My station is new; and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent."
-George Washington in a letter to Catherine Macaulay Graham, January 9, 1790 (The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 5, Presidential Series)
Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of our first president, one of the featured works in the new NEH Picturing America project, was so widely reproduced that it is almost impossible for Americans to conceive of Washington in any other way. Yet as the first President of the United States, George Washington did, in fact, "walk on untrodden ground." There was neither "president" nor "precedent" for him to follow. Each of his actions as chief executive over his two terms marked the first steps toward shaping the American presidency.
But the one precedent that Washington did not set was how to campaign against an opponent. He ran for office virtually unopposed. Compared to today's presidential candidates, George Washington had it easy. In the American Presidents, an EDSITEment-reviewed website about the history of the office and the individuals who filled it, we learn that the biggest effort of the first presidential election in 1788 was to convince George Washington to serve in the new nation's highest public office. The citizens wanted no leader other than George Washington.
A different view of an American political campaign is revealed in George Caleb Bingham’s The County Election another one of the featured works in Picturing America. The story takes place in a small Midwestern town in the mid-nineteenth century, when the rituals of voting were still taking shape, particularly on the frontier. George Caleb Bingham, known as "the Missouri artist" for the state where he lived and worked, recognized the responsibilities as well as the rights of citizenship; and because he played an active part in Missouri politics, he gained a personal perspective on the contemporary electoral process. In The County Election, Bingham presents a raucous voting party as an enactment of democracy, bringing together a variety of residents in a rural community to make decisions for the common good.
Today's presidential candidates battle for the presidency in a fast-paced campaign that takes them all over the United States, and they and their families must deal with intense media coverage that makes their names and faces very familiar by Election Day. The Living Room Candidate an EDSITEment-reviewed website that has presidential campaign commercials from the years 1952-2004 which you can use in your classroom with middle and high school students.
Younger students can begin learning about the presidency by comparing the roles of America's original First Family, George and Martha Washington, with that of contemporary presidents and their families. Visit the EDSITEment lesson plan, Picturing First Families, an activity specifically designed for students in kindergarten through the second grade which uses portraits to teach children about how the president and his family represent the nation. For a useful resource on the changing role of the First Lady, visit the EDSITEment lesson plan, Women of the White House, where older students explore the impact of recent First Ladies by conducting research at the National First Ladies Library and the Presidential Libraries available through the Digital Classroom. These students supplement this research by interviewing their own family members about the contributions made by former First Ladies.
Finally, since campaigns are predominantly a battle of words, discover the words that have made previous presidents both famous and infamous by watching online films about several of the modern presidents from FDR to George H. W. Bush on the PBS website for the series on The Presidents and the accompanying EDSITEment feature.
Clockwise from top left: FDR, Reagan, Truman, Eisenhower.