Ron Chernow’s bestselling and comprehensive biography, Washington: A Life, chronicles the struggles and achievements of George Washington from his early years to his death. The most compelling part of the book? When Chernow discusses how Washington, with a little help from the other Founding Fathers, shaped the three branches of government, the executive, legislative, and judiciary, as Americans know them today.
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787 the delegates hoped that Congress would be the main branch of government. Chernow explained to PJ Media that the first article of the Constitution is “devoted, not to the Presidency, but to Congress, while Article II is devoted to the Presidency. It is very short, vague, and general.” Washington had to deal with squabbling lawmakers — similar to today’s Congress — during the Revolutionary War. He quickly realized that the legislative branch had trouble exercising leadership. As Chernow describes, his experience with the legislature led Washington to ensure that the executive branch would define the political agenda — a step away from the intentions of the Framers. John Yoo — author of Crisis and Command: A History of Executive Power from George Washington to George W. Bush — agreed that “Washington filled in the gaps to figure out how the Constitution would operate. He set the precedent, and trends for the president, ever since.”
The maneuvering surrounding the Jay Treaty, which ended the British threat to the western territories for seventeen years, is a shining example. In an attempt to squash the treaty — though the Senate had already ratified it — Congress requested all the papers related to Jay’s mission. Refusing to comply, Washington, according to Yoo, “refused to grant access to the House because it had no constitutional role in treaty making.” In addition, he established the precedent of executive privilege concerning national security disclosures when he refused to turn over papers that would “do the public harm.” In another instance, Washington enhanced the executive’s power by invoking the Neutrality Proclamation, which had declared America’s impartiality towards France and England. By declaring neutrality through a proclamation, rather than a treaty, Washington bypassed the Senate. This, Chernow emphasized, “was a key assertion of executive power. Washington had clarity of vision. He could identify goals and not be sidetracked.”
Washington helped strongly define the separation of powers. When Congress tried to exert its power over the president by insisting it had to approve of the firing and hiring of cabinet members, Washington opposed it. After Vice President Adams voted to end the tie, defeating the measure, Washington set the tone for all future presidents: Congress would consent but not advise who was chosen. Chernow pointed out that Washington would “henceforth communicate with that body [Congress] on paper rather than in person and trim ‘advice and consent’ to the word consent.”