Imagine being a Founding Father watching George Washington, the man that had defeated the British in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia, and helped secure the 1783 Treaty of Paris recognizing the United States as an independent nation, walking towards this new political body that bears a semblance of what we would call the United States Congress. This man that is close to two meters in length; dignified and larger than life. The hero of the colonies. Every citizen knows Washington and both love and revere him. Imagine what most Founding Fathers were thinking when seeing this living legend walking towards them after the Revolutionary War.
Potentially, this admiration for Washington could have quickly turned to concern that he would take over and declare himself a dictator. Certainly, these educated men that formed the first U.S. Congress knew of Julius Caesar and how he crossed the Rubicon and marched his army into Roman and declare himself dictator perpetuo in 44 BCE after defeating Pompey’s army in the Roman Civil War. They would have known about Oliver Cromwell and how he became a de facto dictator under the title Lord Protector for life after the Second English Civil War in 1648.
The concern that Washington would declare himself a dictator for life or a king is not implausible. There was the Nicola affair, whereby Lewis Nicola, an Irish American military officer, had suggested Washington be crowned a monarch. So, we know it was on the minds of some Americans.
However, something monumental happened when Washington approached Congress after the Revolutionary War. Instead of declaring himself a dictator, a Lord Protector, or a king, he passed his proverbial Rubicon to inform Congress that he had disbanded the arm, inform them of military expenses that were incurred during the war, and hand Congress a letter of resignation as Commander in Chief.
Washington voluntarily resigning as Commander in Chief wound have sent shockwaves across Europe. Perhaps the best conversation that captured the sentiment of European monarchs and generals about Washington was between King George III of Great Britain and Anglo-American painter Benjamin West. West was commissioned to paint a portrait of King George, and when the King asked West what Washington would do after the war, West replied: “They say he will return to his farm.” Upon hearing this, King George exclaimed: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
On December 23, 1783, Washington resigns as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and sets off to his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia. He did in fact return to his farm.
This attitude of being indifferent to political power was extremely rare across Western history. Accordingly, King George’s response to the idea that Washington would just walk away from power is understandable. Furthermore, Washington would continue his resistance to power even when he was given it. Washington would become the first American President on April 30, 1789, where he served two consecutive terms as U.S. President. Feeling he did all he could, he voluntarily decided not to run for a third term and went back to his home in Mount Vernon.
Washington’s sense of duty and humility is lost on today’s political landscape. Politicians today have become professional noise makers in the pursuit of political power. There is no sense of duty and honor in modern politics. Washington D.C. needs to be more like President Washington: someone that is indifferent to power, duty orientated, and a desire for wholesome sentiments—not a desire to remain in public office.