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GEOERGE WASHINGTON’S BIG DECISION

February 15, 2020

Clare and I recently listened to the soundtrack of the award-winning Broadway musical “Hamilton.” Inspired by the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by historian Ron Chernow, the music, lyrics, and book were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

In the musical, the song “One Last Time” Alexander Hamilton and George Washington have a conversation in song.

Washington: I need a favor.

Hamilton: Whatever you say, sir.

Washington: I need you to draft an address.

(Hamilton assumes Washington is running for reelection.)

Washington: I’m stepping down. I’m not running for President

Hamilton: I’m sorry, what?

Washington: One last time. Let’s take a break tonight. And then we’ll teach them how to say goodbye. To say goodbye, you and I.

Chorus: George Washington is going home. George Washington is going home.

George Washington is going home. George Washington is going home.

George Washington’s Farewell Address, delivered on September 19, 1796, is the most important speech made by our first president. It is a powerful statement of American political purpose. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton collaborated with Washington in penning his final address to the nation. It calls for national unity above all else and warned about the divisive effects of political parties. It is read aloud on Washington’s birthday, February 22, every year in the halls of Congress.

On most Saturday mornings, I listen to National Public Radio. Scott Simon closes his “Saturday Morning Edition” with a regular feature, “Simon Says.” This week I remembered one of Simon’s commentaries from 2011. The date was the Saturday before Presidents’ Day. He entitled his comments, “George Washington: Strong Man, But No Strongman.”

Scott Simon said, “The American Revolution triumphed with General George Washington’s victory at Yorktown in 1781. Throughout history, a lot of conquering heroes — Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Fidel Castro — have used great victories to seize unlimited power.

“But George Washington went home to Mount Vernon and farmed.

“He was drafted to return to preside over the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Founders had sharp differences over how to balance the rights of states in a strong federal government that could stand against British, French, and Spanish imperial ambitions. But they all trusted Washington as the most balanced of men.

“As historian Joseph Ellis wrote, ‘Franklin was wiser than Washington, Hamilton was more brilliant, Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated, Adams was more engaging … Madison was more politically astute, but Washington was still the greatest. And they would all agree to that.’

“The Electoral College unanimously elected George Washington the first president of the United States. He ran for a second term, reluctantly, in 1792. And then, in 1796, Washington did something astonishing and unprecedented for a powerful, popular leader: He stepped down. He declined to run for a third term and returned to farming. [The Constitution did not limit the number of terms a President could serve until after the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.]

“There were people who believed that only a strong, longtime authoritarian ruler could keep a country stable in a risky world governed by emperors, kings, and czars. They felt the United States deserved no less.

“But Washington remembered that he had asked his soldiers to fight for a republic. And when he stepped down, he put his young country’s future into the hands of the people.

“George Washington could have been a king. He decided to be a citizen. No crowds massed. No bands played. There is no statue or plaque to mark the spot. But it was as momentous a decision as any president — any ruler — has ever made.”

In 2020 there are poignant examples of leaders who seize power, sometimes even under the guise of democracy. Two especially come to mind for me. Both Vladimir Putin of Russia and Bashar al-Assad of Syria are well-known world leaders, and both have been in power for many years.

These two men have not done what George Washington did. Once in power, they kept it, even over the objections of many of the people they were elected to represent.

In our American democracy, we expect our outgoing president to step down just as the new president takes office. There have been times in our country when presidential transitions did not go so well. In 1800, John Adams left Washington in a snit before Thomas Jefferson, his political rival, took the oath of office.

Following the Watergate scandal and facing conviction on Articles of Impeachment by the Congress, Richard Nixon decided to resign as President of the United States at noon, August 9, 1974. Vice President Gerald Ford would become president. The formal Nixon-Ford transition began when Nixon informed Ford of his decision to resign at 11 A.M. on August 8, only a few hours before he told the nation. Ford had just 25 hours to prepare to assume office, making the Nixon-Ford transition the shortest of any that did not involve the death of the President.

On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd President of the United States. Herbert Hoover was quoted as saying of the President-Elect that he was “very badly informed and of comparatively little vision.” The two were photographed together although Hoover had vowed to never have his picture made with his successor.

Professor Edward Ayers writes, “No transition from one living president to another was as dangerous as that between James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln in 1861.” After Lincoln’s election and before his inauguration, seven Southern states seceded from the United States and formed a new government, the Confederate States of America. As Lincoln prepared to take office, eight other slave states debated whether they would join the Confederacy. Ayers concludes, “The greatest crisis in the nation’s history grew out of a distended transition between a lame-duck President who refused to act and an inexperienced President facing unprecedented challenges.”

According to H. W. Brands, the presidential transition that took place in 1829 was like no other in American history. Andrew Jackson’s inauguration was a hostile takeover of the government. Jackson had been denied victory in 1824 in what Jackson called a corrupt bargain between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. The 1828 election was bitter and dirty. Jackson verbally attacked Adams as a fraud and an aristocrat. The Adams side called Jackson an emperor and his wife, Rachel, a slut. Rachel died under the strain, magnifying Jackson’s anger at his opponents.

Jackson won handily, and his supporters surged to Washington. To the residents of the capital, these ruffians were little more than a horde of barbarians. At Jackson’s inauguration, they swarmed the White House with muddy boots, spoiling the carpets, breaking the furniture, and smashing the china. Jackson fled the celebration to avoid personal injury.

So, these transitions have not always gone smoothly. Still, our first president, George Washington, set an example for all who follow him in holding the office that is considered by many to be the most powerful position in the world.

In 1796, Washington did something astonishing and unprecedented for a strong, popular leader. He stepped down. He declined to run for a third term. He returned to farming.

George Washington became a private citizen. It was a great decision!

Thank you, President Washington.

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