George Washington's Presidency

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Essential precedents established by George Washington during his presidency


George Washington established several essential precedents during his presidency, including the formation of a Cabinet, the enforcement of federal laws, and the practice of serving only two terms. He also set the precedent for a peaceful transfer of power and emphasized the importance of neutrality in foreign affairs.

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What precedents did George Washington establish that we still follow today?

In many respects, the presidency is defined by the character of the person serving in the office. As a nation, we should be grateful George Washington served as the first president of the United States. Historians give high marks for Washington’s decisive leadership, humility, and a deep sense of understanding that whatever he did as president would undoubtedly influence the behavior of future presidents and Congress. Washington was keenly aware he had to project an image of confidence to the citizens of the fledgling nation and to foreign powers. He needed to tread lightly to project an image of strength absent from the appearance of monarchial behavior that was rejected during the American Revolution. If there was a person in history better than George Washington to lead the first year nation, they certainly did not rise to the occasion as did Washington.

Some of the precedents established by the Washington presidency include the first inauguration. Washington was inaugurated in New York City. Several diplomats from foreign countries as well as American leaders were in attendance. Washington took the oath of office in front of both houses of Congress and then spoke publicly to throngs of public admirers from the balcony of the Senate. Later that evening, he would attend a fireworks show and other inauguration ceremonies. Historians record, true to form, that President Washington would walk home from the celebrations to be in bed by ten o’clock!

President Washington would convene the first cabinet meeting, and cabinet members have since become an integral part of the presidential decision-making process. Washington's cabinet was filled with notable men from the earliest days of the war. A few members of his cabinet were not necessarily always in agreement with the president. Washington desired to have a cabinet of inclusiveness, and his make-up of the cabinet reflected his willingness to put the best people in places of importance, even if some had earlier questioned his ability. Lincoln, in this respect, shared Washington’s view of inclusiveness.

One of the less desirable precedents Washington began was the public’s desire to measure the effectiveness of a president by the first 100 days in office. In 100 days, together with Congress, Washington’s administration passed the Bill of Rights, created a federal and national system for taxes, created the Executive Branch of government from scratch, and created the national judicial system. This included the Supreme Court, where Washington was in the unique position of filling the court with, at that time, six members. Washington also appointed judges to the Federal Courts, establishing appointments by the president. It is hard to imagine a president with more significant 100 days in office.

Although not required to be delivered in person, Washington presented the first State of the Union address to members of Congress. The State of the Union address in modern history has become more a political spectacle than an essential update to the public. The Constitution does not require an annual address or that it be made in public, only that a report be submitted from time to time. From Thomas Jefferson and up to Woodrow Wilson’s term, the State of the Union address was sent to Congress in written form. Jefferson was not known as a great orator and preferred to send it in writing.

It would be an incredible oversight if Washington’s wife, Martha, were not included as a precedent. Martha Washington was as keenly aware of the image of the presidency as her husband, George. In keeping with the modest and low-key style of George, Martha established the role of the First Lady. Though not accustomed to the demands of being a public figure, Martha was known as a compassionate, cheerful, and effective manager of their home in New York and Mount Vernon. Early in the presidency, Martha opened her home to host weekly Friday receptions for members of Congress and their families. Though social occasions in appearance, it is incalculable how much she generated in goodwill and policy ideas for her husband. The social events included regular citizens as well as important dignitaries. This was all in keeping with the Washington idea to present the presidency as a temporary position and not a permanent appointment, as was the case of a monarch. In this spirit, Washington served two terms, though he could have served more.

Some may argue it is easy to establish a precedent if you are first. And, in some respects, that argument is accurate. By nature, a precedent is something not temporal, but something regarded as an example that is significant for ages. Having been first did not make the task any less difficult or any less a precedent for which we should be grateful to George and Martha Washington.

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What precedents did George Washington establish that we still follow today?

The most important precedent that George Washington set was to leave office peacefully after his terms in office.  One of the major problems that many other young countries have had is that their first leader tries to become a king and to hold on to power indefinitely.  This sets a precedent where every leader tries to do the same.  By contrast, Washington left peacefully, setting the precedent that power should be transferred peacefully and democratically.  This is still done today.

A second precedent that has only been broken once, and is now in the Constitution, is that Washington left after two terms in office.  This is related to the first precedent because it set a precedent for one president leaving so he (or someday she) could not become president for life or anything like that.  Only FDR has ever been elected to more than two terms and the Constitution now sets Washington's precedent as law.

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What essential precedents did Washington establish as President?

One of the most critical precedents that Washington set was to seek to avoid political partisanship in his leadership.  Washington did not endorse the presence of political parties.  This was seen in his own cabinet, consisting of the Federalist Hamilton and Republican Jefferson.  Washington governed with a steady hand, ensuring that political partisan interest were put aside with the emphasis of the national form of governance as being most important.  His mere use of a cabinet of advisors is something that has become standard in the American Presidency, a precedent that has dramatically altered the Executive Branch.   Another precedent that was established in Washington's time as President was the use of direct action to ensure peace and domestic tranquility.  Washington was able to demonstrate this in his putting down of the Whiskey Rebellion.  He established the need for leaders to confront issues that threaten to damage the fabric of the nation's tapestry.  Certainly, the precedent Washington established in his Farewell Address of avoiding challenges abroad, "entangling alliances," became a standard that all Presidents understood, but few fully grasped.

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