As we approach president’s day I have been thinking about what constitutes a great president. There is little doubt that most people consider Washington and Lincoln great presidents, but Washington looms larger than any other president in history. From the very way he was inducted to the presidency to the way he left the presidency was remarkable for several reasons.
Unlike almost every president that followed him, he was the reluctant servant of the people. After his successful execution of the war for our independence he was acclaimed and was given the opportunity to claim hold of the nation as a king. He rejected that idea. Accepting a position of king would be a repudiation of all that his men fought so hard to defeat. That decision was the first, and probably the most important one. But there were many others that were of great importance too.
We have to remind ourselves that at the end of that war America was broke. We owed money to many who helped us and we were swimming in debt. I don’t know how to make the economic comparative to our present situation, but when you make the comparison of our debt and wealth potential then and now, what we are facing now may be chump change. But Washington knew that if we were going to be serious players in the world of commerce, we had better have the means of navigation, and that meant building lighthouses. It meant having serviceable harbors and those efforts would take money. Lots of it, and he made that commitment. As a result of that early groundwork we emerged as a healthy participant among trading nations.
That’s a pretty slim account, but it was indicative of an attitude that guided his stewardship. More important than any action he took while president was the fact that he resigned after two terms while still in robust health and quite capable of continuing. The example he set was the template that was followed by every other president until Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR used the slogan “don’t change horses in mid-stream.” What he did was not illegal but it broke precedent until that time. The Republican Party was smarting from losing four elections in a row and proposed term limits for the presidency as a matter of law. The Republicans in Congress under the Truman administration sent him legislation to that effect, and Truman, to his credit, signed it. That Republican Congress and Harry Truman should get some credit for some greatness too. Enjoy your holiday
— Ernie Fazio