In celebration of the groundbreaking on Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, we’ve asked a few of our favorite historians to weigh in on various aspects of the first president’s leadership style. Historian and professor Stuart Leibiger writes this week’s installment:
George Washington made four critical contributions to the American presidency, as professor and historian Gordon Wood and others have pointed out. First, Washington brought prestige to the presidency. Second, he made a strong president possible in 18th century America. Third, he established precedents that have been followed by his successors. And fourth, he retired. I would like to comment on these areas, and to reinforce their importance.
First, Washington brought prestige to the office — unlike today, when the office confers prestige on the man who holds it. How often do you hear people say something like, “I don’t care for President Obama (or President Bush), but I will listen to him out of respect for the office he holds”? Sociologist Barry Schwartz has shown that when Washington was president, it was just the opposite. Eighteenth century Americans would say, “I don’t give a hoot about the presidency, but I will listen because it’s Washington.” So the man had prestige and brought it to the office, unlike today, when the office has prestige and brings it to the man. An event during Washington’s 1789 tour of New England illustrates the point. Everything went fine until the president reached Massachusetts, where he ran into a little problem: Governor John Hancock thought he was more important than the president, and refused to come and pay his respects. A standoff ensued, as each man thought he held the more important office. Hancock eventually blinked first, gave in, and paid his respects. Hancock lost that confrontation not because he was up against the chief executive, but because he was up against Washington. That prestige then attached itself to the presidency.
Second, Washington made it possible for the 1787 Constitutional Convention to create a strong presidency. It is safe to say that the delegates were willing to create a powerful executive only because they knew Washington would be the first president. After their experience with King George III, Americans were wary of executive power, afraid of tyranny. The convention helped Americans overcome this fear because they knew Washington accepted power reluctantly, used it carefully, never abused it, and gave it up eagerly. The office was literally designed with him in mind. So Washington played a huge role in creating the presidency, and did so without saying a word. Washington really only made two short speeches during the convention. One reason for Washington’s silence is that so much of the time was spent designing the presidency. It was simply not appropriate for him to take the lead in designing the office he would eventually hold.
Third, Washington established presidential precedents. For example, Washington is credited with establishing the two-term tradition, but his role is widely misunderstood. He hoped to retire after one term, but was unable to because political factionalism required his continuance. Washington was not in fact trying to establish a two-term tradition. Instead, he was more concerned with retiring from office before he died, so as not to establish the dangerous precedent of a presidency for life. Another vital constitutional power is the veto. Washington issued the first-ever presidential veto in 1792, refusing to sign a bill reapportioning Congressional representation. He made sure his first veto would not be overridden by Congress. Washington knew that an override might destroy the veto power. He informed Congress that he vetoed on constitutional grounds, not on policy grounds. In his entire presidency, Washington only vetoed two bills. He used the veto sparingly, so as not to weaken or undermine that critical presidential weapon. The second time Washington vetoed, he carefully expanded the veto power. His second veto was not based on narrow constitutional grounds, but on broader policy grounds. The bill in question dealt with the organization of the military, an area where Washington knew he would not be second-guessed. When he enlarged the veto power into the realm of policy, he thus made sure that his veto would not be questioned by Congress. And so Washington cautiously nurtured the veto into one of the executive’s most important weapons. Perhaps the most important precedent of all came in 1794 when Washington resorted to military force against the Whiskey Rebellion. Here he established the precedent that armed rebellion against the Constitution is suppressed by force, a precedent Lincoln followed in 1861, three score and seven years after 1794 (pardon the pun).
Finally, let’s examine Washington’s retirement. Just as he was the first president, he was also the first ex-president — establishing traditions followed by his successors. Upon leaving office, Washington reverted back to being an ordinary citizen. In retirement, he preserved and organized his papers, and began planning what would have become the first presidential library. Washington’s retirement was not only his finest moment, in many ways it was also his happiest moment. Not only was his life’s work of creating a republican union complete; he was also gaining back what he had sacrificed in 1789. I’m not talking about gaining back peace and quiet at his beloved Mount Vernon. What he gained back was his reputation, which he had surrendered when he accepted the presidency. Professor and historian Peter Henriques has shown that Washington’s reputation was his most valuable possession; indeed it was his ticket to secular immortality– a reputation built on walking away from power. By accepting the presidency (accepting the presidency twice, I might add), Washington put his cherished reputation at stake. If he died in office — his greatest fear was dying in office — he would lose much of his reputation, because he would die holding power, rather than having surrendered it. And so not until he retired for the last time did he get his reputation back, not until he retired for good was his image safe, not until he retired for good was his secular immortality secure.
From Stuart Leibiger’s profile at La Salle University, where he is an assistant professor: Dr. Leibiger, an expert on George Washington and James Madison, is the author of Founding Friendship, which chronicled the little-known personal and professional relationship Washington and Madison shared. Leibiger says that Madison acted as Washington’s “prime minister” during the president’s first term in office. Dr. Leibiger is also an expert on the framing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution.