The Washington Administration – Of Presidents and Precedents


One of the most important accomplishments of the Washington Administration was the establishment of a large number of precedents. Many of which our government still follows today.

George Washington was acutely aware that the Constitution provided the framework of a government, the rules and procedures. He realized that he would have to fill in the flesh on that meager skeleton. Since no one had ever been President of the United States before, every single thing he did would be a “first” and establish a precedent to which future presidents would look as an example to follow.

Some of the precedents were simple. Washington held formal weekly levees, open to all well dressed ladies and gentlemen. At these formal levees, Washington would enter the room and circle around greeting each person. Washington decided that he would bow to each, rather than shake hands. This precedent was changed by Thomas Jefferson who felt bowing was much too royal. Jefferson began shaking hands, which he felt was much more democratic, and presidents shake hands to this day.

One of Washington’s first decisions was the title of the President. Congress, led by Vice President John Adams, had debated many titles. One possibility was “Hi Highness, the President of the United States and the Protector of the Rights and Liberties of the Same.” Another was “His Highness, President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties.” Shorter versions included “His Highness” and “His High Mightiness.” Washington finally decided on the simple “Mr. President.” (For his love of such titles and pageantry, the portly Adams earned a few titles of his own, including “His Rotundity” and “His Superfluous Excellency.”)

Some seemingly simple issues had much deeper meanings and effects. One of Washington’s first acts as President was to travel to every state, a rare and extremely difficult trip in those days, so that the people could see their federal government. When he arrived in Boston, the governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock (who had a healthy ego and thought he should have been the first president), sent Washington a note saying that he would clear his schedule and receive Washington at the state house at Washington’s convenience. Washington, knowing in such social situations, the subordinate always called on the superior, realized that if he paid a call to Hancock, he would be saying that the federal government is subordinate to the state governments, and the President subordinate to the governor in each state. Washington could not permit that precedent to be established, so he sent a note back to Governor Hancock saying that he would be able to receive the governor at his hotel at 2:00 p.m. that afternoon. Hancock, not daring to publicly snub George Washington, paid his social call promptly at 2:00 p.m. Washington had established that the President outranked any governor in any state.

Not all of Washington’s precedents were as frivolous sounding. A few were extremely important, and guided our nation for more than 150 years. Early in his administration, Washington established a policy of neutrality. England and France were still competing for world dominance, sometimes in open warfare. Each wanted the United State to side with it against the other. Each wanted the United States to trade with it, but not the other.

Washington felt that we had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by getting involved in this European struggle. With the newly formed political parties each wanting to join one side or the other, Washington resisted pressure from both to remain neutral. In his farewell address, he warned his young country to “avoid entangling alliances” and all long-term treaties. He said that treaties should be for trade and commerce only.

We maintained a foreign policy of neutrality until the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Our entry into World War I was only after submarine attacks on our shipping; and then, a large part of the country disagreed on which side to enter.

Also in his farewell address, Washington warned against the formation of political parties and the growing factionalism. He warned that parties would lead men to make decision based on party and not the good of the nation. This advice was not heeded by his nation. In fact, parties were already firmly established by the time he left office.

Another precedent he set that we follow today was the creation of the cabinet. The Constitution refers only to the heads of the executive departments. For advice, the President was expected to turn to the Senate. The Constitution refers to the Senate giving advice and consent to appointments and treaties. The first time Washington turned to the Senate, he found that it was just as political a body as the House of Representatives. They were concerned with party issues and getting re-elected. Washington, genuinely seeking advice, left frustrated and promising never to return. He then called together the heads of the executive departments, and from the on turned to them for the advice he needed. They were appointed by him and loyal only to his administration, unlike the members of the Senate. To this day, the heads of the executive departments, the cabinet, advise the President. In fact, this is often their main function as cabinet members.

We are very fortunate that our first president was so alert to the fact that his every action, no matter how seemingly insignificant, could set a precedent which would guide future presidents and administrations.