They called it virtue. George Washington had it. It’s why they designed the office with him in mind. He wasn’t his era’s brightest politician. Neither did he wield its best military mind, having lost more battles over his career than he won. He had a violent temper, a formal stiffness and an ego as large as the new nation’s. (Abundance of ego has never been a disqualifying factor for the presidency.)
Washington wasn’t perfect, and we find his willingness to own and sell other human beings difficult to reconcile with our 21st-century sensibilities. Yet his virtue continues to shine today, reminding us of how thoroughly Trump misunderstands the office Washington forged. Regardless of further congressional or criminal investigation, Trump has been no George Washington.
Our first president risked everything for American independence, including business opportunities, cherished time with his family and a certain date with a hangman’s noose if ever captured once duty called him to command in 1775. He would not see home again for six years, nor return for another two years after that. When he did arrive home, he hoped this time it would be for good.
Duty called yet again only a few short years later, however, when the initial postwar government crumbled. “The pressure of the public voice was so loud, I could not resist the call to a convention of the states which is to determine whether we are to have a government of respectability,” Washington said in 1787.
That convention of states produced the Constitution we still abide today. Washington wished it could have been composed without him and feared the responsibility would fall upon his shoulders if he ever returned to public service. More frightening was what he feared might befall the country if he did not, and if, in his absence, “some aspiring demagogue who will not consult the interest of the country so much as his own ambitious views” took charge instead.
This willingness to put country before self is why Washington’s presence lent legitimacy to the controversial convention, why delegates immediately voted him the presiding chair and why they ultimately designed the presidency with him in mind. Put simply, they trusted him and knew he would put America first.
Not every president would. “The first man put at the helm will be a good one,” Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin assured the convention, probably nodding in Washington’s direction as he spoke. “Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.”
So delegates designed a mechanism for removing a dangerous president, one who did what Washington never would: impeachment for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
That pesky phrase, “high crimes and misdemeanors” has befuddled Americans ever since. It shouldn’t. The Constitution’s authors understood that impeachable treachery need not, in fact, be a literal crime at all, but rather a demonstration that a president’s presence harmed the body politic, the people, either through maliciousness or selfishness.
For example, any president “who has practiced corruption” to win election, a Pennsylvania delegate argued, should be impeached. So, too, in the eyes of Virginia’s James Madison, should any president who “might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression,” or any who “betray[ed] his trust to foreign powers.”
And what of a president who used his immense pardon power to conceal his guilt, perhaps by promising a pardon to subordinates he ordered to break the law? They thought of that, too. “If the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person,” who schemed against the republic, Madison argued during ratification debates, “and there be grounds to believe he [the president] will shelter him,” impeachment should follow. No one debated the point.
Trump has been accused of each of the aforementioned misdeeds. After nearly three years of investigation, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report “does not conclude that the President committed a crime,” but “it also does not exonerate him,” according to the summary by Attorney General William P. Barr. Trump’s allies claimed victory. He claimed “complete and total exoneration” and later declared, “I won.”
Pronouns reveal much, and this is where the founders would recoil. Collusion or no, Mueller’s team reinforced the presence of foreign interference in the 2016 election, a conclusion previously endorsed by the nation’s security chiefs — though not Trump. “I won,” in other words, would have revealed to Washington’s generation a man who valued his own fate over the union’s. But for Trump, Barr’s summary was a “beautiful conclusion” because it did not single him out for indictment.
He had already displayed an unwillingness to sacrifice for his country. “Why should I lose lots of opportunities” for business deals just because I ran for president, he asked when he could no longer (falsely) deny pursuit of Russian real estate in the run-up to the 2016 election. There was “nothing wrong” with seeking both personal gain and public office, he explained, and everything he did was “very cool and legal.”
And with that, he misses the presidency’s entire point, at least as the founders conceived of it. Sacrifice lay at the heart of virtue, and a leader incapable of understanding the difference could in no way be trusted with high office. One who would not sacrifice even for the chance to serve was one who could never be truly virtuous. Virtue was the “necessary spring of popular government,” Washington wrote, which is critical, in particular, for a president who must, no matter the temptations, remain “a firm guardian and protector of the public interest.”
Perhaps the ideas that drove a band of revolutionaries and nation-builders writing with quills two-plus centuries ago appear quaint in our tweet-filled age, but we study history in hopes of gleaning insight for solving modern-day problems. Such study rarely offers as clear cut an answer as this. Even before further revelations from the Mueller report, Trump has demonstrated no sense of virtue.
He lied about his business dealings when running for office. His personal trips (to Trump properties), more numerous than those of his predecessors, Democrat and Republican, cost taxpayers exorbitant sums and have placed him in insecure environments. Those properties, meanwhile, have profited from business his visits generate, or by business clearly steered to curry Trump’s favor.
He has refused to accept the conclusions of intelligence and security professionals, many of whom serve and sacrifice at great personal cost, declining even to forsake his personal cellphone or heed their red flags over his son-in-law’s evaluation for a security clearance. Trump’s presidency is a string of decisions that place him, his family and his brand above the well-being of the nation. These are things Washington never would have done. “If he was smart,” Trump reportedly remarked when visiting Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, “he’d have put his name on it.” It says a lot coming from a man who claimed that the American people were “so lucky” that he gave them the “privilege” of voting for him.
That the property is not called the Washington Plantation is all you need to know about our nation’s first president. If today’s leaders wish to hold fast to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, to genuinely “protect and defend the Constitution,” as they have all sworn, they would do well to practice a bit of virtue, too, and do their duty to remove a selfish man from its highest post, no matter the personal or political cost. The men who chose Washington would have. Mount Vernon’s owner would have, too.