George Washington on Nepotism


Nepotism is bad

Cassandra Good, Associate Editor of the Papers of James Monroe, has written a timely piece at History News Network on George Washington’s view of nepotism.

Here is a taste:

George Washington was deeply concerned about maintaining a government based on merit rather than connections. While Washington had no sons or daughters, he did have a broader family of relations and close friends who could and did seek positions in the new administration. He marked out a firm line while still president-elect in the spring of 1789. He would “discharge the duties of the office with that impartiality and zeal for the public good, which ought never to suffer connections of blood or friendship to intermingle,” he told a friend. He told another friend that he “would not be in the remotest degree influenced, in making nominations, by motives arising from the ties of amity or blood.”

Washington knew that Americans were watching his appointments closely. “My political conduct in nominations … must be exceedingly circumspect and proof against just criticism,” he wrote, “for the eyes of Argus are upon me.” The Argus—a Greek mythical beast with 100 eyes—represented the vigilant new citizens, ready to pounce at any “supposed partiality for friends or relations.”

Washington used this analogy in a letter to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, in response to Bushrod’s request for a district attorney position. Washington had many nephews, but he had singled out Bushrod to inherit his Mount Vernon estate. Regardless of Washington’s desire to see his nephew advance, however, he reminded Bushrod that other, more qualified candidates were seeking the position. It was not until after Washington left office—and Bushrod was nine years older and more experienced—that he urged Bushrod to run for Congress. Bushrod instead accepted John Adams’s offer of a position on the Supreme Court, then a minor third wheel to the executive and legislative branches. The position of Associate Justice was the highest office, elected or appointed, that any close relation of George Washington ever achieved.

Washington knew that the decision to award offices solely on merit would set an important precedent for future presidents. This is not to suggest that he was entirely impartial; his close relationships with Alexander Hamilton and other young men who served with him in the Revolution clearly influenced his appointment of them to government posts. In the small elite of the new national leadership, granting positions to men he knew well would be difficult (if not impossible) to avoid. But the highest any family member ever rose during his presidency was as a private secretary, copying letters and assisting Washington primarily with running his private plantation.

Read the entire piece here.  Can you say Jared and Ivanka?