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As the first president of the fledgling United States, George Washington faced a daunting task.

By Joanne B. Freeman

Statue of Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1785–1792. Wikimedia.
Statue of Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1785–1792. Wikimedia.

America as a new nation and America as a fragile nation: Both ideas had an enormous shaping influence during Washington's presidency, a period of his career that, oddly, doesn't usually receive much attention. I think that in the minds of most Americans, when the Revolution ends and George Washington is no longer a general, he somehow becomes a block of marble at the head of our government—the ultimate figurehead—not really doing much and certainly not feeling much as a real human being.

Yet in fact, Washington as president could be a very savvy political player, and he certainly had a whole host of feelings and reactions as a very real person in a very difficult situation. He wasn't always sure how to handle things; he sometimes made mistakes. He was sometimes awkward, embarrassed, or nervous.

Just read this account of his first address to Congress just after taking the oath of office in 1789, as witnessed by Senator William Maclay. Maclay writes:

This great Man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the levelled Cannon or pointed Musket. [H]e trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read, tho it must be supposed he had often read it before... When he came to the Words all the World, he made a flourish with his right hand, which left rather an ungainly impression. I sincerely, for my part, wished all set ceremony in the hands of the dancing Masters, and that this first of Men, had read off, his address, in the plainest Manner without ever taking his Eyes From... the paper[,] for I felt hurt, that he was not first in every thing.

How to Act Like a President

One of his main challenges was that, in many ways, Washington had to create the presidency.

Of course, the Constitution sketched the outlines of the position—its powers and limitations—but the actual nature of the job (the tone of the office; the ways in which the president would interact with other national officeholders or with the people of the United States; the workings of the cabinet) were up for grabs. The United States was an experimental government, led by a new, experimental type of executive officer. There was no precedent for this office in a world full of kings, leaving Washington the monumental task of figuring out how to act like a president.

It was a challenge with potentially enormous consequences, because everyone assumed—including Washington—that if he failed at this task, he could potentially bring the entire experiment in government crashing to ruin. There was no modern model for a republic, and ancient republics had been extremely fragile, apt to collapse into monarchy or tyranny. And, America had just divorced itself from its own monarchical past; many people assumed that the fragile new nation would probably—eventually—fall back into what it had known before: monarchy.

Of course, this backsliding would probably start with the president, with the slow conversion of the national executive into something increasingly monarchical. In a sense, President Washington was the new nation's political fault-line and all eyes were watching for the first sign of slippage.

Read More About Presidential Precedents

Depiction of Washington's first inauguration at Federal Hall is on display at the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center (MVLA)

Developing a Presidential Style

One way that he addressed this problem was in carefully tending to the style of presidential governance, well aware that the style of governance could shape the new nation as much as its constitutional framework. According to the logic of the time, if national leaders dressed and behaved like aristocrats, the government would take on an aristocratic tone, the American people would adopt it, vote more such people into office, and in no time, the republic would fall. This may sound extreme, but looking back in hindsight, it is easy to overlook how experimental the new American government was. People truly believed that one wrong decision—one bad policy—might destroy the entire enterprise and bring the republic crashing to ruin, at which point it would probably be swallowed by England or France.

So, there was good reason to worry about whether Washington specifically, or the new national government generally, was too aristocratic. But it was one thing to assert that America shouldn't be too aristocratic or too monarchical, and quite another to define precisely what monarchical or aristocratic actually meant. People could generally agree that American political leaders should be more egalitarian, more public-minded, more simple and straightforward than their European equivalents.

They were supposed to be a natural elite of the talented and worthy who lived modestly, dressed practically, and behaved in a spirit of compromise. Yet, though most public men agreed upon generalities like simplicity, virtue, and public-mindedness, they had no precise meaning; they were meaningful in comparison with European luxury and corruption but had no specific meaning in and of themselves.

George Washington, engraving by G. Petit after Lansdowne portrait by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1900. (MVLA)

People could generally agree that American political leaders should be more egalitarian, more public-minded, more simple and straightforward than their European equivalents.

How did a political leader in a republic dress? How much finery was too much? Should a republican politician own a carriage, and if so, how many horses seemed excessive?

These questions may sound trivial and even ridiculous to us, but they were very real to national politicians who were self-consciously creating a style of governance and hoping to shape a new national character, questions important enough to provoke the criticism and comments of gentlemen throughout the nation.

So, for good reason, Washington worried about things like his carriage, his clothing, and his dinner table, and he knew that other people watched such things as well.

As he himself put it, he aimed for "simplicity of dress, and everything which can tend to support propriety of character without partaking of the follies of luxury and ostentation."

Just look at how carefully he dressed upon assuming office. For his inauguration, he chose what he clearly assumed to be an ensemble of republican balance. He wore a suit made of plain, American-made cloth—obvious symbolism here—but he had gilt buttons and diamond buckles on his shoes.

Not monarchical, but grander than an average citizen; after all, he did have to hold his own on the international stage alongside Old World monarchs.

His presidential "uniform"—a dignified blue or black suit, ceremonial sword, and hat—embodied a similar compromise. With it, he was President Washington. Without it, he was General Washington, a distinction that even the newspapers acknowledged.

Unfortunately for Washington, this kind of hyper-self-consciousness was exhausting, as you can well imagine. Whenever he was in public, he was always on display, a living symbol of the new republic whose every word and gesture had deep meaning.

Every once in a while, the mask slipped. For example, every Thursday, Washington had a public dinner with various members of the government, but he didn't really enjoy this type of public socializing. At several dinners, he was seen at the head of the dinner table looking off into space with a tired expression on his face, absentmindedly banging a piece of silverware against the table.

Learn About Washington's Presidential Entertaining

This brown broadcloth suit owned by Washington, with its more informal double-breasted coat, may have been worn by him for dressy daytime events. Although evidence is inconclusive, this might have been the suit worn for his first inauguration. Gift of John Murray Forbes, with appreciation to William D. McGregor, 1877 (MVLA)

Mount Vernon's collections include several moss agate buttons that once adorned one of George Washington’s black velvet suits worn during the presidency. (MVLA)

The Material Culture of the Presidency

Aware that he would be closely scrutinized, Washington self-consciously chose clothing and household furnishings that would convey a particular message about his style and character.

Learn more about washington's style

The Institutional Workings of the Presidency

Of course, Washington was not only focused on matters of political style. He was also constructing the institutional workings of the presidency. In such an untried, new government, every precedent could have an enormous impact.

For example, listen to the debate in the Senate about Washington's inauguration ceremony. On "the great important day," as Senator Maclay put it, both houses of Congress would receive the president-elect in the Senate chamber, a seemingly simple ceremony that raised a multitude of questions.

When the president arrived in the Senate chamber, should the senators rise in respect to a superior or sit as before an equal? The answer risked casting the president as a monarch or the Senate as a House of Lords, prompting an extended debate.

One senator testified that during the king's speech, the House of Lords sat and the House of Commons stood, an observation that seemed to have deep political significance until another senator made "this discovery, that the Commons stood because they had no seats to sit on" [because they were in the House of Lords].

An interruption from the House clerk sparked yet another discussion; how should the clerk be received? Should the Sergeant at Arms (complete with ceremonial mace) receive his communication at the door? It was, Machy sighed, "an Endless business."

"Representing the Arrival of General George Washington at the Battery, New York, April 23, 1789.", engraved by John C. McRae, 1867. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert B. Gibby, 1984. (MVLA)

Washington's Political Savviness

Award-winning journalist and author Cokie Roberts discusses Washington's savviness.

In this charged environment, Washington often proved himself to be a skilled politician. In fact, he had more political savvy than he is usually given credit for. We simply don’t envision him as a "politician," yet, if you think about it, to survive amidst all of this hyper-observation, he had to be savvy.

For example, Washington was skilled at securing support in Congress. He often sent members of his administrative staff—men like David Humphreys or William Jackson—to "chat" with congressmen in the president's name, particularly when an important bill was under debate.

When the location of the national capital was under debate (and of course, we know that Washington had rather strong feelings about where it should be), Humphreys and Jackson were positioned in front of Congress Hall to "chat" with members about the pending vote. As Maclay put it, the men, standing in front of Congress Hall, seemed to form "a standing Committee [pun intended] to catch the Members as they went in or came out."

Washington's cabinet sometimes did the same thing, as in April of 1792 when, as Jefferson notes, they agreed “to speak separately to the members [of a congressional committee], and bring them by persuasion into the right channel."

Polling Public Opinion, Before Polls

Washington was also skilled at sounding out public opinion about his presidency and policies. Without modern contrivances, like public opinion polls, public opinion was a rather nebulous thing.

To figure out what the public thought, politicians and their friends had to resort to rather indirect methods. They sat in taverns and listened to what people were discussing. They knocked on farmhouse doors to see whether there was a Federalist or a Republican newspaper on the mantle. They asked their friends to report the talk of the town. Washington did the same.

On several occasions, he sent members of his staff into the countryside to determine public opinion, as he did in 1792 when he asked his secretary Tobias Lear to find out if the public wanted him for a second term. As Jefferson reported, Washington asked Lear “to find out from conversations, without appearing to make the enquiry, whether any other person would be desired by any body” for the presidency. Shortly thereafter, Lear reported to the president that “it was the universal desire he should continue."

Managing a Quarrelsome Cabinet

Washington could also be very skilled in dealing with his cabinet, managing them in almost the same way that he had consulted with his staff of generals during the Revolution. He solicited each person’s opinion, opposed as they might be, considered his options, and made a decision.

Differences of opinion didn't concern him. They could even be useful, until he came to realize (in 1792), the very personal nature of the differences between two of his cabinet members: Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton and Jefferson


Things became somewhat easier when Jefferson retired in 1793, but on other counts they became more difficult because during President Washington's second term, the newspapers became much more aggressively willing to criticize him for his policies and their implications. Washington did not deal well with criticism. So, while he may not have been juggling Hamilton and Jefferson during his second term, he was still struggling through difficult political times.

Washington's Presidential Cabinet

While the current presidential cabinet includes sixteen members, George Washington’s cabinet included just four original members: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. Washington set the precedents for how these roles would interact with the presidency, establishing the cabinet as the chief executive's private, trusted advisors.

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Clearly, George Washington deserves a good deal of credit for his skill as a president and a politician.

As the precedent-setting first president, he faced a number of unique challenges and he rose to the task. Although we don't often think of "President George Washington" as a real person, in fact, he was a very real person in a difficult situation who struggled throughout his presidency to steer the right course.

About the Author

Joanne B. Freeman is a professor of history at Yale University specializing in the politics and political culture of the revolutionary and early national periods of American History. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia.

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