America has always been noted for innovative and revolutionary ideas. Though Americans did not originate the concepts of democracy and republican government, it was in America that these concepts were given their best chance to take root, flourish, and survive. It was not a forgone conclusion that the American Revolution and its following experiment in government would be successful. On the contrary, it could have only been judged highly unlikely and improbable at best. The great American experiment of government by the people and for the people, as Abraham Lincoln later described it, was only made possible by great thinkers and great doers, willing to make great sacrifices of personal blood and treasure, putting all at risk. No one individual was more responsible for its birth and successful early years than the ”father” of our country, George Washington, my latest instalment of Profiles of Leadership in America.
February 22, 1732—December 14, 1799
In May of 1787, the Constitutional Convention of the newly formed United States of America met to determine how their new government would function. These Americans of British decent were exploring new political territory. Once before, in the mid-Seventeenth Century, Englishmen attempted to live without a monarchy, but after little more than a decade of the political experiment, England invited Charles II to assume the throne. The Americans, via a successful war for independence, had again rejected an English king. The challenge for the Americans would be to avoid relying on an Oliver Cromwell type dictator. The answer came in the form of a three-branch form of government with a president at the head of the executive branch. The unanimous choice of the convention, to fill the office of president, would be George Washington.
George Washington was exceptionally prepared to fill the role of the nations first President and set the precedence and model for future holders of the office. Washington, primarily a farmer and businessman, was first brought to prominence by his military exploits in the French and Indian War as a militia officer serving under British General Edward Braddock. Though he was involved in few victorious actions, Washington is credited for great bravery under fire and for lessening, through his calm leadership, the degree of loss caused by blundering superiors. When the 2nd Continental Congress met in 1775, Washington arrived in a military uniform expressing his support of Massachusetts (which the English Crown considered to be in a state of rebellion) and his willingness to fight against Britain. On June 15, 1775, Washington was unanimously elected General and Commander and Chief of the Continental army. Though there was obvious danger that a strong general might use his army to set up a military dictatorship, the Congress expressed total trust in his character. Washington’s commission stated: “you are hereby vested with full power and authority to act as you shall think for the good and welfare of the service.”
Washington’s leadership during the war was exemplary. He recognized that the army needed to be under civil authority preserving congressional control. Often, when haste was necessary, Washington would act and then report to Congress. If Congress was displeased, he would not repeat the action. He was able to bridge the social gap between rich (including many members of congress) and poor (which included most of the soldiers in his army). He also bridged the political gap between militants (including Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin), the moderates, and conciliationists (like John Dickinson). These difficult tasks were accomplished while conducting a war against the most powerful army in the world. At his urging, a reluctant Congress declared independence from Britain to distinguish their war from a mere rebellion. Though he had many military successes during the war, perhaps his greatest success was keeping his outnumbered and ill-equipped army from being overrun and demoralized. Time and time again he exercised great control, and was able to preserve his army until the opportunity for ultimate victory presented itself.
After the war, Washington performed the duties of his presidential office with the same leadership qualities that he exhibited as a military leader. He again, by force of his personality and character, bridged the gaps between social and political groups. He included representatives from both conservative and liberal persuasions in his cabinet. Thomas Jefferson (Secretary of State) and Edmund Randolph (Attorney General) were Liberals, while Alexander Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury) and Henry Knox (Secretary of War) were Conservatives. Washington chose to steer his young country through its fledgling years by adopting a neutral stance in foreign affairs while leaning towards a stronger central government in domestic affairs. By doing so, he was able to both strengthen the nation’s economic union and keep the United States out of costly new wars with both Britain and France. Although he was generally averse to harsh measures, Washington was able to calmly use force when necessary (as with the whiskey rebellion) without bloodshed or reprisals. His steady guidance allowed his young republic the time it needed to safely start defining itself politically.
Unlike many other revolutionary first ‘presidents,’ George Washington was not forced from office by death or threat of death. After fulfilling a second term (again he had been unanimously elected), Washington retired, urging his countrymen to avoid party strife and to cherish the union and the constitution. Thomas Jefferson, who at times strongly disagreed with Washington, wrote of him, “His integrity was the most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known. He was, indeed, in every sense of the word, a wise, a good, and a great man.”
It has been suggested that the founding fathers of the United States of America represented more than their fair share of the greatest intellects of their time or possibly any other. The Constitution of the United States bears witness to their profound and inspired wisdom, as does their choice of a leader. In a time in history when the world was full of kingdoms, they chose a democratic republic. And to protect their political experiment they chose George Washington--the man who would not be King.
Curtis P. Nettles. An article on George Washington from the Encyclopedia Americana.
W.M. Southgate. An article on Oliver Cromwell from The World Book Encyclopedia.