My study this summer took a very unexpected turn into American political history, but the phase is wearing off. In a final burst of interest, I finished off Ellis’ Founding Brothers this morning (which is one of the most well-written books I have ever read in my life), and took particular notice of his chapter on George Washington.
What struck me most about Elli’s portrait of Washington was Washington’s sincere willingness to give up power, which I take to be both his finest personal quality and greatest service to our nation. What made Washington great, in my opinion, beyond his military bravery and skill, his keen insight into American future destiny, his call for national unity throughout and at the close of his career, or his unpopular but wise support of the Jay Treaty, was his ability to exert strong leadership during the extremely fragile infant years of the American Republic without becoming a self-serving dictator. He exerted the commanding leadership the nation needed at its inception (one biographer captured his commanding presence by saying that “his body did not just occupy space; it seemed to organize the space around it” ), but he did make himself irreplaceable or seek permanent power. He became what Ellis called “the core of gravity that prevented the American Revolution from flying off into random orbits” (121), but his voluntary resignation after only two terms established an important precedent for future presidents (lasting almost 200 years) and limited executive power. If Washington was not essential, no President would be.
Specifically, I think of his refusal in 1783 to become the head of a group of insurrectionists intent on making him an American Caesar. Ellis, 130: “Upon learning that Washington intended to reject the mantle of emperor, no less an authority than George III allegedly observed, ‘if he does that, he will be the great man in the world.'” Throughout his public career, he was very reluctant in his leadership, often thinking of retirement, and, so far as I can tell, serving not out of ambition but out of an awareness of his necessity.
In my opinion, Washington’s non-ambition (so historically rare among military leaders turned political) is, above all, what made him such an extraordinary leader and President. He was a powerful enough leader to stabilize the nation during its fragile infancy, but not so powerful as to become a Napoleon. Paradoxically, his greatness was that he did not seek greatness.