Why did George Washington give up his government salary when he became president in 1789?
Avoiding even the appearance of corruption, he didn’t want to seem to be beholden to anyone for his income, including Congress that appropriated his salary. Washington also sought to reassure Americans that the United States government was not going to be corrupt under his administration. He had a worthy partner on the same wavelength in Vice President John Adams.
President Washington knew that one of main problems Americans had faced in the lead up to the American Revolution was corruption. They had witnessed their colonial governments corrupted by the king’s money. Prior to King George II’s implementation of new laws, their colonial legislative bodies had paid the salaries of their colonial governors.
Then King George III made the governors dependent on him for their salary. Hence, the colonial governors owed their sole allegiance to King George III, not to the people. Under this corrupted government system, the people could not hold their governors accountable.
“What opportunities then shall we in this province have to demand and obtain the redress of grievances, if our governors and judges and other officers and magistrates are to be supported by the ministry, without the gifts of the people,”[i] John Adams had written in 1772.
“The independency of the governor, his salary granted by the crown, out of a revenue extorted from this people… The instruction to the governor, not to consent to any tax bill unless certain crown officers are exempted,”[ii] he’d written, noting that the people had no ability to stop this power because they were not represented in Parliament. The problem had worsened when the king dissolved the General Court, which had been the colonial governing body of Massachusetts, and had replaced the governor with a military general, who’s implemented martial law.
Judges had also become dependent on the crown for their salaries, which had motivated them to rule against the colonists. In customs courts, judges had heard cases where defendants, such as ship owners, were accused of smuggling. If the defendants lost, their confiscated cargo or ships were sold. The system was corrupted when judges received a cut of these sales or were bribed.
“Is not the natural and necessary tendency of these innovations, to introduce dark Intrigues, insincerity, simulation, bribery and perjury, among custom house officers, merchants, masters, mariners and their servants?”[iii] Adams had observed about this judicial corruption.
Adams had a strong grasp of human nature. He clearly understood that when the world seems upside down, corruption is often the culprit.
“But when a government becomes totally corrupted, the system of God Almighty in the government of the world and the rules of all good government upon earth will be reversed. … Virtue, integrity and ability will become the objects of the malice, hatred and revenge of the men in power … In such times you will see a governor … whose welfare he was under every moral obligation to study and promote, ruin and destroy the people.” [iv]
Adams understood that corruption could also happen to society’s humanitarians, such as physicians and preachers.
“… You will see a philanthrop(ist)—for propagating as many lies and slanders against his country as ever fell from the pen of a sycophant—rewarded … The consequence of this will be that the iron rod of power will be stretched out vs. the poor people …”[v]
He believed that the corruption and despotism they had faced in the Revolutionary War had come from a combination of the king and aristocracy scheming together to crush them.
Also witnessing corruption and understanding the temptations of humanity, Washington knew that Benedict Arnold had first been corrupted while serving as a military governor of Philadelphia before he committed treason against America. Arnold showed that financial corruption was a continuum of behavior that could lead to increasingly damaging or dangerous crimes.
Prior to his election as president, Washington had written the Marquis de Lafayette in 1788 about the new Constitution and how to protect America against corruption. Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette believed the Constitution should limit the number of years a president could serve to lesson the potential for corruption.
Washington shared Lafayette’s and Jefferson’s concerns about what would happen if a president were to become corrupt, especially from foreign actors. Washington believed that a president who was under “bribery and undue influence”[vi] would be “in the last stage of corrupted morals and political depravity.”[vii]
Washington disagreed with their solution because he knew that a president could be corrupted prior to taking office or during office. Leading by example, he stepped down from office after two terms despite predictions by newspaper editors that he would serve 20 years or until he died in office.
His example lasted until President Franklin Roosevelt exceeded two terms when he won a third term in 1940 and a fourth in 1944. The American people responded in 1951 when they ratified the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution to confine a president’s terms.
They knew that all types of government could be corrupted. “Liberty, under every conceivable form of government is always in danger. It is so even under a simple, or perfect democracy, more so under a mixed government, like the republic of Rome, and still more so under a limited monarchy.”[viii]
Why was liberty under threat no matter the form of government? Because ambition lures all humans no matter the era. “Ambition is one of the more ungovernable passions of the human heart. The love of power, is insatiable and uncontrollable … There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government, ought to be to trust no man living, with power to endanger the public liberty. … Be upon your guard then, my countrymen.”[ix]
Both Washington and Adams knew that because of ambition, other systems could be corrupted. Washington was concerned that political parties could lead to a “spirit of revenge … and mischief”[x] and lead to “frightful despotism.”[xi] He warned Americans that political parties could lead to unnecessary “jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.”[xii]
Adams also feared cultural corruption. “As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved. This can be brought to pass only by debasing their understandings, or by corrupting their hearts.”[xiii]
What did he mean by knowledge being diffused? He meant education and newspapers. As long as Americans were being educated in how to think critically to discover truth and sort fact from fiction and as long as they received accurate, truth information about their government and world from newspapers, their understanding could not be debased.
Antidote to Corruption
What were their solutions to corruption? Power sharing. The founders created the three equal branches of the federal government (executive, legislative and judicial) and the three levels of government (federal, state and local) to minimize the potential for corruption by diffusing government power. “Liberty depends upon an exact balance, a nice counterpoise of all the powers of the state,”[xiv] Adams declared.
Integrity would also have to be a priority of both leaders and the people for America to survive.
“I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy,”[xv] Washington explained in his Farewell Address of his hope that future administrations would govern America with integrity. The people would have to hold their government officials, newspaper publishers, educators and others accountable.
“The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people,”[xvi] Adams declared.
Adams warned that a statesman can “scatter ruin and destruction in his path who by deceiving a nation can render despotism desirable in their eyes and make himself popular in undoing.”[xvii]
In addition to integrity, courage was a bulwark against tyranny, the end result of corruption. “But this is an unalterable truth, that the people can never be enslaved but by their own tameness, pusillanimity, sloth or corruption.”[xviii]
While not seeking to prescribe religion and supporting the First Amendment, Adams nonetheless believed that “religion and virtue are the only foundations; not only of republicanism and of all free government: but of social felicity under all governments and in all the combinations of human society.”[xix]
[i] John Adams, Notes for an Oration at Braintree, Spring 1772, Founders Online, accessed Feb. 7, 2022, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-02-02-0002-0002-0001.
[iv] John Adams, Draft of a Newspaper Communication, August? 1770, Founders Online, accessed Feb. 23, 2022, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-01-02-0014-0005-0005.
[vi] George Washington, Letter to Lafayette, April 28th to May 1, 1788, Founders Online, accessed Feb. 7, 2022, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-06-02-0211.
[vii] John Adams, Draft of a Newspaper Communication, August? 1770, Founders Online, accessed Feb. 23, 2022, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-01-02-0014-0005-0005.
[x] George Washington, Farewell Address, Sept. 19, 1796, Founders Online, accessed Feb. 8, 2022, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-20-02-0440-0002.
[xiii] John Adams, Notes for an Oration at Braintree, Spring 1772, Founders Online, accessed Feb. 7, 2022, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-02-02-0002-0002-0001.
[xix] John Adams, Letter to Benjamin Rush, Aug. 28, 1811, Founders Online, accessed Feb. 7, 2022, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5678.