It’s an election year, and the hip-hop American history masterpiece known as “Hamilton” is sweeping across Broadway. Perhaps this accounts for why I’ve been spending so much time thinking about American History recently. This is the first presidential election I get to vote in after all, and I can’t help but think it’ll be one of the most important ones yet, considering the radically different (and potentially disastrous) candidates vying for the oval office. It’s gotten me thinking about past presidents and the decisions some of them have had to make, from the small to the gargantuan. And throughout all this thinking, I found myself hitting on one decision that, while we rarely talk about it, might be one of the most pivotal in history: George Washington stepping down as president.
Now, I want to preface this by admitting that I’m not American History scholar, or even a history major. That being said, though, I think I can throw out a few reasons that George Washington stepping down from the presidency is a hugely important moment in American history. For the one thing, it denied all historical precedent. From Egypt, where the pharaoh was considered a god on earth, to China, where the emperor ruled by the mandate of heaven, to medieval Europe, where kings ruled by divine right, world history up until America was largely dominated by rulers who tried to set themselves apart from the people they ruled. In willingly stepping down and allowing another to be elected to his place, Washington subverted this tradition. He was just another of the people, elevated to a position of power by the people, and no better than any of them. This message helped reinforce the very ideals America was ostensibly founded on and still preaches to this day: equality and liberty for all.
Second, his stepping down set a powerful precedent regarding faith in the system. After all, remember that at this point in time there was no term limit on presidents; they could serve for as long as they could get re-elected. Washington, even though he could have easily won the white house for his entire life, or essentially appointed a successor, simply stepped down and let the system of government he’d helped establish play out. It says something that for the next 160 years, all the way until, every single president abided by this precedent, and when the precedent was finally broken it was immediately made the law of the land via the twenty-second amendment. Washington’s stepping down spoke to a powerful faith that the system he created would successfully replace him, a faith that would remain, no matter how poorly a president might perform in office, for over one hundred years.
In other words, Washington’s decision to step down provided stability at a time when our country desperately needed it. Not only did it help solidify American ideals, it sent a powerful message to the American people that the system could be trusted. For a new nation, working to define its identity and gain its footing, this was incredibly important. It seems odd to say, but when it comes to this, George Washington definitely doesn’t get enough credit.