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Inventing The Presidency
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
October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
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.