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As Pope Benedict XVI nears his retirement at the end of this month, questions abound as to how the Vatican—and the Roman Catholic world—will deal with the first living, former pope in more than seven hundred years. What will be done with his papal seal? (It is usually destroyed after a pope’s death.) How will he be addressed? (Aides have disagreed, one saying he will return to being known as “Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger,” whereas another says he will still be called “His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI). More broadly, what influence will the former pope exert on his successor and the Church herself? Benedict has stated his intention to live a secluded life of prayer, “hidden from the world,” in another building on Vatican grounds. Still, how the Church hierarchy and individual Catholics respond to the fact of an ex-pope remains to be seen.

On this anniversary of George Washington’s birth, it is useful to recall that the United States of America faced a similar situation in 1797, upon the completion of George Washington’s second term as president of the country. Washington would be the first ex-chief executive of the country under the newly-minted Constitution. Though not as unexpected as Benedict’s announced departure from the scene, Washington could easily have served a third term and might have served as president for life if he had chosen such a course. The reality of his stepping down was a watershed moment for the country then, as the pope’s resignation is for the Church now.

Though Americans embraced the republican tenet of the necessity of rotation in office and were indeed already getting used to the presence of former chief executives at the state level, the case of Washington’s departure was quite different. This was no mere stepping down of a Roman consul of the old Republic. Both the office of the American presidency and the first man to occupy it possessed an air of regality. In fact, upon Washington’s election to the presidency in 1788, those with monarchical leanings, such as Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, pushed to give the new chief executive a regal title. Hamilton favored “His Excellency,” whereas Adams put forward the ungainly “His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of Same.” Others suggested “His Elective Highness” or “His Exalted High Mightiness.” Though the Senate and Washington finally agreed on “Mister President” (Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette would still employ “His Excellency”), Washington was the one man in the country who possessed such an innate dignity and royal bearing that he needed no kingly titles to prop him up.

Even before he assumed the presidency, Washington was widely considered one of the greatest men of his age. Among Americans, he was already being called the father of his country (“you will become the father to more than three millions of children,” Hamilton had told him in urging him to accept the presidency), and King George III had famously declared him “the greatest character of the age” when he laid down his sword in 1783. He was trusted by Americans like no other public figure before or since. Historian Forrest McDonald has argued that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention would never have invested the presidency with such powers as it did if not for the fact that they believed that Washington would serve as the country’s first chief executive.

Washington knew, as does Pope Benedict, that he was setting a modern precedent by voluntarily relinquishing power and that his actions after leaving office would have a great effect on the future of the people he had led. Like Benedict, Washington expressed his desire to retire, in the Virginian’s case to his plantation home of Mount Vernon. He had done this before, of course, resigning his commission in 1783 after the Revolutionary War to return, a la Cincinnatus, to the simple life of the farmer.  In that case, his retirement had not lasted long, as Mount Vernon soon became a hub for discussion about amending the Articles of Confederation. In 1787, Washington was on his way to Philadelphia to preside over the famous convention in the state house.

Washington truly hoped for quiet after his second retirement. Upon returning to Virginia, he wrote that he looked forward to having dinner alone with Martha for the first time in twenty years and hoped that he would never “be more than 25 miles from Mount Vernon again.” He was determined to stay out of politics and not infringe on the authority of his successor, John Adams. Indeed, Washington had tried to stay above the political infighting that had increasingly plagued his presidential administration, but by the end of his second term his Federalist sympathies were well-known.

The actions of Washington’s former Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, did much to push Washington into the Federalist camp. While paying him compliments in public, Jefferson had vilified President Washington in private. “It would give you a fever were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies,” Jefferson wrote to his Florentine friend, Phillip Mazzei, in 1796 in a clear reference to Washington, “men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England.” Jefferson’s back-stabbing of his fellow Virginian continued into Washington’s retirement. One can only imagine what Washington, whose outbursts of temper had been said to shake the leaves of nearby trees, said in private about Jefferson. What is known is that Martha judged Jefferson “one of the most detestable of mankind” and referred to his 1801 visit to Mount Vernon as, “next to the loss of her husband . . . the most painful occurrence of her life.”

Washington in retirement was genuinely troubled by the Jeffersonians’ coziness with Revolutionary France, and he distrusted the pro-French Democratic-Republican societies that had sprouted up across the country with encouragement from the Sage of Monticello. So alarmed was Washington that he opined that the Alien and Sedition Acts had not gone far enough in quelling what he saw as the subversive speech and action of American Francophiles. The supposedly retired president soon found himself corresponding with members of Jefferson’s cabinet on political matters and encouraging Federalist candidates to run for Congress.

Washington was given one last chance to grasp at power when once again circumstances beckoned. With the XYZ Affair of 1798, relations between the United States and France reached their nadir. President Adams nominated, and the Senate confirmed, Washington as the head of the American New Army, which was to be formed in case of full-scale conflict with the French. Washington, violating his resolve not to travel far from Mount Vernon, rode to Philadelphia. But the crisis passed, and Washington came home, dying some fifteen months later in his bed.

Upon Washington’s election to the presidency in 1788, James McHenry of Maryland wrote Washington that he was “now a king, under a different name,” and though Washington surely chafed at the remark, McHenry was not alone among his countrymen in wishing Washington to be just that. Though he found himself unable to remain entirely aloof from politics in his retirement, Washington rejected the idea of running for a third term and did not leverage the crisis with France and his final military appointment as a means of self-aggrandizement. The “greatest character of the age,” rejecting the role of Caesar, remained a contented Cincinnatus.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore where  books on George Washington may also be found in the American Founding category (see The Presidency of George Washington and George Washington: Collected Writings).

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5 replies to this post
  1. Thanks for this fascinating piece. I had no idea of Jefferson’s views on Washington.

    Just for grins, a few years back Afghan president Hamid Karzai referred to (the then-still living) former king Zahir Shah as “the grandfather of his country.” Afghan friends who knew of the monarch’s youthful hijinks said that Karzai might be literally correct.

  2. These are all worthwhile comparrisons. One cannot help but be sad, however, given the practical impossibility of a Washington arising to political prominence in modern times. Is the lesson here that democratic means do not produce any kind of nobility? Why was Bennedict XVI the greatest European statesman since Thatcher? Why have the democracies become systemically incapable of electing citizens of excellence, and only a monarchical theocracy gets the job done? Sad days for republicans…

    • If Benedict established a precedent, it is far from a binding precedent. We may see a few more Popes resign over the next century, but my guess is that most will still serve for the remainder of their lives.

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