The stakes in this year's presidential campaign are high. But that's nothing new. There have been many other pivotal presidential elections in our history, some that set an entirely new course for the United States and a few that were crucial to the very survival of the republic. To put the current campaign in perspective, U.S. News White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh, author of four books on the presidency, examines the 10 most consequential elections in American history—the races that produced the biggest change and had the most lasting impact. An installment of this 10-part series will run on the U.S. News website each Wednesday through September. This is the third in the series.
Without George Washington, the survival of the United States might have been impossible. He had, after all, served as the top general and inspirational leader in the Revolutionary War, and he was the most esteemed presence among the Founders as they put together the Constitution. Throughout his adult life, as a Virginia planter, wartime commander, and political icon, he had been a model of honesty, persistence, and courage. Now that the Revolutionary War was won and the new nation faced a multitude of obstacles to its success, his fellow citizens turned again to the man from Mount Vernon.
He told friends he had "no wish beyond that of living and dying an honest man on my own farm." But his colleagues among the Founders prevailed upon him to serve. Many of his fellow citizens believed that only Washington could provide the good judgment and the sterling example to unite his country in its infancy. In the nation's first presidential election in 1789, he was so popular and so trusted that he had no serious rival.
As he made his way by carriage from his home in Mount Vernon to New York, the new nation's temporary capital, for his inauguration, he was greeted with adoring multitudes. He was treated to banquets and welcoming speeches in town after town. When he arrived by barge in New York on April 23, 1789, the president-elect found thousands of people cheering, singing, and shouting his praises as bands played, church bells rang, and cannons boomed in salute. He was sworn in April 30.
"Of all who have served as president, none possessed a more exemplary character or used it more effectively to achieve his goals than George Washington," writes political scientist Alvin Felzenberg in The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn't). "Few may know that Washington consciously sought to attain his celebrated character. That he succeeded remains among his most enduring legacies."
He knew from the start that everything he did would serve as precedent, and he conducted himself accordingly. The Constitution gave only a brief description of the duties of the chief executive—among them, serving as commander in chief of the army and navy, the power to grant pardons and reprieves, and the authority to make treaties and appoint justices of the Supreme Court with the advice and consent of the Senate. Beyond that, his precise powers were ill defined. "I walk on untrodden ground," Washington said. "There is scarcely any part of my conduct that may not hereafter be drawn into precedent."
One of the first congressional debates focused on what to call the new leader. Some legislators favored, "His Highness" or "His Excellency" or "His Mightiness." Vice President John Adams had another idea: "His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of Same."
Washington ended the debate when he said "President" was just fine, and "President" it has been ever since.
Realizing the divisions swirling around him, Washington tried to be a conciliator. He named his chief advisers—Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph—from different geographical areas and with different philosophies. Knox and Hamilton were from the North and favored more power for the central government; Jefferson and Randolph were from the South and preferred states' rights. They debated many issues fiercely, but Washington's towering presence kept the government and the states together.
In 1792, Washington said he did not want to serve a second term, but he was persuaded to run again. He was supported by all 132 presidential electors. While the power of his personality and reputation maintained public support for his decisions, such as a controversial one to create a central bank, competing philosophies and interests kept growing throughout the states. Jefferson led the faction committed to building an agrarian society with a decentralized and weak government. Hamilton led the faction favoring a nation dominated by cities and towns under a strong central government. Jefferson trusted everyday people to govern themselves. Hamilton distrusted everyday people to make wise decisions and preferred rule by educated men of property. These divisions became the basis for political parties later, and Washington was powerless to stop them from forming although he was troubled by the development.