It’s July Fourth week here in the glorious United States, and in the spirit of good, old-fashioned patriotism, I’m dubbing this week “MAGA Week 2018” (and adopting the hashtag #MAGAWeek2018 in celebration—please share this post with the appropriate dose of shameless promotion I crave). Each day I’ll be highlighting some historic individual who, in his or her own way, made America great again in their respective time.
As with all American firsts, we’re starting with the first President of the United States, George Washington. A bit cliche, perhaps, but I believe that we take George Washington’s legacy for granted. Yes, he’s ubiquitously arrayed on our currency, and he shows up around Presidents’ Day in commercials for local car dealerships (“I cannot tell a lie—the price on these 2018 Chevy Silverados is unbeatable!”), but Washington has suffered at the hands of social justice warrior academics and white-male bashers.
Of course, none of those Gender Studies majors could even bash our first President were it not for his choices in and before taking office. Indeed, we owe an immense debt of gratitude to George Washington for the system of government we enjoy today.
Washington is not some kind of patriotic demigod—he more or less blundered the British Empire into the lengthy and expensive Seven Years’ War/French and Indian War with France—but he did something that few military men have ever done in history: he voluntarily gave up power.
George Washington received a commission from the young Continental Congress to lead the Continental Army in 1775. On 23 December 1783, General Washington resigned his commission, surrendering his commission back to the civilian authority that originally granted it.
Historically speaking, it is hard to articulate how rare such an action is. Washington could have gone the direction of the “George Washington of South America,” Simon Bolivar, and continued to fight for more power, or to expand the Revolution abroad. Many men in his position—a position of immense popularity and holding the keys to the nation’s fighting force—would have forced the Continental Congress at gun point to extend “emergency powers” or the like to them. Washington could easily have made himself King of the United States.
Instead, Washington followed the model of the humble Roman farmer Cincinnatus, who saved the young Roman Republic and promptly returned to his plow. Thus, Washington is remembered to this day as “The American Cincinnatus.”
The Newburgh Conspiracy
Before he surrendered his commission, Washington narrowly saved the fledgling young Republic once again. In Newburgh, New York, a group of disgruntled soldiers, upset that they had gone unpaid for so long, began to foment a conspiracy to march on Philadelphia, demand their wages on gunpoint, and, should the Continental Congress refuse, overthrow the assembly by force. Such an uprising would have been disastrous, and could have ushered in a military junto, supplanting the Articles of Confederation.
Despite his best efforts, Washington could not win over the hardened veterans with eloquence. He produced a letter from a soldier to read aloud to the rowdy bunch of soldiers, then fumbled about in his coat pocket for his glasses.
As he put on his glasses, Washington remarked, “Gentleman, you must pardon me, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in service to my country.” Washington’s soldiers had never seen him in such a light, and began to weep openly. Thus, General Washington prevent a military coup simply by donning his glasses.
After Daniel Shays’ Rebellion in 1786-87, Washington again—reluctantly—returned to public life, and was among the handful of men who began to push for a stronger national government.
Shays’ Rebellion shook many leading Americans to the core. The State of Massachusetts, which was diligently and vigorously paying off its debts from the American Revolution, placed heavy demands on the limited resources of farmers in the western portion of the State (a recurring theme in American history—the tension between eastern commercial elites and western farmers). As many farmers were unable to pay their debts—much less in the hard currency specie the law required—they faced debtors’ prison or confiscation of their property.
Their backs against the wall, the young Daniel Shays led an ad-hoc army of about 4000 men to occupy courthouses to prevent foreclosures and seizures of property. Ultimately, the State of Massachusetts had to raise a private militia, as no other States would send troops to assist what they saw as a matter exclusive to Massachusetts.
Shays’ Rebellion highlighted the need for a stronger central government than the Articles of Confederation provided. The Articles did not give the federal government the ability to tax the States or imports, and while a national army technically existed, it could only requisition troops from the States, and it had no way to compel the States to provide troops (seeing as it lacked a national military).
Reluctantly, Washington came out of retirement, and presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Once the Constitution was ratified in 1789, the nation faced a number of problems that had gone unresolved during the long years under the Articles of Confederation. America in the 1780s was economically depressed and suspicious of national authority (the latter is not entirely a bad quality), and it had failed to fulfill several of its obligations to Great Britain under the Treaty of Paris of 1783, the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. Additionally, the French Revolution broke out in 1791, creating a sticky situation between the young Republic and its technical Revolutionary allies.
The only man who could engender the support of all thirteen States was George Washington, who won unanimously in the Electoral College. At his Inauguration, Washington wore a simple, brown suit—the attire of a common but respectable gentleman of the time—and eschewed any regal titles. Vice President John Adams, knowing the difficulty of the job any President would face, proposed the unwieldy, monarchical title “His Highness, President of These United States, and Protector of Their Liberties” (in response, congressmen snickered that Adams should be called “His Rotundity”). Washington wisely adopted the simple “Mr. President.”
The Whiskey Rebellion
In 1795, during his second term, George Washington faced the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. Like Shays’ Rebellion, the uprising pitted the interests of the nationalists against rural farmers. Western farmers, lacking reliable transportation and long transport times, relied on converting their corn into whiskey, which would survive the long, arduous trip to market. The Federalist-dominated Congress placed an excise tax on whiskey as a way to increase revenue, placing a heavy burden on western farmers (who, incidentally, tended to vote for Thomas Jefferson’s new Democratic-Republican Party).
Farmers began refusing to pay the tax, and assembled a militia to prevent its collection. This time, however, things went differently—George Washington, as Commander-in-Chief, personally led the Army to face the farmers. At the sight of the American military, the farmers threw down their weapons and dispersed. Washington—in one of his multiple instances of magnanimity and mercy—pardoned the leaders of the rebellion, sparing them the hangman’s noose.
The lessons of the Whiskey Rebellion were clear: good order must be maintained; armed insurrection is not tolerated; change must occur at the ballot box, not by force of arms. Washington’s response to the Whiskey Rebellion cemented the authority of the Constitution, which had survived one of its first major tests.
End of Presidency
Washington served ably as President, keeping America out of France’s costly and radical revolution, establishing good government, and uniting a young country that was suspicious of centralized power. And, once again, Washington yielded power, opting to serve only two terms—an important precedent that every President followed until Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
That final act cannot be dismissed too quickly. Had Washington served a third term, he would have died in office. The precedent would have been set that any President should try to hold onto power as long as was electorally feasible—or by extra-constitutional means, if necessary.
In his Farewell Address, Washington spelled out the ingredients that make a good government work. He wrote, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…. It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
We would do well to remember his words—and, I fear, we have forgotten many of them.
Fortunately, God blessed the United States with George Washington, and worked through him to make ours a more perfect union. At multiple times in our young Republic’s history, George Washington Made America Great Again!
- History Channel website: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/george-washington-assigned-to-lead-the-continental-army
- Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/commission.html
- Mount Vernon website: https://www.mountvernon.org/
- New World Encyclopedia (for “Shays’ Rebellion”): http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Shays’_Rebellion
- OurDocuments.gov: https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=15&page=transcript
- Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/george-washington-the-reluctant-president-49492/
- Much of my knowledge of US History has been absorbed from various sources over years of teaching and studying it. For a highly readable “textbook” account, I recommend William Bennett’s America: The Last Best Hope (Volume I, Volume II, and Volume III; Volumes I & II Boxset).