The old joke about baseball in the District of Columbia was that Washington is “first in war, first in peace, and last in the league.” This slyly played off the age-old description of George Washington himself: “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
This year’s Nationals are running away with their division, so the joke finally feels dated. But George Washington himself remains a timeless hero who still deserves the full devotion of the American people.
First in war? “Through force of character and brilliant political leadership,” writes Heritage’s Matthew Spalding, “Washington transformed an underfunded militia into a capable force that, although never able to take the British army head-on, outwitted and defeated the mightiest military power in the world.” Spalding’s essay about Washington has just been reissued as part of The Heritage Foundation’s series on people who’ve shaped American political thought.
First in peace? “As our first President, Washington set the precedents that define what it means to be a constitutional executive. He was a strong, energetic President but always aware of the limits on his office; he deferred to authority when appropriate but aggressively defended his prerogatives when necessary.”
First in the hearts of his countrymen? True then: “The vast powers of the presidency, as one delegate to the Constitutional Convention wrote, would not have been made as great ‘had not many of the members cast their eyes towards General Washington as president; and shaped their ideas of the powers to be given to a president, by their opinions of his virtue.’”
True now, as another presidential election approaches: “We take for granted the peaceful transferal of power from one President to another, but it was Washington’s relinquishing of power in favor of the rule of law—a first in the annals of modern history—that made those transitions possible.”
George Washington twice voluntarily surrendered power to return to a peaceful life on his Mount Vernon estate. The ruler he helped vanquish, King George III, called him “the greatest character of the age.” The capital city he gave his name to is renowned as the defender of freedom and opportunity.
As John Adams put it, Washington’s example “will teach wisdom and virtue to magistrates, citizens, and men, not only in the present age, but in future generations, as long as our history shall be read.”
More than a century after Washington died, Woodrow Wilson attempted to refound the United States on progressive principles. His experiment is still going on today. That explains why Washington remains so crucial: His guiding principles came from the written Constitution and Declaration of Independence, not some unwritten, “living” constitution.
Let us learn the first President’s lessons and move toward a more Washingtonian governance.