George Washington and the Origins of the American Presidency

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

Chapter 4
Washington, Hamilton, and the Establishment of the Dignified and Efficient Presidency

MALCOLM L. CROSS


INTRODUCTION

"I walk on untrodden ground," George Washington once said after becoming the first president of the United States. "There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent." 1

Washington knew that the vagueness and brevity of Article II of the Constitution, which created the American presidency, gave him considerable freedom to interpret his powers and responsibilities as he saw fit. But he also knew that how he discharged his duties would set precedents for future presidents to follow and standards by which they would be judged. "Many things which appear of little importance in themselves and at the beginning," he said, "may have great and durable consequences from their having been established at the commencement of a new general government."2

This chapter discusses a major precedent that George Washington established: that the president should be both the nation's chief of state and its government's active chief executive as well.

The chief of state functions as the nation's ceremonial leader and as the symbol of its customs, values, and traditions. The chief executive staffs and supervises the executive branch of government. 3

The distinction between the two roles reflects a dichotomy in governmental institutions discussed by Walter Bagehot in his analysis of the English Constitution. Bagehot divided the institutions of government into two categories: the dignified and the efficient. The dignified institutions were "those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population." 4 By inspiring the population's loyalty to the government, they give the government "its motive force." 5 The government's efficient institutions were

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