Quick Bio – The 1st President, 1789-1797. Washington’s early life was spent managing his plantations and serving in the colonial army. In our nation’s first and second federal elections, he won the Presidency unanimously; both times, he ran unopposed.
Many of the anecdotes we heard as children are misleading or false. He never chopped down his father’s cherry tree. He wore false teeth but not wooden ones (they were ivory; he also took laudanum to ease his chronic dental pain). He did not wear a white wig; he powdered his hair once it started to turn gray. Originally, his hair was red (see illustration). Yes, he crossed the Delaware on Christmas day during the war, but he did not stand like a proud idiot at the boat’s bow. He grew hemp as a crop, but only smoked tobacco - and he gave that up early on.
His father and older brother died young, leaving George with the Mount Vernon plantation and a cadre of slaves. He married the young widow Martha Custis, thereby (in the custom of the time) inheriting her wealth, land, and slaves. This made George, at age 27, a very rich colonial. Among the patriots, he was the single richest. He and Martha had no children together but he adopted her surviving kids from her first marriage. His will dictated all his slaves be freed following Martha’s death. She freed them herself a year after his passing … possibly so none of them could hasten their freedom by hastening her demise.
Accomplishments as President – Washington’s single greatest achievement was getting the country off on the right foot. Democracies and republics are quite commonplace now, but in the late 1700’s, they were a novelty concept. Versions had been tried - in ancient Greece and Rome, Corsica, Bengal, Iceland, Cromwell’s England, etc. – and all eventually crumbled into ruin, or were taken over by a despot, monarch, or emperor.
America is the world’s first successful free republic, all whose leaders are democratically elected by the people (well, just the land-owning white males at first, and the President continues to be indirectly appointed by the electoral college based on segments of the popular vote, but still). America has no royalty, no ennoblement, and not one permanent military, senatorial, representative, or executive role. Titles and styles (like Sir Elton and the Duke of Your Mom) were outlawed from the word go. The American system was made malleable on purpose, so no one person would be above it.
After leading the patriot army to victory against the British Empire, Washington immediately resigned as General of the Army. Such a conquering hero could easily have assumed command of the whole nation - and Napoleon would do just that in France only a few years later after their revolution. Washington did no greater deed than to demonstrate, in real life, with real actions, that he believed in the democratic concept. After the war, he kept an interest in political affairs and agreed to be the first executive officer of the new, permanent federal government.
George was the best man for the job: well respected by the people, a believer in the system and its future, and above all, even-handed. Franklin was too old, Jefferson too passionate, Madison too young, Jay too abolitionist, Hamilton too narrow-minded, John Adams too bookwormy, and Samuel Adams was practically a terrorist. Many of the other leading founders, like Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, or John Hancock, were just too provincial for the national stage. Washington was an excellent judge of character, and found roles for all these men based on their talents and abilities. He listened to his cabinet and held debates over the proper course of action. Then he did what he felt was right; almost invariably, it was.
Among those right decisions:
- He established the judicial branch of the government. That’s right, it didn’t exist yet. He created the court hierarchy from lower judicial districts on up to the Supreme Court (who got the last word). Then he made all the appointments.
- He established the executive branch, which, naturally, also didn’t exist. He created the President’s Cabinet, the departments that comprised it, and designated each post’s functions.
- He got the Bill of Rights ratified in a timely fashion.
- He refused to join one of the new political parties (Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans), feeling they would pigeonhole agendas and divide loyalties ... which is exactly what happened. On this same line, Washington placated both the slave-owners and the abolitionists by not forcing one state’s policy on another. He knew taking a hard stance on either side of the slavery issue was dangerous; had a Civil War-like conflict broken out so early in America's history, the young republic would have been doomed. None of the later presidents found a long-term solution, though, and the problem festered until Lincoln’s term.
- Washington founded the first National Bank and the Mint, which created the nation’s coinage (dollars and cents). America was flat broke after the expensive revolution; soon, we were solvent. He established an internal tax policy, leading directly to …
- Crushing the Whiskey Rebellion. Many western Pennsylvanian distillers refused to pay the national tax on spirits. When they took their defiance a step further by attacking the tax collectors and threatening insurrection, Washington rounded up the PA and VA militias and personally led them into battle. (He was, after all, Commander-in-Chief.) Putting down the rebellion was a fairly bloodless affair but it sent the message that the new federal government wasn’t gonna take no crap, even from its own constituents.
- He made peace with Britain, recognizing the vast wealth to be made in trade. He did the same with Spain.
- Finally, he did not overstay he welcome. He served a second term reluctantly, then retired. This (and many other intrinsic acts) became the precedent. Washington got a lot of shit done in his two terms, and sent the country on its way.
(Please note: this isn't a list of my four favorite presidents, or the four best presidents, or the four most noble, or the four who should be on the dime instead of FDR, or even my ideal version of a new Mount Rushmore. It's just a list, as the title says, of four dudes who actually got shit done.)