To study George Washington during the current political climate of contested elections, widespread distrust of government and politicians, Capitol insurrections, impeachment, and Qanon is, to put it mildly, quite startling. Washington was the only president ever elected by unanimous consent of the Electoral College, and he did it twice. Despite his popularity, Washington’s second administration — and much of his reputation as a statesman above party — was all but consumed by the partisan inferno that swept the country in the mid-1790s. Political parties waging war against each other was a madness he felt that would, if left unchecked, eventually doom the experiment in self-government.
Until recently, we might have rolled our eyes at what seems to be overwrought and exaggerated hyperbole. But perhaps we should listen.
Washington had tried to navigate the shoals of the two competing factions that developed during his first term during the debates over the powers of the new national government, especially those in the financial programs espoused by the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. With Thomas Jefferson serving as his Secretary of State, Washington got an earful at cabinet meetings about how Hamilton’s policies favored Eastern aristocrats at the expense of Jefferson’s beloved yeoman farmers, and that Hamilton was openly steering a course toward monarchy to boot. Out of this conflict the Jeffersonian Republicans and Hamiltonian Federalists grew.
Washington tried to steer a middle course, but his sympathies clearly lay with the Hamiltonian Federalists who favored a strong central government. Jefferson left the administration after the first year of the second term, and the Virginians’ friendship splintered for good not long after. Though Washington considered himself to be above the fray, by the time he left office on March 4, 1797, he was solidly in the Federalist camp, whether he wanted to admit it or not.
Washington couldn’t wait to leave office, hounded as he was by Jeffersonian newspapers as an enemy of the people and a traitor to the Revolution. By 1797 even Washington couldn’t avoid the barbs of vicious partisan warfare, and the arrows wounded him deeply. He grieved over where the spirit of party politics would take the country in the future, and he railed against it in his last public pronouncements.
With the benefit two centuries of hindsight, it can be easy now to dismiss Washington’s fears as overheated political handwringing. But recent events should make clear that nothing was certain or pre-ordained — there still isn’t — about the continuance of a democratic republic in a world tearing itself apart over political differences.
The Constitution was less than 10 years old when Washington left office, and the new national government did not have the stability, traditions, or reverence attached to it that would come later. In 1795, Jeffersonians seriously believed that the Federalists weren’t just political opponents, but were in fact pro-British reactionaries whose financial policies would create an aristocracy that would overthrow the legacy of the American Revolution and reinstate a monarchy. That wasn’t just rhetoric; they really believed that.
Conversely, Federalists were certain that Jefferson and his followers, in their admiration and support for the mob rule and leveling spirit of the French Revolution, would one day deluge the United States in anarchy and blood. Before the notion of organized opposition settled into American political tradition, the Federalists and Republicans saw themselves not as two differing factions who both loved their country, but as two competing visions for the lifeblood of a nation. Washington feared that partisanship would tear the country apart before it even had a chance to develop, that it would weaken the people’s confidence in the legitimacy of their own government. Those fears have resurfaced in our own day, long after we thought we’d laid to rest such notions for good.
Then as now, there was no guarantee that the American experiment would succeed in the 1790s; most previous attempts at self-government had ended in dictatorships, with kings, autocrats, or worse. The politics of democratic republics, in which the people govern, can be messy, as we’ve recently witnessed. Political chaos and upheaval can generate instability and fear, which historically had often caused people to turn to a dictator or messiah-like figure to bring order. The French Revolution ended with Napoleon. The “strong man” with all the solutions — and the power — was for many people where the road of self-government always ended.
In the tumultuous years following the Revolution and again the 1790s, Washington could have played that role, and many of his fellow countrymen would have applauded him for it. Even had he not declared a dictatorship, he might have continued to serve as president into an indefinite future, serving term after term until his death.
He chose not to. Washington stepped down in 1797 because he understood that if this experiment in self-government was to work, it could not depend on one man. Political parties or no, the United States must always be a nation of laws and not of men, no matter who the president was. The nation would have to find a way to navigate its future as a democratic republic both dedicated to ordered liberty and with competing political parties. So far it has.
What if he had listened to those who whispered that he should grasp the power only he could claim? Had Washington been a different man with greater ambitions and less character, the history of the United States might have been far different over the last two centuries. Thomas Jefferson agreed: “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.” How fortunate for these United States that Washington was exactly what we needed at that most precarious time.
May we always be so fortunate. Partisanship, he warned us, “is a fire not to be quenched, but demands a uniform vigilance lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”
Stan Deaton, Ph.D., is the Dr. Elaine B. Andrews Distinguished Historian at the Georgia Historical Society.
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