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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Boston newspapers because of his role in a conflict between France and Britain for control of the Ohio River valley that led to the French and Indian War. As a young officer, Washington's actions received wide and favorable coverage in the New England newspapers, despite the fact that he had suffered more defeats than he had achieved victories. In part, the newspapers were promoting support for the war and therefore exaggerating the achievements of the British American soldiers. Washington "was cast in the role of a hero." The chapter's analysis of the content of the early newspaper coverage shows how Washington achieved early recognition that would later play an important role in his selection to lead the fight for independence.

Political scientist Graham G. Dodds examines Washington's precedents in establishing relations between presidents and the press. Among those was the first presidential "honeymoon" with the press, followed by growing contentiousness over time. Dodds reviews the important role that the partisan press of the time played in the deteriorating relationship between Washington and the newspapers. During Washington's administration domestic coverage of events for the first time played an important role in influencing foreign policy. Washington was also the first president to have to deal with government leaks to the press. Furthermore, like modern presidents, Washington was acutely aware of the importance of press coverage and a presidential image to achieving his goals. He was not reluctant to use the press to promote himself and his goals, as he did when he leaked his Farewell Address to a friendly printer. Yet Washington, unlike some of the modern presidents, did not engage in open battle with the press when he received unfavorable coverage. Dodds reports that Washington generally did not engage the press in feuds, except when he responded through his aides--a practice very common in the modern era. Despite his reservations about the quality of press coverage at times, Washington respected the need for a free press and did not advocate suppressing information.

The sum total of these chapters is a portrait of the nation's first president as a man who was very conscious of his potential place in history and who sought to fulfill his role in a manner that would best serve future generations. Yet Washington himself was not certain that the new Republic would long survive. His legacy in large part is that he established the presidency in practice, and that institution has survived to this day, as Rossiter once wrote, as "one of the few truly successful institutions created by men in their endless quest for the blessings of free government." 14

George Washington, letter to James Madison, May 5, 1789, quoted in John C. Fitzpatrick , ed., The Writings of George Washington, 39 vols. ( Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931- 1944), 30:311.


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