Historian Forrest McDonald itemized some of George Washington’s constitutional contributions in American National Biography Online:
“His role in working out the details of the Constitution was minimal, but Washington was important to the success of the convention withal. His very attendance, together with Benjamin Franklin’s, ensured the convention respectability and public trust … His presence in the president’s chair ensured decorous and tempered behavior by the other delegates, several of whom had outsized egos and short tempers.
“Perhaps most important, Washington made it possible to create an executive branch—without which no national government could have been viable—despite the general fear of executive power that had prevailed in America since 1776. Finally, Washington’s signature on the Constitution, in the opinion of many observers, made the difference between ratification by the requisite number of states and refusal to ratify.”
We can supplement McDonald’s statement in three ways: First, Washington didn’t preside at most of the proceedings from May 30, 1787, through June 19, 1787.
During that period the convention spent the greater part of its time in the committee of the whole. Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, a former president of the Confederation Congress, chaired that committee.
Second, Washington further aided the Constitution’s ratification by extensive correspondence throughout the public debates (Sept. 17, 1787, to May 29, 1790).
Third, Washington worked his greatest constitutional contributions during his presidency. More on that below.
George Washington was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on Feb. 11, 1731, as denoted by the “old style” (Julian) calendar then in force. When the British Empire (including the American colonies) adopted the Gregorian system in 1752, the calendar advanced by 11 days and the year began on Jan. 1 instead of Mar. 25. Hence, we mark Washington’s birthday as Feb. 22, 1732.
The young Virginian grew to be a tall and powerful man. He wasn’t merely strong, but graceful, notably on horseback and on the dance floor. Abigail Adams—married to the short, pudgy John—wistfully testified to Washington’s magnetism.
He had eight years of schooling, but displayed none of the deep intellectualism of some of the other leading Founders. He was a pure man of action: a lover of the outdoors and the western back-country, a competent surveyor, a soldier, an excellent practical farmer (tobacco and later wheat), and a wise land speculator.
His wife and relatives brought him considerable wealth, to which he conscientiously added. After the financial collapse of his fellow Founder, Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, Washington may have been the wealthiest person in America.
One key to our first president’s personality was his self-control. He was hot-tempered and thin-skinned, but he labored mightily, and usually successfully, to curb both weaknesses.
His self-control and determination enabled him to overcome grave setbacks. He lost his father when he was 11. He suffered a bout with smallpox that scarred his face. He ran for the colonial legislature twice, and lost both times—before finally winning on his third attempt. In his military career, he was repeatedly frustrated, both before the Revolutionary War and during the war’s first two years. Many of those frustrations stemmed from his own mistakes.
Self-control enabled Washington to rise to an 18th-century ideal: fitting into one’s pre-selected “character”—that is, his brand or public image. (The Greco-Latin word character usually means “brand.”) “Character” meant far more than “public image” as we use that term today. One was expected to actually mold his or her conduct to fit the image. Today, we encounter this identity between brand and behavior far more often in the private sector than in political life. In the private sector, the market constantly tests whether a product lives up to its image. But in modern political life, there are huge differences between the images politicians and bureaucrats adopt and how they really conduct themselves. It’s one of the central failings of the mainstream media that they permit favored politicians to get away with this.
The “character” Washington selected was of the scrupulously just and honest man who reluctantly leaves private life to engage in selfless public service, then returns to private life when his task is done. He lived up to this brand in many ways, including resignation of his military command after the Revolutionary War and his retirement after his second presidential term. Washington’s renunciation of personal power led to Americans comparing him to the great Roman statesman Cincinnatus.
The Constitutional Contributions of Washington’s Presidency
Washington served as president from April 1789 until March 1797. Most historians give him credit for establishing the presidency on a firm footing. This is an accurate assessment.
There’s also a less-accurate assessment: the claim that Washington transformed the presidency from a severely limited office—as allegedly conceived by the Founders—into a far more potent one.
But for Washington to seize power in this way would have been entirely contrary to his “character.” His character required him to assiduously respect the constitutional understanding of his fellow Founders and to avoid any appearance of self-aggrandizement.
The truth is that most of the constitution-makers envisioned the presidency as precisely the kind of office Washington made it, and the Constitution encapsulated that vision. The claim that he expanded the president’s constitutional powers rests on ignorance of the Founders’ understanding and of 18th-century law.
Our first president had to resolve several important constitutional questions. Three had clear legal answers, and in each case, Washington reached the right conclusion. Here are the three:
- The Constitution gave the Senate power to “advise and consent” to some presidential decisions (Article II, Section 2, Clause 2). In 18th-century political parlance, “to advise” could mean (1) to give counsel to someone, or (2) to deliberate (that is, take under advisement). The Constitution meant the latter. Accordingly, Washington resolved, after some doubt, not to formally consult the Senate before making executive decisions.
- The Constitution granted the president a list of powers over foreign affairs. As I explain in my book, “The Original Constitution,” those powers were understood to include certain “incidental” authority. Taken together, the listed and incidental powers designated the president as America’s leader in foreign affairs. Washington complied with the Constitution’s meaning in this regard. He didn’t go beyond it.
- Washington assumed broad authority over dealings with the Indian tribes. Promoters of federal power claim Washington did so from a very expansive interpretation of the Constitution’s Indian Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3). In fact, though, most of Washington’s Indian affairs activities were authorized by other parts of the Constitution (pdf).
Our first president also had to address some constitutional questions whose answers were unclear. But the fact that he provided answers doesn’t justify accusing him of usurpation.
Founding-era law, like modern law, included a doctrine called “practical construction” or “liquidation” (from the Latin verb liquere—to clear). It said that when a document is genuinely unclear (and only when it’s unclear), the parties may clarify (liquidate) its meaning through later conduct. Founders such as James Madison (in, for example, Federalist No. 37) and Alexander Hamilton (in, for example, Federalist No. 82) publicly predicted this would happen with the Constitution.
When Washington became president, one question whose answer was unclear was “Who can fire federal officers appointed by the president and approved by the Senate?” Could the president dismiss them unilaterally or did the Senate have to agree?
Both President Washington and Congress adopted the view that the president could fire them unilaterally. For reasons I explain in my book, this is also the better constitutional interpretation.
Still more difficult was this question: “Does the Constitution grant Congress power to charter corporations—in particular a national bank?” The Founders themselves were closely divided on this issue. Whether a person thought a national bank was constitutional depended largely on how he interpreted European financial practices (pdf).
In 1791, both the president and Congress concluded that the Constitution did give Congress authority to charter a national bank. Madison initially opposed this conclusion, but by 1814, he admitted that “practical construction” had “liquidated” the issue. Five years later the Supreme Court agreed in its famous decision of McCulloch v. Maryland.
Thus, Washington influenced the Constitution’s operation far more as president than as a framer.
Around the time Washington left the presidency in March 1797, he predicted he would not live much longer. He was then 65 years old. In view of 18th-century life expectancies, his premonition was a reasonable one.
During his remaining two years and nine months, he acquiesced to President Adams’ request that he assume command of the troops in event of a war with France—a war that fortunately never arose. He exercised political influence by successfully supporting the congressional candidacies of Patrick Henry and John Marshall.
He spent most of his time administering what had become a huge farm at Mount Vernon. After riding too long in a cold rain, he died on Dec. 14, 1799, apparently from a streptococcus infection.
As his life progressed, Washington increasingly opposed slavery. However, during his lifetime he could not afford to free his bondsmen and he was unwilling to put them through the trauma of selling them, because that usually led to the breakup of enslaved communities and families.
However, Washington’s will emancipated all his slaves. Moreover, his estate funded maintenance and training for those slaves who were still children and pensions for those who were elderly. The pensions lasted until the death of the last recipient, in 1833.
This essay was first published in the May 7, 2023 Epoch Times.
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