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How the Greatest American Presidency Came to an End

I have Masters degrees in National Security & Strategic Studies, Air & Space Studies, and Aeronautical Science. I am interested in history.

How the Greatest American Presidency Came to an End

In December 1783, after leading American troops to victory in the Revolutionary War, General George Washington appeared in front of Congress and resigned his commission:

“Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of action—and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”

Ironically, then, in 1789, and quite against his desires, Washington was elected President of the United States in a unanimous vote of the Electoral College. He took the oath of office in New York city on 30 April 1789. Like every other president since, Washington’s oath went like this:

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Washington took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.  Many other public servants and military officers also take an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, both foreign and domestic.

Washington took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. Many other public servants and military officers also take an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, both foreign and domestic.

Washington took this oath very seriously, living up to any and all expectations, and setting a remarkable standard.

He served a second term with equal reluctance, and mainly to preserve the union from destruction. “He was bothered and disheartened by the emerging political divisions. However, Washington also feared that the country would irreparably pull and split apart, and was implored by his close associates to serve an additional four years.”[1]

When Washington came to the end of his second term, he once again humbly and honorably—and forcefully this time—declined to run for a third term. He not only wanted to retire to his Mt. Vernon home, he also believed that if he died in office, it would set a horrible precedent. His intent, then, was to “[step aside] to make way for a successor, proving to future generations [his] commitment to democracy rather than power.”[2]

This humility, this greatness, this setting-the-example leadership, is what made George Washington the perfect servant leader to be the first President of these United States. It is also one of the many reasons he is remembered as the Father of His Country, the father of our country.

At the conclusion of his presidency, Washington (with an assist from Alexander Hamilton) authored a farewell address, which has been called “one of the most significant documents in Constitutional history.” It has been read on Washington’s birthday by a serving US Senator in legislative session every year since 1896.

Washington's Farewell Address: To "Friends and Citizens"

Every year since 1896, the Senate has observed Washington's Birthday by selecting one of its members, alternating parties, to read the 7,641-word statement in legislative session. Delivery generally takes about 45 minutes.

A complete transcript of Washington's address is available at numerous urls on the internet so it will not be included here. The address comes highly recommended, though, so if you have around 45 minutes or so, you should definitely read it. In fact, if you're so inclined, you might pull up a copy and follow along as Senator Baldwin reads it on the YouTube video above from 24 Feb 2020.

Washington's words in the Letter to Friends and Fellow Citizens are still important today because they are profound, prophetic and pertinent, particularly in light of events that occurred on 6 January 2021.

United We Stand, Divided We May Fall

President Washington feared that division would rend the fabric of the Union, would tear the country apart at the seams and bring an end to the ‘experiment.’ He believed that the future of America was as one united whole, and he spoke at length about those strong beliefs in his farewell address.

Washington argued that liberty and union—the Union—were and are inextricably linked, and "in this sense it is that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.”

In expanding on this last comment, Washington made it clear that the then-very-young Constitution of the United States was the best first step toward long-term preservation and pursuit of a more perfect Union.

Baneful Effects of the Spirit of Party

Not only did Washington warn about the dangers of a two-party system in his farewell address, he discussed at length the dangers of despotism and tendencies toward devotion to an individual over the Constitution.

His admonitions included the statement that the spirit of party was the worst enemy of popular, democratic forms of government. He believed that this spirit could drive factions of republics (i.e., political parties) to reckless and dangerous behaviors such as revenge, idolatry, demagoguery. "It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection."

"To discourage and restrain" these tendencies, Washington said, should be the goal of the peoples of this great nation, "lest, instead of warming, it should consume."

Again, in light of historical events which occurred, were spurred on 6 Jan 2021, Washington's words are ones we should all read and heed.

...and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

— George Washington, Farewell Address

Love of Country Over Personal Power

In closing out his farewell address, Washington displayed once again his humility and his ever-obvious love of country over his own personal power, explaining that he did not endeavor willfully to make mistakes, but humbly admitted that he likely did, anyway, at some point(s) in his two-term tenure. This is the mark of all good leaders, and perhaps serves as an example right down to this very day for those among us who both lead and read.

And thus ended the greatest presidency in the history of our Republic. The rest, as they quite often say, is history. We all—each and every American—owe a debt of gratitude to General Washington, to President Washington, and to Mr. Washington, who willingly rode away to Mt. Vernon to live out peacefully and quietly the last years of his life. Indeed, we should all be forever grateful that this is how the greatest American presidency came to an end.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 greg cain