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 Pajamas 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.”
Ever wonder why the vice president is, for all practical purposes, a figurehead? Washington describes how John Adams considered that “[t]he office I hold is totally detached from the executive authority and confined to the legislative.” For Adams, the Constitution had created two great offices, “one placed at the head of the executive, the other at the head of the legislature.” Because of Adams’ views and Washington’s policy of protecting the presidency from Senatorial intrusion, Chernow concludes that the office of vice president was “bound to suffer a demotion” in a “process” which continues today.
According to Chernow, one of Washington’s greatest attributes was his ability to secure a separation between church and state without banishing the influence of religion from American life. Washington, Chernow told Pajamas Media, recognized throughout his career that religion was a supportive, not domineering, part of America’s society. In his Farewell Address, Washington observed that “religion and morality” are the “pillars of human happiness.”
Washington used his actions to show support for the freedom of religion. Attending worship services at different church sects, he always stressed religious tolerance. He appeared at the Congregation Yeshuat Israel in Newport, Rhode Island; quoting him, Chernow powerfully illustrates Washington’s attitude: “For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” Chernow found no circumstance where Washington was not religiously tolerant.
Chernow’s biography and Yoo’s chapter on Washington describe the first president as an extraordinary man with extraordinary capabilities. Washington, Yoo concludes, “is the greatest of all our presidents, with Lincoln a close second. His greatest accomplishments were setting up a constitutional government, giving the presidency independence from Congress, and establishing a tradition of neutrality in foreign affairs.” Likewise, Chernow remarks that “Washington was a historic figure whose greatest political feat was holding the country and army together.” For today’s president and future chief executives alike, there is still no higher standard than America’s first.