Quick, now: who was the greatest president in the history of the United States?
When asked this question, nearly one-third of respondents in a new Gallup poll answered either Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. I suppose both of these guys had their good points, but there is no way you can make a strong case for either of them being the greatest president in our history.
Nor should we default to the stock answers of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt offered to us annually by surveys of professional historians, who are fascinated by wars and the “imperial presidency” which aggrandizes power to the federal government.
No, the only president for whom a compelling case can be made is our first president under the current Constitution: George Washington, the “American Cincinnatus.” Here is a man who not only played a critical role in getting the United States its independence in the first place, but who had an opportunity to become a king or dictator and turned it down.
Many of Washington’s officers urged him to seize control of the government at the close of the War of Independence. As a victorious general, his popularity was immense, and if he had the character of a Napoleon or–dare I say it–a George W. Bush or a Barack Obama, he probably would have succumbed to the temptation to become a benevolent dictator. However, Washington was never in it for personal gain. He refused these overtures and turned his authority back over to Congress in order to retire to private life at his home in Virginia.
Contemporaries dubbed him the “American Cincinnatus,” a classical reference that is meaningless to the intellectually impoverished landscape in which most 21st-century Americans reside. If you don’t know who Cincinnatus was, you can find out here.