Pulitzer Prize winner Gordon Wood gave a lecture on the presidency of George Washington entitled “President George Washington, Republican Monarch,” last Wednesday. Wood, a professor of history at Brown University, is an expert on Washington’s life. His lecture was organized as part of the Presidential Leadership: Washington to FDR Winter Study course taught by professors James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn.
Wood’s lecture was designed to help the students learn more about Washington as a person instead of as simply a legendary historical figure. In particular, the lecture addressed Washington’s visionary actions as the first president that came to define the president’s power and image in a way that endures to the present day.
In considering Washington’s actions, one must consider the instability of America during the period he served as president. At the time Washington was elected president, the various states were far more dominant than the federal government and resembled semi-autonomous nations. Little overarching “American” unity or ethos existed in the minds of the citizens. While Washington did not take an active part in the Constitutional Convention over which he presided, he believed strongly in the concept of a republic of free states, and faced challenges as president that arguably have yet to be approached by any other president.
Since the American people had been “reared in monarchy, somehow Washington had to satisfy the deeply rooted yearnings for patriarchal leadership while at the same time creating a new, elected, republican president,” Wood said.
It was on this balancing act that Wood focused, and a consistent theme of the lecture was how the presidency created by Washington’s precedents was like an elected monarchy. Washington showed that an exceptionally powerful individual could give government an identity while at the same time bearing responsibility to advancing some sort of public good.
The United States had never had an elected chief executive like the one created by the Constitution, and Washington, who acted almost entirely without precedent, had “to justify himself, and flesh out the new office of the president, but he also had to put together the new nation and prove to a skeptical world that America’s grand experiment in self-government could be possible,” Wood said. “That he did all this in the midst of a revolutionary world at war without sacrificing the republican character of the country is an astonishing achievement.”
Wood painted a picture of a patriot whose reluctance to assume the office of the president after his much-publicized withdrawal from public life after the Revolutionary War was essential to affirming the republican qualities of the nation. Washington, a revered figure even in his own lifetime, was the only man who could successfully navigate the uncharted territory and establish the nation as a stable democratic republic.
According to Wood, Washington’s reputation as the paragon of honor was rooted in the fact that he never actively sought power.
While some historians discussed in Burns and Dunn’s class have painted a more believable picture of Washington as a man who made decisions based upon the impact an action would have on his reputation, Wood seemed to believe that Washington was truly a modern version of Cincinnatus, a Roman general who famously gave up his commission after his victory to return peacefully to his farm and private life. When Washington relinquished command after the War, despite the fact that he easily could have crowned himself king, he showed himself to be free of megalomania, and thus became the one person who people believed would be incorruptible and adhere to the republican values set forth in the Constitution.
Wood also spoke about Washington’s actions as president. Specifically, he spoke of the need during the 1780s for a stronger central government.
During that period, the Union was governed by the Articles of Confederation, which loosely tied together the states in a way that led to a chaotic state of affairs in which there was “too much democracy.” Without a familiar central monarchical authority, the states acted autonomously and the nation was plagued by quarreling assemblies and inequities caused by majority rule.
Wood asserted that after the ratification of the Constitution and Washington’s election as president, Washington took on a monarchical role. While Washington technically possessed power equaled by Congress and the Supreme Court, he came to define the Presidency as having the most power, and treated Congress in a fashion not unlike the relationship between a British monarch and Parliament.
Indeed, Wood spoke of one Constitutional architect, James Madison, who desired that the Presidency be a sort of “super-political neutral role that the British king was supposed to play in the Empire.” Washington delivered, and acted as no other President has: he shunned party affiliation. There are few precedents that Washington set in the area of the image of the presidency that have changed, but political neutrality has often been painfully absent since the end of Washington’s tenure.
On the whole, Wood made the case for Washington as an elected monarch whose visionary actions to distance himself from the people and the political fray, as well as to consolidate his presidential powers, continue to define the image of the president as an immensely powerful, patriarchal figure that instills the positive aspects of monarchy in the democratic American republic.