Op-Ed: Even George Washington couldn’t get along with the Senate

A sign for a private area for 'Senators only' is seen inside the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

Will President Obama’s relations with the Senate change, now that Democrats have lost control of it? Probably not. And that’s because he didn’t have much of a relationship with it in the first place.

Neither did most of our previous presidents, even when the Senate was in their own party’s hands. Tension between the chief executive and the upper body of Congress is baked into our national DNA. And elections don’t seem to affect it all that much.

Before the nation’s first president took office, the Senate voted to bestow upon George Washington the title of “His Majesty, the President of the United States of America, and the Protector of the Same.” But Washington’s relationship with the Senate cooled just a few months later, when he visited the body to request its approval of a commission to negotiate land treaties with Native Americans.


Senators asked for time to consider the proposal, but Washington wanted their consent on the spot. He departed in a huff, leaving bad feelings on both sides. “I cannot be mistaken,” one senator wrote in his journal. “The President wishes to tread on the necks of the Senate.”

The new Constitution gave the Senate power to approve federal appointments, not just treaties. When the Senate rejected his nominee for a naval post in Georgia, Washington personally went to the body to ask why. One senator replied that its deliberations were secret, and they were none of the president’s business anyhow. After that, Washington resolved never to visit the Senate again.

Similar acrimony arose between 19th century presidents and the Senate, even when the president (like our current chief executive) had served in the body himself. After nine-year Senate veteran John Tyler became the country’s first unelected president, replacing the deceased William Henry Harrison, one senator proposed that Tyler be addressed as “The Vice President, on whom, by the death of the late President, the powers and duties of the office of President have devolved.” The Senate went on to reject four of Tyler’s Cabinet nominees and four of his appointments to the Supreme Court.

Nor did it matter that Tyler’s own party, the Whigs, controlled the Senate. Two decades later, as the Civil War raged, not a single member of the GOP-dominated Senate supported Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 reelection bid. Lincoln was locked in a battle over postwar Reconstruction with his fellow Republicans, many of whom believed that his assassination would pave their way to victory. “By the gods,” GOP Sen. Ben Wade told Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, after he assumed the presidency, “there will be no trouble now in running the government!”

But there was, of course, into the next century and beyond. Upon ascending to the White House in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt clashed with his GOP Senate colleagues over his plans for banking regulation, the construction of the Panama Canal and more. Privately, Roosevelt called one Republican senator “a well-meaning, pin-headed, anarchistic crank, of hirsute and slab-sided aspect.” As one of Roosevelt’s friends wrote, the president had “as much respect for the Senate as a dog has for a marriage license.” And the Senate returned the feelings, of course.

Woodrow Wilson got his taste of the Senate’s wrath after World War I, when it rejected his plea to join the League of Nations. “The senators of the United States have no use for their heads,” a bitter Wilson declared, “except to serve as a knot to keep their bodies from unraveling.”

And so it continued, from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tangle with the Senate over his court-packing bill through Richard Nixon’s battle over White House tapes and Bill Clinton’s impeachment. During FDR’s failed bid to add justices to the Supreme Court, one of his Democratic foes in the Senate said the president was his own worst enemy. “Not as long as I am alive,” another Democratic senator quipped.

Unlike FDR, Obama will now have to deal with a GOP-led Senate. But it’s hard to imagine that Obama’s relationship with the body could get any chillier than it was when his party controlled it. Twelve Democratic senators were invited to the White House on St. Patrick’s Day, and exactly one showed up.

From the very start, the Senate has tried to show up the president — and vice versa. And that’s unlikely to change, no matter which party is in charge.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of the forthcoming “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education.”

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