Refused to become king: George Washington (1789-1797)

Happy Presidents Day — or Washington’s Day, or whatever your state calls it. It’s only right that I cover Washington today for my president series.

As a nation we owe a huge debt to George Washington. He had his faults, but they were atoned for by how he ensured the survival of a new constitutional system through a very rocky first stage. Above all, he refused to become king — which is something he could have easily done.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

For the most part, Washington stayed out of foreign wars and overseas alliances that would tangle the new nation in conflicts. He broke alliance with France (left over from the American Revolution) when it declared war on Britain in 1793, which was in itself commendable, though Washington didn’t exactly stay neutral. He signed the Jay Treaty in 1795, which strongly favored Britain, and infuriated the Jeffersonians. The consequences of the treaty were threefold: (1) it sharpened the division between the Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans; (2) it infuriated France, leading to the Quasi-War (1798-1800) under John Adams; (3) it left issues unresolved with Britain, leading to the War of 1812 under James Madison.

A year before signing the Jay Treaty, Washington suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion (1794). He did so without killing anyone, and then pardoned the rioters, which is commendable, but he should not have sent federal troops to begin with. The Whiskey Rebellion was only an anti-tax protest, not a revolt against the U.S. government, and the governor of Pennsylvania told Washington that the issue could be settled in the courts. By sending federal troops without the consent of the state, Washington violated the Constitution with needless aggression.

At the start of his presidency, Washington vowed to negotiate with the Native American Indians over their territories, but he ended up using force to seize their lands in the Midwest. In fact, during his administration, 80% of the federal budget was spent on fighting the Indians. Washington had initially held the Indians in high regard, but after fighting them in the Ohio War in 1790, he denounced them as “having nothing human but shape”. While Washington’s policies against the Indians were no way near as pernicious as those of later presidents — especially Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses Grant — he began a precedent that has haunted the American legacy from day one.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

At the start of his presidency, Washington had a healthy hatred for political parties — but that didn’t last. By his second term he was unequivocally in the Federalist camp, impressed by (Secretary of the Treasury) Alexander Hamilton’s vision of using government for the advantage of big business.

What Hamilton did, and what Washington backed, were two especially bad policies: (1) the erection of a protective tariff, and (2) the creation of a national bank. Tariffs are bad because they protect businessmen at the expense of consumers; they are not ultimately good for business, and are very bad for free trade. The First Bank of the United States (1791-1811) was bad because, like its successor (1816-1836), it benefited merchants and investors at the expense of the population. By controlling the nation’s money supply, the bank gave its wealthy owners a large return with very little risk, and would be invariably involved in corruption, such as bribing government officials, making sweetheart deals with congressmen and newspaper editors.

Hamilton argued that the Constitution didn’t forbid the government from creating tariffs and a national bank, but that was slippery, since the Tenth Amendment said that all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government lie with the states or with the people. The founding fathers wrote the Tenth Amendment specifically to prevent what Hamilton was doing — using an argument of silence to justify the expansion of federal power.

It was a good thing that the Federalist party went extinct (losing influence after 1801, dying for good in 1824), but Hamilton and Washington set a precedent that has lived on ever since. Thomas Jefferson was so disgusted with government-business collusion under Washington that he resigned as Secretary of State in 1793.

3. Liberty

Washington was the soul of liberty, and notably a respecter of all faiths. He once wrote to a rabbi: “May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Aside from an occasional overreach (like in the Whiskey Rebellion), he was firmly committed to respecting the checks and balances of the government. He deferred to Congress on most legislation, and used his veto power only when he firmly believed a bill was unconstitutional.

Washington recommended the Bill of Rights, one of the most important contributions to American thought. That alone earns him a perfect liberty rating. But even more critically — and what often goes unmentioned — is that Washington refused to become a king. He stepped down after eight years and set the precedent for maximum two-year service. He didn’t have to do that. His popularity was so great, and the country in its fledgling years, that if he had wanted to remain president until he died he could have easily done so. That would have set a horrible precedent, and undermined everything the republic stood for.

Conclusion

George Washington was the third best president of the United Sates, after John Tyler (best) and Warren Harding (a close second). Here is his report card.

Peace. For intervening in the Whiskey Rebellion, he loses a point. For breaking off the alliance with France he earns gold stars, but then loses a point for the Jay Treaty (which was partly good but carried long-range consequences). For his aggressive policies in seizing Indian lands he loses 3 points.

Prosperity. Things weren’t too bad under Washington, but for buying into the vision of Alexander Hamilton, which carried long-lasting negative consequences, he loses 7 points.

Liberty. For recommending the Bill of Rights, he gets a full 20 points. What that bill did for America can’t be exaggerated. And for stepping down from office after two terms he gets a +5 bonus. I don’t normally award bonus points in these presidential assessments, but I have to make an exception for Washington. Relinquishing the presidency when he could have easily kept it until he died is, I believe, the best and most important thing a president has ever done in his capacity as president.

Peace — 15/20
Prosperity — 13/20
Liberty — 20/20 (+5 bonus)

TOTAL SCORE = 53/60 = Excellent

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