The Inventor of the Presidency

NY Review

This is an upbeat biography. Other biographers have noticed the George was acting a part – which made it difficult for them to determine who he really was.

These writers consider this an advantage. The role he was acting out became the American presidency.

Since Article II of the Constitution is very brief and vague on the duties of the president, Washington faced the awesome task of fashioning the character and responsibilities of the office. In effect, he created the presidency and in the process, as Breen says, invented “a republican theater of politics” for the new nation. Washington loved the theater and often attended it for entertainment and relaxation. He commonly saw himself as an actor on stage and was always concerned with maintaining appearances. As John Adams later lamented, Washington had all the political talents that he, Adams, lacked. Washington had the gift of silence and had mastered “the theatrical exhibitions of politics.” He may not have been the greatest president, said Adams, but certainly “he was the best actor of presidency we have ever had.”

Washington used theatrical imagery everywhere in his writings. He described the creation of the Constitution, for example, as a great “Drama,” greater “than has heretofore been brought on the American Stage, or any other in the World.” As president he was obsessed by what he should wear, how he should meet the public, what kind of coach he should appear in. He was keenly aware that as the first chief executive he was entering “untrodden ground” and that he was setting precedents for future presidents. These precedents, he told James Madison, therefore had to be “fixed on true principles.” Since the United States was the largest republic since the fall of Rome, the government’s fate might actually determine the future of popular government for all time. “The eyes of America—perhaps of the world—,” said Washington, “are turned to this Government; and many are watching the movements of all those who are concerned with its Administration.”

Washington decided he had to travel in the newly formed States to strengthen their attachment to the Union – and to himself. A man who had no interest in political power – but had strong moral principles.

America was extremely fortunate to have such a leader.


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