"We cannot, Sir, do without you."
It was the spring of 1782. American patriots were still celebrating General George Washington’s victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown. The Revolutionary War appeared to be over. Only months after Yorktown, people began to talk about the need for a strong leader to put things in order. Nowhere was the talk more common than among the men in Washington’s Army. Army officer, Col. Lewis Nicola, fearing that democracy would not work in the United States, proposed that Washington become King.
Washington totally rejected the idea of establishing a monarchy in America with himself as king. "Banish these thoughts from your mind," he wrote.
Washington reluctantly accepted the presidency. Jefferson told him: "We cannot, Sir, do without you." None of the other founding fathers, despite all their brilliance, could command the respect and trust George Washington did. Washington became the first and only president to be unanimously elected. Shortly before he was inaugurated, George Washington wrote: "My movement to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of execution."
Washington was inaugurated as president on April 30, 1789. He dedicated himself to being leader for the whole country, not for just one region, one economic class, or one political group.
The fact that Washington became the first president of the United States did not automatically mean he was a great one. Compared to other political leaders of his time, such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Washington was far from outstanding. He had little formal education. He knew no foreign languages. He had never traveled to Europe. Personally aloof, even cold, he was not a great thinker, writer, or speaker. Despite these shortcomings, Washington still places near or at the top of the list of great presidents even today. Why?
Washington's genius, his greatness, lay in his character. It was this moral character that set him apart from other men. He had firm personal and political principles, and he stuck to them.
Unlike the other founding fathers, Washington was a true non-partisan. He hated it when people divided into hostile groups, and he tried to avoid taking sides during political disputes. As president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he contributed almost nothing to the heated debates that took place. Instead, he used his considerable prestige to calm people down and get them back to their main job: creating a new form of government for the United States.
He usually spent a lot of time asking people for their advice before he made up his mind. His two closest advisers were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, two men who bitterly disagreed almost daily over every important issue facing the nation. At the end of these arguments, however, it was Washington who decided what was best for the country.
Washington's heart was always at Mount Vernon. He thought about it all the time. Even when he was president he devoted a great amount of his energy worrying about the fence posts of his plantation, and his letters dealing with the details of running Mount Vernon were longer than those dealing with the running of the federal government.
In 1796, at age 64, Washington longed for the peace of Mount Vernon. The increasing political conflict that pitted Jeffersonians against Hamiltonians strained his ability to be the leader of all the people. Washington’s concept of leadership—doing what was best for the whole country—was rapidly being smothered by partisan bickering between the new political parties. Washington could have had a third term as president. But he chose to step down, once and for all ending the idea that he wanted to be a lifetime king. By giving up political power, he made his final major political contribution to our constitutional form of government.
George Washington's Eulogy delivered December 26, 1799 by Henry Lee
"First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere, uniform, dignified and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. . . . Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. . . . Such was the man for whom our nation mourns."
Henry Lee was a cavalry officer in the American Revolution and father of Robert E. Lee.
A tribute to George Washington
This is the soundtrack from the movie, The Patriot. Listen for the fife and drum.