Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Washington's parting gift
One that keeps on giving (Moments that Made America)
Acts of omission can be more important than those of commission. George Washington did many things as president that were vital in setting the new federal government in motion, but none had more lasting significance than something he did not do.
In the autumn of 1796, George Washington announced that he would not accept a third term as president. Seldom has a country owed so much to one person for simply getting out of the way.
The irony of it was that few wanted him to go. When tyrants and other bad leaders leave, there is often a sigh of relief; in those cases a departure can have obvious benefits. But no one thought Washington a tyrant, not even those editors who called him one to boost their circulation. Yet he had had enough, and Mount Vernon beckoned irresistibly.
The job of president had been his for the taking, and in fact for the making. Washington had been talked back from an earlier retirement, after the Revolutionary War, by Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and others who feared the collapse of the country’s first national government, under the Articles of Confederation. Washington himself had experienced the weakness of that government during the war, when the Confederation Congress had proved unable to keep his soldiers adequately fed, shod and paid, and he had had to face down incipient mutiny. After the war ended, things got worse, for such cement as common fear of Britain afforded the Articles dissolved, and the thirteen states went their separate ways, often in conflict with one another. Trade wars broke out, the national debt went unpaid, the national honor declined, and the possibility of falling back into Britain’s orbit loomed. When Hamilton and James Madison organized a convention to strengthen the national government, Washington agreed to attend.
He was quickly named president of the convention. Whether or not he understood this as anticipating his becoming president of the government the convention created, the other delegates did. And for this reason, the delegates devoted little attention to the office of the president. They argued back and forth about the composition and powers of Congress, the legislative branch of the new government. But when talk turned to the executive branch - the presidency and its subordinate offices - most looked to Washington at the front of the room and decided to let him figure things out once he took the job. By the end of the convention, it was understood that Washington would be the first president of the United States, and that the office would be what he would make of it.
Because he was the first, everything he did set precedents. He gave an inaugural address, despite the Constitution’s silence on the subject. The Constitution called for the president to brief Congress “from time to time” on the state of the Union; Washington made it an annual event. The Constitution reserved to Congress the power to declare war but said nothing about declarations of neutrality; when war broke out in Europe consequent to the French Revolution, Washington proclaimed neutrality for the United States. Neutrality in Europe’s wars became a pillar of American foreign policy until the early twentieth century. Washington refused to enter foreign alliances with other countries and warned his compatriots against the same; this precedent lasted even longer, until the mid-twentieth century.
The Constitution said nothing about how long a president should serve. The president’s term of office was four years, but incumbents could be reelected without limit. Members of Congress could serve indefinitely, too. Federal judges received appointments for life. Some delegates at the Constitutional Convention supported limits on presidents, fearing long tenure would lead to despotism. One proposal would permit presidents a single seven-year term. But other delegates, most notably Hamilton, thought a little despotism would do the country good, after the fecklessness of the government under the Articles. Hamilton resisted term limits, and hoped multiple reelections would produce what amounted to a presidency-for-life. In Hamilton’s scheme, the president would accrue such powers as to become the center of gravity of the new federal system.
The Constitutional Convention agreed sufficiently with Hamilton to eschew term limits on presidents. But Washington didn’t buy into the president-for-life scheme. The presidency itself he found tedious, much less satisfying than command of the Continental Army. In the army, when he gave orders, people obeyed them or were thrown in prison—or occasionally shot. As president, there was almost no one he could give orders to. Members of Congress were independent of his authority. So were federal judges. Likewise state officials. He could give orders to the army, but in the absence of war the army didn’t amount to much.
Washington could have lived with all of that. He understood that the executive was the second branch of the government, with the president assigned to execute the will of Congress, the first branch. He had no more personal ambitions, having achieved during the war for independence all the glory he required. He was willing to accept the secondary role the Constitution specified for presidents.
But he couldn’t tolerate the partisan politics. Like every other member of the founding generation, Washington had despised parties as the bane of British political life and the source of the misgovernment that compelled the colonies to break with the empire. He had expected, and certainly hoped, that in a republic the virtue of the citizens would prevent the rise of parties. He was grievously disappointed when it did not.
The two sides in the ratification debate—the Federalists and the Antifederalists—had evolved into parties almost as soon as the new government commenced operations. Hamilton led the Federalist party, as he had led the Federalist side in the ratification fight. Thomas Jefferson had supported ratification as the alternative to dissolution, but he distrusted the centralizing bent of Hamilton and the Federalists, and took the lead of the Republican party.
Washington professed to remain above party, keeping both Hamilton and Jefferson in his cabinet, the former as treasury secretary, the latter as secretary of state. But he favored Hamilton in most matters, and he found himself under assault by Republican scribblers, who questioned not simply his politics but his character.
This was more than he could tolerate. He reminded all who would listen that he hadn’t sought the presidency; it had sought him. He had accepted a first term, and then a second upon the pleas of both Hamilton and Jefferson that the country still needed him. But he would not accept a third term.
As the election of 1796 approached, Washington announced his retirement in a farewell address to the American people. He cautioned them against foreign entanglements, and he warned them against the spirit of party. Only by putting country ahead of party could they expect the republic to survive.
The country ignored Washington’s warning; parties grew stronger than ever. But the precedent he established by retiring after two terms stuck. Not until the mid-twentieth century, and then under duress of global war, would a president serve more than two terms.
Until then, Washington’s self-denial saved the country from the kind of president-for-life temptations the Hamiltonian scheme favored. Other republics succumbed to just such temptations, with more than a few ceasing to be republics. Successions from one president to the next in America became routine and uncontested.
The notable exception - in January 2021 - might have been the norm had Washington not set the model for leaving office. By that time, the third-term ban had been formalized by the Twenty-second Amendment. So even if Donald Trump had somehow overturned the vote counts of key states in the 2020 election, to become a permanent president he would have had to defy the Constitution - and the Father of His Country.