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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
Jay, as Secretary for Foreign Affairs, was the obvious choice for the enlarged office of State. However, Washington waited to discuss the matter with him until the post had been officially established. Then Jay expressed a preference for the Chief-Justiceship. After a hurried conference with Madison, Washington agreed to give Jay what he wanted.
And so he decided to offer State to his friend and Madison’s mentor and the only important official in the foreign service: Thomas Jefferson, then on the ocean returning from France for a visit to Virginia.
Robert Morris was, as a senator, unavailable for the Treasury; Gouverneur Morris was abroad. The obvious man was their graduated disciple, Alexander Hamilton. His appointment was not only widely recommended by the business community but urged by Madison. No one foresaw that he would get into a feud with Jefferson from which would spring America’s first political parties.
Congress adjourned on September 29 until January 1, 1790, bringing to a close the initial session of the new government. It had been a time of endless creativity achieved with a minimum of turbulence. As compared with the Constitutional Convention, the session plays a very minor role in the history books; that in itself is a measure of how easy everything was, of how far sentiment had coalesced and how effective had been the leadership.
After Jefferson had finally reached home and then travelled to the capital, he expressed amazement at finding that “the opposition to our new Constitution has almost totally disappeared.… If,” he added, “the President can be preserved a few more years, till habits of authority and obedience can be established generally, we have nothing to fear.”
The United States was in the modern sense the world’s first new nation. There have been many subsequent national births, and these have demonstrated again and again that the national symbol that a new people most naturally seek is what sociologists like to call “a charismatic personality.” In the late eighteenth century this universal tendency was further strengthened (and made more frightening) by the still almost totally dominant tradition of royalty. And, to top all, America possessed a man who had been the symbol of national unity for fourteen years. George Washington was, so Madison wrote, the only aspect of the government that had really caught the imagination of the people.
If this made Washington supremely useful, it also made him seem, to men who feared for democratic institutions, extremely dangerous in his extraordinary influence over the people and his power to establish precedents. It seemed as if Washington were a great boulder rising in the stream of American institutions, which could, by the position it occupied, deflect the waters and thus determine the whole future flow of the American government. And entirely apart from his own personal behavior, there was the question of what opportunities a Presidency shaped around Washington might leave to his successors. A tyrant might use its powers for sinister ends.
All intelligent supporters of a strong central government agreed that a first essential was to secure the respect and acceptance of the people. History and existing European example taught that such popular support was, to an important extent, gained through titles and trappings that externalized the function of rulers: to command and be obeyed. Yet many felt that European tradition collided with the possibility—nay, the glorious duty!—of American originality. Was not reflecting European aristocratic behavior in fact the importation of decadence into a fresh Eden which was evolving newer and purer institutions—which the whole world would eventually follow? This gave social behavior a definite political cast.
However much he wanted to do what was expected of him, Washington was no bloodless symbol. Popular attitudes toward his behavior as a President were a maelstrom of myth, of religion and philosophy, of social and economic prejudice. He was a living man, with all the desires and tastes of a powerful individual habituated to controlling his own environment. That strain should result was inevitable.
On his arrival in New York Washington had discovered instantly and unpleasantly that the door of the presidential mansion supplied him with no protection whatsoever. Every person of the least importance felt he had a right to come in and stare, assess the furnishing of the house to see whether it was too grandly aristocratic or too squalidly republican; to utter rotund expressions of admiration and congratulation and then to assess Washington’s reply on his own personal gauge for the right mixture of democratic warmth and charismatic grandeur.
Seeking some method of escape that would not only preserve his sanity but enable him to get some work done, Washington hoped to find precedents for selfprotection in the behavior of his partial predecessors, the presidents of Congress. He learned that, far from disentangling themselves, they had become entrapped to such an extent that they had reduced their office to “perfect contempt.” Being at everyone’s beck in a capital city was, he decided, “no way to preserve the dignity and respect that was due to the first Magistrate.”