One of the things you didn’t do during the American Revolution was question George Washington’s integrity. You could criticize his judgment, but not his character.
Once he assumed the presidency, of course, Washington’s character did become a target. Serious differences about the direction the new nation should take emerged among the generation of men who made the Revolution, and these differences were the genesis of the first American political parties. Despite Washington’s wish to appear above the fray, he ended up choosing a side, and that side was the one in favor of a stronger central government, a more modern financial system, and commercial relations with England. Washington aligned himself with Hamilton and the other Federalists, and in so doing he opened himself to criticism from Jefferson, Madison, and their colleagues who thought this vision of America threatened the Revolution’s legacy.
Washington by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons
During the war Washington had been the embodiment of virtue, but to the Republicans it now seemed he was supporting men and measures that were undermining everything his generation worked to build. Yet he was still George Washington. Perhaps this contradiction explains a conviction that appears in Jefferson’s writings from this period. If you relied solely on Jefferson’s appraisal of Washington, you’d come away with the impression that the Father of his Country was basically a dupe. For a time, Jefferson thought Washington supported Hamilton and the Federalists because he was being misled and deceived. By relying on Hamilton to shape financial policy, Washington was supposedly letting himself be dragged along by a scoundrel, simply because he didn’t know enough about running the country to rely on his own judgment.
Washington was a shrewder customer than Jefferson gave him credit for. How could somebody who worked with Washington misread him so badly? I’ve started to suspect that part of the explanation is psychological. During his second term, Washington became fair game for every sort of outlandish, slanderous charge imaginable—monarchism, Anglophilia, even treason during the war. But other observers remembered Washington as America’s Cincinnatus while simultaneously seeing that he was taking the country down a path they believed to be wrong. How to reconcile his virtue and his supposed lack of prudence? The explanation had to be that Washington was in the dark, and therefore at the mercy of the unsavory characters who had his ear.
If this story sounds a little familiar, it should. This was the same narrative Americans had been telling themselves a couple of decades before, except at that point it had been the King of England, rather than Washington, who was the dupe. Americans believed that a plot was underway to enslave them, and they knew that English politicians and some of the king’s advisors were in on it. But at first they were reluctant to implicate the king himself. They assured themselves that his ministers were misleading him, and that if they could get the truth about America’s plight to the throne, then he would alleviate their situation. Eventually they learned that he wasn’t as in the dark as they’d thought, and that in fact he wanted his subjects to submit to the same policies that they found oppressive. For many colonists this discovery was a profound disillusionment, and it was a crucial step in their eventual decision to break from England completely, a process Pauline Maier outlines in her study of the evolution of America’s protest movement.
It’s a richly ironic situation. By psychologically preserving Washington’s integrity, Jefferson had to assume that he was fundamentally ignorant. And in so doing, he recapitulated a pattern Americans had first applied to the same king against whom Washington led a revolution.