Acton Institute Powerblog

Why is George Washington the Greatest President?

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1776 wshSometimes I recoil a little when somebody declares that there can be an American president greater than George Washington. Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee declared Washington, “First in the hearts of his countrymen.” Washington is great for many things, but perhaps he is greatest for the manner in which he surrendered power not once but twice.

One of the best recent commentaries written on Washington is David Boaz’s, “The Man Who Would Not Be King.” In the piece from 2006, Boaz wonderfully sums up the depth of Washington’s immense character and what that means for liberty and America. The entire commentary is worth reading but the conclusion is especially poignant:

From his republican values Washington derived his abhorrence of kingship, even for himself. The writer Garry Wills called him “a virtuoso of resignations.” He gave up power not once but twice – at the end of the revolutionary war, when he resigned his military commission and returned to Mount Vernon, and again at the end of his second term as president, when he refused entreaties to seek a third term. In doing so, he set a standard for American presidents that lasted until the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose taste for power was stronger than the 150 years of precedent set by Washington.

Give the last word to Washington’s great adversary, King George III. The king asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”

“If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Washington’s moral model of leadership is timeless. In everything he said and did, he affirmed the spirit of the American Revolution. His fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson noted, Washington would “rather be in his grave than in his present situation [the presidency]; that he had rather be on his farm than to be made Emperor of the world.” All Americans should study Washington because he is the embodiment the principles of liberty. His peers would all argue and did, that in America there was no leader who possessed greater virtue. Charles Francis Adams, the son of President John Quincy Adams, declared of Washington:

More than all, and above all, Washington was master of himself. If there be one quality more than another in his character which may exercise a useful control over the men of the present hour, it is the total disregard of self when in the most elevated positions for influence and example.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.


  • Really

    Can you add a little more info like what he did for rest of his life.

    • RayNothstine

      I would recommend reading “Washington’s Crossing” by David Hackett Fischer or the single volume of Thomas Flexner’s bio of Washington titled “The Indispensable Man.”

  • JJ truth

    First off, George Washington belonged to the now extinct “Whig Party” he was never a republican. Secondly how he surrendered his power is irrelevant when the constitution limited terms to prevent any president remaining in office for life thus preventing a monarchy. As to the writer’s claim of Washington as the so called “embodiment of the principles of liberty” rings hollow since the Spirit of truth has revealed its knowledge of Washington. Time tells no lies and truth is absolute its exposed Washington. A man who sought to keep other human beings in chains without liberty reduced to the status of cattle and crushed in mind, body, heart & hope. God has already revealed Washington’s place in history a hypocrite. Laud him for helping to form a new nation but not as the embodiment of liberty. Jesus Christ is the true “embodiment of liberty” and indeed there was no hypocrisy, greed, selfishness or cruelty in him. Christ is sparkling in character word and deed who needs Washington when one has Jesus Christ? Washington was a very flawed man.

    • RayNothstine

      Washington did not belong to a party, he was sympathetic to the spirit of “Federalism,” which mirrors many of the traits of the “Federalist Party.” The meaning of “republican” in the post is not about the Republican Party at all, which didn’t exist in his day. It has to do with a form of free government that is not a monarch but it set up to protect rights. I think it’s clear you missed the entire meaning of the rest of the post as well.

    • Roger McKinney

      Jesus was never President of the US, so he can never be the greatest President. Term limits for the Presidency didn’t happen until FDR was elected to four terms. That alone disqualifies FDR as even an average president. Washington voluntarily stepped down when most Americans wanted him to run again. He set the two-term tradition, which every president until FDR followed voluntarily out of respect for Washington. FDR was so arrogant he thought no tradition or limits applied to him.

      Washington was without a doubt the greatest president because he created the institutions of government that would allow it to do its job and leave Americans the freest people on the planet. Most successor presidents have done nothing more than destroy freedom.

    • steve

      It’s amazing how you narrow minded people “of faith” invoke your “lord” in any discussion, like a knee-jerk reflex. Jesus wasn’t flawed? He cavorted with a prostitute; if you think he just had her wash his feet, keep dreaming.

      • Steve, can you produce evidence to back up your claim re’ Jesus? And by the way, the discussion here was about George Washington, not Jesus.

      • Joseph

        I like to see other people standing up for our faith in jesus, thank you

    • A Reader

      Jesus was never President of the US and may have been a myth to aid man in his daily choices of good and evil.

      • JJ truth

        Jesus a myth? Clearly you don’t travel. Go to Rome get an interpreter to read the ancient Roman historical accounts of Tacitus, Pliny the Younger. They wrote about Jesus the man. Visit the Vatican too they also have documents. Jesus did walk the earth.

        • A Reader

          He was most certainly a man, but that is not the myth part I made reference to. Remember some myths have a spark of truth in them and what he stood for is worthy of following.

    • Gazzara5

      Even before the Constitution was written and passed, he refused to become dictator. If Franklin Roosevelt could win and serve 4 terms, Washington could have too.

    • Anonymous

      JJ Truth, here it is clearly speaking of only Washington. It is not comparing him to your belief of Jesus Christ. In your opinion, Jesus Christ may be the true “embodiment of liberty”, but to those who don’t contain your equal beliefs, your words are simply what they seem and are: Opinion.

    • layne

      the amendment that limited terms was not in law yet he served two, the people wanted him to serve more but he said no. he wanted to be at home on his farm with his family, not in law. they wanted him to be there for the Virginia plan, he didnt want to be there but Jefferson talked him into it.

  • Russ Hamilton

    JJ you think that the Constitution in its infancy could have withstood a power grab from someone as popular as Washington ? Yes Washington was flawed but he is a far better role model for men, who are all flawed, that someone allegedly perfect, which is a state of being we can never attain….

  • Rick Hearn

    I agree. It is a shame that his vision for plurality and acts of self-sacrifice are not more recognized. What king today is willing to step aside for the establishment of democracy?

    To blame him for not single-handedly ending slavery seems quite excessive. And to criticize him for owning slaves may be a judgment out of time. If he had freed his slaves, then what? Would they have been out of work? Or would they have been enslaved by someone else? If that were true, then the most humane thing to do would be to keep them, but treat them well, wouldn’t it? He did not have had the ability to grant them legal equality.

    Also, do not forget that the office of President was not an imperial, dictatorial one like it has become in the years following FDR. The founders feared kings, and at first did not even want a president at all.

  • Obi Gen

    The true embodiment of freedom, how could we mere weak minded mortals ever be able to ever to achieve, much less understand a man such as this who is a master of not only of this country, but also the power that was given to him by a new nation.

    I often sit here, ponder what kind of man would give up so much for the life of a farmer? Surely a man such as this suffers from some sort of mental illness, how can someone pass up a kingship? Surely if we declared him the “Emperor” of the world he would take it….perhaps not….

    Maybe, we are are looking all the wrong places. What is a man for not what he thinks? Washington above all else was a master of himself and perhaps that truly what matters….

    if we cannot confront ourselves then how could we possibly expect to face the world

    Washington is the greatness, perhaps it would be a even greater injustice to even place him on any kind of level with any president, the man deserves a place higher then any standards because he was “extraordinary”. A man that can denies the temptations of the flesh is not man, but a pinnacle of hope in our dark world.

  • Gazzara5

    He could have been our king for life, but he voluntarily gave up power. There have been five great revolutions: English, American, French, South American, and Russian. Only the leader of the American Revolution, Washington, gave up power of his own volition. All the others died in office or were overthrown and/or killed. Most historians list Lincoln as the greatest American president, but I disagree. I say it was George Washington, the American Cincinnatus. What did I say wrong?

  • Gazzara5

    Of all the leaders of the five great revolutions of modern history, only he voluntarily gave up power. If nothing else, that alone made him “the greatest man in the world.”

  • Jack Daniels

    He was the best because he was an independent. No corruption from the bought and sold (by the same companies and special interests) duopoly we have today. Screw the Republican and Democratic parties.