George Washington, elected to the Presidency in 1789, enjoyed a reputation that blurred the line between omnipotence and reality. “A legend in his own time, Americans had been describing Washington as 'The Father of the Country' since 1776 which is to say, before there was even a country” (120). Adding to Washington’s allure were the astonishing true stories about his heroism at the battle of Yorktown in 1781, when he stood in the midst of an artillery attack for fifteen minutes. “If there was a Mount Olympus in the new American republic, all the lesser gods were gathered farther down the slope” (120).
Washington’s presence was felt across the nation. He was directly associated with every major event of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress, and the building of the new republic. Even the country's new capitol bore his name. So it was a moment of great import when Philadelphia's American Daily Advertiser published an open letter from Washington to the American public on September 19, 1796, announcing his planned retirement from public life.
Washington’s Farewell Address, as the letter is now called, has inspired much historical analysis, but its initial impact on publication centered around a single fact: Washington was leaving office. By voluntarily relinquishing the power of the Presidency, Washington initiated the two-term tradition, which was not officially established until the Twenty-second Amendment was passed in 1951.
A modern citizen may take a two-term presidency as a given, but the citizens of 1790s saw in Washington's retirement a serious threat. For one, he was leaving the country in a state of flux and uncertainty. Secondly, there had been no period of time in which the nation had been without Washington as a leader. Lastly, eight years seemed rather short for a people who had been raised under monarchs.
Insiders, however, were not shocked by Washington’s Farewell Address. News that Alexander Hamilton had helped Washington draft a parting speech had already spread amongst the political elite, and preparations for John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to compete for the Presidency had already begun. Further, Washington had threatened to retire from public life in the past, before both his 1789 election and his 1792 re-election.
Finally, his age (62 at the time) had caught up to him. At six foot four inches, Washington always had a physical prowess that dwarfed his contemporaries and justified his reputation. He was known for his immaculate health and superior strength. However, in 1790, soon after being elected President, he nearly died from the flu. Jefferson believed that Washington's mental decline began with this affliction. In 1794, Washington hurt his back while riding, and his physical appearance steadily declined from that moment. John Adams, Washington's Vice President, noted that the great man “seemed dazed and wholly scripted at certain public ceremonies, like an actor reading his lines or an aging athlete going through the motions” (125).
Based on this final point, Ellis theorizes that Washington feared the possibility of dying while in office. However, Ellis sees in this motivation more than just personal pride; he reads in it Washington's desire to keep the republic intact. As the United States republic had no historical precedent, there was no model to suggest when and how a President should retire. By voluntarily stepping down from office, Washington was reaffirming the nation’s unique position, by refusing to act a monarch. He wished to quit while his reputation was strong, to thereby suggest that every President was replaceable, and that what mattered most was the republic itself.
Ellis also concludes that Washington had been “wounded” by attacks from the press, which had grown somewhat more antagonistic towards him. In fact, after the Farewell Address was published, Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin and editor of the Aurora, published a piece by noted journalist Tom Paine which applauded Washington’s retirement and anticipated his eventual death. As an “obsessive reader of newspapers,” Washington kept apprised of attacks leveled against him, which usually suggested he acted as a "quasi-king." His affection for fineries, white stallions, and pomp made him appear aloof to some, while many citizens collected and displayed his image, suggesting a monarchical presence.
Ellis considers this issue of monarch vs. president, and suggests that "it was a problem of language” (127). As there had never been a republican president before, there was no language to describe him except for the traditional terms used in the courts of Europe. Washington was in essence a “republican king,” which of course went against everything the Revolutionary generation fought for. There was a risk in being such a strong national leader, since it threatened to negate the independence of the Revolution. Therefore, in resigning the Presidency, Washington was declaring his allegiance to the Republic.
However, he left advice for how the nation should stay strong in the Farewell Address, which pushed for national unity and independence from Europe. Ellis highlights three main factors of the statement that he believes many modern historians overlook simply because these factors were considered common knowledge in the 1700s. First, Washington’s reputation rested not on his ability to wield power, but on his ability to surrender it. In 1783, he appeared before Congress to resign his position as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, after quelling an officer’s rebellion which would have catapulted into an “American Caesar" had he not opposed it. His initial rejection of that power ironically ensured that he was the proper person to wield it.
Second, Washington proved during the war that it was not the number of victories that mattered, but the ground one maintained. Keeping the Continental Army intact despite its losses is what ultimately ran Britain down. His political theories followed the same strategy - in order to survive, the country needed time more than easy victories and successes.
Third, in order to sustain national unity, the United States needed to stay out of foreign affairs. This isolationist policy was not philosophical, but practical. As proven by the Proclamation of Neutrality (1793), Washington knew that the United States was not strong enough to survive another war. Instead, he believed the country needed to turn westward, to find physical wealth there. Peace was essential to this plan.
This isolationist policy was one of Washington's most controversial amongst others of the Revolutionary generation. In 1795, Washington and Chief Justice John Jay brokered a treaty with England that favored English imports and guaranteed payment on pre-revolutionary debts. Though it did compromise American strength, Washington's primary purpose was to avoid a war the country could not afford, and he hoped England would triumph over France. He hoped that favoring that nation would buy America the protection of the British fleet; this proved prophetic, as it happened well into the 19th century in some form or another. However, many of Washington's contemporaries lacked his foresight, and considered Jay's Treaty an act of treason against the principles of the Revolution. It was not only that America compromised its identity - it was that the country did so with its former enemy. Mobs cursed Washington, and demanded war with England. Although the Constitution granted the power to negotiate treaties solely to the executive branch, the House of Representatives was able to veto them. Madison and Jefferson endeavored to negate Jay's Treaty, but Washington's popularity proved superior, and they were unable to find the votes.
Unsurprisingly, Jefferson was outraged. His beliefs - that individuals should counter any form of centralized authority - had only strengthened in the face of Hamilton's financial plan and Jay's Treaty. It was exacerbated by his notorious pro-French sentiment. Jefferson even payed credence to conspiracy theories claiming that closeted Tories were reclaiming the country for England from behind closed doors. Jefferson believed fully in a Federalist conspiracy to overthrow the government. Further, he believed Washington was unaware of, or unable to counter, this conspiracy.
Jefferson’s opinion of the President had greatly shifted during the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794), when a small group of farmers from Pennsylvania protested taxes levied on alcohol. Viewing their rebellion as a direct threat to the authority of the federal government, Washington sent in the militia to quash them. Jefferson wanted to blame Hamilton and the Federalists for this use of power, but ultimately concluded that Washington had grown senile and totalitarian. He spread these rumors throughout the Republican party and the press, and though he always denied being the instigator, Washington knew well that Jefferson was the guilty party. All correspondence between Mount Vernon and Monticello ceased.
This rift with Jefferson illustrates the fundamental division within Washington’s Presidency: the Republicans vs. the Federalists. Rules of political conduct were not yet established (if they ever have been), and Jefferson continued to control the Republican opposition from his perch in Monticello, rather than from the capitol. His delusions concerning the Federalists were so well known throughout Virginia’s political elite, that his protégé James Monroe sewed dissent through his position as the Minister to France. While there, Monroe assured the French that Jay’s Treaty would not be approved by Congress, and that the majority of Americans wanted to join France in their war against England. Monroe even proposed a $5 million loan, and said that any messages from Washington should be disregarded, since he would soon be thrown from office by pro-French supporters in America. Monroe also leaked confidential information to the press, a traitorous offence for anyone, but especially for a man who would one day become President of the United States.
Washington had all of these factors in mind while composing the Farewell Address. His three main objectives in writing the address were to: establish that he was still in control; to establish a middle ground between both political parties; and to remind the American people of the importance of national unity.
Hamilton and Madison collaborated with Washington on the first and second drafts of the Farewell Address. Madison created the first draft in 1792, and Washington then tucked it away after accepting a second term. Later, Hamilton used Madison’s draft as model, but he clarified Washington’s language and tone. He also convinced Washington not to stress in the letter his pet project, a national university. Although Hamilton’s hand is evident in the final draft, Ellis underscores Washington’s bipartisan influence, and attributes the authorship of the Farewell Address rightfully to the President.
Washington used the Farewell Address to validate the power he held during his presidency. He emphasized the importance of a centralized government, something Jefferson did not understand, and stressed the imperative of defending the nation against domestic or foreign threats. Washington also implored the people to identify themselves as Americans, to embrace their national identity.
In his final message to Congress, before his official retirement, Washington strongly suggested that the other branches of the federal government expand so that they could compensate for the loss of a powerful executive who performed many of the federal duties on his own.
Public reactions to the Farwell Address were overwhelmingly positive, despite Republican criticism. The President left office in March of 1797, and retired to Mount Vernon, his home in the heart of Virginia and in Republican territory. Washington feared his last message to the American people would be ignored by posterity, but his legacy has proven resilient
George Washington died on December 14, 1799 from complications of pneumonia. His last words were “Tis well.”
George Washington, a legend in his own time, stood as symbol for national unity before there was ever a nation. From the onset of the Revolutionary War to his last days in office as President of the United States, Washington held the hopes of the nation in his hands. In this chapter, Ellis uses both hindsight and foresight to examine the power of myth, and how this individual's power became mythic partially because of how he used it.
Ellis compares Washington the legend to Washington the man from the historical perspective of hindsight. History has revealed that Washington was not a handsome man; he was pockmarked with large feet and hands, and had decayed teeth and sunken eye sockets. He was always a head taller than the other Founding Fathers, which had prompted John Adams to remark that the reason Washington was always chosen as leader was because he was always the tallest man in the room. Taken on their own, his features were an oddity, but combined with an inherent honesty and earnest willingness to defend his ideals, his physical appearance became “sheer majesty.” A combination of bravado, intellect, and cultured aloofness, Washington was king-like even without a title. Considering all this, there was little chance that he would ever have avoided the attacks that plagued his Presidency.
The press, which becomes a character in itself in its chapter, ultimately became an antagonist to Washington. Ellis introduces Benjamin Franklin Bache in this chapter as a personification of sensationalist newsman. In spearheading attacks that Washington was a “quasi-king,” Bache and his contemporaries were feeding the flames of a national schism. This role of the press is stressed even more in the later chapters.
Interestingly, Ellis does defend some of the claims against Washington's majestic nature. His figure was reflected on myriad iconography, which can only be linked to contemporary celebrity. His image was painted and sketched onto the surfaces of household items, as well as replicated in stone. He was a god among men, which naturally troubled those figures who already worried that the government was too powerful. Perhaps the most fascinating and moving aspect of this story is that Washington remained aware of the limits and potential of his power, and yet never allowed it to control him. He acknowledged what he could do, and then accomplished his greatest legacy by refusing to wield that power. He stepped down, and so ensured his country's survival.
In fact, posterity and legacy is quite prominent in this chapter. Washington did worry that the attacks of Jefferson and the Republicans - that he was senile, weak, and cruel - would ultimately tarnish his reputation should he remain in office. In hindsight, many of the decisions that caused controversy - like Jay's Treaty or his handling of the Whiskey Rebellion - have proved wise, but he could not be certain that history would judge that way. Through retiring, he was considering posterity both for his own sake and for their sake. He wanted to be remembered well, but he also wanted to ensure that his presidency strengthened rather than weakened the union. It is telling that the Farewell Address was addressed to the people, and not to politicians. He was acting for the sake of his beloved public, and he wanted them to know it.
Of course, Washington's final plea for unity would not cede the schism that would only intensify during Adams's presidency. However, he had done what was in his power, and history has judged him well for it. George Washington remains one of the most popular Presidents in history, perhaps because of his unfailing belief in the potential of the nation. His last words, “Tis well,” perfectly reflect his hope for the nation and for his own lasting legacy.