This week (Feb 4) in 1789, the electors of the recently established Electoral College unanimously chose George Washington to assume the duties of the first president of the also recently established United States of America. In Washington’s mind, such an honor, great as it was, paled in comparison with the sense of burden and responsibility — and even foreboding — that he felt at the thought of the task before him.
For one thing, Washington doubted his ability to do the job. He was a military man, not a politician. He had little formal education and no experience in law or government. Winning wars, even wars against a military power such as Great Britain, seemed easy compared to creating a government.
For another, the task really was daunting. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia two summers earlier several of the more intractable issues were papered over with the understanding that they would be resolved once the government was in action. As a result, much of the Constitution’s language was vague, or in many cases said nothing at all about what powers would be needed to meet what responsibilities — and who would exercise those powers. As one historian put it, the government created by the Constitution was “George Washington and a blank piece of paper.” It would take a lot of work to fill up that paper.
But third, and most important, the stakes were so high. What the people of America were trying to prove — against all odds and certainly against all precedent — was that representative government could last, and that a people could govern themselves without needing a monarchy or dictatorship to do it for them. In Europe, in Latin America, in the Far East and most everywhere else around the globe, power was vested in a single king or dictator, or among a minority of hereditary elite, and all of these rulers expected, or were fervently hoping, that the American experiment would fail.
If it did fail, Washington knew that it would be a long time before such an experiment was tried again. He also knew that much of the responsibility for that failure would be his, which is why when he began his journey from Mt. Vernon to New York to take the presidential oath of office he was filled with “more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express.”
So all hail to Washington and the other Founders he chose to help him make the American experiment work. Given the odds, given the size of the challenge and given the historic importance of meeting it, they have rightly earned their place in the American pantheon. “The Father of Our Country” most of all.