School Improvement in Maryland
Clarifications: Each clarification provides an explanation of an indicator/objective to help teachers better understand the skills and/or concepts.

Standard 1.0 Political Science

Topic A. The Foundations and Function of Government

Indicator 1. Investigate the evolution of the U.S. political system as expressed in the United States Constitution

Objective f. Analyze the impact of precedence in the office of the President, such as the establishment of a cabinet and foreign policy


Although the Constitution set the formal outlines of the executive branch, there were many details about the actual day-to-day functioning of the presidency that were not addressed. As the first president, George Washington's choices set important precedents that shaped the presidency for years to come. Washington himself was aware of this responsibility. He commented, "I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent."

One area in which Washington's choices set an important precedent was the cabinet. The Constitution briefly references that the president may require the advice of "the principle Officer in each of the executive Departments," but it does not set the structure or define the functions of these departments. Congress initially created four executive departments: the State Department (foreign affairs), the Treasury Department (financial matters), the War Department (national defense), and the Office of the Attorney General (legal affairs of the government). Their heads would be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. There were no guidelines, however, as to how these departments would operate. Over time, President Washington began to meet regularly with the members of his cabinet to discuss policy matters. As a result, cabinet officers became — and remain today — the president's key advisors.

Washington's decisions also set long-lasting precedents in the area of foreign policy. During the war between Great Britain and France in the 1790s, George Washington resisted France's requests for American assistance and declared that the United States would remain neutral. In his Farewell Address, Washington recommended again that the United States avoid "permanent alliances" and involvement in foreign affairs. This isolationist approach influenced American foreign policy for the next century.

Other important details of the presidency were also determined by precedent. For example, the Constitution did not specify how the president was to be addressed. Some people favored an address such as "Your Excellency" or "Your Highness." Seeking to avoid the trappings of royalty, Washington preferred that people address him as "Mr. President," and it has been the accepted form of address ever since. Also, the tradition of a president serving for only two terms was established by Washington. Until the Twenty-Second Amendment was ratified in 1951, the Constitution did not set term limits on the presidency. Except for Franklin Roosevelt, however, all presidents limited themselves to two terms, following the precedent set by President Washington. Also, when Washington delivered extended remarks after taking the oath of office, he created the tradition of the inaugural address.

Resources for Objective 1.A.1.f: