George Washington's Republicanism

The U.S. Constitution mandates that the executive branch will seek the “advice and consent” of the Senate to treaties with foreign powers. Thus, George Washington as President once determined to “advise and consult” with the Senate on a treaty matter involving negotiations with Indian tribes. Accompanied by his secretary of war, Henry Knox, the president presented himself before the Senate while the clerk read out the main points that concerned Washington – thus seeking a point-by-point constitutional “advice and consent.” Following this dramatic entrance, Washington was ushered out of the chamber and cooled his heels outside while what was later to become known as the “world’s greatest deliberative body” debated how to proceed.

Realizing he had made a mistake that could limit the power and authority of future presidents, the President turned on his heels and left the building – never to return personally before the Senate for such purposes. By doing so, Washington took a firm step towards creating a presidency that is strong, dignified, and autonomous within a system of checks and balances, while responsive to Congress through intermediaries. This simple act helped define the future balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government.

While aware that the success of the new federal government depended on a strong presidency, Washington, as noted, took steps to make sure future presidents would not become autocrats. He did this by attempting to define the character of the new federal government as much as the office of the presidency – or, as he put it, “to express my idea of a flourishing state with precision; and to distinguish between happiness and splendor.” That distinction had already constituted the animating theme of his 1783 “Circular Address” — democratic self-government understood as requiring a spirit of moderation to survive and thrive. To a spirit of moderation, he had added a character of “magnanimity,” a character that enables democratic government to seek restraint and compromise, and to avoid demanding total power. (Washington later praised and encouraged the same “magnanimity” in his 1796 Farewell Address.)

Parsing the history of the Declaration of Independence, Washington declared in the 1789 draft inaugural address:

I rejoice in a belief that intellectual light will spring up in the dark corners of the earth; that freedom of enquiry will produce liberality of conduct; that mankind will reverse the absurd position that the many were, made for the few; and that they will not continue slaves in one part of the globe, when they can become freemen in another.

He continued in the 1789 draft inaugural to set forth his intentions for the presidency. Washington desired, he explained, to assume the presidency in the company of fellow citizens, entering a path that would yet prove “intricate and thorny,” but which would “grow plain and smooth as we go.” It would grow so, he held, because of adhering to that “eternal line that separates right from wrong.”

When the time came, therefore, for his retirement from the presidency in 1796, which established the precedent of the two-term presidency, all the elements of a moral view of the office and the entire federal structure had been established to give his retirement the decisive and dramatic significance that it has had ever since in the United States. During the eight years he held office, the founding of a new nation itself was consummated, yet, during that same time, Americans witnessed the birth of what ultimately became political parties. Washington’s unanimous election to the presidency by a grateful nation was never to be repeated, as other statesmen of the era discovered room to contest the “administration” of the government within the protective confines of the Constitution.

Washington held before himself and his fellows throughout the founding era the objective of a decent, republican life as the providential destiny of the American people. When he was elected to the first presidency under the new Constitution, he thought it was time to say something about what he believed America was about. It seems to me that Washington’s judgment rests on a few simple considerations, some of which are elucidated in the first inaugural and others of which are elucidated in documents prior and subsequent to that time. Most important, surely, is what he had originally set out as the objective for the founding as he expressed that in the 1783 “Circular Address.” There Washington noted that the original attempt at a constitution was a failure. The Articles of Confederation did not supply the needs of the nation, not least a trustworthy defense. It was unable to legislate for itself as a nation, unable to provide for that peace and prosperity, that stability, which were conditions for the attainment of the fundamental objective. And that, said Washington, was the objective of self government.

We perhaps do not experience all the resonance, which George Washington intended when he wrote those words in 1783. There was someone who did experience its full resonance a year earlier, in 1782, and that was Colonel Lewis Nicola. Nicola had written to Washington suggesting that things were in such poor state in the country that only a monarchy could rescue America and, naturally, only Washington could be monarch. Washington responded to Nicola with a stinging rebuke that could still instruct protocol secretaries. He managed to convey in a few well chosen words so complete a horror of Nicola’s suggestion, so resolute a defense of the idea of republicanism, the idea of self government, that poor Colonel Nicola spent most of the rest of his life apologizing to Washington.

George Washington: A Collection (Liberty Fund, 1988)

To try to create within oneself that same resonance, one might recall that self government does not mean majority rule – for any of the American Founders. While it certainly does include the processes of majority rule ultimately, that is only a mechanism, a means – not what was being aimed at. What he meant by self government was rather more a moral conception, such as he expressed in his Farewell, when he eulogized the people as “now” loving to be “one people,” and now governing themselves. At that moment, at least, they became in Washington’s eyes a republic, and had also to accept the responsibility for its perpetuation. Washington’s Farewell is truly a masterpiece in literary craftsmanship.

The address carries the people from the Revolution through the time of Washington’s departure. In effect, he
confessed that he had asserted authority in the early years, of necessity. He did so in a self deprecating manner, indeed rendering his authority virtually invisible, but he did so and with the purpose in mind of attaining the very eminence from which he then spoke, the point at which the people could assume the authority of self government and himself become superfluous. Thus, he left office declaring that he, George Washington, does not govern in the United States; the people do.

Washington meant in this precisely what he meant in the First Inaugural address, namely, his claim that “private morality” is the foundation of our national happiness. That is an extraordinary claim in the context of general discussions of political principles and ideas. It may not strike a contemporary soul so, but most philosophers would demand to know what on earth he was talking about. Did he mean that everyone has his own opinion and does what he wishes? That is not what Washington meant. He meant precisely what all of the Founders meant whenever they used the expression, self government – namely, that this was to be a government in which not only the authority to govern oneself fell upon the shoulders of each, but the success of the government itself would derive from placing that authority on the shoulders of each and having it accepted.

There remains a problem: Who, under heaven, would ever imagine that the mass of mankind are capable of so awesome a responsibility? The answer, of course, is virtually no one, before the American Founders – an extraordinary event. They did not simply set sail on new and uncharted sees without regard for the past, without regard for past reflection, and without regard for past theoretical accomplishments. They were learned people; they were well schooled. They had much respect for the achievements of the past. Still, they did conceive that the past was wrong in one very fundamental respect – namely, the conclusion that a few were by nature suited to rule, and most were by nature suited to be ruled. With that they did disagree. They had already confirmed their disagreement in the Declaration of Independence, for that is what the language of the Declaration means. When it holds “all men created equal,” it means no more than that there is not any human being set aside by God or nature as the natural ruler of any other human being. Abraham Lincoln understood it correctly. But the Founders, to arrive at that conclusion, had to satisfy the doubts of ages of philosophy, ages of political experience; they had to pursue their wager, not mindless of that philosophical past which lay behind them but rather convincing themselves that they had satisfied those doubts.

I repeat, what we find throughout the founding era is the continual emphasis of one theme: namely, that the idea of building a nation within the United States turns on the prospect of being able to assure that the processes of self government can work hand in hand with an expectation of virtue, without at the same time lodging somewhere within the community a specific power to form individuals in virtue. That is the key, and no one expressed it with surer conviction that George Washington.

Consider: why should anyone wish to foster virtue in human beings, save that thus they would conduct themselves by their own lights – self government? What happens when one cedes to someone else the authority to compel folk to conduct themselves virtuously? Is it not the case that such folk never have occasion to conduct themselves by their own lights? The very purpose for the sake of which one makes virtue the end is rendered impossible in the pre-American state of things. As the Founders pondered that contradiction, they argued that their gamble was necessary, consistent with the objective of virtue. That this society would succeed if its people were decent was the fundamental principle of the drafting and adoption of the Constitution, as it was also the foundation of Washington’s expectation of a “progressive amelioration” of the human condition (Letter to Lafayette, 1786). The Constitution was not drafted with the idea in mind that virtue no longer counted. It was not drafted for the sake of denying what the ancient world had maintained, that human decency was important to human society. It was designed, finally and for the first time in human life, to make possible what all had always longed for.