Inventing The Presidency

Just as he had avoided an all-or-nothing battle with the British, choosing when to avoid conflict struck him as the essence of effective presidential leadership.

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.