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To add to the honoring on July 4 here on Ricochet, and to follow in footsteps blazed by the Ricocheters who debated the greatest presidents, I am going to post on a President-a-day until the weekend. They come from my work on what made the greatest Presidents, great, and what made some of the worst Presidents the worst — working off a sophisticated poll of scholars taken a few years ago (I’ll post the complete ranking later).
I’ll start off with the President whom I consider the greatest in American history: George Washington (though scholars argue over whether the title should go to Lincoln instead). He wasn’t the greatest President just because he won the Revolutionary War, and he wasn’t the greatest just because he was first — although both had something to do with it. He made a series of fundamental choices about the Presidency that govern its basic operations today. Washington could have read the Constitution to make him something of a prime minister, but he chose instead an energetic, independent executive.
Here’s the abstract and a link to the paper, which I promise is short (at least by academic standards — it’s 30 pages).
This paper examines current debates over the scope of presidential power through the lens of the Washington administration. We tend to treat Washington’s decisions with an air of inevitability, but the constitutional text left more questions about the executive unanswered than answered.
Washington filled these gaps with a number of foundational decisions – several on a par with those made during the writing and ratification of the Constitution itself. He was a republican before he was a Federalist, but ultimately Washington favored an energetic, independent executive, even at the cost of political harmony. He centralized decision-making in his office, so that there would be no confusion about his responsibility and accountability. He took the initiative in enforcing the law and followed his own interpretation of the Constitution. He managed diplomatic relations with other countries and set the nation’s foreign policy. At the end of his two terms, the Presidency looked much like the one described in The Federalist Papers.
None of this was foreordained. Washington could have chosen to mimic a parliamentary system or a balanced government with executive branch officials drawn from an aristocratic social class. He could have considered the Presidency as Congress’s clerk, committing himself solely to carrying out legislative directions. He might even have thought of himself as the servant of the states. But instead he read his constitutional powers broadly to lead the nation through its first growing pains; restore the country’s finances; keep the nation out of a dangerous European war; open the West to American expansion; and see the Constitution through the appearance of the first political parties.