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Alt 19.02.08, 11:21   #1 (permalink)
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HISTORIANS have often noted that George Washington not only began but also did much to define the American presidency. He imprinted on the office a sense of competence and integrity that can make later presidents, even successful ones, seem to fall short. Then to top it off, he left the job voluntarily. No law required him to step down, and running against him would have been impossible. Retiring after two terms, Washington enabled the transfer of executive power by electoral process.

Matt Bandsuch




That crowning achievement also made George Washington our first lame-duck president. Here again he set the standard, albeit one less celebrated by history. His last year in office was, in his estimation, lame indeed. He was just waiting for it all to be over.
Not that Washington was ever exactly chipper about being president. He’d fervently hoped to resign at the end of his first term. By then, his hearing and memory had started to fail. He complained of the burden of endless duty. His cultural status as a demigod made it impossible for anyone to criticize him publicly, but he interpreted every attack on a subordinate as meant for him. According to Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state, Washington bitterly disbelieved the gushing reverence the press accorded him. Yet feeling that he was needed to referee the battles between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the Treasury, and to shore up national unity, he agreed to serve a second term.
By 1796, Washington might reasonably have felt proud, relieved, even optimistic. The skeletal American Army had beaten a powerful confederation of Great Lakes Indians, and the president himself had led a force to suppress an insurgency of Western settlers known as whiskey rebels. These victories established national sovereignty and federal law, discouraged Spanish and British designs on American lands and helped renew the country’s patriotism.
Still, Washington’s spirits that year were lower than ever. He was exhausted. He suffered from a disabling back injury. He had to sit for hours for the portraitist Gilbert Stuart, a hard-drinking hustler. Among his second- and third-string cabinet members — some of whom were founding the job of executive-branch hack — were cronies of Hamilton, who was trying to run the presidency from outside. Meanwhile, at Monticello, Jefferson was excoriating the president and mounting open opposition. Partisan politics had arrived, and to Washington, that was a miserable failure.
The only significant order of business for 1796 was getting through Congress a treaty with England. The press and public loudly criticized Washington for negotiating it — he was no longer off limits to direct attack — and the House of Representatives threatened to withhold financing. In the end, Congress ratified the treaty, but Washington thought the House had crossed a line separating federal powers and struck at the Constitution itself. “Charity would lead one to hope that the motives to it have been pure,” he reflected to allies. “Suspicions, however, speak a different language.”
The hopelessness with which Washington ended his presidency was obvious in the way he described to Hamilton his plan to retire. He wrote that he had “a disinclination to be longer buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.” He needed retirement, he told another correspondent, just to make bearable what he predicted would be a short trip to his death.
In the last few months of his term, as the first vicious presidential election contest (between Jefferson and John Adams) geared up, the president did little but hold ceremonial meetings with Indian leaders, accept visits of congratulation and write farewell letters. His annual address to Congress that year was as insistent a goodbye as his much-praised farewell speech. But he himself seemed, one observer thought, “morose.” Today we might call it depressed.
Two-term presidents nowadays typically celebrate their accomplishments, hand out grants and pardons, and talk excitedly about beginning a new career of public service. They may be happier than Washington was, but he may have set the pattern that condemns them to a period of impotence while we wait for the next leader to come along.
William Hogeland is the author of “The Whiskey Rebellion.”


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