Victor Nuovo: The man who would not be king

Tenth in a series.
There is a tale told about George Washington — I may have first heard it in school — that shortly after Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, when independence from Great Britain became all but certain, a group of officers of the Continental Army proposed to make him king of the new nation, and that he refused. The story is apocryphal, but there is historical evidence that supports it, and shows at the very least that the idea was in the air.
There was great discontent within the army, because of the failure of the Continental Congress to pay it or provide for its needs. And such was the respect that Washington held among officers and men, that they looked to him to take action to rectify the situation. In their appeals to their leader there was more than a hint of a sedition, even a coup d’état. There were letters exchanged, and Washington’s response was swift and decisive: “If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.” Force was not the right means to settle grievances. If their grievances were just, then they should be settled by constitutional means, and he pledged himself to do all in his power to facilitate this. He concluded with this appeal to his correspondent: “If you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity — or respect for me, banish these thoughts from your Mind & never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.”
Washington was in a position of power: in command of an army loyal to him, frustrated by a dysfunctional political body’s repeated failure to provide for his army. The temptation to use this power to make things right must have been great. What prevented him from “seizing the day,” becoming an American Caesar? One word is a sufficient answer: Virtue.
Washington had kept the Continental Army at ready to insure a satisfactory conclusion of the treaty negotiations with Great Britain in Paris. The Treaty of Paris was signed in November 1783. American independence was secure. On Dec. 23, 1783, Washington appeared before the Continental Congress, in Annapolis, to offer his resignation. In his speech there is not the least hint of arrogance or self-praise; rather it is a clear expression of his modesty, humility and piety. His work was done. After congratulating Congress on the satisfactory conclusion of the war and the treaty of peace, he continues: “I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence — A diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our Cause, the support of the supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven.”
Washington’s diffidence was not false modesty; his piety was not sentimental: rather it grew from a recognition of the order of the universe discoverable by reason. His belief in God, “the Almighty Being who rules over the universe,” did not derive from supernatural revelation, but from experience and reason; it was a rational faith, common during the Enlightenment, best expressed in the famous poem by Joseph Addison (1672–1719), which was no doubt well known to Washington: “The Spacious Firmament on High/ With all the Ethereal Blue Sky/ And spangled Heavens, a Shining Frame,/ Their Great Original proclaim:/ Th’ unwearied Sun, from day to day,/ Does his Creator’s Power display,/ And publishes to every Land,/ The Work of an Almighty Hand.…/In Reason’s Ear they all rejoice,/ And utter forth a glorious Voice,/ For ever singing, as they shine,/ the Hand that made us is Divine.”
Washington began the tradition of concluding the presidential oath of office with the words “So help me God,” which was for him a clear expression that the exercise of a political office is a high moral duty.
Not yielding to temptation, and declaring himself dictator, Washington resigned his commission and became a civilian, a dutiful citizen. His model was not Caesar but Cincinnatus (519–430 BCE), the Roman general and statesman, who defeated an invading army and returned to his farm.
Not long after, Washington was called back into service to chair the Constitutional convention, where he played a major role in creating the fundamental law that has ruled the nation for almost 250 years. And shortly after, he was elected the first President by unanimous vote of the Electoral College. He reluctantly accepted. In his first inaugural address he described his reluctance to enter on such a high office, beset by old age (he was 57 — he would live for another decade), and unsure of his fitness, for it was noted that his health and stamina had declined, yet he dutifully accepted this summons from the people. He asked the members of Congress to assist him so that “the foundations of our National policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality; and the pre-eminence of a free Government, be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its Citizens, and command the respect of the world.”
Toward the end of his second term, to which he had also been unanimously elected, Washington published an address to the nation stating that he would retire when his current term ended. The 22nd amendment of the Constitution fixing the limit for any President to two terms was not enacted until 1947, and it is likely that had he chosen, Washington could have been reelected for a third or fourth term, or have become President for life. In this address, which has become known as his Farewell Address (1796), he shows the same humility, modesty and piety; he expresses gratitude to the nation, confidence in the future, and, for himself, “the consolation to believe, that while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.” Washington was confident that he was doing the right thing.
Postscript: While I was composing this essay the shocking events of Jan. 6, 2021, occurred, the Capitol building was invaded by ruffians and hooligans, brazen supporters of Donald Trump, inflamed by his madness; their purpose was to prevent the constitutional process of certifying the Presidential election. It caused me to wonder: What would Donald Trump have done had he been in a situation like Washington’s? We know the answer, and there is no need to elaborate. Jan. 6, 2021, “a date which will live in infamy,” sums up Donald Trump’s legacy.

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