The True George Washington: Citizen and Office-Holder: President

Updated September 23, 2019 | Infoplease Staff


Pickering, who placed a low estimate on his military ability, said that, "upon the whole, I have no hesitation in saying that General Washington's talents were much better adapted to the Presidency of the United States than to the command of their armies," and this is probably true. The diplomatist Thornton said of the President, that if his "circumspection is accompanied by discernment and penetration, as I am informed it is, and as I should be inclined to believe from the judicious choice he has generally made of persons to fill public stations, he possesses the two great requisites of a statesman, the faculty of concealing his own sentiments and of discovering those of other men."

To follow his course while President is outside of the scope of this work, but a few facts are worth noting. Allusion has already been made to his use of the appointing power, but how clearly he held it as a "public trust" is shown in a letter to his longtime friend Benjamin Harrison, who asked him for an office. "I will go to the chair," he replied, "under no pre-engagement of any kind or nature whatsoever. But, when in it, to the best of my judgment, discharge the duties of the office with that impartiality and zeal for the public good, which ought never to suffer connection of blood or friendship to intermingle so as to have the least sway on the decision of a public nature." This position was held to firmly. John Adams wrote an office-seeker, "I must caution you, my dear Sir, against having any dependence on my influence or that of any other person. No man, I believe, has influence with the President. He seeks information from all quarters, and judges more independently than any man I ever knew. It is of so much importance to the public that he should preserve this superiority, that I hope I shall never see the time that any man will have influence with him beyond the powers of reason and argument."

Long after, when political strife was running high, Adams said, "Washington appointed a multitude of democrats and jacobins of the deepest die. I have been more cautious in this respect; but there is danger of proscribing under imputations of democracy, some of the ablest, most influential, and best characters in the Union." In this he was quite correct, for the first President's appointments were made with a view to destroy party and not create it, his object being to gather all the talent of the country in support of the national government, and he bore many things which personally were disagreeable in an endeavor to do this.

Twice during Washington's terms he was forced to act counter to the public sentiment. The first time was when a strenuous attempt was made by the French minister to break through the neutrality that had been proclaimed, when, according to John Adams, "ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his house, and effect a revolution in the government, or compel it to declare in favor of the French revolution and against England." The second time was when he signed the treaty of 1795 with Great Britain, which produced a popular outburst from one end of the country to the other. In neither case did Washington swerve an iota from what he thought right, writing, "these are unpleasant things, but they must be met with firmness." Eventually the people always came back to their leader, and Jefferson sighed over the fact that "such is the popularity of the President that the people will support him in whatever he will do or will not do, without appealing to their own reason or to anything but their feelings towards him."

It is not to be supposed from this that Washington was above considering the popular bent, or was lacking in political astuteness. John Adams asserted that "General Washington, one of the most attentive men in the world to the manner of doing things, owed a great proportion of his celebrity to this circumstance," and frequently he is to be found considering the popularity or expediency of courses. In 1776 he said, "I have found it of importance and highly expedient to yield to many points in fact, without seeming to have done it, and this to avoid bringing on a too frequent discussion of matters which in a political view ought to be kept a little behind the curtain, and not to be made too much the subjects of disquisition. Time only can eradicate and overcome customs and prejudices of long standing—they must be got the better of by slow and gradual advances."

Elsewhere he wrote, "In a word, if a man cannot act in all respects as he would wish, he must do what appears best, under the circumstances he is in. This I aim at, however short I may fall of the end;" of a certain measure he thought, "it has, however, like many other things in which I have been involved, two edges, neither of which can be avoided without falling on the other;" and that even in small things he tried to be politic is shown in his journey through New England, when he accepted an invitation to a large public dinner at Portsmouth, and the next day, being at Exeter, he wrote in his diary, "a jealousy subsists between this town (where the Legislature alternately sits) and Portsmouth; which, had I known it in time, would have made it necessary to have accepted an invitation to a public dinner, but my arrangements having been otherwise made, I could not."

Nor was Washington entirely lacking in finesse. He offered Patrick Henry a position after having first ascertained in a roundabout manner that it would be refused, and in many other ways showed that he understood good politics. Perhaps the neatest of his dodges was made when the French revolutionist Volney asked him for a general letter of introduction to the American people. This was not, for political and personal reasons, a thing Washington cared to give, yet he did not choose to refuse, so he wrote on a sheet of paper,—

"C. Volney needs no recommendation from Geo. Washington."

Sources +