Over the winter of 1788-89, ten states that had ratified the Constitution unanimously chose George Washington to serve as first President of the United States. Still a national hero for winning the war for independence, Washington would need every ounce of public goodwill as he set out in early spring for the nation’s temporary capital in New York. There he would begin to define both the presidency and constitutional government. As a scholar recently observed, key provisions in the Constitution were “deeply indeterminate,” which meant that creating a government according to its terms involved “acts of imagination.”
Washington’s overarching goal was to strengthen the union of states by avoiding the crippling governmental paralysis that prevailed under the Articles of Confederation, while also proving that an effective government need not curtail liberty. He had many ways to fail, but if he succeeded, the American experiment in self-government could be a model for the world. Fortunately, the new president’s most important task was to inspire trust, which was Washington’s greatest gift.A New York newspaper proclaimed Washington at least a demigod, looming “upon a scale of eminence that heaven never before assigned to a mortal.”
Powerful centrifugal forces divided the nation’s regions: New England, the Middle States, the South, and the raw West. Each had its own economic interests, social structures, even speech patterns. Before the Constitution was ratified, speculation had swirled that three or four separate confederacies might emerge from the not-very United States. To resist the pressures for disunion, Washington pledged to “lose the last drop of his blood” fighting for America’s “experiment on the practicability of republican government, and with what dose of liberty man could be trusted.”
Washington embodied the government as no later president has. Until Congress created executive departments at summer’s end, he largely was the executive branch. Two former officers of the Confederation Congress were working without formal status: John Jay oversaw foreign affairs from his law office while Henry Knox managed the nation’s few soldiers from rooms in a tavern. Holdovers from the Confederation sat at the postal service and the treasury board, with uncertain legitimacy. The president commanded most of America’s attention.
A New York newspaper proclaimed Washington at least a demigod, looming “upon a scale of eminence that heaven never before assigned to a mortal.” Another observer thought Washington was “the only man which man, woman and child, Whig and Tory, Feds and Antifeds appear to agree on.” If a demigod, he was an anxious one, concerned, as he wrote on his fifth day in office, “that more will be expected from me than I shall be able to perform.”
New York, the nation’s second largest city, was a grimy seaport rebuilding from wartime fires and neglect. The streets, a Virginian grumbled, “are badly paved, very dirty and narrow as well as crooked and . . . full of hogs and mud.” A new congressman complained of the smells, which included the contents of chamber pots spilled out from houses. The urban din sometimes drowned out the debates at Federal Hall, the one public structure with pretensions to grandeur. The diverse population included about two thousand enslaved Blacks, perhaps as many free Blacks.
Washington’s first challenge was defining his office. Of the several alternative approaches, none was dictated by the Constitution. The president might choose to be an administrative handmaiden to Congress, a figurehead trotted out for formal occasions. Or he could attempt to dictate laws for Congress to enact. He might function solely as a constitutional safety net, preserving his authority for moments of crisis. Or perhaps the office should change as situations required.
Washington, a master of public display, struggled with basic questions of how to deport himself. What social interactions should he allow and in what settings? How often should he be available for meetings, with whom, and for how long? These were not mere punctilios of etiquette, but were patterns that would define the new government, which “needs help and props on all sides,” a skeptical senator said. “The President’s amiable deportment,” he added “smooths and sweetens everything.”
Washington sought advice from friends. Most counseled a middle course, neither too casual nor too regal. “Steer clear of extremes,” Hamilton wrote, proposing a weekly reception open to the public, plus large entertainments quarterly, and also family dinners with friends. Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania, whose diary provides an inside view of the new government, recognized that the crowds clamoring to see Washington might distract him from actually doing anything, but also that the president could not withdraw from the public “like an Eastern lama.”
Washington published a newspaper announcement that he would receive any person between two and three on Tuesday and Friday afternoons, would return no visits, and would attend no private social events. The Tuesday receptions evolved into starchy, men-only affairs enjoyed by no one, least of all the president. When his wife Martha arrived in New York, she converted the Friday events into non-alcoholic evening receptions for both sexes. At those more casual soirees, Washington wore no sword.
Thursday dinners included up to a dozen guests, usually officials and legislators, sometimes with families. The meals could lapse into awkward solemnity. A Massachusetts representative compared one to a funeral. The problem often was the host. At one dinner, the president “wore a settled aspect of melancholy.” He sometimes absent-mindedly tapped the table with his fork or knife, evidently eager for the meal to end. His failing hearing hindered conversation, and so did his adventures with dentures. His current oral device, which must have been a torture to insert against tender gums, contained both human teeth purchased from slaves and some fashioned from a hippopotamus tusk.
The exacting scrutiny of Washington’s every word and action had to be wearying. Martha chafed at life in a goldfish bowl, describing herself as “more like a state prisoner than anything else.” Because of the “bounds set for me which I must not depart from,” she often preferred to stay home.
The uncertainty surrounding the president’s role in the new government plunged the Senate into three weeks of agonizing over how to address him, a matter on which the Constitution was silent. In the army, Washington had been “Your Excellency,” a title that also applied to state governors and the president of the Confederation Congress. Some thought the president’s title should be more grand.
The question nonplussed Vice President John Adams, who despised the term “president” as mundane, used by lowly figures who led cricket clubs and fire companies. Something more august, he insisted, would command the respect of foreigners. “Excellency” drew support from some senators, as did “highness,” and “elective highness.” Senator Maclay—a self-avowed common man—ridiculed the proposals to saddle America with “all the fooleries, fopperies, finches, and pomp of royal etiquette.”
Washington was wisely reticent about this unexpected dispute. His majestic silence avoided adopting Adams’ position, which was out of step with the revolutionary and independence movement, without alienating his own vice president. Goaded by Adams, the Senate settled upon the ludicrous title of “His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” The House of Representatives spared the nation, and Washington, when it rejected the ponderous title in favor of “President of the United States.” The portly Adams was not so fortunate; senators pilloried him as “His Rotundity.”Everything the government did set a precedent.
However whimsically medieval the debate over titles might seem in retrospect, it seemed to confirm the fears of anti-Federalists that the government would lean toward the aristocratic. David Stuart, a physician and legislator who became Washington’s intimate, reported from Virginia that “Nothing could equal the ferment and disquietude occasioned by the proposition respecting titles.” Stuart added that Virginians applauded Washington for walking New York’s streets like everyone else. “The great herd of mankind form their judgments of characters more from such slight occurrences,” he wrote, “and perhaps they are right, as the heart is more immediately consulted” on small matters “and an error of judgement is more easily pardoned than one of the heart.”
Through the early days of his presidency, Washington kept a low public profile. He took time to get the feel of his position, to sniff political cross-currents and identify where power lay, who would wield it, and how. He asked Stuart to report the public’s opinion “of both men and measures, and of none more than myself,” especially his mistakes. Washington had to know the criticisms so he could either reform his conduct or explain himself better.
Everything the government did set a precedent. James Madison, the leading figure in Congress, wrote to his father that the legislature was “in a wilderness without a footstep to guide us.” Constitutional questions, he noted, were difficult to resolve “and must continue so until its meaning on all great points shall have been settled.”
Washington enjoyed several advantages as he ventured into that wilderness. The Philadelphia Convention had been a four-month tutorial on the attitudes and interests of each region, state, and economic group. Nearly a year of state ratification debates reinforced those lessons. As a Federalist facing only ten representatives and two senators identifying as anti-Federalist, Washington confronted little organized opposition, though North Carolina and Rhode Island still were outside the union and three large states had anti-Federalist governors (New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia). His alliance with the brainy Madison, whom he consulted constantly, was another advantage. In one request to Madison, the president wrote apologetically, “I am very troublesome, but you must excuse me. Ascribe it to friendship and confidence.”
With customary diligence, Washington set about mastering his job. He gathered briefings from Henry Knox on the Indian tribes on the Northwest and Southwest borders. He asked John Jay about foreign negotiations, secured estimates of the nation’s crushing debts, and asked why the postal service was losing money.
After less than two months in New York, however, matters took a dangerous turn: Washington developed a fever from an infection on the back of one thigh, which swelled, a congressman reported, “as large as my two fists.” Without anesthesia, Washington bore a brutal procedure to drain the growth, but the attending physician feared for the president’s life.
The press reported his illness in vague generalities. Even fragmentary reports, a Boston newspaper reported, caused public anxiety. With the wound slow to heal, his convalescence dragged on. Two weeks after the surgery, Washington wrote that “feebleness still hangs upon me, and I am yet much incommoded by the incision,” which forced him to lie on one side. His carriage was modified to carry him in a reclining position. He blamed the infection on sedentary days and “the cares of office,” which would “no doubt hasten my departure for that country from whence no traveler returns.”
Before he was fully recovered, the president initiated two confrontations with the Senate that would frame relations between that body and the executive. The first involved the appointment of a revenue collector for the port of Savannah. Though the Senate had confirmed Washington’s appointees until then, it declined that one. Annoyed, the president startled senators by barging into their chamber without warning. Vice President Adams yielded his chair. The president asked why the Senate had rejected his nominee.
After a silence, Senator James Gunn of Georgia acknowledged that his opposition likely caused the rejection. The Senate’s view, Gunn said, was “that no explanation of their motives or proceedings was ever due or would ever be given to any President of the United States.” Because of his respect for this president, Gunn continued, he would explain that his opposition grew from a personal dispute unrelated to the nominee’s competence. Washington left.
Though the president later expressed “very great regret” over the episode, he accepted the Georgian’s position, which was the first exercise of senatorial courtesy, an unwritten practice that allowed a single senator to torpedo an executive appointee who resided in his or her home state. “As the president has a right to nominate without assigning the reasons,” Washington wrote, “so has the Senate a right to dissent without giving theirs.”
Two weeks later, a second encounter framed the president’s constitutional power to make treaties “by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.” Trying to adhere to the constitutional language, Washington decided to confer with the Senate before sending a commission to negotiate with the Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee tribes. He and War Secretary Knox were struggling to balance the tribes’ rights with the land hunger of whites.
This time, in early August, Washington gave notice that he was coming to the Senate. Forewarning did not, however, produce a more collegial outcome.
Washington again took Adams’ chair. He announced that Secretary Knox was present to respond to questions. He handed a paper to Adams that listed seven questions on which he sought the Senate’s advice. Adams read the paper aloud, but street noise drowned him out. Robert Morris, Washington’s close friend, asked Adams to read it again.
Another lengthy silence brought to Washington’s face “an aspect of stern displeasure.” Senator Maclay objected that the president’s questions could not be answered yes or no, but required discussion. As each was posed separately, the senators decided to postpone the question. When the Senate had put off several, Maclay recorded, Washington “started up in a violent fret” and protested, “‘This defeats every purpose of my coming here.’” He agreed to delay resolution of the matter, then stalked from the chamber.
Two days later, Washington returned in full command of himself. He sat serenely through the Senate’s discussion. Afterwards, by one account, he said “he would be damned if he ever went there [the Senate] again.” He never did, which set another precedent. Rather than consult the Senate before beginning negotiations, he decided to negotiate treaties first, then present them for approval. The Senate’s power to “advise and consent” shrank. The Senate’s role would be solely to affirm or reject a completed treaty.
The episode over the Savannah collector cemented the Senate’s power over presidential appointees; the treaty episode expanded the president’s foreign affairs power. Future presidents might consult with individual senators on pending treaty talks or appointments, but they would never again attempt to confer with the entire body.
President Biden’s challenges today are very different from those that faced Washington two centuries ago, yet there are common features. Like the first president, Biden’s primary goal must be unifying Americans and winning their confidence in the government. Biden, like Washington, will be the principal focus of public attention, yet the Constitution still offers only vague parameters for his responsibilities. He serves as commander in chief, makes treaties and appoints diplomats and judges, reports to Congress, and “take[s] care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
Within those broad provisions, the presidency has accumulated extraordinary powers, yet is constrained by laws and by public opinion. President Biden, like George Washington, must balance his own priorities, the expectations of his countrymen, and the Constitution. The task, daunting in 1789, is no less so today.
Adapted from George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father by David O. Stewart, published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2021 by David O. Stewart.