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The president agreed to meet the demands of a ruthless foreign leader rather than to fight back against his aggression.
That’s not “breaking news.” But it is true. A U.S. president paid yearly to a despot to reduce attacks on Americans rather than launching a counterattack, because he believed it was the better option.
The president was George Washington. The nation celebrates his birthday, a legal federal holiday. (“President’s Day” has no official standing) As I do every year, I recall aspects of his historic contribution to the country he led.
Three Barbary States in North Africa were high-jacking American and other countries’ commercial vessels and seizing their crews. The pirate states demanded ransom and annual payments to cease their aggression and return American sailors. Washington strongly opposed paying such tribute.
But Congress would fund only the most limited federal government. Washington favored a larger federal budget that would allow the country to have a navy. Without one, the U.S. lacked the means to respond to the pirate nations.
Faced with a choice between a lengthy legislative fight to build the U.S. Navy and abandoning captive Americans or paying ransom, Washington unhappily chose to bribe the enemy.
Much as today, the government was split between two new parties that refused to compromise. The Federalists backed commerce and a larger government and the Republicans supported agriculture and limited government. Given his stature, Washington hoped to remain above this split but came under attack by Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans.
Though his own views were more closely aligned with the Federalists, he tried to remain independent. He favored policies that would produce results not political wins. He risked his reputation and fortunately felt no need to posture to pursue any political ambition. He was pragmatic, what some today call a “problem solver.”
His method of governing is missing today. Politics lack people who seek solutions whatever their parties may favor and are willing to risk political defeat for putting practical solutions above party loyalty. Washington had the benefit of being a man without a party.
Washington invented term limits. Earlier, when as general he resigned his commission and relinquished power, King George III, his former foe, reportedly said that if Washington could do that, he was the greatest man in the world. As president, he decided to serve only two terms. His decision eventually became a constitutional amendment.
He risked being a “lame duck” in his second term, perhaps losing influence because he would soon be gone. But he could show that he was more committed to doing his job as well as he could than to holding onto to his office and political control.
Washington was a rare leader. No other elected federal official is subject to term limits. Most members of Congress make political survival their highest priority. Maine’s version of term limits is so weak it amounts to a revolving door.
Along with other historic figures, Washington has been criticized for owning slaves. Though slavery was common during his lifetime, he surely knew it was wrong. Still, he believed he could not disrupt that “peculiar institution” without tearing the fragile new country apart. For him, allowing slavery was a pragmatic choice. He knew it could not last.
Unlike others, he tried to keep his slave families intact. Long before any other prominent slave-owning leader acted, he provided that his widow should free his 120 slaves, which Martha Washington did soon after his death. Slavery was not officially ended for another 65 years.
His life teaches lessons, still valuable today. His experience with what amounted to an all-volunteer army during the Revolutionary War revealed to him that the U.S. could not become a major world power, able to develop its territory, without a strong, well-financed federal government.
By today’s standards, he would be the target of both parties. He favored what was considered a large and powerful central government, financed by taxes from the commerce and agriculture it protected and promoted. He aimed to pay down the national debt and not finance normal government operations by more borrowing.
Perhaps even more important and certainly missing in government today, he sought solutions that would work not merely serve political ends. Public service was not meant to be a career, but rather to be a way of lending your skills to helping your community for a limited period.
A wit once wrote that politics is about two parties – the “Ins” who want to stay in and the “Outs” who want to get in. That quip seems never to have been more true than it is now. That was not Washington’s view of public service.
Regrettably, George Washington’s record as a political leader has faded. His independent leadership produced results and set an example still worth following.