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Our Two Greatest Presidents
Without doubt they were Washington, who walked carefully within the Constitution, and Lincoln, who stretched it as far as he dared
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
Critics of the Constitution had feared that the Executive outlined in Article II would prove too rich a blend of strength and independence, and that the government of the United States would go the way of most other popular governments in history—straight into tyranny. That it did not take this well-traveled road was the result of many factors: the political maturity of the people, the widespread spirit of liberty, the vigilance of the opposition, the excellence of the Constitution, and, not least important, the single-minded devotion of Washington to the principles of “republican government.” Two or three arbitrary acts could easily have aroused a popular demand for an amendment designed to cut the Presidency down to size. But Washington was simply not a man given to arbitrary action. His conduct was always eminently constitutional, and he repeatedly proved the point that Hamilton had labored in The Federalist : that executive power was wholly consistent “with the genius of republican government” and even essential to the sound conduct of such government.
It is not easy or indeed pleasant to imagine the fate of this great gamble in constitutional government if Washington had refused to accept his election to the Presidency. If he had stayed at Mount Vernon, as he wanted desperately to do, another man—probably John Adams or John Rutledge or John Jay or George Clinton—would have been the first President of the United States, and that could easily have meant the undoing of the Constitution. The plain fact is that we can go right down the list of all those who ever held high office in the United States and not discover a man so perfectly suited for the delicate task of finding the right balance of authority and restraint in the executive branch. Washington did the new republic a mighty service by fitting the Presidency carefully into the emerging pattern of American constitutionalism.
He did a great deal more than this, of course, for he put his own enormous prestige behind the new Constitution and thus made it acceptable to the American people. Men like Senator Maclay of Pennsylvania poked fun at the pomp and circumstance of “the Washington court,” but they could hardly deny that his grand tours through the states—for example, through New England in 1789 and the South in 1791—reinforced popular trust in the Constitution and stirred popular interest in the Presidency. On the first of these trips he fought a polite but dogged battle with vain Governor John Hancock of Massachusetts over one of the most ancient questions of applied political science: Who should call first on whom? The battle was fierce, and consumed most of his first two days in Boston; but a stubborn Washington, who insisted icily that Hancock make the first call, finally won a victory of profound symbolic importance for the authority of the new national government and, more to the point, for the prestige of its chief of state. The humbling of a governor in 1789 and the enforcement of the Federal laws in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793 are two precedents that stood Dwight D. Eisenhower in good stead in the Little Rock crisis of 1957.
Washington’s great gifts to the Presidency and to the republic were dignity, power, and constitutionalism, and the greatest of these, surely, was constitutionalism. It has been said of Washington that he could have been a king but chose to be something more exalted: the first elected head of the first truly free government. In his inaugural address he made clear the solemnity of his mandate:
The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply , as finally , staked on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people.
It was Washington’s glory as President that he never broke faith with this solemn vision of the American mission. Well could Jefferson write in gratitude that he had conducted the councils of the new nation “through the birth of a government, new in its form and principles, until it had settled down into a quiet and orderly train,” chiefly by “scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example.”
In the years between Washington’s departure in 1797 and Lincoln’s arrival in 1861, the Presidency became a subject of hot political and constitutional controversy. In one camp stood those who, following Andrew Jackson at a respectful distance, insisted upon a strong and independent Presidency as the steady focus of our constitutional system. In the other stood those who, falling back on the old Whig tradition, insisted upon a weak and dependent Presidency as the willing junior partner of a powerful Congress.