George Washington: Father of our country; symbol of its presidency

Last year, in honor of George Washington’s birthday, I wrote a post about his presidency. I relied heavily on the great the conservative historian Forrest McDonald.

McDonald died last month. In honor of both the historian and his subject, I decided to re-post what I wrote last year on this holiday:

In the preface to his book The Presidency of George Washington, McDonald writes:

[M]y account of Washington’s presidency may leave the reader mystified by the man’s virtual deification in his own times. The solution to the mystery is here, however, if the reader will approach the story in the proper spirit.

To be an American in the last decade of the eighteenth century was to be present at the crucial myth-making time in the infancy of the Republic; it was comparable to being a Roman in the age of Romulus and Remus, or a Greek in the age of the Olympians. Thucydides and Herodotus, it is said, invented history by distinguishing what could be proved to have happened from that which could not be proved. The former we call history; the latter we call myth.

Here we are dealing with a myth that happens also to have been true, for George Washington, in his own lifetime, was self-consciously both more than a mere man and less than a man: his people craved a myth and a symbol, and he devoted his life to fulfilling that need.

Later in the book, McDonald adds:

Washington. . .was a marvelous combination of sophistication and naivete, and thus it was just as well that he chose to stand above the partisanship of his subordinates [Hamilton and Jefferson]. On the one hand, he handled the affairs of administration with a skill born of long experience as a military man and as master of a vast plantation, and he so managed his rival subordinates as to keep them functioning despite their hostility.

On the other hand, he understood little and thought even less about the fine points of speculative disputation from which Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians derived justification for their conduct.

Washington did, however, engage the fine points of Hamiltonian vs. Jeffersonian disputation if his solemn obligation to adhere to the Constitution was at stake. When Hamilton proposed the establishment of a national bank and Madison asserted a constitutional objection, Washington, who favored the bank as a matter of policy, asked Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph for written opinions as to the bank’s constitutionality.

Both Jefferson and Randolph argued that the bank was unconstitutional. Washington then told Hamilton that he would not sign legislation establishing the bank unless Hamilton produced a written opinion that overcame the arguments of Jefferson and Randolph. In the meantime, Washington asked Madison to draft a veto message (Washington believed that a presidential veto was appropriate if, and only if, Congress passed unconstitutional legislation).

Hamilton drafted an opinion defending the constitutionality of the bank. His argument, relying on the “necessary and proper” clause of Article I, Section 8, persuaded Washington, and he signed the legislation.

McDonald argues that the major concrete achievements that occurred during Washington’s presidency were the work of other men: Madison (the Bill of Rights); Oliver Ellsworth (the federal judiciary system); Hamilton (the financial system); the Spanish government (the opening of the Mississippi River); General Anthony Wayne, who ignored Washington’s orders (the removal of the threat posed by the British and the Indians in the Northwest); and Hamilton and John Jay (the maintenance of neutrality between France and England notwithstanding the Franco-American alliance).

Washington presided over these accomplishments, of course, and he appointed some of the people who brought them about. But McDonald seems close to mark in arguing that Washington’s importance resides in what he enabled the presidency to symbolize:

[Washington] was the symbol of the presidency, the epitome of propriety in government, the means by which Americans accommodated the change from monarchy to republicanism, and the instrument by which an inconsequential people took its first steps toward becoming a great nation.

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