Today is not just another federal holiday, but it is a day we celebrate one of our greatest war heroes and founding fathers. George Washington was not only our first victorious commander in chief, but he also set a precedent for limited executive power. He foresaw the threat that concentrated power can hold.
When he was commissioned by the Continental Congress as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army on June 19, 1775, Washington wrote this in a letter to his wife Martha:
“You may believe me, my dear Patsy, when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity, and that I should enjoy more happiness in one month with you at home than I have the most distant prospect of finding abroad.”
His dream was not conquest or personal glory. A humble, private life suited him.
On February 4, 1789, the 69 members of the Electoral College made George Washington the only chief executive to be unanimously elected (cited from The Smithsonian Magazine).
On the way to begin his presidency, he wrote in his private diary:
“About ten o’clock, I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity and, with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York…with the best dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.”
Washington almost retired after one term, but decided to run for a second for the good of the country. He sensed that the factional division between Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans would be too much for the young country to bear.
He famously set the tone for a two-term presidency when he refused to run for a third term in 1796.
Throughout his presidency, Washington expressed great humility and even anxiety that he was not good enough for such a monumental job. He truly viewed his position as one of public service and sacrifice, and he had no desire to be an empire builder.
George Washington’s example of leadership is one that should be emulated by business leaders, community leaders, and, most importantly, every commander in chief elected to serve the people of the United States.