Washington: The man who term-limited himself

George Washington stepped down from being general of the Continental Army and the presidency.

Forget Parson Weems’ myth about the cherry tree.

Forget Father of the Country.

Forget first President and the rank of general.

Forget, for a moment, the granite face on Mount Rushmore, the solemn head on the $1 bill, the Roman profile on the quarter.

Forget the entire marble and granite image, the myths and the remoteness surrounding George Washington and think of him as a human being.

That’s the Presidents Day weekend assignment. Just for a moment.

It’s hard to do.

He did exist and he was human. What makes him so unreal are likely the very qualities that made him so necessary to the type of nation we have today.

America was lucky that George Washington was a quitter.

He was not a quitter in the classical sense. He did not shirk his duties or do things half-heartedly. No. George Washington was a quitter in the sense that unlike most great men of history, he could independently relinquish power.

And George Washington didn’t relinquish power once.

He did it twice.

As the popular and successful general of the Continental Army, Washington could have easily established himself as a military dictator following the Revolutionary War. He could have led his army into Philadelphia, disbanded the Continental Congress and assumed full control of the American government.

Given the public adoration for him and his political capital from winning the war, Washington could have possibly accomplished this with little bloodshed. He could have become an 18th century Caesar.

But he didn’t.

Instead of Caesar, Washington followed the example of another Roman — Cincinnatus, who traded the sword of power for the plow of citizenship.

Appearing before Congress, General Washington voluntarily resigned from power.

“Having now finished the work assigned me,” Washington said, “I retire from the great theater of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”

“The spectators all wept, and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears,” wrote a witness, Maryland Congressman James McHenry.

“The spectators also recognized the immense significance of the relinquishment of military power,” writes historian Thomas Fleming. “It guaranteed that American liberty would never become a mere slogan mouthed by a dictator.”

To the monarchs of Europe, already stunned by the victory of independence in America, Washington’s release of power was unbelievable.

Upon hearing of Washington’s intentions to return to private life, Britain’s King George III remarked, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Washington’s return to private life was short-lived.

He was instrumental in assembling the players for the Constitutional Convention and he presided over their meetings.

And he was elected as the first President of the United States.

Two times, he faced no opposition for the presidency. As President, Washington became the model and set the standards for the office. Given his popularity with the public and his prestige within the ranks of his fellow Founding Fathers, Washington could have easily served as President for life.

Yet, again, he did the unexpected.

He quit. Or to twist a more modern-phrase, he term-limited himself.

He refused to seek or accept a third term as President. With his presidential Farewell Address, Washington set a precedent that lasted nearly 150 years. No President sought more than two elected terms until Franklin D. Roosevelt won a third term in 1940.

With Washington’s voluntary departure, he tested the strength of the American Constitution. As historian Joseph J. Ellis notes, “the precedent he was setting may have seemed uplifting in retrospect, but at the time the glaring and painful reality was that the United States without Washington was itself unprecedented.”

For 20 years, Washington had been the supreme figure of the new nation and, with his Farewell Address, he effectively told the American people, “they were now on their own.”

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