This Day in History: George Washington tries (and fails) to retire from the presidency
On this day in 1792, George Washington writes to James Madison. His first term was coming to a close, and he wanted to retire from public life. He asked Madison to draft a “plain & modest” farewell address.
Apparently, Washington was pretty miserable. He had spent his entire life in public service, and he simply did not want to be President anymore.
“Nothing short of conviction,” he wrote Madison, “that my deriliction of the Chair of Government (if it should be the desire of the people to continue me in it) would involve the Country in serious disputes respecting the chief Magestrate . . . could, in any wise, induce me to relinquish the determination I have formed [of retiring].”
Madison’s recollection of that period was that Washington was pretty tired of his situation. The President, Madison wrote, “could not believe or conceive himself anywise necessary to the successful administration of the Government . . . he found himself also in the decline of life, his health becoming sensibly more infirm, & perhaps his faculties also; that the fatigues & disagreeableness of his situation were in fact scarcely tolerabl[e] to him.”
You may already have figured out that Washington’s wishes were not to be fulfilled. He wanted to retire, but the people would not let him go. Amazingly, Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton were all in agreement on this point. And it seemed they rarely agreed on anything in those days!
“North & South will hang together, if they have you to hang on,” Jefferson wrote. He told Washington that he was the “only man in the U.S. who possessed the confidence of the whole, . . . and that the longer he remained, the stronger would become the habits of the people in submitting to the government & in thinking it a thing to be maintained.”
Madison agreed that Washington’s retirement would result in a “surprize and shock to the public mind.” Hamilton believed that Washington’s retirement would be “deplored as the greatest evil, that could befall the country at the present juncture, and as critically hazardous to your own reputation.”
Washington could not have been happy to receive this advice from three of his trusted advisors! In the end, he was not able to retire. Instead, he was reelected to another four-year term.
Once again, Washington bowed to the demands of his country.
For more on this topic, please check out the book that I co-authored with Joseph C. Smith, Jr.: