I often wondered why George Washington was so highly regarded as perhaps our greatest or one of our greatest Presidents. I understand the importance of being our first President, and I recognize his outstanding achievement in leading us to victory in the Revolutionary War, but what was it in his Presidency that made him great? The answer did not take long to discover and it had nothing to do with never telling a lie.
When we defeated the British and faced the daunting task of creating a nation, the confusion, the infighting, the conflicting opinions of those who thrust independence upon us—those now known as the Founding Fathers—had to have been overwhelming. The vitriolic arguments we hear today about the power and reach of the federal government were the same arguments that divided the Founders. Indeed, the debates between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson after the Revolution centered upon that very issue. And hovering above the fray, serving as a uniting force, at the very time unity was absolutely critical to our nascent nation’s survival, was George Washington. The result: the only time in our nation’s history a President was voted into office unanimously by the Electoral College.
George Washington served two terms in office for a total of 8 years, and what happened at the end of those 8 years also speaks volumes as to the character of our first and perhaps greatest President: He refused to serve a third term. This was the second time he relinquished power. The first time was when he resigned as Commander of the Continental Army after defeating the British. He is rumored to have stated something to the effect of, “I did not defeat a king only to become one,” but there is no historical source to confirm such a statement. But whether he said anything to that effect or not is beside the point.
The greatness of Washington is his relinquishing of power twice at times when his power was at its greatest. There could be no more fitting figure than George Washington to represent a new nation founded on the Enlightenment principles of a new social contract, one whereby the government was subject to the will of the citizenry and not vice versa, one whereby citizens joined government to serve the public and did not expect the public to serve them.
In short, his leadership saved the fledgling republic at its outset and thereafter set the standard as to how leaders in such a republic should behave. His extraordinary leadership came naturally from his character, a character King George III of England allegedly described as “the greatest of our age.”