two terms. (Even with the growing opposition, Washington could have probably had a third term had he asked for it.)
Washington’s overall record as president, though, is complicated and murky. It is not clear that his administration was “great” by either mainstream or non-mainstream standards. It is apparent that what Washington is really remembered for is the Washington of the Revolution. He is remembered as the man who crossed the ice-choked Delaware River on Christmas night to attack the Hessian mercenaries, and who shivered with his men at Valley Forge. He is remembered as the man who held the American army together even though many of his soldiers had to function without pay and without shoes. In short, Washington is most loved when he is remembered as a relatively powerless rebel fighting against a powerful and dangerous enemy. The Washington of legend is Washington the underdog, not Washington the partisan administrator.
This is an important distinction because it pulls into focus why we honor George Washington in the first place. Washington is important not as a president, but simply as a man. He was a man who risked his vast fortune and his life to fight for what many saw as a lost cause. Who can say that any president ever risked as much as Washington did during the revolution? Had Lincoln lost the Civil War he could have returned to Springfield and lived out his life in peace. Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt would have likely been rich and comfortable no matter what the outcome of their policies. Sitting in their palatial homes in New York, they never faced foreign invasion or the risk of being hanged as traitors.
Washington’s accomplishments as a soldier and private citizen are important to recognize because they illustrate that Washington should not be considered great because he became president. Washington was a great man who just happened to be president at one point in his life. This is a fundamental distinction that many people miss when they look upon the presidency as some pinnacle of human achievement. History has shown that the presidency has been home to many a political hack who will say anything to get elected. When remembering Washington, it is the man, not the office, that should be revered. The presidency can not be made great by proxy. To be a great man, being president is neither necessary nor sufficient; and when we begin to confuse great men and great presidents we do ourselves a disservice. It gives far too much credit to Washington’s successors. They do not deserve it.
February 23, 2001
Ryan McMaken lives in Denver, Colorado. He edits the Western Mercury.