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George Washington: An Image and Its Influence

December 15, 2017 in Economics

By David Gordon

George Washington

By: David Gordon

George Washington took office as president in 1789 with an asset of inestimable value. People viewed him as the hero of the American Revolution who, disdaining power, had like the Roman general Cincinnatus returned home to his farm. When he allowed himself, with great reluctance, to be nominated as chief executive, his prestige was unparalleled. Indeed, his reputation was worldwide. When he died,

Napoleon Bonaparte decreed that the standards and flags of the French army be dressed in mourning crepe. The flags of the British Channel Fleet were lowered to half-mast to honor the fallen hero. Talleyrand, the French minister of foreign affairs, … [called] for a statue of Washington to be erected in Paris.<a target=_blank class="see-footnote" id="footnoteref1_lchh7nz" title="Matthew Spalding and Patrick J. Garrity, A Sacred Union of Citizens (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), p. 189.

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Poets likewise sang his praises.

Washington achieved mythic status in his own lifetime, receiving poetic encomia from English poets as different as William Blake and Byron, who contrasted Washington favorably with the despotic Napoleon. … His contemporaries were impressed by the fact that the general who led a successful revolution did not establish a personal dictatorship.2

Were the effects of the influence that accompanied this prestige good or bad for liberty? This chapter shall endeavor to show that in two instances, these effects were bad; in one case, though, Washington’s fame led to fortunate consequences for individual freedom. Washington, though not a principal author of the Constitution, supported calling a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. At the convention itself, he strongly backed Madison’s plans for centralized control.

On assuming power, Washington soon faced a division of opinion in his cabinet. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was not satisfied with the centralization already achieved by the Constitution. He called for a national bank and a governmentally directed program of industrial development. Thomas Jefferson raised a decisive objection to Hamilton’s proposal: Did it not entirely exceed the bounds of power granted the central government by the new Constitution? The constitutional issue did not faze Hamilton, who produced an analysis that granted the central government broad power to do whatever Hamilton thought best. In this conflict, Washington once again weighed in on the side of the centralizers.

In his Farewell Address, though, …read more


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