As important as the Presidency has become today, why did the Constitution’s framers choose to leave the specifics of the office so vague? Naturally, from past experience, the framers did not want an executive that could essentially take over the government and become a dictator. The framers intentionally wanted a government where the legislature had the majority of the power. But under the Articles of Confederation, they had lacked one with balance and stability, so their solution was to add the executive branch. Some people in America wouldn’t have minded making Washington king. But Washington himself refrained from taking the office to that level. Perhaps, he could have if he really wanted to, because, of course, he was George Washington. However, Washington believed the government under this new Constitution could work. He did, however, make some moves for which the Constitution itself really could not provide solid answers, because so much was implied. To the best of his ability, Washington made some decisions that would make interpretations of those implications a reality.
First of all, the Constitution was vague about the workings of what would become the American bureaucracy. It was very clear, however, that the legislative branch had the majority of the power. But the Constitution was not very clear on how exactly important positions, those non-elected that would prove to be necessary in the working of the government, would be filled. The President at that time had the power to appoint, but not to fire, which seems a little strange. The Decision of 1789 had to do with the President’s ability to firing appointed officials without the consent of Congress (Social). When the bill was sent to the Senate, there was a tie, and Vice President Adams voted in Washington’s favor. This important decision gave the President a power that was not enumerated in the Constitution, but that would seem to make good sense. If the President can make an appointment, and then finds that the appointment was not working out, it only makes sense that the President could remove said official without having to go through Congress about it. It would seem obvious that an Executive should make for things to run smoothly. To Washington, and apparently also Adams, it was not necessary for the President to have to go through an extra step to remove an inadequate appointee.
The first true test of the government’s power in civil affairs was the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. The 1794 insurrection was caused not only by the “high excise tax on whiskey,” which is often quoted as the cause of the rebellion, but also because of other factors as well. One was “the lack of federal courts” in Washington County. There were also the matters of “large numbers of absentee landlords…” and “lack of access to the Mississippi River...” (Hart) However, perhaps the greatest matter that sparked the rebellion was the “lack of protection from the Indians.” (Hart) The importance of this factor cannot be missed. There were repeated attacks by the natives, led by the British. The country had fought back earlier in the 1790’s but the problem was still very much there. In fact, the high excise tax on whiskey had much to do with the military activity in western Pennsylvania. “To pay for the military activity against the Indians…” one source says, “and other things, it was decided to put an additional tariff on the sale of whiskey at the source.” (Hart) So that was the reason for the tax. What outraged people in the western parts, however, was the tariff. High in Pennsylvania as it was, about eighteen percent in the eastern parts, the tariff was raised to well over twenty percent in western regions. That clearly did not seem very fair to those in the west.
The other reasons for the rebellion were very important, as well. Because of the aforementioned lack of federal courts in Western Pennsylvania, any cases heard against the excise tax had to be heard in Philadelphia. This necessary trip was quite a hike for those living in Pennsylvania’s western parts. Also, the Mississippi River problem was an enormous one for commerce, as there was much fighting between not only Americans and the British, but also with the Spanish (Hart). Western Pennsylvanians seemed to be getting the hard end of the bargain, and they resented this. It was a very complicated situation for which no one really seemed to have a great solution.
With all these different problems, the citizens of Washington County finally went into an uproar. In response, Washington sent in about thirteen thousand troops to Washington County to quell the rebellion restore order (Hart). It was his first action as Commander-in-chief, and it was a show of force that perhaps no man other than Washington would have gotten away with. It is, however, a power that presidents would use again, many years later, with the U.S. Army National Guard troop deployments in the twentieth century.
In the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, Washington believed he could declare neutrality in the conflict between France and England. Congress was not very pleased. Alexander Hamilton stood by Washington, and wrote letters as Pacificus explaining why he did. James Madison, recruited by Thomas Jefferson who was part of the Administration and would not he himself speak against it, wrote against the Proclamation as Helvidius. He and Jefferson agreed that it was up to the legislature to declare neutrality, and that for the executive to do so was overstepping his bounds (Nelson). Madison wrote in Helvidius no. 1, “In the general distribution of powers, we find that of declaring war expressly vested in the Congress, where every other legislative power is declared to be vested, and without any other qualification than what is common to every other legislative act.” (Hart) It is true that the Constitution would seem to imply this. But Hamilton was correct in saying, as he wrote in his Pacificus letter,
“If the legislature has the right to make war on the one hand – it is on the other the duty of the Executive to preserve Peace till war is declared; and in fulfilling that duty, it must necessarily possess a right of judging what is the nature of the obligations which the treaties of the Country impose on the Government; and when in pursuance of this right it has concluded that there is nothing in them inconsistent with a state of neutrality, it become both its province and its duty to enforce the laws incident to that state of the Nation.” (Nelson)
In the time that this Neutrality Proclamation was made, it was very important that the newly formed republic of America needed to stay out of the bitter feuds between France and England. Keeping such powerful countries as those two as neutral trade partners was crucial to developing the fairly new nation’s economy. Hamilton, especially at the time, said the right thing, and it was an important precedent to set for future Presidents. As the one who is presiding over the Nation, keeping the peace until War is absolutely necessary seems to be a perfectly good power for the Presidency to own.
The American Presidency is a very unique executive position. Since Washington, the office has undergone many changes, and perhaps it is a far stronger office than the Constitution’s framers had originally intended. The framers, however, probably left so much unsaid about the executive office in the Constitution because they felt writing too much would have been the wrong thing to do. There was a reason that the American Constitution was called an experiment in democracy. They wanted the executive office to evolve with the rest of the government, to become whatever would be necessary for the government to function smoothly. Has the office of the Presidency become much stronger than the Framer’s intended? That all falls to interpretation. The Presidency has evolved just as it has needed to over time, and Washington as the president who set the first precedents made it clear, though perhaps not intentionally trying to shape the office with everything he did, certainly made the office of the President the office in which one man can set many precedents whenever something important has to be done.
Hart, Tom. “David Bradford and the Causes of the Whiskey Rebellion.” 2005
Hart, Tom. "Whiskey Rebellion." 28 Mar. 2005.
Nelson, Michael, ed. The Evolving Presidency. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2004.
"The Bureaucracy." Social Studies Help. 2006.