George Washington was one of the most esteemed leaders because of his notable achievements in the United States history. This esteem was even earlier manifested in the way people trusted him to hold the most important positions: commander in chief of the Continental Army, chairman of the Constitutional Convention, and the first President of the United States. However, despite being the central figure during the American Revolution, his tangible accomplishments were revealed during his presidency when he led the founding of the government and served the nation for two consecutive terms.
While he had the burden of leading the army towards independence during his generalship, he had the challenge of leading the entire nation as a newly founded republic during his presidency. And this task had indeed tested the leadership capacity of Washington not only in one field but in almost all aspects of politics and governance. Hence, he is comparatively better at being the president of the United States than being a general during the American Revolution.
ARCHITECT OF A NEW ARMY
When Washington accepted the post as commander of the Continental Army, he took the responsibility of shaping it as a new entity. It was a difficult task indeed as he needed to make the best use of different men with different background, ability, training, and experience. He needed to find efficient ways to make it survive even in the most trying times during the war. Consequently, throughout the war years, mounting a defense against the British forces was not the only problem Washington faced. Sustaining his ‘impermanent’ army was the contributory to his hardships.
It is important to consider the fact that there were so many Americans at that time who were indifferent in a war that extended beyond their localities, or that would keep them away from their homes and families for a long and uncertain time. Thus, he felt that the army whose enlistments are subject to expiration was akin to an ice on a hot summer day and his duty to that of a brick maker without straw. As a matter of fact, he voiced an opinion that “short enlistments are the primary cause of the continuation of the war, and every evil which has been experienced in the course of it.” As a commander in chief, he focused on two-level operations: dealing with Congress by constant petition to make them form a ‘real army’ and dealing with day to day affairs, which is mostly about holding his army together as far as he could. Thus, he always wanted to ensure that the brigades, division, or the regiments were properly supplied with soldiers—as can be seen on how he strongly petitioned the state governors at that time to make certain their promise to provide him the proper manpower.
FOUNDER OF THE GOVERNMENT
While his role in the Continental Army was quite remarkable in terms of shaping and improving the entity, he had the more arduous task during his presidency. Washington’s role as the country’s leader was more significant in the sense that his conduct as the first president would be prominent in the founding of the highest office, which entailed consequences for the future leaders. Being the first president, Washington’s all decisions and actions were precedent-setting. As a matter of fact, he wrote to James Madison that “as the first of everything, in our situation will serve to establish a precedent, I devoutly wished on my part that these precedents be fixed on true principles.” Indeed, Washington had the instrumental role of establishing the first American presidency. However, despite the risks of catastrophic implications, he was able to prudently fulfill his responsibility. That is why, while his role as a general is also commendable, he was far more better as a president in terms of the accomplishment in shaping the organization he was leading—the Continental Army versus the United States government. Aside from the fact that the US presidency was a bigger task to manage, his achievements as the president were more remarkable than in the military.
The significance of Washington’s presidency is mostly viewed in terms of his ability and charisma to enable public acceptance of the newly installed political arrangements. As the first president, he acknowledged the significance of symbolism—establishing a high degree of dignity that commanded respect for the office. He was able to gather the needed support from the people through effective conduct of his responsibilities, holding the post until the public habitually accepted the political system, and engaging in ceremonial visits to other nations and other acts of symbolisms. But according to Lipset, “his prestige was such that he imparted legitimacy to the government by his mere association of it.” In fact, Cunningham affirms that Washington’s approach to provide legitimacy to the new country was mostly founded on his public reverence. In fact, Washington’s popularity was his most notable advantage as a leader. He was able to capitalize in his prestige to ensure the dignity of the presidency. Once he became the president, he exerted his influence to establish a right “social and political protocol” that would shape the respect and esteem of the office
Thus, it is quite noticeable that while Washington was the key to the establishment of the army and the government, he was a better political thinker as he was able to vastly take advantage of his public appeal in the founding of the United States. His accomplishment as the commander in chief was responsible for the continuity of the army that was instrumental to the independence, but that role was not a reflection of his generalship but in fact indicated his political prowess that would later manifest during the founding of the republic.
REVOLUTION’S IMAGE AND INSPIRATION
George Washington was one if not the most important figure in the American Revolution. Although he was not particularly distinguished as a battlefield leader, he has the grasp of strategy which allowed the revolutionary fervor alive during extremely difficult times. He has the extraordinary skill to escape difficult situations in the battlefield which had bewildered his adversaries—ensuring that the Continental Army endures as the most important symbol of the Revolution. As a matter of fact, Washington’s behavior as a general was indeed the foundation of the army’s identity. His civility and manner became the standard of propriety for his inexperienced and quarrelsome officers.
Accordingly, his character was the model of those serving under him. According to Rasmussen and Tilton, “this demeanor and his apparently natural ability to understand when to command directly and when to delegate authority were clearly rooted in the dignity and decorum of the Virginia gentry that he had witnessed nearly all his life.” Although there were occasions when he would lose heart in private that the cause might be melting away, Washington remain steadfast during the most crucial times of the war. He made himself as the exemplar of fortitude that made the Continental Army united. His symbolic importance had continuously increased during the war years; neither any other generals nor Congress could ever challenge his appeal.
It is important to note that military leaders—especially during the American Revolution—wield influence over their men not on spoken words (unlike politicians) but more on their visual acts. Understandably, there were fewer opportunities for speeches and conversations in the battlefield and most soldiers knew their commanders only from a distance. This is what separates Washington from other generals. His significant contribution to the revolutionary success was by just being present in the field. He had the striking appearance which inspired the regiment. As a matter of fact, when he was appointed as the commander in chief, he became the symbol of military unity and resistance against the forces of Britain. Thus, Rasmussen and Tilton believed that:
Washington’s success in inspiring his regiments owed much to the fact that he looked the part of a general. He was an impressive physical specimen, skilled as a horseman, and impeccable in his military dress.
While Washington may not be one of history’s greatest generals in terms of war victories, he was however one of the great military leaders. He may not be the best tactician, but he was certainly a great military administrator who was able keep the army intact. In other words, while it is true that Washington had lost more battles than he had won, his inspiration was responsible for sustaining the survival of his army. Thus, Jones commented that:
George Washington’s generalship consisted mainly of getting the army together and keeping it together, neither of them easily accomplished tasks. He always lacked one or more of the tools needed for victory—most especially, as things turned out, the command of the sea, which gave his enemy such mobility…Provided with all the tools he needed, the Virginia planter might have proved himself one of the military geniuses of all time, but for the kind of war he did have to fight, with the poor support of Congress and states were able to provide, he had the qualities needed to secure victory: patience, self-discipline, organizing ability, willingness to work hard, and faith in the eventual success of the struggle for independence.
For most of his time during the war years, Washington was more like an administrator of his army than a field general of war. In fact, his critics stressed on his unimpressive battlefield record—his defeats and retreats. Therefore, in conventional view of what a general should have been, his military performance was not a success. For the most part, the troops under Washington’s direct command played a minor part in the military outcome.
Consequently, this characterization of Washington as the inspiration and symbol of the revolution is more like a manifestation of his charismatic leadership rather than as a military general who was usually renowned for their tactical accomplishments.
THE PRESIDENCY: REFLECTION OF HIS TRUE LEADERSHIP
Washington was more remarkable as a president than as a general because of his success in providing the kind of leadership which respected the integrity of sovereignty. It must be noted that the crucial issue during the founding of the United States was determining whether anarchy and tyranny would be avoided through republicanism. Thus, Washington has to face the challenge of imparting rational direction and moral vision to the government. This was a far more daunting task considering that the nation’s existence depended on it.
Washington’s policy visions were geared towards giving the United States the much needed solid structure. As a necessary means, his overriding concern was to advance the Federalist policies. That is why, it can also be argued that Washington’s strategic thinking was thoroughly tested during his presidency. This was manifested in his development of policies that sought to serve a wider range of interests. Despite the problems of establishing policies, procedures and precedents, Washington had successfully formulated enduring policies, particularly in the field of foreign policy; he had effectively led unity and order in the newly found nation; and he had the innate charisma to install the image of presidency as the “symbol of national power and unity.”
Washington’s policies were in adherence to separation of powers and always within constitutional parameters. While his decisions were not always accepted by some segments of society, he continued to decide political issues on the basis of internal stability. For instance, although his declaration of neutrality during the French Revolution was criticized by many sectors, he never backed down as he only wanted to defend the common good. He believed that the United States needed to be economically self-sufficient. Thus, involvement in European affairs or diplomatic intrigues at that time was counterproductive of the goals of unity and order.
Furthermore, domestic peace was at the apex of his goals. Hence, this policy is seen in his decision to strengthen the central government, to dignify the presidency, quell the Whiskey rebellion, and foreign policy aimed at avoiding war. Apparently, the underlying concerns of his leadership were unity and order. To accomplish this was quite easy because of his stature. But to enhance this goal, he directed his office to engage in social activities that would inspire reverence of the highest office in the land, such as creating rules for social etiquette, and selecting cabinet members and Supreme Court justices from both the North and the South.
In terms of organizational capacity, Washington was able to capitalize on his prestige to lead the services of exceptional political thinkers at that time such as Jefferson and Hamilton. However, despite the fact that he was surrounded by highly educated cabinet members, Washington was also prepared to manage the government in terms of ensuring accountabilities. When he started his governance, Washington made certain that he has the final say in all policy decisions through paperwork circulation within his administration. Thomas Jefferson even said that “by this means, Washington was always in accurate possession of all facts and proceedings and was able to provide his administration with unity of object and action.”
Washington’s military experience had been influential in one of his primary theme of his presidency: the need for laws and rules that would restrain irresponsible people. He was able to realize this because of his observation during the war years especially the problems with discipline in the Virginia militia. In other words, his war experience allowed him to develop the principles of discipline in order to attain long-term prosperity in a newly built nation. But this discipline became more pronounced when he was the leader of the nation.
Washington’s impact as a general was symbolic. His accomplishments were a result of his overall influence in the military that led to American independence. However during his presidency, his accomplishments were far more a direct result of his conscious political decisions and policies. Through political leadership and strategic policies, Washington was able to achieve a firm and stable nation.
The foremost reason why he was a far better president than a general is premised on the fact that he encountered a more difficult task of creating a new and independent nation. During his generalship, he was fundamentally an administrator than a tactician, thus he suffered more defeats than victories. His contribution was seen in the reform and endurance of the army. But during his presidency, he was faced with overwhelming task of performing various roles. He needed to be more than just an administrator or a commander in chief but a flexible and well-rounded leader. Aside from the fact that he needed to use his prestige to unite the country, he had to be a party leader, a chief executive, a chief diplomat, and the commander in chief.
Undoubtedly, his overall leadership qualities become his formative contribution to the government. His presidency legitimized the newly established republic. His political decisions provided the country with a strong foundation. Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that since Washington performed his presidential role quite excellently, he was able to cement his legacy as the most suitable person to be the first leader of the United States of America.
Fishman, Ethan. “Washington’s Leadership: Prudence and the American Presidency,” in
George Washington: Foundation of Presidential Leadership and Character, edited by Ethan Fishman, William Pederson, and Mark Rozell, 125-142. USA: Praeger Publishers, 2001.
Greenstein, Fred. “Presidential Difference in the Early Republic: The Highly Disparate
Leadership Styles of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 36, no. 3 (2006): 373.
John Fredriksen. American military leaders: from colonial times to the present, Volume
2. USA: Letra Libre, Inc., 1999.
Jones, Robert. George Washington: Ordinary man, Extraordinary Leader. USA:
Fordham University Press, 2002.
Phelps, Glen. “The Republican General,” in George Washington Reconsidered, edited
by Don Higginbotham. USA: The University of the Press of Virginia, 2001.
Rasmussen, William and Robert Tilton. George Washington—the Man Behind the Myth.
Canada: The University Press of Virginia, 1999.
Saunders, Robert. Power, the Presidency, and the Preamble: Interpretive Essays on
Selected Presidents of the United States. USA: Praeger Publishers, 2002.
Skidmore, Max. Presidential Performance: A Comprehensive Review. USA: McFarland
& Company, Inc., 2004.
Sloan, Herbert, George Washington, in The American Presidency, edited by Alan
Brinkley and Davis Dyer, 1-19. USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
Rozell, Mark. Introduction to George Washington and the Origins of the American
Presidency. USA: Praeger Publishers, 2000.