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Di Leo: George Washington: The right leader for a new nation

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George Washington's Inauguration

By John F. Di Leo - 

Reflections on the anniversary of George Washington‘s first inauguration…

The United States of America declared our independence in 1776, and amazingly, won a revolution against the greatest military power on earth, as a loose and perpetually destitute federation. 

The Constitutional Convention in 1787, accompanied by its subsequent statewide ratification conventions, unified us as a nation, and set forth the building blocks for future success.

We held elections in 1788… a new House and Senate found their way to the temporary capital in New York in the spring of 1789, and finally, on April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath to become our first President, under this new and groundbreaking system.


The Man

To those who only know of George Washington from his successful prosecution of our War of Independence, his selection to be our first President may seem like more of an honor than a promotion.  Students with only our incomplete modern substitute for history class have long assumed that General Washington, a man of the battlefield, must have been a poor choice for the executive leadership of a nation at peace. How wrong they are.

Young George Washington, frontiersman and surveyor, became leader of the militia of the colony of Virginia when still a teenager. His service in the French and Indian War gave him an opportunity to travel beyond his own colony, a rarity for his time; more than 20 years before our revolution, he was one of the very few colonists who had traveled and built real friendships throughout the colonies.

When he retired from military service in the early 1750s, he settled down to a career as a farmer and businessman. Equestrian, horticulturist, merchant, ship owner, he built his farm at Mount Vernon into a big business – arguably, the biggest business in the colonies, by several measures. A veritable small town in itself, Mount Vernon made clothing, processed meat, fruit and vegetables, traded with Europe… were it not for the Hanoverian kings’ tyrannical limits on American manufacture, Washington would have run commercial foundries and a true textile industry there as well.

Throughout his career as a businessman, Washington was also a statesman. He served in Virginia’s legislature, then known as the House of Burgesses, for 20 years, quickly developing into one of the leading advocates of republican principles, not only in Virginia, but up and down the coast. As the troubles with England developed in the 1760s and 1770s, George Washington was always at the forefront, leading Virginia from his own elected position there, and leading other colonies through correspondence with his friends in other state houses and activist groups.

When New England boycotted Britain in the late 1760s, it was George Washington who led the south to join it, making it a true coastwide action. When George III ordered his colonial governors to dissolve state legislatures that acted up, Washington gladly accepted the challenge, introducing the resolutions that would force the governor's hand, and leading his Williamsburg colleagues to walk down to a tavern and  reconvene, thumbing their nose at King and governor.

Even after Washington's long service as commander-in-chief throughout the War of Independence, even after he retired to his farm, he willingly returned to the public eye in 1787, serving as president of the Constitutional Convention that our nation so desperately needed.

So when it came time to choose the first chief executive of this new government, it was not just some reward for past service; this was no mere honor to bestow on a retired relic of the past.  This was the thoughtful, measured selection of the right man for a difficult job, by nation grateful to have been blessed with such a perfect candidate to choose.

The Day

The spring of 1789 been slow to get moving.  Neither the House or Senate could get started on time, for lack of a quorum… Congress’ April opening was actually five weeks late for its intended March 4 start, at the imposing Federal Hall, a temporary Capitol building of Pierre L’Enfant’s design, still under construction in the temporary capital city of New York.

Despite attempts to curb the enthusiasm of the public, our beloved first president was greeted by cheering crowds throughout his travels that April, as he made his way northward from Mount Vernon to New York. His coach was greeted by fireworks, parades, and celebrations of all kinds in the small towns that peppered his route along those 18th century country roads.

There was no Supreme Court yet, so there was no Chief Justice to administer his oath of office.  General Washington chose the Chancellor of New York, Robert R Livingston, an old friend from Continental Congress days, to serve in these most legal of proceedings.

Just before the ceremony was to begin, on the balcony of Federal Hall, Livingston realized no one had a Bible handy. They rushed across the street to borrow one, just in time, and the festivities began.

It is worth noting that even in an incomplete building in an incomplete city, with a still incomplete government, you could not administer an oath of office without a Bible in hand.   We could do without a Supreme Court… We could even do without all of our member states' participation (Rhode Island hadn’t even called for a ratification convention yet!)… But our founders knew that an oath of office would not be valid without a Bible.

George Washington, humbly dressed in a brown suit, locally made, of Connecticut fabric, again entered the service of his nation, this time as its chief executive. It is also worth noting that he eschewed the British-made clothing most commonly worn to public events in those days; he believed in American independence, and to him, that included manufacturing… then as now.

Without such modern tools as microphones and speaker systems, George Washington, the first American in so many ways, delivered his first inaugural address to the exuberant crowd, and entered this new phase of his life… no longer addressed as Burgess or General, but as “Mr. President,” the new leader of one of the world’s great experiments: the constitutionally limited government of a huge new nation.

The Vision

As our first President, George Washington was keenly aware of the fact that much of America’s future path would be guided by the precedents he set, the approaches he took, the issues he highlighted.

Two and a half centuries in, it is easy for us to forget that at the beginning of the revolutionary period, there were only two Americans: George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

This is no exaggeration; Virginians thought of themselves as Virginians; Pennsylvanians as Pennsylvanians, and Marylanders as Marylanders.  Over the course of time, more would join them, but Washington and Franklin were the first major public figures to think of themselves, first, as Americans.

President Washington knew that if the United States were to succeed as a nation, her new government would as need to be graphically diverse as possible to earn and hold the public's respect, and to support a  lasting change in this national identity.

In building his cabinet, Supreme Court, and all other federal positions, therefore, President Washington made geographical origin a key element in the consideration. People of every state, when considering that far off government in New York, could not help but recall that one of the justices, one of the cabinet members, the local postmaster and local port director, were local boys too, representing their community just as their state legislators represented them at the state Capitol. 

Philosophically, the Constitution had created a new idea of divided sovereignty – with various powers apportioned to the federal government, the state government, or the individual.  But in order for this philosophical theory to work in practice, George Washington knew there was a human element, and he did his part, through the appointment process, to give this concept life.

Equally important in Washington’s eyes was the concept of limited government… Specifically, a government limited by a firm, written constitution. President Washington had a role in steering that document’s construction, and he put everything he had into ensuring it was obeyed.

For generations now, we have thought of the Supreme Court as the enforcer of the Constitution. Congressman, Senators, and Presidents routinely propose, pass and sign legislation and edicts that are blatantly unconstitutional, laughingly saying that the Supreme Court can sort out what passes muster and what doesn’t.

Such heresy would never have been dared in the founding era, when everyone knew when an oath meant. All three branches took an oath to honor the constitution, so it only follows that all three branches must indeed be guardians of the Constitution.

President Washington scrupulously adhered to the dictates and limits placed on him by the Constitution. When Congress passed a bill, President Washington‘s question was not whether he liked it or not, but whether it was constitutional or not. If he believed it was, Washington signed it. If he believed it was unconstitutional, then no matter how much he may have liked it, he would veto it. George Washington was a man of principle.

What was America, back then?

Were the United States a unified nation, or an uncomfortable federation?  Were we a military power, or a hick outpost that lucked into victory once, but would soon become easy pickings for the land lust of  Europe's colonial powers? Were we so far from Europe that we were forever bound to be a bankrupt outpost of civilization, or were we an economic power in its infancy, with the opportunity to bring prosperity to all our citizens, eventually, if only the right policies were adopted, and a stable currency could enable the private sector expansion that would make this experiment blossom?

These questions and many more were perpetually on the minds of President Washington, Vice President Adams, and their growing government, in those early years.

But at the roots, these questions all came down to those two key elements of George Washington‘s vision: one united nation of free people, thinking of ourselves as Americans first, and a truly, rigorously-enforced, constitutionally-limited government, forever keeping the jackboot of a national capital from slowing down the growth and accomplishment of a free people.

George Washington was a success because of his vision, his worldview, and his ability to impress that view upon a great nation in its infancy.  If only we could return to his principles once again, then our nation could again live up to its promise, as the City on a Hill for all the world to learn from.

President George Washington was the right man for the age, the only man for the job, and in many ways, the greatest gift that Divine Providence ever presented to the United States of America.

Copyright 2021 John F Di Leo

John F Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance trainer, writer and actor.  His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review. A collection of his Illinois Review articles on vote fraud, The Tales of Little Pavel, is available on Amazon in either paperback or eBook.

For further reading, check out Harlow Giles Unger's "Mr. President,"  Richard Brookhiser's "Founding Father," and James Thomas Flexner's "Washington: The Invisible Man."

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