Washington at the beginning
Despite the complaints about government that you hear periodically, the fact that there is a working government is pretty much taken for granted. It wasn’t always that way, as a book on George Washington’s presidency makes clear. “Mr. President,” with the subtitle “George Washington and the making of the nation’s highest office,” tells about the uncertainty that prevailed when the United States began to operate under the Constitution.
The author, Harlow Giles Unger, is a journalist, educator and historian. He writes that when Washington first assumed the presidency, he had no Cabinet, no authorization to pay for armed services or to preserve law and order.
The procedures of a working government had not been formulated. The author says Washington went ahead and worked out methods of procedure that had not been anticipated by the group that wrote the Constitution.
For instance, the Constitution said the president was to make treaties with foreign nations “with the advice and consent of the Senate.” But how was that advice and consent to be applied?
Henry Knox, the secretary of war, had drawn up a treaty with a tribe of Indians. Washington and Knox went into the Senate chamber and handed it to John Adams, presiding for the Senate as vice president. Adams looked at the document, read the first paragraph aloud, and asked the senators: “Do you advise and consent?”
Some senators hadn’t heard him clearly, and asked for a repeat. Adams read the paragraph again and asked: “Do you advise and consent?” Then there was an argument over whether the treaty should go to a committee for report later in the session.
Washington, meanwhile, had been standing by with a mounting annoyance at the delay and finally stalked out of the chamber in disgust. He subsequently clarified his view of what the Constitution meant — that the president alone had the power to formulate treaties, so Senate action would come after every other detail had been worked out by the chief executive.
This type of ad hoc decision-making did not sit well with everyone. There were those who felt the states should have more say. A newspaper printed by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson went so far as to say:
“If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by George Washington. If ever a nation has suffered from the improper influence of a man, the American nation has suffered from the influence of Washington.”
Sound familiar? Well, Washington himself disdained party politics. You can see why.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.