George Washington: The Reluctant President

George Washington: The Reluctant President

In 1787, after the Articles of Confederation proved to be mostly ineffectual, delegates gathered in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, a meeting that would ultimately result in a much stronger federal government than that created by the Articles. George Washington, then enjoying what he believed to be his retirement after leading the Continental Army, traveled from Virginia to Philadelphia, believing the young republic could not function well under the Articles and might ultimately be in danger of collapse if the government was not strengthened. Washington was hesitant to attend the convention. James Madison and Henry Knox took on the difficult task of convincing him that his presence in Philadelphia was necessary.

As the delegates discussed the role of the Executive, they began brainstorming what they imagined the office should be like. They agreed that the person to hold the office should be a person of integrity who had the respect of the people. Gradually, as they discussed this abstract Executive, whom they soon agreed should be called President, it dawned on them that they were, in fact, describing someone who already sat among them—George Washington.

It was not an office that Washington sought. For years, he had longed to return to Virginia and pursue life as a country farmer. But he was the most obvious choice; Washington possessed all the virtues that the Founders agreed were necessary to lead the country. He was a national hero and was a beloved son of Virginia, then the largest state in the Union. When the British surrendered in 1781, and one of his officers suggested that he use his standing as the victor of the Revolution and commander of the Continental Army to assume a military dictatorship, Washington rejected the idea with horror.

In April of 1789, with the Constitutional Convention’s work complete, Washington was notified that he was unanimously elected to the Presidency. He remains the only President to have the support of all the country’s electors (although there were obviously far fewer of them in Washington’s time than today.) Again, Washington traveled from Virginia to accept the office for which he did no campaigning, leaving retirement and the opportunity of “living and dying a private citizen on my own farm.” Having already left retirement once, Washington was concerned that the new nation’s citizens might see him as inconsistent or too ambitious. He also worried that he was simply too old for the position, which he would mostly have to create as there was no precedent for the role. It would have been a monumental undertaking, even for a young man.

In the end, however, Washington accepted his role as the nation’s first President, moved, in large part, by the letters from ordinary Americans that regularly arrived at Mount Vernon, urging him out of retirement. In his acceptance letter, Washington wrote that he had “concluded to obey the important and flattering call of my Country.” Four years later, in 1792, Washington was again unanimously elected and likely could have served a third term (there were no term limits yet). Still, he refused, deciding to—finally—go home to Virginia to enjoy a well-earned retirement.