George Washington: The Indispensable President

By David Micali '21 | February 20, 2018

Stephen Knott speaking

On February 15, Stephen F. Knott, Ph.D. spoke about the country’s first president. Dr. Knott, who is currently writing a book on the Kennedy administration, is a professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College and a self-described fan of Alexander Hamilton (“long before he became a Broadway star”). According to Dr. Knott, the United States would not exist had it not been for the “incredible precedents” of George Washington.

Washington’s presidency began on April 30, 1789 in the second floor of Federal Hall in downtown Manhattan. Washington was said to have been very emotional as he took the oath of office. The Constitution was vague on his position and gave him little advice on how to lead the young nation. With the help of his fellow cabinet members, a term he did not use until 1793, Washington defined what it means to be the President of the United States.

Dr. Knott used several examples to demonstrate how Washington set the precedent for the office. Primarily, Washington set the precedent for a president at war. While negotiating a treaty with the Creek Indians, Washington included the Senate in the treaty making process. The Senate was unable to reach a consensus and as a result, Washington chose to only include the Senate in the ratification of treaties, a tradition that is followed to this day.

Furthermore, Washington set the standard when it came to the President’s use of the veto. Throughout the eight years Washington was president, he only used the veto twice; however, his use of the veto showed future presidents that they can use the veto.

Finally, Washington set the standard with his decision made during the Removal Debate. The Constitution gives the President the ability to appoint positions which have to be approved by the Senate. However, the Constitution did not say who has the ability to fire an individual. During the Removal Debate, several people believed that the Senate should be responsible for the firing of officials. Washington protested and, by “putting his weight behind it,” moved the United States away from “a parliamentary system” of government to what the country’s government looks like today.

Dr. Knott sees the presidency of George Washington as quintessential to the unification of the young nation. No other leader, other than Benjamin Franklin (who died during Washington’s first term), was known enough throughout the thirteen states and could unite them like Washington could. Before Washington’s time, people did not refer to themselves as Americans, but rather Virginians or New Yorkers. In Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving proclamation, he addresses “the people of the United States.”

Washington toured the nation and made people look up to the President. He personally put down an attempt by the military to overthrow the government in 1783. He gave the constitution and the new government legitimacy. For Dr. Knott, Washington was the “indispensable President.”