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|GEORGE WASHINGTON 1732-99
1st PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 1789-97
Father of his Country. The hallowed phrase expresses everything that was unique about President Washington. For all other Presidents - even Thomas Jefferson - the office was the climax of their lives, their greatest opportunity for fame. Washington alone was greater than his post. He had to make decisions for the first time, and thus lay down guidelines for the future. He set the precedents that others would have to follow. His greatest precedent was himself. Without him there might not have been a presidency at all. The Founding Fathers might have settled for some form of collective leadership or cabinet government. And then, although he had a characteristically modest idea of what the President should be and do, the fact that their great man had found the job worth undertaking enhanced its value in the eyes of all Americans. The fact that he did it so well reinforced the effect, by showing that there would always be some useful work for an honourably ambitious President. Washington, in short, created the presidency in his own image, and handed it on, a precious burden, to his successors, as perhaps his greatest memorial.
He was a remarkable man, but even he could not have done so much if the times had not favoured him. His countrymen desperately needed a hero. In the dark days of the Revolutionary War (and for most of the time they were very dark) only the inflexible figure of General Washington offered any hope. Benjamin Franklin might be having his diplomatic triumphs as the American representative in Paris, but Paris was a long way away. The General was near at hand, visibly struggling with his country's foes, not only the British; he also had to deal with traitors; with mutinous, ill-trained, ill-disciplined troops; with a dilatory Congress; corrupt suppliers; and, worst of all, with incredibly short-sighted, mean, incompetent state legislatures which were, nevertheless, his source of pay and supplies. Groaning inwardly, Washington stood firm, and in due course had his reward, when the British surrendered at Yorktown. That was the turning point, although the war dragged on for another two years. In 1783 Washington returned to New York in triumph, thus blotting out the memory of his rapid retreat from the city in 1776. Then he lost no time in resigning his commission and hurrying home to Virginia; but his glory followed him. He had given the Americans faith in themselves, and notably justified it. They could not forget him. He was inevitably recalled to be the first head of the new government.
His achievements as President did nothing to diminish his fame in the long run, although for a few years party warfare did not spare even his great name. His first cabinet was one of the strongest in American history, with John Adams as Vice-President, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State (dealing with foreign affairs). Over the full eight years of Washington's two terms in office Adams was perhaps the most useful to him of these men, sharing as he did Washington's straightforward patriotism and personal loyalty, as well as his strong common sense. But Hamilton and Jefferson left the greater mark, Hamilton especially, pushing through Congress a series of measures, such as a national tariff and a national bank, which tended to strengthen the financial credit, and therefore the political institutions of the United States. Unfortunately, Hamilton and Jefferson were devoted enemies, both personal and ideological, and it was more than Washington could do to prevent them from eventually running off to lead opposing political parties - the Federalists and the Republicans. The wonder is that he was able to put off the break for so long. Jefferson did not resign until 1793, Hamilton until 1795. Forced to choose, Washington backed Hamilton, as the more conservative of the two, and because he believed in Hamilton's vision of America as a great power, rich as well as republican (Jefferson called him senile for his pains). But he understood very well that the United States also needed Jefferson's vision of democracy. It is a pity that the two rivals lacked his breadth of view.
Then there was the great crisis of the French Revolutionary wars. From America these looked to be merely the latest in the long series of struggles between the national ally, France, and the national enemy, Britain. France had purged herself of the sin of monarchy, while Britain had not. So there was much enthusiasm for the French cause, not altogether dampened by news of the Jacobin Reign of Terror of 1793-94, and the so-called 'Citizen' Genet was sent to America as a French emissary to exploit it. The British had not helped themselves by refusing to carry out all the provisions of the 1783 peace treaty: in particular, they still occupied a string of forts (among them Detroit) in the American North-West, and their blockade of French ports seriously interfered with US commerce.
Nonetheless, it was clear to Washington, Jefferson and the cabinet that strict neutrality was the country's best course, and the President stuck to this view even when others began to drift away from it. Neutrality during a war on the Atlantic did not protect American shipping against British interference, but participation in the war would injure it far more. The country would not be united whichever side was chosen, and in many ways it had scarcely recovered from the Revolutionary War. Finally, what did it matter to America which side won? The ideological claims of both belligerents were bogus: they were quarrelling over power, not principle. Let America then stay at peace.
With this in mind, Washington opened negotiations with Great Britain for the settlement of outstanding differences; the result was Jay's Treaty (1794). Britain conceded as little as possible to the US; but it did agree to move its troops from American soil. After anguished hesitation, Washington sent the treaty to the Senate for ratification, and after a sharp struggle it was passed by a just-sufficient majority. It was perhaps the hardest battle of his career; Federalists and Republicans used the episode to further their own ambitions, which the President regarded with deep distaste. But today nobody seriously questions his action.
Knowledge of this might have comforted him; as it was, beneath a marble exterior he was a sensitive man and suffered deeply under the responsibilities, controversies and denunciations that went with his office. His inner life became one of dignified discontent. It is hard not to pity him. Undoubtedly as a young man he had been ambitious for wealth, fame and power. In this he was like the other two most successful soldiers of the age, Napoleon Bonaparte and Arthur Wellesley. But whereas the path before the future Duke of Wellington was clear, and suited his temperament exactly, and whereas Napoleon found in a revolutionary age the perfect opportunity for his stormy genius, Washington, their inferior as a general but their superior as a statesman, had to subdue himself ruthlessly to a not altogether congenial environment. He had to swallow the humiliation of rejection when, as a young officer of volunteers, he applied for a regular commission in the British army; he had to apply himself doggedly to farming in Virginia for 20 years, earnestly studying to avoid the bankruptcy with which exhausted soil and expensive tastes threatened all the great tobacco planters; as General, he had to control his hot temper for eight years when dealing with the difficulties, mostly human, already mentioned; and as President he had to do all he could to avoid the imputation that he was an autocrat with monarchical ambitions. If he had not been a good man as well as a great one, the strain would have been too much for him, and he would either have left his fellow citizens to look after themselves or indulged in ambitious plotting. As it was, he reminded himself of his duty, and soldiered on.
But he really only enjoyed life at his beloved Mount Vernon, his beautiful plantation above the River Potomac. In Philadelphia, where the capital of the United States was established during most of his time, it was all labour and keeping up appearances. His idea of how the President of the United States should appear was austerely grand. He went everywhere in coach and horses; he wore rich black clothes; he held levees, like George III; and he gave formal dinner parties of stupefying boredom. Washington himself had no small talk, and his wife Martha, though a cheerful soul, was as dull as her husband seemed. Besides, the President was always in agony from his false teeth. His real ones had long since started to fall out and for years he had been struggling without much success to get satisfactory substitutes. He possessed two sets made partly of hippopotamus ivory, which he tried to preserve by soaking in port wine when not in use. It was in these circumstances that the most famous portraits of him were painted by Gilbert Stuart. One at least of them is a masterpiece, but it does not do justice either to Washington's character or to his appearance in his prime. Instead it shows brilliantly what he felt like during his presidency.
By 1796 he had had enough. Besides, if he agreed to serve for another term he might well die in office, and then there was a risk that the presidency would become an office always held for life, which was scarcely desirable. He would set his last precedent, and retire after two terms. He got into his coach and drove down to Congress with a personal message - his Farewell Address. This had been written up from his suggestions by Alexander Hamilton, but it was Washington's own long-pondered thought, and he had revised it carefully. Earnestly he adjured his countrymen to maintain the union of the states, to respect the Constitution, check party spirit and the encroachments of government on liberty, follow an honest and frugal policy of public expenditure and steer clear of the wiles of foreign powers. Then he said good-bye, anticipating, as he put it, a happy retirement while enjoying the benign influence of good laws under a free government. He waited impatiently for the day of his release, and when, in March 1797, his successor John Adams took the oath of office, he rode thankfully back to Mount Vernon, with an air, as Adams noted, of triumph, as if to say "Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us is the happiest!"
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