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George Washington and Executive Power

31 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2010  

John Yoo

University of California at Berkeley School of Law; American Enterprise Institute


This paper examines current debates over the scope of presidential power through the lens of the Washington administration. We tend to treat Washington’s decisions with an air of inevitability, but the constitutional text left more questions about the executive unanswered than answered.

Washington filled these gaps with a number of foundational decisions - several on a par with those made during the writing and ratification of the Constitution itself. He was a republican before he was a Federalist, but ultimately Washington favored an energetic, independent executive, even at the cost of political harmony. He centralized decision-making in his office, so that there would be no confusion about his responsibility and accountability. He took the initiative in enforcing the law and followed his own interpretation of the Constitution. He managed diplomatic relations with other countries and set the nation’s foreign policy. At the end of his two terms, the Presidency looked much like the one described in The Federalist Papers.

None of this was foreordained. Washington could have chosen to mimic a parliamentary system or a balanced government with executive branch officials drawn from an aristocratic social class. He could have considered the Presidency as Congress’s clerk, committing himself solely to carrying out legislative directions. He might even have thought of himself as the servant of the states. But instead he read his constitutional powers broadly to lead the nation through its first growing pains; restore the country’s finances; keep the nation out of a dangerous European war; open the West to American expansion; and see the Constitution through the appearance of the first political parties.

Suggested Citation

Yoo, John, George Washington and Executive Power. UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 1703014. Available at SSRN: or

John Choon Yoo (Contact Author)

University of California at Berkeley School of Law ( email )

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American Enterprise Institute ( email )

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