George Washington. By: Gilbert Stuart.

At the time of George Washington’s presidency, the role, image, and traditions surrounding the executive office was unclear. It was a new concept entirely, particularly in light of the numerous, well-established monarchies of Europe. In fact, during this time, Poland had an elected monarchy.

For clarity as to the role of the president, many Americans looked to the monarchs of Europe, demanding that the presidency must carry with it a level of regality, tradition, and pomp that was intended to invoke honor and dignity. However much Americans wished to dispose of the monarchical system and replace it with a republic, Americans had little guidance outside of Europe for how a leader should conduct himself or herself.

Many of the traditions first established during Washington’s presidency, such as formal dinners with the powder-haired president where no individual was permitted to speak, have fallen by the wayside in the past two centuries. This is despite the power of the president consistently growing since the days of Washington. However, it seems that Americans now would not tolerate a stiff, overly dignified president who appears to be far superior to the common person. Why is that? Perhaps it’s American pragmatism? Or a collective fear of having a Messianic leader?

Probably a little bit of both. Underlying much of the American sentiment, now and then, is the fear that the republic will slowly become either an empire or a kingdom, in the way that Rome did. These fears underlie the American pragmatism and create a collective feeling that any person with too much power, and any government with too much power, is undesirable.

It is safe to say that Americans have always been keen to avoid both the English and Roman ways of declining in power. Avoiding monarchy, while still flirting with its decorum, characterized the early years of the American republic. Now, it is all but forgotten.

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