It is true that his leadership helped a ragtag army of untrained and inexperienced soldiers defeat the most powerful military in the world. While this is not why he was the greatest president, it pretty much set the stage for him becoming the greatest president.
Here is why he should be considered the greatest of great presidents.
1. He surrendered power. After the Treaty of Paris was signed in September of 1783, Washington resigned his commission as general. He said, "Having now finished the work assigned to me, I now retire from the great theater of action." His actions stunned the people of Europe, as great generals did not humbly step down from their posts. In fact, George III famously quipped: "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."
He did just as he said, and returned to Mount Vernon. He said he would never again "take any share in public business." This was the first of two times he would surrender power.
2. He attended the Constitutional Convention. In 1786, nearly all of the states decided that changes to the Articles of Confederation were needed and agreed to a convention in Philadelphia. Washington was asked to attend. He did not want to leave the comforts of Mount Vernon. However, after several days of thinking it over, he decided his presence would add credibility to the convention, and that others would look to him for leadership. He was right on both accounts. After five days it was decided to scrap the original constitution in favor of a new one. After four months of debate, Washington was the first to sign the new constitution.
3. He was the first and only unanimously elected president. The Constitution of the United States of America was ratified on June 21, 1788. Elections were held in all states, and on February 4, 1789, all 69 electors unanimously voted for Washington to be the first president. John Adams was the first Vice President.
4. He chose to be a humble president. He could have interpreted the new Constitution in such a way as to make himself more like a prime minister or a king, but he chose instead to interpret in such a way as to make the presidency a humble office.
5. He created a precedent on how to deal with the senate. In August of 1789 he decided to meet before the senate to seek their advice about a treaty with native Americans. Senators asked meaningless questions and pretty much wasted his time. He decided to never meet with them again. No president after him has ever done so.
6. He created the first cabinet of advisers. Instead, he decided to create a cabinet of advisers to help him run the new government. He selected Thomas Jefferson to be secretary of state, Alexander Hamilton to be secretary of treasury, John Jay to be secretary of judiciary, and Henry Knox to be secretary of war. All presidents since him have selected a cabinet of advisers.
7. He established the constitutional power of the presidential veto. He was the first to exercise the president's veto power. Congress passed a bill to give some states more representatives, and therefore more power over the federal government. He vetoed this bill.
8. He became the only person elected unanimously -- a second time. In 1792, he really wanted to retire to Mount Vernon. He was sent a letter by his friend Eliza Powell. In it she asked him how he could relax at Mount Vernon when his services were needed in Philadelphia to keep the young nation together. So, putting his personal desires aside for the good of his nation, he decided to run for a second term. He was once again elected unanimously. He is the the only president to be elected unanimously, and he did it twice.
9. He avoided war. The French Revolution broke out in France. Jefferson believed the U.S. should support the French and be suspicious of the British. Hamilton believed the U.S. should side with the British because they were important trading partners with the U.S. Washington believed the nation was too fragile to go to war with anyone. On April 22, 1793, he issued a proclamation of neutrality. The country avoided war. Most Americans still supported France and were openly outraged at Washington. But he stuck to his guns, even though he favored France. So, once again, he put his country before his own personal desires. He put his country before what was popular among the people.
10. He supported Jay's Treaty. Division among his cabinet between pro- British Hamilton and pro-French Jefferson continued. To satisfy both sides Washington sent pro-English representative John Jay to London to negotiate a treaty that became known as Jay's Treaty. The treaty called for English goods to be favored at American ports and for Americans to pay debts they owed the British since the war began. The treaty was unpopular, but prevented war with Britain. To this day Britain remains one of our best allies.
11. He spoke of American Exceptionalism. Despite having a bad year in which the nation was torn by a treaty negotiated by John Jay with the British, and the subsequent resignations of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, at his 1795 State of the Union he reminded the nation how well the young nation was doing. He said:
Our agriculture, commerce, and manufactures prosper... Our population advances with a celerity which, exceeding the most sanguine calculations, proportionally augments our strength and resources, and guarantees our future security... Every part of the Union displays indications of rapid and various improvement; and with burthens so light as scarcely to be perceived, with resources fully adequate to our present exigencies, with governments founded on the genuine principles of rational liberty, and with mild and wholesome laws, is it too much to say that our country exhibits a spectacle of national happiness surpassed, if ever before equaled?Rather than speak of troubles, he spoke of American Exceptionalism.
12. He surrendered power, again. He surrendered power for a second time when he announced he would not seek a second term as president. By doing so, he set a precedent that would be followed for the next 150 years, until a progressive by the name of Franklin D. Roosevelt would put his own personal agenda and his own quest for power b before love of country.
13. He saved his best speech for last. He saved his best speech for last. Just prior to leaving office, on September 17, 1796, he gave the first presidential farewell address in which he explained why he was leaving office. He warned against getting involved in the troubles of other nations. He warned against the formation of political parties because he believed these would only result in squabbles such as those between Hamilton and Jefferson to the detriment of the country. He stressed the importance of be responsible with credit and debt. He also stressed the importance of religion and morality. His speech set a precedent for giving farewell speeches.
14. He let his slaves go free. When he inherited Mount Vernon Washington became the "owner" of 50 slaves. By 1790 he owned more than 300 slaves. During his ventures as a general he observed colonies where people lived without slave labor. In a 1786 letter to a friend, he said one of his "first wishes" was for "some plan to be adopted by Legislature by which slavery in the Country may be abolished by slow, sure means." The letter indicates how he may have felt about slavery, although, like other founders, he rarely made such claims publicly he knew such discussion would lead to severe fighting among countrymen, a battle that would be better fought some time in the future after the country was more stabilized. However, in his will he provided that all of his slaves would be freed upon his and Martha's deaths. Of the nine slave owning presidents to follow him, he was the only one to free his slaves.
Of course we must also note the bad things that he did as president.
1. He signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. This was a law that guaranteed the right of slaveholders to recover an escaped slave. It allowed local governments to seize and return escaped slaves to their owners. It also provided for penalties for anyone who aided an escape slave. The act was an ardent violation of the natural rights of slaves.
2. He appointed Alexander Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton believed in a large central government. The idea of the bank was
3. He signed a bill creating the First Bank of the United States. This was Hamilton's idea, and it was meant to help stabilize the American fiscal structure and pay off war debts. The national bank was allowed to issue paper money, provide a safe place to keep public funds, collect taxes, among other things. Shareholders were allowed to invest in the bank, and this money was used to pay off war debt. The bank was successful in that it paid war debt and stabilized the economy. However, it was bad because it was unconstitutional. It was likewise bad because there was no way that private and state owned banks could compete with such a powerful institution.
4. He used federal military to crush a revolt against whiskey tax. In 1794 a group of settlers in western Pennsylvania opposed a new federal tax on whiskey. They armed themselves and seized tax collectors. Washington abused his power and sent in the militia (about 12,500 men). The revolt fell apart and peace returned to western Pennsylvania. Still, the militia should not have been used to stop a protest against a government action, as such is the action of dictators who oppose and wish to quell dissent.
As you can see, George Washington was not a perfect president. Still, his actions set some really nice precedents that established the role of the president. And while he tended to support the federalists, for the most part, he did not use the power of his seat to advance an agenda. Most important, despite his personal desire to retire to Mount Vernon, he rose to the occasion when his country needed him. He held the country together during those initial eight years, and for that he will forever be known as the greatest president.
- Why is George Washington the Greatest President?
- Cato Institute: The Man Who Would Be King, by David Baaz
- George Washington's State of the Union (December 8, 1795)
- George Washington's Farewell Address (September 17, 1796)
- Washington's Farewell Address: To the people of the United States
- George Washington: Encyclopedia of Presidents, by Brendan January
- History Channel: Fugitive Slave Acts
- The First Bank of the United States