This American Experiment, so famously initiated in a Lexington field in 1775 and cemented into being within the walls of Independence Hall in 1789, has lasted nearly 230 years. Our Constitutional Republic has faced numerous trials and tribulations throughout its history. Many of these are memorialized by special dates every American should commit to heart. Dates like September 17th, 1789, December 7th, 1941, July 2nd, 1964, September 11th, 2001, and of course, July 4th, 1776 serve as some of the most important dates in American history. Yet, there is one which is rarely talked about, and encapsulates the most important decision in our nation’s history. That day is March 4th, 1797, which is when President George Washington retired, by his own accord, from the country’s highest elected office.
The fledgling country had barely endured nine years of rule under the Articles of Confederation. The Federal Government had virtually no powers to govern whatsoever. There was only one branch of government, that of the legislature. No body had been created to enforce the laws, nor interpret their intent. The Confederation Congress, relative to the Congress established under the Constitution, is one heavily neutered in stature. For one, it could only request certain funding from the States because it had no power enforce tax laws. The States were given an inordinately large seat at the federal table, and this caused many problems.
Due to its inherent tribulations, many began to call for a “Convention of the States” to resolve these issues. Chief among the convention’s advocates was the Commander-in-Chief-to-be, himself. In writing to John Jay, Washington expressed the dire necessity for change, “That it is necessary to revise and amend the articles of confederation, I entertain no doubt; but what may be the consequences of such an attempt is doubtful. Yet something must be done, or the fabrick must fall, for it certainly is tottering.” And thus, representatives of the States convened in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. Two years later, North Carolina ratified the Constitution, effectively cementing it as law (Rhode Island did not ratify it for another year). The Constitutional Republic that we hold so dear today, was born.
The question soon arose as to who would be the first to lead this newly minted United States. One man rose above all others under consideration. None other than the former Commander of the Continental Army, George Washington. He amassed double the electoral votes of his nearest competitor, John Adams, who would serve as the first Vice-President. Seemingly elected with a nearly universal backing, Washington entered the office of President of the United States on careful footing. He understood that anything and everything he did in office set precedent for those who would follow. In a letter to Catherine Graham, a prominent English historian and friend to the American Revolution, he wrote “I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.” Any action Washington procured, could give license, or lack thereof, to his successors for their desired actions. Treading lightly is an understatement of his necessary self-conduct in office. And tread lightly he did.
Politicians and their supporters today often speak of “popular mandate” they were given to carry out their desired agenda. Barack Obama entered office with what many dubbed a mandate, and the same goes for Donald Trump. If a “mandate” is so crucially important to an administration, the first administration, that of George Washington, had more of a mandate than any President in history. This “mandate” included many who desired that Washington serve for life, including the man whose face graces the ten dollar bill, Alexander Hamilton. Washington realized this was a foolish proposition, and he had faced this kind of dilemma before.
Throughout the Founding Era, a predominant worry, held by many, was the strength of a standing army. Washington, while understanding the need for an army perhaps better than anyone else, simultaneously understood the ability for an institution of the like to succumb to corruption. At the heart of nearly all corruption is some form of power (whether it be monetary, or pure influence), and so, in the aim of avoiding that dreaded end, George Washington resigned his post as Commander of the Continental Army. This deed caused many to dub him “the American Cincinnatus.” (If you are unfamiliar with Cincinnatus, read his story here.) Perhaps foreshadowing his later, and even more vital deference of power and authority, Washington left his peers aghast by his voluntary leave of absence. Addressing Congress on his resignation from commission, Washington stated “I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life…” Such a statement indicates the necessity, in his mind, not only to relinquish power, but to do so in such a manner that cements it as precedent for years to come.
Sure enough, thirteen years later “His Excellency” would forgo the opportunity to become a de facto king, destined to roam the halls of the White House until his last breath, and instead opt for a quiet retirement to his Mount Vernon home. During his farewell address, President Washington stated “that in withdrawing the tender of service, which silence in my situation might imply, I am influenced by no diminution of zeal for your future interest, no deficiency of grateful respect for your past kindness, but am supported by a full conviction that the step is compatible with both.” To Washington, it was apparent that the country must learn to survive without him at the helm. In that time, this became such an admirable act that Washington’s longtime adversary, King George III, dubbed him “the greatest character in the age.” Few examples in history exist, where the head of state voluntarily surrenders power, and even fewer have done so in accordance with the ideals of a limited government, sovereignty of the individual, and the promulgation of liberty. This is indeed both the most important decision ever made, and most important precedent ever set, in the interest of preserving our Constitutional Republic.
Washington was so renowned that his precedent lasted 140 years until Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided himself too important to follow the Father of Our Country’s lead. And after that misdeed, Washington’s precedent was cemented into law with the 22nd Amendment. This ensures that no man finds himself indispensable in relation to the Union. Whereas in other countries, tyranny (by one, or the many) like that of Revolutionary France, North Korea, Thailand, and so many more, tends to be the rule rather than the exception. The United States of America is greater than any one man, and George Washington understood this as fact since before its beginning. March 4th, 1797 should be a date we all commit to memory, and its legacy to heart. For without it, this great experiment in representative government would have collapsed shortly after its inception.
Follow this author on Twitter: @bradjCincy
The Millennial Review is taking the fight to the front lines as we battle for conservatism in the millennial generation. Join us! Like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter.