How did washingtons presidency shape the executive branch

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larrygates eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As the first President of the United States, almost all of Washington's actions shaped the Presidency. When he took the oath of office, he wore a civilian suit but also wore a sword, to indicate that the Commander in chief of the armed forces was a civilian. Since that time, no President of the United States has worn a uniform while in office.

Washington also created the first four cabinet positions, three of which remain in effect to this day: Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and Attorney General. He also was responsible for the position of Secretary of War, which has been succeeded more recently by the Secretary of Defense.

Additionally, when John Jay, then Chief Justice, negotiated a Treaty of Friendship with Great Britain which offended the French, the House of Representatives demanded that information on the treaty be sent to it for review. Washington refused, noting that Treaties were the particular business of the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, not the House. He thereby set the precedent for executive privilege.

Finally, by refusing to seek a third term in office, Washington set the precedent of a two term limit for the presidency. This precedent was broken only once, by Franklin D. Roosevelt; but since has been made a part of the Constitution.

katbeewil | Student

What did it mean to be a president, and not a king? When George Washington took over the presidency of the United States after the American Revolution, there was no answer to that question. It was up to Washington to decide, and he was highly aware that to quote the musical Hamilton, “history had its eyes” on him. He knew, certainly from the time he was chosen as commander of the Continental army that his every move and word would land in history books--as a result, he was an extremely careful decision-maker.

Washington quite literally created the presidency (he even coined the term “administration”), and he was deeply aware that everything he did set a precedent. No one had any idea what being a president meant--how one should act, what he should wear, what he should do and not do, what kind of role he should play in the government --it fell to Washington to set all that up. All the time, he was walking a fine line. He needed to be magisterial and “big” enough to be taken seriously by other nations, but had to avoid any appearance of becoming “kingly” or monarchical or risk his own people turning on him or being deemed a traitor to the revolutionary cause. As commander in chief, Washington knew he had to be very clear that he recognized and believed in civilian control of the military. 

As president, Washington established most of the executive tradition we still follow today, including the cabinet system (modeled on his war councils); presidential control over foreign policy; the executive veto; executive appointments; and presidential setting of the legislative agenda. The cabinet system was set up like a wheel with himself at the hub. This allowed him to rely on people better educated and informed than he was in each crucial area (e.g. Hamilton in fiscal and monetary policy). He was an incredible judge of talent and, according to the historian Joseph Ellis, assembled the “most intellectually sophisticated collection of statesmen” in history.

Perhaps Washington's biggest impact on the executive branch was his refusal to seek a third term in office, though he clearly could have one a third election. This voluntary cession of power was nearly unprecedented in the modern world. In stepping down, Washington set a precedent until Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for a third and then a fourth term in the midst of the Great Depression and World War II. The two-term limit became law with the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1951.