Too many Americans in 1789 took for granted that George Washington would serve as the country’s first president under its new Constitution. Similarly too many Americans now take for granted the very existence of George Washington as a central figure in the country’s founding and its perilous course through its earliest days. Those Americans in 1789 shouldn’t have been so certain; Americans now should be more grateful.
As we point out in Washington’s Circle (soon to be launched and available for purchase, etc., etc.), no person has ever been so reluctant to become president as the first man to do so. If you think about the challenges, it is easy to see why. It wasn’t merely that there were no government offices yet; there wasn’t any government office space. To grasp the magnitude of what Washington and his associates were going to face, try this. Take out a blank piece of paper and pick up a pen. Now say these words: “Every stroke of my pen on this sheet is non erasable, every word I write establishes a precedent, every thought I commit here will determine the success or failure of my project, and there will be no turning back, no opportunity to crumple the sheet and start again. Everything must be right the first time, or it is likely that everything will go wrong forever.” How’s that for a job description?
George Washington could have turned down the job and could have cited dozens of reasons to justify doing so. Yet he did not. Today, February 4, is the anniversary of his election by the unanimous vote of the Electoral College, an achievement he repeated in 1792 and a signal honor never again settled on any other candidate for the office. Yet, the unanimity of those votes is further proof of the certainty that Washington would serve, would do his duty, and in that, it marked not just an honor but lodged an expectation. When the electors made their choice on that February 4, Washington had not said he would become the president, and in fact not until the following April would he formally commit himself. All Americans should be grateful he did.
The following is adapted from Washington’s Circle: The Creation of the President.
For George Washington the presidency had “no enticing charms, and no fascinating allurements.” He had become proof of the Talmudic story of how a man comes into the world with his fists clenched wanting everything but leaves it with his hands open desiring nothing. For years ambition had been young George Washington’s master, driving him to seek glory for the fame and approval that came with it. Age hammered most of that out of him, but even on the eve of the Revolution, a residue of the old impulse remained. He had worn his old Virginia militia uniform to the Continental Congress just in case anyone needed a reminder of his military experience. During the Revolution he won the world’s applause and his countrymen’s admiration, and he enjoyed both without acting as if either mattered. He was a proud man taught by observation and experience the wages of arrogance and the perils of heedless certainty. When his country told him that he would have to become its chief magistrate, there is every reason to believe he did not want it. He was tired. Nobody could know the toll of the eight years fighting the British in the Revolutionary War. Nobody could know how much the four years following the end of the war had made him happy. He grew things on ground above the majestic river he loved, living in the house he loved with the woman he loved and surrounded by little ones and their friends, giggling nieces and nephews growing up and making their way, often with his help, which made him happier still. He complained about his house becoming “a well-resorted tavern,” but the people who filled it as guests kept out of his way during the day and filled his evenings with bright conversation and quiet admiration. Leaving Mount Vernon was like being cast out of Eden and led to Golgotha, the place of skulls, at one and the same time. He had wanted everything when young with clenched fists. Now an old man, his hands were open, and he wanted nothing.
Something supremely important was to be handed to him, though, and a sense of inadequacy leavened the dread. In 1787, he worried about violating his pledge to leave public life forever, which had been a sort of vanity in itself. But it wasn’t vanity that now robbed him of sleep and clouded his days. For the first time in his life, George Washington was afraid that something was beyond him. What his country wanted was too large, too demanding, too complex for a Virginia farmer who stumbled over his words in public and might just simply stumble under the weight of these new incalculable burdens. He was too old, too feeble, too ignorant. His eyes were failing, his memory sometimes was fogged, people everyone else heard seemed to be mumbling to him. He had nothing to prove. He had everything to lose. People already called him the “Father of his country,” a pleasant tribute, a bauble of public acclaim, but it was a bauble, like a fading epaulette in a stored trunk.
George Washington had received a letter from Alexander Hamilton in September 1788 urging him to accept the presidency and raising the specter that Washington’s refusal would cause the new government to fail. Everyone who framed the new government in the Philadelphia convention would be blamed, including George Washington. Especially George Washington. Could it be possible that Washington’s every sacrifice during the war would count for nothing if he did not drink from this last bitter cup? Would every indignity borne, every conspiracy thwarted, every battle lost and won become as nothing if he did not do this last thing? “A citizen of so much consequence as yourself . . . has no option but to lend his services if called for,” Hamilton had intoned. It had a presumptuous air, which was pure Hamilton, but the words “has no option but to lend his services” were like a hammer on Washington’s conscience.
The letters from Hamilton and others, in fact, stunned him and left him staggering. The suggestion that he was being coy, that he wanted to be coaxed and appear as if answering a call rather than grabbing a prize, derives mainly from the seeming inevitability of his presidency. Yet in truth the actor was now old, the play not only untried but unwritten, and the supporting cast uncertain. He was not being coy. At the moment of inevitability, he could not quite believe it. His response to these many entreaties were tortured motifs of fatalism and quiet desperation over the bitter cup he would gladly pass to another. But no one else was there.
He trusted these men who implored him to serve. The dozens who dared write were the voices of scores more in timid silence and legions who kept quiet in the certainty that no persuasion was necessary, that Washington would do his duty as always. He could not ignore this. He had no choice, except possibly to be president briefly to have things settled. He then could slip away. Two years at most would be his sentence, he thought. He did not formally announce anything, but reports told of him quietly putting his Virginia affairs in order, an unmistakable signal that he was preparing a journey to New York City. When he arranged a loan, everyone was certain. In addition to setting up a new household, he intended to bear his travel costs, another sign of his long range intentions, for he would owe only a few for a formal loan rather than many for small kindnesses that in the end would prove more costly to repay. Friends besieging him for places in the government were bad enough, but the swarms of strangers had begun filling the letter pouches from Alexandria, and so far he had no obligations to any of them for anything. He would keep it that way. He would stay in no private homes en route to New York. He would not accept private hospitality when he arrived there. He intended to pay from his own pocket for food and drink as he went and arrange rent at going rates for his residence in the city.
The presidency, after all, was not a prize. The country was obligated to him for nothing more than the office’s constitutionally stipulated salary as set by Congress, and Washington would try to refuse that. Private citizens only owed him the chance to make things work. He would have gladly passed the cup to any one of them. But no one else was there.