Inventing The Presidency


Tight presidential control over foreign policy was unavoidable at the start because Jefferson did not come on board until March of 1790. Washington immediately delegated all routine business to him but preserved his own private lines of communication on French developments, describing reports of escalating bloodshed he received from Paris “as if they were the events of another planet.” His cautionary posture toward revolutionary France received reinforcement from Gouverneur Morris, a willfully eccentric and thoroughly irreverent American in Paris whom Washington cultivated as a correspondent. Morris described France’s revolutionary leaders as “a Fleet at Anchor in the fog,” and he dismissed as a hopelessly romantic illusion Jefferson’s view that a Gallic version of 1776 was under way. The American Revolution, Morris observed, had been guided by experience and light, while the French were obsessed with experiment and lightning.

Washington’s supervisory style, as well as his realistic foreign-policy convictions, was put on display when a potential crisis surfaced in the summer of 1790. A minor incident involving Great Britain and Spain in Nootka Sound (near modern-day Vancouver) prompted a major appraisal of American national interests. The British appeared poised to use the incident to launch an invasion from Canada down the Mississippi, to displace Spain as the dominant European power in the American West. This threatened to change the entire strategic chemistry on the continent and raised the daunting prospect of another war with Great Britain.

A just accommodation with the Native American populations was perhaps the major preoccupation of Washington’s first term. It was also the singular failure.

Washington convened his Cabinet in Executive session, thereby making clear for the first time that the Cabinet and not the more cumbersome Senate would be his advisory council on foreign policy. He solicited written opinions from all the major players, including Adams, Hamilton, Jay, Jefferson, and Knox. The crisis fizzled away when the British decided to back off, but during the deliberations two revealing facts became clearer, first that Washington was resolved to avoid war at any cost, convinced that the fragile American Republic was neither militarily nor economically capable of confronting the British leviathan at this time, and second that Hamilton’s strategic assessment, not Jefferson’s, was more closely aligned with his own, which turned out to be a preview of coming attractions.

Strictly speaking, the federal government’s relations with the Native American tribes were also a foreign-policy matter. From the start, however, with Jefferson arriving late on the scene, Indian affairs came under the authority of the Secretary of War. As ominous as this might appear in retrospect, Knox took responsibility for negotiating the disputed terms of several treaties approved by the Confederation Congress. For both personal and policy reasons Washington wanted his own hand firmly on this particular tiller, and his intimate relationship with Knox assured a seamless coordination guided by his own judgment. He had been present at the start of the struggle for control of the American interior, and he regarded the final fate of the Indian inhabitants as an important piece of unfinished business that must not be allowed to end on a tragic note.

At the policy level, if America’s future lay to the west, as Washington believed, it followed that the region between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi merited Executive attention more than the diplomatic doings in Europe. Knox estimated that about 76,000 Indians lived in the region, about 20,000 of them warriors, which meant that venerable tribal chiefs like Cornplanter and Joseph Brant deserved more cultivation as valuable allies than did heads of state across the Atlantic. At the personal level, Washington had experienced Indian power firsthand. As commander of the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War, he saw Native Americans not as exotic savages but as familiar and formidable adversaries fighting for their own independence, behaving pretty much as he would do in their place. Moreover, the letters the new President received from several tribal chiefs provided poignant testimony that they now regarded him as their personal protector. “Brother,” wrote one Cherokee chief, “we give up to our white brothers all the land we could any how spare, and have but little left. . . and we hope you wont let any people take any more from us without our consent. We are neither Birds nor Fish; we can neither fly in the air nor live under water. . . .We are made by the same hand and in the same shape as yourselves.”