President Trump will soon be leaving office; hopefully in a peaceful transfer of power to president-elect Biden. Although we may take this for granted, many people forget how special and fragile an event this is. Before World War I there were only a handful of true democracies on earth, and as recently as the 1970s only a quarter of the world’s governments were democratic. Even today more than a third of the earth’s population live under the yoke of authoritarian regimes. Roughly ten percent of all countries today have also been ruled by the same person for more than twenty years.
In fact, for most of human history and in almost all cultures, power has only been transferred through a revolution, a coup or the death of the ruler. When the United States was founded it had been almost 2000 years since Augustus Caesar toppled the dysfunctional late Roman Republic and become emperor. For two millennia, almost the entire world had been governed by kings, queens, emperors and dictators. The country’s founding generation were thus attempting a bold new experiment with the re-establishment of a large republic. When Benjamin Franklin was asked about the results of the Constitutional Convention he famously replied “A Republic – if you can keep it”. Many others at the time predicted the government’s failure followed by anarchy or tyranny. This is certainly what occurred in the subsequent French Revolution where bloody anarchy was replaced by the absolute rule of the dictator Napoleon. The promising beginnings of the Central and South American independence movements in the early 1800s also rapidly unraveled into rule by strongmen. It would be roughly 150 years before most of Latin American would become democratic. Similarly the flowering of democracy in continental Europe immediately after World War I was extinguished in many countries as fascist or communist governments gained power through the vote, but then rapidly established totalitarian regimes. A more recent example is the widespread failure of the Arab Spring to deliver democracy to the Middle East.
In the early United States the most common concern was that upon gaining power via the ballot box, the president would also refuse to leave office, clinging to power as long as possible. Fortunately the young republic was lucky to have a leader who could resist the temptations and corrupting influence of absolute power.
The voluntary abdication of power is one of George Washington’s most important contributions to our nation, but one that is also commonly overlooked. On repeated occasions, he refused to accept kingship or dictatorship when it was his for the taking. The Newburgh Conspiracy was the first great test of Washington’s willpower. In early 1783 the Revolutionary War was won and the Continental Army was soon to be disbanded. However, the officers and men who had put up with danger and deprivation for so long were likely to be sent home without the years of pay they were owed, and many faced poverty. The state governments and the Continental Congress refused to keep promises made during the dark days of the revolution and would not or could not pay. Open rebellion and civil war were likely if the army marched on the capital to demand their fair due. After Washington made it clear that he would refuse to be either a dictator or a king, the angry officers for the first time risked turning on him. At this critical moment, Washington called a meeting with the disgruntled officer corps to urge them to turn away from civil war. In front of five hundred angry men, Washington made a plea for patience and restraint. The audience was initially unmoved, until Washington, attempting to read a letter, began to search in one of his pockets. He pulled out a pair of glasses, which his men had never before seen him wear, explaining ,“Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown grey, but almost blind in the service of my country.” Many of his hardened officers, reminded of the countless sacrifices their general had made, began to weep; all thoughts of mutiny ended.
Later in 1783, with peace secured, Washington bid a tearful goodbye to his men, resigned his commission to Congress, and returned to Mount Vernon as a private citizen. The voluntary abdication of power was almost unprecedented. As King George III of Britain is reported to have said when told of Washington’s intention to give up power, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Six years later Washington was elected as the young country’s first president. Throughout his presidency Washington established many of the governing traditions and precedents that we take for granted today. During his eight years in office he walked a tightrope; balancing the need for an efficient and active central government with the need to ensure power did not become too concentrated in the hands of one man. He performed his final great act for the fragile new democracy by refusing to run for a third term as president. By retiring from office voluntarily and allowing another man to be elected, Washington laid a cornerstone of democratic government and avoided the all-too-common trap of becoming a president for life, who will only give up power by assassination, revolution, or death. Like the Roman hero Cincinnatus, Washington freely relinquished power and returned to his beloved Mount Vernon to live out his life as a simple farmer. However, after two short years of peace, Washington caught pneumonia while riding in the hail and cold rain. He passed away in 1799.