As America goes into its fifty-fifth presidential election, we should remember that there might have been only one—if we hadn’t had the only candidate on earth who could do the job
Looking back over two hundred years of the American Presidency, it seems safe to say that no one entered the office with more personal prestige than Washington, and only two Presidents—Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt—faced comparable crises. The Civil War and the Great Depression, though now distant in time, remain more recent and raw in our collective memory than the American founding, so we find it easier to appreciate the achievements of Lincoln and Roosevelt. Washington’s achievement must be recovered before it can be appreciated, which means that we must recognize that there was no such thing as a viable American nation when he took office as President, that the opening words of the Constitution (“We the people of the United States”) expressed a fervent but fragile hope rather than a social reality. The roughly four million settlers spread along the coastline and streaming over the Alleghenies felt their primary allegiance—to the extent they felt any allegiance at all —to local, state, and regional authorities. No republican government had ever before exercised control over a population this diffuse or a land this large, and the prevailing assumption among the best-informed European observers was that, to paraphrase Lincoln’s later formulation, a nation so conceived and so dedicated could not endure.
Not much happened at the Executive level during the first year of Washington’s Presidency, which was exactly the way he wanted it. His official correspondence was dominated by job applications from veterans of the war, former friends, and total strangers. They all received the same republican response—namely, that merit rather than favoritism must determine federal appointments. As for the President himself, it was not clear whether he was taking the helm or merely occupying the bridge. Rumors began to circulate that he regarded his role as primarily ceremonial and symbolic, that after a mere two years he intended to step down, having launched the American ship of state and contributed his personal prestige as ballast on its maiden voyage.
As it turned out, even ceremonial occasions raised troubling questions because no one knew how the symbolic centerpiece of a republic should behave or even what to call him. Vice President John Adams, trying to be helpful, ignited a fiery debate in the Senate by suggesting such regal titles as “His Elective Majesty” and “His Mightiness,” which provoked a lethal combination of shock and laughter, as well as the observation that Adams himself should be called “His Rotundity.” Eventually the Senate resolved on the most innocuous option available: The President of the United States should be called exactly that. Matters of social etiquette—how the President should interact with the public, where he should be accessible and where insulated—prompted multiple memorandums on the importance of what Alexander Hamilton called “a pretty high tone” that stopped short of secluding the President entirely. The solution was a weekly open house called the levee, part imperial court ceremony with choreographed bows and curtsies, part drop-in parlor social. The levee struck the proper middle note between courtly formality and republican simplicity, though at the expense of becoming a notoriously boring and wholly scripted occasion.
The very awkwardness of the levee fitted Washington’s temperament nicely since he possessed a nearly preternatural ability to remain silent while everyone around him was squirming under the pressure to fill that silence with conversation. (Adams later claimed that this “gift of silence” was Washington’s greatest political asset, which Adams deeply envied because he lacked it altogether.) The formal etiquette of the levee and Washington’s natural dignity (or was it aloofness?) combined to create a political atmosphere unimaginable in any modern-day national capital. In a year when the French Revolution broke out in violent spasms destined to reshape the entire political landscape of Europe, and the new Congress ratified a Bill of Rights that codified the most sweeping guarantee of individual freedoms ever enacted, no one at the levees expected Washington to comment on those events.
Even matters of etiquette and symbolism, however, could have constitutional consequences, as Washington learned in August of 1789. The treaty-making power of the President required that he seek “the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” Washington initially interpreted the phrase to require his personal appearance in the Senate and the solicitation of senatorial opinion on specific treaty provisions in the mode of a large advisory council. But when he brought his proposals for treaties with several Southern Indian tribes to the Senate, the debate became a prolonged shouting match over questions of procedure. The longer the debate went on, the more irritated Washington became. Finally he declared, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here,” and abruptly stalked out. From that time on, the phrase advice and consent meant something less than direct Executive solicitation of senatorial opinion, and the role of the Senate as an equal partner in the Grafting of treaties came to be regarded as a violation of the separation-of-powers principle.
Though he never revisited the Senate, Washington did honor his pledge to visit all the states in the Union. In the fall of 1789 he set off on a tour of New England that carried him through 60 towns and hamlets. Everywhere he went, the residents turned out in droves to glimpse America’s greatest hero parading past. And everywhere he went, New Englanders became Americans. Since Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution, he skipped it, then made a separate trip the following summer to welcome the proudly independent latecomer into the new nation. During a visit to the Jewish synagogue in Newport he published an address on religious freedom that turned out to be the most uncompromising endorsement of the principle he ever made. (One must say “made” rather than “wrote” because there is considerable evidence that Thomas Jefferson wrote it.) Whatever sectional suspicions New Englanders might harbor toward that faraway thing called the federal government, when it appeared in their neighborhoods in the form of George Washington, they saluted, cheered, toasted, and embraced it as their own.
The Southern tour was a more grueling affair, covering nearly 2,000 miles during the spring of 1791. Instead of regarding it as a threat to his health, however, Washington described it as a tonic; the real risk, he believed, was the sedentary life of a deskbound President. The entourage of 11 horses included his white parade steed, Prescott, whom he mounted at the edge of each town in order to make an entrance that accorded with the heroic mythology already surrounding his military career. Prescott’s hooves were painted and polished before each appearance, and Washington usually brought along his favorite greyhound, mischievously named Cornwallis, to add to the dramatic effect. Like a modern political candidate on the campaign trail, Washington made speeches at each stop that repeated the same platitudinous themes, linking the glory of the War for Independence with the latent glory of the newly established United States. The ladies of Charleston fluttered alongside their fans when Washington took the dance floor; Prescott and the four carriage horses held up despite the nearly impassable or even nonexistent roads; Cornwallis, however, wore out and was buried on the banks of the Savannah River in a brick vault with a marble tombstone that local residents maintained for decades as a memorial to his master’s visit. In the end all the states south of the Potomac could say they had seen the palpable version of the flag, Washington himself.
During the Southern tour one of the earliest editorial criticisms of Washington’s embodiment of authority appeared in the press. He was being treated at each stop like a canonized American saint, the editorial complained, or perhaps like a demigod “perfumed by the incense of addresses.” The complaint harked back to the primordial fear haunting all republics: “However highly we may consider the character of the Chief Magistrate of the Union, yet we cannot but think the fashionable mode of expressing our attachment... favors too much of Monarchy to be used by Republicans, or to be received with pleasure by the President of a Commonwealth.”
Such doubts were rarely uttered publicly during the initial years of Washington’s Presidency. But they lurked in the background, exposing how double-edged the political imperatives of the American Revolution had become. To secure the revolutionary legacy on the national level required a person who embodied national authority more visibly than any collective body like Congress could convey. Washington had committed himself to playing that role by accepting the Presidency. But at the core of the Revolutionary legacy lay a deep suspicion of any potent projection of political power by a “singular figure.” And since the very idea of a republican Chief Executive was a novelty, there was no vocabulary for characterizing such a creature except the verbal tradition surrounding European courts and kings. By playing the part he believed history required, Washington made himself vulnerable to the most virulent apprehensions about monarchical power.
He could credibly claim to be the only person who had earned the right to be trusted with power. He could also argue, as he did to several friends throughout his first term, that no man was more eager for retirement, that he sincerely resented the obligations of his office as it spread a lengthening shadow of public responsibility over his dwindling days on earth. If critics wished to whisper behind his back that he looked too regal riding a white stallion with a leopard-skin cloth and gold-rimmed saddle, so be it. He knew he would rather be at Mount Vernon. In the meantime he would play his assigned role as America’s presiding presence: as so many toasts in his honor put it, “the man who unites all hearts.”
Exercising Executive authority called for completely different talents than symbolizing it. Washington’s administrative style had evolved through decades of experience as master of Mount Vernon and commander of the Continental Army. (In fact, he had fewer subordinates to supervise as President than he had had in those earlier jobs.) The Cabinet system he installed represented a civilian adaptation of his military staff, with Executive sessions of the Cabinet resembling the councils of war that had provided collective wisdom during crises. As Thomas Jefferson later described it, Washington made himself “the hub of the wheel,” with routine business delegated to the department heads at the rim. It was a system that maximized Executive control while also creating essential distance from details. Its successful operation depended upon two skills that Washington had developed over his lengthy career: first, identifying and recruiting talented and ambitious young men, usually possessing formal education superior to his own, then trusting them with considerable responsibility and treating them as surrogate sons in his official family; second, knowing when to remain the hedgehog who keeps his distance and when to become the fox who dives into the details.
On the first score, as a judge of talent, Washington surrounded himself with the most intellectually sophisticated collection of statesmen in American history. His first recruit, James Madison, became his most trusted consultant on judicial and Executive appointments and his unofficial liaison with Congress. The precocious Virginian was then at the peak of his powers, having just completed a remarkable string of triumphs as the dominant force behind the nationalist agenda at the Constitutional Convention and the Virginia ratifying convention, as well as being co-author of The Federalist Papers . From his position in the House of Representatives he drafted the address welcoming Washington to the Presidency, then drafted Washington’s response to it, making him a one-man shadow government. Soon after the inaugural ceremony he showed Washington his draft of 12 amendments to the Constitution, subsequently reduced to 10 and immortalized as the Bill of Rights. Washington approved the historic proposal without changing a word and trusted Madison to usher it through Congress with his customary proficiency.
One of Madison’s early assignments was to persuade his reluctant friend from Monticello to serve as Secretary of State. Thomas Jefferson combined nearly spotless Revolutionary credentials with five years of diplomatic experience in Paris, all buoyed by a lyrical way with words and ideas most famously displayed in his draft of the Declaration of Independence.
Alexander Hamilton was the third member of this talented trinity and probably the brightest of the lot. While Madison and Jefferson had come up through the Virginia school of politics, which put a premium on an understated style that emphasized indirection and stealth, Hamilton had come out of nowhere (actually, impoverished origins in the Caribbean) to display a dashing, out-of-my-way style that imposed itself ostentatiously. As Washington’s aide-de-camp during the war, he had occasionally shown himself to be a headstrong surrogate son, always searching for an independent command beyond Washington’s shadow. But his loyalty to his mentor was unquestioned, and his affinity for the way he thought was unequaled. Moreover, throughout the 1780s Hamilton had been the chief advocate for fiscal reform as the essential prerequisite for an energetic national government, making him the obvious choice as Secretary of Treasury once Robert Morris had declined.
The inner circle was rounded out by three appointments of slightly lesser luster. Gen. Henry Knox, appointed Secretary of War, had served alongside Washington from Boston to Yorktown and had long since learned to subsume his own personality so thoroughly within his chief’s that disagreements became virtually impossible. More than just a cipher, as some critics of Washington’s policies later claimed, Knox joined Vice President Adams as a seasoned New England voice within the councils of power. John Jay, the new Chief Justice, added New York’s most distinguished legal and political mind to the mix, and also extensive foreign policy experience. As the first Attorney General, Edmund Randolph lacked Jay’s gravitas and Knox’s experience, but his reputation for endless vacillation was offset by solid political connections within the Tidewater elite, reinforced by an impeccable bloodline. Washington’s judgment of the assembled team was unequivocal. “I feel myself supported by able co-adjutors,” he observed in June of 1790, “who harmonize extremely well together.”
In three significant areas of domestic policy, each loaded with explosive political and constitutional implications, Washington chose to delegate nearly complete control to his “co-adjutors.” Although his reasons for maintaining a discreet distance differed in each case, they all reflected his recognition that Executive power still lived under a monarchical cloud of suspicion and could be exercised only selectively. Much like his Fabian role during the war, when he learned to avoid an all-or-nothing battle with the British, choosing when to avoid conflict struck him as the essence of effective Executive leadership.
The first battle he evaded focused on the shape and powers of the federal courts. The Constitution offered even less guidance on the judiciary than it did on the Executive branch. Once again the studied ambiguity reflected apprehension about any projection of federal power that upset the compromise between state and federal sovereignty. Washington personally preferred a unified body of national law, regarding it as a crucial step in creating what the Constitution called “a more perfect union.” In nominating Jay to head the Supreme Court, he argued that the federal judiciary “must be considered as the Key-Stone of our political fabric” since a coherent court system that tied the states and regions together with the ligaments of law would achieve more in the way of national unity than any other possible reform.
But that, of course, was also the reason it proved so controversial. The debate over the Judiciary Act of 1789 exposed the latent hostility toward any consolidated court system. The act created a six-member Supreme Court, 3 circuit courts, and 13 district courts but left questions of original or appellate jurisdiction intentionally blurred so as to conciliate the advocates of state sovereignty. Despite his private preferences, Washington deferred to the tradeoffs worked out in congressional committees, chiefly a committee chaired by Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, which designed a framework of overlapping authorities that was neither rational nor wholly national in scope. In subsequent decades John Marshall, Washington’s most loyal and influential disciple, would move this ambiguous arrangement toward a more coherent version of national law. But throughout Washington’s Presidency the one thing the Supreme Court could not be, or appear to be, was supreme, a political reality that Washington chose not to contest.
A second occasion for calculated Executive reticence occurred in February of 1790 when the forbidden subject of slavery came before Congress. Two Quaker petitions, one arguing for an immediate end to the slave trade, the other advocating the gradual abolition of slavery itself, provoked a bitter debate in the House. The petitions would almost surely have been consigned to legislative oblivion except for the signature of Benjamin Franklin on the second one, which transformed a beyond-the-pale protest into an unavoidable challenge to debate the moral compatibility of slavery with America’s avowed Revolutionary principles. In what turned out to be his last public act, Franklin was investing his enormous prestige to force the first public discussion of the sectional differences over slavery at the national level. (The debates at the Constitutional Convention had occurred behind closed doors, and their records remained sealed.) If only in retrospect, the discussions in the House during the spring of 1790 represented the Revolutionary generation’s final opportunity to place slavery on the road to ultimate extinction.
Washington shared Franklin’s view of slavery as a moral and political anachronism. On three occasions during the 1780s he let it be known that he favored adopting some kind of gradual emancipation scheme and would give his personal support to such a scheme whenever it materialized. Warner Mifflin, one of the Quaker petitioners who knew of Washington’s previous statements, obtained a private interview in order to plead that the President step forward in the manner of Franklin. As the only American with more prestige than Franklin, Washington could make the decisive difference in removing this one massive stain on the Revolutionary legacy, as well as on his own.
We can never know what might have happened if Washington had taken this advice. He listened politely to Mifflin’s request but refused to commit himself, on the grounds that the matter was properly the province of Congress and “might come before me for official decision.” He struck a more cynical tone in letters to friends back in Virginia: ”. . . the introduction of the Quaker Memorial, rejecting slavery, was to be sure, not only an ill-judged piece of business, but occasioned a great waste of time.” He endorsed Madison’s deft management of the debate and behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the House, which voted to prohibit any further consideration of ending the slave trade until 1808, as the Constitution specified; more significantly, Madison managed to take slavery off the national agenda by making any legislation seeking to end it a state rather than federal prerogative. Washington expressed his satisfaction that the threatening subject “has at last been put to sleep, and will scarcely awake before the year 1808.”
What strikes us as a poignant failure of moral leadership appeared to Washington as a prudent exercise of political judgment. There is no evidence that he struggled over the decision. Whatever his personal views on slavery may have been, his highest public priority was the creation of a unified American nation. The debates in the House only dramatized the intractable sectional differences he had witnessed from the chair at the Constitutional Convention. They reinforced his conviction that slavery was the one issue with the political potential to destroy the republican experiment in its infancy.
Finally, in the most dramatic delegation of all, Washington gave total responsibility for rescuing the debt-burdened American economy to his charismatic Secretary of the Treasury. Before Hamilton was appointed, in September of 1789, Washington requested financial records from the old confederation government and quickly discovered that he had inherited a messy mass of state, domestic, and foreign debt. The records were bedeviled by floating bond rates, complicated currency conversion tables, and guesswork revenue projections that, taken together, were an accountant’s worst nightmare. After making a heroic effort of his own that merely confirmed his sense of futility, Washington handed the records and fiscal policy of the new nation to his former aide-de-camp, who turned out to be, among other things, a financial genius.
Hamilton buried himself in the numbers for three months, then emerged with a 40,000-word document titled Report on Public Credit. His calculations revealed that the total debt of the United States had reached the daunting (for then) size of $77.1 million, which he divided into three separate ledgers: foreign debt ($11.7 million), federal debt ($40.4 million), and state debt ($25 million). Several generations of historians and economists have analyzed the intricacies of Hamilton’s Report and created a formidable body of scholarship on its technical complexities, but for our purposes it is sufficient to know that Hamilton’s calculations were accurate and his strategy simple: Consolidate the messy columns of foreign and domestic debt into one central pile. He proposed funding the federal debt at par, assuming all the state debts, then creating a national bank to manage all the investments and payments at the federal level.
This made excellent economic sense, as the resultant improved credit rating of the United States in foreign banks and surging productivity in the commercial sector demonstrated. But it also proved to be a political bombshell that shook Congress for more than a year. For Hamilton had managed to create, almost single-handedly, an unambiguously national economic policy that presumed the sovereign power of the federal government. He had pursued a bolder course than the more cautious framers of the Judiciary Act had followed in designing the court system, leaving no doubt that control over fiscal policy would not be brokered to accommodate the states. All three ingredients in his plan—funding, assumption, and the bank—were vigorously contested in Congress, with Madison leading the opposition. The watchword of the critics was consolidation, an ideological cousin to monarchy.
Washington did not respond. Indeed, he played no public role at all in defending Hamilton’s program during the fierce congressional debates. For his part, Hamilton never requested presidential advice or assistance, regarding control over his own bailiwick as his responsibility. A reader of their correspondence might plausibly conclude that the important topics of business were the staffing of lighthouses and the proper design of Coast Guard cutters to enforce customs collections. But no public statements were necessary, in part because Hamilton was a one-man army in defending his program, “a host unto himself,” as Jefferson later called him, and by February of 1791 the last piece of the Hamiltonian scheme, the bank, had been passed by Congress and now only required the presidential signature.
But the bank proved to be the one controversial issue that Washington could not completely delegate to Hamilton. As a symbol it was every bit as threatening, as palpable an embodiment of federal power, as a sovereign Supreme Court. As part of a last-ditch campaign to scuttle the bank, the three Virginians within Washington’s official family mobilized to attack it on constitutional grounds. Jefferson, Madison, and Randolph submitted separate briefs, all arguing that the power to create a corporation was nowhere specified by the Constitution and that the Tenth Amendment clearly stated that powers not granted to the federal government were retained by the states. Before rendering his own verdict, Washington sent the three negative opinions to Hamilton for rebuttal. His response, which exceeded 13,000 words, became a landmark in American legal history, arguing that the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8) granted implied powers to the federal government beyond the explicit powers specified in the document. Though there is some evidence that Washington was wavering before Hamilton delivered his opinion, it was not the brilliance of the opinion that persuaded him. Rather, it provided the legal rationale he needed to do what he had always wanted to do. For the truth was that Washington was just as much an economic nationalist as Hamilton, a fact that Hamilton’s virtuoso leadership throughout the yearlong debate had conveniently obscured.
As both a symbolic political centerpiece and a deft delegator of responsibility, Washington managed to levitate above the political landscape. That was his preferred position, personally because it made his natural aloofness into an asset, politically because it removed the Presidency from the partisan battles on the ground. In three policy areas, however—the location of the national capital, foreign policy, and Indian affairs—he reverted to the kind of meticulous personal management he had pursued at Mount Vernon.
What was called “the residence question” had its origins in a provision of the Constitution mandating Congress to establish a “seat of government” without specifying the location. By the spring of 1790 the debates in Congress had deteriorated into a comic parody on the gridlock theme. Sixteen different sites had been proposed, then rejected, as state and regional voting blocs mobilized against each alternative in order to preserve their own preferences. One frustrated congressman suggested that perhaps they should put the new capital on wheels and roll it from place to place. An equally frustrated newspaper editor observed that “since the usual custom is for the capital of new empires to be selected by the whim or caprice of a despot,” and since Washington “had never given bad advice to his country,” why not “let him point to a map and say ‘here’?”
That is not quite how the Potomac site emerged victorious. Madison had been leading the fight in the House for a Potomac location, earning the nickname “Big Knife” for cutting deals to block the other alternatives. (One of Madison’s most inspired arguments was that the geographic midpoint of the nation on a north-south axis was not just the mouth of the Potomac, but Mount Vernon itself, a revelation of providential proportions.) Eventually a private bargain was struck over dinner at Jefferson’s apartment, subsequently enshrined in lore as the most consequential dinner party in American history, where Hamilton agreed to deliver sufficient votes from several Northern states to clinch the Potomac location in return for Madison’s pledge to permit passage of Hamilton’s assumption bill. Actually, there were multiple behind-the-scenes bargaining sessions going on at the same time, but the notion that an apparently intractable political controversy could be resolved by a friendly conversation over port and cigars has always possessed an irresistible narrative charm. The story also conjured up the attractive picture of brotherly cooperation within his official family that Washington liked to encourage.
Soon after the Residence Act designating a Potomac location passed, in July of 1790, that newspaper editor’s suggestion (give the whole messy question to Washington) became fully operative. Jefferson feared that the Potomac site would be sabotaged if the endless management details for developing a city from scratch were left to Congress. So he proposed a thoroughly imperial solution: Bypass Congress altogether by making all subsequent decisions about architects, managers, and construction schedules an Executive responsibility, “subject to the President’s direction in every point.”
And so they were. What became Washington, D.C., was aptly named, for while the project had many troops involved in its design and construction, it had only one supreme commander. He selected the specific site on the Potomac between Rock Creek and Goose Creek, while pretending to prefer a different location to hold down the purchase price for the lots. He appointed the commissioners, who reported directly to him rather than to Congress. He chose Pierre L’Enfant as chief architect, personally endorsing L’Enfant’s plan for a huge tract encompassing nine and a half square miles and thereby rejecting Jefferson’s preference for a small village that would gradually expand in favor of a massive area that would gradually fill up. When L’Enfant’s grandiose vision led to equivalently grandiose demands—he refused to take orders from the commissioners and responded to one stubborn owner of a key lot by blowing up his house—Washington fired him. He approved the sites for the presidential mansion and the Capitol as well as the architects who designed them. All in all, he treated the nascent national capital as a public version of his Mount Vernon plantation, right down to the supervision of the slave labor force that did much of the work.
It helped that the construction site was located near Mount Vernon, so he could make regular visits to monitor progress on his trips home from the capital in Philadelphia. It also helped that Jefferson and Madison could confer with him at the site on their trips back to Monticello and Montpelier. At a time when both Virginians were leading the opposition to Hamilton’s financial program, their cooperation on this ongoing project served to bridge the widening chasm within the official family over the Hamiltonian vision of federal power. However therapeutic the cooperation, it belied a fundamental disagreement over the political implications of their mutual interests in the Federal City, as it was then called. For Jefferson and Madison regarded the Potomac location of the permanent capital as a guarantee of Virginia’s abiding hegemony within the Union, as a form of geographic assurance, if you will, that the government would always speak with a Southern accent. Washington thought more expansively, envisioning the capital as a focusing device for national energies that would overcome regional jealousies, performing the same unifying function geographically that he performed symbolically. His personal hobbyhorse became a national university within the capital, where the brightest young men from all regions could congregate and share a common experience as Americans that helped to “rub off” their sectional habits and accents.
His hands-on approach toward foreign policy was only slightly less direct than his control of the Potomac project, and the basic principles underlying Washington’s view of the national interest were present from the start. Most elementally, he was a thoroughgoing realist. Though he embraced republican ideals, he believed that the behavior of nations was driven not by ideals but by interests. This put him at odds ideologically and temperamentally with his Secretary of State, since Jefferson was one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the belief that American ideals were American interests. Jefferson’s recent experience in Paris as a witness to the onset of the French Revolution had only confirmed his conviction that a global struggle on behalf of those ideals had just begun and that it had a moral claim on American support. Washington was pleased to receive the key to the Bastille from Lafavette; he also knew as well as or better than anyone else that the victory over Great Britain would have been impossible without French economic and military assistance. But he was determined to prevent his warm memories of Rochambeau’s soldiers and de Grasse’s ships at Yorktown from influencing his judgment about the long-term interests of the United States.
Those interests, he was convinced, did not lie across the Atlantic but across the Alleghenies. The chief task, as Washington saw it, was to consolidate control of the North American continent east of the Mississippi. Although Jefferson had never been west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he shared Washington’s preference for Western vistas. (During his own Presidency Jefferson would do more than anyone to expand those vistas beyond the Mississippi to the Pacific.)
Tight presidential control over foreign policy was unavoidable at the start because Jefferson did not come on board until March of 1790. Washington immediately delegated all routine business to him but preserved his own private lines of communication on French developments, describing reports of escalating bloodshed he received from Paris “as if they were the events of another planet.” His cautionary posture toward revolutionary France received reinforcement from Gouverneur Morris, a willfully eccentric and thoroughly irreverent American in Paris whom Washington cultivated as a correspondent. Morris described France’s revolutionary leaders as “a Fleet at Anchor in the fog,” and he dismissed as a hopelessly romantic illusion Jefferson’s view that a Gallic version of 1776 was under way. The American Revolution, Morris observed, had been guided by experience and light, while the French were obsessed with experiment and lightning.
Washington’s supervisory style, as well as his realistic foreign-policy convictions, was put on display when a potential crisis surfaced in the summer of 1790. A minor incident involving Great Britain and Spain in Nootka Sound (near modern-day Vancouver) prompted a major appraisal of American national interests. The British appeared poised to use the incident to launch an invasion from Canada down the Mississippi, to displace Spain as the dominant European power in the American West. This threatened to change the entire strategic chemistry on the continent and raised the daunting prospect of another war with Great Britain.
Washington convened his Cabinet in Executive session, thereby making clear for the first time that the Cabinet and not the more cumbersome Senate would be his advisory council on foreign policy. He solicited written opinions from all the major players, including Adams, Hamilton, Jay, Jefferson, and Knox. The crisis fizzled away when the British decided to back off, but during the deliberations two revealing facts became clearer, first that Washington was resolved to avoid war at any cost, convinced that the fragile American Republic was neither militarily nor economically capable of confronting the British leviathan at this time, and second that Hamilton’s strategic assessment, not Jefferson’s, was more closely aligned with his own, which turned out to be a preview of coming attractions.
Strictly speaking, the federal government’s relations with the Native American tribes were also a foreign-policy matter. From the start, however, with Jefferson arriving late on the scene, Indian affairs came under the authority of the Secretary of War. As ominous as this might appear in retrospect, Knox took responsibility for negotiating the disputed terms of several treaties approved by the Confederation Congress. For both personal and policy reasons Washington wanted his own hand firmly on this particular tiller, and his intimate relationship with Knox assured a seamless coordination guided by his own judgment. He had been present at the start of the struggle for control of the American interior, and he regarded the final fate of the Indian inhabitants as an important piece of unfinished business that must not be allowed to end on a tragic note.
At the policy level, if America’s future lay to the west, as Washington believed, it followed that the region between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi merited Executive attention more than the diplomatic doings in Europe. Knox estimated that about 76,000 Indians lived in the region, about 20,000 of them warriors, which meant that venerable tribal chiefs like Cornplanter and Joseph Brant deserved more cultivation as valuable allies than did heads of state across the Atlantic. At the personal level, Washington had experienced Indian power firsthand. As commander of the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War, he saw Native Americans not as exotic savages but as familiar and formidable adversaries fighting for their own independence, behaving pretty much as he would do in their place. Moreover, the letters the new President received from several tribal chiefs provided poignant testimony that they now regarded him as their personal protector. “Brother,” wrote one Cherokee chief, “we give up to our white brothers all the land we could any how spare, and have but little left. . . and we hope you wont let any people take any more from us without our consent. We are neither Birds nor Fish; we can neither fly in the air nor live under water. . . .We are made by the same hand and in the same shape as yourselves.”
Such pleas did not fall on deaf ears. Working closely with Knox, Washington devised a policy designed to create several sovereign Indian “homelands.” He concurred when Knox insisted that “the independent tribes of indians ought to be considered as foreign nations, not as the subjects of any particular State.” Treaties with these tribes ought to be regarded as binding contracts with the federal government, whose jurisdiction could not be compromised: “Indians being the prior occupants possess the right of the Soil. . . . To dispossess them . . . would be a gross violation of the fundamental Laws of Nature and of that distributive Justice which is the glory of a nation.” A more coercive policy of outright confiscation, Washington believed, would constitute a moral failure that “would stain the character of the nation.” He sought to avoid the outcome—Indian removal—that occurred more than 40 years later under Andrew Jackson. Instead, he envisioned multiple sanctuaries under tribal control that would be bypassed by the surging wave of white settlers and whose occupants would gradually, over the course of the next century, become assimilated as full-fledged American citizens.
Attempting to make this vision a reality occupied more of Washington’s time and energy than any other foreign or domestic issue during his first term. Success depended on finding leaders willing to negotiate yet powerful enough to impose a settlement on other tribes. Knox and Washington found a charismatic Creek chief of mixed blood named Alexander McGillivray, a literate man whose diplomatic skills and survival instincts made him the Indian version of France’s Talleyrand, and in the summer of 1790 Washington hosted McGillivray and 26 chiefs for several weeks of official dinners, parades, and diplomatic ceremonies more lavish than any European delegation enjoyed. (McGillivray expected and received a personal bribe of $1,200 a year to offset the bribe the Spanish were already paying him not to negotiate with the Americans.) Washington and the chiefs locked arms in Indian style and invoked the Great Spirit, and then the chiefs made their marks on the Treaty of New York, redrawing the borders for a sovereign Creek Nation. Washington reinforced the terms of the treaty by issuing the Proclamation of 1790, an Executive Order forbidding private or state encroachments on all Indian lands guaranteed by treaty with the United States.
But the President soon found that it was one thing to proclaim and quite another to sustain. The Georgia legislature defied the proclamation by making a thoroughly corrupt bargain to sell more than 15 million acres on its western border to speculators calling themselves the Yazoo Companies, thereby rendering the Treaty of New York a worthless piece of paper. In the northern district above the Ohio, no equivalent to McGillivray could be found, mostly because the Six Nations, which Washington could remember as a potent force in the region, had been virtually destroyed in the War for Independence and could no longer exercise hegemony over the Ohio Valley tribes.
Washington was forced to approve a series of military expeditions into the Ohio Valley to put down uprisings by the Miamis, Wyandots, and Shawnees, even though he believed that the chief culprits were white vigilante groups determined to provoke hostilities. The Indian side of the story, he complained, would never make it into the history books: “They, poor wretches, have no press thro’ which their grievances are related; and it is well known, that when one side only of a Story is heard, and often repeated, the human mind becomes impressed with it, insensibly.” Worse still, the expedition commanded by Arthur St. Clair was virtually annihilated in the fall of 1791—reading St. Clair’s battle orders is like watching Custer prepare for the Little Bighorn—thereby creating white martyrs and provoking congressional cries for reprisals in what had become an escalating cycle of violence that defied Washington’s efforts at conciliation.
Eventually the President was forced to acknowledge that his vision of secure Indian sanctuaries could not be enforced. “I believe scarcely any thing short of a Chinese wall,” he lamented, “will restrain Land jobbers and the encroachment of settlers upon the Indian country.” Knox concurred, estimating that federal control on the frontier would require an arc of forts from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico, garrisoned by no less than 50,000 troops. This was a logistical, economic, and political impossibility. Washington’s vision of peaceful coexistence also required that federal jurisdiction over the states as the ultimate guarantor of all treaties be recognized as supreme, which helps explain why he was so passionate about the issue, but also why it could never happen. If a just accommodation with the Native American populations was the major preoccupation of his first term, it was also the singular failure.
By the spring of 1792, then, what Washington had imagined as a brief caretaker Presidency with mostly ceremonial functions had grown into a judicious but potent projection of Executive power. The Presidency so vaguely defined in the Constitution had congealed into a unique synthesis of symbolism and substance, its occupant the embodiment of that work in progress called the United States and the chief magistrate with supervisory responsibility for all domestic and foreign policy, in effect an elected king and prime minister rolled into one. There was a sense at the time, since confirmed by most historians of the Presidency, that no one else could have managed this political evolution so successfully, indeed that under anyone else the experiment with republican government would probably have failed at the start. Eventually the operation of the federal government under the Constitution would be described as “a machine that ran itself.” At the outset, however, the now venerable checks and balances of the Constitution required a trusted leader who had internalized checks and balances sufficiently to understand both the need for Executive power and the limitations of its effectiveness. He made the Presidency a projection of himself.
Washington tried to step down after those first four years and, perhaps predictably, failed. His second term was increasingly full of rancor, with dramatic developments in Europe and mounting tensions between Jefferson and Hamilton within his Cabinet that together threatened to destroy all he had accomplished. But fierce though these conflicts were, they weren’t powerful enough to destroy the foundation that Washington had built, and they haven’t managed to yet.