[guest post by JVW]
By 1792, President George Washington had grown tired of public life. He had stood as what passed in those days as a celebrity for 35 years, having achieved fame for his diplomacy, bravery, leadership, and navigational skills (honed from his years as a surveyor) in the Ohio River Valley during the French & Indian War. He had become a prosperous farmer, shrewdly abandoning tobacco as a crop when he realized that it was being over-cultivated throughout Virginia and the Carolinas (Thomas Jefferson tragically lacked this foresight and spent most of his life in debt to creditors). After Lexington & Concord, Washington had been the logical choice as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, and his perseverance, tenacity, and determination to keep an army in the field year after year had worn down Great Britain — the world’s foremost military power — and convinced them to accept American independence. Finally, Washington had put down his plow and headed to New York to serve as the unanimously elected First President of the United States.
So by his sixtieth birthday, the Cincinnatus of America felt that he had given all that he possibly could. Washington had labored hard over the past three years to establish the office of the Presidency, famously disdaining flowery titles for his position and insisting that he be addressed in a simple and republican manner as “Mr. President” instead of the more ostentatious “Your Excellency.” He had done his best to nip in the bud the emerging spirit of party, as the nation’s leaders began to divide itself into rival Federalist and Republican camps. His loyal Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, had strengthened the national government by federalizing the individual states’ debts, establishing the Bank of the United States, and making plans to mint the first national currency. Determining that he had accomplished as much as could be hoped, and fearing that a second term would be plagued by rancor and recrimination of partisanship, the President made it known to his family that spring that he desired to return to Mount Vernon. Later that May, Washington turned to Congressman James Madison, a fellow Virginian, and asked him to draft an address to the people which would announce the news. Madison, who did not want to see Washington step down, prepared a three-page valediction which Washington intended to run in newspapers across the country.
The news of the potential retirement of the Great Man was not well received among his cabinet or his political allies. Hamilton and his arch-rival Jefferson united to implore Washington to stand for a second term, which he was assured of winning. Perhaps the two antagonists both felt a mutual paranoia that the other was conspiring to be Washington’s heir as chief executive, but on the indispensability of the man the rivals were in agreement. Jefferson, who believed that Virginia would work to undermine all of Hamilton’s financial reforms, famously told Washington that “North & South will hang together if they have you to hang on.” Washington asked his personal secretary, Tobias Lear, to make discreet inquiries as to whether there was any candidate that would be suitable to both emerging factions, only to be told that “No other person is contemplated.” Lear also reported that Senator Robert Morris of Pennsylvania believed that “the reasons for your continuing were, if possible, more strong than those which first induced your acceptance of the office,” a belief that Attorney General Edmund Randolph also apparently communicated. Washington, who had initially determined to make a definitive decision by the time that the Congressional session opened on November 4, was still on the fence when that date arrived, and made no mention of his plans when he addressed Congress, a fact that did not go unnoticed by observers.
History records that it was a rather unlikely protagonist who finally convinced the Father of His Country to stay at the helm for another four years. Elizabeth Willing Powel, the wife of a prosperous Philadelphia merchant and one-time mayor of that city, had known Washington since the revolutionary year of 1776. Described by a writer as “a saucy, interesting, attractive, intelligent, flirtatious woman . . . the epitome of confidence, determination, and class,” Mrs. Powel was exactly the sort of woman to whom the charming and debonair General would be socially attracted. When Washington mentioned socially to his old friend that he and Mrs. Washington desired to return to Mount Vernon, Mrs. Powel immediately remonstrated against the idea, using an argument that echoed Jefferson’s warning about a North/South split and declaring that Washington’s departure would lead to the dissolving of the union. Understanding Washington’s careful cultivation of his image, she bluntly informed him “Be assured that a great Deal of the well earned Popularity you are now in Possession of will be torn from you by the Envious and Malignant should you follow the bent of your Inclinations. You know human Nature too well not to believe that you have Enemies. Merit & Virtue, when placed on an Eminence, will as certainly attract Envy as the Magnet does the Needle.” Leaving office now, Mrs. Powel warned, would convince small-minded people “that ambition hand been the moving spring of all your actions. . . that as nature had not closed the scene while your career was glorious, you had with profound address withdrawn yourself from a station that promised nothing to your ambition and that might eventually involve your popularity.” Turning it up full bore, she concluded that her friend “was the only man in America that dared to do right on all public occasions. . . You have shown that you are not to be intoxicated by power or misled by flattery. . . and you have frequently demonstrated that you possess an empire over yourself. For God’s sake, do not yield that empire to a love of ease.”
Despite that, interestingly enough, the Old Man never publicly announced that he would consent to a second term. Nor for that matter did he announce that he planned to return to Mount Vernon. Instead, he simply remained silent and throughout the month of November the various state electors met and unanimously reelected George Washington to a second term as President of the United States. In a sign that harmony extended no further than the Great Man, the electors split their second vote among four candidates, with John Adams holding off a challenge from Governor George Clinton of New York, to remain as Vice-President. Washington never wrote or spoke of his feelings at being conscripted into another term as President, but as noted by historian Joseph Ellis, his Second Inaugural Address, “the briefest in Presidential history, only two short paragraphs long, wholly devoid of content, respectful but regretful in tone,” can be considered an accurate expression of his mood.
(Much of this information is sourced from His Excellency George Washington by Joseph Ellis, Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation by Richard Norton Smith, and Washington by Douglas Southall Freeman.)
Cross-posted at the Jury Talks Back.