Prologue Magazine

Prologue: Selected Articles

Spring 1994, Vol. 26, No. 1

The Surprising George Washington, Part 4
By Richard Norton Smith
&copy 1994 by Richard Norton Smith

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." If Randolph had a consolation, it lay in his freedom to compete for private business with New York's 121 other lawyers.

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.

Washington's Cabinet
Hoping to delay formal party warfare, Washington had to accommodate the opposing views of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton within his cabinet. (NARA 148-GW-540)

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. When the Philadelphia Aurora revealed that he had overdrawn his salary to pay the heavy costs of official entertaining, Washington suffered the tortures of the damned but he never complained, publicly.

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 only fond of what comes from the heart," she explained in the most revealing letter she ever wrote. "I know too much of the vanity of human affairs to expect felicity from the splendid scenes of public life. 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." There is sadness distilled in those words, along with rare wisdom. 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 1794, 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 portrait of GW Saint-Memin sketched this last portrait of Washington in Philadelphia in November 1799. (John Hill Morgan, Life Portraits of George Washington and Their Replicas [1931].)

In 1797 Washington became America's first ex-President, and while he savored the pleasures of rural life, he could not wholly free himself from the demands of conscience or the lure of personal ambition. When war with France threatened, the old soldier agreed to don his uniform once more, only to force the first military-civilian confrontation in our history by insisting on the choice of his subordinates. John Adams had no choice but to back down. Fortunately, Adams's diplomacy averted war, and in doing so the squat, sensitive New Englander at last escaped the long shadow of his illustrious predecessor.

The elderly Washington kept a close watch on the rising city that bore his name, infested, in the words of one building contractor's wife, with "dolts, delvers, magicians, soothsayers, quacks, bankrupts, puffs, speculators, monopolizers, extortioners, traitors, petit foggy lawyers, and ham bricklayers." (So what else is new?) He remained stubbornly defiant of Virginia's adherence to state's rights, identifying himself in his will as "GEORGE WASHINGTON, of Mount Vernon, a citizen of the United States." For years he had struggled to reconcile his ownership of human beings with his professed love of liberty. Now he gave freedom to his slave population, concurrent with the death of his wife.

I am often asked to describe Washington's greatest achievement, which I find relatively simple, unlike the man himself. To me it is not winning the Revolution, remarkable as that was, nor even establishing the American presidency, during a period in which he almost never set a foot wrong. George Washington deserves to be remembered for both, to be sure But we can admire such accomplishments without being emotionally moved by them.

No: the ultimate significance of George Washington's life lies in the fact that he singlehandedly redefined our traditional idea of greatness. Before he lived, to be great was to be triumphant: to conquer an enemy's territory, to kill his soldiers, and subdue his populace. In an age when divine right held sway over most of the planet, greatness was measured by the authority vested in one man, and the lengths to which he would go to keep that authority.

To his everlasting credit, George Washington was ambiguous about power. The man who could have been king insisted that ultimate sovereignty lay with the people, however imperfect their judgment. At the end of the war, and again at the end of his presidency, he calmly walked away from power. This genius for renunciation prompted the dying Napoleon in his windswept exile to remark, "They wanted me to be another Washington."

But of course that was impossible. Two hundred years later, our first President remains that rarest of historical figures, of whom it can be said that in conceding his humanity, we only confirm his greatness.

The Surprising George Washington, Part 1
The Surprising George Washington, Part 2
The Surprising George Washington, Part 3

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.