America’s Long Journey: Washington launches a government

Washington launches a government

The new federal government was to be government of the people, and government for the people, but not yet government by the people, not in the sense we understand it. Post-colonial America did not suddenly shrug off its British heritage and forget about class distinctions. In 1789, even the most avidly democratic among the founders were accustomed to rule by the financial and social elite.

The idea of the common people participating in government seemed self-evidently impractical, undesirable, and dangerous. They weren’t educated to it, and would never be able to comprehend the issues involved. They would be sheep, easily led by a few wolves.

A long generation later, Andrew Jackson’s election would bring the common people to power, as a result of an expanded franchise, and frontier equality, and the rise of political associations (parties), which did for the ordinary citizen what birth into the aristocracy had done for Washington’s generation. But in 1789, America was ruled by the same relatively restricted group of men who had brought the colonies into common cause, and had held them together until victory, and had met in Philadelphia to hammer out a new Constitution. In the South, these were planters and their lawyers. In the middle colonies and New England, the men of prominence. The republic did not begin as a democracy, and no one expected it to.

Congress was supposed to meet in New York City in early March, but it took an extra couple of weeks to assemble a quorum of the representatives of the eleven states that had ratified the Constitution. George Washington’s inauguration in Federal Hall didn’t take place until April 30.

To us, accustomed as we are to the presidency towering over the other two branches of government, it comes as a shock to realize that initially the focus of government was on the legislature, not the executive. Yes, the executive was Washington; that provided the dignity and stability the new government desperately needed. But Congress, not the President, was the primary mover and shaker.

When Washington assumed office, the government of the United States was mostly in utero. Only the constitutionally established offices had been created, and no courts had been established. Washington’s first acts were to establish the judiciary. Pursuant to the Judiciary Act of 1789, he named a six-member Supreme Court, with original jurisdiction over civil actions between a state and the United States, or between states, or cases involving diplomatic personnel. The Court was given appellate jurisdiction over decisions of the federal circuit courts, and decisions by state courts involving conflicts between state and federal laws.

Beneath the Supreme Court were thirteen judicial districts, each containing district courts and circuit courts. The single-judge district courts had jurisdiction over admiralty cases, petty crimes, and lawsuits involving small amounts. Circuit courts, which were grouped geographically, were, as the name implies, composed of two Supreme Court justices “riding circuit” as well as a district judge. (The circuit riding feature was later changed, as too onerous for the Supreme Court judges). Their jurisdiction covered more serious crimes and civil cases, and had appellate jurisdiction over the district courts. The act also created U.S. Attorneys and U.S. Marshals.

Then it came time to establish the executive branch. Washington, an excellent judge of talent and character, surrounded himself with extraordinarily able and loyal assistants. In September, 1789, he named what became his Cabinet. As fast as Congress created executive departments, he found the proper man for the office.

To head the State department, Thomas Jefferson; Treasury, Alexander Hamilton; War, Henry Knox. At the time of the appointments, Jefferson was in France concluding his five-year representation of the Confederation government, Hamilton, who had been highly influential in getting the new Constitution approved, was practicing law, and Knox was already serving as Continental War Secretary under the Confederation.

To be Attorney General, an office created by the Judiciary Act, Washington named his former aide Edmund Randolph. (In those days – in fact, until 1870 – the Attorney General did not head an executive department, but served as the president’s chief legal advisor.) His final cabinet post, that of Postmaster General, went to Samuel Osgood, though the U.S. Post Office Department was not created until February, 1792.

Finally there was the question of the presidential salary. Washington, a wealthy man with high ideals of public service, offered to serve for no salary but repayment of expenses. When Congress voted an annual presidential salary of $25,000, Washington declined. But he accepted after it was pointed out that Congress did not want the presidency to become, or be seen as, a post limited to the independently wealthy. (That didn’t happen until our own era of “representation” by a Congress of millionaires.)

So, there was the structure, and there was the team. During Washington’s two terms of office, five states would join the Union: North Carolina and Rhode Island (restoring the original 13), Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee. Major treaties would be signed, precedents established, crises faced and overcome. But it may well be that Washington’s greatest service, which in the circumstances no one else could have accomplished as well, was using the weight of his massive prestige, his solid careful judgments, and the judgment and services of his excellent assistants, to balance the ship of state, to set the new government on an even keel as it began its long journey.

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