The History Behind the First First 100 Days
President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933 amidst the worst economic depression in the nation’s history. Almost 25% of Americans were out of work, and many had been unemployed for years. Churches and public relief organizations had long-since emptied their pantries and spent their emergency funds, and families were literally starving. Faced with the unprecedented crisis, FDR and Congress worked together to pass fifteen bills to rescue banks, support farmers, feed Americans, and put people back to work. The enormous outpouring of legislation and executive activity in FDR’s first 100 days created a new standard for productivity.
But long before FDR took office, the first president set about trying to figure what it meant to be president. To be sure, George Washington wasn’t facing the overwhelming economic conditions of the 1930s (though the economy was pretty darn awful), nor was he taking office with an impending Civil War as Lincoln did in 1860. Yet, he had to essentially create the presidency from scratch, and that’s much harder than it sounds. Article II of the Constitution is incredibly short and provides very little detail about how the president should act. The delegates to the Constitution Convention mostly trusted Washington to fill out the fuzzy details and make good choices.
There was an awful lot riding on those decisions. The first federal government, the Confederation Congress, had already failed, and Washington knew that republics rarely get a second chance. The European powers were hovering in the wings, just waiting to take advantage of a weak moment and scoop up any wayward states. Furthermore, nationalism wasn’t really a thing — the various geographic regions of the country had little in common and much to distrust in each other.
So with all of those pressures on Washington’s shoulders, it’s no surprise that he wrote to Henry Knox as he departed Mount Vernon for New York City for his inauguration: “My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.”
After taking office on April 30, 1789, Washington started his first hundred days. Legislation of his own design was out of the question, as was widespread executive action. Congress was focused on crafting and ratifying the amendments that became known as the Bill of Rights, as well as the passing the legislation that would create the executive departments. The departments of war, state, and treasury, as well as the position of the attorney general, weren’t finished until September 1789. The final secretary, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, didn’t even take office until the end of March 1790. Our twenty-first century expectations about presidential action were utterly impossible to meet.
That being said, Washington had to tackle for the first time many things we take for granted today: an inaugural address, state of the union, relations with Congress, socializing, engaging with average citizens, transportation, dress, and more. Every single detail of presidential life was up for debate and needed to be established for the first time.
One of Washington’s greatest strengths was his ability to know when he didn’t know all the answers. From the very beginning of his presidency, he was quick to ask for help and advice. Right after taking the oath of office, Washington wrote to several prominent public figures — Vice President John Adams, acting Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay, future Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and more — and asked for their input on nine social questions, including,
“Whether a line of conduct, equally distant from an association with all kinds of company on the one hand and from a total seclusion from Society on the other, ought to be adopted by him? and, in that case, how is it to be done?”
Accordingly, Washington began to craft a social calendar. On Tuesday nights, he hosted levees for any citizen (white man) with a decent suit. On Thursday nights, Martha and George welcome visiting dignitaries, congressmen, justices, cabinet secretaries, and elite families in New York City and Philadelphia for state dinners. On Fridays, Martha hosted her “drawing rooms,” which welcomed both men and women. He hoped that this mix of social events would provide enough access to the president, without making him too accessible.
Similarly, Washington attempted to find a similar balance with clothing and transportation. For his inauguration, he ordered a high-quality homespun suit to wear to his inauguration, rather than English wool or French silk — the first to wear “American made” to an inauguration. But he doesn’t want to look like a country bumpkin either, so he accessorized with diamond shoe buckles. For most of his transportation needs, he used his cream-colored carriage with gold trim. It was the most recognizable carriage in the United States and screamed wealth and privilege. But every afternoon, he went for a walk on the filthy, unpaved streets of New York City and Philadelphia to demonstrate that his boots got muddy just like every other citizen. And the message was one that his fellow citizens understood loud and clear.
Washington wasn’t just focused on social interactions however, he also worked to established the powers and responsibilities of the executive branch. Accordingly, on June 8, 1789, Washington issued the first ever executive order, requesting a “state of affairs” update from each acting department secretary:
“I wish to receive in writing such a clear account of the Department at the head of which you have been, as may be sufficient…to impress me with a full, precise & distinct general idea of the United States, so far as they are comprehended in, or connected with that Department.”
Once he received the updates, he could begin executive governing in earnest.
It might not seem like much, but the first first 100 days changed the course of history. The nation persevered. It did more than persevere, it thrived. The presidency led the way. If Washington had failed, the nation would have failed. That may seem like hyperbole, but it’s not. The first first 100 days may have not have been dominated by a flurry of New Deal programs or Civil War, which are far sexier for the history books, but they were no less important.