“i Walk On Untrodden Ground”


Washington’s relations with the Vice President were not open to such clear definition. He had no urge for close collaboration with the incumbent, John Adams, who had made him so much trouble when he was Commander in Chief. And Adams himself was neither conciliatory nor eager to partake in the executive administration. Sure that he would be made the scapegoat if things went wrong, he feared favoring the President with advice. Thus the Vice Presidency was established in the backwater from which it has never emerged.

Although Jay and Knox were old friends, Washington did not use these holdovers from the old government as such general advisers as he was later to make the members of his own cabinet. He turned for the help he so often desired primarily to the fellow Virginian who had been one of the major architects of the Constitution. He was perpetually summoning James Madison, sending him written requests for advice. Although Madison never became an official spokesman for the administration, his closeness to Washington was well known. The opening of the government thus presented an anomalous picture: the man who was as much of a prime minister as the President was the outstanding member of the House of Representatives.

The provisions in the Constitution concerning what was to become the President’s cabinet were indicative of how much was left to be decided. Washington, indeed, first used the word “cabinet” on April 18, 1793, when asking for advice on what steps to take in regard to the war that had just broken out between England and France. The constitutional power of the President to appoint, with the approval of the Senate, all the important non-elective officers included the department heads. However, the only actual authority Washington was given over them was a minor one: he might require of them opinions relating to the duties of their offices. And Congress was given the power to assign directly to the department heads (bypassing the President) the appointment of “inferior Officers.”

To secure a single executive rather than a committee, and to have him elected by the people rather than by Congress, had been among the most difficult tasks of the Constitutional Convention. The matter was still undecided two weeks before adjournment. There were many political leaders who still wished the executive limited to putting into effect the will of the legislative, and these saw their opportunity when Congress set up the executive departments. The controversy that developed turned on this question: Who should have the power to discharge the executive officials?

Opponents of a strong President argued that the constitutional provision that the President could appoint only with the approval of the Senate implied he would also have to secure such approval before he could dismiss. This would mean, of course, that a department head who opposed or even blocked the President’s policies could be kept in office against the President’s wishes by a majority of the Senate. It was argued on the other side that this would prevent the President from being master in his own house.

With Madison laboring mightly in the vineyard, the House of Representatives voted against supporting senatorial interference in presidential dismissals. But the Senate proved so evenly divided that the final vote was a tie, which Adams, as presiding officer, broke by coming out for an independent executive.

Since the matter was so closely contested even with the prestigious Washington in the executive chair, it is hard to doubt that if anyone else had been President, the vote would have gone the other way. This would have resulted in a very different form of government. Since the President’s top assistants would have been no more accountable to him than to the Congress, he could have been placed in the position—like that of a modern constitutional monarch—of a figurehead.

Foreign policy having been established in the Constitution as the President’s province, Washington did not hesitate to assert his primacy in diplomatic affairs. Thus, when the French king notified “the President and members of the General Congress” that the Dauphin had died, Washington, in sending condolences, pointed out that “the honor of receiving and answering” such communications no longer in any way involved the Congress; it was solely his own.

Concerning treaties, however, the Constitution stipulated that the President had to seek the Senate’s “advice and consent.” This provision, along with the need for senatorial approval of appointments, required the establishment of lines of communication between the Chief Executive and the Senate. Washington had hardly risen from his sickbed when, with Madison advising him closely, he set out to regularize those lines.

The most important precedent was soon established by a confrontation full of comic overtones. Having drafted instructions for a commission he had appointed, with Senate approval, to negotiate a treaty with the Creeks, Washington went with Secretary Knox to the Senate chamber seeking advice and consent.

The radical senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania scented indignity to the legislature at the very start when the President “took our Vice President’s chair” and Knox sat beside him facing the house, while Adams, although he was the Senate’s presiding officer, joined the senators below the dais.