George Washington, Greatest American President

 

To add to the honoring on July 4 here on Ricochet, and to follow in footsteps blazed by the Ricocheters who debated the greatest presidents, I am going to post on a President-a-day until the weekend.  They come from my work on what made the greatest Presidents, great, and what made some of the worst Presidents the worst — working off a sophisticated poll of scholars taken a few years ago (I’ll post the complete ranking later).

I’ll start off with the President whom I consider the greatest in American history: George Washington (though scholars argue over whether the title should go to Lincoln instead).  He wasn’t the greatest President just because he won the Revolutionary War, and he wasn’t the greatest just because he was first — although both had something to do with it.  He made a series of fundamental choices about the Presidency that govern its basic operations today.  Washington could have read the Constitution to make him something of a prime minister, but he chose instead an energetic, independent executive.

Here’s the abstract and a link to the paper, which I promise is short (at least by academic standards — it’s 30 pages).

This paper examines current debates over the scope of presidential power through the lens of the Washington administration. We tend to treat Washington’s decisions with an air of inevitability, but the constitutional text left more questions about the executive unanswered than answered.

Washington filled these gaps with a number of foundational decisions – several on a par with those made during the writing and ratification of the Constitution itself. He was a republican before he was a Federalist, but ultimately Washington favored an energetic, independent executive, even at the cost of political harmony. He centralized decision-making in his office, so that there would be no confusion about his responsibility and accountability. He took the initiative in enforcing the law and followed his own interpretation of the Constitution. He managed diplomatic relations with other countries and set the nation’s foreign policy. At the end of his two terms, the Presidency looked much like the one described in The Federalist Papers.

None of this was foreordained. Washington could have chosen to mimic a parliamentary system or a balanced government with executive branch officials drawn from an aristocratic social class. He could have considered the Presidency as Congress’s clerk, committing himself solely to carrying out legislative directions. He might even have thought of himself as the servant of the states. But instead he read his constitutional powers broadly to lead the nation through its first growing pains; restore the country’s finances; keep the nation out of a dangerous European war; open the West to American expansion; and see the Constitution through the appearance of the first political parties.

There are 18 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Profile Photo Member
    @

    He established good precedent. It don’t get no better than that.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Member
    @WyleeCoyote

    That poll you mentioned isn’t one of those partisan hack polls commissioned during the Bush administration purely for the purpose of rating Bush last, is it, Professor?

    Agree that Washington was the best president ever, almost by definition. The more I learn about him, the more I realize how lucky our nation was to have had him.

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Member
    @tabularasa

    Washington may be the only man who has been indispensable to America. Obama thinks Obama is–he’s deluded.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Inactive
    @River

    Good choice. Unlike many presidents and great men, Washington withstands modern scrutiny and discussion extremely well. His integrity was critical to the Revolution’s success and our nation’s survival. Those first perilous years of struggling with the Articles of Confederation – before the Constitution was put into place – could have led to disintegration.

    Ironically, King George the Third’s judgment of Washington rings most loudly and truly. After the peace treaty was signed and Britain withdrew from America, the American painter Benjamin West was commissioned to do a portrait of George III. While sitting for it, the king asked,”What will Washington do now that the war is over?” West answered, “They say he will return to Mt. Vernon and run his farm.”

    George replied,”If he does that he will be the greatest man who ever lived.”

    Only one other man in history ever did that, Cincinnattus, (519 BC – 430 BC) aristocrat and politician of the Roman Republic who served as dictator in 458 BC and 439 BC.

    He resigned his posts when the crises were over. But he never helped form a government, sitting silently like a rock; a cornerstone to his nation, the way Washington did.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    @FeliciaB

    John, how much of Washington’s military career influenced his role as president? I wonder if his years of experience as a general and commander of the Continental forces colored his perception of the new role of president.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Member
    @Britanicus
    River:

    Only one other man in history ever did that, Cincinnattus, (519 BC – 430 BC) aristocrat and politician of the Roman Republic who served as dictator in 458 BC and 439 BC.

    He resigned his posts when the crises were over. But he never helped form a government, sitting silently like a rock; a cornerstone to his nation, the way Washington did. · Jun 27 at 1:11

    Ah, you beat me to it!

    It takes a very uncommon form of courage and selflessness to willingly give up near absolute power. From what I gather, it was quite possible that Washington could have made himself King, if it was his will.

    I doubt that many here–including myself–would be able to resist that temptation. And that is certainly not an insult. More just an observation of human nature.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Contributor
    @AdamFreedman

    I agree. As much as I respect Lincoln, Washington will always be at the top of my list — for exactly the reasons you set out. He created the presidency and, in some ways, the dynamic of the federal government.

    Interested to see where you rank FDR. These surveys often rank him right behind Washington and Lincoln, and Cass Sunstein calls FDR “our greatest president.” To put it mildly, I dissent.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Standfast

    What makes Washington great is that all he wanted to do after the War was go home and be a farmer. He was drafted to be both the President of the Constitutional Convention and President of the United States. Although he served reluctantly, he served with honor and integrity. And as stated above, he was the man indispensable to the United States becoming a successful republic.

    I would that God would raise up another Washington to lead us in these troubled times.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Inactive
    @River
    Adam Freedman: I agree. As much as I respect Lincoln, Washington will always be at the top of my list — for exactly the reasons you set out. He created the presidency and, in some ways, the dynamic of the federal government.

    Interested to see where you rank FDR. These surveys often rank him right behind Washington and Lincoln, and Cass Sunstein calls FDR “our greatest president.” To put it mildly, I dissent. · Jun 27 at 1:47pm

    If FDR hadn’t had the luck to be a ‘successful’ war president, he would be ranked as one of our worst-ever presidents. And he was a tyrant to boot. The Depression was as bad in 1940 as it had been in almost any year since 1934. Economists almost universally agree that only the world war got us out of it.

    When it was over, our industrial base was intact and we largely owned the markets of the world. Everyone wanted our products and services.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Inactive
    @FeliciaB
    River

    Adam Freedman: I agree. As much as I respect Lincoln, Washington will always be at the top of my list — for exactly the reasons you set out. He created the presidency and, in some ways, the dynamic of the federal government.

    Interested to see where you rank FDR. These surveys often rank him right behind Washington and Lincoln, and Cass Sunstein calls FDR “our greatest president.” To put it mildly, I dissent. · Jun 27 at 1:47pm

    If FDR hadn’t had the luck to be a ‘successful’ war president, he would be ranked as one of our worst-ever presidents. And he was a tyrant to boot. The Depression was as bad in 1940 as it had been in almost any year since 1934. Economists almost universally agree that only the world war got us out of it.

    When it was over, our industrial base was intact and we largely owned the markets of the world. Everyone wanted our products and services. · Jun 27 at 2:06pm

    A-Greed!

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DavidWilliamson

    It’s a great system if you have a President like Washington.

    With Obama, eh, not so much!

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Member
    @tabularasa
    FeliciaB: John, how much of Washington’s military career influenced his role as president? I wonder if his years of experience as a general and commander of the Continental forces colored his perception of the new role of president. · Jun 27 at 1:14pm

    Felicia: There is a terrific book (published in 2005) that examines that very question: Edward Lengel’s General George Washington: A Military Life. Lengel’s focus is on Washington as a military man (good, not great), but one of the points Lengel makes is that even though Washington was not a great general, his military career shaped his political career, when his greatness was apparent. Washington’s greatest achievement in the War was not winning battles (though the victories in the two battles of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton in late 1776 and 1777 saved the revolution) but in keeping an army in the field (his efforts there were beyond miraculous).

    Put it this way, Washington would not have screwed up a Medal of Honor ceremony the way Obama did the other day. His military background would have made doing that right his highest priority.

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Member
    @
    tabula rasa

    Put it this way, Washington would not have screwed up a Medal of Honor ceremony the way Obama did the other day. His military background would have made doing that right his highest priority. · Jun 27 at 3:34pm

    When I saw Obama at Ft Drum I thought, “This would end his Presidency, if the media covered it.” But they didn’t.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Member
    @DavidKnights

    Add my voice to the choice of Washington as our greatest president. While Lincoln saved the republic from its greatest crisis, the republic would not exist but for Washington. His choices as a political leader were near perfect. You cannot note that in the colonies at the time of the revolution were Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin and not believe that we as a country were particularly blessed.

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Inactive
    @GiveMeLiberty
    Well, FDR was elected 4 times as president. : ) I think that illustrates the difference between GW and FDR better than anything else. One man defined the position and could have made himself king, the other saw himself as so important, so un-willing to cede power to anyone else, that he broke the tradition started by Washington. I think at the core of it this is what separates the left from the right, and there can be no compromise with the Cass Sunsteins of the world.I am no expert on Washington but I do recall that he was very good about picking talent, often young and untested talent. I remember reading that he would give his officers a problem to solve and listen as they hashed it out. Then when they had exhausted all possible solutions he would take what he learned from their discussions and make his decision. I believe he used this technique as well as president, with many of the same people.
    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Inactive
    @FeliciaB
    tabula rasa
    FeliciaB: John, how much of Washington’s military career influenced his role as president? I wonder if his years of experience as a general and commander of the Continental forces colored his perception of the new role of president. · Jun 27 at 1:14pm
    Felicia: There is a terrific book (published in 2005) that examines that very question: Edward Lengel’s General George Washington: A Military Life. Lengel’s focus is on Washington as a military man (good, not great), but one of the points Lengel makes is that even though Washington was not a great general, his military career shaped his political career, when his greatness was apparent. Washington’s greatest achievement in the War was not winning battles (though the victories in the two battles of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton in late 1776 and 1777 saved the revolution) but in keeping an army in the field (his efforts there were beyond miraculous).

    Thanks, Tabula! I’ll have to check it out after I finish this spate of bodice rippers I’m on. Yeah. I just did just write that…

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Thatcher
    @MSJL

    I wholeheartedly agree. George Washington is one of those people that (for me) leads to the conclusion of the U.S. as an exceptional nation. When you consider how many countries were launched (especially in the post-colonial age) with a dysfunctional, incompetent, kleptocratic regime of unprofessional hacks and buffoons and consider that Washington was so thoroughly professional, decisive and above corruption, it’s easy to see him as a blessing and his role as indispensible to the success of the republic.

    • #17

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.