A tale of two Georges - and two takes on patronage
The "eyes of Argus are upon me," wrote George Washington, alluding to the mythological Greek giant with 100 eyes. The president was painfully sensitive about making appointments to the federal government and how they might appear to others. How different from another George - George W. Bush - who, it was disclosed this month, has decided to give bonuses of up to $10,000 to political appointees while setting pay raises for career civil servant below the level Congress was seeking.
Patronage was a thorny issue for George Washington, too. It was the one area of his executive responsibilities that he disliked the most. "I alone am responsible for a proper nomination," he wrote.
It was an unpleasant, onerous task; office seekers were always knocking on his door. Thomas Jefferson had to advise people not to importune the president: "To overdo a thing with him is to undo it."
But Washington had set up strict guidelines for himself, underscoring his intention to act only with regard to the "public good," refusing any consideration of "blood or friendship."
He wanted his appointees to be educated men who were respected in their communities and who were also supporters of the Constitution. If his administration was not yet a meritocracy, it was not, in Washington's mind, filled with political appointees. On the contrary, he often repeated that his aim as president was to "overlook all personal, local and partial considerations."
Under the eyes of Argus, Washington shunned favoritism and nepotism. Especially because others might be jealous of appointments that were "honorary and lucrative," he could not risk taking any unpopular measures. When his nephew Bushrod Washington asked his uncle for the position of United States district attorney for Virginia, Washington tactfully declined, explaining that the young man had neither the experience nor the standing "of some of the oldest and most esteemed General Court lawyers in your own State, who are desirous of this appointment."
Unlike the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Robert Walpole - who, in the mid-18th century, cynically wailed, "Have I acted wrong in giving the place of auditor to my son, and in providing for my own family?" - the first American president was determined to be "exceedingly circumspect."
Washington's unimpeachable integrity is not the product of two centuries of mythmaking. It was as real as he was. Even the leader of the opposition recognized it. "The President," wrote James Madison, "was the last man in the world to whom any measure whatever of a deceptive tendency could be credibly attributed." Washington understood that it was his own character, as well as the Constitution, that buttressed the fragile nation in the early 1790s. Through him, people developed respect and affection for their new federal government.
Washington's character issued not from words - at which he was not particularly skilled or eloquent - but from deeds. "With me," he wrote, "it has always been a maxim, rather to let my designs appear from my works than by my expressions."
The gift that Washington offered to Americans was the gift of character. But 200 years ago, people expected nothing less of the first George.
• Susan Dunn is coauthor, with James MacGregor Burns, of the forthcoming 'George Washington.'