The Inventor of the Presidency

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C./Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Gilbert Stuart: George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait), 1796; from Susan Rather’s The American School: Artists and Status in the Late Colonial and Early National Era, published by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Yale University Press

In 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act to take effect in 1971. It moved the observance of several holidays to Mondays in order to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers. In the case of George Washington’s birthday, which had traditionally been celebrated on February 22, Congress designated the third Monday in February as the new holiday. Because February is the birth month of Abraham Lincoln and several other presidents, including Ronald Reagan, that day soon came to be popularly known as Presidents’ Day.

Although the federal government still refers to the Monday holiday as Washington’s Birthday, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act has had the effect of turning our first president into just another one of the forty-four that followed him—a terrible mistake that diminishes the unique greatness of Washington. It’s a mistake because Washington had challenges and responsibilities that no other president, including Lincoln, has ever faced. Lincoln saved the Union, but Washington created it. Without Washington there might never have been a United States for Lincoln to save.

Or so T.H. Breen persuasively argues in his neat and readable account of Washington’s efforts as president to forge a new nation. The president aimed to do this personally by traveling through all the states and engaging in conversations with his fellow citizens. Although Breen has entitled his book George Washington’s Journey, the president actually made several separate journeys: one, his trip from Mount Vernon to New York in the spring of 1789 to be inaugurated as president; a second in the fall of 1789 to New England, bypassing Rhode Island, which had not yet ratified the Constitution; then in August 1790 a short jaunt to Rhode Island after it had joined the Union; and finally between March and July 1791 an extended journey of eighteen hundred miles through the southern states.

Washington is the only president in American history who had to be virtually dragged into accepting the office. As the successful commander-in-chief of the Continental Army that had beaten the British and guaranteed American independence, Washington in the mid-1780s was an international celebrity. Having already achieved fame—the love of which Alexander Hamilton said was “the ruling passion of the noblest minds”—he was reluctant to risk it. After eight years of fighting he yearned to remain in private life and enjoy what he referred to as its “domestic felicity.” But he knew he had to accept the presidency. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 had made the executive office so independent and so powerful precisely because the delegates believed that Washington would hold the office,…

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