The “General” Election: George Washington (1788)

January 20, 2016 Alex Welch

In 2016, voters and analysts talk about the importance of pre-White House experience and speculate that military experience would provide an advantage in national security issues. The “General” Election is a four-part blog series examining how George Washington, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower, all career generals, won the presidency and how effective they were once in office. 

1788 Margin of Victory
Electoral College: Washington 69. Unanimous.


If military reputation was measured solely by wins and losses, George Washington would never be mentioned in the same breath as figures such as Julius Caesar, Napoleon, or Alexander the Great. Instead, his defeat of the British in the Revolutionary War was much more the result of a successful attrition campaign rather than a string of decisive victories, but it was enough to achieve independence from the British. As such, his military reputation is probably closer to Robert the Bruce, than to the aforementioned all-time greats of military history.

As the early American historian, Gordon Wood, has observed, Washington’s status in the 1788 campaign resulted from his greatest military action, which ironically, did not take place on the battlefield. Flush with victory, Washington followed his republican virtues and surrendered his sword in favor of a return to civilian life. As Napoleon and many other victorious generals of history have proved, seizing power is often the next step for a victorious general, especially after the kind of revolution America had just accomplished. By relinquishing his power, Washington proved to the American public that he could be trusted with more power in the future. After this act, Americans wanted to make Washington president because they knew that he could be trusted to execute this new and potentially dangerous office. (Fittingly, he would parallel this legendary action by voluntarily relinquishing his presidential power after two terms in office.) Every elector in the new Electoral College voted for Washington.

As the first president, Washington was tasked with establishing the precedents and duties of his office on domestic, economic, and foreign affairs. At the start of his presidency, foreign affairs was not the primary issue that the country faced, but Washington still set an important precedent. Washington negotiated with the Creek Nation and presented the agreed-upon treaty to the Senate for inspection, debate, and ratification, per Constitutional procedure. Unfortunately for Washington, his reputation made the senators uncomfortable during the debate process, and he eventually had to leave so that they could more fully examine and debate the document. This episode established the precedent of separating the executive and legislative branches in the treaty process. The former general also created executive privilege, protecting the president’s confidential military and diplomatic conversations and documents from the other two branches.

The French Revolution began during Washington’s first year, but its effects were not felt until later in his presidency. It became the defining foreign affairs issue of Washington’s presidency, and his keen assessment of American military power (or the lack thereof) forced him to maintain American neutrality during the conflict. Washington faced severe criticism from the likes of Thomas Jefferson during the early stages of the French Revolution, but time would prove the first president’s wisdom.

TAKEWAY: Being the architect of America’s victory over the British made Washington popular, but relinquishing his power made him seem immortal. Because he could be trusted with power, he made the presidency possible and established important precedents for the president even in his first year as chief executive. Washington was not simply the greatest Revolutionary War hero, but he earned the nation’s trust, a vital component to any candidate’s successful run for the highest office in the land.