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The First President’s First 100 Days

Presidential inaugurations usher in periods of new-found optimism, as recently elected officials expound on their vision for the country and lay out plans to implement their campaign promises.

While the 100-day benchmark of a U.S. presidential administration recognized today began when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, the early days of any administration help set the course for the following years.

Join Ron Carnegie, who interprets Nation Builder George Washington, as he reflects on our first President’s inauguration and early administration.

George Washington’s first one hundred days as “Chief Magistrate” of the United States began with his inauguration at Federal Hall in New York on April 30th, 1789. His oath was administered by Robert R. Livingston, the Chancellor of New York.

Washington entered the newly created office with no experience serving in an executive capacity. At his inauguration, he laid out how he intended to proceed in his relationship to the legislature. “… it will remain with your judgment to decide, how far an exercise of the occasional power delegated by the Fifth article of the Constitution is rendered expedient at the present juncture by the nature of objections which have been urged against the System, or by the degree of inquietude which has given birth to them. Instead of undertaking particular recommendations on this subject, in which I could be guided by no lights derived from official opportunities, I shall again give way to my entire confidence in your discernment and pursuit of the public good…”

Washington’s challenges as the first President were manifold. He had to quickly ascertain the full weakness of the nation’s current economy, in no small reason the new constitution had been adopted, as well as familiarize himself with the status of relations with other nations, both international and American Indian. Relations and lines of communication had to be created with both houses of the legislature, and his own Executive department had to be established, courts created, and appointments made. All while a constant parade of well-wishers, visitors, and the simply curious consumed huge amounts of Washington’s time. Matters of presidential etiquette, determining who and when people could meet with the President had to be defined just to assure that he had “…eight hours for refreshment and sleep.”

A George Washington inaugural button costume accessory

The President decided to restrict visits to two days a week and to limit the time available for such meetings. He stopped the previous custom practiced by the Presidents of Congress, of entertaining anyone who chose to come to dinner. In the future, only those invited would be allowed access to the presidential dining table. The President would not accept any invitations himself and would limit his public appearances. While intended to allow him time to complete the business before him, and to reduce accusations of favoritism, it would also help lead to accusations of aristocratic or monarchial tendencies which would become a thorn in his side throughout his terms of office.

The first bill passed by the new government was on the administering of Oaths, but soon Congress had begun work on adopting imposts or taxes to improve the nation’s dismal poverty and bills for the creation of executive departments.

Four executive departments had already been established under the previous system of government, Foreign Affairs, War, Post Office, and the Board of Treasury, but these had to be reorganized and reconsidered now that they would be under the authority of the new executive branch. The creation of the executive departments became more heated then perhaps expected. One issue was upon the executive’s ability to remove department heads.

Washington grew more and more frustrated and concerned of the wrangling of such basic aspects of the government’s operations. He had no shortage of possible candidates for Federal positions, with numerous men coming forward to make their interests known, a curious collection of strangers, friends, and relations. Some well-known and some obscure and unknown, some perfectly qualified and others decidedly less so. Washington was unwilling to give any positions to any of these people until the heads of the departments were chosen and their opinions heard, and this he could not do until the work of the Congress was finished.

Through all of this, Washington still had several personal situations to resolve. His own estate was in considerable debt with some bills and taxes in arrears. He had to arrange still to get his wife and servants (mostly enslaved) to New York, and his mother’s long illness has grown far worse. It would prove fatal just following the period in question.

Washington’s own health also suffered. Shortly after Martha’s arrival, in mid-June, George started to suffer from a fever and a tumor appeared on his thigh. The street outside his residence was roped off and rumors spread that the President was dying. In the end it proved to be an abscess and was removed but it left Washington weak and in pain all through July.

By the end of Washington’s first 100 days, the Bill for establishing a Department of Foreign Affairs had been signed into law. At the end of the following month, a similar act for the Departments of War and the Treasury had been adopted. Finally, the work of creating his Administration could begin.

Born in Los Angeles, Ron Carnegie has worked for Colonial Williamsburg for 25 years, and has been involved in many different aspects of Colonial Williamsburg’s interpretations. For the last fifteen years or so he has been portraying George Washington. When not at Colonial Williamsburg he is participating in his numerous and diverse hobbies.

Resources

Flexner James T. “George Washington: And the New Nation (1783-1793).” Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970

Freeman, Douglas S. “George Washington: Volume Six Patriot and President.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954

Shallus, Jacob. “The Constitution of the United States a Transcription.” America’s Founding Documents. 4 May 2020. The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription. 25 Jan 2021. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript

Washington, George. “Washington’s Inaugural Address of 1789 a Transcription.” National Archives and Records Administration. 17 Aug. 1998. Washington Inaugural Page. 25 Jan. 2021. https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals/inaugtxt.html.

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