BRIA 1 1 a What Made George Washington a Great Leader

Bill of Rights in Action

Fall 1984 / Vol. I, No. 1


What Made George Washington a Great Leader?

"We cannot, Sir, do without you."
—Thomas Jefferson

It was the spring of 1782. American patriots were still celebrating General George Washington’s victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown several months earlier. The Revolutionary War appeared to be over. The Americans had won an astounding victory against the most powerful empire in the world. Yet, General Washington was worried.

What concerned Washington was that British troops still occupied parts of the newly independent country. Furthermore, the French fleet, which has played such an important part in trapping Cornwallis at Yorktown, had recently suffered a defeat by the British in the West Indies. To add to the uncertainty, no peace treaty had yet been signed between England and her former colonies. Ever cautious, General Washington wanted to keep the Continental Army together.

Washington’s soldiers had other priorities. Most were sick of army life and wanted to go home. Many grumbled about not receiving the back pay owed them by the Continental Congress. Others criticized the government for printing worthless paper money. The ability of the Continental Congress to accomplish anything was being questioned by Washington’s soldiers.

Only months after Yorktown, people began to talk about the need for a strong leader to put things in order. Nowhere was the talk more common than among the men in Washington’s Army. They convinced themselves that the new country needed a man to take command, to make decisions, and to make sure they got their back wages.

Things came to a head when an Army officer, Col. Lewis Nicola, sent a letter to Washington in May 1752. In his letter, Nicola recited the grievances of the soldiers. He expressed fear that America was headed "into a new scene of blood and confusion." Col. Nicola argued that democracy would not work in the United States. What was needed, wrote Nicola, was a strong leader; not only a strong leader, but one with the title of king.

Washington’s reply to Col. Nicola was immediate and sharp. The general expressed his astonishment that such ideas existed in his Army. Assuring Nicola that he wished to see justice done to the soldiers, Washington totally rejected the idea of establishing a monarchy in America with himself as king. "Banish these thoughts from your mind," he wrote. Whether he realized it or not, in denouncing a monarchy for the United States, General Washington had made his first important decision as a political leader.

A Class by Himself

The fact that Washington became the first president of the United States does not automatically mean he was a great one. Compared to other political leaders of his time, such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Washington was far from outstanding. He had little formal education. He knew no foreign languages. He had never traveled to Europe. Personally aloof, even cold, he was not a great thinker, writer, or speaker. Despite these shortcomings, Washington still places near or at the top of the list of great presidents even today. Why?

In many ways President George Washington must be put into a class by himself. Unlike the other founding fathers, Washington was a true non-partisan. He hated it when people divided into hostile groups, and he tried to avoid taking sides during political disputes. As president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he contributed almost nothing to the heated debates that took place. Instead, he used his considerable prestige to calm people down and get them back to their main job: creating a new form of government for the United States.

When it came time during the Convention to design the executive branch of the federal government (Article II of the Constitution), virtually everyone assumed Washington would become the first president. Indeed, the writers of the Constitution created the office of president with Washington in mind.

For his part, Washington reluctantly accepted the presidency. Jefferson told him: "We cannot, Sir, do without you." None of the other founding fathers, despite all their brilliance, could command the respect and trust George Washington did. Washington became the first and only president to be unanimously elected.

Giving the Country Time

Shortly before he was inaugurated, George Washington wrote: "My movement to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of execution." With these words, Washington expressed his dread of taking on a job that he knew would be difficult.

Washington could have retired at Mount Vernon a military hero. Instead, he chose the more difficult role of national leader. While he was a proven commander of men on the battlefield, his ability to lead an entire nation was as yet untested.

Washington was inaugurated as president on April 30, 1789. He dedicated himself to being leader for the whole country, not for just one region, one economic class, or one political group.

He usually spent a lot of time asking people for their advice before he made up his mind. His two closest advisers were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, two men who bitterly disagreed almost daily over every important issue facing the nation. At the end of these arguments, however, it was Washington who decided what was best for the country and all the people.

Just 10 weeks after Washington’s inauguration, the French Revolution began. A majority of Americans welcomed this news, many believing that the revolutionaries in France were continuing the fight for liberty that began on American soil in 1776.

In 1793, King Louis XVI lost his head to the guillotine, and France became a republic. This caused more rejoicing among Americans. People flew the French revolutionary flag and sang the "La Marseillaise," the anthem of the French Revolution. President Washington responded by authorizing Secretary of State Jefferson to formally recognize the new revolutionary government of France. More news from Europe changed the picture: France and England were at war!

When word reached the United States, many Americans felt that the US should help France by declaring war on their old enemy, King George III. After all, the French had helped the Americans win their liberty. Was it not right to return the favor? Thomas Jefferson agreed with this argument. Naturally, Alexander Hamilton took the opposite view. He advised Washington that America needed to remain friendly with England in order to encourage trade and commerce between the two countries.

Washington looked at the issue quite differently. He realized that the United States was weak. Most of the soldiers who had fought in the revolution had left the army long ago. The United States did not have a navy. Economically, the United States could ill afford to fight in Europe or even at home if the British decided to invade.

To Washington, the choice was a clear one. In his mind, the young country needed time to develop, grow, and prosper, a vain hope if it was mixed up with Europe’s unending wars.

On April 22, 1793, Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality, declaring that the U.S. would support neither France nor England. Washington later explained that it was "the sincere wish of the United States to . . . live in peace and amity with all the inhabitants of the earth." With this decision, Washington established the first foreign policy of the United States.

Washington did not escape criticism of his policy. Many newspapers accused Washington of turning his back on a friend and ally. Members of Congress, especially the followers of Jefferson (now calling themselves Republican-Democrats) charged that Washington had no constitutional power to issue such a proclamation. They claimed that the proclamation demonstrated Washington’s secretly held desire to become an all-powerful king. Mobs of people gathered in the streets of Philadelphia and threatened to drag the president from his house. Despite this shocking display of hostility toward Washington, the Proclamation of Neutrality stuck. America did not go to war, at least while Washington was in office.

Some historians hold that the Proclamation of Neutrality was Washington’s most important decision as president. American energies were needed for building, not warring. Washington understood this better than most of his fellow citizens. He gave his country the time it needed.

Making the Constitution Work

Another of Washington’s goals was to make the new Constitution work. One year after issuing the Proclamation of Neutrality, he personally led 13,000 militiamen to enforce a federal tax law. Backwoodsmen in western Pennsylvania refused to pay an excise tax on the making of whiskey. Soon, violence erupted. Washington feared that if a small group could tell the government what to do "nothing but anarchy and confusion is to be expected thereafter." He remembered Shay’s Rebellion eight years before, which had prompted the formation of a stronger central government under the new Constitution in the first place. Washington realized that if the United States were to survive, the authority of the federal government had to be obeyed and respected. In this case, Washington’s show of force caused the Whiskey Rebellion to collapse. without bloodshed.

In 1796, at age 64, Washington longed for the peace of Mount Vernon. The increasing political conflict that pitted Jeffersonians against Hamiltonians strained his ability to be the leader of all the people. Washington’s concept of leadership—doing what was best for the whole country—was rapidly being smothered by partisan bickering between the new political parties. Washington could have had a third term as president. But he chose to step down, once and for all ending the idea that he wanted to be a lifetime king. By giving up political power, he made his final major political contribution to our constitutional form of government.

The Indispensable Man

Biographer James Thomas Flexner has called George Washington "the indispensable man." Flexner meant that Washington, and no one else, was needed to lead the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and the United States as its first president.


The Ten Best and Ten Worst Presidents

Who were the best presidents in American history? Who were the worst? To find out the answers to these questions, Robert K. Murray and Tim H. Blessing surveyed 846 historians in the United States in 1982. The following lists of ten best and ten worst presidents come from the Murray-Blessing survey. The complete results of this survey may be found in the December 1983 issue of The Journal of American History.*



F. Roosevelt



T. Roosevelt




J. Adams

L. Johnson        







A. Johnson





Do you agree with these results? Would you include any other presidents in either list? Research the presidencies of one of the "best" and one of the "worst" presidents in American history. Compare their personalities, styles of leadership, and accomplishments in office. What do you think made one president great and another a failure?

Washington appears to have been one of those rare individuals in world history who fit the needs of his time. What made Washington a great leader was his understanding of what had to be done. As president, Washington realized that the new Constitution had to be made to work if democracy was to take root in American soil. This would not happen if he had chosen to become a lifetime king or if federal laws were ignored. It was also clear to Washington that the new experiment in representative government would likely fail if the infant nation became involved in European conflicts.

Washington is in a class by himself. His style of non-partisan leadership perfectly fit the needs of the new republic. He warned against "the spirit of party" in his Farewell Address, but it went unheeded. Soon party politics would dominate American democracy.

For a few years at its beginning, President George Washington made it possible for the United States to survive and grow. In that was his greatness. George Washington was truly "the indispensable man" for his time.

For Discussion and Writing

1. Assume that you are an American citizen living in the year 1782. You have heard about Col. Lewis Nicola’s letter to General Washington encouraging him to become king of the United States. Write a letter to Washington listing arguments against the U.S. establishing a monarchy.

2. How do you explain the fact that Jefferson, Hamilton, and the other founding fathers were superior to Washington in many ways, yet he was "the indispensable man"?

3. Washington attempted to lead the United States by trying to do what was best for the whole country. He avoided taking sides in political disputes. Was Washington’s style of leadership appropriate just for his time or for all time? Why?

4. What made George Washington a great leader? Try to answer this question in one sentence.


Presidential Brainstorm

What makes a good presidential leader? Do this activity and find out what your class thinks.

Step I

Write the following column chart on a large piece of paper.

(A) Characteristics (B) Responsibilities (C) Presidents

Step II

As a class, brainstorm characteristics of a good president and list them under Column A. After a number have been listed, discuss each item by asking students to provide a reason for its inclusion. Remove those for which no reason is provided. As a class, by vote or consensus, decide which 10 of the items are most important. Rank them.

Step III

Brainstorm a list of presidential responsibilities and list them under Column B. As a class decide how the characteristics in Column A could help a president with the responsibilities listed in Column B.

Step IV

As you study each president in U.S. history, add his name to the list in Column C. Discuss each in terms of characteristics and responsibilities. Add additional items to the lists as necessary.


1. Compare recent presidential and vice-presidential candidates in terms of the listed leadership characteristics. Which are best suited for office?

2. Why have presidential responsibilities expanded throughout American history?

3. Do American voters evaluate candidates on the basis of valid characteristics? Why or why not?


*Murray, Robert K. and Blessing, Tim H., "The Presidential Performance Study: A Progress Report," The Journal or’ American History (Dec. 1983), pp. 535–555.



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