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“i Walk On Untrodden Ground”
WASHINGTON AFTER THE REVOLUTION: IV As the very first President, Washington had to invent his own job. What about a cabinet? How do you “advise” with tiresome senators? Should you have slaves in the executive mansion? How do you deal with all those uninvited visitors? And with the Vice President—especially when you know that he is terribly jealous?
October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
Gouverneur Morris was arrogant, intolerant of fools, and possessed of such a reputation for licentiousness that it was generally believed that the leg he had lost in a carriage accident had come off as the result of an injury he received when jumping out of a lady’s window as the husband unexpectedly came upstairs. Boasting that he “never knew the sensations of fear, embarrassment, or inferiority,” Morris was as cocksure as he was arrogant. An inveterate prankster, much too elegantly dressed for the taste of simple republicans, he never hesitated to use his quick wit to humiliate men less brilliant than he. Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire wrote that Morris was “for brass equal to any I am acquainted with.”
Despite the objections of Jay and Madison but with the support of Hamilton, Washington entrusted to his mercurial friend the most difficult diplomatic mission of the new government, thereby bringing into the American foreign service (if through the back door) one of the most picturesque and, in the upshot, important characters it was ever to boast. Washington did not notify the Senate, since the Constitution did not require him to do so.
Washington was always careful not to overstep. “Few who are not philosophical spectators,” he wrote, “can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation had to act. … I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct wch. may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.”
Among Washington’s most important contributions to the emerging government was his restraint in exerting his great power beyond what he considered the legitimate province of the executive. Although, like any other citizen, he felt entitled to express his personal opinions to his friends, even if they happened to be legislators, he did not in any official or concerted way use his charisma or his office to influence legislative debates. Nor did he attempt to achieve by executive order any matter that the strictest interpretation of the Constitution could regard as within the legislative domain. The separation of powers has never known a more devoted champion.
Hamilton had explained in The Federalist that the veto power was essential to enable the President to protect his office from legislative usurpation. Washington found no such need. Perhaps because he himself so religiously avoided encroaching on the legislative, the effort in the two houses to curb the Presidency collapsed with the effort to give the Senate a hand in executive dismissals. From then on, Congress showered powers and responsibilities on the President.
Not only did the Senate forego its constitutional right to appoint secondary administrative officials, but it threw even such minor appointments as those of lighthouse keepers to the Chief Executive. Washington became so busy he could find no time to deal with his personal correspondence.
“To a man who has no ends to serve, nor friends to provide for,” he wrote, “nomination to office is the most irksome part of the Executive trust.” Before any offices at all had been created by Congress, the flood of applications stormed in: it crested to between 2,500 and 3,000 appeals. Washington did his best to avoid interviews, but men would appear at his levees to add verbal pleas to the hard-luck stories that came in with every mail. Many applicants, otherwise obviously unsuitable, were veterans who had fought at Washington’s side; many were old friends or sons of old friends.
In a manner absolutely contradictory to the aristocratic governments with which the United States was then surrounded, Washington was determined not to be swayed by any personal considerations of blood or friendship. However, in a nation as large as the United States, at a time when travel was so much rarer than now and communications so slow, to identify in a distant state the right man for an office required endless interviews and correspondence. Even John Adams admired Washington’s industry and impartiality: “He seeks information from all quarters, and judges more independently than any man I ever knew.”
The various great departments were set up in separate bills. Revealing how little the new government, behind its ocean, was concerned with diplomacy, the title of Secretary for Foreign Affairs was changed to Secretary of State, and the duties of the office were expanded to include nearly all domestic operations except war and finance. The War Department was set up much as before. An Attorney General was to serve on a part-time basis as legal adviser for the executive.
It was with establishing the Treasury that Congress went into the most detail. Revealing a typical eighteenth-century respect for the power of the purse, the legislature established connections with the Secretary that did not pass through the Presidency. The Secretary should be directly responsive to Congress for information and should, at the request of the House, “digest and prepare” plans for the improvement and management of revenue. These provisions were intended to enable Congress to lead the Treasury: it was not foreseen that they would work the opposite way.
Washington reappointed Knox as Secretary of War. Since the functions of the Attorney General were so limited, he felt he could use the office to satisfy his desire to have at his side a man with whom he had “habits of intimacy.” He appointed Edmund Randolph, whom he had known since the younger man was a boy, who had served briefly as one of his military aides, and who, after first refusing to sign, had come around to the Constitution and helped make Virginia ratify.