George Washington warned against the president showing signs of “luxury and ostentation”

The president‘s ken.
The president‘s ken.
Image: AP Photo/Molly Riley
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The vote was unanimous: The nascent United States of America wanted George Washington as its first president.

Washington was born 285 years ago Wednesday (Feb. 22), an occasion now celebrated in the US as a federal holiday. When the election results were in, in April 1789, Washington faced the minor task of defining the presidency for the great democratic experiment known as the USA. That meant not only legally, but culturally.

He was concerned with how he conducted himself to the American public, and that included a hyper-awareness of his style. Washington was worried that if he dressed too aristocratically, he would appear too much like the European forebears the country had left behind. On the other hand, if he dressed too humbly, other countries wouldn’t take him—or the US—seriously.

“Washington was always balancing between wanting to be very aggressively not a king—people thought the default was that America would slide into monarchy—and being lofty and important-seeming enough that the country could hold its own on the world stage,” says Joanne Freeman, a history professor at Yale University and author of Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic.

Washington opted for a “middle style,” she says. She writes in her book about how each day at 2pm he got out of his coach to walk in the muck of the streets, just like a normal.

This was a part of Washington’s overall view of what it meant to be presidential. In a 1790 letter to British historian Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, Washington wrote of his lifestyle:

We wish the happiness of your fire side; as we also long to enjoy that of our own at Mount Vernon. Our wishes, you know, were limited; and I think that our plans of living will now be deemed reasonable by the considerate part of our species. [My wife’s] wishes coincide with my own as to simplicity of dress, and every thing which can tend to support propriety of character without partaking of the follies of luxury and ostentation.

Presidents since Washington have come and gone with more down-to-earth lifestyles, and far more gaudy. But safe to say the first president’s ethos probably wouldn’t have allowed for weekly golfing getaways.

“People understood that these seemingly minor stylistic things could totally warp government into something it never intended to be,” says Freeman.