George Washington: A leader beyond comparison

On April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States. As years go by, the public knowledge of historical figures grows dim, although soldiers tend to have a relatively long shelf-life in the collective memory bank.

General Washington still has some currency as the dauntless commander who kept his troops in the field despite infrequent paydays and scant supplies until his ragtag soldiers conquered Britain’s professional army. President Washington is a different matter, for many people scarcely more than an imposing figure in a white wig in some famous painting.

His presidency, however, is worth remembering. The trajectory of the American government over its first eight years is awesome. Three executive departments — State, War and Treasury — were conceived and activated. Ten constitutional amendments were ratified. The federal judiciary was established and appointments made to the circuit, district and supreme courts.

Critically important treaties were negotiated: with Britain to avert war; with Spain, to certify western and southern boundaries of the United States and guarantee American navigational rights on the Mississippi River; and with the Barbary States, to terminate pirate attacks on American shipping, and secure the release of Americans who had been taken prisoner.

The location for a permanent capital was chosen and land was acquired from Virginia and Maryland to create the District of Columbia. Arrangements were made to pay America’s debt to France and Holland, incurred during the Revolutionary War, and also to meet the obligations of the individual colonies.

Military actions were mounted against marauding Indians along the land frontiers, and treaties were secured with some of the warring tribes. In western Pennsylvania, citizens angry about whiskey taxes engaged in an open rebellion that had to be suppressed by armed force.

As this sampling indicates, what was accomplished in those first eight years would be remarkable under the most favorable circumstances, but the new government over which Washington presided operated in a climate of tension and hostility.

The national repayment of colonial debts was resented by those colonies that had already met their obligations at some sacrifice. Agricultural priorities worked against commercial and industrial ones, just as frontier interests collided with those of the Eastern seaboard. The French Revolution of 1789 generated sympathies among some Americans and antagonism among others. Those feelings were intensified in 1793 when France declared war on Britain, Holland and Spain.

Regional jealousies stirred heated arguments about the location of the capital. Some citizens wanted a strong central government. Others greatly preferred to allocate governmental responsibilities to state and local jurisdictions.

Eventually, the most basic issues became polarized between the Democratic-Republican Party, headed by Thomas Jefferson, and the Federalist Party led by Alexander Hamilton. Imagine President Washington’s situation with Jefferson as Secretary of State and Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury!

And yet, before the second presidential election, both Hamilton and Jefferson insisted that George Washington should serve another four years. That astonishing double tribute to the president’s wise leadership was reinforced several months later when Washington was chosen for a second term by the presidential electors without a dissenting vote. It should be remembered that in those days the electors chosen from the states had individual responsibility, each to judge who would best serve the nation.

George Washington was a truly extraordinary leader. He refused to accept pay when asked to head the Revolutionary Army and did the same when he was elected president. His proclamations about the use of military force against the Indians and in the whiskey rebellion explained the specific circumstances and were models of fairness and firmness in calling for the suppression of violence and lawlessness.

In his speeches and other formal statements, he never failed to express fervent thanks to God for the blessings bestowed on the American nation. In his first inaugural address, Washington spoke primarily about the importance to the country of virtuous, moral and patriotic citizens. In his Farewell Address he turned again to this theme:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness — these firmest props of the duties of men citizens.”

This first American president was the living embodiment of the qualities he commended to the nation — integrity, fairness, magnanimity, wisdom and attention to duty. These attributes enabled him to lead our fledgling nation wisely and solidly through difficult and contentious times and to earn the profound admiration, respect and gratitude of his people.

Dr. John A. Howard attended Princeton and Northwestern Universities, served in The Eisenhower administration, was president of Rockford College (1960-1977), and president of an association of private college presidents. His articles have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Christian Science Monitor, U.S. News and World Report and numerous other publications. His book, Detoxifying the Culture, was published in 2001.

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