If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:9:41

Presidential precedents of George Washington

Video transcript

hi this is Sal and I'm here with Jeffrey Rosen who's the head of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and in the first video we did an overview of article of the entire article 2 of the Constitution which covers the powers of the presidency and now we're gonna jump in a little bit deeper and you know definitely one of the things that surprises me about article 2 is for a job as important as the president it's it's it's an art awfully short amount of text it is article 1 defining the powers of Congress is much longer the framers were much more concerned about tyranny and Congress than tyranny in the executive and because there is so much wiggle room in article 2 presidential practice has been really important and obviously the most important president in establishing that practice was our first president George Washington and this is this idea that because it was shorted it left out a lot of what a president maybe could do or could not do and that's why our first president our first president the precedent that he set was really important for for how people perceived up the powers of the president yes he was it's a nice hominin he was both the president and set this important precedent and because the framers knew that Washington was going to be the first president he takes office in 1789 right when the Constitution is ratified they trusted him to establish these precedents which have been followed to this day and it's a little bit of historical context the 1776 is the official founding of the country the Declaration of Independence the official start of the Revolutionary War although box you have skirmishes before that then you we have the Articles of Confederation that get ratified in 1781 it was deemed that it was too weak of a essentially of a confederation and then our Constitution gets ratified in 1789 same year that Washington takes office as our first president exactly right and as as soon as he takes office Washington faces this dilemma that's not answered by the Constitution and that's does he recognize the French Revolution who have just killed in guillotine louis xiv so washington has these three choices he can stand by the monarchy and condemn the revolution he can recognize the French revolutionaries as the rightful government or he can say it's not my choice and all of our former treaties are void he consults his cabinet decides to recognize the revolutionaries and that establishes the precedent that presidents now have unilateral power to recognize or D recognize foreign governments and it's interesting cuz when we're looking at section two which at least talks something about treaties it says that the president can make treaties I'll underline I'll underline this the president can make treaties provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur it talks about ambassadors but it doesn't talk about the recognition of foreign countries and as you point out the French Revolution you know think started in 1789 as you get into the early 90s the revolution continues and Washington says well do we do we recognize the government of louis xvi that helped america during the french revolution or do we recognize the revolutionaries who seem to have a lot more in common with us in terms of their principles around a governments at least the stated ones and he decides that well it's not written in the constitution here but i'm as president III can make that decision to recognize the revolutionaries absolutely and that leads to another series of important questions which you just flagged who exactly gets to negotiate the treaties and Washington has soon after the French revolutionary recognition he wants to negotiate a treaty with Britain that's called the Jay Treaty so he secretly sends guven or Morris who's the framer who is most responsible for drafting the preamble to the Constitution as an unofficial emissary our negotiated of Britain and they negotiate the treaty and then washington designates John Jay as the Envoy the Senate doesn't endorse the diplomatic mission Jay is getting his orders straight from Washington after the deal is reached then Congress after the fact approves of Washington's diplomatic entrepreneurship so this establishes the really important precedent that the president can send emissaries to negotiate treaties which are approved by Congress after the fact and that president is seized on by President Thomas Jefferson who negotiated for the really important purchase of the Louisiana territory on the spot without congressional approval and get Senate approval after the fact famously negotiated with in Bonaparte because he frankly it was his Navy had been destroyed at Trafalgar so he was in no position to protect something halfway across the world and and you know this drove Jefferson's critics crazy because Jefferson is this big proponent before he becomes president of limited presidential authority and he becomes president and he seems to expand it by seizing on this treaty negotiation power that isn't explicitly in the Constitution and hugely increases the land mass of the United States and the importance of these precedents just to go back to section 2 it does say he shall have power by and with the advice and consent of the Senate to make treaties provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur and your point is is that the way it's written in section two it's not clear whether you need the advice and consent beforehand or whether they just kind of approve after the fact and Washington and his term was from 1789 until 1797 he assumed that no I should be able to go and very nimbly negotiate these things without having to involve the entire Senate and once it's negotiated I need to go to them and get them to approve it and Jefferson who was in power from 1801 to 1809 kind of further reinforced that precedent said hey I'm just gonna negotiate this thing and then get it approved that's exactly right and that allows Jefferson when he gets approval for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to get the Senate to approve the treaty and to persuade the house to finance the legal structure for the new territory he probably couldn't have done that if he hadn't worked out the negotiating details in advance and another element that the second paragraph here of section two talks about is you know with the advice and consent of the Senate this this has talked about a lot and the Constitution tries to set up the Senate as as where the president goes to you know the test his ideas get some thinking but Washington also decides that well it's not that efficient to talking to all these elected officials maybe I'll set my own body that I talked to more frequently that's exactly right as we talked about before section 3 of the Constitution seems to say that the president can consult Congress for advice in all sorts of situations he can convene both houses or you can adjourn them and so forth but Washington established this precedent of using a cabinet and that's a term that doesn't appear anywhere in the Constitution despite the part of the Constitution that also allows the president to seek the opinions of the various officers Washington informally sought his cabinets advice and today although the cabinet meets less frequently than it did before the presidential cabinet or cabinet meetings is established as a precedent in the executive branch yeah and then the last piece that you know we this this section two also talks about the ability of the president to make appointments anything from ambassadors other public ministers consuls judges Supreme Court and other officers United States and it also talks about inferior officers which are more junior officers that some of the presidents can do that without getting approved by Congress this is also up for some interpretation and Washington's precedents important there as well it is Washington was very frustrated by the Senate and basically decided to cut it out and not to seek advice and consent in person what one account says that when he left the Senate chamber he said he'd be damned if they ever went there again he didn't seek the Senate's written advice before making big decisions like treaty negotiations and he just preferred to consult the cabinet and that cabinet had huge and important disagreements again we know from the musical Hamilton Hamilton and Jefferson disagree about the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States they both give their opinions Washington listens to both and he sides with Hamilton / Jefferson and decides to bless the constitutionality of the bank he got that from his cabinet and not from Congress and then finally in this appointment you know to what degree can the president unilaterally take people out of their jobs fire people that is also left interpretation that's right Washington established the ability for president unilaterally to fire executive officers or executive department heads since the Senate textually has the power to hire department heads you could have read article 2 to allow it to have a mirror role in firing them as well but the Supreme Court blessed this idea that the president can dismiss people on his own there was an important case called Myers against United States which said that the vesting clause which we talked about earlier gave the president both of the authority to execute the law and to remove executive officials but there are other cases like the Humphreys executor case for 1935 which said that Congress could limit the president's ability to remove certain commissioners but the broad president of Washington establishes is that the president's unitary authority allows him alone to fire executive branch officials well fascinating well well thanks so much Jeffrey this is this is super valuable Thanks great to talk