Digital History

The Federalist Era

Defining the Presidency Previous Next
Digital History ID 2972



The Constitution provided only a broad outline of the office and powers of the president. It would be up to George Washington, as the first president, to define the office.

It was unclear, for example, whether the president was to personally run the executive branch or, instead, serve as a constitutional monarch and delegate responsibility to the vice president and executive officers (the cabinet).

Washington favored a strong and active role for the president. Modeling the executive branch along the lines of a general's staff, Washington consulted his cabinet officers and listened to them carefully, but he made the final decisions, just as he had done as Commander-in-Chief.

The relationship between the executive and legislative branches was also uncertain. Should a president, like Britain's prime minister, personally appear before Congress to defend administration policies? Should the Senate have sole power to dismiss executive officers? The answers to such questions were not clear. Washington insisted that the president could dismiss presidential appointees without the Senate's permission. A bitterly divided Senate approved this principle by a single vote.

With regard to foreign policy, Washington tried to follow the literal words of the Constitution, which stated that the president should negotiate treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate. He appeared before the Senate in person to discuss a pending Indian treaty. The senators, however, refused to provide immediate answers and referred the matter to a committee. "This defeats every purpose of my coming here," Washington declared. In the future he negotiated treaties first and then sent them to the Senate for ratification.

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