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The Presidency of George Washington

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My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over sixty books.

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.

The Early Years

The man who is called the Father of America, George Washington, led an amazing life by any standard. Even if he had not become the first president of the United States, he would still rank as one of the most important people in the history the United States. Washington was born in the British colony of Virginia on a plantation in 1732. Little is known of his youth; however, we do know he received a minimal education from tutors and later learned the profession of a surveyor, which was a valuable skill in the expanding frontier of Virginia. A tall and muscular young man, Washington was a natural military leader in the Virginia militia. He became a lieutenant colonel in the voluntary Virginia militia and participated in the first battle of the French and Indian War. Though his time in the military was undistinguished, he did learn many skills that would help him become the commander of the Continental army in the American Revolutionary War. As the general in charge of the war, he spent eight long years away from his beloved Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, and much time separated from his wife, Martha. After America gained its independence from Britain, Washington returned to Virginia in 1783 to lead the life of a gentlemen farmer.

George Washington as president of  the 1787 Constitutional Convention

George Washington as president of the 1787 Constitutional Convention

Constitutional Convention

Washington would only enjoy a few short years as a planter after the Revolution, for once again he was called into public service in 1787. The country was facing a crisis of governance as the Articles of Confederation that had been drafted in 1777 placed too much power within the states and provided for a weak central government. Washington was chosen as a delegate from Virginia to the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia, where his reputation as a strong leader prompted the delegates to elect Washington as president of the convention. Though he seldom entered into debate, his presence was a calming presence among the divided voices working to establish the first constitutionally based democratic republic on earth.

One of the controversial issues at the convention was the office of the chief executive; according to James Madison, the idea of a single person being the chief executive caused “considerable pause” amongst the delegates. After much debate, the delegates gave the chief executive the power to veto acts of Congress, subject to being overridden by a two-thirds veto in the House of Representatives and Senate. Additionally, the president was responsible for execution of the laws issued by Congress and was commander-in-chief of the military. The chief executive was given the power to appoint diplomats, judges, and other officers with the approval of the Senate. Though the head of the executive branch of government was given great power, many limitations were placed on the holder of the office. Unlike a British monarch, the president could be removed from office through an impeachment process. If Congress thought the president was guilty of treason, bribery, or “other high crimes and misdemeanors,” they could vote on articles of impeachment. Next the Senate could remove the president from office based on the article of impeachment put forth by the House by a two-thirds vote.

By the end of 1788 the new Constitution was in place, though many involved in drafting the document had their doubts about its success. The elder statesman Benjamin Franklin, who had participated in the convention, wrote to a friend, “Everything appears to promise that it will last, but in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” George Washington shared similar misgivings about the fledgling government, telling a fellow delegate as the convention adjourned, “I do not expect the Constitution to last more than twenty years.”

As a nationwide popular vote was not practical, the election of the president called for each state to chose two electors. When the votes were counted in the first presidential election, none of the sixty-nine electors voted against George Washington, making him the only president to receive a unanimous vote. The revolutionary patriot and lawyer, John Adams from Massachusetts, received the second most votes and became vice president.

Inauguration of the First President

At the time of the election, Washington was at his Mount Vernon plantation dealing with his debts, for he was land rich but cash poor. To make the trip from Virginia to the new seat of government in New York City, he had to borrow $600. Washington reacted to the news of his election with trepidation, telling a friend, “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, so unwilling am I…to quit a peaceful abode for an ocean of difficulties.” The inauguration was held on April 30, 1789, on the balcony of New York’s Federal Hall. A large crowd had gathered, including Vice President John Adams and members of the first Congress, to see the new president and hear his inaugural address.

President Washington entered the office of the president with his share of domestic and international problems. The country was not fully united; North Carolina and Rhode Island had not formally joined the Union, and the Republic of Vermont had not fully committed to joining the Union. To the west, Great Britain still held forts they refused to abandon. Militarily the country was weak, with a small army and no navy. The financial state of the nation was in shambles as the war had disrupted trade with England and depleted the nation’s treasury. With only limited power to tax the citizenry, it would be years before the nation’s finances would become stable. Washington didn’t take over a functional government, rather a small bureaucracy of clerks who operated out of temporary offices in New York City. Though the Constitution had established a frame of government, it was up to President Washington and Congress to turn this abstraction into a reality.

The first inauguration of President George Washington at Federal Hall in New York City on April 30, 1789.

The first inauguration of President George Washington at Federal Hall in New York City on April 30, 1789.

Setting Up the President’s Cabinet

One of Washington’s first tasks as president was to establish a cabinet of advisors. The Constitution didn’t mention the word “cabinet”; rather, it did allow a “…principle officer in each of the executive departments,” so the new president petitioned the Senate for approval of five such posts. For the attorney general to serve as a federal prosecutor, Washington chose Edmund Jennings of Virginia. To run the day-to-day operations of the military, the president picked his previous comrade in arms Henry Knox as Secretary of War. To pursue matters of foreign policy, he chose the veteran diplomat Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. Alexander Hamilton, who had been Washington’s aide-de-camp during much of the Revolutionary War, became the Secretary of the Treasury. To run the postal system, Washington chose Samuel Osgood. Purposefully and with care, the president picked men of varying views on government. Treasury Secretary Hamilton and Secretary of War Knox had a Federalist viewpoint, which favored a strong central government. Preferring a more limited role of the federal government were Secretary of State Jefferson and Attorney General Randolph. Postmaster General Osgood did not contribute to policy discussions.

Dealing with the National Debt

As a result of the tremendous expense of funding the Revolutionary War, the country was deeply in debt and the paper Continental currency had become worthless. To return the country to solvency, Secretary Hamilton proposed a complex financial plan starting with the federal government assuming the debts of the individual states. He insisted that the debts from the Revolution were a national responsibility since all citizens had benefited from the independence. This plan met with opposition from Jefferson and his fellow Virginian James Madison, then serving in Congress. They protested because the northern states held most of the debt and the policy, which would have to be funded with taxes, would place an undue burden on the southern states.

A compromise was reached between the opposing factions over the debt. Jefferson and the southerners agreed to Hamilton’s plan for the assumption of the state’s debts provided the new federal city be located on land donated by the states of Virginia and Maryland on the Potomac River. Legislation passed in July 1790 that approved a capitol district, which became America’s seat of government, in an area to be called the District of Columbia. Construction began on the federal building in the new capitol city with President Washington laying the cornerstone of the executive mansion, later known as the White House. George Washington would never live in the executive mansion since it was not completed until after his time in office. Washington’s successor John Adams and his family would be the first presidential family to live in the executive mansion.

1776 $3 Continental currency.

1776 $3 Continental currency.

Creation of a National Bank

To act as a national treasury and an engine of economic development within the nation, Hamilton proposed the establishment of a national bank in 1791. In addition to government funds, wealthy individuals would be encouraged to deposit their money, thus giving them more stock in the new government. Hamilton believed this arrangement would be beneficial to the nation and its citizens as the wealthy would be encouraged to see that the bank prospered. A national bank would also be able to issue bank notes (paper money) to provide a uniform currency that would alleviate the problem of chronic shortages of gold and silver. The creation of a national bank would move the new nation away from an agrarian society to one more commercially oriented. Jefferson and Madison strongly opposed the establishment of the bank, arguing the Constitution did not allow for its creation. Hamilton responded that the Constitution gave Congress the right to levy taxes, to coin money, and to pay the nation’s debts, which were all functions of a national bank. After considerable debate in Congress, legislation was passed that established the First Bank of the United States, and President Washington signed it into law.

Washington’s Second Term as President

After four years in office President Washington wanted to return to the life of a planter at Mount Vernon and even persuaded James Madison to write a farewell address for him. Many in the administration wanted Washington to run for a second term, including Jefferson, who told the president, “that as far as I know…he was the only man in the U.S. who possessed the confidence of the whole…” In the election of 1792, Washington once again won unanimously by a vote of the electors, and John Adams remained as the vice president.

The second term was stormy. Washington did not enjoy the same popularity he had garnered during his first term. Conflict soon erupted between the Jeffersonians and the Hamiltonians when the secretary of the treasury convinced Congress to pass excise taxes necessary to support the government. Hamilton’s package of taxes included a levy on whiskey, which would in turn lead to a small-scale rebellion.

The Whiskey Rebellion

Alexander Hamilton’s excise tax on liquor, levied in 1791, inflamed the farmers on the western Pennsylvania frontier. They used whiskey as a medium of exchange and refused to pay the taxes, even tarring and feathering a revenue collector. The lack of fresh clean water prompted nearly all Americans to regularly drink some form of alcoholic beverage. In the frontier areas west of the Appalachian Mountains, the main cash crop was liquor distilled from grain or fruit. The distillation of corn and rye solved the practical problem of the lack of transportation to national and international markets for their crops. It was much more profitable for a farmer to distill liquor from the corn and rye or apples and peaches than to transport the perishable products to distant markets. Thus, a tax on liquor was very detrimental to frontier farmers and they let their voice be heard—loudly.

In protest the frontier farmers of Pennsylvania didn’t pay their taxes, demonstrated, and harassed tax collectors. By 1794 the problem had become acute, with open rebellion in western Pennsylvania, prompting Hamilton and Washington to take action. In August of 1794, President Washington issued a proclamation ordering the rebels home and when they refused, he called up 12,900 militiamen from Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey to suppress the “Whiskey Rebellion.” Madison called the military action an excuse to “establish the principle that a standing army was necessary for enforcing the laws.” Washington led the army initially, eventually turning the troops over to Hamilton for the remainder of the march into western Pennsylvania. The overwhelming force brought a quick end to the resistance. In the end, about 20 men were arrested, all of whom were eventually acquitted or pardoned. In the press and in Congress, Hamilton faced a backlash, but in defiance of his critics he praised the mission as having shown that the central government can put down uprisings.

President Washington reviews the troops before their march to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.

President Washington reviews the troops before their march to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.

The French Revolution

Though Washington wanted to stay out of European politics, ties between the Old World and the New World were strong, bringing an international conflict to the shores of the new republic. Many Americans embraced the French Revolution that sent the monarchs Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to the guillotine in 1793, believing it was an extension of America’s revolution. While other Americans abhorred the bloodshed and violence associated with the revolt in France. After the execution of the French monarchs, Great Britain and Spain formed a coalition of monarchies at war with the turbulent French republic. Over the next 25 years, Britain and France were at war, with periods of quiet, until the defeat of French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815.

As a result of the conflict between France and Britain, tensions heightened between the Jeffersonians and the Hamiltonians. The Jeffersonians sided with France, believing that America should come to their aid due to the treaty of alliance signed in 1778. The Hamiltonians sided with America’s largest trading partner, Britain. President Washington clearly did not want to have America dragged into a protracted war between France and Britain, so he formally declared America neutral. “The duty and interest of the Untied States,” he said, “required that they should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial towards the belligerent powers.”

The Genet Affair

Though Washington had declared the U.S. was neutral in the war between Britain and France, his decision turned out to be problematic to enforce. The new French republican government sent Edmund Genet as their ambassador. In defiance of Washington’s declaration of neutrality, once he arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, he began to recruit men to free Louisiana from Spanish control. He also outfitted ships of privateers to attack British ships off the American coast. As Genet traveled north to Philadelphia to meet with the president, he attracted large crowds. Initially Jefferson embraced the French minister’s zeal but backed away from his position when he realized Genet was working in opposition to Washington’s orders. At the president’s request, the rabble rouser Genet was recalled back to France while America maintained its neutral position in the European war. Jefferson was so disgusted by Washington’s lack of support for the French Revolution and by the constant ideological battles with Hamilton that he resigned as secretary of state at the end of 1793.

Jay’s Treaty

Though merchants from America and Britain traded with each other across the Atlantic, the governments were still at odds. In late 1793, the British government informed the U.S. government that they intended to occupy their forts along the Great Lakes indefinitely. They also began to seize the cargo of American ships that were trading with French controlled islands in the West Indies. This prolonged foreign-policy crisis threatened another war between the old adversaries. In the spring of 1794 Washington named Chief Justice John Jay as a special envoy to Great Britain to settle all the major issues: get the British out of the northwestern forts, secure reparations for losses incurred by American shippers, obtain compensation for southerners who had their slaves taken in 1783, and establish a commercial treaty that would legalize American commerce with the British West Indies.

Jay’s success at the bargaining table with the British was mixed at best. Out of the treaty the British gained most-favored nation treatment in American commerce and a pledge by the Americans that French privateers would not be outfitted in American ports. Jay also agreed that the British did not have to compensate southern slave owner for the slaves they took during the Revolutionary War and that pre-Revolutionary American debts to British merchants would be paid by the U.S. government. Out of the negotiations, Jay did win three important points: the British evacuation of the northwestern forts by 1796, reparations for the seizures of American ships and cargo during the period of 1793 to 1794, and a trade agreement for the British West Indies.

When John Jay returned to America and the details of the treaty were leaked, it was met with public condemnation. The public and political leaders felt the treaty was one-sided, with the British the net benefactors. Per the Constitution, the Senate had to ratify the treaty with a two-thirds vote. President Washington was not happy with the treaty and delayed making it public, believing that his opponents were prepared to separate “the Union into Northern and Southern.” Once the details of the treaty became public there were calls to impeach the president. After the Senate ratified the treaty by a thin margin, Washington reluctantly signed the flawed agreement. In the House of Representatives, a faction opposing the treaty led by James Madison demanded the president produce all papers relevant to the treaty. The president refused on the grounds that the treaty was the responsibility of the Senate. Washington’s refusal set a precedent we now call “executive privilege,” which has now been invoked many times by presidents throughout the centuries.

If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

— George Washington

Farewell Address

Near the end of his second term as president, Washington was asked to run for a third term. Tired of all the political battles and the increasingly venomous and partisan press, he decided that two terms were enough. With help from Alexander Hamilton, Washington drafted a farewell address to the nation. In his address he deplored political parties, writing, “Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you, in the most solemn manner, against the baneful effects of the spirit of party…” Also warning the country against entanglement in the affairs of European nations, “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith.—Here let us stop.”

Washington and the Presidency

Retirement

George and Martha left Philadelphia and returned to Mount Vernon for a life in retirement. The Washingtons got little respite from political life as a constant parade of well-wishers and the curious traveled to the plantation to see the great man. His retirement was short as just a little more than two years after leaving office he died on December 14, 1799, of respiratory complications.

Legacy of the President

During Washington’s two terms as president he had an impressive list of accomplishments. He put flesh on the skeletal structure of government as laid out in the Constitution. When he left office there were working departments within government to address the many concerns of the rapidly expanding country. The financial status went from a shamble at the beginning of his terms to a nation with secure credit and adequate funding for the branches of government. The country greatly expanded under Washington; territory was recovered from Great Britain and Spain; a stable northwestern frontier was established; and three new states, Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee, were added to the Union. George Washington, the Revolutionary War hero and first president of the United States, will always be remembered as the “Father of America.”

The Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., at sunset.

The Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., at sunset.

References

  • Burns, James M. and Susan Dunn. George Washington. New York: Time Books. 2004.
  • Hamilton, Neil A. and Ian C. Friedman (Reviser). Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. Third Edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.
  • Matuz, Roger, Bill Harris, and Laura Ross. The Presidents Fact Book: The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President From George Washington to Barack Obama. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2009.
  • Smith, Cater. Presidents Every Question Answered: Everything You Could Possibly Want to Know About the Nation’s Chief Executives. New York: Hylas Publishing. 2005.
  • West, Doug. Alexander Hamilton: A Short Biography. C&D Publications. 2016.
  • West, Doug. George Washington: A Short Biography: First President of the United States. C&D Publications. 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Doug West

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