- 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
And so they were. What became Washington, D.C., was aptly named, for while the project had many troops involved in its design and construction, it had only one supreme commander. He selected the specific site on the Potomac between Rock Creek and Goose Creek, while pretending to prefer a different location to hold down the purchase price for the lots. He appointed the commissioners, who reported directly to him rather than to Congress. He chose Pierre L’Enfant as chief architect, personally endorsing L’Enfant’s plan for a huge tract encompassing nine and a half square miles and thereby rejecting Jefferson’s preference for a small village that would gradually expand in favor of a massive area that would gradually fill up. When L’Enfant’s grandiose vision led to equivalently grandiose demands—he refused to take orders from the commissioners and responded to one stubborn owner of a key lot by blowing up his house—Washington fired him. He approved the sites for the presidential mansion and the Capitol as well as the architects who designed them. All in all, he treated the nascent national capital as a public version of his Mount Vernon plantation, right down to the supervision of the slave labor force that did much of the work.
Washington rejected Thomas Jefferson’s preference for a small village that would gradually expand in favor of a massive area that would gradually fill up.
It helped that the construction site was located near Mount Vernon, so he could make regular visits to monitor progress on his trips home from the capital in Philadelphia. It also helped that Jefferson and Madison could confer with him at the site on their trips back to Monticello and Montpelier. At a time when both Virginians were leading the opposition to Hamilton’s financial program, their cooperation on this ongoing project served to bridge the widening chasm within the official family over the Hamiltonian vision of federal power. However therapeutic the cooperation, it belied a fundamental disagreement over the political implications of their mutual interests in the Federal City, as it was then called. For Jefferson and Madison regarded the Potomac location of the permanent capital as a guarantee of Virginia’s abiding hegemony within the Union, as a form of geographic assurance, if you will, that the government would always speak with a Southern accent. Washington thought more expansively, envisioning the capital as a focusing device for national energies that would overcome regional jealousies, performing the same unifying function geographically that he performed symbolically. His personal hobbyhorse became a national university within the capital, where the brightest young men from all regions could congregate and share a common experience as Americans that helped to “rub off” their sectional habits and accents.
His hands-on approach toward foreign policy was only slightly less direct than his control of the Potomac project, and the basic principles underlying Washington’s view of the national interest were present from the start. Most elementally, he was a thoroughgoing realist. Though he embraced republican ideals, he believed that the behavior of nations was driven not by ideals but by interests. This put him at odds ideologically and temperamentally with his Secretary of State, since Jefferson was one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the belief that American ideals were American interests. Jefferson’s recent experience in Paris as a witness to the onset of the French Revolution had only confirmed his conviction that a global struggle on behalf of those ideals had just begun and that it had a moral claim on American support. Washington was pleased to receive the key to the Bastille from Lafavette; he also knew as well as or better than anyone else that the victory over Great Britain would have been impossible without French economic and military assistance. But he was determined to prevent his warm memories of Rochambeau’s soldiers and de Grasse’s ships at Yorktown from influencing his judgment about the long-term interests of the United States.
Those interests, he was convinced, did not lie across the Atlantic but across the Alleghenies. The chief task, as Washington saw it, was to consolidate control of the North American continent east of the Mississippi. Although Jefferson had never been west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he shared Washington’s preference for Western vistas. (During his own Presidency Jefferson would do more than anyone to expand those vistas beyond the Mississippi to the Pacific.)