Washington’s Big Decision
Most of his contemporaries agreed that George Washington was the right person to lead the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. He became the consensus choice to serve as the first President of the United States. James Thomas Flexner won the National Book Award in Biography and a special Pulitzer Prize for his four-volume biography of George Washington, published between 1965 and 1972. In 1974 Flexner wrote a one-volume abridgment entitled Washington: the Indispensable Man.
As a military leader during the French and Indian War, Colonel George Washington demonstrated the toughness of a frontiersman. Washington proved trustworthy in battle, and those under his command admired his bravery. Washington repeatedly exposed himself to danger in order to protect his own soldiers. After an intense engagement Washington emerged unharmed but with four bullet holes in his uniform.
Following the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, George Washington was widely respected as a soldier, dependable leader, and a skilled military tactician. He was the right choice to command the Continental Army.
The Revolutionary War was a trying experience for the American troops. American spirits reached a low point during the brutal winter of 1777-78. British troops captured Philadelphia, the largest city in the colonies. The Continental Congress fled west to York, Pennsylvania.
Washington’s army was encamped at Valley Forge northwest of Philadelphia. During the harsh weather there were shortages of food, clothing, and medicine. Washington’s men suffered from disease, hunger, and exposure. Arnold Friberg’s painting The Prayer at Valley Forge is an indelible image of Washington kneeling in prayer in the snow.
As the war entered its final years, Washington’s fatigued soldiers were underpaid and poorly supplied. Morale in the ranks was low. George Washington’s reassuring presence and his moral fortitude kept the army from rebelling.
Finally, in 1781, Cornwallis and the British surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia. The Americans had won an astounding victory against the most powerful empire in the world.
Only months later, people began to talk about the need for a strong leader to stabilize the new nation. Many were convinced that the new country needed a leader to assume power. Some even wanted a king. One of Washington’s officers sent him a letter to that effect.
Washington’s response was immediate. The general expressed astonishment at such a notion. Washington rejected the idea of establishing a monarchy in America with himself as king.
“Banish these thoughts from your mind,” he wrote.
After the peace treaty was signed, Washington was called upon to head the Constitutional Convention. As president of the Convention in 1787, he contributed almost nothing to the debates that took place. Instead, he used his considerable prestige to calm the delegates keeping them focused on the task at hand: creating a new form of government for the United States. His indispensable influence assured the ratification of the Constitution.
When the Convention designed the executive branch of the federal government (Article II of the Constitution), virtually everyone assumed Washington would become the first president. Indeed, the writers of the Constitution created the office of president with Washington in mind.
Washington reluctantly accepted the presidency. Thomas Jefferson told him, “We cannot, sir, do without you.” Washington became the first and only president to be unanimously elected. None of the other founding fathers commanded the respect and trust that George Washington did.
The fact that Washington became the first president of the United States does not mean he was a great leader. Compared to his contemporaries – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison – Washington was not the most outstanding. He had little formal education. He knew no foreign languages. He had never traveled to Europe. He was not a great writer or speaker. Still, he places near or at the top of the list of great presidents.
Washington was inaugurated as president on April 30, 1789. He dedicated himself to being leader for the whole country, not for just one region, one economic class, or one political group.
He asked others for advice before making decisions. His two closest advisers were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, two men who disagreed on almost every important issue facing the new nation. At the end of these arguments, however, it was Washington who decided what was best for the country.
Just ten weeks after Washington’s inauguration, the French Revolution began. A majority of Americans welcomed this news. Many believed that the revolution in France continued the fight for liberty that began on American soil.
When word reached the United States that France and England were at war, many Americans felt that the United States should help France by declaring war on their old enemy. After all, the French had helped the Americans win their liberty.
Thomas Jefferson agreed with this argument. Alexander Hamilton took the opposite view. He advised Washington that America needed to remain friendly with England in order to encourage trade and commerce between the two countries.
Washington realized that the fledgling nation was weak. The United States had a badly depleted army and did not have a navy. The country could ill afford to fight another war. Washington believed that the nation needed time to develop and prosper.
On April 22, 1793, Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality, declaring that the United States would support neither France nor England. Washington wrote, “The sincere wish of the United States is to live in peace and amity with all the inhabitants of the earth.”
That decision established the first foreign policy of the United States.
Some historians hold that the Proclamation of Neutrality was Washington’s most important decision as president. He gave his country the time it needed to grow strong. His goal was to allow the new Constitution to work.
One year after issuing the Proclamation of Neutrality, he led 13,000 militiamen to enforce a federal tax law. Backwoodsmen in western Pennsylvania refused to pay an excise tax on the making of whiskey.
Washington feared that if a small group could tell the government what to do anarchy would result. Washington realized that if the United States were to survive, the authority of the federal government had to be respected. Washington’s decisive action caused the Whiskey Rebellion to collapse with no bloodshed.
In 1796, Washington could have had a third term as president. At age 64, Washington longed for the peace of Mount Vernon, so he chose to step down. That decision, once and for all, ended the idea that he could have been king. By giving up presidential power, he made his most significant contribution to our constitutional form of government.
The hero of the American Revolution with his victory at Yorktown in 1781, George Washington was the man who might have been king. Throughout history, many conquering heroes such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte have used their military victories to seize power.
But George Washington went home to Mount Vernon.
On this Presidents’ Day we remember George Washington’s big decision. He stepped down from a position of power to become a private citizen.Kirk H. Neely © February 2014