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George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait) by Gilbert Stuart, oil on canvas, 1796

Photo by Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

The man who would not be king

28 Jul 2016 | 2nd Lt. James Ackerman Marine Corps Base Quantico

Farmer, surveyor, father of his country, general of the armies and president. George Washington carried numerous titles in his incredible lifetime. But, the most important one to the history of America might very well be the title he chose not to accept – king.

Could George Washington have been George I, King of America? Well, maybe. The so-called Newburgh Conspiracy would have been the most likely point in early America where a king could have been named. Continental Army officers had grown tired of Congress putting off paying them and assuring them of pensions for their service in the Revolutionary War. The schism between the Army and Congress was strong enough that senior officers of the Army considered performing a coup d’état against the Continental Congress and naming Washington king. This plot only ended following an impassioned speech by Washington against such an action. Had the plot succeeded, Washington very well may have been named King of America, as he was the only individual in the nation at the time who had enough respect across the newly born nation to be blankly named as monarch of the nation.

Given the upstanding moral character exhibited by passing on a plot which would have granted him supreme power, Washington was a natural choice in 1787 to head the Constitutional Convention convened to draft a new governmental framework, the U.S. Constitution. As the president of the convention, Washington ensured that the country would forge a document which would bind it together as a federation of United States rather than the confederation of squabbling pseudo-nations it had been under the Articles of Confederation. When the document was finished, after much debate and compromise, Washington was the first to sign the new U.S. Constitution.

Once the Constitution was sent to states for ratification, and the required 2/3 of states ratified the document, the first election for president was held. As the man who won the Revolutionary War and confirmed America as an independent country free of Britain, Washington was a natural choice to be the first to hold the office of the president. In the following election, which took place in late 1788 and into early 1789, Washington became the first, and to date only, president to win every state in the union. The Electoral College voted for Washington to be named president unanimously, with all 69 electors casting one of their two votes for the Mount Vernon native.

The real campaign in 1788 though was for who would be Washington’s vice president. Owing to the construction of the early Constitution, whoever came in second for the presidency in the Electoral College vote was who became the vice president of the United States. As said before, all the electors cast one of their two votes for George Washington. Eleven men competed to serve alongside George Washington in the First Administration. Of various personalities and from all over the early country, these early men also had solid experience with both the laws of the country and the politics of the early nation. John Adams of Massachusetts, a man who also helped in the founding of the nation, won this crucial second vote of the Electors to be named vice president, receiving 34 votes to claim the office.

The tradition of the second place vote recipient did not stay for long, as due to conflict developing between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who later succeeded George Washington as president. The 12th Amendment formally changed the Constitution so that a president and vice president were elected together rather than as the winner of, and their runner-up in, the Electoral College.

George Washington’s time as president was an important time for the young nation as well. Europe was descending into the French Wars of Revolution, heavy debt was still owed from the American Revolution, and even a rebellion occurred in western Pennsylvania over a tax on whiskey (forever after remembered as the Whiskey Rebellion). Washington’s actions set the standard by which all later presidents have been held. The tradition of serving only for two terms in office was established by Washington, along with the trend of avoiding direct involvement in foreign affairs. He also surveyed the land on which the city of Washington D.C. would be built, and even personally laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol building.

By 1797, Washington was ready for retirement to his plantation in Mount Vernon, south of what is now D.C., and overlooking the Potomac River. Here he would reside until his dying day in 1799 at the age of 67. Behind him, he left a life which left an indelible mark on the history of our nation, and that of the world.

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