Some work I am doing has me reading a lot of the papers of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Of course it is a pleasure to spend so much time in the company of these great (although often vehemently opposed) men. But an important side benefit is the frequent encounters, through them, with George Washington.
Hamilton and Jefferson were both cabinet officers in the Washington administration, and were probably the two most influential men in the government after Washington himself, working closely with the president to formulate and execute the goals of the administration. Accordingly, when you look at their papers, you often come into contact with Washington, and he rarely disappoints. Yes, he was a man like the rest of us, with his flaws and failings. But to get to know him well is, I think, to be compelled to admit his superiority to the rest of the leading statesmen of that generation.
The superiority is specific and not general. Washington was probably not the most intelligent of the founders, and he was certainly not among the most learned of them. For these qualities we look to men like Hamilton and Jefferson, as well as John Adams and James Madison, for example. Washington, however, excelled them in judgment and character. Probably there is a connection between the two qualities: his judgment was superior because his character, the settled disposition of his soul, was calmer. At least, he had his emotions under a more rigorous control, and this permitted his mind the freedom to deliberate without untoward interference of the passions–an interference that often misleads even the most intelligent and knowledgeable among us.
If we think about the careers of these leading men, we see that, despite their intellectual attainments, they all made gross misjudgments in practical matters. Madison and Jefferson were naïve about the French Revolution. Hamilton thought it was necessary to respond full blast to every question about his character or plans. Adams was irascible and difficult to work with. This does not seem to be the case with Washington, however. Survey his career and it is hard to see any mistakes, or at least any that are as spectacular as the ones noted. And, again, the errors of these great men arose from their great and insufficiently governed passions. It would seem that Washington’s lifelong effort to discipline his passions paid off big time over the course of his whole life, and especially in its supreme final service to the country. All of these other men were smarter than him, but none of them was capable of being as good a president.
Here is one small example that I think is telling. In the summer of 1793 the country was involved in a crisis over the conduct of the French Minister to the United States, Edmond Charles Genet. Even the supporters of France (like Jefferson) admitted that Genet’s behavior was intolerable. He continually ignored the directives of the government of the United States, and in the end the cabinet and the president agreed that they needed to ask France to call him home. He was unacceptable. But should they go further? Should they publicize his misconduct to the public? Hamilton wanted this badly, precisely because it would turn public opinion against France, and Jefferson opposed it for the very same reason. In the cabinet meeting in which this was discussed, Henry Knox, the Secretary of War, related an anecdote in which rowdy pro-France demonstrators had paraded an image of Washington with his head on the guillotine. (You can see, by the way, how our politics is somewhat tame by comparison to the rough and tumble of the Founding.)
Washington erupted into one of the rages for which he was famous, one of those episodes in which, as Jefferson wrote, he could not govern his temper. He said, among other things, that he only regretted continuing his service in the presidency one time–and that was every moment since he made the decision. He said he would rather be in his grave than in his present situation. Then–and here is the good part and the relevant point–he said that, as regards policy, they need not decide the question of publicizing Genet’s behavior at the moment, that it could wait and that perhaps events would shed light on the best policy. In other words: he would not make a decision on a policy matter crucial to the country while he was angry. Or, his anger against those who would have wanted Genet’s conduct kept quiet did not lead him to choose the opposite course to spite them.
There is a lesson here worth pondering for everybody who has ambition to hold positions of political leadership, and for the citizens who have to choose among them.