How It Started vs. How It’s Going – From Washington to the Modern Presidency
Every year on the third Monday in February, we celebrate the federal holiday known officially as Washington’s Birthday. Even after the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect in 1971, moving the date of the celebration from George Washington’s actual birthday on February 22 to its current designation, the name hasn’t changed since its first institution by Congress in 1879. In designating the day as an official holiday, some individual states have altered the name to honor Abraham Lincoln (whose birthday is February 12), or to include Presidents’, President’s, or Presidents (plural possessives are confusing to some state legislators). Most of us think of “Presidents’ Day” as a bank holiday, a day off from school and government work, and another opportunity for shopping deals. If we celebrate it, we generically honor the memory of all U.S. presidents.
But are all U.S. presidents worthy of the same honor due to Washington?
Washington was known then and now as a man of great republican virtue—the kind of virtue which the Founders thought all citizens must possess (though perhaps not to such a monumental degree as the “Father of His Country” himself) if their new nation were to endure. Consider that after leading the Continental Army to victory in the War for Independence, Washington resigned his commission instead of seizing political power, which many people at the time would have welcomed:
“Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence. A diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our Cause, the support of the Supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven.”
Maryland Congressman James McHenry wrote that, after Washington concluded his resignation address, “The spectators all wept, and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears.” For this act, Washington has been compared to the Roman statesman Cincinnatus, who likewise returned home to his farm following a period of virtually unlimited power during wartime. Ironically, because of his reputation for great virtue, Washington could not peacefully enjoy his retirement for long, having been unanimously elected as the first U.S. president six years later. He wielded the office with intentionality and diligence, knowing that the many precedents he set would be followed by future presidents for years to come. For instance, although the phrase “So help me God” is not included in the presidential oath prescribed in Article II of the Constitution, legend has it that Washington was the first to include it of his own initiative—another display of virtue which presidents since have mirrored.
Because of his individual virtue, Washington understood well the limited nature of constitutional powers. He never officially joined the Federalist Party, remaining nonpartisan during his presidency, but he was very sympathetic to the arguments of “Publius” in The Federalist. In Federalist No. 69, Hamilton listed the constraints on the president’s constitutional powers in order to demonstrate that, relative to the king of Great Britain and the governor of New York, the U.S. president would be weak and limited. Though, as explained in No. 70, the office of the president would not be without “energy.” For Publius, this was “essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy.” These limited ends of good government would serve to direct executive energy towards its proper constitutional objects.
Many modern presidents would have benefited from Washingtonian humility and his Federalist understanding of limited constitutional government. Executive energy in the 20th and 21st centuries has been directed toward objects much broader than protection from foreign invasions, steady administration, and the protection of property and liberty domestically.
In the Progressive Era, the presidency was reimagined beyond the scope of Article II. As Woodrow Wilson understood it, his role was to be a visionary leader for the people, which justified expanding executive powers. Similarly, Teddy Roosevelt came to view the role of the president as that of a steward of the people, bound to do all he can in the people’s interest whenever he perceives a need among them. Franklin Roosevelt viewed himself as the head of a bureaucratic establishment, overseeing governance through a developing administrative state by assuming power that in earlier years had been understood as legislative. Congress willingly ceded it, transforming itself into a body whose task since has been to merely write broad policy goals, leaving the details to be filled in by the president and his agencies. The “crisis” rhetoric FDR employed during the Great Depression and World War II to justify the New Deal and other executive actions was later employed by many presidents to justify their overreaching programs. In the 21st century, as long as a president claims to have an electoral mandate, he can often act unhampered by constitutional limits because no one has the will to enforce them.
With our current president setting a new record for quantity of executive actions in the opening days of his administration, while Congress busies itself with everything but carrying out its Article I duties, the prospects for returning to a constitutional presidency look dire. Indeed, a presidency with the character described by Washington and Publius may seem unimaginable today. On this Presidents’ Day, let’s remember the greatness of the man this holiday was originally intended to honor and use him as inspiration for restoring constitutionalism as much as we are able to in this new age.