George Washington: The First Presidency

By Dorothy Twohig


thumbIn the spring of 1789, just before George Washington left Mount Vernon for New York to assume the presidency, he wrote Henry Knox: “I am sensible, that I am embarking the voice of my Countrymen and a good name of my own, on this voyage, but what returns will be made for them—Heaven alone can foretell. Integrity & firmness is all I can promise—these, be the voyage long or short; never shall forsake me although I may be deserted by all men.”

Washington went into office without a specific blueprint for his presidency. But from the beginning he rejected the notion of the presidency as an American version of a European prime minister. It is also evident from his actions that he did not subscribe to the Whig theory of congressional over presidential power. On the other hand, any idea of an imperial presidency was foreign to his views of the executive role. “For the constitution of the United States, and the laws made under it,” he wrote, “must mark the line of my official conduct. I could not justify my taking a single step in any matter, which appeared to me to require their agency, without its being first observed.” In his relations with Congress he was careful to project the image of an independent and equal executive, and he disapproved of legislative attempts to undermine the prerogatives of the presidency.

Through both of his administrations he tended to judge his presidential achievements in terms of his contributions to the creation of what he referred to as a national character, free of party struggles and internal strife.

On Choosing Appointees

In a letter to Samuel Vaughan, 21 March 1789: “I would not be in the remotest degree influenced, in making nominations, by motives arising from the ties of amity or blood: and that, on the other hand, three things, in my opinion, ought principally to be regarded, viz., the fitness of characters to fill offices, the comparative claims from the former merits & sufferings in service of the different Candidates, and the distribution of appointments in as equal a proportion as might be to persons belonging to the different States in the Union; for without precautions of these kinds, I clearly foresaw the endless jealousies, and, possibly, the fatal consequences, to which a government, depending altogether on the good will of the people for its establishment, would certainly be exposed in its early stages.”

Humanities’s Editor’s Note


Every four years brings a familiar ritual: Ruffles and Fourishes, a swearing in, a speech, a longish parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, and, as dusk falls, a thinning in the grandstands as many slip away to dress for a round of parties that night.

The inaugural of a president has never been simple.

For George Washington the term “strenuous” might be more apt. For his inaugural in 1789 he traveled eight days from Mount Vernon to New York City. It was muddy that spring, historians report, but Washington’s trip was triumphal, as he was greeted by banners and flowers and his soldiers from the Continental Army and their wives and children. Washington was sworn in as the first president of a nation that had no real capital and, for that matter, no Bill of Rights.

A capital was chosen: Washington, D.C. John Adams succeeded Washington; then power shifted and Thomas Jefferson was sworn in, on March 4, 1801, at a ceremony in the Senate chamber. “Since the House of Representatives did not elect him until February 17,” biographer Dumas Malone notes, “Jefferson had only a little more than two weeks in which to prepare his inaugural address. This was somewhat less time than he had to write the Declaration of Independence.” For two weeks after the ceremony, Malone continues, Jefferson remained at a boarding-house near the Capitol before moving into “the big box of a President’s House a mile away.” Jefferson had already selected his secretary, one Captain Meriwether Lewis, and was waiting for his reply; as fate would have it, Lewis would become the man who would carry out Jefferson’s vision of finding a way west.

The minutiae of life—what these presidents thought, how they acted and reacted in offstage moments—is the stuff of history to scholars. They find a clue to character in a letter of George Washington’s, as he wonders with a friend as to whether he really wants such a burdensome job as president. They ask themselves what can be learned about the second term of Thomas Jefferson, when he complains to a friend that “personally it brings nothing but unceasing drudgery and daily loss of friends.”

Over the years the Endowment has supported projects that involve the collecting and codifying of presidential papers, among them those of Washington, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. In this issue of Humanities, we revisit moments that the scholars of these collections see as defining.

We examine the fabric of our American culture not just from these presidents past but from some exemplary people of the present. We profile five people who have added to the richness of the present culture. They are the winners of the 1996 Frankel awards, a national honor given to individuals for their work in the public humanities. They include a biographer of presidents, Doris Kearns Goodwin; a mayor and philosopher, Daniel Kemmis; a poet laureate who wants to share her voice, Rita Dove; a teacher who has spent a lifetime rejecting easy labels, Arturo Madrid; and the conscience of American television, Bill Moyers.—Mary Lou Beatty

The Papers of George Washington was featured in the January/February 1997 issue of Humanities, a publication of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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