- Historic Sites
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
Washington did not respond. Indeed, he played no public role at all in defending Hamilton’s program during the fierce congressional debates. For his part, Hamilton never requested presidential advice or assistance, regarding control over his own bailiwick as his responsibility. A reader of their correspondence might plausibly conclude that the important topics of business were the staffing of lighthouses and the proper design of Coast Guard cutters to enforce customs collections. But no public statements were necessary, in part because Hamilton was a one-man army in defending his program, “a host unto himself,” as Jefferson later called him, and by February of 1791 the last piece of the Hamiltonian scheme, the bank, had been passed by Congress and now only required the presidential signature.
But the bank proved to be the one controversial issue that Washington could not completely delegate to Hamilton. As a symbol it was every bit as threatening, as palpable an embodiment of federal power, as a sovereign Supreme Court. As part of a last-ditch campaign to scuttle the bank, the three Virginians within Washington’s official family mobilized to attack it on constitutional grounds. Jefferson, Madison, and Randolph submitted separate briefs, all arguing that the power to create a corporation was nowhere specified by the Constitution and that the Tenth Amendment clearly stated that powers not granted to the federal government were retained by the states. Before rendering his own verdict, Washington sent the three negative opinions to Hamilton for rebuttal. His response, which exceeded 13,000 words, became a landmark in American legal history, arguing that the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8) granted implied powers to the federal government beyond the explicit powers specified in the document. Though there is some evidence that Washington was wavering before Hamilton delivered his opinion, it was not the brilliance of the opinion that persuaded him. Rather, it provided the legal rationale he needed to do what he had always wanted to do. For the truth was that Washington was just as much an economic nationalist as Hamilton, a fact that Hamilton’s virtuoso leadership throughout the yearlong debate had conveniently obscured.
As both a symbolic political centerpiece and a deft delegator of responsibility, Washington managed to levitate above the political landscape. That was his preferred position, personally because it made his natural aloofness into an asset, politically because it removed the Presidency from the partisan battles on the ground. In three policy areas, however—the location of the national capital, foreign policy, and Indian affairs—he reverted to the kind of meticulous personal management he had pursued at Mount Vernon.
What was called “the residence question” had its origins in a provision of the Constitution mandating Congress to establish a “seat of government” without specifying the location. By the spring of 1790 the debates in Congress had deteriorated into a comic parody on the gridlock theme. Sixteen different sites had been proposed, then rejected, as state and regional voting blocs mobilized against each alternative in order to preserve their own preferences. One frustrated congressman suggested that perhaps they should put the new capital on wheels and roll it from place to place. An equally frustrated newspaper editor observed that “since the usual custom is for the capital of new empires to be selected by the whim or caprice of a despot,” and since Washington “had never given bad advice to his country,” why not “let him point to a map and say ‘here’?”
That is not quite how the Potomac site emerged victorious. Madison had been leading the fight in the House for a Potomac location, earning the nickname “Big Knife” for cutting deals to block the other alternatives. (One of Madison’s most inspired arguments was that the geographic midpoint of the nation on a north-south axis was not just the mouth of the Potomac, but Mount Vernon itself, a revelation of providential proportions.) Eventually a private bargain was struck over dinner at Jefferson’s apartment, subsequently enshrined in lore as the most consequential dinner party in American history, where Hamilton agreed to deliver sufficient votes from several Northern states to clinch the Potomac location in return for Madison’s pledge to permit passage of Hamilton’s assumption bill. Actually, there were multiple behind-the-scenes bargaining sessions going on at the same time, but the notion that an apparently intractable political controversy could be resolved by a friendly conversation over port and cigars has always possessed an irresistible narrative charm. The story also conjured up the attractive picture of brotherly cooperation within his official family that Washington liked to encourage.
Soon after the Residence Act designating a Potomac location passed, in July of 1790, that newspaper editor’s suggestion (give the whole messy question to Washington) became fully operative. Jefferson feared that the Potomac site would be sabotaged if the endless management details for developing a city from scratch were left to Congress. So he proposed a thoroughly imperial solution: Bypass Congress altogether by making all subsequent decisions about architects, managers, and construction schedules an Executive responsibility, “subject to the President’s direction in every point.”