It’s inauguration day in the United States, and while there’s much wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding the man who will take office today, I prefer to believe that the presidency has an ennobling effect upon those who ascend to the office.
Certainly, the aura connected with the presidency, with its corps of staff and aides providing assistance, has great potential to provide a stabilizing influence on those elevated to the Oval Office.
The position can bestow a solemnity on even the most political of beings, given the gravity and history connected to the office.
If the United States has an unusual place in the world, it’s due in part to its tradition of peaceful transition of power. Consider that even some of the world’s smallest nations, such as Gambia and Equatorial Guinea, are despotic tyrannies where leaders refuse to let loose of power.
From the start, the US has followed a protocol in which opposing parties have handed off power without incident, even when election results didn’t go the way the majority of voters had wanted.
That is due in no small part to George Washington, the US’s first president and one of the history’s most remarkable individuals.
Washington, who took office in 1789, remains the only man to receive 100 percent of the electoral votes cast under the US system.
His accomplishments were legion even before he became the first chief executive.
Against almost unfathomable odds, he led a rag-tag collection of volunteers and state militia troops to victory over the then-greatest military force on the planet, enabling the Thirteen Colonies to secure their independence from Great Britain.
He also presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and his support convinced many states to vote for ratification.
As president, Washington avoided the temptation of war. His farewell address has been cited as a primer on republican virtue and as a warning against partisanship, sectionalism and involvement in foreign entanglements.
He reluctantly began a second term in office in 1793 but afterward retired to Mount Vernon, Va.
Few men, given the opportunity to hold office for life, as he was, would be able to walk away in the manner of Washington.
Washington did it twice, first after the American Revolution and again after his second term as president.
That didn’t escape the notice of British monarch King George III. Following the end of the American Revolution in 1783, George asked painter Benjamin West what Washington would do next and was told of rumors that he’d return to his farm.
The king responded by stating, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
There has been no other president like Washington and there never will be. But Washington set a standard for the office which all who follow in his steps would do well to attempt to emulate.
(George Washington being sworn in as the US’s first president in 1789 in New York City.)