[guest post by JVW]
Today leaves us a mere eight years shy of the tricentennial of the birth of the Indispensable American, our first President George Washington. In the — gulp! — ten years that I have been guest blogging here I have tried to make it a tradition to mark the Great Man’s birthday by discussing one of the aspects of his life which helped shaped who are are as a country. Past entries are as follows:
2015 – George Washington’s Birthday
2016 – George Washington Quiets the Rebellion
2017 – George Washington Fears for His Country’s Future
2018 – George Washington Agrees to Serve Another Term
2019 – George Washington Goes Back to His Farm
2020 – George Washington Rallies the Troops
2021 – damn you, COVID
2022 – George Washington Takes Stock of the Senate
2023 – George Washington Goes to Church
Because this is an election year, I find myself thinking about how we Americans view our President. That, and the Roman Empire of course. I have long complained about my fellow countrymen and countrywomen’s predilection for exalting our Chief Executive and turning him into some sort of demi-God. We’ve seen this tendency from both parties, most explicitly within the past sixteen years. Part of this is the modern tendency of the President to behave like a celebrity, dominating news cycles, hobnobbing with the rich and famous, gallivanting across the country and the world in an effort to keep his name front and center. As for me, I prefer a Calvin Coolidge type, a salt-of-the-earth sort of fellow of acknowledged ability and strong character, and I lament that we no longer seem to recognize the virtue in that type, preferring instead the narcissists and popinjays with a high Q-score.
George Washington was a proud and dignified man who was born into a landholding family and who increased his own station in life by hard work and an advantageous marriage. He observed a stiff formality in his adult life, preferring a courtly bow by way of greeting rather than the more familiar handshake. Once he became the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775, he was usually formally addressed as “His Excellency, General George Washington,” a practice that according to biographer Joseph Ellis sprung from congratulatory letters addressed thusly sent to him by the Massachusetts and New York legislatures. (Colonial governors were also regularly addressed as “Your Excellency.”) Phillis Wheatley, a slave and poet, sent the General an original work of hers along with a letter wishing “your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in.” It was an apt designation for the man who carried with him the hopes of independence of his fellow colonists.
At one point, His Excellency’s insistence upon a proper title held up a British offer to allow the defeated Continental Army to escape from Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan after the Battle of Long Island in March of 1776. British General William Howe sent a letter to his American counterpart proposing lenient terms, but addressed it to “George Washington, Esq. &c. &c. &c.” His Excellency, already angry about the battlefield loss, refused to receive the letter. This was not an ego trip from the Continental General. When General Washington’s staff explained that he would not receive a letter so disrespectfully addressed, General Howe’s adjutant countered that to address his opponent in such respectful terms would lend legitimacy to to the rebellion. And so came an impasse.
But at the point where the revolution had been won and the first President set about establishing how the new Chief Executive would serve in this important role, the Great Man’s republican nature kicked in. Over in the Senate, a debate about how to address the national leader was underway. Vice-President John Adams, presiding over the upper chamber, suggested the grandiose titles “His Elective Majesty,” “His Mightiness,” and, incredibly enough, “His Highness, the President of the United States of America and the Protector of their Liberties.” Other members of Congress proposed “Your Highness” and “Your Most Benign Highness.” One Senator who at least understood the electoral process suggested “His Elected Highness.”
Then apparently one Congressman, whose name is unfortunately lost to history, read the Constitution and saw in Article 1, Section 9 that “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States,” and that was that. So instructed, Congress settled upon the title we have come to know, “the President of the United States of America.” In a further exercise in modesty, the holder of the office would come to be addressed as simply “Mr. President.”
Nowhere in the record is any indication of George Washington’s disposition in the title debate, but it seems unlikely that the figure who embodied our battle against monarchy would have desired a florid title better suited to heredity succession. The man who twice gave up power in order to return to his farm would not be likely to covet the title of “majesty” or “highness,” so I think it’s a safe bet that our first President gladly accepted the decision of Congress. In her terrific book Star-Spangled Manners, the inimitable Judith Martin, who writes as Miss Manners, explains the importance of President Washington appearing regal despite the humble title, while being forced to make it all up on the fly:
After all that work, a protocol-pooped first government turned over to the President the stylistically impossible task of appearing as both humble and exalted; a federal authority respectful of, but not subservient to, state authority; an unpretentious citizen thinking himself no better than his meanest countryman yet a figure of enormous dignity, respected, if not venerated, by all. Even the inaugural proceedings, the ceremony to raise to the country’s highest honor someone who was expected to make it clear that he wasn’t taking it too personally, was left to the President’s own design, with only the oath of office specified.
Today, long after kaisers have been displaced by chancellors and kings have given way to prime ministers, the world can look to the example of George Washington, Great Man though he was, as the model of the democratically elected leader of a republic, the first among equals. It’s another reason to remember him today and rejoice that it was he who set the course for our fledgling democracy.