George Washington and the Origins of the American Presidency

By Mark J. Rozell; William D. Pederson et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 8

George Washington and the Press

CAROL SUE HUMPHREY

Retire immediately; let no flatterer persuade you to rest one hour longer at the helm of state. You are utterly incapable to steer the political ship into the harbour of safety. If you have any love for your country, leave its affairs to the wisdom of your fellow citizens; do not flatter yourself with the idea that you know their interests better than other men; there are thousands amongst them who equal you in capacity, and who excel you in knowledge.

Such was the advice given by a newspaper writer to the president of the United States. Though it sounds as if it might be a recommendation given to several twentieth-century officeholders, it is actually the comments that ‘‘Scipio’’ directed to George Washington in 1795. 1 The tension between the press and public officials that seems so obvious and almost overwhelming today actually began almost as soon as the United States came into existence and has continued ever since. Even the ‘‘Father of His Country,’’ George Washington, faced a variety of media criticisms while holding the nation’s highest office.

Throughout his adult life, George Washington had interactions with the press. As a Virginia planter, he used local newspapers to advertise for horses and jackasses for sale or for use as stud animals. As Commander in Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, he feared the media gave too much military information to the British, but he still encouraged the use of newspapers in order to boost American morale. As president, he perceived the importance of the press in keeping the people informed, but he also became increasingly upset over media attacks aimed at him person-

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