How Washington Shaped American Politics
George Washington is the greatest man in American history.
In a politically correct world, this statement could seem almost heresy, considering that modern assessments of Washington generally focus on his status as a slaveholder, his refusal to let blacks serve in the Continental Army, his rumored illicit love affair with a married woman, his incompetence on the battlefield, or his supposed low IQ. How could such a man deserve the respect and admiration of modern America when we have far better characters to revere who don’t have the same baggage?
Simple. Without Washington, the United States of America does not exist, and without Washington the entire political fabric of the American experiment never gets woven into a Constitution for the United States.
Washington understood his role in the drama that became the history of the early federal republic. He accepted his commission as commander of the Continental Army humbly without pay and led that ragtag but dedicated group of soldiers through dark times and insurmountable odds. He called the American victory “almost a miracle,” and it probably was. His strategic vision of keeping the army in the field at all times seemed nearly impossible, but he was able to do it through his sheer will and determination.
After the war ended in 1783, Washington resigned his commission and all hints of ambition for power, including his vestry position at his parish church, because Washington did not want to be the Frederick the Great of America, a conquering general who seized power at the expense of American liberty. He simply went home to his farm, like the famous Roman General Cincinnatus, and took up his plow.
Politics, however, never left him alone. He was dragged into a border dispute between Maryland and Virginia, and later was called to Philadelphia and ultimately elected president of the Philadelphia Convention, which drafted the Constitution. Without Washington’s stature as presiding officer, the Philadelphia Convention may not have had the necessary political clout to succeed. The Constitution was barely ratified even with Washington’s support.
The framers of the Constitution drafted the executive branch with Washington in mind, leaving some powers vague so Washington could fill them out when he was elected first president. But herein lies the sad part of the Washington story. No man is perfect, not even George Washington.
Benjamin Franklin remarked in the Philadelphia Convention that everyone knew Washington would be first and everyone trusted him to do a fine job, but what would follow him would be anyone’s guess. Would the powers of the executive branch, vague as they were, be abused by those who followed Washington in office?
And were they abused by Washington himself?
Washington is rightly praised for stepping down after two terms in office, aware that he was perhaps too old and tired to continue and desirous to return home to his farm and spend his last days in the pleasant surroundings of Mt. Vernon. Ambition had never left its icy fingers on Washington’s shoulders.
But Washington did make mistakes in office that ultimately opened the door to future presidents to abuse executive power. His unconstitutional response to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 and his unilateral “Neutrality Proclamation” created a blueprint for unconstitutional executive actions that plague the United States to this day.
By invading the state of Pennsylvania without the permission of either the Governor Thomas Mifflin or the Pennsylvania legislature, Washington violated Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution. This requires the federal government to have permission before the military can enter a state to put down an “insurrection.” Mifflin knew this language well. He was an ardent proponent of the Constitution when it was ratified in Pennsylvania in 1787. Washington invaded anyway, found virtually no one to arrest, and later became the laughing stock of the opposition, including Thomas Jefferson, for this unconstitutional move.
Proclamation powers do not exist in Article II of the Constitution, and the president cannot unilaterally make war or peace. That is for the Congress to decide. Washington’s desire to steer clear of a war between the British or the French is laudable, but even James Madison called him out for his “Neutrality Proclamation,” arguing that this usurped power from Congress and created a power the president was never designed to have. Presidential proclamations are now commonplace, and no one bats an eye when they are issued, but at the time there were many in the founding generation, perhaps a majority, who considered proclamations to be a relic of monarchy deserving of substantial opposition. They were right.
This, of course, does not take away from Washington’s status as the greatest American, but it is instructive for our 2016 election cycle. The American presidency has become a virtual elected monarchy, replete with powers that the founding generation never intended it to have. Washington’s constitutional transgressions are mild compared to current executive abuse, but even he fell prey to the office’s seductive authority.
This is more an indictment of the office than the man, and perhaps Americans should remember the dire warning Franklin issued about the potential for executive abuse in 1787. We should, in turn, hold the president accountable and ask candidates what they can constitutionally do in office, not what they would like to do in office. That should be the measure of the man.
Washington, and frankly most of the founding generation, would agree in principle.