The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

August 19, 2017

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George Washington: Today’s Indispensable Man
Forrest McDonald - 02/16/09

Washington was not an especially active member of the Convention—constitutionmaking and abstract political theory were not his dish of tea—but he was indispensable to its successful outcome in at least three ways. The first had to do with credibility. Eighteenth-century Americans intensely distrusted centralized power and had an almost paranoid fear of conspiracies against their liberties. Washington’s widely publicized participation in the Convention as its president gave it a legitimacy it otherwise could not have had. Americans were willing to give a convention meeting behind closed doors a chance because they trusted Washington.

Washington’s second vital contribution had to do with the force of his personality among the delegates. Justly celebrated as the Framers have been for their wisdom and prudence, there were hotheads among them, and prima donnas and schemers. Washington’s dignity and overpowering aura, however, made it impossible to behave in a mean-spirited, improper, or uncivil way when he was around. He kept his fellow delegates on their best behavior.

The third contribution pertained to the creation of the presidency. Most of the delegates had learned from experience that a government without an executive branch is not a government at all, but fear of executive power persisted. More than a third of the delegates supported a proposal for a plural executive—consisting of three to five persons—and a few others wanted a single executive checked by an executive council. A majority would support a one-man presidency only because Washington would be the man, but few were confident about giving the president more than ceremonial functions; and it is doubtful that Washington would have accepted the office under such restrictions.

The main sticking point was that Washington could not live forever, and no one could think of a safe way to choose his successor. Today it might seem that the solution would be to elect the president by popular vote; but given the primitive technology in communication and the fear of direct democracy, that was not an option. Objections ruled out any decentralized form of election—by the state governors or the state legislators, for instance—and that meant the choice must be placed in Congress. But congressional election would make the executive dependent upon the Congress, not a separate branch, and would encourage outside powers and special interests to corrupt the process.

For these reasons, the delegates were unwilling, as late as two weeks before the end of the convention, to endow the presidential office with substantive powers. Then somebody proposed the electoral college—a complicated, cumbersome, one might say cockamamie scheme—that overcame all the objections, and it was adopted.

Properly, at that point, the whole draft constitution should have been gone over again to separate the executive powers from the legislative. But that would have been a painstaking process, and the delegates, tired after nearly four months of tedious labors, were anxious to be done and go home. So they hastily made some changes in their draft: they made the president commander in chief of the armed forces, and they made the conduct of foreign relations the joint concern of president and Senate (instead of, as in the draft, exclusively the affair of the Senate). Otherwise, they simply stated that “the executive power shall be vested in a president.” This amounted to a blank check for Washington to fill in as he saw fit. The precedents he would set in office would determine just what the executive power was to be.

In my American Presidency, I consider in detail the enduring precedents that he set; here let me mention but a few. Washington made the president responsible for relations between the United States and foreign governments. We take that for granted, but constitutionally the “advice and consent” clause would have permitted the Senate a major role. After a couple of fruitless efforts to consult with the Senate in person, Washington and the Senators agreed that thenceforth advice and consent should come after, not before, the president acted.

A related matter has to do with the tensions between Congress’ exclusive authority to declare war and the president’s exclusive power as commander in chief. When the wars of the French Revolution broke out, Washington wanted to issue a neutrality proclamation. Secretary of State Jefferson objected that since only Congress could declare war, only it could declare neutrality. But Washington in his capacity as commander in chief prevailed. In another exercise of the power as commander in chief, Washington sent the army to wage war against the Indians in the Ohio country—without asking for a declaration of war. He did so on additional occasions thereafter. The vitality of these precedents will be appreciated when I point out that although Congress has declared war five times in our history, presidents have sent American troops into combat, not counting the Indian wars, more than 200 times.

Others of Washington’s major precedents included the use of departmental heads as a cabinet, the two-term tradition, and the practice of initiating the budget-making process.

The last part of Washington’s legacy is the most subtle, and it may be the most important. He was acutely aware that he had become a legend in his time, a true myth, and he recognized that the presidency made possible the institutionalization of the role he had been playing. That is to say, he endowed the presidency with the capacity—and the awesome responsibility—to serve as the symbol of the nation, of what it is and what it can aspire to be.

Let me close by quoting a passage from Washington’s First Inaugural Address in which he specifies our founding principles. It was imperative, he said, that “the foundation of our national policy be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, . . . there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists . . . an indissoluable union between virtue and happiness; . . . [and] that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right; . . . the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people.” Those words are as true and as relevant today as they were when Washington uttered them in 1789.

To learn more, visit our short course on the American Experience.

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