Patrick Henry opposed the Constitution as vehemently as he opposed tyranny. Indeed, at the Virginia ratifying convention in June 1788, he argued they were the same thing. “Besides the expenses of maintaining the Senate and other house in as much splendor as they please,” he railed, “there is to be a great and mighty president, with very extensive powers — the powers of a king.”
Three months before, Alexander Hamilton, writing as “Publius” in the New York Packet, had defended the proposed presidency. “The executive authority, with few exceptions, is to be vested in a single magistrate,” he wrote. “If, in this particular, there be a resemblance to the king of Great Britain, there is not less a resemblance to the Grand Seignior, to the khan of Tartary, to the Man of the Seven Mountains, or to the governor of New York.”
Both men were right. The president assumed very extensive powers. But even with them, no occupant of the office has yet resembled a king — at least not considerably. For this good fortune, we owe a large debt to the men who have held the office.
No man had a greater influence on the presidency than its original occupant. “The office of the presidency was not only forged by George Washington,” says historian Ron Chernow, who recently published a one-volume biography of the first president. “One can make the argument that the office was forged for George Washington.” At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, most delegates assumed he would be the first executive, and they outlined the president’s responsibilities in the Constitution with him in mind — that is to say, rather vaguely. Unlike the lengthy Article I, which enumerates the legislature’s tasks, Article II is short and vague.
“That was extremely important,” Chernow adds, “because we had just fought a war against the abuse of executive power. Washington’s presence at the Constitutional Convention and this assumption emboldened the delegates to create a very powerful office, one so powerful that Thomas Jefferson and others were alarmed by its scope.”
Washington wielded that power effectively: creating a national bank, negotiating an unpopular treaty with Great Britain, and extinguishing the Whisky Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. But he also answered a fundamental question — one whose answer we take for granted today: How is a president supposed to act? “Washington decides that, basically, the president won’t stop by your house for dinner,” Chernow quips. “The office would have a certain dignity and detachment.” Americans still afford their presidents that dignity. Notice last year’s kerfuffle over comedian Jon Stewart’s calling President Obama “dude.”
Nonetheless, Washington also established an egalitarian tradition: the presidential inauguration. “There’s no requirement in the Constitution,” Chernow notes, “only that he take the oath of office. Washington decides he’s going to take the oath in the open air before the multitude. He decides to make an inaugural address. He decides that inaugural address should be broadly thematic. He took the oath of office with his hand the on Bible. Basically, we still hew closely to the pattern of that day.”
An open-air celebration was not a foregone conclusion. The Senate, for instance, did not open its doors to the public until 1794.
Thomas Jefferson, however, gave the office much more of a populist flavor, says historian Gordon Wood. “He saw himself as speaking for the people; I don’t think Washington saw it that way at all,” Wood observes. Unlike Washington, who held weekly levees reminiscent of those held by European courts, “Jefferson really threw all that out and opened himself to the people” — sometimes answering the White House’s door in his slippers.