George Washington: First In Politics

Gilbert Stuart detail: George Washington, c. 1803/1805, Gift of Jean McGinley Draper 1954.9.2 National Gallery of Art

This column was written by Richard Brookhiser.

George Washington's two elections to the presidency were nothing like the process, part-marathon, part-cage fight, we are seeing right now. All Washington had to do to get elected (unanimously) was not say that he would not serve. Washington's campaigns were the ultimate bare-bones operation -- no pollsters, no fundraisers, no ad buys. Yet he was well-versed in the arts of politics even so.

Washington did have to campaign to win his first political office, a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, the lower, elective chamber of the colonial legislature. Until early in the 19th century, voting in many parts of America was a festive occasion. You went to the county seat and announced your choice in public; rival candidates plied voters and onlookers with drink (which was illegal, but universal).

Washington ran for the House of Burgesses in 1758 while still serving as a colonel in the militia. He could not be at the polling place on Election Day, but he delegated a friend, Lt. Charles Smith, to tend bar in his absence. We know from their correspondence what the Washington campaign served: 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, two gallons of cider (probably hard), for a total of 160 gallons of booze. There were 397 voters. Washington won. If you're not the candidate of Change, be the candidate of Have Another.

Elections are one of the public faces of politics -- putting yourself and your convictions (if you have any) out there. But it can be equally important to hold back. How many candidates shoot themselves in the foot by shooting off their mouths (Verb sap, Senator McCain)? Washington possessed in an eminent degree what John Adams called "the gift of silence."

We have an account of a dinner party he hosted in August 1789 during his first presidential term, thanks to one of the guests, Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania, who wrote it up in his diary. Maclay thought it was "the most solemn dinner I ever ate at." Washington "with great formality drank the health of every individual by name round the table. Everybody imitated him." Then came "dead silence."

The ladies left the table, as was customary, and Maclay expected the gentlemen to get down to business. "The same stillness prevailed." A few jokes were told; Washington drummed on the table with his fork. Maclay was baffled, but Washington knew what he was doing, or better, what he wasn't doing. He had been in office for four months; the Constitution had been ratified just a year ago, and the government was brand new. Everyone was bursting to know whom he would appoint, and what he would do. Let them wait. If it was not necessary for him to speak, it was necessary for him not to.

Washington had to learn how to handle enemies: how to beat them, and equally important, how to live with them. In December 1755, before his own maiden run for the House of Burgesses, he was campaigning in Alexandria for one of his in-laws. (Political families are much older than the Bushes and the Clintons.) William Payne, a supporter of the other candidate, got in a shouting match with him, and finally knocked him down with a club. The next day, Payne got a note from Washington asking for a meeting. These were code words, meant to threaten a duel.

Payne went to the appointed place, a tavern, where Washington, instead of issuing a challenge, shook his hand and let bygones be bygones. Our source for this story is Parson Weems, the biographer who told the story of young George chopping his father's cherry tree. For many years historians doubted everything Weems said simply because he said it, but some of his anecdotes appear to be based on truth, including this one. If it really happened, young Washington learned two important skills: how to back out of a bad situation, and how to flip an enemy (Payne was so impressed by Washington's magnanimity that he became a friend and supporter).

Washington also knew how to handle his friends, sometimes a harder task. By the time he retired, he had become convinced that Thomas Jefferson and his friends would drive America off a cliff if they ever came to power. But Jefferson, then vice president, was the darling of Virginia. Washington tried to encourage Virginians who shared his views to run for office. One of the men he thought of was John Marshall, a bright Richmond lawyer who had served under him as a captain in the Revolution.

Washington invited Marshall to Mount Vernon in 1799 to make his pitch. Marshall idolized Washington, but he wanted to make money, and tried to beg off. Washington would not let him. Marshall finally concluded that he would have to escape from Mount Vernon at day break. He found when he got up, however, that Washington had gotten up earlier, and donned his Revolutionary uniform. Marshall obeyed orders, and began the career that would make him, in less than two years, chief justice.

There was a lot more politics in Washington's life, much of it intricate, some of it sordid. It should encourage us to know that the ways and means of politics, however clownish and grubby, have also served great men and great ends. It's possible to do what you have to do, and do the right thing.
By Richard Brookhiser
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online
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