Unlike Any President Since

Today is George Washington’s actual birthday: February 22. (In 1732.) A British radio presenter a little while ago shared that history in a rather upbeat manner: “He is considered by many to be one of the greatest American presidents…”

[George Washington’s Mount Vernon, seen looking at the rear of the house. Photo by me, 2011.]

Indeed once U.S. independence from the British Empire had been won (largely by the army he had led) in 1783, subsequently he worked hard as the country’s first president (1789-97) to try to create a good relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain. His efforts in that were not greatly successful. The British government of that era was not all that concerned about developing good relations with its former colony; London’s much bigger priority was any threat revolutionary France posed to Britain.

His diplomacy with Britain did “buy time,” though, for the U.S. to become stronger in the event of a second conflict. In 1812-14, long after he left the presidency, there would be a second (generally inconclusive) war between Britain and the United States. It was only in the years after the final defeat of Napoleon in June 1815 that Britain and the U.S. began to develop truly good relations.

It is difficult for us to imagine sitting here today of how “ordinary” Americans of all political leanings in the 1780s-90s virtually idolized George Washington. They celebrated his birthday while he was alive. (Politicians who knew him personally were rather more inclined to be critical at times. Thomas Jefferson, for example, thought while he was decent and worked hard to be a national unifier, that he was also a bit of what we might today call “thick.”) Before the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Stars and Stripes flag were elevated to near reverence by Americans as symbols of “the United States,” it was the living George Washington – “the Father of Our Country” – who was de facto THE SYMBOL of the nation and nationhood.

[The Washington Monument. Washington, D.C. Photo by me, July 2017.]

And not just to Americans either. Europeans mostly did not know what to make of that new “United States of America.” They were unsure even if it could last.

What they did know, though, was it was led by “George Washington.” Especially after Benjamin Franklin’s death in 1790, Washington became by far the most famous American of the time. Americans in Europe (which, unlike Franklin, Washington never visited) just had to say “George Washington” and that to Europeans “made” them “Americans.”

When he died in December 1799, lots of Americans were seriously at a loss and the national mourning was genuine. It was as if the country had indeed lost its “father.” Many did worry: “What are we without him? How can we go on without him around?” 

[In the U.S Capitol Building Rotunda, looking up at the dome. The Apotheosis of Washington. Photo by me, 2018.]

Washington was far from perfect, of course. Most importantly for American posterity, it was a good thing he did not possess dictatorial inclinations, set the tone for the office of the presidency, and voluntarily retired from public life at the end of his second presidential term in early 1797. (He would never have developed or even tolerated a “movement” around him that had his name on a flag.) There has been no U.S. president anywhere near similar to him since.

Have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂