What precedents did George Washington set and why are they significant?

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The significance of the precedents set by George Washington primarily involves the decisions he made after the Revolution had ended, during the Constitutional Convention and in his terms as Preseident. Washington declined the opportunity some had encouraged him to take regarding power. He refused to become a monarch and absolute ruler, and even declined initially to have a role in government until the necessity of his chairing the Constitutional Convention. As President, he established domestic and international precedents as well.

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Washington's establishment of precedents for the new country involved far-reaching decisions he made in the military, political, diplomatic, and social realms.

Militarily, Washington devised an overall strategy designed to defeat the British by taking a primarily defensive posture, making tactical retreats and giving up territory in order to keep his army together. He also allowed subordinate commanders the freedom to conduct battles in their own way, independently. He cooperated fully with the French commanders when the alliance was established. All of these factors were signs of a kind of self-effacement and subordination of his own ego to the overall cause of independence, and can be seen as influencing or establishing the "ideals" of the "American character."

The major precedent he set after the war was that of not seeking personal power. In 1783 Washington retired to his farm at Mt. Vernon rather than become the absolute ruler some of his officers wished him to be. In returning to a leadership position in 1787 for the Consitutional Convention he did this, again not to seek power, but because his reputation and authority were needed in establishing the federal system that would keep the new country together.

As President he established the precedent of accepting the transfer of executive power at the end of his second term. John Adams took office peacefully in 1797, with Washington retiring to Mt. Vernon a final time. In domestic politics he created an ideal, not always followed by his successors, of steering a moderate course and staying away from the extreme and even rabid partisanship that became the norm between Federalists and Democratic Republicans.

In international relations he kept the country out of the European conflict that had begun with the French Revolution in 1789 and escalated into full warfare in 1792. As is often noted, in his farewell speech he warned against "foreign entanglements," making the American ideal one of sovereignty and the wish to avoid war with other nations. He also sent John Jay to London to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain, which established a kind of reunion of the English-speaking people that is still with us today (the only real interruption being the War of 1812).

Finally, though this measure was much too little, too late, Washington freed all his enslaved people in his will. None of the other major Founders who owned slaves did this. It at least established an implicit anti-slavery position for the leadership of the country, though tragically it would not be until 66 years after Washington's death that slavery would be eliminated.

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