Inventing The Presidency

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THERE WERE NO PRIMARIES BACK THEN TO SELECT presidential candidates, no organized political parties, no orchestrated campaigns, not even any established election procedures. But it really didn’t matter, because when the votes of that odd invention called the Electoral College were cast in February of 1789, George Washington had in effect won by acclamation. While no one could agree what kind of republican government the principles of the American Revolution required, all could agree that Washington embodied those principles more fully and fittingly than anyone else. His trip from Mount Vernon to the temporary capital in New York that April was a prolonged coronation ceremony: rose petals strewn in his path, choirs singing his praises to the tune of “God Save the King,” and even a laurel wreath lowered onto his noble head. The inauguration was a more republican affair. Washington wore a simple suit of black velvet; and the ceremony itself had to be delayed for almost two weeks until a sufficient number of congressmen arrived. They were all, Washington included, making it up as they went along.

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.

PRESIDING AT THE PRESIDENCY

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.