Our Two Greatest Presidents

The myth and the reality of American history seldom come within shouting distance of one another. What the average American believes and what the historians would like him to believe about, let us say, the first winter in Plymouth, or the Boston Massacre, or Mrs. Bixby’s five sons, are two quite different things.

Occasionally, however, happy legend and hard fact match up almost exactly. An example is the judgment, shared alike by tenth-graders in Topeka and professors of history at Harvard, that the two best Presidents we have ever had—best in character, best in performance, best in influence—were George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

I have no argument with either the tenth-graders or the historians. With the former, I agree that Washington and Lincoln used the powers of the Presidency for high and patriotic ends; with the latter, I agree that they, along with Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, were the chief architects of the imposing office now at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. My purpose is simply to assemble the unimpeachable facts and common opinions about the presidential careers of these two great men, and thus to bring reality to the support of myth. In the course of this pleasant exercise there may also emerge certain interesting comparisons between Washington and Lincoln.

George Washington’s influence was felt upon the Presidency even before there was a Presidency. The temper of the years immediately after the Revolution was hostile to the claims of executive power, and Article II of the Constitution, which established an Executive both strong and independent, must have come as something of a surprise even to those men who favored the creation of a new national government. No single fact had more to do with the shaping of this splendid office in the Convention of 1787 than the universal assumption that Washington would be chosen as its first occupant—and chosen and chosen and chosen again until claimed by the grave. As Pierce Butler wrote to a relative in England, “ Entre nous , I do [not] believe they [the executive powers] would have been so great, had not many of the members cast their eyes toward General Washington as President; and shaped their ideas of the Powers to be given the President, by their opinions of his Virtue.”

The well-known fact of the General’s “Virtue” was also an influential force in the ratifying conventions throughout the new states. Many men who agreed with Patrick Henry’s warning that Article II was an “awful squint toward monarchy” were lulled into acquiescence by the comforting thought that the Cincinnatus of the West, no candidate for kingship, would be the man to put it into commission. Who else but his old commander could Alexander Hamilton have had in mind when he insisted in The Federalist upon the essential republicanism of the Presidency? Who else could be counted on so confidently to display “a due dependence on the people” and “a due responsibility” in this new and untried office?

The most meaningful judgment one can make of Washington’s eight years in the Presidency is that he fulfilled the hopes of the friends of the Constitution and spiked the fears of its critics.

The hopes of its friends were that the creation of an energetic Executive, independent of the legislature yet integrated into the constitutional structure, would introduce the one factor most sorrowfully missing from the equation of government under the Articles of Confederation: authority to execute the laws of the United States with dispatch and vigor. The government of the new republic was in desperate need of power, power to make policy and power to carry it through. Article I of the Constitution as interpreted by Madison, Ellsworth, and the other gentlemen of Congress proved to be the answer to the first half of this need. Article II as interpreted by Washington proved to be the answer to the second half.

He was certainly not a President in the image of the Roosevelts or Truman. When faced with a situation that called for decisive action, he took a painful amount of time making up his mind. For example, he sought the advice of both Hamilton and Jefferson even when he knew that they would only confuse and delay him with their antithetical counsels. He recognized that his decisions might very possibly set precedents for the long future, and this recognition gave an extra measure of gravity to his conduct of the office.

When Washington was ready, however, he acted confidently and with courage. The remarkable thing is how consistently he chose to act strongly rather than to abstain huffily, to advance rather than to retreat in his skirmishes with Congress over the uncharted territory left between them by the Constitution.

His major contributions to the concept of vigorous government under the leadership of a vigorous Executive were recorded in the field of foreign relations. The recognition of republican France, the proclamation of neutrality, the reception and dismissal of the French minister Genêt, the negotiation of Jay’s treaty, the use of personal agents, and the refusal to lay diplomatic correspondence before the House of Representatives were just a few of his actions that set precedents for all future Presidents to follow—or to be counted failures.