A Presidents’ Day Walk Through Time

Last week’s FEDtalk brought together some of Washington D.C.’s best historians on the development of early American government. American University Associate Professor of History Gautham Rao, Washington Papers Project Assistant Editor Dana Stefanelli, and President Lincoln’s Cottage Senior Executive Assistant Zach Klitzman offered their take on the legacy of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the nation’s capital itself.

Rao and Stefanelli noted how in the early days of the country, very little guidance was given regarding how a president should govern due to existing fears surrounding whether a president was even necessary. This presented George Washington with the opportunity to shape the executive office for generations to follow.

Rao explains, “It is worth mentioning also there was an apparent need for [an executive] power, there was also great anxiety about it because of the revolutionary experience and Americans were not so fond of the king toward the end of the British period so that is the constraint that is so evident at the Constitutional Convention”

Stefanelli continues that this is part of what made Washington such a formative leader. Having given up power once before during the revolution, there was an established trust that Washington would not abuse the power of the executive.

Klitzman furthers that Washington set the precedent for how presidents are treated, referred to, and act in comparison with royal authority.

One of the primary formal responsibilities of Washington was to establish the “seat of government” or the capital of the country.

Rao notes, “On the seat of government question, I think that was particularly poignant in the 1780s because of the jealousies that really marred the period under the Articles of Confederation, where states and even cities were incredibly jealous of each other. This is an enduring American tradition. You can ask New Yorkers what they think of Boston, Philadelphians what they think of the rest of the country. Resolving this problem meant that if there was going to be a federal government that was an independent, sovereign entity, it was going to have to be in a sovereign place.”

Despite being from far outside the federal city, President Abraham Lincoln later struggled with similar issues regarding the influence of the federal city outside its borders.

Klitzman notes, “The thing about Lincoln is that even though he was born in Kentucky, grew up in Indiana, and settled in Illinois… he still envisioned a strong central government that would support what was back then called internal improvements, what you might think of as infrastructure… Lincoln has always kind of committed to this idea of economic opportunity stimulated the government.”

To hear more from this panel of historians on how the role of the presidency has been shaped overtime, listen to the full FEDtalk podcast here.

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