On what would have been George Washington’s 280th birthday, we celebrate his life with an excerpt from our middle school curriculum, Being an American: Exploring the Ideals That Unite Us.
George Washington wanted his presidency to be an example of moderation, just as he lived his life. On September 19, 1796, Washington gave his Farewell Address. Although the Constitution did not limit the president’s term, Washington knew that the system of checks and balances was designed to prevent abuse of power. The letter of the law did not forbid a third term, but he believed its spirit did.
The decision to step down kept with Washington’s character. Throughout his life, he worked to follow a set of strongly held values including moderation and responsibility. He was a hot-tempered person, but he moderated his actions. He always answered the call of duty – as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, and as president of the Constitutional Convention. And he always stepped down when the job was done. In fact, Washington warned against the leaders with a “love of power” and the ability to abuse it. There was no greater danger to liberty, no greater peril for a free people.
The people wanted him to stay, but he knew he could not. He was aware that as the first president, everything he did would be setting an example for all the future presidents of the United States. By resigning, he was a model of moderation. To George Washington, the preservation of the American republic was more important than personal gain.