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My daughter asked me who would have been first president under the Constitution, if not Washington. I had no good answer.

Can you please help?

Thank you,

R. Lorio

? ? ?

Dear Mr. Lorio,

It is anyone’s guess who among the extraordinary collection of intellectual and political talent who contributed to the independence of the United States could have been as qualified as George Washington to be the first president had he, say, died of disease or an arbitrary shot during a minor action in 1782. Most editors working on the history magazines here believe that Thomas Jefferson would have had the most qualifications, falling short only in military record (when Brigadier Benedict Arnold invaded Virginia in 1781, Governor Jefferson was utterly caught by surprise and could do nothing but flee Richmond for Charlottesville, barely a step ahead of British cavalry troopers).

He did have an exceptional talent for getting along with others, however—even the abrasive John Adams, until later, when they were vying for the presidency. John Jay had a lot going for him when it came to intellect, diplomacy and principles, but he was unable even to win the governorship of New York, let alone the United States.

Jefferson would, then, seem the most likely backup for the time, but the bottom line to the Revolution and its aftermath is that the United States was extraordinarily lucky to have had the people it had in the roles that they actually played—a remarkable number of them seemed to be the right one at the right place at the right time. And that included Washington, who made up for his lack of political acumen or experience with integrity and a good general’s judgment on when, how and how much to take action.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History

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