A common historical conclusion within our country is that the individuals who have earned the honor of being considered our greatest presidents were, more often than not, the very ones who did not desire the job at all. Rather, they felt a need to take on that daunting task as part of their duty to guarantee the preservation of our republic. No person personified this thought process more than our first president, George Washington. “I have no wish which aspires beyond the humble and happy lot of living and dying a private citizen.” In an ironic turn of fate, Washington made this assertion soon before taking on the mantle of president when he was formally elected as the leader of our infantine democracy.
Neither the position of president nor the clout that came with it enticed Washington; a man who just six years earlier had resigned from his post as commander of the Continental Army, an act of which was unheard of and frankly incomprehensible to a world of kings and despots. Much to the surprise of our modern conceptions, Washington engaged in absolutely no public campaigning during the election and never even threw his hat in the ring to receive the nomination. Many of our national leaders at the time were frightened that he might turn down the job if elected. But what many forgot was that though Washington loathed the public attention that that office would unleash upon him once more, he would never ignore the will of the American people, whose voices he had just waged a war to protect and ensure. “I have been long accustomed to entertain so great a respect for the opinion of my fellow-citizens, that the knowledge of their unanimous suffrages having been given in my favor, scarcely leaves me… an option.” Washington was a statesman at his core and saw the office of president for what it truly was: a public servitude. Not a narcissistic tirade.
Washington set many precedents during his tenure: the establishment of an executive cabinet, the two-term limit, and our neutrality in regards to the affairs of Europe (which we followed closely until the eruption of World War I); but most importantly and somewhat involuntarily, Washington showed us how a president should approach the office and how to behave once it is formally bestowed upon them. Washington was the only president in our history who won not just one but both his elections unanimously, however, instead of seeing this as an egotistical joyride, he again saw it for what it truly was: a mandate. Through his conduct, Washington displayed to a new nation that the presidency should be approached with a reasonable degree of reservation and be exercised with the most scrutinized discretion. This came as second nature to Washington, but his example gave our young country a mesmerizing sense of integrity. We may never again reach it, but when we stop striving for that example, when we label it as a fruitless effort and tell ourselves to stop dreaming, then we have truly given up on the possibilities of our great experiment.