The Constitution did not limit the number of terms a president could serve. But so powerful was Washington's example that until 1940 all future presidents acknowledged the example he set. And later that precedent became law when the 27th amendment was adopted in 1951.
George Washington, of course, could and did act decisively. In 1794 when protests across Western Pennsylvania against the government's excise tax on whiskey forced tax collectors to flee for their lives, Washington personally led an army of 13,000 troops to crush the so-called "Whisky Rebellion. Thomas Jefferson likened this display of power to "taking a sledgehammer against a gnat." But to Washington such selected and overwhelming show of force was necessary to ensure respect for the new government.
After showing his power Washington then displayed his forgiveness by pardoning the leaders of the protest. In effect our first president demonstrated what is seen on the presidential seal -- an eagle clutching arrows in its left talons and olive branches in its right.
Earlier Washington had used actions of a more symbolic nature to undermine a potential threat.
In the waning days of the American Revolution, there were rumors of a mutiny when a bankrupt Continental Congress could not meet troop payroll. Before giving his prepared remarks to the aggrieved officers, Washington, in a gesture certainly planned, reached into his jacket for his spectacles.
Only a few in the room knew that the general required reading glasses, but all in the room were moved when he said "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country." As one soldier later wrote, "There was something so natural, as unaffected in this appeal as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory." The speech itself was anti-climactic, for his action spoke volumes.
At this time of dysfunction in Washington, the politicians who reside there would do well to emulate the capital's namesake. A study of George Washington could be a step to correct the petty, polarized and profligate atmosphere in the city that bears his name.
Rupp, a political history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, is a Gazette contributing columnist.