“i Walk On Untrodden Ground”


Probably because there was so much disagreement at the Constitutional Convention on matters of detail, the Constitution there established was little more than a skeleton. How the government would function in a thousand different particulars remained to be worked out at its beginning.

Only general directions were, for instance, charted for the boundaries between the three great divisions: executive, legislative, and judicial. The government could have ended up, not in its present form, but much closer to the British parliamentary system, with the executive departments subservient to the legislature. Or, had Washington been a different man, the legislative could have become subservient to the executive.

The first session of the new government was thus almost as important to the American future as the Constitutional Convention had been. The Congress and President Washington needed to determine their respective pulls and invent their harnesses while at the same time dragging along the coach of state.

Fortunately the landscape through which they had to move the nation, during that spring and summer of 1789, could not have been more smiling. If Providence was, as Washington liked to believe, watching over the daring American experiment in popular rule, surely that benign power made no greater gift than a period of tranquillity, commercial prosperity, and bountiful harvests during which the government could find internal agreement with no outside interference beyond a few Indian raids on scattered frontiers.

In Europe, it is true, there exploded on July 14 one of the most crucial events in all modern history: the storming of the Bastille. However, the news did not reach America until the autumn, and Washington later wrote that the happenings in France seemed as far away as if they were “of another Planet.” He did not deceive himself: he knew that France’s troubles were far from over. But fortunately, the worst of what Washington feared lay in the future. Since the stresses that developed in America when the French boiler finally exploded came close to tearing apart a government that had had a few years to establish itself, it seems likely that, had the timetable in France been pushed ahead by three years, the union set up by the Constitution could have foundered before it could get well afloat.

As it was, the new government was permitted the luxury of opening with an argument, then altogether theoretical and abstract, on titles and etiquette. Before any further issues had any real chance to ripen, the strong hand was removed from the helm. The President seemed at the point of death.

On June 13 Washington had developed a high fever and a pain in his thigh. New York’s leading physician, Dr. Samuel Bard, found a tumor that was reported to indicate anthrax. According to a believable anecdote, Washington asked the doctor for a frank report on his chances: “I am not afraid to die, and, therefore, can bear the worst.” Martha was to write, “He seemed less concerned himself as to the event than any other person in the United States.”

Samuel Bard called in as a consultant his seventy-three-year-old father, John Bard (for which the old gentleman charged twenty-five pounds). Father and son agreed that Washington’s only hope lay in an immediate operation.

According to the biographer of the Bards, the infection proved, when the tumor was laid open, to have spread farther than had been foreseen. This was, of course, before the discovery of any effective way of relieving pain. As the son quailed at the prospect before him, the elder Bard cried, “Cut away—deeper, deeper still, don’t be afraid, you see how well he bears it!” Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear wrote that the tumor was “very large and the incision on opening it deep.”

The operation was so complete a success that Washington’s fever was gone in five days. However, it took a long time for the incision to heal. Week after week he lay perpetually on his side, raising himself a little on the settee when it was necessary to receive visitors. Forty days of the new government’s first summer had passed before the doctors would allow the President to return to his desk, and it was four months before he felt completely recovered.

As he resumed his duties, Washington found himself and the Vice President the only members of the executive branch of the new government. He could make no appointments until Congress created the offices to which the appointments would be made. Pending that time, he had to assist him a few holdovers from the organization established under the Articles of Confederation by the defunct Continental Congress. Secretary of War Henry Knox and Secretary for Foreign Affairs John Jay were carrying on as “temporary Secretaries.” There were a Treasury Board and a few minor functionaries, a regular army slightly below its authorized strength of 840 men, and a smattering of clerks whose salaries were in arrears. The foreign service consisted principally of Thomas Jefferson in Paris.

With his acting secretaries, Washington inaugurated at once the system of having them handle all ordinary matters. Although the Constitution stated that the President should “receive” top foreign representatives, Washington refused to discuss Franco-American relations directly with the French minister, the Comte de Moustier. He did not, he wrote, intend to allow any official “to erect a wall between me and the Diplomatic Corps,” yet under normal circumstances business that came to the President should have been first “digested and prepared” by the head of the relevant department.