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“The establishment of our new government,” he said, “seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness by a reasonable compact in civil society. It was to be, in the first instance, in a considerable degree, a government of accommodation as well as a government of laws. Much was to be done by prudence, much by conciliation, much by firmness. Few who are not philosophical spectators can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation had to act. All see, and most admire, the glare which hovers round the external happiness of elevated office. To me there is nothing in it beyond the lustre which may be reflected from its connection with a power of promoting human felicity. In our progress towards political happiness my station is new, and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely an action the motive of which may not be subject to a double interpretation. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent. If, after all my humble but faithful endeavors to advance the felicity of my country and mankind, I may indulge a hope that my labors have not been altogether without success, it will be the only real compensation I can receive in the closing scenes of life.”
There is nothing very stimulating to the imagination in this soberness of mind and calmness of utterance. · The military conquerors and the saviors of society, with epigrammatic sayings, dra
matic effects and rhythmic proclamations, are much more exciting and dazzle the fancy much better. But it is this seriousness of mind, coupled with intensity of purpose and grim persistence, which has made the English-speaking race spread over the world and carry successful government in its train.
The personal empire of Napoleon had crumbled before he died an exile in St. Helena, but the work of Washington still endures. Just what that work was, and how it was achieved, is all that still remains to be considered.
The policies set on foot and carried through under the first federal administration were so brilliant and so successful that we are apt to forget that months elapsed before the first of them was even announced. When Washington, on May 1, 1789, began his duties, there was absolutely nothing of the government of the United States in existence but a President and a Congress. The imperfect and broken machinery of the confederation still moved feebly, and performed some of the absolutely necessary functions of government. But the new organization had nothing to work with except these outworn remnants of a discarded system. There were no departments, and no arrangements for the collection of revenue or the management of the postal service. A few scattered soldiers formed the army, and no navy existed. There were no funds and no financial resources. There were not even traditions and forms of government, and, slight as these things
may seem, settled methods of doing public business are essential to its prompt and
proper transaction. These forms had to be devised and adopted first, and although they seem matters of course now, after a century of use, they were the subject of much thought and of some sharp controversy in 1789. The manner in which the President was to be addressed caused some heated discussion even before the inauguration. America had but just emerged from the colonial condition, and the colonial habits were still unbroken. In private letters we find Washington referred to as “His Highness," and in some newspapers as “His Highness the President-General," while the Senate committee reported in favor of addressing him as “His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties.” In the House, however, the democratic spirit was strong, there was a fierce attack upon the proposed titles, and that body ended by addressing Washington simply as the “President of the United States,” which, as it happened, settled the question finally. Washington personally cared little for titles, although, as John Adams wrote to Mrs. Warren, he thought them appropriate to high office. But in this case he saw that there was a real danger lurking in the empty name, and so he was pleased by the decision of the House. Another matter was the relation between the President and the Senate. Should he communicate with them in writing or orally, being present during their deliberations as if they formed
an executive council? It was promptly decided that nominations should be made in writing; but as to treaties, it was at first thought best that the President should deliver them to the Senate in person, and it was arranged with minute care where he should sit, beside the Vice-President, while the matter was under discussion. This ar. rangement, however, was abandoned after a single trial, and it was agreed that treaties, like nominations, should come with written messages.
Last and most important of all was the question of the mode of conduct and the etiquette to be established with regard to the President himself. In this, as in the matter of titles, Washington saw a real importance in what many persons might esteem only empty forms, and he proceeded with his customary thoroughness in dealing with the subject. What he did would be a precedent for the future as well as a target for present criticism, and he determined to devise a scheme which would resist attack, and be worthy to stand as an example for his successors. He therefore wrote to Madison: "The true medium, I conceive, must lie in pursuing such a course as will allow him (the President) time for all the official duties of his station. This should be the primary object. The next, to avoid as much as may be the charge of superciliousness, and seclusion from information, by too much reserve and too great a withdrawal of himself from company on the one hand, and the inconveniences, as well as a diminution of respect
ability, from too free an intercourse and too much familiarity on the other.” This letter, with a set of queries, was also sent to the Vice-President, to Jay, and to Hamilton. They all agreed in the general views outlined by Washington. Adams, fresh from Europe, was inclined to surround the office, of which he justly had a lofty conception, with a good deal of ceremony, because he felt that these things were necessary in our relations with foreign nations. In the main, however, the advice of all who were consulted was in favor of keeping the nice line between too much reserve and too much familiarity, and this line, after all the advising, Washington of course drew for himself. He did it in this way.
He decided that he would return no calls, and that he would receive no general visits except on specified days, and official visitors at fixed hours. The third point was in regard to dinner parties. The presidents of Congress hitherto had asked every one to dine, and had ended by keeping a sort of public table, to the waste of both time and dignity. Many persons, disgusted with this system, thought that the President ought not to ask anybody to dinner. But Washington, never given to extremes, decided that he would invite to dinner persons of official rank and strangers of distinction, but no one else, and that he would accept no invitations for himself. After a time he arranged to have a reception every Tuesday, from three to four in the afternoon, and Mrs. Washington held a similar