In about 11 months’ time, the current president of the United States will step down from the office he has occupied for the last eight years. He leaves not necessarily of his own choosing but because his administration has reached its constitutional two-term ceiling. He departs with no guarantee that a member of his party will succeed him and no assurance that his legacy will survive untouched. Yet despite that uncertainty, President Barack Obama will graciously exit the trappings of executive power.
That day will represent the 44th time the United States has peacefully transitioned between leaders (the election of 1860 being the only exception.) We Americans treat this exchange as a given. However, were it not for the example of one man, George Washington, the course of history may have been very different.
When Washington assumed the presidency, the office had only a vague shape and fewer limits. The founding generation knew that they wanted to avoid the abuses of the English crown, but history did not provide a readily available alternative to monarchy. Political principle urged the diffusion of power, whereas the realities of a new country surrounded by enemies cautioned for an energetic authority that could respond to a national crisis.
Advocates for a strong executive emerged from the Constitutional Convention victorious. Although modest by today’s interpretation, their final draft contained most of the key features that made the king of England such an effective force, both abroad and toward the colonies.
Power would be concentrated in a single individual, who would remain independent from the legislature’s direct control. The president would retain command over the Army and steer the nation’s foreign policy through his appointment and reception of ambassadors. More crucially, the Committee of Style and Arrangement pleated language into Article II that would allow for the office’s expansion, stating, “The executive power shall be vested in a president.” Compare this to the more timid language of Article I, which limits Congress to the powers “herein granted.”
The ease at which the founders embraced a robust presidency might seem strange in light of their recent experience. But, as one convention delegate wrote, many “cast their eyes towards General Washington as president” and “shaped their ideas … by their opinions of his virtue.”
Their trust was not misplaced. Washington undertook his charge fully cognizant that his actions would set the tenor for his successors and therefore the country. He treated the responsibility with all the gravitas it deserved. Not all of his decisions were objectively correct. Some, it could even be argued, did not fully comport with the Constitution. All, however, represented a good faith effort to wield his talents within the confines of the law and in pursuit of the public good. The country enjoyed eight years of just leadership in consequence.
Washington then committed his greatest act of heroism: He went home.
Think about that for a moment. Washington was a successful military commander who led his country to independence. He surrendered power at the war’s end only to have his country all but plead for his return. He then enters an office with neither term limits nor mature co-branches of government capable of resisting the cult of personality. On the day of his inauguration, the presidency had all the makings for a tyrant if Washington would merely push.
Can you imagine the degree of moral fortitude it took to stand before a potential kingdom and decline the honor? For that matter, can you imagine what is needed in a country to forge men and women virtuous enough to follow Washington’s example, not once, but every generation since?
Washington recognized that the United States did not fight the Revolution to topple a government, nor replace a foreign king for one closer to home. Instead, he knew that the heart of American liberty beats when men and women of power submit themselves before the law.
People always ask what makes America exceptional. They need not go further than Washington’s act of humility, or the self-restraint shown by his successors in the elections that followed. America is exceptional because the men and women who occupy office stand before temptation but accept their limits nonetheless. “For as in absolute governments the king is law,” but here in America, the great experiment of liberty succeeds when law and self-restraint reign supreme.
Hunker is a senior policy analyst with the Center for Economic Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenHunker.