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Why was George Washington the first president?

George Washington's presence at the Constitutional Convention shaped the U.S. presidency. Known for his virtue and restraint, Washington was seen as a model leader. His resignation as commander of the Continental Army showed his commitment to the republic. This influenced the creation of a strong, yet balanced, central government.

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Video transcript

- So in the early debates about the Constitution, there are folks that wanted a strong central leadership and other folks who didn't, because they felt it felt a lot like George III. How did the existence of Washington as a person affect the debate? - It's amazing. So George Washington, his friends have to plead with him to come to the Constitutional Convention. He thinks, frankly, that rewriting the rules of the country, it's not gonna work. But they finally convince him to come and they make him president of the convention. And they put him at the front of the room, and he says almost nothing during the entire four months. But what he does is at the front of the room he is a model, because, remember, he resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army and gave up power. He didn't seize the power that he had as, he was basically the biggest celebrity in America, and he gave his commission back to the government, which was an act of sublimating his own personal self interest for the benefit of the republic. And that's the model they wanted for the Constitution. So he didn't say much, but they designed basically, as one writer said that what they were essentially doing was writing his future job description, because everybody in the room knew he would ultimately become the president, because there was nobody else in America like him. And what was important was not that he was a general, but that he had this virtue inside of him, which was that he would know how far to go and when to stop, and when to protect those liberties. And so he sat on a chair with a sun on the back of it, and at the end of the proceedings, Benjamin Franklin, who was the only other great, kind of, superstar in America who participated in the convention said that he looked at that sun on Washington's chair, and he wasn't sure whether it was a rising sun or a setting sun, but now after they finished their work, he had decided that the sun was rising, which was basically anointing and blessing everything that had happened there, and this new office of presidency that they had created, that George Washington was to go walk into, and that's why Washington's statue is in front of Independence Hall where the Constitutional Convention took place. But in the dialogue over four months, you almost never see his words. He was there as a symbol and participant, but not like James Madison, or James Wilson, or Gouverneur Morris who were in there in the nitty gritty of every little detail. - Do we know what Washington was thinking, did he want the job, did he have a view, or he just said, "Hey, I'm just gonna do what everyone else decides"? - Fortunately, they did everything in secret. Washington was so virtuous that he didn't even write about it in his diary. Now, fortunately, we have other people who did keep diaries, and James Madison took notes and said, "Publish them only after all 55 members are dead." What Washington thought is he wanted a central government, because as a general he knew there had to be an army to handle rebellions, and there had been Shays' Rebellion that had tested under the Articles of Confederation. So he wanted a strong government, but he was, and he was very worried that having been successful revolutionaries, they could do what he knew was hard by history, which is that revolutionaries aren't very good at creating governments. And so he knew that what they were doing was a real risk and a real gamble. He believed that it could be done, however. He believed that a strong national government was required. But then was he was given the job, he was incredibly nervous, this incredible military leader basically thought that he might fail. It was more likely than not that this whole darn thing would fail and that he might fail. And as he rode to his inauguration, he kept writing letters and in his diary talking about how the expectations of his countrymen were just too much for him. And that was both a personal worry, and he also worried about monarchy. How does monarchy build? It's either when a monarch demands power or when the mob hands all of the power to the person and says, "Do everything for us," and gives them ultimate power. And what they knew in the convention was that human beings were sinful and could not handle power. If they were given the power, they would abuse it as surely as the sun comes up in the morning. And he was worried that if given too much power, perhaps he could be susceptible to that. And so he was for as confident and as much of a model of strength that he was, he was a very nervous guy. - And it sounds like an unusual person where the power, at least as the history I've read, didn't corrupt him and he didn't try to do a power grab. - That's right, Washington was constantly, he was a man of a rigid code, and he believed that the standards were necessary for the proper kind of human behavior. He wrote a list of a hundred different things that a gentleman should do to comport himself in the proper way in society, and that's what made him such a good model. - I'd like a copy of that. - (laughs) Yes, exactly. - I have a feeling I don't check most of them off. (laughing) - We'd all be better. But things like clearing your throat, how you behave in the presence of a lady. And he believed in these codes, because he believed if everybody maintained them, then the system would work. This was during the period where Newton's laws were making people think about a clockwork universe where if everything runs, if the machine is put together with tension, right, so it recognized that people were not angels, tension in the machine, but if everybody did their thing and the pieces stayed in their lane, as it were, then the clock would work. And so he had that code which tried to keep him in his place and keep everybody else in his place, and he set a standard, and then everybody tried to live up to it, as opposed to saying, "Well, that standard's nice, "but I'm now gonna go do this." And that's why when he resigned his military commission, and he also undid a coup that some of his men were planning back when he was leader of the army. They were basically gonna go to Congress and say, this is in Newburgh, New York, they were gonna go to Congress and say, "Unless you give us our money, "we're gonna stage a coup." He found out about the plot, went to his men and said, "This is a sin both against the revolution "and my own personal virtue, "because I put myself on the line." They backed off. And what he coulda done is say, "Let's go, let's ride to Washington and get you your money. "You fought in this war. "Your wives and children are begging and poor. "You deserve this money. "Let's use our power and authority and take it," and he said, "No." Joseph Ellis, the historian, writes about it as being the last temptation of Washington as a general. He has the chance to grab the power, and he says, "No, we shouldn't do it." And that's why he was a model, because he could resist the pull of power, and that's the image in which they wanted to create this new government. - Wow.