The Big Question: Emily Bobrow argues that George Washington, America's first president, had just enough impostor anxiety...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012

Who was the best president? That we can even ask the question is thanks to George Washington (1st president, 1789–97) who shaped the role with his own battle-hewn hands. Elected unanimously, he assumed the job reluctantly and batted away efforts to make him a king. His humility ensured the institution was built to last. 

It would have been easy for the first boss of a new government to have grown tipsy with power. Before Washington, the world's leaders were all bejewelled monarchs or medal-encrusted generals. But after years of fighting against hunger and defeat as a revolutionary hero on the battlefield, Washington was not seduced by pomp. He rejected an array of flowery titles ("His Highness", "His Exalted High Mightiness"), preferring the simplicity of "Mr President". He accepted his inauguration wearing a simple brown suit. 

Washington was tall, brave and impressive-looking (despite some lifelong angst over terrible denture-work), yet his "colloquial talents were not above mediocrity," as Thomas Jefferson put it. He had sound instincts on the battlefield, but little in the way of formal education. This was ultimately a good thing, as it left him with just enough impostor anxiety to be wary of too much public attention. Not only did he not drone on at the lectern, but he swiftly appointed an ideologically balanced cabinet of advisers, including Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Mindful of precedent, he personally ensured his executive power was checked by the legislative and judicial branches of government. 

After decades of public service, Washington pined for a quiet life at home in Virginia, and hoped to retire after one four-year term in office. He succumbed to a second in the interests of national unity, but was then glad to hand over the reins to his elected successor, John Adams. His farewell address in 1796 warned his fellow citizens against the rise of polarising party politics and "the baneful spirit of faction". He died several years later, unaware of just how polarised his country would become.  

Few American children are spared some malarkey about a young George Washington who "cannot tell a lie" (which meant he sang like a canary over chopping down a cherry tree). These tales were largely invented to explain Washington's integrity as an adult. America's first president was not a witty intellectual or a scintillating orator, but he was uniquely honourable at a vulnerable time for the nascent republic. It seems fitting that his purse-lipped visage graces the dollar bill—the humblest and most essential note of them all.

Who do you think was the best president? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read David Thomson on Franklin D. Roosevelt, David Rennie on Thomas Jefferson, Jesse Norman on Abraham LincolnChristopher Lockwood on Theodore Roosevelt and Anne McElvoy on Bill Clinton

Emily Bobrow is The Economist's online books and arts editor