11/07/2013 06:51 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Buck Stops Here, Mr. President

The Constitution is clear: the president must "take care that the laws be faithfully executed," and when our first president, George Washington, took office he imposed a strict rule that "whatever is required" of his subordinates "be punctually complied with."

Little wonder, then, that President Obama confused so many Americans -- not only by his failure to execute the new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but by his evident misunderstanding of the very law he made the crown jewel of his presidential crown. But as President Harry Truman pointed out, "the buck stops here" -- at the desk in the Oval Office of the White House.

Washington recognized and embraced responsibility for executing the laws from the moment he assumed office. A man of action, tempered in battle, Washington pledged "to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States" when he took office, and he did so forcefully--even, at times, ignoring the letter of the Constitution "to preserve, protect and defend" the spirit of that document.

Many Americans today believe the end of the Revolutionary War marked the end of the crises Washington faced as a national leader, but hardly a day went by during his eight years as president that he did not face a threat to national survival. He faced his first crisis after less than a year in office, when Congress recessed in the fall of 1789 after passing a budget but failing to appropriate funds or authorize any government spending. Left to run the government without money, Washington acted decisively to prevent a government shutdown. Unlike President Obama during the budget crisis earlier this fall, President Washington ignored constitutional restraints and ordered Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton to borrow the funds he needed from New York's commercial banks to prevent a government shutdown.

Not long thereafter -- again, Congress was in recess -- Indian attacks on American settlers in the West forced Washington to assume extra-constitutional powers by sending troops into battle to protect American lives. Rather than face public wrath by withholding the president's right to defend Americans and American territory, Congress later passed the Militia Act, giving the President the legal right to exercise powers he had already exercised illegally.

In acquiescing, Congress ceded to the president the power to lead the nation to war and set a precedent for every president thereafter. Of more than a dozen wars which the United States has waged since then, Congress has issued formal declarations in but five: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II. Presidents have taken the nation to war in all the rest.

During his eight years in office, President Washington asserted powers in eight areas the Constitution had reserved for Congress to control: national defense, government finances, foreign affairs, executive appointments, federal law enforcement, executive privilege, and presidential proclamations, or executive orders.

In the most blatant violation of the Constitution, Washington issued a "Neutrality Proclamation," with the force of law, prohibiting Americans from participating in the Franco-British war then raging on the Atlantic. The Constitution clearly assigns all powers to enact laws to Congress. Washington's proclamation, however, set a precedent for Abraham Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation.

In contrast to the timid reactions of President Obama to the Republican Tea Party shutdown of Congress earlier this fall, President Washington assumed unconstitutional law enforcement powers in 1794 by sending troops to crush tax protests in western Pennsylvania -- much as the British had done thirty years earlier when Washington himself had protested British taxes.

"If the minority... are suffered to dictate to the majority," Washington roared, "there can be no security for life, liberty or property."

Although his action violated the letter of the Constitution, President Washington set a precedent that President Dwight D. Eisenhower used in 1967, when he sent troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to ensure the rights of black children to go to school with whites. Like Washington, Eisenhower was a battle-hardened veteran who acted decisively and forcefully to "preserve, protect, and defend" the law of the land and the spirit of the Constitution.


Historian Harlow Giles Unger is the author of "Mr. President": George Washington and the Making of the Nation's Highest Office, which Da Capo Press has just published. Mr. Unger has written more than twenty other books, including recent biographies of James Monroe, Patrick Henry, and John Quincy Adams, which Da Capo has just released in paperback.