This 4th of July marks the 247th anniversary of American Independence. 2023 marks two other important events: the 240th anniversary of George Washington’s resignation as the Continental Army’s commander and the 230th anniversary of his first and only presidential reelection. American Independence was just the beginning of the nation’s liberty. The decisions of one man, Washington himself, could have torpedoed the entire project; his greatest contribution to US governance was setting the precedent, and creating the custom that kept politicians from concentrating institutional powers upon themselves.
In light of his other contributions, it is easy to take George Washington’s humility for granted. Indeed, Washington had the stature and power to take the American experiment in a radically different direction. In many ways, the US Founding is an anomaly. Normally, a revolution leads to a military takeover of government. Heroes supposed to free the people usually create their own tyranny “for the nation’s sake.” France’s Napoleon, Colombia’s Simón Bolívar or Rome’s Julius Caesar derailed their local constitutional processes. Like the Roman statesman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who voluntarily returned to his farm at the height of his power, Washington did not fit the revolutionary mold. Instead, he resigned when his mission was accomplished. This is the First President’s biggest contribution to American constitutional government.
Most Americans take for granted Washington’s political restraint. Our careful study of Latin American politics and institutions reveals Washington’s humility is nothing short of extraordinary. In a 1963 essay on individual rights, Ayn Rand positively gushed about the American experiment. Because of its subordination of society to the individual, she wrote, “The United States was the first moral society in history.” Surely, Rand was a bit flippant about the slow unfolding of rights for all, over two centuries, in what Martin Luther King later called “cashing… the promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” Still, the American Founding was unique.
The US Constitution has been largely successful at preserving liberty. It guarantees individual freedom by providing limited government through the division of power of federalism, and checks and balances. There are clearly differentiated levels and branches of government that have their own responsibilities and powers which cannot be overtaken by the others. This impedes any government from concentrating too much power. But what about politicians?
Enter George Washington. Upon military victory in 1783, the Continental Army’s supreme commander resigned. Even if he held vast emergency powers to fight a war against the world’s leading superpower, he relinquished all control and authority, leaving the Continental Congress in charge of the newly independent country. He refused any political power, despite support for a Washington-led monarchy and some army officials’ calls to violently take backpay.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress was incapable of self-financing through voluntary donations by the states, as most tried to free-ride and not pay for the national government. Shays’ Rebellion (caused by war-related debts) prompted the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Washington was called from retirement to oversee that Convention; the former general did not, however, impose a constitution enshrining his personal power. He simply presided over the process and let the delegates draft the document.
Under the Constitution, Washington was unanimously elected President, reluctantly accepting his new mission. In 1793, many wanted him to run for reelection. He did not want reelection as he was tired of his cabinet’s infighting, but Jefferson and Hamilton convinced him to stay in power to foster national unity. After his second term, however, Washington announced in his Farewell Address that he would step down permanently. He refused to run for a third term, to show all Americans that the presidency was not a job for life. Only kings and tyrants rule until death.
While the Constitution provided for formal institutional limits to power, Washington instituted the informal limits to politicians’ personal ambitions. He could have taken over power militarily, imposed a constitution, or run for reelection until his death. He could have been America’s Napoleon. Instead, he was Cincinatus, setting the example for presidents for the next 144 years.
This 4th of July, amidst the hotdogs, fireworks, and friends, we will re-read the Declaration of Independence, as we do every year. But we’ll also treasure the decisions of one man. His political restraint ensured the flourishing of a well-designed constitution. This is a victory citizens of many countries have yet to claim from their governments. All politicians would do well to remember there is a timely manner to retire and leave power to others.