Inventing The Presidency

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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.