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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
Honoring his pledge to visit all the states, Washington set off on a tour of New England in the fall of 1789. Everywhere he went, New Englanders became Americans.
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.