A Reference Resource
Impact and Legacy
Among George Washington's critics are those who wonder how the nation might have developed had he sided with Jefferson in the partisan debates that swirled all around him as President. By identifying himself with Hamilton, he actually furthered the partisanship he so vigorously denounced in his farewell speech to the nation. In the eyes of those historians who doubt his greatness, this is Washington's most significant failure as President.
He has also been criticized, along with other members of the founding generation, for his ownership of slaves. At one point, he expressed the sincere desire to see "a plan adopted for the abolition" of slavery, but he backed away from initiating such a plan by looking to legislative authority for its conception and execution. While he provided generously for his slaves in his will, he did not free them in his lifetime. Nevertheless, a year before his death he remarked to an acquaintance, "I can foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union."
Creating the Presidency
Except for these caveats, it is the substantial consensus among historians that Washington's tenure in office set the nation on a path that has endured now for over 200 years, longer than any other republic in history. He established precedents that would last for generations and did more to flesh out the skeleton of the presidential office than anyone could have expected or predicted. As one scholar has said, he "invented tradition as he went along." His actions, more than those of any other Founding Father, became a part of the "unwritten Constitution."
Washington's reliance on department heads for advice, similar to his war council during the Revolution, set a precedent for including the cabinet as part of the President's office. Moreover, because Congress did not challenge his appointments or his removal of appointees, principally out of respect for him, the tradition was planted to allow the President to choose his or her own cabinet. By his actions and words, Washington also set the standard for two presidential terms, a practice that lasted until 1940. When John Jay resigned as chief justice of the Supreme Court, Washington selected his successor from outside the bench, disregarding seniority and thus allowing future Presidents to draw from a diverse pool of talent beyond the Court's aging incumbents.
When the House of Representatives sought records related to negotiations surrounding the Jay Treaty of 1795, Washington refused to deliver all the documents. In doing so, he set the precedent for invoking what became known as executive privilege. In leading federal troops against the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington presented a clear show of federal authority, established the principle that federal law is the supreme law of the land, and demonstrated that the federal government is empowered to levy and collect taxes.
Although he sponsored and supported legislative proposals submitted to Congress for enactment, he carefully avoided trying to dictate or unduly influence the judicial and legislative branches of the government. In not vetoing bills with which he disagreed unless there were constitutional questions, he set a precedent of executive restraint that would be followed by the next five Presidents. Moreover, by keeping Vice President Adams at arm's length—not even inviting him to attend cabinet meetings—Washington set the tradition by which the vice president's role is largely ceremonial.
Also, although Washington hated partisanship and political parties, he tolerated dissent, vicious attacks on his reputation and name, and a divisive press—all in the interest of freedom. There is little reason to suggest that Washington, unlike so many of his successors, ever sought to use his office for personal empowerment or gain. Neither did he shelter his friends for the sake of their friendships when conflicts of interest arose.
Perhaps most importantly, Washington's presidential restraint, solemnity, judiciousness, and nonpartisan stance created an image of presidential greatness, or dignity, that dominates the office even today. He was the man who could have been a king but refused a crown and saved a republic.