October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
Probably because there was so much disagreement at the Constitutional Convention on matters of detail, the Constitution there established was little more than a skeleton. How the government would function in a thousand different particulars remained to be worked out at its beginning.
Only general directions were, for instance, charted for the boundaries between the three great divisions: executive, legislative, and judicial. The government could have ended up, not in its present form, but much closer to the British parliamentary system, with the executive departments subservient to the legislature. Or, had Washington been a different man, the legislative could have become subservient to the executive.
The first session of the new government was thus almost as important to the American future as the Constitutional Convention had been. The Congress and President Washington needed to determine their respective pulls and invent their harnesses while at the same time dragging along the coach of state.
Fortunately the landscape through which they had to move the nation, during that spring and summer of 1789, could not have been more smiling. If Providence was, as Washington liked to believe, watching over the daring American experiment in popular rule, surely that benign power made no greater gift than a period of tranquillity, commercial prosperity, and bountiful harvests during which the government could find internal agreement with no outside interference beyond a few Indian raids on scattered frontiers.
In Europe, it is true, there exploded on July 14 one of the most crucial events in all modern history: the storming of the Bastille. However, the news did not reach America until the autumn, and Washington later wrote that the happenings in France seemed as far away as if they were “of another Planet.” He did not deceive himself: he knew that France’s troubles were far from over. But fortunately, the worst of what Washington feared lay in the future. Since the stresses that developed in America when the French boiler finally exploded came close to tearing apart a government that had had a few years to establish itself, it seems likely that, had the timetable in France been pushed ahead by three years, the union set up by the Constitution could have foundered before it could get well afloat.
As it was, the new government was permitted the luxury of opening with an argument, then altogether theoretical and abstract, on titles and etiquette. Before any further issues had any real chance to ripen, the strong hand was removed from the helm. The President seemed at the point of death.
On June 13 Washington had developed a high fever and a pain in his thigh. New York’s leading physician, Dr. Samuel Bard, found a tumor that was reported to indicate anthrax. According to a believable anecdote, Washington asked the doctor for a frank report on his chances: “I am not afraid to die, and, therefore, can bear the worst.” Martha was to write, “He seemed less concerned himself as to the event than any other person in the United States.”
Samuel Bard called in as a consultant his seventy-three-year-old father, John Bard (for which the old gentleman charged twenty-five pounds). Father and son agreed that Washington’s only hope lay in an immediate operation.
According to the biographer of the Bards, the infection proved, when the tumor was laid open, to have spread farther than had been foreseen. This was, of course, before the discovery of any effective way of relieving pain. As the son quailed at the prospect before him, the elder Bard cried, “Cut away—deeper, deeper still, don’t be afraid, you see how well he bears it!” Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear wrote that the tumor was “very large and the incision on opening it deep.”
The operation was so complete a success that Washington’s fever was gone in five days. However, it took a long time for the incision to heal. Week after week he lay perpetually on his side, raising himself a little on the settee when it was necessary to receive visitors. Forty days of the new government’s first summer had passed before the doctors would allow the President to return to his desk, and it was four months before he felt completely recovered.
As he resumed his duties, Washington found himself and the Vice President the only members of the executive branch of the new government. He could make no appointments until Congress created the offices to which the appointments would be made. Pending that time, he had to assist him a few holdovers from the organization established under the Articles of Confederation by the defunct Continental Congress. Secretary of War Henry Knox and Secretary for Foreign Affairs John Jay were carrying on as “temporary Secretaries.” There were a Treasury Board and a few minor functionaries, a regular army slightly below its authorized strength of 840 men, and a smattering of clerks whose salaries were in arrears. The foreign service consisted principally of Thomas Jefferson in Paris.
With his acting secretaries, Washington inaugurated at once the system of having them handle all ordinary matters. Although the Constitution stated that the President should “receive” top foreign representatives, Washington refused to discuss Franco-American relations directly with the French minister, the Comte de Moustier. He did not, he wrote, intend to allow any official “to erect a wall between me and the Diplomatic Corps,” yet under normal circumstances business that came to the President should have been first “digested and prepared” by the head of the relevant department.
Washington’s relations with the Vice President were not open to such clear definition. He had no urge for close collaboration with the incumbent, John Adams, who had made him so much trouble when he was Commander in Chief. And Adams himself was neither conciliatory nor eager to partake in the executive administration. Sure that he would be made the scapegoat if things went wrong, he feared favoring the President with advice. Thus the Vice Presidency was established in the backwater from which it has never emerged.
Although Jay and Knox were old friends, Washington did not use these holdovers from the old government as such general advisers as he was later to make the members of his own cabinet. He turned for the help he so often desired primarily to the fellow Virginian who had been one of the major architects of the Constitution. He was perpetually summoning James Madison, sending him written requests for advice. Although Madison never became an official spokesman for the administration, his closeness to Washington was well known. The opening of the government thus presented an anomalous picture: the man who was as much of a prime minister as the President was the outstanding member of the House of Representatives.
The provisions in the Constitution concerning what was to become the President’s cabinet were indicative of how much was left to be decided. Washington, indeed, first used the word “cabinet” on April 18, 1793, when asking for advice on what steps to take in regard to the war that had just broken out between England and France. The constitutional power of the President to appoint, with the approval of the Senate, all the important non-elective officers included the department heads. However, the only actual authority Washington was given over them was a minor one: he might require of them opinions relating to the duties of their offices. And Congress was given the power to assign directly to the department heads (bypassing the President) the appointment of “inferior Officers.”
To secure a single executive rather than a committee, and to have him elected by the people rather than by Congress, had been among the most difficult tasks of the Constitutional Convention. The matter was still undecided two weeks before adjournment. There were many political leaders who still wished the executive limited to putting into effect the will of the legislative, and these saw their opportunity when Congress set up the executive departments. The controversy that developed turned on this question: Who should have the power to discharge the executive officials?
Opponents of a strong President argued that the constitutional provision that the President could appoint only with the approval of the Senate implied he would also have to secure such approval before he could dismiss. This would mean, of course, that a department head who opposed or even blocked the President’s policies could be kept in office against the President’s wishes by a majority of the Senate. It was argued on the other side that this would prevent the President from being master in his own house.
With Madison laboring mightly in the vineyard, the House of Representatives voted against supporting senatorial interference in presidential dismissals. But the Senate proved so evenly divided that the final vote was a tie, which Adams, as presiding officer, broke by coming out for an independent executive.
Since the matter was so closely contested even with the prestigious Washington in the executive chair, it is hard to doubt that if anyone else had been President, the vote would have gone the other way. This would have resulted in a very different form of government. Since the President’s top assistants would have been no more accountable to him than to the Congress, he could have been placed in the position—like that of a modern constitutional monarch—of a figurehead.
Foreign policy having been established in the Constitution as the President’s province, Washington did not hesitate to assert his primacy in diplomatic affairs. Thus, when the French king notified “the President and members of the General Congress” that the Dauphin had died, Washington, in sending condolences, pointed out that “the honor of receiving and answering” such communications no longer in any way involved the Congress; it was solely his own.
Concerning treaties, however, the Constitution stipulated that the President had to seek the Senate’s “advice and consent.” This provision, along with the need for senatorial approval of appointments, required the establishment of lines of communication between the Chief Executive and the Senate. Washington had hardly risen from his sickbed when, with Madison advising him closely, he set out to regularize those lines.
The most important precedent was soon established by a confrontation full of comic overtones. Having drafted instructions for a commission he had appointed, with Senate approval, to negotiate a treaty with the Creeks, Washington went with Secretary Knox to the Senate chamber seeking advice and consent.
The radical senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania scented indignity to the legislature at the very start when the President “took our Vice President’s chair” and Knox sat beside him facing the house, while Adams, although he was the Senate’s presiding officer, joined the senators below the dais.
Having been handed by Knox the proposed text of the treaty, Adams stood up and started to read it aloud. “Carriages were driving past, and such a noise!” Maclay noted. “I could tell it was something about ‘Indians,’ but was not master of one sentence of it. Signs were made to the door-keeper to shut down the sashes.” It was now possible to hear a little, but the reading had gone on to supplementary documents. This finished, Adams asked for advice and consent to the first section of the treaty instructions.
Robert Morris suggested that the section be read again. It was. Adams asked again for advice and consent. Maclay then rose to say, “The business is new to the Senate. It is of importance. It is our duty to inform ourselves.” He requested the reading of some additional papers that had been mentioned. Washington, he felt, was surveying him with “stern displeasure.”
The reading of documents began; various members asked to hear others; there was the usual confusion of random discussion; and Washington finally agreed to postpone consideration of the first article. On to the secondl A matter came up referring to Georgia, and a member from that state asked that it be postponed till Monday. Maclay was gleefully putting his shoulder to the wheel of confusion, since he “saw no chance of a fair investigation … while the President of the United States sat there, with his Secretary of War, to support his opinions and overawe the timid and neutral part of the Senate.” However, it was Washington’s own crony Morris who moved that the papers brought by the President be submitted to a committee for study.
Washington started up in what Maclay called “a violent fret.” He cried, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!” He had brought Knox with him to present all the necessary information, “and yet he was delayed and could not go on with the matter!”
Maclay described Washington cooling “by degrees.” The President finally agreed to a postponement till Monday. Then he departed “with a discontented air. Had it been any other man than the man whom I wish to regard as the first character in the world, I would have said, with sullen dignity.”
On Monday Washington reappeared, well in control of himself. “He was placid and serene, and manifested a spirit of accommodation.” Although in the end he achieved his purpose—only minor changes were made in the treaty instructions—Washington had to sit hour after hour, listening to an inconsequential and boring debate. As he finally departed from the Senate chamber, he was overheard to say that “he would be damned if he ever went there again.”
The British system, in which the Prime Minister defends his policies before Parliament, demonstrates that it is possible so to set up a government that there can be effective personal meetings between the chief executive and the legislature. But in the United States Washington had forever slammed that door. He never again consulted the Senate in person. No President has ever taken part, in the British manner, in parliamentary debates.
Washington still sometimes sent the secretaries of War or Foreign Affairs to the Senate to deliver documents that would help the senators advise, but the idea seems already to have been growing in his mind that if there were to be any effective foreign negotiations, the prior advice of the Senate would have to be skimped in favor of ultimate consent. Otherwise, the negotiators’ hands would be tied before the negotiation started. They might, indeed, be further embarrassed by what seemed a public commitment, since the senators might leak decisions to the newspapers. Concerning the most important foreign negotiations he faced —those with England—Washington resolved to proceed in an unofficial manner that would, among other things, obviate the necessity of consulting the Senate.
England had never fully recognized the victor of the Revolution by appointing a minister to the United States. Since America had retaliated in 1788 by calling John Adams home, official relations between the two nations were in abeyance. However, a British consul, Sir John Temple, appeared in New York and handed to Jay a series of questions from his government concerning American foreign trade, produce, population, and the matter of whether a new system of justice would aid “the recovery of British debts according to treaty.”
Washington did not respond by sending to London a consul bearing any official document. He preferred to inquire informally, through “a special agent,” whether the British were willing to change their legislation aimed at curbing American commerce, and whether they would also evacuate the western posts they were holding in violation of the peace treaty. It seemed to Washington natural to select as a personal envoy a personal friend; and one of his closest friends, Gouverneur Morris, was already in Europe.
Washington had first met Morris in New York in 1776, as the General was trying to prepare for the impending onslaught of British armed might. Morris had been sent to him by the local congress as a member of a secret committee. Later, at Valley Forge, Morris appeared as a representative of the Continental Congress and proved immensely helpful in straightening out the desperate supply situation. By then the New York patrician had moved to Philadelphia to become a partner of Robert Morris, who, despite the similarity of names, was no relation. As inflation threatened to wash the cause under, the two Morrises established a little bank that did something to stem the tide. They became Washington’s first mentors on the sophistications of finance, as they were also to a much more eager pupil, Alexander Hamilton.
Gouverneur Morris was arrogant, intolerant of fools, and possessed of such a reputation for licentiousness that it was generally believed that the leg he had lost in a carriage accident had come off as the result of an injury he received when jumping out of a lady’s window as the husband unexpectedly came upstairs. Boasting that he “never knew the sensations of fear, embarrassment, or inferiority,” Morris was as cocksure as he was arrogant. An inveterate prankster, much too elegantly dressed for the taste of simple republicans, he never hesitated to use his quick wit to humiliate men less brilliant than he. Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire wrote that Morris was “for brass equal to any I am acquainted with.”
Despite the objections of Jay and Madison but with the support of Hamilton, Washington entrusted to his mercurial friend the most difficult diplomatic mission of the new government, thereby bringing into the American foreign service (if through the back door) one of the most picturesque and, in the upshot, important characters it was ever to boast. Washington did not notify the Senate, since the Constitution did not require him to do so.
Washington was always careful not to overstep. “Few who are not philosophical spectators,” he wrote, “can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation had to act. … I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct wch. may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.”
Among Washington’s most important contributions to the emerging government was his restraint in exerting his great power beyond what he considered the legitimate province of the executive. Although, like any other citizen, he felt entitled to express his personal opinions to his friends, even if they happened to be legislators, he did not in any official or concerted way use his charisma or his office to influence legislative debates. Nor did he attempt to achieve by executive order any matter that the strictest interpretation of the Constitution could regard as within the legislative domain. The separation of powers has never known a more devoted champion.
Hamilton had explained in The Federalist that the veto power was essential to enable the President to protect his office from legislative usurpation. Washington found no such need. Perhaps because he himself so religiously avoided encroaching on the legislative, the effort in the two houses to curb the Presidency collapsed with the effort to give the Senate a hand in executive dismissals. From then on, Congress showered powers and responsibilities on the President.
Not only did the Senate forego its constitutional right to appoint secondary administrative officials, but it threw even such minor appointments as those of lighthouse keepers to the Chief Executive. Washington became so busy he could find no time to deal with his personal correspondence.
“To a man who has no ends to serve, nor friends to provide for,” he wrote, “nomination to office is the most irksome part of the Executive trust.” Before any offices at all had been created by Congress, the flood of applications stormed in: it crested to between 2,500 and 3,000 appeals. Washington did his best to avoid interviews, but men would appear at his levees to add verbal pleas to the hard-luck stories that came in with every mail. Many applicants, otherwise obviously unsuitable, were veterans who had fought at Washington’s side; many were old friends or sons of old friends.
In a manner absolutely contradictory to the aristocratic governments with which the United States was then surrounded, Washington was determined not to be swayed by any personal considerations of blood or friendship. However, in a nation as large as the United States, at a time when travel was so much rarer than now and communications so slow, to identify in a distant state the right man for an office required endless interviews and correspondence. Even John Adams admired Washington’s industry and impartiality: “He seeks information from all quarters, and judges more independently than any man I ever knew.”
The various great departments were set up in separate bills. Revealing how little the new government, behind its ocean, was concerned with diplomacy, the title of Secretary for Foreign Affairs was changed to Secretary of State, and the duties of the office were expanded to include nearly all domestic operations except war and finance. The War Department was set up much as before. An Attorney General was to serve on a part-time basis as legal adviser for the executive.
It was with establishing the Treasury that Congress went into the most detail. Revealing a typical eighteenth-century respect for the power of the purse, the legislature established connections with the Secretary that did not pass through the Presidency. The Secretary should be directly responsive to Congress for information and should, at the request of the House, “digest and prepare” plans for the improvement and management of revenue. These provisions were intended to enable Congress to lead the Treasury: it was not foreseen that they would work the opposite way.
Washington reappointed Knox as Secretary of War. Since the functions of the Attorney General were so limited, he felt he could use the office to satisfy his desire to have at his side a man with whom he had “habits of intimacy.” He appointed Edmund Randolph, whom he had known since the younger man was a boy, who had served briefly as one of his military aides, and who, after first refusing to sign, had come around to the Constitution and helped make Virginia ratify.
Jay, as Secretary for Foreign Affairs, was the obvious choice for the enlarged office of State. However, Washington waited to discuss the matter with him until the post had been officially established. Then Jay expressed a preference for the Chief-Justiceship. After a hurried conference with Madison, Washington agreed to give Jay what he wanted.
And so he decided to offer State to his friend and Madison’s mentor and the only important official in the foreign service: Thomas Jefferson, then on the ocean returning from France for a visit to Virginia.
Robert Morris was, as a senator, unavailable for the Treasury; Gouverneur Morris was abroad. The obvious man was their graduated disciple, Alexander Hamilton. His appointment was not only widely recommended by the business community but urged by Madison. No one foresaw that he would get into a feud with Jefferson from which would spring America’s first political parties.
Congress adjourned on September 29 until January 1, 1790, bringing to a close the initial session of the new government. It had been a time of endless creativity achieved with a minimum of turbulence. As compared with the Constitutional Convention, the session plays a very minor role in the history books; that in itself is a measure of how easy everything was, of how far sentiment had coalesced and how effective had been the leadership.
After Jefferson had finally reached home and then travelled to the capital, he expressed amazement at finding that “the opposition to our new Constitution has almost totally disappeared.… If,” he added, “the President can be preserved a few more years, till habits of authority and obedience can be established generally, we have nothing to fear.”
The United States was in the modern sense the world’s first new nation. There have been many subsequent national births, and these have demonstrated again and again that the national symbol that a new people most naturally seek is what sociologists like to call “a charismatic personality.” In the late eighteenth century this universal tendency was further strengthened (and made more frightening) by the still almost totally dominant tradition of royalty. And, to top all, America possessed a man who had been the symbol of national unity for fourteen years. George Washington was, so Madison wrote, the only aspect of the government that had really caught the imagination of the people.
If this made Washington supremely useful, it also made him seem, to men who feared for democratic institutions, extremely dangerous in his extraordinary influence over the people and his power to establish precedents. It seemed as if Washington were a great boulder rising in the stream of American institutions, which could, by the position it occupied, deflect the waters and thus determine the whole future flow of the American government. And entirely apart from his own personal behavior, there was the question of what opportunities a Presidency shaped around Washington might leave to his successors. A tyrant might use its powers for sinister ends.
All intelligent supporters of a strong central government agreed that a first essential was to secure the respect and acceptance of the people. History and existing European example taught that such popular support was, to an important extent, gained through titles and trappings that externalized the function of rulers: to command and be obeyed. Yet many felt that European tradition collided with the possibility—nay, the glorious duty!—of American originality. Was not reflecting European aristocratic behavior in fact the importation of decadence into a fresh Eden which was evolving newer and purer institutions—which the whole world would eventually follow? This gave social behavior a definite political cast.
However much he wanted to do what was expected of him, Washington was no bloodless symbol. Popular attitudes toward his behavior as a President were a maelstrom of myth, of religion and philosophy, of social and economic prejudice. He was a living man, with all the desires and tastes of a powerful individual habituated to controlling his own environment. That strain should result was inevitable.
On his arrival in New York Washington had discovered instantly and unpleasantly that the door of the presidential mansion supplied him with no protection whatsoever. Every person of the least importance felt he had a right to come in and stare, assess the furnishing of the house to see whether it was too grandly aristocratic or too squalidly republican; to utter rotund expressions of admiration and congratulation and then to assess Washington’s reply on his own personal gauge for the right mixture of democratic warmth and charismatic grandeur.
Seeking some method of escape that would not only preserve his sanity but enable him to get some work done, Washington hoped to find precedents for selfprotection in the behavior of his partial predecessors, the presidents of Congress. He learned that, far from disentangling themselves, they had become entrapped to such an extent that they had reduced their office to “perfect contempt.” Being at everyone’s beck in a capital city was, he decided, “no way to preserve the dignity and respect that was due to the first Magistrate.”
Two days after his inauguration Washington published in the newspapers that he would receive “visits of compliment” only between the hours of two and three on Tuesdays and Fridays. He would return no visits and accept no invitations “to entertainments.” A little later he modified this by establishing two occasions a week when any respectably dressed person could, without introduction, invitation, or any prearrangement, be ushered into his presence. One was the President’s “levee,” for men only, every Tuesday from three to four. The other was Martha’s tea party, for men and women, held on Friday evenings. Washington would also stage dinners on Thursdays at four o’clock in the afternoon. To avoid any charges of favoritism or contests for invitations, only officials and their families would be asked to the dinners, and these in an orderly system of rotation.
His levees exhibited none of the joviality of entertainments at Mount Vernon, nor of the ancient relaxations in army camps. The occasions could hardly have been stiffer. Exposed, as he put it, to “foreign characters, Strangers, and others who from motives of curiosity … or any other cause, are induced to call on me,” Washington suffered from the same rigid embarrassment that made him so frustrating a sitter for painters.
“Domestic arrangements” were the province of Tobias Lear. Washington waited until everything was “well fixed” in the new house before he summoned Martha from Mount Vernon. She arrived, with two of her grandchildren, ten-year-old Nellie and “Little Washington” Custis, almost a month after her husband had been inaugurated.
She must have stared nervously from her carriage to see what kind of a house had been prepared for her. Since it proved to be three stories high, with a five-window front, she concluded it was “a very good one.” On entering, she was pleased to discover that it was “handsomely furnished all new for the General.” But yet, how she did miss Mount Vernon!
Perhaps under Martha’s urging (which certainly agreed with his own predilections), Washington gradually and inconspicuously loosed his rigorous avoidance of private visits with personal friends—and at the official entertainments Martha shone. She not only soothed the men but charmed the ladies.
Abigail Adams had also arrived late at the capital. Having been told by her husband, John—who sarcastically referred to Washington as “His Majesty”—that hauteur and false grandeur now characterized the Washingtons, she must have been surprised, when she called on Martha, to be received with “great ease and politeness.” Martha, she noted, “is plain in her dress, but the plainness is the best of every article…. Her hair is white, her teeth beautiful.” Abigail even admired Martha’s plump figure, considering it better than her own.
Although Washington’s levees were usually dull (and criticized for being aristocratically stiff), Martha’s weekly tea parties were gay (and criticized for being aristocratically splendid). At the tea parties the General was a different man, since he relaxed in the presence of the fair sex. Female elegance appealed to him, and the ladies of New York (as later in Philadelphia) having no parties more elaborate than these to attend, did not spare the milliners and hairdressers. They wore their hair low, with pearls and bandeaux, à la grecque , or rolled moderately skyward, à la Pompadour . It was noted that when his duties as a host left him free to circulate, Washington passed the men by and spent all his time with the ladies.
Throughout her tea parties Martha remained seated. Because he did not personally like the Vice President, Washington was all the more meticulous in honoring the office: he saw to it that the seat at Martha’s right was assigned to the Vice President’s lady. If another lady happened to be sitting there when Abigail Adams arrived, Washington got the interloper to move with a tact that made Abigail comment, “This same President has so happy a faculty to accommodate and yet carry his point, that, if he were really not the bestintentioned man in the world, he might be a very dangerous one.” She then launched on a panegyric about Washington that would, had he seen it, have irritated her husband: “He is polite with dignity, affable without familarity, distant without hautiness, grave without austerity, modest, wise and good.”
Servants who stood at the door announced the name of each guest. Then one of Washington’s secretaries escorted the ladies to Mrs. Washington. After making a respectful curtsy and engaging in a moment of conversation with Martha, each lady was conducted to a chair where she was supposed to sit “without noticing any of the rest of the company” until the President came up to her. Washington approached and chatted, so noted Abigail—who had been at the Court of St. James’s—“with a grace, dignity, and ease that leaves royal George far behind him.” The lady was then free to go into the other room, where there were refreshments: ice cream, tea and coffee, cakes, candy, etc.
Martha was capable of breaking up a reception at 9:30 by stating that her husband usually went to bed at 9:00 and that she usually preceded him. Such homey notes (and the lack of liquor) did not keep Martha’s teas from figuring luridly in many minds. Newspaper editors who yearned for a high, monarchical society reported the occasions in inflated terms, even referring to the female guests not as “Mrs. ——” but as “Lady This” and “Lady That.” Republican editors viewed with the utmost alarm: that the servants who ushered in the guests had their hair powdered seemed to threaten the very fabric of the nation.
The Washingtons often went to the theatre, on one occasion taking Senator Maclay, who was horrified that the Chief Magistrate should countenance the exposure of “ladies of character and virtue” to such an “indecent representation” as Sheridan’s School for Scandal . Maclay also had his turns at Washington’s dinner parties.
Despite the restriction of the invitations to officials, the dinners could be gay, since such of Washington’s favorite friends as Knox and Robert Morris held office. He often tried to leaven a lump and create a party more like those at Mount Vernon by inviting (as he did with the John Adams family) not only the elders but grown-up sons, daughters, and daughters-in-law. However, there were unsuccessful dinners, and one of these Maclay—who was enough by himself to put a damper on almost any party—reported gleefully for posterity.
As he dressed in preparation, Maclay warned himself that he had to be wary lest his pure republicanism be undermined by the seductions of Washington’s aristocratic method of entertaining. He found that the President and Mrs. Washington sat opposite each other at the middle of the dinner table, the ladies being ranged on both sides of Martha, the gentlemen, opposite them, on both sides of George. The dinner began with soup; then fish, various roasted meats, fowls. Dessert consisted of apple pies and pudding followed by ice creams and jellies and then by watermelons, muskmelons, apples, peaches, nuts. Unable to deny that the meal was “the best of the kind” he had ever experienced, Maclay was nonetheless able to find some soothing dissatisfactions: the room was “disagreeably warm,” and the food was eaten in solemn silence—“not a health drank.”
After the cloth had been removed, the pendulum swung the other way, and there were too many toasts. To MaClay’s disgust, the President “drank to the health of every individual by name round the table.” The guests then imitated him, “and such a buzz of ‘health, sir’ and ‘health, madam’ never had I heard before.” Silence, according to Maclay, sank again until the ladies withdrew. Then the President told an anecdote about “a New England clergyman who had lost a hat and wig in passing a river called the Brunks”—which Maclay did not consider funny.
“The President kept a fork in his hand,” but instead of using it to open nuts, as Maclay suspected he would, he “played with the fork, striking on the edge of the table with it.” Maclay assumed that the President was being pompous and dull, but perhaps Washington was hearing yearningly in his mind’s ear laughter on the banks of the Potomac.
Congress decided that it would make a bad precedent to accede to Washington’s request that he not be paid a salary but be reimbursed for his expenses: they set the presidential stipend at $25,000 a year. Although they seemed to be brushing aside his self-sacrifice, the decision would have been to Washington’s advantage only if his expenses had been less than the $25,000. As it was, he had to supplement his salary each year with some $5,000 from his own pocket. Fortunately, this was not more than he could afford, since the expenses at Mount Vernon, which he now inhabited only for visits, were so much reduced. He was enabled to escape the acute financial embarrassments from which he had suffered on taking office. If he still possessed little fluid cash, he was no longer being dunned for debts.
In 1789 Washington kept fifteen servants around the house and six who were assigned to the stables. He had brought with him seven slaves. However, probably because of the northern objections and his own uneasiness concerning slavery, he hired fourteen white servants, who occupied all the positions that brought them into contact with the public; they included the coachmen, two footmen, and the housemaids. Washington’s steward, a well-known tavern owner in New York called Samuel Fraunces, came from the West Indies and must have had a dark complexion, since he was known as Black Sam. He stood at attendance at the dinner table, dressed in a wig and smallclothes, superintending the service. Washington also had a French confectioner and for a time a valet who was probably French—his name was Julian L’Hoste. The valet bought powder for the presidential hair, black silk bags to hold the presidential queue, and the narrow black ribbons known as solitaires that held the queue neatly in place. Although Washington wore black velvet on formal occasions, his favorite suit color was brown. He also wore gray and gray mixtures. The President never appeared in military costume except to receive the members of the Society of the Cincinnati or to review militia.
Washington’s dental problems remained forever unsolved, but he tried to take advantage of the superior skills presumably available in New York by hiring still another dentist, John Greenwood, who applied to his empty gums a complete set of new false teeth. The upper portion was a solid piece of sculpture carved from hippopotamus tusk; the base of the lower was made of the same material but had attached to it by gold pivots (in a manner said to have been invented by Greenwood) actual human teeth. The utility was moderate, the comfort small, and Greenwood’s devices were a long way from answering the need.
Washington was doing his best to behave in a manner satisfactory both to the world and to his own tastes. In accepting the Presidency, which he had certainly never consciously sought, he had not promised to make himself over into a new man. He could, indeed, reasonably conclude that the nation had come to him because of the kind of man he was. A personal and Virginian brand of elegance had become for him second nature, and thus, although untempted by titles and uneasy with such ceremony as would not be suitable in a private setting, he felt that his normal way of life was correctly aimed “to support propriety of character without partaking of the follies of luxury and ostentation.”
Although Washington knew that some republicans thought he was being too aristocratic and Europeanized, he saw on the faces of European aristocratic visitors that they considered his way of life surprisingly plain. Washington believed he was avoiding extremes. His own desires and those of Martha, he wrote, were “limited,” and he believed, after he had set up his schedule of levees and teas and dinners, that “our plans of living will now be deemed reasonable by the considerate part of our species.”