George Washington and the Origins of the American Presidency

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

Chapter 2

George Washington: The First Modern President? A Reply to Nichols

THOMAS ENGEMAN AND RAYMOND TATALOVICH

David K. Nichols (1994) has stirred interest among presidency scholars by arguing that the Founders intended a strong executive similar to that, in fact, created in the twentieth century. Moreover, the administration of George Washington—whom he calls the first ‘‘modern’’ president—realized in practice most of the essential features of the strong, modern executive.

Nichols is wise to draw attention to the actual, real executive power under Article II of the Constitution. As Hamilton wrote in The Federalist: ‘‘Energy in the executive is a leading character of good government.’’ Moreover, Washington and Hamilton went very far in realizing the stated and the implied or prerogative powers of the Constitution. Indeed, the Washington administration should remain for us one of the great examples of the truly Constitutional use of executive powers. But there are problems connecting the Washington/Hamilton understanding of the strong executive with the modern understanding and reality.

Our rebuttal of Nichols’ thesis is organized in three parts. In Part I we summarize the essentials of the Nichols thesis. In Part II we offer a theoretical counterargument that the ‘‘modern’’ understanding of the presidency originates not with the Constitutional Founding but from the Second American Constitution beginning with the Progressive critique and culminating in the mid-twentieth century. In Part III we give experiential and empirical support for our interpretation by revisiting four presidential roles discussed by Nichols: foreign policy making, legislative leadership, administrative responsibility, and personalized leadership. Only with respect to diplomacy can President Washington be rightfully considered the ‘‘first’’ modern president, because he did, in fact, establish all the vital precedents of that role. But the reasons underlying this unique impact of Washington have as much

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