Our first president, George Washington, was inaugurated this week (April 30) in 1789, in great part because his countrymen knew they could trust him with power. They knew this because they knew of his ambivalence about wielding it. After the American Revolution was won and all the power he could have wanted was his for the taking, Washington resigned his military command and went home. Duty had called, he had answered, and now he only wanted to return to his beloved Mount Vernon to resume life as a gentleman planter.
But power was one thing. Glory was something else. For public figures in the 18th Century, honor … glory … reputation was everything, and Washington was no exception. He had earned honor, achieved glory and secured his reputation not only by winning the war, but also by—Cincinnatus-like—trading his sword for the plowshare once that war was won.
Which, interestingly enough, is one reason he was also reluctant to become president. Although the members of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 had created the presidency with him foremost in mind, Washington worried that accepting it would jeopardize his reputation as a modern-day Cincinnatus. He feared he would be accused of being “ambitious.” He wondered if his countrymen would consider his well-known support of the new Constitution, which included a single, powerful president, as a back-door method of securing that position for himself.
Finally, he worried that if this brand new experiment in republican government created by this brand new Constitution should fail, he would get the lion’s share of the blame, thereby ruining his reputation.
It was at this point—in mid-August in 1788—that Alexander Hamilton, who had been one of Washington’s most trusted military advisers during the war, stepped in and wrote Washington a letter reinforcing his belief, and the belief of many, that if their experiment in republican government had any hope of succeeding, Washington must serve as the first chief executive. When Washington demurred, citing the reasons outlined above, Hamilton, a skilled lawyer, responded using the only logic that trumped Washington’s.
You have earned glory, Hamilton agreed, and you are absolutely correct that if this new experiment fails your reputation will suffer the most. But that is why you must do everything in your power to ensure that it succeeds. You were the president of the Constitutional Convention that created this new government. You are its most famous supporter. You are its embodiment. That is why you must become its first president.
Washington got the message, became our first president, helped ensure the new government succeeded (in great part by making Alexander Hamilton its first treasury secretary) and secured his reputation a hundred-fold.