George Washington: The Precedent President
George Washington was the most important man to occupy the presidency. His role was crucial because he was the first president, setting the example for those presidents that followed him. Washington appears to have been aware of his role as a model, having once said, “There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not be hereafter drawn into precedent.” This essay is devoted to helping you understand how Washington set the example for those presidents that followed him.
Being a stellar role model was no small task for the first president. Washington lacked a model to follow as America lacked a national executive prior to Washington. The Americans had rejected monarchy and most of the state governors occupied an office that was very weak compared to the legislature. Washington was the chief executive of a republic, but how should such a leader act?
Washington tried to strike a balance between making the presidency appear respectable without also appearing ostentatious, an office that was at the same time independent of the Congress, yet cooperative when necessary. In spite of these challenges, Washington rose to the occasion, which has elicited the praise of many, including that of colonial historian Forrest McDonald who called Washington the “indispensable man.”
George Washington was unanimously elected the first American president by the Electoral College on February 4, 1789, however, he was not informed of this win until April 14 as the Congress had not assembled until then. Although Washington was aware that he would win the election, he did not want to appear presumptuous. So, he insisted that the votes be tallied and announced before he started on his journey to New York City (the nation’s first capital) where he would be sworn in as president. And he added to this disinterested demeanor by taking his time in getting there.
Washington’s view, like that of many of his contemporaries, was that the “office should seek the man.” This precedent was an important one throughout American history. It had been a practice for much of American history that men not appear to be too eager for the office. In modern times this approach has worked to the favor or some leaders, like President Eisenhower. As for today, while we do expect the candidate to aggressively pursue the office, that pursuit must be balanced with the desire of the people to want him for that office.
Once Washington arrived in New York City, he was sworn into office placing his hand on a Masonic Bible and reciting the oath of office verbatim as it’s stated in the Constitution. Washington is said to have ended the oath with the words “so help me God.” Since that time, each president has done the same.
Assuming the Office
The role of a leader befitted George Washington. He looked like a leader. Taller than most men of his time (we think about 6’ 3”) he was barrel-chested with a slender waist. Furthermore, Washington was a gentleman, a man of position and status in his world. Washington did not shake hands with other men. Both he and John Adams gave a bow instead of pressing the flesh. Washington was old school on this matter, believing that he needed to maintain a distance from the public to uphold the respectability of the government. This role befitted Washington as he was a private man. However, he was also the president of a republic, so he wanted to avoid the perception that he disdained the people. At the start of his tenure, the demands of wanting access to the leader resulted in others controlling his agenda. As a result, he got little work done. Later, he established a way of meeting with the public: a levee for men on Tuesdays, a tea party for men and women on Fridays open to the public and a formal dinner on Thursdays for those employed in his administration and their families (Washington had the invitations rotated so as not to show favoritism).
Another issue that came up early in his administration was what to call him. The Constitution made reference to “a president of the United States.” However, this seemed generic. Shouldn’t he have an official title? John Adams thought that he should have a title something that sounded more-or-less British, like “His Highness the President of the U.S. and protector of their Liberties.” Some rouge had suggested that the now heavy-set Adams be called “His Rotundity” should he ever become the chief magistrate. Madison feared that such titles smacked of monarchy and were “dangerous to Republicanism.” Washington wisely settled on the generic title of “President of the United States “and that is the title that has prevailed ever since.
George Washington's Inauguration
The new national government had fewer employees than all the workers at Washington’s plantation of Mount Vernon. However, this was soon to change as the president began to appoint men to take the reins of administration. The new president tried to avoid partisanship in his appointments (he did not want to create a patronage system). Furthermore, he selected only those that were loyal to the Constitution; he would not appoint former Tories. In making his appointments, Washington seemed mostly concerned with what Washington called “fitness” which apparently meant whether they were loyal to the Constitution, possessed good character, and enjoyed the the respect of their local peers.
Washington did not call them his “cabinet” until 1793 and did not meet with them together until the end of his first term.. His cabinet meetings were characteristically informal, nonpartisan, and ad hoc.
Probably his most important appointment was Alexander Hamilton who was made Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton had knowledge of finance that was unparalleled among the founders. Once appointed Treasury Secretary, Hamilton began his own appointment process by having men chosen to run the national finances, especially hiring revenue officers to collect the tariffs and taxes. Within a short time, there were more government employees at the Treasury Department than all the other departments combined.
Washington saw the new government as nonpartisan. However, this mindset did not outlast his presidency. The irony is that the catalyst for the first party system was no further away than his own cabinet with the likes of the Federalist Hamilton and the Republican Jefferson. Washington lived in an era when opposition to the government was considered sedition and he felt that the “spirit of party” would undermine the Republic they had worked so hard to establish. This was a reasonable assumption given that the ideal of a "loyal opposition" did not arise in democratic states until the nineteenth century.
Washington’s penchant for nonpartisanship was not a complete loss to the future. An important development in the theory of public administration has been that those that implement policy in the agencies should be nonpartisan. So, while it's acceptable for elected officials to be partisans, it's also expected that that civil servants will take a nonpartisan approach to the implementation of policy.
Today we have fifteen executive departments in the federal government, employing about two million people. It’s interesting to note that those departments created by Washington—State, Treasury, and War (Congress changed "War" to “Defense” after World War II)—are still some of the most important departments today.
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Enforcing the Law
Apparently, Washington was eager to demonstrate that this new republic was capable of enforcing the law, unlike the previous government as illustrated by Shay’s Rebellion. Washington’s opportunity came in 1794 when some Pennsylvania corn farmers rebelled against paying the federal whiskey tax, the first federal tax on a domestic product. Local Pennsylvanians intimidated revenue collectors by having some of them tarred and feathered. Washington moved quickly to put down the rebellion. Along with Treasury Secretary Hamilton, Washington personally led a company of troops to suppress the rebellion. This was not difficult: once the federals demonstrated a show of force, the rebels backed down. This is the only time in American history that a president personally led the troops as the commander-in-chief.
After the insurrection, the government tried several of the offenders. Some received the death penalty, but Washington pardoned them. This was the first use of amnesty which is a blanket pardon. Later, the use of amnesty was challenged in court; however, the courts upheld its use. The Court reasoned that it mattered little whether the president issued one pardon to a thousand men or a thousand pardons, one to each man.
Hire and Fire
One of the greatest controversies of Washington's administration had to do with who would hire and fire government employees. The Constitution said that the president had the power to appoint government officials with Senate confirmation. However, the Constitution made no mention of “firing” officials. Congress had the power to impeach officials, but the standard for impeachment was “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Impeachment seemed like an elaborate procedure just to remove a government worker who was incompetent.
Alexander Hamilton advanced the view that the president was the sole authority over the executive branch—the counter philosophy at this time was that the Senate shared in the administration of government. Those that tended to oppose Hamilton and a strong presidency in general tended to favor the idea that the president could fire federal employees, but only with Senate approval.
James Madison led the House of Representatives in supporting the idea that the president would have the sole power to fire executive branch officials. This power of the president to fire without Senate approval would continue to be a constitutional controversy throughout the nineteenth century and would be, in part, responsible for the first impeachment of an American president when Andrew Johnson challenged Congress’ Tenure of Office Act (1867) by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
In Federalist #73, Hamilton said that the president would have to veto often to ward off Congressional encroachment. However, Washington felt that no vetoes should follow unless he felt that the law was unconstitutional. Washington only used the veto power twice during his presidency: once during his first term and once as he was leaving office in his second term. It is believed that the legislature was more inclined to trust the president because he limited the use of his constitutional powers. One person said that Washington’s restraint after the war got him the presidency; his restraint in government gave his office legitimacy.
Presidents largely followed this policy of only vetoing unconstitutional laws until Andrew Jackson. While president, Jackson vetoed more bills than all of his predecessors combined.
Declaration of Neutrality—While relying more on Hamilton when it came to finances, Washington tended to be more at home making decisions in the area of foreign policy. This was unfortunate for Thomas Jefferson, his Secretary of State, who languished in the position until he finally resigned in 1793. In that year, there was a major controversy surrounding France.
Many Americans felt we owed some allegiance to France. After all, France came to our aid during the American Revolution, providing us money and materiel in our war against the British. However, many of the Federalists, notably Hamilton, felt that a friendship with Britain was essential to our commercial future. Therefore, Hamilton favored that Washington simply declare a position of neutrality between the two great powers.
This advice erupted in a firestorm. Republicans like Madison and Jefferson claimed that we should side with France based on a treaty we had made with them in 1778. Some of them also said that it was inappropriate for the president to declare neutrality. After all, it was Congress that had the power to declare war; therefore, it was Congress’ role to declare neutrality. This controversy also resulted in the split between Hamilton and Madison. Earlier, this dynamic duo of Federalist ideology had collaborated with John Jay to write the Federalist essays. Now they would take to the newspapers once again, but this time opposing each other, writing editorials both for and against the neutrality proclamation. Hamilton argued that the president had discretionary power in the matter of foreign policy. This provided the ground for doctrines such as the emergency powers.
Washington, who leaned Federalist, issued the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793—the proclamation said that “that they should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial to the belligerent powers.” It prohibited Americans from “committing, aiding, or abetting hostilities against any of the said powers, or by carrying to them any of those articles which are deemed contraband by the modern usage of nations.”
The matter of America's neutrality in foreign relations has been one of the important dynamics in American history. In his 1796 Farewell Address to the Nation, Washington warned the nation about involvement in European affairs. Even Jefferson later remarked that when it came to the European powers, America's foreign policy should be "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations--entangling alliances toward none." Until the mid twentieth century, America had, more-or-less, followed this advice. The Monroe Doctrine (1823) expressed this sentiment by warning foreign powers of interfering with political affairs in the Western Hemisphere. However, in modern times, enough of our leaders have headed the siren song of "international consensus" and enough of our people have been intimidated by being labeled "isolationists" that America has taken its uneasy position as an international policeman.
Term of Office
When 1796 rolled around, Washington was ready to retire from public service. He had been a reluctant warrior from the beginning, and so, stepped down from office after his second term. Washington had practiced the restraint of relinquishing power. When he probably could have ruled America as a dictator following the War for Independence, Washington resigned his commission at the end of 1783. Some say that Washington fancied himself as a modern Cincinnatus (519-430 BC), a Roman military hero who had relinquished his ruling position after he successfully lead Rome in its wars with neighboring tribes. Other presidents continued to follow Washington's precedent. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt tried to break the "two-term tradition," but was unsuccessful. Later, his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt did break the tradition, being elected to four consecutive terms, dying in his fourth term in 1945. The Republicans, fearing that someone else might do what Roosevelt had done, put through Congress a resolution for a constitutional amendment that would limit the president to Washington's precedent of two terms. The requisite states ratified the resolution in 1951. The new amendment specified that the president could serve up to two terms, but not to exceed ten years.
© 2011 William R Bowen Jr