George Washington and the Origins of the American Presidency

By Mark J. Rozell; William D. Pederson et al. | Go to book overview
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Introduction

George Washington and the Origins of the American Presidency

MARK J. ROZELL

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 formally created the American presidency. George Washington put the office into effect. Indeed, Washington was very cognizant of the fact that his actions as president would establish the office and have consequences for his successors. The first president's own words evidenced how conscious he was of the crucial role he played in determining the makeup of the office of the presidency. He had written to James Madison, "As the first of everything, in our situation will serve to establish a precedent, it is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents be fixed on true principles."1 In May 1789 Washington wrote, "Many things which appear of little importance in themselves and at the beginning, may have great and durable consequences from their having been established at the commencement of a new general government."2

All presidents experience the burdens of the office. Washington's burdens were unique in that only he had the responsibility to establish the office in practice. The costs of misjudgments to the future of the presidency were great. The parameters of the president's powers remained vague when Washington took office. The executive article of the Constitution (Article II) lacked the specificity of the legislative article (Article I), leaving the first occupant of the presidency imperfect guidance on the scope and limits of his authority. Indeed, it may very well have been because Washington was the obvious choice of first occupant of the office that the Constitutional Convention officers left many of the powers of the presidency vague. Willard Steme Randall writes, "No doubt no other president would have been trusted with such latitude."3 Acutely aware of his burdens, Washington set out to exercise his powers prudently yet firmly when necessary.

Perhaps Washington's greatest legacy to the presidency was his substantial

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