Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

George Washington and the Limits of Leadership

Sometimes, greatness resides not in what you do but in what you don’t do.
George Washington and the Limits of Leadership
Detail from a version of Gilbert Stuart’s ‘Lansdowne Portrait’ of George Washington. (VCG Wilson / Corbis / Getty)

Editor’s Note: George Washington was a man of action—yet some of his greatest deeds on the battlefield and in politics involved decisions to not act or to delay action. To mark his birthday in 2021, we asked writers and historians to discuss this aspect of his leadership.

Leading by Not Overreacting to Rivals

The fall of 1777 was not a good time to be General George Washington. His losses at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown led to the fall of Philadelphia and sent the Continental Congress on the run. Meanwhile, Washington’s rival General Horatio Gates was hailed the “Northern Hero” for his victory at the Battle of Saratoga.

With Washington encamped with his army at Valley Forge for the winter, various officers, politicians, and writers in the press attempted to remove the commander-in-chief. In a loose collection of self-interested scheming—what came to be called the “Conway Cabal”—General Thomas Conway pushed for the victorious Gates to take over from Washington. Congress, seemingly in support, quickly promoted Conway and even gave him an independent position with supervisory powers over his own commander. Still Washington, at one of the lowest points of the war and his life, chose to take no direct action. He simply stood firm, supported civilian supremacy, and pledged to “always afford every Countenance & due respect to those appointed by Congress.” Before long the cabal, whether real or imagined, dissolved as the behind-the-scenes maneuvering was exposed—and Washington’s command was reaffirmed.

Leading through inaction is an underrated skill. It is even more notable when performed from a position of weakness and with the risk of great personal sacrifice.

—Craig Bruce Smith is the author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era.

Leading by Not Acting Beyond His Authority

As a military commander, George Washington deferred to the Continental Congress. Even when he knew Congress was wrong, he let the people’s delegates have the last word. By being deferential rather than assertive, Washington cemented the principle of military subordination to civilian authority as the cornerstone of the American military.

Washington was no pushover, however. He complained to Congress all the time about his army’s threadbare clothes and weevil-ridden bread, their lack of pay and their evil-smelling whiskey, their sinking morale and their imminent disintegration. But he spoke confidentially and used the proper chain of command, reminding Congress that he and the army understood their role in a republic.

As president, Washington was more muscular vis-à-vis Congress, because the executive branch was equal to the legislature. For example, Washington set a course for presidential leadership in foreign affairs by making a mistake: He once visited the Senate seeking advice on a treaty, but he found the body’s deliberative ways so frustrating he vowed never to return. The Senate effectively saw its “advice and consent” role shrunk to consent only.

As the modern presidency has become ever more imperial, we should ask our leaders to relearn what Washington knew: when to be assertive toward other levels and branches of government and when to defer to them.

David Head is the author of A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution.

Leading by Not Lashing Out at Critics

George Washington’s refusal to engage his critics set the precedent for expected presidential behavior and demonstrated leadership through inaction. Washington held a deep conviction that the president was supposed to comport himself with dignity and reserve, which required ignoring the insults, lies, and criticism of his administration printed daily in opposition newspapers.

Of course he noticed the articles, and of course they bothered him. Washington regularly complained in cabinet meetings about the printers and editors who delivered three copies of their papers to his doorstep every day just to irk him. But Washington never published replies in loyal newspapers and when he did acknowledge opposition forces in his public addresses, he refused to single out specific critics. It was beneath the office of the president to pick a fight with an individual and Washington knew it was inappropriate to use the power and prestige of the office to retaliate.

Most presidents have followed this example, refusing to provide a greater platform to their critics by acknowledging their attacks or by punching down on an average citizen who does not have the power of the federal government at their back.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.

Leading by Not Prematurely Picking Sides

The defining European crisis of the 1790s, the French Revolution, became a major political crisis in the young United States, too—widening the crevasse between the parties that were forming around two of George Washington’s cabinet officers. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, very different of temperament and with conflicting visions for the nation’s future, clashed in a titanic struggle, albeit one often fought by proxies in politics and in the press.

Jefferson had been in Paris during the French Revolution’s earliest days, serving as the American ambassador. An ardent Francophile, he believed that the subsequent revolutionary convulsions were a sequel to the American Revolution. France had been America’s great ally in the war for liberty; now she would see her own victories for liberty. “Rather than it should have failed, I should have seen half the earth desolated,” he wrote in 1793.

Hamilton vehemently disagreed—especially after the outbreak in 1793 of war between France and Great Britain. He would later call revolutionary France a “prodigy of human wickedness and folly,” a “frightful . . . volcano of atheism, depravity and absurdity,” a “hateful . . . instrument of cruelty and bloodshed,” and worse.

The proclamation about the European situation that President Washington issued in April 1793—a landmark document in the history of U.S. foreign policy—is a fine example of his decision-making. He listened to long, intensive fights between his secretaries of state and the treasury. (Looking back on this period, Jefferson would recall that “Hamilton & myself were daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks.”) Washington sided with Hamilton on the overall question by issuing the proclamation declining to embrace France. But Washington also sided with Jefferson in eschewing the word “neutrality” and in agreeing to welcome the new (and soon to be quite troublesome) ambassador from France. Rather than side wholly with either man or his faction, Washington led by listening to both and weighing their ideas against what was best for his fledgling country.

Noemie Emery is the author of Washington: A Biography.