Timothy D. Johnson, Ph.D. / October 28, 2010

George Washington and Power

It is a common scenario. Career politicians spend a lifetime in office accumulating authority, influence, and money. And in an election year like this we see those same politicians spending millions of dollars to hold on to their office. If the primary voters dare to choose someone else, they leave the party and run as an independent or wage a write-in campaign. Such people usually characterize their life in politics as “public service,” but more often than not they are simply addicted to prestige and power. Is that the kind of officeholder our Founding Fathers envisioned?

It is a common scenario. Career politicians spend a lifetime in office accumulating authority, influence, and money. And in an election year like this we see those same politicians spending millions of dollars to hold on to their office. If the primary voters dare to choose someone else, they leave the party and run as an independent or wage a write-in campaign. Such people usually characterize their life in politics as “public service,” but more often than not they are simply addicted to prestige and power. Is that the kind of officeholder our Founding Fathers envisioned?

An examination of George Washington’s career offers numerous examples of how public servants can leave a legacy of greatness without abusing power. As Commanding General of the Continental Army, Washington lost most of the battles he fought and came close to being ousted from command in the second year of the war because of his failures. Yet, he persevered and emerged at war’s end as the most admired and respected man on the continent. Indeed, Americans call him the Father of the Country. The praise heaped on Washington both then and now has less to do with individual accomplishment and more to do with how he used power.

Among the many obstacles that challenged General Washington and the Continental Army was Congress, which never adequately fed, clothed, or equipped the soldiers. While the army did without necessities, members of Congress argued and debated sometimes to the point of ineptitude. Despite his constant frustrations with the bickering and often incompetent politicians and despite the fact that while they debated, his soldiers went without pay, food, and shoes, the general never tried to thwart civilian control and authority over the military.

Three examples from George Washington’s life provide a window through which we are able to see, as his fellow countrymen saw two centuries ago, the nature of his character. The first two are from his years as a general and third from his time as president. The thing that each example has in common is that when Washington had the opportunity to cling to power, he walked away. Washington’s greatness as a leader can be found in his judicious use of power, and that quality largely accounts for the unparalleled devotion that Americans felt for him.

The first example occurred in the closing months of the war while the army was encamped at Newburgh, New York awaiting the completion of the peace treaty. Disgruntled officers, angry at Congress’s inability to pay them, began to talk of “throwing the bums out” and perhaps replacing Congress with a military government headed by their much respected general. The true intention of the plotters has never been definitively determined, but it was clear that this so-called Newburgh Conspiracy involved something extra-legal and perhaps even sinister. This type of thing has happened often in history and has always constituted one of the great threats to a free people. A victorious general emerges as a strong man, and in uncertain times succeeds in using the devotion of the people to take over the reins of government.

How would Washington respond to such a test? When he learned what was afoot, he acted immediately to put an end to their “disorderly proceedings.” Walking in unexpectedly at an officers’ meeting, Washington read a prepared statement. He told them not to take a course of action that they would later regret, and he warned that their actions would destroy all that they had been fighting for. And consider the image that they would leave to posterity, he cautioned. The officers sat in silence for five minutes as the general softly but firmly rebuked their actions. The plot was quashed. Take advantage of a crisis to achieve unprecedented power? Washington refused, and in so doing he demonstrated that he knew the difference between power honorably wielded and power derived from lust and opportunity.

When the war officially ended in fall 1783, Washington demonstrated once again an ability to walk away from power. He had persevered and now the victorious general stood alone as the most respected man in the country. At the peak of his popularity and power he traveled to Annapolis, Maryland, the temporary seat of government, and asked to speak before Congress. Members of Congress were unaware when Washington stood before them that he was there to resign as Commanding General of the Army. They watched in stunned silence as the general, at the pinnacle of success, gave up his lofty title and retired from public life. For a second time in 1783 George Washington walked away from power, and in doing so cemented his place in history.

When King George asked an American in London what Washington would do after the war, the man answered that he would probably go back home to his Virginia farm. “If he does that,” said the astonished king, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” George Washington understood what few leaders in history have grasped: the willingness to give up power is a true sign of greatness. To grasp for power, as the colonists saw it, was to side with tyranny and oppression, but to walk away from it was a mark of virtue and character. It was Montesquieu, a French political philosopher during the Enlightenment, who said, “To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.”

A few years later, fifty-five delegates met in Philadelphia to draft a new framework for government. It was 1787 and their meeting was, of course, the Constitutional Convention. During the debates over what form the new government should take, delegates discussed the creation of an executive branch and whether a chief executive officer could be trusted with that much power. Ultimately, they created the office of president, but they did so with the knowledge that George Washington would be the first to hold it. All they had to do was recall his careful stewardship of the power that had been entrusted to him as general to know that he could be trusted with the power of the presidency.

This brings us to the last example of Washington’s wise use of power. After two terms as President of the United States, Washington was still universally revered. It being prior to the twenty-second amendment, he was eligible to serve as president for as long as Americans were willing to elect him. Even though he would have easily won a third term, he once again set a lofty example by voluntarily stepping down and once again retiring from public life. Washington set not only an example but a precedent that no one dared violate for a century-and-a-half.

George Washington refused the lure of power repeatedly, and by walking away from it he demonstrated that he was worthy of the trust his countrymen had placed in him. His willingness to relinquish control proved that both power and liberty were safe in his hands. Washington’s unselfish character and unparalleled leadership qualities account for why historians consistently rank him as the greatest president in American history.

Timothy D. Johnson, Ph.D., is a historian and author of “Liberty VS Power: The Founding Fathers’ Vision for America,” which is available at www.libertyvspower.com and through the Patriot Shop.

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