How to Be Presidential

George Washington was not born a leader but he carefully made himself into one

HUMANITIES, September/October 2012, Volume 33, Number 5

On June 22, 2012, for $9,826,500, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased George Washington’s personal bound copy of the Constitution with the Bill of Rights and Acts of Congress. The volume dated from 1789, Washington’s first year in office as president of the United States. In its margins, he repeatedly wrote the word “president” to emphasize those sections relating to his official powers and responsibilities. With his meticulous—some might say pedantic—mind, he carefully measured the dimensions of the presidency as if it were a suit of clothes. Though in many respects the office had been designed with him in mind, Washington adapted himself to the presidency rather than fashioning it according to his preferences.

Color illustration of George Washington charging atop a white horse during a battle of the American Revolution.
Photo caption

George Washington rallying the troops in a battle of the American Revolution.

© Steven Wynn / istock.com

Color illustration of George Washington in a skiff, pointing in the direction in which his crew should row.
Photo caption

Washington canoeing the Ohio River.

Washington’s approach to leadership emerged from a code of personal conduct that he began developing as a young man. But it also relied on intangibles: his personal bearing, gravitas, and most of all his vaunted ability to stand unruffled in times of crisis. In a sense, Washington’s personal qualities defined the attributes that we continue to associate with presidential power in the twenty-first century.

As a teenager, sometimes arm-in-arm with a “Low Land Beauty” and other young ladies, Washington mingled with the elegant crowd at Belvoir, the estate of the immensely powerful Fairfax family. There he learned cultured speech, dress, deportment—all the requirements for success in eighteenth-century high society. Yet George was not, by nature, an extrovert. Bereft of his father at the age of eleven, he grew up under the tutelage of an iron-willed mother, whom he resented, and his ne’er-do-well half-brother Lawrence. The deaths of his father and his brother—Lawrence died when George was only twenty—appears to have left him touchy and insecure—a temperament that did not bode well for his future.

Washington looked forward to his first experiences of combat in the French and Indian War, expecting a great adventure that would put the seal on his manhood. The realities of war, which he experienced at Fort Necessity and the Monongahela River in western Pennsylvania in 1754–55, shattered his youthful illusions. As lieutenant colonel and then colonel of the Virginia Regiment, Washington struggled to control his ragged, surly, and rebellious soldiers. More experienced officers treated him as a callow amateur, and British and Native American “allies” manipulated him with ease.

While Washington proved his personal bravery in combat, the trials of command often drove him to distraction. His letters from this period overflow with petulance, foolish braggadocio, naiveté—and poor grammar. Washington later edited many of these letters to improve the grammar, and may have destroyed others. Privately, however, he assessed his mistakes honestly and resolved to improve. First and foremost, he imposed iron self-control. Aware of his intimidating and often counterproductive temper, Washington learned to guard his tongue and keep cool under pressure.

Other French and Indian War experiences served to cement principles of leadership that Washington would apply as general and president. Observing the tendency of British officers such as General Edward Braddock to ignore political leaders and other civilians, with disastrous results, Washington resolved never to forget that an American army depended on civilians for success and its very existence. Above all, he adopted the principle of making friends before he needed them, whatever their social rank.

Washington also redeemed his earlier mistakes as a military leader by learning to appreciate the importance of fundamentals. Soldiers, he observed, cared little for speeches or empty posturing. In the long run, even battlefield victories mattered less to them than the day-to-day necessities of food, drink, clothing, sanitation, and shelter. Washington’s willingness to apply his tremendous energy and methodical mind to supply these necessities earned his followers’ trust and affection far more than any sword-waving could have done. Most of all, his understanding of his soldiers’ wants led them to accept him as one of their own.

After his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759 and subsequent departure from the military, Washington returned to Mount Vernon and devoted himself to entrepreneurship and expanding his estate. He also entered the Virginia House of Burgesses. On the whole, his early political career was undistinguished; but in his spare hours Washington devoted himself to intellectual self-improvement, reading extensively in the classics, history, philosophy, and the sciences. He perfected his command of spelling, grammar, and orthography, transforming his country bumpkin’s scrawl of the 1750s into the polished style of a cultured gentleman. Given the eighteenth century’s reliance on handwritten communication, this was of paramount importance. Finally, Washington improved his speech and mannerisms, learning to overcome his natural shyness and seek human society at formal dinners and balls. While he could hobnob freely with the elites, however, Washington never became a snob. 

By the time the Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775, Washington had cultivated a persona of balanced emotions and careful speech—but not of detachment. Faced with an increasingly radical revolutionary movement that threatened to turn the established political order upside down, Washington refused to get carried away with the “me too” mentality that characterized some of his peers. Instead, he considered each item of protest or policy on its own merits, forming prudent opinions without regard to the rapidly changing sentiments of the crowd. Yet he was not aloof. For all his circumspection, no one could doubt that Washington had thought carefully about, and come to believe firmly, in the cause of liberty. He was “no harum Starum ranting Swearing fellow,” commented a fellow delegate, “but Sober, steady, & calm.”

A devotee of classical drama and the stage, Washington carried himself as an actor in the spotlight—not out of vanity, but in the realistic knowledge that thousands of eyes watched his every move. He wore his uniform of the Fairfax county militia to Congress in the knowledge that if he were to play a role in the coming conflict, it would be as a soldier. Yet he disavowed any untoward ambition, declining to ask openly for command of the army and even fleeing the room when his name came up for nomination. When the delegates proffered the army command, Washington accepted gracefully, refusing to accept pay and emphasizing unity of purpose.

Washington’s first experiences leading the ragtag army of militiamen that congregated around Boston in the summer of 1775 was like being on the frontier twenty years earlier. His soldiers—if you could call them that—were untrained, unkempt, cheeky, illiterate New England farmers. At first, Washington reverted to youthful form, excoriating his new comrades as an “exceeding dirty & nasty people” and raging at their disobedience. Soon, however, he recalled the lessons he had learned over the past two decades. While establishing firm rules for military discipline and chain of command, Washington worked to ensure that his soldiers were well-supplied with basic necessities, including not just equipment and ammunition but food and shelter.

Civilians did not escape Washington’s attention. Jonathan Trumbull Sr. the governor of Connecticut, was among the many New Englanders who at first disliked the new army commander whom he viewed as a southern interloper and a possible dictator. Instead of returning the disdain, however, Washington reached out to Trumbull and gradually cultivated a relationship based on mutual trust. He did likewise with other state officials, members of Congress, and even individual farmers.

Through the battles and campaigns that followed, from Boston to New York, Trenton, Philadelphia, and, finally, Yorktown, Washington developed as a leader. It was a bumpy ride. He lost numerous battles and struggled with implacable personal enemies. He also struggled to deal with a weak and disunited Congress, a tottering national economy, and incompetent quartermasters who sometimes brought his army to the verge of starvation. Washington’s hard work, carefully managed personal bearing, common touch (expressed not so much in bonhomie as in an ability to relate to the concerns of individual Americans), and firm dedication to the cause were among the qualities that pulled him through. At places like Valley Forge, Washington’s commitment to the welfare of his common soldiers earned their enduring loyalty and affection.

Ultimately, Washington’s ability to command the respect of both soldiers and civilians saved the Republic. By 1783, as the war neared its close, a huge gulf emerged between those who had fought and those who had stayed home. In particular, soldiers and officers both distrusted Congress, which had failed to provide for their needs and those of their families as they faced the prospect of returning to ruined farms and a devastated economy. Sentiment grew strong for a march on Congress that would impose military government at the point of a bayonet. Civilians sensed this danger and yearned to disband the army, forget war, and return to business as usual.

Only one man in the United States could step into this gap, reach out, and draw the two sides together. Washington’s genius lay in his ability to command trust. Calm and judicious, he had served a revolutionary cause without becoming what conservatives and moderates most feared from a revolutionary. Civilians knew that he would not abuse power, and soldiers knew that he cared for their welfare. Even Tories ultimately looked to Washington as a man who would dispense justice impartially. At Newburgh, New York, in March 1783, Washington capitalized on the relationship that he had built with his officers and soldiers over the years, and defused a crisis that might have led to a march on Congress. Nine months later, his carefully scripted and impeccably performed resignation from the army established the precedent for civilian government in the United States.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Washington performed much the same role that he had at the Second Continental Congress a dozen years earlier. Managing to be calm and magisterial without seeming aloof, Washington presided over the proceedings as a master of ceremonies. His advocacy of a strong executive was understated and carefully reasoned. In the campaign for ratification that followed, Washington wrote private letters to influential figures with whom he had formed strong relationships, rather than giving speeches or rabble-rousing.

Washington’s judicious conduct made him the obvious, indeed the only, candidate to become the first president of the United States. To some extent, the framers of the Constitution had created the office with him in mind. Initially, some objected to Washington’s indulgence in the symbolic trappings of office. It didn’t help that many Americans addressed him as “His Excellency,” just as they had during the Revolutionary War. While these distinctions undoubtedly contributed to presidential prestige, they also uncomfortably reminded some Americans of the departed royal British overlords. Throughout his time as president, and especially during his tumultuous second term, Washington would have to dodge accusations of royalism.

For Washington, however, the constitutionally mandated executive office demanded an aura of prestige if it was to command respect. During the Revolution, Washington had reinforced military chains of command by demanding clear visual designations of rank and impeccable uniforms, both for his officers and himself. Equally important was a strict code of personal conduct and behavior. He had required this from his officers in both the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars, and he demanded it equally from members of his presidential cabinet.

By the time he left office in March 1797—a performance that, like his resignation from the army in 1783, was carefully choreographed—Washington had given life and authority to the office of the president. He did so not just in terms of its rights and responsibilities, but in creating an aura of prestige and a code of personal conduct and bearing to which his successors would have to aspire. The intolerance of subsequent generations of Americans for presidential scandals arose in part from the standard set by President Washington. His most eminent successors likewise emulated his ability to communicate effectively and genuinely with Americans of all backgrounds.