Study Guide

George Washington in The Federalist Papers 10 and 51

By James Madison

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George Washington

What discussion of the Revolutionary period would be complete without a cameo of America's first wooden-toothed, cherry-tree-chopping Mr. President?

George Washington was generally a soft-spoken man, whose major skill was his ability to delegate and to gather the smartest men in the room around him. While he wasn't a naturally gifted statesman himself, he had a keen eye for picking the best course of action from set of propositions.

He was humble, modest to the point of self-deprecating…and reluctant to take political office. Yep: the first prez didn't want to be.

Which, ironically, made him one of the best men for the job, and got him the Presidency unanimously. He was incredibly well-loved even during his time, and remains one of the few presidents in history to have that kind of support and general appreciation.

Throughout his presidency, he worked to keep the United States out of trouble and tried to hold the entire country together despite the brewing party tensions that would erupt after his death.

The Early Years (Cherry Tree Not Included)

Washington was born in Virginia to fairly well-off parents. His father died at a young age, and as a result young Washington didn't quite get the same education in England as his siblings did. He served as a British soldier during the French-and-Indian War, where he barely managed to lead an organized retreat from a disastrous expedition with General Braddock in 1755.

Washington himself was riddled with four bullets, and had two horses shot out from under him. For cheating death like a man with ten aces shoved in his sleeves, he was promoted to Commander of the Virginia Regiment.

His training in the British army would be Washington's ace in the hole when it came to leading his own army against British troops. He led a rag-tag army with little training, few supplies, and little support from the Continental Congress against a global superpower, and somehow came out on top.

He yearned for peacetime at his home in Mount Vernon, and renounced his title of General as soon as the peace between Britain and the United States was finalized.

A Cushy Retirement, Interrupted

Reluctantly, however, he was dragged back into politics in 1787, at the time the United States was coming apart at the seams.

He stepped in as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, to see what he could do for the country. Once there, he was almost unanimously elected as President of the Convention—not the first time he'd be chosen for a Presidency, although you probably already knew that.

He was so disheartened by the proceedings at the convention that he confided in Hamilton,

I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of our convention and repent having had any agency in the business. (Source)

Washington probably enjoyed the meeting as much as we enjoy a root canal.

Miraculously, the Constitution was able to reach a rough consensus, which was a huge relief to Washington. His support was instrumental in getting the Constitution ratified, and, under the new Constitutional government, he'd be elected President unanimously by the Electoral College.

He wasn't particularly excited about that, either.

While others might have been excited about getting to run a brand-new country, George Washington would much rather kick back at Mount Vernon. The guy roughed it through years of a war where he basically had to keep his men running on toothpicks and some pocket lint; you can't blame the guy for wanting to take a break.

He remarked on moving to the presidency, in typical Washington fashion, this way:

For myself the delay [in assuming the office of the President] may be compared with a reprieve; for in confidence I assure you, with the world it would obtain little credit that my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities and inclination which is necessary to manage the helm. (Source)

Long story short, he was getting too old for this stuff.

Presidency Vol. 1: Setting Presidential Precedents

Since he didn't think he had the right stuff to lead, he decided to surround himself with the smartest men in the country to provide him advice.

This group of advisers would be known as his Cabinet, and featured such all-stars as Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. He also wanted a diversity of opinions and backgrounds in his cabinet, so he tossed in Jefferson and Hamilton, who famously opposed each other on every single issue.

This, like pretty much everything else he did during his presidency, set a precedent for the role of the President throughout history.

Having made it through two terms and weathering plenty of political storms, he finally decided it was time to retire—setting the precedent for the two-term limit on the office. His farewell address, again in classic Washington style, apologized for any personal blunders he might have made in running the country, and expressed his hope that the government that he and so many others fought so hard for would continue.

As for him, he'd finally get to kick back and enjoy his time in the shade.

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