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George Washington: The President Without Precedent

Topic
Instructional Objectives
Background Information
Activities
Evaluation
Extension Ideas

Topic

Students explore the inauguration and administrations of George Washington.

Instructional Objectives

By using the activities of this lesson, the students will:

  1. explore the time period and events surrounding Washington's inauguration;
  2. demonstrate how Washington set a precedent for each action he took as the American republic's new president;
  3. compare and contrast the traditions and events of the 1789 inaugural with the most recent inauguration.

Background Information

Washington was well aware that each action he took as the nation's first president would determine how the nation and the office of president would be perceived from that moment on. Washington was elected by a unanimous vote, and he was tremendously admired by citizens of the new republic.

Washington traveled from his farm at Mount Vernon, Virginia, in 1789 overland to New York, the temporary capitol of the United States. There, he took the oath of office as stated in Article II of the new federal Constitution. He delivered a short but important ten-minute inaugural address. He then proceeded to consult with members of his newly-appointed cabinet about how the duties of the presidency should be carried out on a day-to-day basis.

Activities

  1. Washington took on the office of president out of loyalty for the nation he helped form, but he was a reluctant first president. To learn more about his reservations, visit one or more of the following sites:

  2. After research in the library or a class discussion, have students brainstorm verbally or develop a written paragraph that illustrates why Washington may have had reservations about becoming the first president. For an alternative approach, students might want to write in a diary format as though they are with Washington riding to his inauguration from Virginia to New York.

    Possible students responses may include the following:

    • He was nervous. He knew that each action he took would be scrutinized by the American people, by his political enemies, and by historians to come, as well as by presidents to follow, who would look to his example for guidance.

    • He wanted to stay a farmer at Mount Vernon. He felt that his experiences as a farmer were not sufficient to act as the captain of the ship of state, especially in the wake of the controversy over the ratification of the Constitution.

    • He was tired. Washington had devoted most of his adult life to public service. At age 57, he was in poor health, even though he was only three years older than the average age for presidents at inauguration.

  3. On the Web, find Washington's first and second inaugural addresses. The second is famous because it is so short. How does it compare with the second inaugural addresses of other past presidents? Investigate other inaugural speeches at the Project Bartleby Web site.

    As students read the first inaugural address, ask them to point out examples from the speech that show Washington is aware that he is setting important national precedents. Also, do students sense any reluctance on Washington's part to take office, based on what they read? (Note: students may want to read the speeches in groups, dividing up unfamiliar vocabulary terms as they encounter them.)

  4. Washington's exit from office was as important as his entrance. Although he was urged to seek a third term, he refused. Ask students to read sections of Washington's Farewell Address. Why did he decide to retire? Why was his retirement an important precedent for the young republic?

    (Washington's refusal to seek a third term in office signaled that Americans should not seek to elect a "ruler for life," no matter how popular, and reinforced the goal of a peaceful transfer of power in the infant republic. No president served more than two terms until Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1932-1945); following Roosevelt's terms in office, the Constitution was amended so that future presidents were limited to two terms by law.)

Evaluation

The lesson may be evaluated through the following means:

  1. the historical accuracy of student writings, which can be awarded a number of points based on the students' thinking skills, originality, and use of historical information;
  2. the student's contributions to whole-class discussion and group work reading Washington's speeches.

Extension Ideas

  1. Washington toured the United States after his inauguration. Students may want to research that trip and describe the people and political issues with which Washington had to deal as he explored his new republic.

  2. Research the lives of people who were other important "firsts": first person to walk on the moon, first woman Cabinet member, first surgeon to perform a heart transplant, etc. What personality traits do these people share with Washington? Students might create a "Firsts Hall of Fame" to display at school.