Washington was elected president of the United States in On September 19, , many Americans woke up and read their newspaper.
Giving the Country Time
While the Constitution did not expressly limit the term of the president, Washington knew its system of checks and balances was designed to prevent an abuse of power. So though its letter did not forbid a third term, he felt its spirit did. The Twenty-Second Amendment, setting presidential term limits, was added to the Constitution in The example he set by resigning was one of moderation. Even writing a farewell speech presented a challenge for Washington.
His farewell address is best remembered for its advice on foreign affairs, but it also addressed issues of self-discipline. Washington had always been moderate in his desire for power. He had been somewhat of a reluctant hero since the beginning of his career in the military and politics in , when the Continental Congress appointed him Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.
Washington did not seek out this position, but felt he should do his duty. He led the colonial troops for the eight years before and immediately after the American Revolution. Not even Martha knows all there is to know about the shrewd giant who prefers farming to politics and loses money on both; the expansive host who spends every penny of his twenty-five-thousand-dollar salary and complains that servants are drinking his Madeira; the iron-willed leader who has intractable ideas of personal honor and justice; the wryly satirical observer with a cordial, not always concealed dislike of tiresome preachers, financial deadbeats, and virtually anyone with the effrontery to question his motives or challenge his dignity; the painfully sensitive public figure who writhes under the criticism of newspapermen he condemns for "stuffing their papers with scurrility and nonsensical declamation"; the Spartan eater who favors pineapples, Brazil nuts, and Saturday dinners of salt cod; and the true stoic who endures near constant toothache caused by ill-fitting dentures that cause his mouth to bulge and his lips to clamp shut in unsmiling repose.
About those teeth. According to John Adams, Washington lost his teeth as the result of cracking Brazil nuts between his jaws. By the time he became President, he had but a single tooth left and a set of dentures fashioned from cow's teeth. In hopes of finding something better, Washington contacted a leading dentist in Philadelphia, who produced a state-of-the-art set carved, not from wood, but from hippopotamus tusk.
The new dentures were thoughtfully drilled with a hole to fit over his one remaining tooth. Unfortunately, they also rubbed against this natural tooth, causing more or less constant pain for which the President took laudanum. So much for the wooden teeth. What about other Washington legends?
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We can write off the cherry tree as a product of Parson Weems's sugary imagination. No Washington myth is easier to dismiss than the story of his hurling a coin across the Potomac or Rappahannock? For generations of Americans, Parson Weems's cherry tree legend has colored the popular image of Washington and made him seem not quite human.
If anything, Washington may have succeeded too well in crafting an image of republican dignity. Even during his lifetime, Washington was a figure deliberately set apart, wrapped in a paternal mystique until it became a psychological straightjacket. An observer writing in the spring of said that the President wore "a look of habitual gravity, sobriety that stopped short of sadness. At the height of his fame, Washington was no longer at the peak of his form.
His memory was failing, or so he claimed. His hearing was unreliable.
George Washington - Wikipedia
Most of all, he dreaded the presidency's inevitable toll on his popularity and selfless reputation. Interestingly, Washington had said much the same thing when chosen to command America's raw military in It is hard to imagine in this day of bloated budgets, but Washington employed more people at Mount Vernon than he did in the entire executive branch of government. The first federal budget was around two million dollars, of which ten thousand dollars went to refurbish an executive residence in New York.
The United States Army numbered six hundred men. At the State Department, Jefferson found a toy bureaucracy of five clerks spending eight thousand dollars a year to administer the foreign service, oversee territorial affairs, prepare the census, instruct federal marshals and attorneys in their duties, recommend executive pardons, and correspond with state officials as the government's designated intermediary.
At thirty-five hundred dollars, Jefferson's salary was less than the Vice President's but more than Attorney General Edmund Randolph was paid to head his "mongrel department. Hoping to delay formal party warfare, Washington had to accommodate the opposing views of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton within his cabinet. On his own initiative Washington established the cabinet as a sort of privy council. Inevitably it became an arena of conflict, its protagonists stock figures—or stick figures—in later history books: led by Jefferson, apostle of the yeoman, versus Hamilton, the mercantile prophet; one an aristocrat who lived on a mountaintop and considered himself a friend to man; the other a self-made elitist with a Calvinist belief in original sin.
Like fire and frost, they were temperamental opposites whom not even Washington could reconcile. More than a few historians have described Washington as a bit player shunted to the wings by more dynamic actors like Hamilton and Jefferson--a front for one, a foil for the other, a thin-skinned, stouthearted figurehead. I think it is more accurate to say that he was sufficiently sure of himself to allow Hamilton and Jefferson their street brawl. After all, his chief interest was in delaying the formal start of party warfare as long as possible.
By deferring to both men, he kept each in his official family long after he wished to be free. The political general had not lost his touch. In the end, Washington proved more visionary than either of his warring subordinates. One might even say that his whole presidency can be seen as an exercise in buying time. Stay out of Europe's murderous quarrels, he reasoned, and given twenty or thirty years of peaceful development, the United States would be in a position to defy any power on earth.
Many, perhaps most, Americans disagreed with his neutrality. For a while France's meddlesome envoy Citizen Genet deluded himself into believing that he could appeal over the President's head and win popular support for war with England. Once again, however, Washington's policy of watchful waiting, combined with his instinctive reading of popular opinion, served him and the young republic well. For eight years he offered himself up as a punching bag to intemperate critics, among them a newspaper editor hired by Jefferson with State Department funds.
Scribbling partisans called him a dupe of King George, a betrayer of the Revolution.
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Washington's private life, though not without its trials, provided a satisfying counterpoint to the splendid misery of partisan combat. Although content to live in her husband's shadow, Martha Washington commanded respect from all but the most frivolous elements of Philadelphia society. Accustomed as an army wife to living in other people's houses, Martha accepted life in Philadelphia without complaint but also without enthusiasm.
I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances. We carry the seeds of the one or the other about with us, in our minds, wherever we go.
Washington subscribed to his wife's stoical creed. His advice to a female relation contemplating marriage speaks volumes: "Experience will convince you that there is no truth more certain than that all our enjoyments fall short of our expectations; and to none does it apply with more force, than to the gratification of our passions. Bleak as it may sound, Washington's assessment of the most basic human desire--to love and to be loved--tells us a great deal about what was missing in his life.
But it also suggests the coldblooded realism that made him impervious to the political passions of his day. Summing up, one is tempted to judge his presidency not so much for what he did as for what he did not do. He did not make his Vice President a kind of prime minister, as he could have under the vaguely worded terms of the Constitution. He did not designate Hamilton as an American chancellor of the exchequer. He did not organize a king's party, even if he did come to abandon his pretense of strict impartiality between Federalist and Republican.
Most of all, he did not allow himself to be swept up in the war hysteria of Anglophile and Francophile. Unlike Woodrow Wilson, George Washington actually did keep us out of war, at considerable cost to his short-term popularity, if not to his historical reputation. But of course, he supplied positive leadership as well. Every action he took established a precedent to guide his successors. So he traveled extensively, in carefully choreographed tours that reaffirmed the people's devotion to their heroic leader and to the untried government over which he presided.
He asserted a dominant role in foreign affairs, sending John Jay to defuse a war scare with England and shouldering the blame when Jay's Treaty enraged Jefferson's followers. The House demanded that he turn over papers relating to the treaty, and Washington magisterially refused, in the process establishing the concept of executive privilege as a bulwark against an otherwise imperial Congress. In crushing the Whiskey Rebellion of , the President put all his accumulated prestige behind the principle that in a republic, dissatisfied minorities can protest peacefully but cannot take arms against even the most unpopular official acts.
Finally, in his famous and often misunderstood farewell address, Washington left behind a roadmap to genuine national independence and a timeless warning about the excesses of political factionalism, one that rings especially true in this age of empty gestures, Rose Garden ceremonies, and a cynical reliance on media manipulation. In short, George Washington was the strong leader of a weak nation.
His vision of the American republic was in many ways an extension of his own character. Because he credited harsh self-discipline in realizing his personal destiny, he embraced an energetic government as the only means of protecting the American union from flying apart. Because he balanced executive vigor with personal restraint, he gave us a government strong enough to lead and wise enough to listen. Saint-Memin sketched this last portrait of Washington in Philadelphia in November