Extraordinarily Graceful Exits from Power

Nicholas Guyatt

  • His Excellency George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis
    Faber, 320 pp, £20.00, March 2005, ISBN 0 571 21212 3

The current US president likes to talk about his predecessor ‘the first George W.’, but it’s hard to imagine two politicians with more different styles. George Bush invites world leaders to barbeques at his Texas ranch, and gives nicknames to the members of his cabinet. (‘Pablo’ for the hapless Paul O’Neill; ‘Z-Man’ for Robert Zoellick.) George Washington, on the other hand, was so aloof that even his contemporaries tried to make light of the fact. According to one story, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Alexander Hamilton dared his fellow delegate Gouverneur Morris to clap General Washington on the shoulder and offer him a hearty greeting. It’s easy to imagine the response of President Bush to such an approach: Morris would have received a warm embrace, or perhaps a punch to the gut, and a friendly word or two. The first George W. was not so forthcoming. Morris placed his hand on Washington’s shoulder, and declared that he was happy to see his ‘dear General’ looking so well; Washington removed his hand and silently glared at him. Morris retreated into the crowd.

Washington occupied and defined the two most important roles in America’s early history: he led the Continental Army between 1775 and 1783, and was the first president of the United States, from 1789 to 1797. During this time, the 13 colonies established their independence from Britain, and the new constitution was ratified and put into practice. But Washington’s reputation is also dependent, to an unusual extent, on what he refused to do as a leader. In 1783, he resigned his commission and returned to his plantation at Mount Vernon in Virginia, declining either to direct the new civilian government or to convert the military into an instrument of political control, although the Continental Congress was in disarray, and some of his fellow officers believed that a military coup might be in the nation’s best interests. Again in 1796, as he neared the end of his second term as president, Washington opted for retirement rather than another four years of executive office, so setting a precedent for the regular rotation of the presidency that survived until Franklin Roosevelt’s third election victory of 1940. (In 1951, the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution ensured that FDR would be the only exception to Washington’s rule.) If his 1783 resignation preserved the infant republic from the threat of military dictatorship, Washington’s retirement in 1797 confirmed that American presidents could never emulate the monarchs of Europe. Both acts of personal renunciation were formative to the development of the United States, but these dignified retreats do not tell us much about Washington’s activities on the battlefield or in the presidential mansion. How should historians present a man whose fame rests partly on his disappearing acts, and whose character is shrouded by an almost painful formality? It’s no surprise that Joseph Ellis should now venture an answer to this question, having already produced biographies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as well as a book about the 1790s, Founding Brothers, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

Like many Americans, George Washington took arms against Britain in 1775 resignedly. He was 43, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War and a participant in the Atlantic economy. He had made his name (and his fortune) in the early 1750s, inheriting a plantation from his half-brother Lawrence and leading military expeditions intended to prise the Ohio Country from the French and their Native American allies. In the ensuing decade, he’d come to believe (correctly) that the British didn’t have much respect for colonial militias and their ambitious leaders, and to suspect (wrongly) that his London agent was bilking him both on his tobacco exports and on the fancy goods imported to embellish his mansion. The Washingtons were hardly natural revolutionaries: Lawrence had urged George to join the Royal Navy (his mother intervened), and he named the family plantation after Admiral Edward Vernon, the hero of Porto Bello. But Washington had had long experience of that combination of arrogance and condescension which defined British policy towards the mainland colonies in the two decades before the Declaration of Independence. When the eventual confrontation between the Redcoats and the colonists took place in Massachusetts in 1775, he was a natural choice to command the new Continental Army. Unlike many of his peers, he knew something about leading troops; better yet, as a Virginian, his appointment would demonstrate to the British that their colonial dispute extended further than fractious New England. In selecting Washington, over a year before the Declaration of Independence, the Congress demonstrated America’s national ambition.

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