Today we celebrate the birthday of George Washington, sort of, and maybe Lincoln and other presidents as well. But Washington deserves a day to himself, because he did something no other person did: He led the war that created the nation and established the precedents that made it a republic.
In an era of brilliant men, Washington was not the deepest thinker. He never wrote a book or even a long essay, unlike George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. But Washington made the ideas of the American founding real. He incarnated liberal and republican ideas in his own person, and he gave them effect through the Revolution, the Constitution, his successful presidency, and his departure from office.
In office he sided with the Federalist faction and strengthened the central government beyond what Jeffersonians then and libertarians today would prefer. Nothing in his tenure became him like the leaving it. Garry Wills wrote, “He was a virtuoso of resignations.” Indeed, he gave up power twice, after the war and after his second term as president, and he tried to retire after one term, actually writing a Farewell Address. The great king from whom Washington freed his country could not believe that a man with an army would walk away from power. George III asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning the war. West said, “They say he will return to his farm.” George III replied, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Washington knew that no republic could survive if it depended on the leadership of one man. When he left the presidency, he allowed Americans to test and prove that theory. (We may, of course, also be lucky that Washington had no sons to become hereditary rulers. Neither did Jefferson or Madison; John Adams did have sons, and of course one of them became president.) The precedent he set, that no president should serve more than two terms, lasted until it encountered the ambition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after which it was entered into the Constitution.
Washington embodied the virtues of the young republic. He was a man of commerce and scientific farming who pulled himself up from the lower gentry to become one of the richest men in America. He was deeply committed to republican virtues, ready to serve his country and equally determined not to become a king. He was a liberal and tolerant man, who laid out the young nation’s commitment to religious freedom in his famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport. I am particularly fond of the line, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” That’s much like the debate over tolerance and inclusion that is still with us. Washington said that all people who “demean themselves as good citizens” are entitled to the same rights.
At the end of the war, Washington had the loyalty of the army. Had he been a Caesar, a Cromwell, a Napoleon, we know what he would have done. A French officer who wrote a book about the new country of America told us what he in fact did: “This is the seventh year that he has commanded the army and that he has obeyed the Congress; more need not be said.” But one more thing was said: The Commander in Chief traveled to Annapolis, where the Continental Congress was meeting, returned his commission, and said, “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.” And he created a new order for the ages.