In this final excerpt from his 2012 essay, “Washingtonianism,” Myron Magnet offers a synoptic account of Washington’s presidency, its trials and its successes. The position of popularly elected chief executive of a large republic was simply unprecedented, not only in America but throughout human history, and a crucial part of Washington’s task was “inventing the presidency.” In addition, he had to endure mounting public criticism and manage huge battles, with formidable opponents even within his cabinet, over policies domestic and foreign, regarding the nation’s financial system, economic development and commerce, the French Revolution and the ensuing war between France and England, the insurrection of the Whiskey Rebellion, and the opening of the Mississippi River and expansion into the Ohio territory and the southwest. But in the end, Magnet concludes, “despite all the rancor—irksome to him but mere static in the music of history—he had done what he set out to do.”
Imagining yourself in Washington’s unscripted position, how would you go about writing the script for the American presidency? Why would it be important to maintain a fine line between “superiority” and “equality,” and to separate private life and affections from public duties? Why was Washington so roundly criticized, and for what? Why did Washington back Hamilton’s plan for a national bank, and was he wise to do so? Why, despite great opposition from within his administration, and his own longing for home, did Washington take a second term of office? What challenges to Washington’s presidency, and to the new republic, were raised by the French Revolution and the activities of the undiplomatic French ambassador, Genêt? What was the significance of the Whiskey Rebellion, and why did Washington personally lead the troops against it? How would you assess the significance of the Neutrality Proclamation for the development of the United States? What, in sum, was the legacy of Washington’s presidency?