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george washington

15 february 2008

A Presidential election year is a good epoch to start in on the near-complete Times Books American Presidents series. Being the kind of neurotic I am, I can't start in the middle; I have to go back to Square One. In some ways, "Square One" is a good nickname for George Washington, the monumentally uptight guy on the dollar bill, whose main contribution to the American system was to have been a President without precedent. James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn alternate in their George Washington between being mighty impressed by the General and mighty unimpressed with his declining years as President.

In some ways that's the standard historical wisdom on Washington, of course. Like Dwight Eisenhower, Washington was a great political and diplomatic general who was a little out of his depth as a capital-city infighter. Essentially, Washington seemed to conceive of government as being like an army: a unit with a common goal. The quick disintegration of the constitutional federalists who hammered out the Constitution into the warring parties of Hamilton and Jefferson threw the first President for a loop.

But not before they'd created the Executive Branch in many of its most basic ways: as a proactive, energetic branch of government with an almost parliamentary involvement in the workings of the legislature. Before he split with Washingtonian Federalists to join Jeffersonian Republicans, Representative James Madison exemplified Washington's approach to Congress. Madison handled executive-legislative liaison by writing Washington's messages to Congress, opening them when they got there, and then writing Congressional messages back to the President. Far from eliminating the middleman, Madison tended for a while to eliminate everybody but the middleman. Congress and the President would never work so harmoniously together again.

The honeymoon ended early. Madison became an opponent of the administration, as did Jefferson, who had created the State Department as its first Secretary. Public opinion, which helped elect Washington twice to the Presidency by a unanimous electoral count, turned against the President over the infamous Jay Treaty of 1794. The Jay Treaty with the UK, while soberly settling a number of territorial and trade issues, failed in some ways to codify respect for the young United States. (Among its provisions: the UK did not give up their insistence on impressing American sailors into the Royal Navy.) Those with nascent Republican sentiments felt that we'd been dissed. As so often, from the Tea Act to Elian Gonzalez, American public opinion has flared up over a detail minor in itself, with the ensuing conflagration caused more by the hype than the initial dispute.

Washington, in his second term (1793-97), was surrounded more and more by insiders from the party that he and Hamilton had founded somewhat in spite of their assumption that rational, effective leadership would make parties unnecessary. Republican activism sprang up at the grassroots level all over the country, and Washington would come to see it not as healthy dissent but as incipient sedition. The height of paranoia would not come till Federalist President John Adams's term, but Washington shared Adams's distrust of broad-based democratic ferment.

Burns & Dunn note Washington's conflicted nature: a consuming ambition to be powerful while not seeming consumed with ambition for power, a party founder who abhorred the notion of party. In moral terms, they can't help but admire his Cincinnatus-back-to-the-plough rhetoric, which was not entirely banana oil. But at the same time, they can't help but convey the notion of a President out of his depth. In his very inadequacies, Washington would be the first of many in that line.

Burns & Dunn return at several points to one of Washington's unrealized dreams, that of a National University in the federal district. Washington's unalloyed admiration for higher education is both refreshing and unpredictable (unlike Adams [Harvard], Jefferson [William & Mary], Madison [Princeton] and Hamilton [Columbia], Washington had no higher education). One suspects that if Washington had persuaded Congress to endow a National University, it would be just one more overstuffed member of the Big East Conference today. But it would have established a precedent, right from the start, that a liberal advanced education is a desirable community responsibility in the United States. Even a weak President has some good ideas (yes, even that one). And in that way as well, Washington was out ahead of the pack.

Burns, James MacGregor, and Susan Dunn. George Washington. New York: Times Books, 2004.