Jacob E. Cooke
ON 4 February 1789 the electoral college, entrusted by the newly adopted United States Constitution with the election of a president and vice president, voted unanimously for George Washington as the new nation's first chief executive. Since Washington was almost universally regarded as the indispensable man, neither his election nor his acceptance of the post was ever in doubt. It was for this reason that the framers adopted Article II of the Constitution, the section providing for, and broadly stipulating, the duties of the president. There was no problem in granting general and undefined powers to an office that most delegates believed would be filled by a man as universally admired and respected as Washington.
When official word of his election reached him on 14 April 1789 (a delay due to the slowness with which Congress assembled), Washington reluctantly and unhappily acquiesced in his countrymen's wishes. "I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity," he confided to his usually matter-of-fact diary, "and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York."
On the long eight-day trip to New York, then the nation's capital, the president-elect had ample time to reflect on his reservations about satisfactorily filling the office, particularly in view of its predictable problems. Fifty-seven years old, weary of official cares, and in poor health, Washington believed that he had already given too much of his life to public service. Resigned, nevertheless, to rendering the best possible "service to my country in obedience to its call," he realized that a principal contribution would be to diminish promptly the opposition to the new central government that had been revealed in the stormy debates over its ratification, a task that he, more than any other American, was best qualified to accomplish. He was also aware that "the first transactions of a nation, like those of an individual upon his first entrance into life, make the deepest impression, and . . . form the leading traits in its characters." Time has borne him out. The imprint of Washington's two terms in office has been of lasting importance not only in the history of the American presidency but also in the development of a viable national government. Perhaps only he could so successfully have accomplished these goals. Because of temperament, training, and, above all, his prominent status as the architect of American independence, he was the right man, at the right time, in the right job.
Washington was born on 22 February 1732, the first son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. A moderately well-to-do planter, Augustine had a large family—four children by his first marriage and six by his second. Soon after George was born, his family moved to a plantation in Stafford County, on the east side of the Rappahannock River, where he acquired a sparse education in what would now be called a private school. He later mastered surveying. His favorite sibling and his idol was his eldest half brother, Lawrence, who became George's father surrogate when Augustine Washington died in 1743, the same year in which Lawrence married a daughter of Colonel William Fairfax, head of one of the most socially prominent and influential families in Virginia. At the age of seventeen, George became a member of Lawrence's household at Mount Vernon, a part of which estate George inherited when his elder brother died in 1752.
The only military experience that Washington had preceding the American Revolution was acquired in the 1750s. Appointed adjutant general of a military district in Virginia with the rank of major in 1751, Washington was sent two years later by Governor Robert Dinwiddie to the Ohio Valley to alert the French to the dangers of trespassing on lands claimed by the English. The French were not deterred, and in the ensuing French and Indian War, Washington, now a lieutenant colonel, served as aide-de-camp to General Edward Braddock, in which post he took part in the disastrous expedition against Fort Duquesne. Following this defeat, Washington served from 1755 to 1758 as commander of the Virginia militia raised to defend the colony's western frontier. In this capacity, he gratifyingly commanded a successful expedition against Fort Duquesne.
On 6 January 1759, Washington married Martha, wealthy widow of John Parke Custis, and daughter of John Dandridge. With Martha and her children he settled down at Mount Vernon, becoming a typically prosperous country squire. His status was mirrored by his service in the House of Burgesses from 1759 to 1774.
A cautious and prudent Virginia aristocrat, Washington was nevertheless among the first Virginians to protest British colonial policy. He publicly emphasized his opposition by accepting appointment as a delegate to the Continental Congress during 1774–1775. On 15 June 1775 he was chosen by that body as commander in chief of the Continental army.
The saga of Washington's Revolutionary War exploits has been recounted many times and need not be repeated here. Among the highlights of his extraordinary military career were the successful siege of Boston in 1775–1776; the crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night 1776 and defeat of the redcoats at Trenton; the depressing defeats in the autumn of 1777 at Brandywine and Germantown, Pennsylvania; the bitterly cold winter that the dispirited Continental army endured at Valley Forge in 1777–1778; the skillfully commanded victory at Monmouth, New Jersey, in June 1778; and the famous Yorktown campaign in 1781, which brought the war to an end. By this time, Washington was the foremost hero of the Revolution, virtually canonized by his countrymen and widely respected abroad.
After eight and a half years as commander in chief of the revolutionary army, Washington resigned his commission and resumed his former life as a planter at Mount Vernon. He was enormously satisfied to be relieved of the heavy duties of official life and happy to be once again a private citizen. But the feebleness of government under the Articles of Confederation
and the imperativeness of strengthening the Union quickly convinced him that his dream of serene retirement at Mount Vernon was likely to be shattered. It soon was. Convinced that "we are fast verging to anarchy and confusion," Washington accepted his selection as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, which assembled in Philadelphia in May 1787, and was chosen its president. Once the new Constitution was written and ratified, there was, as has been said, no doubt as to the identity of the new nation's first president.
Washington's journey to the new capital in April 1789 was physically arduous, but it was a triumphal procession then unparalleled in the country's history. At major coach stops along his route, he was hailed in a manner befitting a Roman conqueror or a European sovereign—bells were rung, guns fired, countless congratulatory speeches made, odes recited, and parades and public banquets held. As he sailed across New York Bay on the last leg of his journey, he was accompanied by a sloop crowded with choristers who sang odes—one of them set to the tune of "God Save the King"—in his honor. When he reached the Battery, the cheers of a dense crowd and the peals of church bells competed with the thunder of thirteen-gun salutes from ship and shore batteries.
Such adulation suggests a major difficulty in objectively assessing the accomplishments and shortcomings of the first president. Since his retirement in 1783 as commander in chief of the Continental army, he had been hailed as "Father of His Country," heralded as an American Atlas or Fabius, and honored as the Cincinnatus of his nation's successful revolution. The most famous American of his day, at home and internationally, he was already a legendary figure and, as such, virtually immune from the critical or partisan barbs and shafts hurled at many of his presidential successors. He is still remembered primarily as the hero of the Revolution, the military leader most responsible for establishing on the field of battle a new and ultimately powerful nation. Even now, as for almost two centuries, his presidential stewardship is considered a postscript to his renowned generalship. It is also true, as one close student of his career, J. A. Carroll, commented, that "the biographers of George Washington either have found him a paradox and made him a paragon, or found him a paragon and left him a paradox."
The enduring image of Washington remains the one popularized by famous sculptors and portrait-ists, especially Gilbert Stuart, who painted him at least one hundred twenty-four times. Washington was variously depicted as a Roman imperator with sword and toga; Cincinnatus at the plow; or, less frequently, as in Stuart's "Lansdowne" portrait, a republican statesman attired in black velvet. In sum, as Marcus Cunliffe perceptively commented, Washington "has become entombed in his own myth—a metaphorical Washington Monument that hides from us the lineaments of the real man."
On 30 April 1789, Robert R. Livingston, chancellor of the state of New York, administered the oath of office to the nation's first president. The ceremony took place on a small portico of the remodeled Federal Hall, just off the Senate chamber where the two houses of Congress had assembled. Arriving in a canary-colored coach drawn by six horses, Washington, tall, erect, his hair powdered, was dressed in a suit of domestically spun brown broadcloth, his attire adorned by shoe buckles of silver and a dress sword in a steel scabbard. As he swore to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, he looked down from the balcony of Federal Hall upon throngs of people who lined Wall and Broad Streets. The crowd cheered, from the Battery came a thirteen-gun salute, and the president, bowing in acknowledgment, withdrew.
Having taken his place on the dais of the Senate chamber, Washington, his voice low, his gestures awkward, his hands trembling, delivered his brief inaugural address. Although the occasion was inspiring and his audience dazzled by the president's courtly and imposing appearance, the address itself, like so many of its successors, was, when read in cold print, not particularly impressive. He repeated his oft-made assertions regarding the conflict between duty and inclination, his consciousness of his "inferior endowments," and his lack of practice "in the duties of civil administration," and (perhaps to compensate for these deficiencies) invoked the care of "that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe" and whose "providential agency" had solicitously guided the people of the United States. Turning to affairs of state, the president merely declared his intention to defer to congressional judgment. His one specific request was that he receive no salary and that his compensation "be limited to such actual expenditures as the public good may be thought to require."
One of the most important developments of Washington's first months in office was congressional creation of executive departments and the president's appointments to head them. An act establishing the State Department became law on 27 July; a measure creating the Department of War was approved early in August; and the Treasury Department was created on 2 September.
Congress also provided for two executive officers who lacked a department: an attorney general and a postmaster general. To fill the former, the president chose Edmund Randolph, a Richmond lawyer, former governor of Virginia, and Antifederalist apostate of whom Washington was particularly fond personally. As postmaster general, Washington designated Samuel Osgood, whose assignment in those comparatively simple days was carried out in a single room with the aid of two clerks.
The president's predictable candidate for the War Department was Henry Knox, who had administered the corresponding office under the Confederation. Although genial and cooperative, Knox proved to be the cabinet's least capable administrator and least independent and forceful member. Washington's choice for secretary of state came as something of a surprise: Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Virginian, who was on the eve of returning from France, where his service as United States minister since 1784 had earned him diplomatic distinction and Washington's esteem. To head the Treasury Department, the president called on a former aide-de-camp and one of the nation's foremost nationalists, Alexander Hamilton.
The practice of presidential consultation with the cabinet collectively was to develop only slowly. At the outset, Washington solicited advice from his principal ministers individually, sometimes asking for reports on designated issues or occasionally inviting one or another to discuss matters over the breakfast table. By the end of 1791, the president had begun to convene meetings of heads of the executive departments (the attorney general included, largely because most high-level problems often involved legal issues). The group met with increasing frequency during the remainder of Washington's first term and frequently during his second.
Washington went to cabinet meetings with an agenda in mind, thus restricting discussion to issues of his choosing and discouraging the introduction of unrelated subjects. He did not actively participate in cabinet meetings, leaving debate to his ministers, whose opinions he occasionally requested in writing. Once he reached a decision, he expected his heads of departments to carry it out without dissent.
Although he no doubt would have liked unanimity, the president more often than not was obliged to choose from among sharply divided views of his principal ministers, notably those of Hamilton and Jefferson (who, the secretary of state later recalled, were "daily pitted . . . like two cocks"). Knox almost always slavishly sided with the treasury secretary, Jefferson usually disagreed with both, and Randolph steered an erratically independent course, which, although closer to that of his fellow Virginian than to Hamilton's and Knox's, prompted Jefferson to describe him as "indecisive" and a "chameleon."
Of greater historical consequence than cabinet dissension was its secure establishment as an advisory body to the president. This was not an inevitable development, for no such function was prescribed by the Constitution. But it was a predictable one for reasons that the first president had set forth at the end of the Philadelphia convention: "The impossibility that one man should . . . perform all the great business of state I take to have been the reason for instituting the great departments, and appointing officers therein to assist the supreme magistrate in discharging the duties of his trust." And such a view has remained the rationale for an extraconstitutional body that has been a major government institution from that day to this.
Many other developments of Washington's presidency established precedents that permanently shaped the structure of the federal government. As Washington himself put it, "Few who are not philosophical spectators can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation has to act. . . . I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent." This was because the Constitution provided only the skeleton of a government and because the new government had few established guidelines on which to rely.
Instead of viable precedents, the Confederation bequeathed merely a small number of unpaid clerks, a large debt, worthless paper money, and, in effect, a bankrupt and weak Union. Major problems, old and new, urgently required solutions. North Carolina and Rhode Island, for example, stubbornly remained outside the new Union; citizens of Vermont still schemed with Canada; Great Britain continued to refuse to relinquish its posts in the American West; and there was only a minuscule army and no navy at all. Virtually every effort of the administration to settle these difficulties constituted a precedent, as did its decisions and actions on most other issues, particularly those involving interpretation of the Constitution.
In the process of establishing precedents, Washington proved to be an uncommonly able executive. "In his daily administrative tasks," Leonard D. White, a distinguished authority on American public administration, commented, "he was systematic, orderly, energetic, solicitous of the opinion of others but decisive, intent upon general goals and the consistency of particular actions with them." Washington, in sum, demonstrated his mastery of administrative detail and reserved for himself the final say in major affairs of state.
This did not ordinarily include legislative affairs. Although Congress—despite the virtually unanimous belief in the separation of powers—was initially receptive to presidential direction, Washington was not inclined to offer forceful leadership personally. He did, of course, obey the constitutional injunction that the chief executive advise Congress on the state of the Union and "recommend to their consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." In performing this duty, Washington chose to appear in person at the opening of each session of Congress in order to review the record of the preceding year and to recommend subjects for congressional consideration. During the course of sessions he occasionally submitted special messages, chiefly informational, on important issues as they arose. At the outset elaborate protocol was observed, with Congress drawing up formal replies to the president's annual messages, although it did not always respond favorably to his recommendations.
During his first administration, Washington's department heads also played an active role in advising Congress on legislative policy. This was particularly true of the secretary of the treasury. Although the House was unwilling to allow Hamilton to appear before it in person, he nevertheless exercised instrumental legislative leadership. This included the submission of written reports and the use of influence over members of congressional committees. But the trend toward executive leadership of Congress—especially as exercised by Hamilton—drastically changed during Washington's second administration. The alteration was not due to revised views of Washington or his ministers on presidential leadership but rather to Congress' less friendly response, which was, in turn, tied in with the gradual development of political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
Despite Hamilton's attempt to exercise decisive influence, the First Congress initiated most of the legislation that it enacted. So it was with the stipulation of salaries for public officials; the adoption of titles, forms, and ceremonies consonant with what Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania called "republican plainness"; the provision of a bill of rights; and the enactment of tariff legislation.
In one conspicuous instance, Congress also enhanced the powers of the presidency. In question was the right of the chief executive to remove unilaterally from office those public officials for whose appointment the Constitution mandated approval of the Senate. James Madison of Virginia, one of the ablest and most influential members of the House of Representatives, sought to deprive the Senate of any claim to veto executive dismissals, by moving that department heads could be removed by the president solely on his own authority. The House approved Madison's motion, but the Senate was less easily persuaded. The vote on the resolution was a tie that was broken by its presiding officer, Vice President John Adams, in favor of exclusive executive authority. An important source of presidential power was thus established, although the silence of the Constitution on the subject led to a century and a half of sporadic controversy concerning it.
Rather less precedent-setting was Washington's position on the chief executive's veto power. As he saw the issue, that power had been conferred to enable the president to preserve the Constitution by blocking legislation that in his view violated it, a function that subsequently would be assumed primarily by the Supreme Court. So far as executive power itself was concerned, Washington had no need to use the veto to safeguard it from inroads by Congress (as Hamilton, in The Federalist, had predicted he would), largely because Congress' confidence in Washington forestalled any such attempts. Further, it never would have occurred to Washington to veto legislation because he disagreed with it on political grounds, if only because he did not consider himself a party leader. In short, during his eight years in office, Washington, adhering to his resolve that the separation of powers required him to pursue a hands-off policy toward Congress, vetoed only two comparatively minor pieces of legislation.
Although the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government would in the future turn out to be more consequential, issues of presidential protocol seemed to Washington to be of similar, if not greater, importance. He established a social schedule comprising three types of affairs: his "levees" for men only, staged on Tuesday afternoons; his wife's tea parties (which he also attended), held on Friday evenings; and official dinners, held on Thursdays at four in the afternoon. The dinners and the levees were stiff and formal affairs, leading some disgruntled Republicans to complain that Washington's style of entertaining was more regal than George III's—the harbinger, more radical critics complained, of an American monarchy.
Washington's entertainment schedule was designed to harbor his time by sparing him the otherwise constant intrusion of callers; the stilted quality of presidential entertainment was due to his own reserve and formality. (That silence prevailed at official dinners, for example, was because the president, who was expected to initiate table talk, was no dazzling conversationalist.) The president's critics, as Marcus Cunliffe has remarked, were "unfair in not realizing that the presidency was more than the man who occupied it. It was a symbolic office, which the majority of Americans then and later expected to see maintained with a degree of decorum."
The ceremonial aspects of Washington's presidency were also demonstrated by tours of the country. Although they were simple and brief by comparison to similar trips by much later presidents, they were, like so many seemingly inconsequential acts of the first president, precedent-setting. Washington took two such tours, one through New England in the fall of 1789 and another of the southern states in April 1791. The trips not only set a precedent but taught Washington what many later presidents would discover: the deep satisfaction derived from personal contact with the generality of Americans, who in his case manifestly admired, respected, and even revered him. It should be emphasized that Washington, unlike many of his successors, did not seek partisan advantage or personal popularity from such tours.
Nevertheless, it was largely because of Washington's enormous popularity that he was instrumental in establishing an effective administration and reconciling most Americans to the new government and, concomitantly, national authority. It was Hamilton who gave what he himself described as "executive impulse" to Washington's presidency. In appointing Hamilton, Washington, on whose staff the young New Yorker had served during the Revolution, realized that he was tapping the best financial talent the country could offer.
The president's satisfaction was the greater because he properly perceived that the Treasury Department would be the nerve center of the new government. Fiscal ineptitude had been chiefly responsible for the series of events that had toppled the Confederation and led to the adoption of the Constitution. Among the most important provisions of that document was the pledge that "all debts contracted and engagements entered into before the adoption of the Constitution shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution as under the Confederation." The most pressing problem of the new government was the fulfillment of this pledge, and it fell to Hamilton to propose the ways and means.
His recommendations created the most bitter controversy of Washington's presidency. Hamilton's proposals were submitted to Congress on 14 January 1790, in his Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit, which was also his blueprint for a prosperous, strong, even preeminent, central government. The report began an acrimonious controversy that preoccupied Congress for the rest of its session. In this famous state paper Hamilton divided the public debt—comprising accrued interest in addition to principal—into three categories: first, the foreign debt, totaling around $11.7 million; second, the domestic debt, amounting to $40.4 million; third, the debts of the states, approximately $25 million. He called for a discharge of the foreign debt (plus interest) in full; payment of the face value of the principal of the domestic debt but with a reduction of stipulated interest rates; and assumption of state debts on the same terms as public securities but with interest payments to be postponed until 1 January 1792. To maintain the price of public securities and to manage any government surplus the treasury secretary proposed the establishment of a sinking fund.
Initially, the debate on Hamilton's report centered on the national domestic debt and was sparked by James Madison, who in mid-February 1790 offered an amendment to Hamilton's recommendations. At issue was the question, To whom should payment be made, those to whom certificates had originally been issued or, as the treasury secretary proposed, the present owners, many of whom were speculators? Madison's plan was intended to do justice to the original holders of the debt and also satisfy the cupidity of assignees. Let those who bought up government securities be paid the highest value they had reached, he proposed. Let the difference between this amount and par value of the stock be paid to the original holders. In rebuttal, Hamilton's supporters argued that discrimination, as Madison's plan was termed, would mean an unacceptable increase in the already swollen national debt and that the task of distinguishing between original holders and assignees would involve the government in an administrative quagmire. Primarily for these reasons, discrimination was decisively defeated on 22 February.
Congress now centered its attention on a bill for the assumption of state debts by the federal government, an issue on which it was deadlocked until the eve of its adjournment, some six months later. Those states whose revolutionary debts remained for the most part unpaid championed the measure, those whose financial obligations had been largely discharged opposed it, and those with moderate and funded debts were uncommitted or unpredictable. Congress had also reached an impasse over the site of the nation's capital city, then New York City, an issue that at the time appeared to many legislators as important as Hamilton's fiscal measures. Boosters of the country's major cities (Baltimore and Philadelphia chief among them) eagerly sought the coveted prize, as did southerners, who insisted that it be located in a wilderness near the Potomac River. The situation was ripe for a compromise or compromises that would break the congressional logjam on this issue and on assumption. The votes of congressmen from Pennsylvania, widely believed to be the swing state, assured the success of a residence bill providing that Philadelphia should serve as the capital for a decade, at the end of which time the government would move to a permanent location near Georgetown, on the Potomac. Hamilton's timely concessions to make assumption more palatable to its opponents provided the votes necessary for passage of that measure.
As was his wont, Washington did not intercede on behalf of either bill or even publicly comment on them. Their passage was left to the administration's congressional allies and to Hamilton's behind-the-scenes legislative leadership. But the president favored both measures and, on 4 August 1790, unhesitatingly signed them into law, no doubt pleased that such divisive issues had been satisfactorily settled.
Had he known about it at the time, Washington would have been anything but happy over the gradually widening rift between his principal cabinet members, Hamilton and Jefferson. During the months immediately following Jefferson's arrival in New York in March 1790, the official association and personal relationship between the two men was on the surface harmonious. But viewed in retrospect, an eventual clash between two such egocentric, strong-willed, and ambitious men who were divided by political philosophy, divergent family backgrounds, social status, personality, and manner was inevitable.
Soon after the convening of the Second Congress in 1790, the two men's initial but superficial stance of personal forbearance and official cooperativeness was replaced by undisguised mutual suspicion. It surfaced during the controversy that was provoked by Hamilton's Report on a National Bank, the single most important issue debated by the Congress that assembled in Philadelphia on 6 December 1790, the first session to be held in the temporary capital. Hamilton called on Congress to charter a national bank capitalized at $10 million, one-fifth of the total to be provided by the government on its own account and the rest by individual investors. Although principally "under a private and not a public direction," the bank was based on the resources and credit of the United States, and a major purpose was to assist in the nation's financial operations. It was designed not only to aid but also to strengthen the new government, objects that were not lost on the treasury secretary's opponents, notably Madison and Jefferson. A majority of Congress, however, accepted Hamilton's argument: a bill chartering the Bank of the United States sailed smoothly through the Senate, and in mid-February the House gave its assent after only two weeks of debate. The measure was presented to the president on 14 February 1791.
Although brief, the debate in the House was heated enough and the opposition's arguments were plausible enough to make Washington uneasy about the measure's constitutionality. To dispel such misgivings, he solicited the advice of Attorney General Edmund Randolph, who pronounced the bank unconstitutional. Still undecided, Washington turned to his secretary of state. A constitutional fundamentalist and fiscal conservative, Jefferson set forth in his opinion on the bank a rigidly literal and strict construction of the Constitution that would have virtually strangled the national government in its infancy. Still undecided, the president sent copies of Randolph's and Jefferson's opinions to the secretary of the treasury, implicitly requesting him to refute them. Although he was confident of Hamilton's ability to do so, Washington could not have forecast the masterfulness of the essay in constitutional law that he received in reply.
While demolishing Jefferson's position point by point, the major thrust of Hamilton's argument was that his antagonist's constitutional literalness would destroy "the just and indispensable authority of the United States." Rejecting almost scornfully Jefferson's negative approach, the treasury secretary set forth a boldly affirmative view, one that emphasized the scope, rather than the limits, of government power. The president may or may not have fully perceived the drift of Hamilton's thought, but he was persuaded by the treasury secretary's argument that the proposed bank was a constitutional exercise of the government's enumerated powers to regulate trade, collect taxes, and provide for the common defense. On 25 February, Washington signed the bill chartering the Bank of the United States.
By siding with the secretary of the treasury on the establishment of a national bank, Washington unintentionally brought out into the open and intensified the rivalry between the prima donnas of his official family, Hamilton and Jefferson. But as many historians have long insisted, this contest was largely the personal expression of a deep-seated and intense sectional conflict between slaveholders and other agrarians of the South versus mercantile and related commercially oriented interests of the North.
Since Washington sided with Hamilton on the bank as well as on other economic issues, he has often been depicted as the unwitting supporter of northern business. The first president actually represented neither one section nor the other, nor any particular class. Rather, as James Thomas Flexner perceptively commented, he "visualized a mixed economy in which agrarianism and business activity would move together." He supported Hamilton's program because he believed that it would benefit all sections by promoting national prosperity and a more closely knit union. The restoration and firm establishment of public credit, moreover, was a means to the same goal. Far from being disturbed by the speculation engendered by the sale of government bonds and bank stock (which horrified Jefferson), Washington congratulated himself and his countrymen that "our public credit stands on that ground" which at the time of the launching of the new government "would have been considered as a species of madness to have foretold."
Although the president thus approved of most of Hamilton's policies, he by no means automatically endorsed them all. Believing that the United States would remain for generations to come an agricultural nation, he did not, for example, share his treasury secretary's vision of a powerful, industrialized nation, as attested by his refusal to back Hamilton's most ambitious (and in the event prescient) report—his plea for the encouragement of manufactures. In sum, the stereotyped view of Washington as merely a figurehead whose administration was actually run by Hamilton (a view first and most forcefully set forth by Jefferson) is inaccurate. Washington not only made the major decisions of his administration (usually, as has been said, after soliciting and pondering the opinions of his advisers), but he also skillfully and patiently tried to establish some semblance of harmony between his prickly principal secretaries.
No diplomat, however adroit, could have accomplished that assignment. By the summer of 1792 the conflict between the two secretaries had ripened into open warfare. Late in July 1792 the treasury secretary began an anonymous (although his authorship was no secret) newspaper crusade designed to discredit his rival and to drive him from office. As article after article appeared, Hamilton's attack on the secretary of state became increasingly shrill. Jefferson was an "intriguing incidenary" whose tenets tended to promote "national disunion, national insignificance, public disorder and discredit," the perpetrator of "the most wanton and flagitious acts that ever stained the annals of a civilized nation." Jefferson publicly ignored such vicious assaults, confining himself to the excoriation of his rival in his personal and official correspondence. To Washington, for example, he charged that Hamilton's program "flowed from principles adverse to liberty, and was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic." For his part, Jefferson was determined that his own retirement, on which he soon planned, not "be clouded by the slanders of a man whose history, from the moment history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country which has not only received and given him bread, but heaped honors on his head."
Washington was greatly disturbed by the deadly warfare conducted by advisers he personally liked and officially trusted. Persuading himself that the differences between the two were not irreconcilable, he decided to write essentially the same letter to both, pleading with them to subordinate personal antagonism to the national interest. Since neither secretary shared the president's equitable temperament and willingness to subordinate private pique to disinterested public service, the attempt was predictably futile. Both Hamilton and Jefferson politely acknowledged the soundness of Washington's advice and then proceeded to ignore it. Jefferson was especially testy, insisting that rather than continue to battle with an antagonist he scorned, he would soon resign as secretary of state, which he in fact did a year and a half later.
Washington was upset by the recalcitrance of his chief ministers not only because of personal concerns but because of practical and political considerations: The feud between Hamilton and Jefferson could prove irreconcilable and consequently increase party strife. Furthermore, the rift in his official family might oblige him to reconsider his firm decision to retire at the end of his first term. Additionally, disunity within his official family might adversely affect the conduct of foreign affairs, always to Washington an object of overarching concern.
During his first term in office, Washington's principal diplomatic difficulties concerned the Indian tribes, Great Britain, and Spain. The most immediate menace to national security came from Native Americans, who roamed and largely controlled the western frontier. Had they been able to effectively deploy their manpower and exploit their skill in guerrilla warfare, they would have presented an even graver danger, one that the sparsely manned American military forces could not have readily parried. But individual Indian tribes often appeared more intent on fighting each other than the white man, on whom they also were hazardously dependent for guns and gunpowder. For their protection and security they acquired them by playing the three contending North American empires against each other. Of these, Native Americans most trusted Spanish Louisiana and British Canada and most distrusted the United States. The former two not only supplied them with munitions but were also less interested in seizing territory than in pursuing the mutually profitable fur trade; fellow Americans in the United States were less interested in trading with the natives than in acquiring their lands, often by treaties fraudulently obtained.
Although the Spanish attempted to block U.S. expansion in the Southwest by negotiating profitable trade alliances with Indian tribes that served as a buffer against attempts of the United States to seize Louisiana and to open the Mississippi River to its commerce, the British posed the greater threat to the new nation's sovereignty. The northwestern frontier was the scene of seemingly endless warfare between Native Americans (aided and abetted by their British allies) and American frontiersmen (intent on retaliation against murderous assaults on U.S. settlements in the West). The crux of the problem, as the United States saw the matter, was that redcoats of His Majesty's Canadian regiments still occupied seven forts in the Old Northwest, posts that England had by the terms of the 1783 peace treaty ceded to the United States. England justified its refusal to abide by this provision of the treaty by pointing to stipulations that the United States had failed to honor: the repayment of revolutionary debts due to British merchants and the return of Tory property. Britain's true reason for holding on to the forts was to safeguard the route along which Indian furs were shipped to Canada.
Washington did not immediately perceive the nature and extent of British machinations in the West. When he belatedly did so, he swiftly asked Congress to enlarge the small regular army by one regiment. That done, he decided in 1791 to restore peace to the area by sending a punitive expedition against the warring tribes. Commanded by General Arthur St. Clair, the army advanced from Fort Washington into present-day Indiana. On 4 November, St. Clair's forces were, despite Washington's warnings about such an eventuality, ambushed and humiliatingly defeated by a confederated Indian army. Although he was charitably exonerated by Washington as well as by a committee of the House of Representatives, St. Clair resigned his commission. The United States Army, reorganized and enlarged, was now placed under the command of General Anthony Wayne, a leading Revolutionary War commander. During 1792 and 1793, Wayne postponed an active campaign while he patiently instructed his troops in the tactics of forest warfare.
In the meantime, Washington took the initiative in another type of training program by seeking to convince Congress and the state governments that the solution to the problem of Indian-American relations was not war but a change in attitude and the resultant adoption of policies that would assure justice to Native Americans. The murder of a Native American, for example, should be judged as the murder of a white person, measures should be taken to protect natives' property, and "such radical experiments . . . as may from time to time suit their condition" should be launched in order that Indians might gradually be integrated into U.S. culture. The period was not auspicious for the acceptance of such ideas, particularly in view of the persistence of Native Americans in conducting savage raids against U.S. settlers on the frontier.
For Washington, a more immediate and personal problem was the approaching presidential election of 1792. Early in his first administration he had made the decision to retire at the end of a single term, and wishing above all else "to return to the walks of private life," he balked at reversing it, the more so since for the moment the foreign scene appeared serene and domestic developments, particularly the success of Hamilton's economic program, gratifying. But would the rift in his official family oblige him to reconsider his earlier decision to retire? Pressure to do so crowded in from every quarter, from north and south, from private citizens and official colleagues. Among the latter, none were more importunate than the principal rivals of his cabinet, who suspended their acrimonious disagreement on everything else political to urge the president to stand for reelection.
Neither Hamilton's nor Jefferson's pleas, nor those of many other prominent Americans, had any effect on the president's unwillingness to announce his candidacy for reelection. Nevertheless, over the months following his return to Philadelphia from Mount Vernon in October 1792, Washington continued to remain mute. Predictably no rival candidate presented himself, and there was not even a whisper that one would. Aware that he was in a field of one, Washington certainly knew that the electorate would take his silence for assent, and it did. On 13 February 1793 the electoral college unanimously elected him to a second term. His running mate, John Adams, was also returned to office, although by a vote of only seventy-seven to fifty. To Washington, now past sixty and in poor health, what others saw as an electoral triumph was rather another four-year sentence to what he described to Jefferson as "the extreme wretchedness of his existence."
Washington's second inauguration, 4 March 1793, was a simple affair, particularly in contrast with his first. Acting on the advice of his cabinet, whose opinion on the ceremony attending his swearing-in he had asked for, Washington rode alone in his coach to the Senate chamber, where he took the oath of office and delivered his second inaugural address. Its brevity (it consisted of only two short paragraphs) and its stern and self-righteous tone perhaps reflected his chagrin at being obliged to remain in office for another four years. Washington then took the presidential oath and without fanfare promptly returned to the executive mansion. His misgivings and forebodings about his second term were not misplaced. Within a few weeks of his inauguration it seemed that the United States was inexorably being drawn into the conflict sparked in Europe by the French Revolution.
Some three months earlier, disturbing news of developments in France during the summer of 1792 had reached the State Department—the defeat of French armies that had led to mass Jacobin demonstrations in Paris, including the storming of the Tuileries; the imprisonment of the king; and the suspension of the constitution and establishment of a revolutionary government, all followed by the revival of French military successes. Then during the weeks following the onset of Washington's second term came yet more ominous news—Louis XVI had been guillotined, the Girondin party had gained power, France had declared war on Great Britain and Spain, a great European coalition was being formed to resist the Revolution, and a new minister plenipotentiary of the French republic was being sent to the United States.
A great many, perhaps most, Americans enthusiastically acclaimed the transformation of their monarchical revolutionary war ally into a sister republic. The French Revolution, in other words, seemed a replay of the American revolutionary scenario: a battle against royal absolutism and aristocratic privilege was another chapter in the story of man's struggle for justice, freedom, and equality. Such ardent pro-French sentiment was not dampened by the violence that raged in Paris nor even by the monotonous regularity with which aristocratic heads fell into the executioner's basket. Jefferson spoke for the more extreme defenders of the French Revolution when he commented that it was only to be expected that the tree of liberty must sometimes be watered by
human blood and expressed his willingness to see "half the earth desolated" if that were necessary for the triumph of human freedom.
Washington emphatically disagreed. Studiedly impartial, he deplored the pro-French sentiment that prevailed among so many of his countrymen. His ardent wish, as he had written in 1790, was for America to be "unentangled in the crooked politics of Europe." Neither was he enthusiastic about the Reign of Terror and the concomitant bloodbath. He rather believed that "cool reason" alone could "establish a permanent and equal government" and deplored the fact that such dispassion "is as little to be expected in the tumults of popular commotion as an attention to the liberties of the people is to be expected in the dark divan of a despotic tyrant." The grave threat that the war in Europe posed to American sovereignty must, he believed, be safeguarded by a policy of neutrality.
But in view of the Franco-American Revolutionary War treaties, how could such a policy be pursued? By the terms of those treaties the United States had promised to come to the aid of France if that nation became involved in a war; its prizes (but not those of its enemies) might be brought into United States ports, and its West Indian possessions were guaranteed. Was not the sacrifice of national honor the price of reneging on commitments made to America's ally? Was not England's enmity, or even war with that nation, the inevitable consequence of meeting treaty obligations to France? Washington sought to avoid the risk of armed confrontation with England and the danger of diplomatic retaliation by France by eschewing a formal suspension of the French alliance while informally disregarding its stipulations. This was the implicit intent of his famous Proclamation of Neutrality, issued in April 1793, in which he announced his determination to pursue "a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent Powers" and enjoined his countrymen against aiding either combatant.
The turmoil and attendant changes in France posed for the president another and, from the standpoint of precedent, more important problem: Should the United States recognize the republic that had replaced the monarchy, with which, in theory anyway, the Franco-American treaties of alliance and commerce concluded in 1778 had been negotiated or did the overthrow of the monarchy annul those treaties? Whichever way Washington decided, important groups or interests would be alienated. If recognition were accorded the new regime, the Federalists at home and the aristocratic powers in Europe would be resentful; if recognition were denied, the Jeffersonians at home and the revolutionaries in France would be outraged. After careful deliberation, Washington directed his secretary of state to recognize the revolutionary government, arguing that "we surely cannot deny to any nation the right whereon our own government is founded, that every nation may govern itself according to whatever form it pleases." Thus was established a vitally important precedent for the chief executive's right to extend—or, by implication, to refuse—recognition to a foreign government.
Washington's insistence on American aloofness from the wars of the French Revolution was perhaps his greatest accomplishment as president. Pushed in one direction by the partisans of France, shoved in another by the supporters of Great Britain, Washington believed that during the critical years of its youth as a nation the United States must remain free to grow in its own way, to continue to prosper, to consolidate, and thus to perpetuate national union. He thus steadfastly held to the belief that the diplomatic desideratum of his day was for Americans to forswear partiality for one power or the other and to pursue an unswervingly neutral policy. To do otherwise would be to court the single gravest danger confronting the new nation: foreign entanglements that might lead to United States participation in foreign wars and ultimately to the loss of its independence. The point needs to be underscored. J. A. Carroll has said that in no other "instance during his tenure as chief executive did Washington demonstrate his role in government so abundantly, or his greatness in statecraft so dramatically. In the year 1793 he forged the neutral rule in its fundamental form, and through the next four years his every policy was built on it."
A severe test not only of American neutrality but also of presidential patience was provided by the reception of the new French minister, Citizen Edmond Genet. Aware that Genet would insist that America honor its treaty obligations and do whatever else it could to aid an embattled sister republic, the Washington administration was squarely confronted with the difficulty of maintaining the nation's neutrality in the face of its diplomatic vulnerability. Genet, "brash, egotistic, extravagant in his ambition," was certain that he could make the United States into "an outpost of French revolutionary sentiment and also of recrudescent French imperialism." A great number of Americans, blithely unaware of the French-man's unneutral expectations, warmly welcomed Genet as the symbol of a steadfast ally and beleaguered sister republic. Enthusiastically greeted on his leisurely tour from Charleston, South Carolina, to the nation's capital, Genet arrived in Philadelphia on 16 May 1793, hailed by a salvo of cannon and the ringing of bells.
The president's treatment of the French emissary was in sharp contrast: Washington's icy manner would have frozen the enthusiasm of all but the most insensitive of diplomats. Genet was singularly obtuse. Disregarding the president's cautionary signal, the advice of sympathetic Republicans, and the laws of the United States, Genet stuck to the belief that the Americans need only hear his clarion call to rally around the standard of the French Revolution. Thus self-deceived, he pursued policies suggesting that the United States was France's satrapy rather than the nation's sovereign ally. He organized expeditions against Florida and Louisiana, outfitted and armed privateers, directed that their prizes be returned to American ports, and sought to popularize the notion that the survival of American republicanism hinged on the success of French arms.
Washington was indignant and angry at Genet's flagrant abuse of his ministerial post, behavior of which the secretary of state was astonishingly indulgent. Having convinced himself that the emissary of America's close republican ally could do no wrong, Jefferson insisted on giving Genet the benefit of every doubt. But the doubts soon became irrepressible, and by early August the secretary of state was ready to join his cabinet colleagues in approving the president's decision to request Genet's recall. Until the French had time to respond, Washington was obliged to put up with Genet, whose brashness was as unbridled as before.
To make sure that the president was kept informed of exactly how reckless the Frenchman was, two prominent Federalists, Senator Rufus King of New York and Chief Justice John Jay, published in a New York newspaper the following succinct accusation: "Mr. Genet, the French Minister, had said he would appeal to the people from certain decisions of the President." Far from denying the charge, Genet addressed a public letter to Washington saying that he had done just that and was prepared to do so again. Although pleased by the overwhelmingly favorable public support accorded him, Washington remained ostensibly impartial: he extended no thanks to King and Jay, much to their chagrin, and, at the request of Genet, ordered an inquiry to determine whether the French minister had been libeled. For six more months Washington continued to endure patiently Genet's uncurbed efforts to undermine the American government. Finally, early in 1794, a new French minister, Jean Antoine Joseph Baron Fauchet, arrived with orders to arrest his predecessor and send him back to France. Washington charitably granted asylum to Genet, who thus kept his head while giving his heart to one of Governor George Clinton's daughters, with whom he settled in rural New York.
In the meantime, Genet's onetime patron had retired to rural Virginia. Jefferson, fed up with political abuse and squabbles, had submitted his resignation on 31 July 1793 (to become effective at the end of December) and left for Monticello a month later. Since he did not return to the capital until November, this September departure marked all but the end of his tenure as secretary of state. He was replaced by Attorney General Edmund Randolph.
For Washington, Jefferson's departure would prove a major liability. Not only was the latter now free to head the political opposition to Washington's administration, but the president was also deprived of a counselor whose opinions had often been the necessary counterweight to those of the secretary of the treasury. As Flexner concluded, "The very essence of Washington's decisionmaking process was set awry. Since he endeavored, before he reached a conclusion, to balance all points of view, he found it immensely valuable to have laid before him the arguments of the ablest members of both principal factions. Now, when Hamilton spoke, there was no equally strong voice to answer."
This was tellingly demonstrated by the course of Anglo-American relations during the final years of Washington's presidency. The administration scarcely had time to breathe a collective sigh of relief over the soothing of relations with France that followed the forced retirement of Genet when it was confronted with distressing evidence of a revival of England's hostility. For one thing, the British government was manifestly determined to cut off the flourishing American trade with the French Caribbean ports that followed France's decision in February 1793 to throw open its previously guarded West Indian trade to the United States. Britain's determination took the form of a number of orders-in-council that cavalierly ignored neutral—and this meant particularly American—rights. By January 1794 the British were making wholesale captures of vessels flying the flag of the United States while systematically ignoring the government's protests.
Such high-handed assaults on American commerce channeled congressional energy during the winter and early spring of 1794 into a "flood of legislation aimed at war," despite the repeal in January of the most objectionable of the orders-in-council and the diminution of the indiscriminate condemnation of American vessels by British admiralty courts in the West Indies. Such minor concessions were counter-balanced by other grievances of longer standing—exclusion of American ships from British West Indian ports, retention of American fur-trading posts in the Northwest, refusal to settle the Maine boundary, unwillingness to grant compensation for slaves carried off by the British army in 1783, and the search of American ships for British deserters and their impressment on flimsy evidence. To most congressmen, Federalists and Republicans alike, the time had come for yet another successful chastisement of imperial presumption. Accordingly, on 28 March 1794 a one-month embargo (later extended) on all foreign shipping was imposed, followed by an unsuccessful effort to sequester debts due from American to British subjects. These punitive measures were accompanied by a Federalist-sponsored program of national preparedness calling for harbor fortifications, an increase in the army, and the building of warships.
Although Washington shared the view that the injuries inflicted on the United States by Great Britain must be redressed, he believed that the proper policy was neither military strutting nor retaliatory measures but diplomacy. Successful negotiations, he was convinced, were the only sensible alternative to a ruinous war. To whom should they be entrusted? Could Washington have had his wish, the American negotiator would have been his most trusted adviser. But Hamilton's presumed Anglophilia (allegedly extending even to monarchism), his controversial position in American politics, and the resultant storm that his designation would raise precluded the New Yorker's nomination. After canvassing the other qualified envoys—John Adams, Chief Justice John Jay, and Jefferson among them—Washington bowed to Hamilton's insistence that "Mr. Jay is the only man in whose qualifications for success there would be thorough confidence."
Although Jay's instructions were drawn up by Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, they incorporated some of Hamilton's suggestions (especially his insistence that those instructions be largely discretionary rather than narrowly prescriptive) but faithfully reflected the president's ideas. The American envoy was directed to persuade England to perform the unexecuted parts of the Anglo-American peace treaty of 1783, to secure indemnification for the capture and condemnation of American vessels, and to win acceptance of an Anglo-American commercial treaty. Jay was firmly instructed to sign no treaty that conflicted with American engagements to France or failed to give American ships entry to ports of the British West Indies. The outcome of the diplomatic mission by which Washington had successfully countered congressional bellicosity was now up to Jay and, more instrumentally, to Lord Grenville, the British foreign secretary. On 12 May 1794, Jay left for London, where month after month he sought concessions that Grenville only stingily allowed.
While Jay was seeking to wrest from England respect for America's sovereign status and recognition of its rights as a neutral, the Washington administration was attempting to assure the supremacy of federal law against delinquent taxpayers. At issue was the excise on whiskey, authorized by a law of March 1791, which encountered strong opposition among distillers, especially in the westernmost counties of Pennsylvania. There in 1792 violence erupted, to which Washington reacted by issuing on 15 September a proclamation admonishing all citizens "to refrain and desist" from obstructing the enforcement of federal laws. For over a year and a half the Washington administration pursued a policy of pacification that seemed to allay active resistance to the excise, but beginning in the spring of 1794, news reached Philadelphia of discontent and occasional violence. By midsummer, these had been replaced by a systematic and popularly supported campaign to shut down operation of the federal revenue system in the disaffected area—or so it appeared to the president and his Treasury Department advisers. At a cabinet meeting on 2 August also attended by Pennsylvania's Governor Thomas Mifflin, Washington elicited advice on how to handle a seemingly imminent insurrection.
The cabinet discussion was inconclusive, and Washington requested the conferees to submit written opinions. Hamilton called for the use of troops to quell what he unhesitatingly termed treason, a position endorsed by the attorney general and the secretary of war. Secretary of State Edmund Randolph and Mifflin dissented. The decision was up to the president. Aware that even as the cabinet deliberated, some five thousand dissidents, many of them armed, were assembling at Braddock's Field near Pittsburgh, Washington promptly made up his mind: the citizens of the western counties were not only flagrantly defying federal law that must be upheld but also contemplating an insurrection that must be countered by force. Before ordering the army to march west, Washington issued a proclamation commanding the insurgents to disperse and exhorting all inhabitants of the area to "prevent and suppress dangerous proceedings." He then awaited the report of commissioners that had been appointed to negotiate with the insurgents.
By 9 September the president, despairing of an amicable settlement and worried that the season during which military operations were feasible was rapidly passing, approved orders for a general rendezvous of troops at Carlisle. Conscious of the prestige his presence would lend the punitive expedition, he decided personally to assume command of the expected fifteen thousand militiamen from Pennsylvania and the neighboring states of Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia. Hamilton insisted on going along, rationalizing that since measures of his own department were the ostensible cause of the insurrection, it could not "but have good effect" for him to share in the "danger to his fellow citizens." On 30 September 1794 the president, with characteristic terseness, recorded in his diary, "I left the City of Philadelphia about half past ten o'clock this forenoon accompanied by Colo. Hamilton."
Some hours after they left the capital city, they were overtaken by a messenger bearing an official packet for the president. It contained highly gratifying news from General Anthony Wayne, describing a series of stunning victories over the Indians in the Northwest. These had culminated on 20 August in Wayne's resounding triumph in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, a victory that opened up the Ohio country and diminished, although it did not destroy, Anglo-Canadian influence over Native Americans in that region. Encouraged that the far western frontier was for the time being strife-free, Washington could more resolutely turn his attention to armed resistance by westerners on the nearer frontier.
On 4 October the presidential coach arrived in Carlisle, where the troops were beginning to assemble, and from there Washington journeyed westward to Fort Cumberland and then to Bedford, where all the militia would soon rendezvous. Having bestowed on the expedition the prestige of his personal presence, Washington returned to Philadelphia to deal with other pressing business. As his replacement as commander of the federal troops, he designated Governor Henry Lee of Virginia, whose instructions were prepared by Hamilton, who remained with the army to assist in the successful completion of the mission. Hamilton was no doubt delighted, but the advantages of his remaining were lost on virtually everyone except himself and the president. The treasury secretary's presence provided ammunition for Republican critics, who charged that the entire military mission had been arranged by him for personal political advantage. To Washington, whose confidence in Hamilton was by this time unalloyed, such a charge was nonsense; the president, rather, believed that the opposition to the western Pennsylvania expedition was fomented by his partisan opponents.
Whether the latter belief was true or not, Washington's conviction that the expedition would serve actually and symbolically as a reminder of national supremacy was well placed; the militia encountered no armed opposition and even the extremists of the antitax movement were dissuaded from further active resistance to the excise. The dispatch of troops to enforce obedience to federal law was, moreover, a precedent of indeterminable, but certainly consequential, historical importance, as the history of southern school integration in the mid-twentieth century, among other later developments, would attest.
Washington returned to Philadelphia in late October in expectation of delivering his sixth annual message to Congress, which was scheduled to assemble on 3 November. A quorum could not be counted until 18 November, and the president addressed Congress on the following day. Most of his twenty-five-minute address was given over to the background, immediate causes, and suppression of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion (more accurately, "Insurrection"). His comments on the then-mushrooming "democratic societies" or "Jacobin clubs," promoted for partisan ends by some prominent Republicans of the day, were far and away the most controversial part of his message. Washington spoke derogatorily of "certain self-created societies" and asked the people to determine whether the Whiskey Rebellion "had not been fomented by combinations of men who, careless of consequences and disregarding the unerring truth that those who rouse cannot always appease civil convulsions, have disseminated, from ignorance or perversion of facts, suspicions, jealousies, and accusations of the whole government?"
Although in the context of succeeding presidential speeches Washington's remarks were innocuous enough, they created at that time strong reverberations throughout the country. It was the first time the nation's revered hero had spoken disparagingly in public of the political opposition. The effect was immediate: the democratic societies virtually disappeared, and those Republicans who had encouraged the societies were reduced to grumbling in private because they dared not confront the president openly. For his part, Washington presumably regretted having even implicitly chided his opponents—much less, as was privately thought by some critics at the time, having attempted to abridge freedom of speech and assembly. He never again publicly criticized his political opponents or even thus referred to them.
Ignoring the opposition was probably easier than having to do without two of his most trusted advisers. On the last day of 1794, Henry Knox stepped down as secretary of war to try to salvage what he could from his imprudent land speculations. At the end of January 1795, Hamilton resigned as secretary of the treasury largely because he was no longer willing to oblige his family to live on his meager official income but also because he was weary of the calumnies heaped upon him and his policies. It was not easy to find officials of similar ability. But Oliver Wolcott, Jr., Hamilton's successor, had extensive experience as the second-ranking Treasury Department official and proved to be a competent finance minister. Timothy Pickering, Knox's replacement, was a professional civil servant with useful experience and proven resourcefulness in negotiations with Indian tribes, then the principal task of the War Department.
Washington's principal problem in 1795 was the treaty that John Jay negotiated with Great Britain. Unhappily aware that he had been forced to bargain from a position of weakness, Jay believed that he had secured all that was then possible. Britain had promised to give up the northwestern posts by June 1796, to pay for the spoliations on American commerce, and to sign a commercial treaty granting the United States certain limited trading privileges with India and with the British West Indies. In return, Jay had renounced maritime principles that the United States had hitherto considered inviolable—the familiar insistence of neutral nations on freedom of the seas—and had instead accepted Great Britain's interpretation of international law. Although many of their respective countrymen did not see the matter that way, Jay and Lord Grenville, the British foreign secretary, had in fact worked out a quid pro quo based on a realistic assessment of the prevailing power situation. They were convinced, moreover, that the treaty was as important for the machinery it established for settling further disputes as for what it formally stipulated.
To a good many Americans the true measure of Jay's Treaty was not its provisions but its omissions and shortcomings. The oversights that aroused the greatest furor were the absence of any offer of compensation for slaves freed by the British in 1783 and silence on the issue of impressment of bona fide American sailors by the English navy. The shortcomings most often lamented were Britain's refusal to grant the United States an unrestricted, rather than a partial, privilege of trading with the British West Indies and the stipulation that American ships would not carry molasses, sugar, coffee, cocoa, and cotton to any other part of the world.
Soon after the treaty was delivered to the secretary of state in early March 1795, President Washington called for an emergency meeting of the Senate on 8 June, stipulating also that the provisions of the treaty should until then be kept secret. Over the next few months, Washington closely studied the document negotiated by Jay, particularly its commercial sections, of which he conceded that he needed a more "intimate" knowledge. Whether he acquired it, he kept to himself: when the Senate convened, he submitted the treaty without any opinion of his own.
On 24 June, after two weeks of debate conducted in secret session, the Senate, by a vote of twenty to ten (precisely the constitutionally necessary two-thirds majority), advised him to ratify Jay's handiwork, on the condition that the clause restricting American trade with the British West Indies (article 12) be suspended, pending "further friendly negotiations." For Washington, such a condition posed a perplexing problem: Should he ratify promptly in confident expectation of excision or revision of that article, or should ratification await such changes? His decision was rendered more difficult by receipt of news that the British were again seizing American vessels bound for France. Despite his angry reaction to that report and his dissatisfaction at the high price exacted by England for agreeing to a limited rapprochement, Washington signed the treaty on 18 August 1795, in the face of fierce partisan opposition to it and his awareness that his still-glowing popularity might be greatly dimmed.
The decision was in fact one of disinterested statecraft and was based on his clear perception of the new nation's diplomatic situation. The proper goal of its foreign policy, Washington believed, was avoidance of a war that America was unprepared to fight. Its primary need was not so much a particularly favorable treaty or even an advantageous foreign alliance but time—a long period of peace to develop America's resources, to diversify and expand its growing economy, to create a great common market, to cement a still shaky union, and in these ways to establish a powerful nation capable of challenging the war machines and naval strength of Europe's foremost powers.
Washington's political opponents did not agree, and the protracted fight over Jay's Treaty was an important milestone in American political history. The conclusion reached in the 1950s by Joseph Charles is still generally accepted: "In its political effects [the treaty was] the most important measure . . . between the institution of Hamilton's financial program and the election of 1800." Not only did the controversy over Jay's Treaty signify the maturity of the country's first political parties, but it also occasioned fundamental shifts in partisan loyalties. An influential number of prominent public figures who had steadfastly supported the Washington administration now openly embraced the Republican opposition. This was tellingly displayed in the spring of 1796, when Republican leaders in the House of Representatives decided to abort implementation of the treaty.
Their initial maneuver was adoption of a motion introduced by Edward Livingston of New York on 2 March 1796, requesting the president to submit to the House copies of Jay's instructions and related correspondence. Washington, convinced that such a request was unconstitutional, sought confirmation of his belief by consulting the highest-ranking government officials and the nation's foremost Federalist leader, Hamilton, who advised his former boss "to resist in totality" the congressional request. And so the president, courteously but emphatically, did. Washington's terse message to the House concluded, "A just regard to the Constitution and to the duty of my Office . . . forbids a compliance with your request."
Aware of Washington's heroic standing among his countrymen, Republican leaders in Congress did not openly challenge the president's contention, but they obliquely retaliated by attempting to persuade their colleagues to withhold the necessary appropriation for carrying out key provisions of the treaty. During several weeks of intense debate it appeared that they might succeed. Federalist leaders, in and out of Congress, energetically sought some means of salvaging the treaty. Popular clamor and a deluge of protreaty petitions provided the way. A number of defections destroyed the hitherto united Republicans, and on 29 April the Speaker of the House broke a tie vote to approve an appropriation for carrying the treaty into effect. The episode was manifestly important for the enduring precedents that it established, particularly the exercise of executive privilege. As Washington saw the matter, the decision was a triumph for viable nationhood.
The president could also congratulate himself that the concessions made to Great Britain in Jay's Treaty were compensated for by the conciliatory spirit displayed by Spain in the Treaty of San Loren-zo, negotiated by American envoy Thomas Pinckney in 1795. An impressive American diplomatic victory, that treaty gained for the United States acceptance at long last of its demand for free navigation of the Mississippi and the right of deposit at New Orleans free of duty for oceangoing American goods. Spain also recognized the Mississippi as the new nation's western boundary and the thirty-first parallel as the northern boundary of Florida. As Washington hoped it would, the treaty helped to cement the loyalty of westerners to the Union and opened the way to steady American expansion in the South and West.
Support of Pinckney's successful negotiations was bipartisan, but Jay's Treaty remained a controversial partisan issue (although the furor it initially aroused abated), subtly affecting Washington's last two years in office. Following his endorsement of the latter treaty in August 1795, Washington was for the first time during his presidency subjected to personal abuse, not only on that but also on other issues. Typical were anonymous contributors to the Philadelphia Aurora, then the most fiercely partisan and scurrilous of Republican newspapers. One such writer dubbed the president "Saint Washington," a political leader distinguished merely by "the seclusion of a monk and the supercillious [sic ] distance of a tyrant," and another chided him with the offer of a crown.
Washington was most disturbed by the anonymous accusation that he was overdrawing his annual presidential allowance of $25,000. It would have been altogether out of character for Washington to have publicly replied to such attacks, but he did express his reaction in private correspondence, complaining that he was being compared to a Nero or even to a common pickpocket. After forty-five years of public service, he commented, he was weary of being "buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers," and he now yearned for retirement.
Partisan abuse did not prompt Washington to endorse the acceptability of political parties in the American constitutional system, much less to profess his allegiance to any party. On the contrary, he continued to caution his countrymen against "the baneful effects of the spirit of party," which, to use the words of his farewell address, "serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration."
Although Washington never thought of his administration as representing a party or of himself as a party leader, the facts were somewhat at variance. During his final years as president he appointed to office only those whose political ideas were in accord with his own. As he wrote a member of his cabinet, "I shall not, whilst I have the honour to administer the government, bring a man into any office of consequence knowingly, whose political tenets are adverse to the measures, which the general government is pursuing; for this, in my opinion, would be a sort of political suicide." So it was that Washington not only initiated a practice that would be permanent but also indirectly set an unintended precedent for which there was no constitutional warrant: the president's role as party leader.
Although Washington denied that he was a party leader, he repeatedly affirmed presidential leadership in foreign affairs. During the final years of his administration, as throughout his presidency, diplomatic problems plagued him. The nation had weathered the tempest of Anglo-American relations of the years 1794–1796 only to find itself locked in conflict with France. Claiming that by Jay's Treaty the United States had allied itself with Great Britain and reneged on its treaty obligations to its Revolutionary War ally, the French began in 1796 a systematic policy of maritime harassment and diplomatic coercion designed to bring the allegedly ungrateful and unruly new nation into line. In July 1796, Washington, to appease domestic critics while also leaving the door open to friendly negotiations, designated Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina as American minister to France, replacing James Monroe, whose ardent Francophilia had brought no moderation of French policy but had antagonized Federalist leaders. The futility of Pinckney's ministership would be demonstrated under the nation's second president.
Happily aware that his successor would soon be chosen, Washington turned his attention to the form and timing of the announcement of his retirement. His first inclination was to use a modified version of a valedictory message that James Madison, at the president's request, had drawn up in September 1792. Tailoring his work to fit the heroic mold of the foremost American of his day, Madison had avoided controversial issues and focused instead on commonly cherished national sentiments, such as the perfection of the Constitution and the necessity of preserving the Union. Upon rereading Madison's draft some four years later, Washington concluded that it only needed to be updated in order to take into account the "considerable changes" that had subsequently taken place, particularly in foreign affairs.
The president himself undertook the assignment, penning a terse supplement (actually a list of what he called "wishes"), which he merely tacked onto Madison's draft. The most perceptive student of the farewell address, Felix Gilbert, has described Washington's appendix as a "collection of diverse thoughts and ideas" that were "neither closely integrated nor systematically organized." Nevertheless, the views that he expressed faithfully reflected his current preoccupations and long-standing fundamental principles. Washington pointed to the personal indignities he had endured as chief magistrate, the lamentable party divisions and other domestic difficulties he had encountered, and the centrality of foreign policy problems that he had wrestled with during his second administration.
Apropos of the last subject, Washington indicated the dangers to be confronted, the pitfalls to be avoided, and the proper policies to be followed. Among the dangers Washington warned against was foreign influence in American domestic affairs. The pitfalls he pointed to included avoidance of both political connections with other nations and the falseness of the notion that in international relations nations are guided by altruistic motives. The most important policies to be followed were fidelity to treaty commitments, pride in America's distinctive nationality, adherence to a policy of genuine neutrality, and preservation of the Union.
At this point, Washington, as he had so often done, called on Hamilton for advice. The New Yorker was requested either to revise the rough draft of the valedictory address (essentially, Madison's original version plus Washington's addendum) or, if he considered it necessary, "to throw the whole into a different form." Hamilton did both, counting on the president to accept the New Yorker's declared preference for what he termed his own "Original Major Draft." Although about one-half of the latter was Hamilton's work (the rest was a paraphrase of the Madison-Washington essay), he included nothing that was at variance with Washington's ideas, on which Hamilton, because of long firsthand experience, was an authority. Thus, the most famous presidential valedictory message in American history, despite Hamilton's important contribution to it, has always been properly described as Washington's Farewell Address. It is still read in both the Senate and House of Representatives every 22 February, a tribute to its and the first president's enduring importance.
The Constitution did not, of course, preclude a presidential third term (or virtual lifetime tenure for that matter) and many of Washington's supporters doubtless fantasized that he might run again. But constantly aware, as he complainingly put it, that he had spent "all the prime of his life in serving his country" and ever eager to return to the tranquillity of Mount Vernon, Washington never even fleetingly entertained the possibility of another term. He thus established the precedent that a president should relinquish office after two terms, a tradition that was not breached until Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency and one that subsequently was institutionalized in the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution. Another outstanding feature of Washington's conduct during the election of 1796 was emphatically not copied by most of his successors: He resolved to play no role at all in the choice of his possible successor or in the ensuing campaign. He not only stuck to his resolve but also made no recorded statement on the election of the Federalist candidate John Adams as president and the Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson as vice president.
On 4 March 1797, John Adams was sworn in as the second president of the United States. Among those seated alongside Adams on the elevated dais in Congress Hall was his presidential predecessor, who, attired in an old-fashioned black coat, was, much to the president-elect's chagrin, the center of attention. Characteristically composed, seemingly impassive, Washington was inwardly delighted to be relinquishing an office that he had neither sought nor ever really wanted. Adams understood. His inauguration, the new president wrote, was "a solemn scene . . . made affecting to me by the presence of the General, whose countenance was as serene and unclouded as the day. He seemed to enjoy a triumph over me. Methought I heard him say, 'Ay, I am fairly out and you fairly in! See, which of us will be happiest.' " Whatever Adams himself may have thought, Washington was certain that he would be.
Following the inaugural ceremonies, the former president went to the Francis Hotel, where Adams was temporarily lodging. After congratulating his successor, Washington emerged to be greeted by the enthusiastic cheers of the throng that had assembled outside. The applause that rang out was symbolic of that which would be bestowed on him through proceeding decades.
Eager to return home as soon as possible, Washington quickly got rid of disposable possessions and rented a sloop to ship the sizable remainder to his plantation wharf. On 15 March 1797 his coach drew up in front of Mount Vernon. As he alighted, Washington happily assured himself that he now would experience "more real enjoyment than in all the business with which I have been occupied for upwards of forty years." Such business, he reflected, had been "little more than vanity and vexation."
He presumably overlooked the fact that private life also entailed vexations. Chief among them was the dilapidated situation into which Mount Vernon had fallen and the deteriorating condition of his farms, due to manifest mismanagement. After many months of repair work, his mansion was restored to its former solid and handsome state, but the recon-version of his farms to a profitable status was a problem that he wrestled with, largely unsuccessfully, until his death. A situation that otherwise would have created "debts and difficulties" was alleviated by the sale of lands that Washington had bought for speculative purposes. In July 1799 he estimated that his still unsold lands were worth $488,137 (several millions in present-day currency).
Certainly Washington needed a large outside income. Not only did he support a large household staff and live in the style befitting a Virginia gentleman but Mount Vernon was continually thronged with guests—local friends, former official acquaintances, and strangers who wished to meet America's foremost hero. Washington did not object. Although his days—whatever the weather—were spent riding around and supervising his lands, he welcomed diversionary company at dinner and on into the early evening.
Neither management of his farms nor entertainment of his friends crowded out his interest in affairs of state, which he closely followed, especially the worsening relations with France, which by the late spring of 1799 had turned into a quasi war. His confi-dent expectation that involvement in public affairs would be merely vicarious was shattered when, on 2 July 1799, President Adams appointed him lieutenant general and commander of the newly augmented American army. Consulted about the appointment before it was made, Washington had agreed to accept only on the condition that he would not assume active command unless "it became indispensable by the urgency of circumstances." Otherwise, actual command would be exercised by his former much trusted finance minister, Hamilton, who at Washington's insistence and to Adams' chagrin was appointed a major general and the inspector general of the army. Although Washington dutifully performed his necessary military duties, these were minimal and soon nominal. Adams, jealous of Hamilton and an exponent of naval rather than military preparedness, not only saw to it that the army was only marginally augmented but also began negotiations—in time successful—to end the Franco-American undeclared war.
In the meantime, Lieutenant General Washington continued his characteristically calm schedule at Mount Vernon. He also tidied up his affairs by drawing up a will that left the bulk of his estate to his wife, Martha, "for the term of her natural life." The provision was long since determined on and unexceptionable. What was exceptionable was the stipulation that upon Martha's death all his slaves be freed. Washington was the sole Virginian founding father to make this humanitarian decision. As the days glided by, Washington's unruffled routine was reflected in his diary, which uniformly noted the weather. On 13 December 1799 his diary recorded that the thermometer had dropped and that there was slight frost. On the same day, the general developed a sore throat. In the middle of the following night he suddenly became acutely ill, his speech almost inaudible and his breathing labored. On 14 December, his condition quickly worsened. The three physicians called to his bedside repeatedly bled and purged him (standard practice of the time). Near midnight, America's first and still foremost hero died.
Of the many biographies written in the nineteenth century, three retain historical interest: John Marshall, The Life of George Washington, 5 vols. (London, 1804–1807), a strongly pro-Federalist account much of whose background material was lifted from the British Annual Register ; Washington Irving, George Washington, 5 vols. (New York, 1855–1859), in which the well-known novelist dramatically and effectively portrayed his nation's foremost hero; and Henry Cabot Lodge, George Washington, 2 vols. (Boston and New York, 1889), which is factually sound but reflects the exalted status Washington continued to enjoy in the late nineteenth century.
The twentieth century has produced a long list of Washington biographies. Still interesting, because of its novelty, is W. E. Woodward, George Washington: The Image and the Man (New York, 1926), a muckraking attempt to cut Washington down to human size. The monumental biography of the century and indispensable to scholars is Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, 7 vols. (New York, 1948–1957), the most ambitious attempt ever made to demonstrate that Washington deserves his exalted position in American history. Richard Harwell edited a one-volume edition of Free-man's work: Washington (New York, 1968). A more recent multivolume study is James Thomas Flexner, George Washington, 4 vols. (Boston, 1965–1972). Flexner provided a one-volume abridgement in Washington: The Indispensable Man (Boston, 1974). The best one-volume biography is Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington: Man and Monument (Boston, 1958). This slender book is a brilliant and fascinating account of the myth and the man, which, Cunliffe explains, "can never be entirely separated."
Primary material on the first president abounds. Of principal importance are John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799, 39 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1931–1944), and Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington, 6 vols. (Charlottesville, Va., 1976–1979).
Far and away the finest study of Washington's presidency is Stanley M. Elkins and Eric L. McKitrick's encyclopedic and masterful account The Age of Federalism (New York, 1993). Also valuable is John C. Miller's stimulatingly interpretive and uncommonly well written The Federalist Era, 1789–1801 (New York, 1960). A full-scale treatment of Washington's exercise of the executive office is Forrest McDonald, The Presidency of George Washington (Lawrence, Kans., 1974), a study marred by some novel theses that are undocumented or implausible. Particularly commendable are the germane sections of Ralph Ketcham, Presidents Above Party: The First American Presidency, 1789–1829 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1984). For the administrative history of Washington's presidency, see Leonard D. White, The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History (New York, 1948).
An impressive list of books deals with selected aspects of Washington's presidency, in particular the development of the new nation's first political parties. For an example of the traditional account, consult Wilfred E. Binkley's popular work, American Political Parties: Their Natural History (New York, 1943). More plausible and interpretatively original is William N. Chambers, Political Parties in a New Nation: The American Experience, 1776–1809 (New York, 1963). The pertinent sections of Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780–1840 (Berkeley, Calif., 1970), is characteristically excellent.
For party ideology, see Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s (New York, 1984); Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology (Ithaca, N.Y., 1978); and Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980).
The diplomatic record of the Washington years has been thoroughly explored. Outstanding contributions include Samuel Flagg Bemis's studies Jay's Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy (New York, 1923) and Pinckney's Treaty: A Study of America's Advantage from Europe's Distress, 1783–1800 (Baltimore, 1926). The former is significantly revised by Jerald A. Combs, The Jay Treaty: Political Battleground of the Founding Fathers (Berkeley, Calif., 1970). An excellent account of Anglo-American relations is Bradford Perkins, The First Rapprochement: England and the United States, 1795–1805 (Philadelphia, 1955), which argues that underlying the diplomatic squabbles between the United States and Great Britain was a successful and statesmanlike effort on both sides to maintain cordial relations and to settle differences amicably.
Franco-American diplomacy has not been as exhaustively explored as Anglo-American relations. Alexander DeConde's Entangling Alliance: Politics and Diplomacy Under George Washington (Durham, N.C., 1958), is comprehensive but marred by the author's sympathy for the Franco-American alliance, which leads to an unnecessarily critical view of President Washington. More objective is Albert H. Bowman, The Struggle for Neutrality: Franco-American Diplomacy During the Federalist Era (Knoxville, Tenn., 1974).
The economic history of the 1790s has been comparatively neglected. The most thorough survey may be found in the relevant sections of Curtis P. Nettels, The Emergence of a National Economy, 1775–1815 (New York, 1962). Volumes 1 and 2 of Joseph Dorfman's five-volume study The Economic Mind in American Civilization (New York, 1946–1959) afford an excellent analysis of economic thought. The most invaluable and interpretatively original studies of economic growth, works that integrate traditional economic history and economic theory, are Stuart Bruchey, The Roots of American Economic Growth, 1607–1861 (New York, 1965), and Douglass C. North, The Economic Growth of the United States, 1790–1860 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1961).
For books that offer a cultural perspective on the period, see the pertinent parts of Robert H. Wiebe, The Opening of American Society: From the Adoption of the Constitution to the Eve of Disunion (New York, 1984), and Stephen Watts, The Republic Re-born: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790–1820 (Baltimore, 1987).
An annotated bibliographical essay (definitive at the time of its publication) is Jacob E. Cooke, "The Federalist Age: A Reappraisal," in George A. Billias and Gerald N. Grob, eds., American History: Retrospect and Prospect (New York, 1971).
Recent works include Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (New York, 1996), William M. S. Rasmussen and Robert S. Tilton, George Washington: The Man Behind the Myths (Charlottesville, Va., 1999), and John Ferling, Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution (New York, 2000).
George Washington: Farewell Address
George Washington: Farewell Address
On September 17, 1796, leading newspapers published President George Washington's Farewell Address to the nation. Washington, who was nearing the end of his second four-year term, had rejected pleas by members of the Federalist party to seek a third term. The address, which was never delivered orally, is now remembered for its comments on foreign policy, but in 1796 Washington was also concerned with domestic politics.
Alexander Hamilton, who helped draft the Constitution and who wrote many of the essays contained in the Federalist Papers, prepared an initial version of the speech. Washington then revised and reshaped it into its final form. The president used the address both to end speculation that he would seek a third term and to help the chances of the Federalists in the forthcoming election.
Washington discussed the state of U.S. politics and lamented the bitter rivalry that had developed between the Federalists and the Republicans, who were led by Thomas Jefferson. A proponent of a strong national government, he warned against the dangers of sectionalism, political revenge, and "the insidious wiles of foreign influence." The latter statement referred to the pro-French sentiments of Jefferson and the Republicans. Washington's policy during the wars between Great Britain and France in the early 1790s had been one of strict neutrality.
The most important section of the address dealt with U.S. foreign relations. Washington stated that the "true policy [of the United States] is to steer clear of permanent alliances with any parts of the foreign world." His views provided support and inspiration for U.S. isolationists who sought to prevent the United States from becoming involved with European governments. U.S. isolationism did not disappear as a viable political viewpoint until the nation's entry into World War II in 1941.
George Washington: Farewell Address
Friends and fellow citizens:
The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant, and the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.
Source: James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, vol. 1 (1896), pp. 213–24.
I beg you at the same time to do me the justice to be assured that this resolution has not been taken without a strict regard to all the considerations appertaining to the relation which binds a dutiful citizen to his country; and that in withdrawing the tender of service, which silence in my situation might imply, I am influenced by no diminution of zeal for your future interest, no deficiency of grateful respect for your past kindness, but am supported by a full conviction that the step is compatible with both.
The acceptance of and continuance hitherto in the office to which your suffrages have twice called me have been a uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty and to a deference for what appeared to be your desire. I constantly hoped that it would have been much earlier in my power, consistently with motives which I was not at liberty to disregard, to return to that retirement from which I had been reluctantly drawn. The strength of my inclination to do this previous to the last election had even led to the preparation of an address to declare it to you; but mature reflection on the then perplexed and critical posture of our affairs with foreign nations and the unanimous advice of persons entitled to my confidence impelled me to abandon the idea. I rejoice that the state of your concerns, external as well as internal, no longer tenders the pursuit of inclination incompatible with the sentiment of duty or propriety, and am persuaded, whatever partiality may be retained for my services, that in the present circumstances of our country you will not disapprove my determination to retire.
The impressions with which I first undertook the arduous trust were explained on the proper occasion. In the discharge of this trust I will only say that I have, with good intentions, contributed toward the organization and administration of the government the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious in the outset of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps still more in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself; and everyday the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome. Satisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services they were temporary, I have the consolation to believe that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.
In looking forward to the moment which is intended to terminate the career of my political life, my feelings do not permit me to suspend the deep acknowledgment of that debt of gratitude which I owe to my beloved country for the many honors it has conferred upon me; still more for the steadfast confidence with which it has supported me, and for the opportunities I have thence enjoyed of manifesting my inviolable attachment by services faithful and persevering, though in usefulness unequal to my zeal. If benefits have resulted to our country from these services, let it always be remembered to your praise and as an instructive example in our annals that under circumstances in which the passions, agitated in every direction, were liable to mislead; amidst appearances sometimes dubious; vicissitudes of fortune often discouraging; in situations in which not unfrequently want of success has countenanced the spirit of criticism, the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts and a guaranty of the plans by which they were effected. Profoundly penetrated with this idea, I shall carry it with me to my grave as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that Heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution which is the work of your hands may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that, in time the happiness of the people of these states, under the auspices of liberty may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.
Here, perhaps, I ought to stop. But a solicitude for your welfare which can not end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger natural to that solicitude, urge me on an occasion like the present to offer to your solemn contemplation and to recommend to your frequent review some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all important to the permanency of your felicity as a people. These will be offered to you with the more freedom as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel. Nor can I forget as an encouragement to it your indulgent reception of my sentiments on a former and not dissimilar occasion.
Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment.
The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquillity at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity, of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken, many artifices employed, to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth, as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned, and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.
For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens by birth or choice of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together. The independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint councils and joint efforts, of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.
But these considerations, however powerfully they address themselves to your sensibility, are greatly outweighed by those which apply more immediately to your interest. Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole.
The North, in an unrestrained intercourse with the South, protected by the equal laws of a common government, finds in the productions of the latter great additional resources of maritime and commercial enterprise and precious materials of manufacturing industry. The South, in the same intercourse, benefiting by the same agency of the North, sees its agriculture grow and its commerce expand. Turning partly into its own channels the seamen of the North, it finds its particular navigation invigorated; and while it contributes in different ways to nourish and increase the general mass of the national navigation, it looks forward to the protection of a maritime strength to which itself is unequally adapted. The East, in a like intercourse with the West, already finds, and in the progressive improvement of interior communications by land and water will more and more find, a valuable vent for the commodities which it brings from abroad or manufactures at home. The West derives from the East supplies requisite to its growth and comfort, and what is perhaps of still greater consequence, it must of necessity owe the secure enjoyment of indispensable outlets for its own productions to the weight, influence, and the future maritime strength of the Atlantic side of the Union, directed by an indissoluble community of interest as one nation. Any other tenure by which the West can hold this essential advantage, whether derived from its own separate strength or from an apostate and unnatural connection with any foreign power, must be intrinsically precarious.
While, then, every part of our country thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot fail to find in the united mass of means and efforts greater strength, greater resource, proportionably greater security from external danger, a less frequent interruption of their peace by foreign nations, and what is of inestimable value, they must derive from union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves which so frequently afflict neighboring countries not tied together by the same governments, which their own rivalships alone would be sufficient to produce, but which opposite foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues would stimulate and embitter. Hence, likewise, they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty. In this sense, it is that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.
These considerations speak a persuasive language to every reflecting and virtuous mind, and exhibit the continuance of the union as a primary object of patriotic desire. Is there a doubt whether a common government can embrace so large a sphere? Let experience solve it. To listen to mere speculation in such a case were criminal. We are authorized to hope that a proper organization of the whole, with the auxiliary agency of governments for the respective subdivisions, will afford a happy issue to the experiment. It is well worth a fair and full experiment. With such powerful and obvious motives to union affecting all parts of our country, while experience shall not have demonstrated its impracticability, there will always be reason to distrust the patriotism of those who in any quarter may endeavor to weaken its bands.
In contemplating the causes which may disturb our union it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations—northern and southern, Atlantic and western—whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection. The inhabitants of our western country have lately had a useful lesson on this head. They have seen in the negotiation by the executive and in the unanimous ratification by the Senate of the treaty with Spain, and in the universal satisfaction at that event throughout the United States, a decisive proof how unfounded were the suspicions propagated among them of a policy in the general government and in the Atlantic states unfriendly to their interests in regard to the Mississippi. They have been witnesses to the formation of two treaties—that with Great Britain and that with Spain—which secure to them everything they could desire in respect to our foreign relations toward confirming their prosperity. Will it not be their wisdom to rely for the preservation of these advantages on the union by which they were procured? Will they not henceforth be deaf to those advisers, if such there are, who would sever them from their brethren and connect them with aliens?
To the efficacy and permanency of your union a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliances, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute. They must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay by the adoption of a Constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the constitution which at any time exists till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.
All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction; to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community, and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the illconcerted and incongruous projects of faction rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans, digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.
However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
Toward the preservation of your government and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect in the forms of the Constitution alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what can not be directly overthrown. In all the changes to which you may be invited remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in changes upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothesis and opinion; and remember especially that for the efficient management of your common interests in a country so extensive as ours a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable. Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian. It is, indeed, little else than a name where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. 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 generally.
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual, and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government, and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose; and there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.
It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power and proneness to abuse it which predominates in the human heart is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern, some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If in the opinion of the people the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this in one instance may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit which the use can at any time yield.
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness—these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligations desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric? Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.
As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repeal it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives; but it is necessary that public opinion should cooperate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that toward the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment inseparable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties), ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the conduct of the government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.
Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct. And can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period a great nation to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that in the course of time and things the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?
In the execution of such a plan nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded, and that in place of them just and amicable feelings toward all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges toward another in habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur.
Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation prompted by ill will and resentment sometimes impels to war the government contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject. At other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility, instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations has been the victim.
So, likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill will, and a disposition to retaliate in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld; and it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country without odium, sometimes even with popularity, gilding with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils! Such an attachment of a small or weak toward a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter. Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens), the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy, to be useful, must be impartial, else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people to surrender their interests.
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.
Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
Why forgo the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?
It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world, so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But in my opinion it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.
Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.
Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand, neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them, conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that by such acceptance it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.
In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish—that they will control the usual current of the passions or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good—that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism—this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare by which they have been dictated.
How far in the discharge of my official duties I have been guided by the principles which have been delineated the public records and other evidences of my conduct must witness to you and to the world. To myself, the assurance of my own conscience is that I have at least believed myself to be guided by them.
In relation to the still subsisting war in Europe, my proclamation of the 22d of April 1793 is the index to my plan. Sanctioned by your approving voice and by that of your representatives in both houses of Congress, the spirit of that measure has continually governed me, uninfluenced by any attempts to deter or divert me from it.
After deliberate examination, with the aid of the best lights I could obtain, I was well satisfied that our country, under all the circumstances of the case, had a right to take, and was bound in duty and interest to take, a neutral position. Having taken it, I determined as far as should depend upon me to maintain it with moderation, perseverance, and firmness.
The considerations which respect the right to hold this conduct it is not necessary on this occasion to detail. I will only observe that, according to my understanding of the matter, that right, so far from being denied by any of the belligerent powers, has been virtually admitted by all.
The duty of holding a neutral conduct may be inferred, without anything more, from the obligation which justice and humanity impose on every nation, in cases in which it is free to act, to maintain inviolate the relations of peace and amity toward other nations.
The inducements of interest for observing that conduct will best be referred to your own reflections and experience. With me a predominant motive has been to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption to that degree of strength and consistency which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes.
Though in reviewing the incidents of my administration I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence, and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.
Relying on its kindness in this as in other things, and actuated by that fervent love toward it which is so natural to a man who views in it the native soil of himself and his progenitors for several generations, I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize without alloy the sweet enjoyment of partaking in the midst of my fellow citizens the benign influence of good laws under a free government—the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.
George Washington, the first president under the U.S. Constitution of 1788, was sworn into the new office on 30 April 1789 after being elected to that post, created with him in mind, by a unanimous electoral college.
Washington took unique prestige into the presidency. Since early 1775, he had been the living embodiment of American nationality. The Continental Army was the first national organization, and Washington was from the beginning its commander in chief. Washington insisted throughout the war that American military officials must defer to their nominal superiors in Congress. It is to him more than to anyone else that America owes its tradition of subordination of the military to the civilian authorities. The immortal illustration of this was Washington's voluntary surrender of his sword and commission to the Confederation Congress at the Revolution's end.
Washington also had presided over the Philadelphia convention which drafted the Constitution. As James Monroe put it in 1788, Washington's prestige had been the key to the ultimate ratification of the new federal charter, especially in his native state of Virginia—the most populous, most extensive, and wealthiest state.
establishing the new government
Once elected president, Washington had his choice of all the leading men in American politics to fill positions in his cabinet and in the new federal judiciary. Employing three tests for office—eminence, geographic diversity, and support for the ratification of the Constitution—Washington selected a "who's who" of American leaders to fill the new government's top posts. Thus, his friend John Jay of New York became the first chief justice of the United States. Others appointed to the Supreme Court included John Rutledge of South Carolina, a leading framer of the Constitution and his state's most significant politician, and James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who had played key roles both in the Philadelphia convention and in the ratification contest.
As in the days surrounding the Philadelphia Convention, Washington's foremost adviser in the early months of his first term was James Madison of Virginia, a newly elected member of the first House of Representatives. Besides drafting Washington's inaugural and first annual addresses, Madison also assisted Washington in assembling his cabinet. Madison persuaded Thomas Jefferson to serve as secretary of state and suggested his recent fellow contributor to The Federalist (1787–1788), New York's Alexander Hamilton, to be the first secretary of the Treasury.
The First Congress adopted several measures of enduring significance. Of most immediate importance was its creation of the major executive agencies: the departments of the Treasury, of state, and of war. Besides the heads of these agencies, the original cabinet also included Attorney General Edmund Randolph, the former attorney general, then governor, of Virginia.
Also of lasting importance was the Judiciary Act of 1789, which fleshed out the sparse provisions of Article III of the Constitution by creating a three-tiered judiciary very similar to the one that existed two-hundred-years later. Where Article III provided for a U.S. Supreme Court with a chief justice and such inferior courts as Congress cared to create, the new law established a six-member Supreme Court, at least one district court in each state, and six circuit courts of appeal.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 had two other provisions that bear mention as well. One, section 25, said that questions of federal law decided in state supreme courts could be appealed to the federal Supreme Court. Therefore, in matters of federal law the U.S. Supreme Court would have a supervisory role over all state courts, which would allow it to police the interpretation of federal law in all the state systems, thus theoretically ensuring that federal law would have a uniform meaning throughout the country. The other provision said that cases brought into federal court under federal diversity of citizenship jurisdiction would be decided according to the law of the forum state (the state in which the court sits); thus, there would be no federal common law of torts, contracts, or other everyday matters; making policy in these important areas would be reserved to state governments.
Bill of Rights. Madison had only narrowly been elected to the House of Representatives, and that after seeing his candidacy for the Senate defeated in Virginia's General Assembly. In order to ensure his election to the House, Madison had assured his constituents that he would pursue adoption of constitutional amendments as a congressman. Thus, to the consternation of many of his colleagues, Madison repeatedly drew their attention to the idea of adopting a bill of rights. He had opposed this idea when it was bruited by moderate Federalists and anti-Federalists during the ratification contest. Yet Madison had concluded that this politically expedient step might have the positive effect of winning the Constitution the support of men who might otherwise oppose it.
Anti-Federalists, including Virginia's two U.S. senators and Patrick Henry, the eminence of the General Assembly, wanted amendments that would more carefully define and limit the federal government's powers. Madison had no interest in that, but wanted simply to offer moderate men a harmless placebo of amendments to quiet their fears on the question of the new government's threat to individual liberties. He also futilely attempted to win approval of an amendment allowing federal courts to enforce select individual rights against state governments, thus inverting anti-Federalists' hopes for amendments limiting federal power.
Ultimately, Congress referred twelve amendments to the states. Ten of those amendments were ratified in 1791, and an eleventh—the Twenty-seventh Amendment—won ratification two centuries later, in 1992. Virginia's senators expressed their disappointment in the proposed amendments, saying that they would do nothing to limit federal power. The First Congress's amendments were rarely the subject of litigation in the eighteenth or the nineteenth century, and even more rarely did they affect the outcome of a case or the interpretation of a law, state or federal.
Formalities. The First Congress and President Washington were uncertain precisely how a republican government should behave. Washington, for his part, believed that he should be more accessible than was George III, yet he realized that his own fame made it impracticable for him to maintain the open-door policy of the presidents of the Continental and Confederation Congresses. One result was the famous levees, stilted social affairs held by Washington at his house in order to keep in contact with members of Congress and local notables. If the description of Pennsylvania's sardonic senator, William Maclay, is to be believed, the levees were so formal as to serve no purpose other than making Washington and his invited guests alike uncomfortable and impressing extreme democrats with the monarchical tendencies of the new government.
For its part, Congress could not even decide how the president should be addressed. In Europe at the time, monarchs—their countries' chief executives—commonly were addressed with long strings of titles indicating God's role in selecting them to reign and the territories over which they ruled. Vice President John Adams insisted that Congress should address Washington in a similar way, to ensure that his new office, and thus the new government of which it was the most visible symbol, received the proper respect.
This seemingly innocuous, not to say trivial, matter tied up the Senate for several days. Wags referred to the short, corpulent vice president as "His Rotundity." Finally, Madison led the House in refusing to accede to the Senate's desire to give Washington a title other than "President of the United States." For both Madison and Washington himself, as the president had confided, that was enough.
hamilton's financial policies
Constitutional reformers of the 1780s had desired to strengthen the central government chiefly to empower it to raise armies and taxes without the states' cooperation. The first concerns with which the fledgling government had to deal were financial. Hamilton believed that the United States needed to provide for the prompt repayment of its war debt. Since the states had amassed substantial debts during the Revolution as well, Hamilton also recommended that the Congress move to assume those debts. His goal was to concentrate responsibility for and power over those debts in the federal government.
One instrument for the management of the federal debt was to be the Bank of the United States, established in 1791, in which the federal government would be the most substantial, but still only a minority, shareholder. Hamilton believed that the United States could follow the British example in funding its debt, thus tying the economic interests of holders of debt instruments throughout the country to the success of the new federal government. Virginia's preeminent representatives, Madison and Jefferson, drove a hard bargain, however: in exchange for allowing the assumption bill to pass the House in 1790, they secured the permanent site of the federal capital on the Potomac River, Virginia's northern boundary, and a very favorable system of calculating the states' debts that ultimately made the Old Dominion a creditor of the federal government instead of—what it deserved to be—a significant debtor.
Secretary Hamilton differed from the other significant officers of the executive branch in having been born abroad. Since he had no felt affinity for any particular state, but was instead a patriotic American, Hamilton could see the interests of America generally in a way that few other Americans of his day could. Thus, the idea of having the federal government assume the states' debts, an obvious expedient for improving the country's creditworthiness, did not strike him as especially dangerous; localism or particularism simply did not factor into his mental makeup.
Once the federal government had assumed the state debts, a question arose concerning the extent to which the government debts should be repaid. Hamilton argued in favor of redeeming the government's debt instruments at face value, because to pay less than face value likely would affect American credit adversely. Hamilton's opponents, led by Representative James Madison, called this proposal unfair, and they said that only the original holders of wartime debt instruments should be able to redeem them at face value. Hamilton called his opponent's schemes for discriminating among debt holders impractical, besides potentially ruinous to the new government's fiscal reputation, and he won the debate in Congress.
Hamilton also wanted to follow the British government in funding the government's debt—-that is, in providing a perpetual stream of government income dedicated to payment of the interest on the government's debt. His opponents considered this a maneuver to give the Treasury influence over the financial markets, thus over the Congress, and argued against the idea.
constitutional issues, slavery, and rebellion
For some other leading players in American politics, the vector of Hamilton's policies seemed dangerous. Thus, when his bank bill came before Congress, Madison stood up in the House to argue against its constitutionality. There was no clause of the Constitution granting Congress power to charter a bank, or indeed a corporation of any kind, Madison noted. Madison said that only the enumerated powers were granted. Thus, he concluded, Congress had no power to charter a bank.
When the matter came before President Washington, he expressed his doubts on the question of constitutionality. Having Madison's objections in mind, the president asked his cabinet for written opinions. Jefferson, in a classic "strict constructionist" essay, essentially repeated his friend Madison's argument. Washington passed it on to Hamilton.
In his response, which subsequently formed the basis of Chief Justice John Marshall's opinion in the crucial Supreme Court case of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), Hamilton spelled out the "broad constructionist" reading of the Constitution. If the ends were clearly constitutional, Hamilton counseled, and the means were not prohibited, the means were permissible. Thus, he concluded, Congress's bill to charter the bank was constitutional. Washington, who sympathized strongly with Hamilton's financial goals for the government, signed the bill into law.
Hamilton also proposed that the federal government should adopt various excise taxes as part of its fiscal plan. Among the items he proposed to tax were carriages and whiskey. Both would become significant flash points.
Lurking behind the growth of organized opposition to the Washington administration, which historians generally date to 1793, was concern about the effect of Hamilton's approach to the Constitution on the future of slavery. As early as the First Congress, southern congressmen expressed grave concerns about slavery's future in the federal Union. Virginia pamphleteer John Taylor of Caroline linked the issue to concerns about the excise on carriages.
The carriage tax, Taylor said, was unconstitutional and unjust. He rested his claims concerning the tax's unconstitutionality on Madison's reasoning in the bank bill debate: there was no express grant of power to levy a carriage tax in the Constitution, and the Tenth Amendment stated that all undelegated powers remained in the states; therefore, only the states could tax carriages. His claim of injustice reflected the tax's sectional incidence: significant planters throughout Tidewater Virginia owned carriages, he said, but only two people in the entire state of Connecticut owned taxable carriages. Thus, Congress had chosen an item possessed almost entirely by people in one region to tax. If this precedent were allowed to stand, Taylor warned, there was another type of property whose owners lived principally in one part of the country; he did not have to say that he was referring to slaves.
In July 1794, opposition to federal excises took a far less refined form. The Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania saw violence launched against federal excise agents. In response Washington, at Hamilton's urging, amassed a force of fifteen thousand militiamen to enforce the federal law and mounted his horse at their head. Hamilton's purpose, besides cowing the opponents of what remained an experimental federal government, was to prove to European observers that the United States would take energetic measures, even use the military, to enforce its taxes.
The Whiskey Rebellion dissipated quickly in the face of Washington and, once the army had reached some distance from New York, Hamilton, but its effects were long lasting. It cemented for the administration's opponents what they had long suspected: that the Treasury secretary wanted to convert the Republic into an empire.
Understanding that suspicion requires understanding the international context of the Washington administration. In 1789, the same year the new Constitution took effect, the French Revolution began. At first, Americans sympathized with what they understood to be a move toward constitutional monarchy in the country that had aided them indispensably in securing their independence. Soon, however, the French king was overthrown, then executed; his wife and thousands of noblemen and clergymen followed him to the guillotine; Christianity was outlawed in France; and the new republic attacked all of its neighbors.
The chief dividing line in American politics, namely over constitutional interpretation (especially federalism), coincided with a principled division over foreign policy. In general, advocates of an energetic federal government, like Washington and Hamilton, favored neutrality in the European wars, while those who tended to favor the idea that legislative powers had been reserved to the states favored the French.
Hamilton's advocacy of neutrality had two bases: growing revulsion with the French Revolution and recognition that the financial prospects of the new government rested on a stable relationship with Britain, America's chief trading partner. On the other hand Madison, Jefferson, and their fellows believed that America owed France a moral debt for its assistance in the Revolution, considered the treaty of alliance signed in 1778 legally binding despite France's change of government, and sympathized with French efforts to establish a republic over first the objections, then the violent opposition, of other European nations.
Hamilton did not help matters with his repeated observations, in private settings and in political gatherings (most notably the Philadelphia Convention of 1787), concerning the great merits of the British Constitution. Jefferson, on the other hand, maintained an astounding equanimity as a number of his friends suffered death at the hands of French revolutionary authorities. Vice President Adams, too, told the two Virginia senators that the United States would soon find it necessary to establish a monarchy, fanning the flames of Republican suspicion.
For Jefferson, then, Hamilton's financial measures, explicitly modeled on those of Britain, smacked of monarchism; for Hamilton, Jefferson's and Madison's opposition to the Washington administration was "Jacobinical" (after the most radical, bloodiest, most warlike faction in the French Revolution). Hamilton had his way in 1793, when the European conflict elicited Washington's Proclamation of Neutrality over Jefferson's vociferous objections. Despite the treaty of 1778, any American who assisted either side would be prosecuted. Republicans were furious.
Jay's Treaty. Reactions to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 perfectly summed up the situation on both sides, as Jefferson brooded concerning Hamilton's militaristic intentions for America and Hamilton gloried in the opportunity to employ the federal government in intimidating lawless Jeffersonian tax dodgers. The following year, Chief Justice John Jay returned from England with the treaty that soon would be known by his name. Passed on by President Washington to the Senate in secret, then ratified in executive session, Jay's Treaty seemed to implement the program Jefferson had feared of making the United States the tail of the British dog. Americans had chafed over British restrictions on American trade and over impressments of American sailors into the Royal Navy, and the treaty that Jay brought home did nothing about those complaints. It also forswore any American intention to use differential tariff rates to coerce Britain economically—a favorite scheme of Madison's.
What Jay did achieve, on the other hand, was a firm British commitment instantly to withdraw from military bases in the Old Northwest, along with a binding mutual obligation to maintain peace in an international environment that bade fair to draw the two Anglophone countries into armed conflict. From Washington's point of view, as from Jay's and Hamilton's, the essential point was that America remain aloof from European wars for another fifteen to twenty years, after which it could—to borrow a phrase—bid defiance to all the world.
The Democratic Republican opposition staged popular protests throughout the country upon learning the particulars of Jay's Treaty. Washington's acceptance of it made even him anathema to his administration's opponents. Although Jefferson and Hamilton had long since left his cabinet, only to be replaced by far lesser figures, they remained the guiding lights of their respective parties. Jefferson was happy to see the Democratic Republican clubs that supported him mushroom in the days after Jay's Treaty, and John Jay said that he could have walked from Charleston, South Carolina, to Boston by the light of his burning effigies.
The partisan press, launched by Jefferson and Madison and somewhat effectively countered by Hamilton and his supporters, tore into Jay's Treaty. Washington, who had thought of retirement in 1792, determined that he had certainly had enough by 1796. He went to Hamilton for assistance in composing a farewell address.
That address, published in September 1796, served as a valedictory. Americans must maintain a strong union of the states, Washington wrote. Sectionalism in politics threatened the breakup of the United States, according to the retiring president. Washington also cautioned against entanglement in foreign alliances; neutrality was the best policy for a weak young country that must soon wax very strong. He also averred that the proper role of the average person in republican politics was to help in electing officials, then to let them run the country.
Washington's administration was very successful. The federal government's three branches were organized on lasting bases. The financial system established by Washington, with Hamilton's able assistance, made America fiscally stable and put the federal government at the financial center of what had always been a state-centered political culture—and would remain so for many decades to come. The Washington administration's policy of neutrality in international affairs was prudent, despite the heated insistence of Secretary of State Jefferson that America lend its slight weight to the feckless and sanguinary course of the French Revolution. Most important, Washington left office voluntarily, thus establishing a precedent that all of his successors have been bound to follow, whether they wanted to or not.
See alsoAdams, John; Bank of the United States; Bill of Rights; Hamilton, Alexander; Hamilton's Economic Plan; Jay's Treaty; Jefferson, Thomas; Judiciary Act of 1789; Madison, James; States' Rights; Washington, George; Whiskey Rebellion .
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——. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1979.
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Kevin R. C. Gutzman
Washington, George 1732–1799
George Washington was the first president of the United States of America. He was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on February 22, 1732. Washington’s father, Augustine Washington, died in 1743 and his older half brother, Lawrence Washington (1718–1752), was subsequently responsible for George Washington’s upbringing and training as a surveyor and tobacco planter. Lawrence also nurtured Washington’s interest in military service.
Partially because of his protégé relationship with Thomas Fairfax (1691–1782), a Virginia planter influential with British nobility, and his replacement of Lawrence as district adjutant in 1752, Washington was promoted to the rank of colonel in the Virginia militia in 1754. Shortly before the outbreak of the French and Indian War (1756–1763), Washington led a military expedition to the westernmost boundaries of Virginia because French troops and their Indian allies threatened British-claimed territory. He ordered his men to build Fort Necessity in this area but soon abandoned the fort because of superior French and Indian forces in 1754. After the arrival of British troops, Washington became an aide to British general Edward Braddock (1695–1755). Washington distinguished himself in combat, especially in the campaign against Fort Duquesne, and was elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses in 1758.
In 1759 Washington married Martha Custis (1731–1802), a wealthy widow, and increased his ownership of land and slaves. He was active in local politics, but he mostly focused on his agricultural and financial interests. Washington had admired Britain’s army, aristocracy, and mixed system of government since childhood. But he gradually concluded during the 1760s and early 1770s that new British taxes and regulations reflected “taxation without representation” and their implementation by British troops and officials increasingly violated Americans’ legal rights as British subjects. While he was occasionally disturbed by the more extreme rhetoric and behavior of revolutionary leaders in Boston, Washington eventually became committed to the cause of rebellion and then independence. He concluded that the American colonies must become a separate nation in order to protect their liberty, self-government, and economic interests.
In 1774 Washington was elected as a delegate to the first Continental Congress. John Adams (1735–1826), a delegate from Massachusetts, became acquainted with Washington. Adams was impressed by Washington’s military service and political status in Virginia. Wanting to increase national, and especially southern, support for the American Revolution against Britain, Adams secured Washington’s appointment as general and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775. Washington then traveled to Massachusetts and assumed command on July 3, 1775. After placing artillery to threaten British ships in Boston Harbor, Washington forced the British to evacuate Boston on March 17, 1776.
Until the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, Washington’s strategy was to continue the American military and political effort until the British government decided to end the war as too costly. Washington generally avoided large-scale, prolonged battles and relied on surprise attacks, like the Battle of Trenton (1776), and tactical retreats to limit American casualties. During the Revolutionary War, Washington gained a national reputation among Americans for his endurance, integrity, and strength of character in the cause for independence. He struggled to maintain discipline, order, and professional military standards among American troops. Although Washington was critical of Congress for not providing enough pay and supplies for his troops, he always yielded to Congress’s civilian supremacy over his military command. After the Treaty of Paris officially ended the war in 1783, Washington voluntarily surrendered his commission as commander-in-chief to Congress and returned to Mount Vernon, his plantation in Virginia.
After the Revolutionary War, Washington struggled to improve his neglected finances. Like other planters, however, Washington suffered from the disruption of prewar trading relationships with the British Empire, high inflation, and trade barriers that states imposed against each other. The weak national government of the Articles of Confederation was unable to solve or alleviate these economic problems. Washington was also troubled by Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786 and other events that indicated that the nation might dissolve into anarchy, disunity, and political radicalism.
In his personal life, Washington had no legally recognized children, although he may have fathered a child with Venus, his half brother’s slave. He was an Anglican (or Episcopalian) but was not a frequent churchgoer. Like many upper-class Americans in the late eighteenth century, Washington was a deist who perceived God to be impersonal and rational. Nevertheless, his private and public statements reveal his belief that God, or Providence, had a special destiny for the American nation. Later in his life, Washington expressed the need for religion to promote civic virtue.
Washington was known for treating his slaves more humanely than other slave owners. He encouraged marriage among his slaves and refused to break up slave families by selling them to other planters or investing in the “breeding” of slaves. As he became older, Washington became more troubled by the moral dilemma and economic burden of slave ownership. Nonetheless, Washington accepted the institution of slavery, and his wife inherited his slaves after his death.
Washington reluctantly returned to public life and was elected as a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Washington’s fellow delegates unanimously elected him to preside at the convention. As president of the convention, Washington maintained order during the debates and rarely expressed his political opinions. Washington’s judicious reticence further enhanced his reputation among delegates as a dignified, virtuous, self-restrained national leader who could be entrusted with executive power. Alexander Hamilton (1755/57–1804) was a delegate from New York who served as a staff officer for Washington during the war and revered him. Hamilton shrewdly promoted the common assumption that Washington would be the first president in order to gain delegate support and later ratification for the strong presidency that he explained and advocated in The Federalist Papers.
George Washington was unanimously elected president in 1789 and inaugurated in New York City, the nation’s first capital under the Constitution. John Adams was elected vice president, and Washington’s first cabinet included Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) as secretary of state and Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury. Washington was unanimously reelected in 1792 and inaugurated in Philadelphia in 1793. He disliked the growing partisan and policy conflicts between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, especially between Hamilton and Jefferson, and warned the nation of the dangers of partisanship in his farewell address of 1796. Washington struggled to be nonpartisan during his first term but became a Federalist during his second term, partially because of the criticism of his presidency and policies from Anti-Federalist newspapers and politicians.
George Washington’s interpretation and use of presidential powers established several important precedents for the American presidency. First, Washington established the belief that a president should limit himself to two terms of office, a practice that continued until President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) was elected to a third term in 1940. The Constitution was amended in 1951 to formally limit a president to two elected terms. Washington had previously rejected the suggestion that he be appointed as a monarch or president with a life term of office. He later rejected a request that he run for a third term.
Second, Washington believed that a president should only veto bills that he regarded as unconstitutional. Consequently, he vetoed only two bills during his presidency. It was not until the presidency (1829–1837) of Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) that a president actively vetoed bills because of political or policy differences with Congress.
Third, while Washington believed that a president should be self-restrained and generally defer to Congress on domestic legislation, he also asserted that a president should exercise more discretionary and dominant power in foreign and defense policies. He interpreted the president’s power to “receive Ambassadors” in Article II of the Constitution to mean that the president alone can decide whether to recognize a new foreign government as legitimate for a regular diplomatic relationship with the U.S. government. Fourth, after a frustrating experience with the Senate in negotiating a treaty with the Creek Indians, Washington began the precedent of a president initiating and conducting treaty negotiations and only seeking the Senate’s “advice and consent” afterward for ratification. Likewise, he refused to provide diplomatic correspondence pertaining to the Jay Treaty to the House of Representatives because the Constitution did not require him to do so. This was an early example of executive privilege, that is, the president’s limited, unwritten constitutional right to withhold information from Congress.
Washington also developed the president’s symbolic role as the head of state who represents all Americans both nationally and internationally. He contributed to this role by occasionally visiting the various states and issuing proclamations. He proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1789. More importantly, he proclaimed American neutrality between the warring governments of Britain and France in 1793. Washington also insisted that all of his cabinet members publicly support his policies. For example, Washington forced the resignation of Secretary of State Edmund Randolph (1753–1813) in 1795 because he suspected Randolph of being pro-French, despite American neutrality.
Although Washington usually deferred to Congress on domestic legislation, he relied on Alexander Hamilton, his first secretary of the treasury and closest adviser, to formulate and promote legislative passage of his economic program, which included a national bank, a hard currency, and tariffs and excise taxes to liquidate Revolutionary War debts and provide adequate revenue to maintain a national army. Because of Article II’s “take care” clause, Washington believed that a president should exercise broad, discretionary powers to enforce federal laws. This belief was especially evident in Washington’s firm, decisive suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Washington personally led troops during part of their expedition to western Pennsylvania to end mob violence against the collection of the federal excise tax on whiskey.
Despite the efforts of Hamilton to persuade Washington to remain in office, Washington publicized his farewell address on September 19, 1796. In addition to warning the public about how partisan conflict threatened liberty, order, civic virtue, and national unity, Washington stated that future American foreign policy must continue to avoid “permanent alliances” with foreign governments that endangered American independence, liberty, and peace. Shortly after John Adams was inaugurated as president on March 4, 1797, Washington returned to Mount Vernon.
During his retirement, Washington busied himself with improving his finances and repairing buildings on his plantation. In 1798 Washington accepted a commission as a lieutenant general from President Adams and the Senate. He avoided public statements on politics and refused to undermine Adams’s authority as president. He was dismayed that the Federalist Party became bitterly divided between pro-Adams and pro-Hamilton factions and that war with France seemed more likely.
Washington returned home after inspecting his fields on December 12, 1799, and became ill with a severe cold. Further weakened by the use of bloodletting as a medical treatment, Washington died on December 14, 1799. General Henry Lee’s (1756–1818) funeral oration, delivered before Congress on December 26, 1799, popularized Washington’s historical and patriotic reputation as “the father of his country.” The nation’s new capital city was named after Washington, as were many towns, counties, schools, and a state. The most nationally prominent artistic dedications to George Washington include the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., and an enormous sculpture of his face on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. His birthday was celebrated as a separate national holiday but was more recently incorporated as part of Presidents’ Day in February.
SEE ALSO American Revolution; Constitution, U.S.; Presidency, The; Slavery
Flexner, James T. 1974. Washington: The Indispensable Man. New York: Mentor.
McDonald, Forrest. 1974. The Presidency of George Washington. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Phelps, Glenn A. 1993. George Washington and American Constitutionalism. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Wiencek, Henry. 2003. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farah, Straus and Giroux.
Sean J. Savage
Born: February 22, 1732
Bridges Creek, Virginia
Died: December 14, 1799
Mount Vernon, Virginia
American president, politician, and military leader
George Washington was born at Bridges Creek (later known as Wakefield) in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on February 22, 1732. His father died when he was eleven years old, and the boy spent the next few years living in different households throughout Virginia. He lived with his mother near Fredericksburg, with relatives in Westmoreland, and with his half brother in Mount Vernon.
Not much is known about Washington's childhood. Many American children have heard the story of how the young Washington took a hatchet and cut down a cherry tree, then admitted his deed because his honest character would not allow him to lie. This tale was probably invented by Mason Locke Weems (1759–1825), author of the biography of Washington that appeared the year after his death. At the age of fourteen Washington had planned to join the British navy but then reluctantly stayed home in obedience to his mother's wishes. By the age of sixteen he had obtained a basic education in mathematics, surveying (the process of measuring and plotting land), reading, and the usual subjects of his time. In 1749 Washington was appointed county surveyor, and his experience on the frontier led to his appointment as a major (a military officer who is above a captain) in the Virginia militia (a small military force that is not part of the regular army) in 1752.
French and Indian War
Washington began to advance in the military ranks during the French and Indian War (1754–63), the American portion of a larger conflict between France and Great Britain over control of overseas territory. In America, this conflict involved a struggle between the two countries over a portion of the Ohio River Valley. Before the war began, Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie (1693–1770) appointed Washington to warn the French moving into the Ohio Valley against invading English territory. Dinwiddie then made Washington a lieutenant colonel (a military officer who is above a major), with orders to dislodge the French at Pennsylvania's Fort Duquesne, but a strong French force beat the Virginia troops. This conflict triggered the beginning of French and Indian War, and Great Britain dispatched regular troops in 1755 to remove the French by force.
Later in the year, Dinwiddie promoted Washington to colonel (a military officer who is above a lieutenant colonel) and made him commander in chief of all Virginia troops. In 1758 he accompanied British troops on the campaign that forced the French to abandon Ft. Duquesne. With the threat of violence removed, Washington married Martha Custis (1731–1802) and returned to his life at Mount Vernon.
Early political career
Washington had inherited local importance from his family. His grandfather and great-grandfather had been justices of the peace, a powerful county position in eighteenth-century Virginia. His father had served as sheriff, church warden, and justice of the peace. His half-brother Lawrence had been a representative in the Virginia legislature from Fairfax County. George Washington's entry into politics was based on an alliance with the family of Lawrence's father-in-law.
Washington was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses (an early representative assembly in Virginia) in 1758 as a representative from Frederick County. From 1760 to 1774 he served as a judge of Fairfax County. His experience on the county court and in the colonial legislature molded his views on British taxation of the thirteen American Colonies (which became the first thirteen states of the United States) after 1763. He opposed the Stamp Act (which placed a tax on printed materials) in 1765. In the 1760s he supported the nonimportation of goods (refusal to import goods) as a means of reversing British policy. In 1774 he joined the call for a meeting of representatives who would define policies for all thirteen colonies, called the Continental Congress, that would take united colonial action against recent laws directed by the British against Massachusetts.
In July 1774 Washington led the county meeting that was held to adopt the Fairfax Resolves, which he had helped write. These resolves (resolutions) influenced the adoption of the Continental Association, a plan devised by the First Continental Congress (1774) for enforcing nonimportation of British goods. They also proposed the creation of a militia company in each county that was not under the control of a British-appointed governor. This idea became the basis of the development of the Continental Army, the united military forces of the American colonies fighting the British.
By May 1775 Washington, who headed the Fairfax militia company, had been chosen to command the companies of six other counties. When the Second Continental Congress (1775) met after the battles of Lexington and Concord (the first battles of the Revolution) in Massachusetts, Washington was elected unanimously as commander in chief of all Continental Army forces. From June 15, 1775, until December 23, 1783, he commanded the Continental Army. After the French joined the war on the American side in 1778, it was Washington who headed the combined forces of the United States and France in the War of Independence against Great Britain.
Throughout the Revolutionary years Washington developed military leadership, administrative skills, and political sharpness. From 1775 to 1783 he functioned, in effect, as the chief executive of the United States. His wartime experiences gave him a sense of the importance of a unified position among the former colonies. His writings suggested that he favored a strong central government.
Washington returned to his estates at Mount Vernon at the end of the Revolution. There was little time for relaxation, as he was kept constantly busy with farming, western land interests, and navigation of the Potomac River. Finally, Washington led the proceedings at the Federal Convention in 1787 that led to ratification, or confirmation, of the new American constitution.
First American president
The position of president of the United States seemed shaped on the generally held belief that Washington would be the first to occupy the office. In a day when executive power was regarded with suspicion, the constitution established an energetic and independent chief executive. Pierce Butler (1744–1822), one of the Founding Fathers, noted that the Federal Convention would not have made the executive powers so great "had not many of the members cast their eyes toward General Washington as President."
After he was unanimously chosen as president in 1789, Washington helped translate the new Constitution into a workable instrument of government. With his support, the Bill of Rights (a written list of basic rights that are guaranteed to all citizens) was added to the Constitution; an energetic executive branch was established in American government; the departments of state, treasury, and war became official parts of the American president's cabinet; the federal court system was begun; and Congress's power to tax was used to raise money to pay the Revolutionary War debt and to establish American credit at home and abroad.
As chief executive, Washington consulted his cabinet on public policy. He presided over their differences, especially those between Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804). Jefferson and Hamilton represented two opposing sides of an extremely important debate during this time about the role of a strong federal government in governing the former British colonies. Hamilton advocated a strong, centralized federal government, whereas Jefferson, fearing that the executive leader would have too much power, pressed for strong states' rights. Hamilton's position is known as the Federalist position; Jefferson's is known as the anti-Federalist or, later, the Republican position (not to be confused with the present-day Republican political party).
Washington approved the Federalist financial program and later, the Hamiltonian proposals, such as funding of the national debt, assumption of the state debts, the establishment of a Bank of the United States, the creation of a national coinage system, and an internal tax on goods. He also presided over the expansion of the federal union from eleven states (North Carolina and Rhode Island ratified [approved] the Constitution after Washington was sworn in as president) to sixteen (Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee were admitted between 1791 and 1796). Washington's role as presidential leader was of great importance in winning support for the new government's domestic and foreign policies.
Despite his unanimous election, Washington expected that the measures of his administration would meet opposition—and they did. By the end of his first term the American political party system was developing. When he mentioned the possibility of retirement in 1792, both Hamilton and Jefferson agreed that he was "the only man in the United States who possessed the confidence of the whole" country and urged him to continue with a second term.
Washington's second term was dominated by foreign-policy considerations. Early in 1793 the French Revolution, which had overthrown the French monarchy in 1789, became the central issue in American politics. France had declared war on Great Britain and appointed Edmond Genet (1763–1834) as minister to the United States. Determined to keep America out of the war and free from European influence, Washington issued a neutrality proclamation (a statement that the United States would not take sides or become involved in the conflict), although the word "neutrality" was not used.
Despite the proclamation, Genet supplied French pirates in American ports and organized expeditions against Florida and Louisiana (which were not then part of the United States). For his undiplomatic conduct, the Washington administration requested and obtained his recall to France. In the midst of the Genet affair, Great Britain began a blockade of France and began seizing neutral ships trading with the French West Indies. Besides violating American neutral rights (the territorial rights of a neutral country), the British still held posts in the American Northwest. The Americans claimed that they plotted with the Indians against the United States.
In 1794 Washington sent John Jay (1745–1829) to negotiate a settlement of the differences between the British and the Americans. Although Jay's Treaty was vastly unpopular—the British agreed to leave the Northwest posts but made no concessions on other key issues—Washington finally accepted it. The treaty also paved the way for a new treaty with Spain, which had feared an alliance of American and British interests against Spain in the Western Hemisphere.
Nearly all observers agree that Washington's eight years as president demonstrated that executive power was completely consistent with the spirit of republican government. The term "republican" here refers to the principles of a republic, a form of government in which citizens have supreme power through elected representatives and in which there is no monarchy (hereditary king or queen). Washington put his reputation on the line in a new office under a new Constitution. He realized that in a republic the executive leader, like all other elected representatives, would have to measure his public acts against public opinion. As military commander during the Revolution, he had seen the importance of administrative skills as a means of building public support of the army. As president, he used the same skills to win support for the new federal government.
Despite Washington's dislike of fighting among political "sides," his administrations and policies spurred the beginnings of the first political party system. This ultimately identified Washington with the Federalist party, especially after Jefferson's retirement from the cabinet in 1793.
Washington's public service did not end with his retirement from the presidency. During the presidency of John Adams (1735–1826), when America seemed on the brink of a war with France, Adams appointed him commander in chief of the American forces. Washington accepted with the understanding that he would not take field command until troops had been recruited and equipped. Since Adams settled the differences with France by diplomatic negotiations, Washington never assumed actual command. He continued to live at Mount Vernon, where he died on December 14, 1799.
At the time of Washington's death, Congress unanimously adopted a resolution to erect a marble monument in the nation's capital in honor of his great military and political accomplishments. The Washington Monument was completed in 1884.
For More Information
Clark, E. Harrison. All Cloudless Glory: The Life of George Washington. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishers, 1995.
Emery, Noemie. Washington, A Biography. New York: Putnam, 1976.
Osborne, Mary Pope. George Washington: Leader of a New Nation. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 1991.
Rosenburg, John. First in War: George Washington in the American Revolution. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1998.
George Washington, 1732–99, 1st President of the United States (1789–97), commander in chief of the Continental army in the American Revolution, called the Father of His Country.
He was born on Feb. 22, 1732 (Feb. 11, 1731, O.S.), the first son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington, on the family estate (later known as Wakefield) in Westmoreland co., Va. Of a wealthy family, Washington embarked upon a career as a surveyor and in 1748 was invited to go with the party that was to survey Baron Fairfax's lands W of the Blue Ridge. In 1749 he was appointed to his first public office, surveyor of newly created Culpeper co., and through his half-brother Lawrence Washington he became interested in the Ohio Company, which had as its object the exploitation of Western lands. After Lawrence's death (1752), George inherited part of his estate and took over some of Lawrence's duties as adjutant of the colony. As district adjutant, which made (Dec., 1752) him Major Washington at the age of 20, he was charged with training the militia in the quarter assigned him.
The French and Indian War
Washington first gained public notice late in 1753 when he volunteered to carry a message from Gov. Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia to the French moving into the Ohio country, warning them to quit the territory, which was claimed by the British. In delivering the message Washington learned that the French were planning a further advance. He hastened back to Virginia, where he was commissioned lieutenant colonel by Dinwiddie and sent with about 400 men to reinforce the post that Dinwiddie had ordered built at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.
The French, however, captured the post before he could reach it, and on hearing that they were approaching in force, Washington retired to the Great Meadows to build (July) an entrenched camp (Fort Necessity). Late in May he had won his first military victory (and his colonelcy) when he surprised (through the intelligence of his Native American allies) a small body of French troops. The French soon avenged this defeat, overwhelming him with a superior force at Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754. He surrendered on easy terms on July 4 and returned to Virginia with the survivors of his command. These battles marked the beginning of the last of the French and Indian Wars in America, in which Washington continued to figure.
As an aide to Edward Braddock he acquitted himself with honor in that general's disastrous expedition against Fort Duquesne in 1755. After the debacle he was appointed commander in chief of the Virginia militia to defend the frontier, and in 1758 he commanded one of the three brigades in the expedition headed by Gen. John Forbes that took an abandoned Fort Duquesne. With this episode his pre-Revolutionary military career ended.
The American Revolution
In 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a rich young widow, and settled on his estate at Mt. Vernon. He was a member (1759–74) of the house of burgesses, became a leader in Virginian opposition to the British colonial policy, and served (1774–75) as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. After the American Revolution broke out at Concord and Lexington, the Congress organized for defense, and, largely through the efforts of John Adams, Washington was named (June 15, 1775) commander in chief of the Continental forces.
He took command (July 3, 1775) at Cambridge, Mass., and found not an army but a force of unorganized, poorly disciplined, short-term enlisted militia, officered by men who were often insubordinate. He was faced with the problem of holding the British at Boston with a force that had to be trained in the field, and he was constantly hampered by congressional interference. Washington momentarily overcame these handicaps with the brilliant strategic move of occupying Dorchester Heights, forcing the British to evacuate Boston on Mar. 17, 1776.
Against his wishes the Continental Congress compelled him to attempt to defend New York City with a poorly equipped and untrained army against a large British land and sea force commanded by Sir William Howe. He was not yet experienced enough to conduct a large-scale action, and he committed a military blunder by sending part of his force to Brooklyn, where it was defeated (see Long Island, battle of) and surrounded. With the British fleet ready to close the only escape route, Washington saved his army with a masterly amphibious retreat across the East River back to Manhattan. Seeing that his position was completely untenable, he began a retreat northward into Westchester co., which was marked by delaying actions at Harlem Heights and White Plains and by the treacherous insubordination of Charles Lee. The retreat continued across the Hudson River through New Jersey into Pennsylvania, as Washington developed military skill through trial and error.
With colonial morale at its lowest ebb, he invaded New Jersey. On Christmas night, 1776, he crossed the Delaware, surrounded and defeated the British at Trenton, and pushed on to Princeton (Jan. 3, 1777), where he defeated a second British force. In 1777 he attempted to defend Philadelphia but was defeated at the battle of Brandywine (Sept. 11). His carefully planned counterattack at Germantown (Oct. 4, 1777) went awry, and with this second successive defeat certain discontented army officers and members of Congress tried to have Washington removed from command. Horatio Gates was advanced as a likely candidate to succeed him, but Washington's prompt action frustrated the so-called Conway Cabal.
After Germantown, Washington went into winter quarters at Valley Forge. Seldom in military history has any general faced such want and misery as Washington did in the winter of 1777–78. He proved equal to every problem, and in the spring he emerged with increased powers from Congress and a well-trained striking force, personally devoted to him. The attack (June 28, 1778) on the British retreating from Philadelphia to New York was vitiated by the actions of Charles Lee, but Washington's arrival on the field prevented a general American rout (see Monmouth, battle of). The fortunes of war soon shifted in favor of the colonial cause with the arrival (1780) of French military and naval forces, and victory finally came when General Cornwallis surrendered to Washington on Oct. 19, 1781. Washington made the American Revolution successful not only by his personal military triumphs but also by his skill in directing other operations.
At the war's end he was the most important man in the country. He retired from the army (at Annapolis, Md., Dec. 23, 1783), returned to Mt. Vernon, and in 1784 journeyed to the West to inspect his lands there. Dissatisfied with the weakness of the government (see Confederation, Articles of), he soon joined the movement intent on reorganizing it. In 1785 commissioners from Virginia and Maryland met at Mt. Vernon to settle a dispute concerning navigation on the Potomac. This meeting led to the Annapolis Convention (1786) and ultimately to the Constitutional Convention (1787). Washington presided over this last convention, and his influence in securing the adoption of the Constitution of the United States is incalculable.
After a new government was organized, Washington was unanimously chosen the first President and took office (Apr. 30, 1789) in New York City. He was anxious to establish the new national executive above partisanship, and he chose men from all factions for the administrative departments. Thomas Jefferson became Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury. His efforts to remain aloof from partisan struggles were not successful. He approved of Hamilton's nationalistic financial measures, and although he was by no means a tool in the hands of the Secretary of the Treasury, he consistently supported Hamilton's policies. In the Anglo-French war (1793) he decided against Jefferson, who favored fulfilling the 1778 military alliance with France, and he took measures against Edmond Charles Édouard Genet. Jefferson left the cabinet, and despite Washington's efforts to preserve a political truce the Republican party (later the Democratic party) and the Federalist party emerged.
Washington was unanimously reelected (1793), but his second administration was Federalist and was bitterly criticized by Jeffersonians, especially for Jay's Treaty with England. Washington was denounced by some as an aristocrat and an enemy of true democratic ideals. The Whiskey Rebellion and trouble with the Native Americans, British, and Spanish in the West offered serious problems. The crushing of the rebellion, the defeat of the Native Americans by Anthony Wayne at Fallen Timbers, and the treaty Thomas Pinckney negotiated with Spain settled some of these troubles. Foreign affairs remained gloomy, however, and Washington, weary with political life, refused to run for a third term. Washington's Farewell Address (Sept. 17, 1796), a monument of American oratory, contained the famous (and much misquoted) passage warning the United States against "permanent alliances" with foreign powers. Washington returned to Mt. Vernon, but when war with France seemed imminent (1798) he was offered command of the army. War, however, was averted. He died on Dec. 14, 1799, and was buried on his estate.
There are many portraits and statues of Washington, among them the familiar, idealized portraits by Gilbert Stuart; the statue by Jean Antoine Houdon, who also executed the famous portrait bust from a life mask; and paintings by Charles Willson Peale, John Trumbull, and John Singleton Copley. His figure also has bulked large in drama, poetry, fiction, and essays in American literature. The national capital is named for him; one state, several colleges and universities, and scores of counties, towns, and villages of the United States bear his name. Wakefield and Mt. Vernon are national shrines.
The Univ. of Virginia is preparing a new edition of the complete writings of Washington. Under the editorship of D. Jackson, W. W. Abbott, D. Twohig, P. D. Chase, and others, more than 60 volumes have been published (1976–). The long-standing edition of Washington's writings (39 vol., 1931–44) was edited by J. C. Fitzpatrick. His journals—that of his Barbados journey in 1751–52 (1892), that of his journey to the West (1905), and his diaries (ed. by J. C. Fitzpatrick, 4 vol., 1925)—were also edited separately. An old standard edition of his writings is that by W. C. Ford (14 vol., 1889–93), and S. Commins edited a one-volume selection, Basic Writings (1948). Other standard sources of his works are The Washington Papers (1955, repr. 1967), edited by S. K. Padover, and The George Washington Papers (1964), edited by F. Donovan. There have been innumerable editions of his Farewell Address and many separate editions of others of his works.
There have been a great many studies of phases and incidents of Washington's career and a continual stream of biographies; the definitive biography is by D. S. Freeman (7 vol., 1948–57; abr. ed. 1968); Volume VII was written after Freeman's death by J. A. Carroll and M. W. Ashworth of his staff. The biography (1940) begun by N. W. Stephenson and completed by W. H. Dunn is full and eminently useful; so is the four-volume biography by J. T. Flexner (1965–72). The early biography by "Parson" M. L. Weems is important chiefly because it contains many of the now-famous Washington legends, such as that of the cherry tree. Biographies of Washington by eminent men of another day include those by J. Marshall, J. Sparks, and W. Irving. Other biographies include those by P. L. Ford (1896, repr. 1971), W. Wilson (1896, repr. 1969), J. Corbin (1930, repr. 1972), L. M. Sears (1932), J. C. Fitzpatrick (1933, repr. 1970), N. Callahan (1972), R. Brookhiser (1996), J. M. Burns and S. Dunn (2004), J. J. Ellis (2004), P. Johnson (2005), R. Chernow (2010), and S. Brumwell (2012).
See also W. C. Ford, Washington as Employer and Importer of Labour (1889, repr. 1971); G. A. Eisen, Portraits of Washington (3 vol., 1932); E. S. Whitely, Washington and His Aides-de-Camp (1936, repr. 1968); F. R. Bellamy, The Private Life of George Washington (1951); C. P. Nettels, George Washington and American Independence (1951); M. Cunliffe, George Washington: Man and Monument (1958); L. M. Sears, George Washington and the French Revolution (1960); B. Knollenberg, Washington and the Revolution (1940, repr. 1968) and George Washington, the Virginia Period, 1732–1775 (1964); T. N. Dupuy, The Military Life of George Washington (1969); F. MacDonald, The Presidency of George Washington (1974); E. S. Morgan, The Genius of George Washington (1980); G. Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (1984); J. E. Ferling, The First of Men (1988) and The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon (2009); G. Vidal, Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (2003); H. Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (2003); D. McCullough, 1776 (2005); J. P. Kaminski, The Great Virginia Triumvirate: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison in the Eyes of Their Contemporaries (2010); B. Schecter, George Washington's America: A Biography through His Maps (2010); R. Middlekauff, Washington's Revolution (2015).
George Washington was born at Bridges Creek, later known as Wakefield, in Westmoreland County, Va., on Feb. 22, 1732. His father died when George was eleven years old, and the boy spent the next few years with his mother at Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, with relatives in Westmoreland, and with his half brother at Mount Vernon. By the time he was 16 he had a rudimentary education, studying mathematics, surveying, reading, and the usual subjects of his day. In 1749 Washington was appointed county surveyor, and his experience on the frontier led to his appointment as a major in the Virginia militia in 1752.
French and Indian War
Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie appointed the 21-year-old Washington to warn the French moving into the Ohio Valley against encroaching on English territory. Washington published the results of this expedition, including the French rejection of the ultimatum, in the Journal of Major George Washington … (1754). Dinwiddie then commissioned Washington a lieutenant colonel with orders to dislodge the French at Ft. Duquesne, but a superior French force bested the Virginia troops. This conflict triggered the French and Indian War, and Great Britain dispatched regular troops under Gen. Edward Braddock in 1755 to oust the French. Braddock appointed Washington as aide-de-camp.
Later in the year, after Braddock's death, Dinwiddie promoted Washington to colonel and made him commander in chief of all Virginia troops. Throughout 1756 and 1757 Washington pursued a defensive policy, fortifying the frontier with stockades, recruiting men, and establishing discipline. In 1758, with the title of brigadier, he accompanied British regulars on the campaign that forced the French to abandon Ft. Duquesne. With the threat of frontier violence removed, Washington resigned his commission, soon married the widow Martha Custis, and devoted himself to life at Mount Vernon.
Washington took seriously his role of stepfather and guardian of Martha's two children; it was his duty, he wrote, to be "generous and attentive, " and he was. His stepdaughter's death at 17 was an emotional shock to him. When his stepson died in 1781, after serving in the Virginia militia at Yorktown, Washington virtually adopted two of his four children.
Early Political Career
Washington inherited local prominence from his family, just as he inherited property and social position. His grandfather and great-grandfather had been justices of the peace, a powerful county position in 18th-century Virginia, and his father had served as sheriff and church warden, as well as justice of the peace. His half brother Lawrence had been a representative from Fairfax County, and George Washington's entry into politics was based on an alliance with the family of Lawrence's father-in-law, Lord Fairfax.
Washington was elected as a representative to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758 from Frederick County. From 1760 to 1774 he served as a justice of Fairfax County, and he was a longtime vestryman of Truro parish. His experience on the county court and in the colonial legislature molded his views on Parliamentary taxation of the Colonies after 1763. He opposed the Stamp Act in 1765, arguing that Parliament "hath no more right to put their hands into my pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into yours for money." As a member of the colonial legislature, he backed nonimportation as a means of reversing British policy in the 1760s, and in 1774 he attended the rump session of the dissolved Assembly, which called for a Continental Congress to take united colonial action against the Boston Port Bill and other "Intolerable Acts" directed against Massachusetts.
In July 1774 Washington presided at the county meeting which adopted the Fairfax Resolves, which he had helped write. These resolves influenced the adoption of the Continental Association, the plan devised by the First Continental Congress for enforcing nonimportation of British goods. They also proposed the creation in each county of a militia company independent of the royal governor's control, the idea from which the Continental Army developed. By May 1775 Washington, who headed the Fairfax militia company, had been chosen to command the companies of six other counties. The only man in uniform when the Second Continental Congress met after the battles of Lexington and Concord, he was elected unanimously as commander in chief of all Continental Army forces. From June 15, 1775, until Dec. 23, 1783, he commanded the Continental Army and, after the French alliance of 1778, the combined forces of the United States and France in the War of Independence against Great Britain.
Throughout the Revolutionary years Washington developed military leadership, administrative skills, and political acumen, functioning from 1775 to 1783 as the de facto chief executive of the United States. His wartime experiences gave him a continental outlook, and his Circular Letter to the States in June 1783 made it clear that he favored a strong central government.
Washington returned to Mount Vernon at the end of the Revolution. "I have not only retired from all public employments, " he wrote his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, "but I am retiring within myself." But there was little time for sitting "under the shadow of my own vine and my own fig tree." He kept constantly busy with farming, western land interests, and navigation of the Potomac. Finally, Washington presided at the Federal Convention in 1787 and supported ratification of the Constitution in order to "establish good order and government and to render the nation happy at home and respected abroad."
First American President
The position of president of the United States seemed shaped by the Federal Convention on the assumption that Washington would be the first to occupy the office. In a day when executive power was suspect—when the creation of the presidency, as Alexander Hamilton observed in The Federalist, was "attended with greater difficulty" than perhaps any other—the Constitution established an energetic and independent chief executive. Pierce Butler, one of the Founding Fathers, noted that the convention would not have made the executive powers so great "had not many of the members cast their eyes toward General Washington as President, and shaped their ideas of the Powers to be given a President, by their opinions of his Virtue."
After his unanimous choice as president in 1789, Washington helped translate the new constitution into a workable instrument of government: the Bill of Rights was added, as he suggested, out of "reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen"; an energetic executive branch was established, with the executive departments—State, Treasury, and War—evolving into an American Cabinet; the Federal judiciary was inaugurated; and the congressional taxing power was utilized to pay the Revolutionary War debt and to establish American credit at home and abroad.
As chief executive, Washington consulted his Cabinet on public policy, presided over their differences— especially those between Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton— with a forbearance that indicated his high regard for his colleagues, and he made up his mind after careful consideration of alternatives. He approved the Federalist financial program and the later Hamiltonian proposals—funding of the national debt, assumption of the state debts, the establishment of a Bank of the United States, the creation of a national coinage system, and an excise tax. He supported a national policy for disposition of the public lands and presided over the expansion of the Federal union from eleven states (North Carolina and Rhode Island ratified the Constitution after Washington's inaugural) to 16 (Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee were admitted between 1791 and 1796). Washington's role as presidential leader was of fundamental importance in winning support for the new government's domestic and foreign policies. "Such a Chief Magistrate, " Fisher Ames noted, "appears like the pole star in a clear sky….His Presidency will form an epoch and be distinguished as the Age of Washington."
Despite his unanimous election, Washington expected that the measures of his administration would meet opposition, and they did. By the end of his first term the American party system was developing. When he mentioned the possibility of retirement in 1792, therefore, both Hamilton and Jefferson agreed that he was "the only man in the United States who possessed the confidence of the whole" and "no other person … would be thought anything more than the head of a party." "North and South, " Jefferson urged, "will hang together if they have you to hang on."
Creation of a Foreign Policy
Washington's second term was dominated by foreign-policy considerations. Early in 1793 the French Revolution became the central issue in American politics when France, among other actions, declared war on Great Britain and appointed "Citizen" Edmond Genet minister to the United States. Determined to keep "our people in peace, " Washington issued a neutrality proclamation, although the word "neutrality" was not used. His purpose, Washington told Patrick Henry, was "to keep the United States free from political connections with every other country, to see them independent of all and under the influence of none. In a word, I want an American character, that the powers of Europe may be convinced we act for ourselves and not for others."
Citizen Genet, undeterred by the proclamation of neutrality, outfitted French privateers in American ports and organized expeditions against Florida and Louisiana. For his undiplomatic conduct, the Washington administration requested and obtained his recall. In the midst of the Genet affair, Great Britain initiated a blockade of France and began seizing neutral ships trading with the French West Indies. Besides violating American neutral rights, the British still held posts in the American Northwest, and the Americans claimed that they intrigued with the Indians against the United States.
Frontier provocations, ship seizures, and impressment made war seem almost inevitable in 1794, but Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to negotiate a settlement of the differences between the two nations. Although Jay's Treaty was vastly unpopular—the British agreed to evacuate the Northwest posts but made no concessions on neutral rights or impressment—Washington finally accepted it as the best treaty possible at that time. The treaty also paved the way for Thomas Pinckney's negotiations with Spanish ministers, now fearful of an Anglo-American entente against Spain in the Western Hemisphere. Washington happily signed Pinckney's Treaty, which resolved disputes over navigation of the Mississippi, the Florida boundary, and neutral rights.
While attempting to maintain peace with Great Britain in 1794, the Washington administration had to meet the threat of domestic violence in western Pennsylvania. The Whiskey Rebellion, a reaction against the first Federal excise tax, presented a direct challenge to the power of the Federal government to enforce its laws. After a Federal judge certified that ordinary judicial processes could not deal with the opposition to the laws, Washington called out 12, 000 state militiamen "to support our government and laws" by crushing the rebellion. The resistance quickly melted, and Washington showed that force could be tempered with clemency by pardoning the insurgents.
Nearly all observers agree that Washington's 8 years as president demonstrated that executive power was completely consistent with the genius of republican government. Putting his prestige on the line in an untried office under an untried constitution, Washington was fully aware, as he pointed out in his First Inaugural Address, that "the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."
Perhaps Washington's chief strength—the key to his success as a military and a political leader—was his realization that in a republic the executive, like all other elected representatives, would have to measure his public acts against the temper of public opinion. As military commander dealing with the Continental Congress and the state governments during the Revolution, Washington had realized the importance of administrative skills as a means of building public support of the army. As president, he applied the same skills to win support for the new Federal government.
Despite Washington's abhorrence of factionalism, his administrations and policies spurred the beginnings of the first party system. This ultimately identified Washington, the least partisan of presidents, with the Federalist party, especially after Jefferson's retirement from the Cabinet in 1793. Washington's Farewell Address, though it was essentially a last will and political testament to the American people, inevitably took on political coloration in an election year. Warning against the divisiveness of excessive party spirit, which tended to separate Americans politically as "geographical distinctions" did sectionally, he stressed the necessity for an American character free of foreign attachments. Two-thirds of his address dealt with domestic politics and the baleful influence of party; the rest of the document laid down a statement of firs principles of American foreign policy. But even here, Washington's warning against foreign entanglements was especially applicable to foreign interference in the domestic affairs of the United States.
Washington's public service did not end with his retirement from the presidency. During the "half war" with France, President John Adams appointed him commander in chief, and Washington accepted with the understanding that he would not take field command until the troops had been recruited and equipped. Since Adams settled the differences with France by diplomatic negotiations, Washington never assumed actual command. He continued to reside at Mount Vernon, where he died on Dec. 14, 1799, after contracting a throat infection.
At the time of Washington's death, Congress unanimously adopted a resolution to erect a marble monument in the nation's capital "to commemorate the great events of his military and political life"; Congress also directed that "the family of General Washington be requested to permit his body to be deposited under it." The Washington Monument was finally completed in 1884, but Washington's remains were never moved there.
The most thorough biography of Washington is Douglas Southall Freeman's monumental six-volume George Washington, completed in a seventh volume by John A. Carroll and Mary Wells Ashworth (1948-1957). The one-volume condensation of Freeman's work by Richard Harwell (1968) offers a well-rounded portrait of Washington as a person and as a public figure. Another major work is the splendidly written study by James Thomas Flexner, George Washington (1965-1972).
The best brief surveys are Esmond Wright, Washington and the American Revolution (1957); Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington: Man and Monument (1958); and James Morton Smith, ed., George Washington: A Profile (1969), a group of essays by 11 historians. Assessments of Washington by contemporaries and by historians appear in Morton Borden, comp., George Washington (1969). For details on the first presidential elections see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971).
Recommended for general historical background are Merrill Jensen, The New Nation: A History of the United States during the Confederation, 1781-1789 (1950), John C. Miller, Federalist Era, 1789-1801 (1960); and John Richard Alden, A History of the American Revolution (1969). □
Washington, George (1732-1799)
George Washington (1732-1799)
Commander in chief of the continental army, president of the constitutional convention, first president of the united states
“The Father of His Country.” George Washington’s image as “The Father of His Country,” who guided the birth and development of the American republic in war and peace, is more than a cliché. He did possess several qualities of the ideal patriarch—courage, strength, honesty, and decisive judgment tempered by patience and the ability to restrain and conciliate opposing views—which made him a skillful leader and conferred legitimacy on the offices he assumed.
Youth. George Washington, the first child of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington, was born on 22 February 1732 near Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father’s death in 1743 ended Washington’s chance to be educated in England like his older half brothers, but other opportunities arose in his teens when he began living mostly at Mount Vernon, the elegant home of his half brother Lawrence. Through Lawrence’s marriage into the influential Fairfax family Washington met important people such as Thomas Lord Fairfax, one of the colony’s largest landowners, and acquired the social skills of a Virginia gentleman. Fairfax hired the sixteen-year-old Washington to join a surveying party laying out his property in the Shenandoah Valley. By the age of eighteen Washington was a successful surveyor who was able to purchase almost fifteen hundred acres of land in the lower Shenandoah Valley.
Early Military Career. In 1752 Lawrence Washington died, and George applied for his brother’s commission as a militia officer. Lt. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie’s decision to oust the French from the Ohio River Valley in order to protect the interests of the Virginia-based Ohio Company and Washington’s execution of the orders set off the French and Indian War, which soon widened into the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France. On 27 May 1754 Washington surprised a French reconnaissance party at Laurel Mountain, killing ten and taking twenty prisoners, but on 3 July a much larger French force from Fort Duquesne surrounded Washington at his recently completed Fort Necessity. He was forced to surrender but allowed to return to Virginia. Washington resigned his commission but sought military glory in 1755 as a volunteer on Gen. Edward Braddock’s expedition against Fort Duquesne. On 9 July 1755 a French and Indian force ambushed Braddock’s army of regular and provincial troops. Braddock decided to maintain his troops in an orderly parade-ground formation instead of accepting Washington’s offer to lead the provincial troops into the woods “and engage the enemy in their own way.” The British suffered over nine hundred casualties, including Braddock. News of Washington’s spurned advice to Braddock and his courageous performance under fire made him a hero in the colonies. In August 1755 the twenty-three-year-old Washington was appointed colonel and commander in chief of Virginia’s militia, responsible for defending a 350-mile frontier with only a few hundred men. His experiences with inadequate supplies, undisciplined militia, and lack of co-operation from civilian officials prepared him for his position as commander in chief of the Continental Army.
The American Revolution. Between 1759 and 1774 Washington established his position as a respected leader in Virginia society. His January 1759 marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow with two children, substantially raised his economic and social status. The death of Lawrence Washington’s widow and child in 1760 made him the owner of Mount Vernon. In order to free himself from an economic system that left Virginia tobacco planters heavily in debt to British merchants Washington diversified by planting wheat and corn, building a commercial mill, and hiring out his artisans to other plantations. He also increased his real estate holdings near Mount Vernon and speculated in western lands. His service as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses for most of this period further enhanced his status in the community and gave him firsthand experience with colonial self-government. When Parliament imposed taxes and legislation to pay off the debt from the Seven Years’ War and tighten colonial control, Washington participated in Virginia’s resistance. In 1774 and 1775 the Virginia legislature chose him as a delegate to the Continental Congress. Washington lacked the formal education to cite scholarly works on political philosophy to support his opposition to British rule. Instead, he had extensive experience, as a provincial military officer, planter, and colonial legislator, with British arrogance and a colonial system of economic and political subjugation. Those experiences led Washington to conclude that British colonial policies were “repugnant to every principle of natural justice” and “an unexampled testimony of the most despotic system of tyranny that was ever practiced in a free government.”
Continental Army. On 15 June 1775 the Continental Congress unanimously chose Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army. John and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, the key figures in Washington’s selection, recognized that appointing a prominent southern military figure to lead what was thus far largely a New England army would unite the colonies. Washington’s decision to refuse a salary reinforced his patriotic image and sent an inspirational message to his fellow citizens that private sacrifices were necessary to defend the common cause of liberty. Washington’s vastly outnumbered army dictated a military strategy of surprise attacks, skillful retreats, and avoidance of direct confrontation. The states’ fear of a permanent army forced Washington to rely on a small Continental Army and undisciplined, short-term state militia regiments. He was, in many ways, the chief executive of the Confederation government, endlessly pressing Congress and the states for men and supplies. In the fall of 1777 Washington’s critics in the army and Congress, led by Brig. Gen. Thomas Conway, plotted to replace Washington with a new hero. Gen. Horatio Gates had won a stunning victory at Saratoga, resulting in the surrender of Gen. John Burgoyne and five thousand troops and a valuable French-American alliance, while Washington suffered the British capture of Philadelphia and defeats at Brandywine and Germantown, Pennsylvania. The “Conway Cabal” quickly collapsed after Washington publicly revealed it. After the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, Washington had one final contribution as commander in chief. In March 1783 a group of Continental Army officers in Newburgh, New York, threatened to use force to obtain their back pay and pensions from Congress. Washington made it clear that he would not support the use of military force to achieve political ends, but he defended their cause to Congress and the states.
Constitutional Convention. In June 1783 Washington, approaching retirement, sent a circular letter to the states. He hoped to “demonstrate to every mind open to conviction” that “the distresses and disappointments” of the long war “resulted from a want of energy in the Continental government” and to convince the states to strengthen the federal government. Two developments in Washington’s retirement contributed to his active involvement in the creation of a stronger federal government. One of Washington’s chief interests was the development of a canal system linking Virginia with the West. Such a system of inland navigation required the cooperation first of Virginia and Maryland, which shared rights to the Potomac River, and eventually other states. What began in 1785 as a suggestion that Virginia and Maryland should meet annually to discuss mutual commercial concerns widened into a call for all the states to meet at the Annapolis Convention in September 1786. That, in turn, led to the Constitutional Convention. The second incident was Shays’s Rebellion in 1786 and 1787, which convinced Washington that the country was “fast verging to anarchy and confusion!” As president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Washington took no part in debates, but he voted in favor of strengthening the federal government and executive authority. When delegates met in various social settings, Washington was there using his influence to gather support for a stronger federal government and harmonize opposing opinions. Most important, the generally accepted view that Washington would be the first chief executive was a decisive factor as the delegates framed the powers of the presidency.
The First President. Washington’s beliefs in separation of powers and political independence shaped his conception of the presidency. Between 1789 and 1797 he did not participate in the passage of legislation or use the presidential veto to protect policies he favored, and he did not support partisan interests. Instead, he served as an impartial administrator of the nation’s laws. He did, however, exert his constitutional authority in foreign policy. The political conflict between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson over domestic and foreign policy spoiled Washington’s hopes for a nonpartisan, harmonious administration. He supported Hamilton’s policies on the national debt and the National Bank once he was convinced of its constitutionality, not as a Federalist but because he thought they would strengthen the nation’s finances. Washington was not initially alarmed about Jefferson’s opposition to Hamilton’s policies. He liked to make decisions based on hearing a wide range of opinions, and he also prided himself on his ability to conciliate opponents. He reluctantly accepted a second term in 1793 in the interest of national unity, but as party divisions deepened over foreign policy, Washington could neither reconcile Hamilton and Jefferson nor retain his nonpartisan stance. His decisions in 1794 to march at the head of troops with the arch-Federalist Alexander Hamilton at his side to crush the Whiskey Rebellion and to link the uprising to the “self-created” Democratic Societies were based on his fear that insurrections would destroy republican government. He also believed that the Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793 and the Jay Treaty in 1795 were nonpartisan policies to preserve American neutrality and prevent war with Britain. Republicans, however, cited those policies as proof that Washington was a Federalist “monocrat” out to destroy liberty. When a weary Washington retired to Mount Vernon in 1797, the country was thriving economically, France was angry over the Jay Treaty, and party divisions seemed permanent.
Final Years. Washington became decidedly partisan in his retirement. During the French crisis of 1798 and 1799 he expected Republicans to be willing partners in a French invasion of the United States. His most overt political acts were his acceptance of the command of the Federalist-created enlarged army and his insistence that Alexander Hamilton be named second in command. However, when Federalists pleaded with Washington to protest President John Adams’s peace mission to France publicly, Washington refused. He died on 14 December 1799 from a severe throat infection. Washington had served his country well in both war and peace by defending liberty and setting important precedents for the establishment of republican government. He had one final legacy: Washington never reconciled the existence of liberty and slavery as so many of his contemporaries did. In his will he provided that his slaves be freed after his wife’s death, that his heirs take care of elderly or sick slaves, and that slave children be taught to read and write and learn a “useful occupation” before being freed at the age of twenty-five.
Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington: Man and Monument (Boston: Little, Brown, 1958);
James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man, revised edition (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974).
Born February 22, 1732 Bridges Creek, Virginia
Died December 14, 1799 Mount Vernon, Virginia
American military leader who took part in early battles of the French and Indian War; later became first president of the United States
George Washington is one of the most famous figures in world history. As a young soldier in the French and Indian War (1754-63; known in Europe as the Seven Years' War), he was known throughout the American colonies for his bravery, fighting skills, and leadership abilities. His fame increased dramatically during the American Revolution, when he commanded all the colonies' armies. His guidance of the colonies' armed forces ultimately helped America gain its independence from Britain. Washington then agreed to serve two four-year terms as the first president of the United States. He guided the nation through its first uncertain years of existence, and in the process he helped lay the foundation for many of the nation's most important financial, legal, and political institutions.
French and Indian War brings trials and triumphs
George Washington was born and raised in a wealthy family of Virginia planters. Born on February 22, 1732, he was the oldest son of Augustine Washington, a plantation owner with significant land holdings, and his second wife, Mary Ball. Washington's father died when he was eleven years old. He spent his teen years living with his mother and other relatives, including a half-brother who lived at Mount Vernon, a prosperous family farm.
In 1749, Washington was named county surveyor, a position that called for him to travel deep into forests, meadows, and other sparcely populated areas to measure property boundaries. In 1752, he was named a major in the Virginia militia. One year later, the lieutenant governor of the Virginia colony, Robert Dinwiddie (1693-1770; see box in chapter 2), selected Washington for an important mission that would take him deep into the Ohio Country.
Over the previous few years, ownership of the Ohio Country region of North America had severely strained relations between the European powers of Great Britain and France. Both countries had already established large colonies (permanent settlements of citizens who maintain ties to the mother country) throughout the eastern half of the continent. The British colonies, known as America, stretched along the Atlantic Ocean from present-day Maine to Georgia. The French colonies, known as New France, included eastern Canada, parts of the Great Lakes region, and the Mississippi River basin. Both the British and French hoped to expand their land holdings into the Ohio Country, which lay between their colonies. This region offered access to valuable natural resources and important river travel routes. But the Ohio Country was controlled by the Iroquois Confederacy, a powerful alliance of six Indian (Native American) nations who had lived on the land for generations. When the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy began to decline in the mid-1700s, the British and French began maneuvering to claim the region for themselves.
Washington's mission was to travel through the vast wilderness of the Ohio Valley and tell French officials that they were trespassing on British land. Washington and a small band of soldiers set out for the Ohio Country in October 1753. Braving cold weather and deep forests that lacked trails, Washington delivered his message to the French, who were building a number of forts in the region. But the French rejected Britain's claim that it owned the land, and Washington barely survived the dangerous winter journey back to Virginia. The following year, Washington's widely published account of his experiences in the wilderness (see box in chapter 2) made him famous throughout the colonies.
Washington's second campaign into the Ohio Country
In 1754, Washington was promoted to lieutenant colonel and sent back into the Ohio Country with two hundred soldiers. This expedition was not successful, however. His army was too small to seize Fort Duquesne, a French stronghold located on the banks of the Ohio River. He also clashed with French troops near an area called Red Stone Fort on May 28. Washington's force won the skirmish and captured several French soldiers, including a young officer named Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville (1718- 1754). But an Indian chief named Tanaghrisson (?-1754; see box in chapter 3), who had helped Washington track the French, murdered Jumonville without warning. Tanaghrisson's warriors then turned on several other French prisoners and killed them. Washington was shocked by the sudden turn of events. He set out for home with his army, but French troops based at Fort Duquesne gave chase, joined by their Indian allies. The French surrounded Washington's exhausted troops at a makeshift outpost called Fort Necessity. But since war had not formally been declared between France and Great Britain, the French commander was not sure that he could take Washington and his men prisoner. He eventually decided to let them go after Washington signed a document in which he accepted responsibility for the death of Jumonville.
A disheartened Washington and his troops returned to Virginia. But as it turned out, his clashes with the French—and his admission that Jumonville had been killed while in his custody—brought the simmering hostilities between France and Great Britain to a boil. In 1755, a British effort to push the French out of the Ohio Country ended in humiliating defeat, and one year later the two nations formally declared war against one another for control of North America.
Washington had served as a military aide to General Edward Braddock (1695-1755; see entry) on the disastrous British military campaign of 1755. In fact, he was one of the few British and colonial officers to escape without injury, despite his courageous action during the fighting. But after the French and Indian War formally erupted in 1756, he participated in no more assaults against the French. Instead, he was charged with helping English frontier settlements improve their defenses against Indian attacks.
One of Virginia's leading citizens
In 1758, Washington was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses (a representative body made up of Virginia colonists but under the authority of British rule). For the remainder of the French and Indian War, he divided his time between legislative duties, service as a county judge, and supervision of the large family farms he owned. On January 6, 1759, he married a widow named Martha Dandridge Custis, and settled down with her on the family estate at Mount Vernon.
From 1760 to 1775, Washington tirelessly tended his many farm operations, but he also remained one of the colonies' most visible legislators. During this period, he and many other Americans became very angry about British policies toward the colonies. Washington and countless other colonists believed they needed to be independent from Great Britain in order to create a free and democratic society. In 1775, the differences between the British and the Americans finally erupted into war. America's First Continental Congress—a group of representatives from all of the colonies—unanimously selected Washington to command the colonies in their bid to gain independence. The Virginian was chosen not only because of his reputation for bravery and honesty, but also because of his knowledge of the British military. In addition, Washington's southern background helped address the concerns of some Americans that the northern colonies of New England were pushing all the colonies into war.
Commander of the colonial army
When Washington agreed to lead the colonial army, he privately wondered if he was up to the task. After all, he not only had to create, train, and outfit an army within a matter of months, but he also had to make it effective enough to stand against British military forces that ranked as the most powerful in the world.
The first few years of the Revolutionary War (1775- 83) against the British were very difficult for Washington and his army. Hampered by serious supply shortages, officers with limited experience, and American colonists who wished to remain part of the British Empire, the colonial forces barely survived. But Washington's troops developed a deep loyalty to their commander and their cause, and the Virginian gained a deep respect for his soldiers as well. In 1778, for example, as noted in The Writings of George Washington, he wrote that "to see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lay on, without shoes, by which their marches may be traced by the blood from their feet, and almost as often without provisions as with, marching through frost and snow … is a mark of patience and obedience which … can scarce be paralleled."
As the War for Independence progressed, Washington directed the American war effort with mixed success. In six of the nine battles in which he personally fought, his forces either lost or could claim no better than a draw. But Washington also delivered major victories over the British at Trenton, Harlem Heights, and Yorktown, and he captured Boston from the British when he threatened to hammer it with cannons. These triumphs convinced foreign countries—such as France—to provide badly needed assistance to the American cause. In addition, Washington refused to steal supplies or take advantage of local communities, no matter how desperate his situation became. By conducting the war in this way, he kept the support of the American people throughout the long conflict.
In 1783, Great Britain finally gave up on its grim struggle to keep the American colonies loyal to the British Crown. The colonies were now free to create their own government, which Washington hoped would be formed with an eye toward ensuring that "our lives, liberties and properties shall be preserved."
On December 23, 1783, Washington resigned his position as commander of America's armed forces and headed home to Mount Vernon. He arrived at his farm on Christmas Eve, grateful to return to the life of a farmer. But before long, the newly formed nation he had helped create called on him once again.
First president of the United States
In 1787, leading citizens from across the United States gathered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at a Constitutional Convention. This meeting produced the Constitution of the United States—still the cornerstone of America's legal system—and outlined the type of government under which Americans would live. At this same meeting, the delegates unanimously selected Washington to be the first president of the United States.
Washington was inaugurated as president of the United States of America in New York City on April 30, 1789. He knew that his actions and behavior would shape the country—and the role of the presidency—for generations to come. With this in mind, he paid special attention to behaving in an honorable and truthful fashion at all times. As noted in The Writings of George Washington, the president declared, "I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain the character of an honest man, as well as prove that I am [an honest man]."
In 1790, Washington came down with pneumonia. As he fought against the illness, the entire nation expressed concern that their fragile nation might fall apart if he died. After all, no other figure was as universally loved and respected as this Revolutionary War hero. "You cannot conceive the public alarm [at his sickness]," wrote Washington's secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), to a friend. "It proves how much depends on his life."
Washington recovered, and during his first four years in office he oversaw many significant accomplishments. He established a philosophy of strong national government, helped create the federal court system, and oversaw the development of a monetary system that soon made the United States an international economic power.
Washington wanted to retire to his farm at Mount Vernon after concluding his first four-year term. But the country's leading legislators and political leaders begged him to reconsider. They recognized that the United States was still in a fragile state. Most lawmakers and citizens had divided into separate political camps that wanted to take the country in different directions. Many Americans worried that without Washington's leadership, the bitter disputes between the political parties might tear apart the country.
Washington reluctantly agreed to a second term, and in 1792, he was unanimously reelected. His second four-year term was a difficult one in several respects. In 1794, he was forced to use military power to end the so-called Whiskey Rebellion—a protest by farmers against a federal tax on whiskey. In addition, he was forced to devote much of his attention to diplomatic maneuvers to avoid being dragged into another war that had flared up between France and Great Britain. Washington strongly believed that the United States, which was still struggling to establish itself, could not afford to be drawn into an expensive war.
As the conclusion of Washington's second term drew near, the nation's first president opted against running for a third time. So in March 1797, Washington's presidential tenure ended, and he peacefully handed over the office to John Adams (1735-1826), who had been Washington's vice president for both terms. Washington went home to Mount Vernon, where he resumed the life of a wealthy farmer. In 1798, the threat of a French invasion nearly returned Washington to the role of general of the American army. But the United States and France settled their differences without violence, and Washington remained in Virginia.
On December 14, 1799, George Washington died from a throat infection that struck him down with stunning suddenness. News of his death shocked the United States and the rest of the world. By this time, the country that he had helped bring into existence was able to survive the blow. But the loss of Washington, who, by now, was known throughout the United States as "the father of our country," still prompted heartfelt tributes and testimonials in cities and villages across America.
For More Information
Encyclopedia of World Biography. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center .Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. 39 vols. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Office, 1931-44. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970.
Jones, Robert F. George Washington. Rev. ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1986.
Marrin, Albert. George Washington and the Founding of a Nation. New York:Dutton Children's Books, 2001.
McClung, Robert M. Young George Washington and the French and Indian War, 1753-1758. North Haven, CT: Linnet Books, 2002.
Meltzer, Milton. George Washington and the Birth of Our Nation. New York:F. Watts, 1986.
Randall, Willard S. George Washington: A Life. New York: Henry Holt &Co., 1997.
Spalding, Matthew, and Patrick J. Garrity. A Sacred Union of Citizens: George Washington's Farewell Address and the American Character. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.
Wall, Charles Cecil. George Washington, Citizen-Soldier. Charlottesville:University Press of Virginia, 1980.
George Washington was a U.S. military leader, statesperson, and the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797. A leader of mythic proportion in U.S. history, Washington's leadership from the American Revolution (war of independence) to the end of his presidential administrations proved crucial to winning independence from Great Britain and establishing a national union of states based on the U.S. Constitution.
Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Born into the colonial aristocracy, Washington attended local schools and supplemented his formal education by reading widely. As a young man he became a surveyor, and in 1749 he was appointed county surveyor for Culpeper County, Virginia. In 1752, at the age of twenty, Washington inherited the family estate at Mount Vernon and embarked on a military career.
During the French and Indian War, Washington gained his first military experience. The war was fought to determine whether France or Great Britain would rule North America. In 1753 Washington requested and received the assignment of delivering an ultimatum to the French, ordering them to retreat from the Ohio Valley. The French refused, and Washington led troops against them. Although Washington won an initial victory in 1754, the French counterattacked in force and Washington had to surrender his camp at Fort Necessity, Pennsylvania. He resigned his commission, but in May 1755 Washington became an unpaid volunteer, serving as aide-de-camp to the British general Edward Braddock. Braddock was ambushed and killed later that year near Fort Duquesne, and Washington himself narrowly escaped. In August 1755 Washington was promoted to colonel and given command of the Virginia militia, which defended the western frontier of the colony. During the remainder of the war, Washington successfully protected the frontier.
In 1759 Washington returned to Mount Vernon, where he married Martha Custes, a young widow with a large estate. The marriage made Washington one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1759, serving until 1774. During this period, colonial anger at British taxation and control began to steadily build. Great Britain believed that the taxes were justified to help repay the war debt and recognize British efforts to successfully remove France from North America. Washington, like many other colonial leaders, joined the protest against British interference and in 1774 endorsed the Fairfax Resolves, which called for a stringent boycott of British imports. In 1774 and 1775 he attended the first and second continental congresses as a delegate from Virginia.
In 1775, as the Revolutionary War was imminent, the Congress appointed Washington commander in chief of the American forces, which were known as the Continental Army. It was hoped that Washington's appointment would promote unity between Virginia and New England.
Washington's years as commander in chief were a mix of defeats and victories. In March 1776 he successfully forced the British out of Boston, but in August the British defeated his forces at New York City. Washington then sought safety in New Jersey and emerged victorious again with his surprise attack on Trenton on December 25, 1776. On January 3, 1777, Washington's troops defeated the British at Princeton, New Jersey. The two victories were critical to maintaining colonial morale, and by the spring of 1777, more than eight thousand new soldiers had joined the Continental Army.
The tide turned, however, in September 1777, when Washington unsuccessfully tried to stop British forces from advancing on Philadelphia at the battle of Brandywine Creek. After the British occupied Philadelphia, Washington made a futile attack at nearby Germantown. During the winter of 1777 and 1778, Washington's troops stayed at Valley Forge, west of Philadelphia. The conditions were adverse, requiring all of Washington's leadership skills to hold his army together. During the winter his actions aroused dissent in Congress, and his critics sought to have General Horatio Gates replace Washington as commander in chief. Several congressmen and military officers backed Gates, but the public rallied behind Washington.
In June 1778, Washington attacked the British at Monmouth, New Jersey, but again was defeated. He then shifted his military strategy, keeping his troops encamped around British forces in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. In 1781 Washington defeated General Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia. The surrender of Cornwallis marked the end of major military actions in the Revolutionary
War. The signing of the treaty of paris in 1783 officially ended the conflict, with Great Britain recognizing the independence of the thirteen colonies and the geographic boundaries of the new nation.
"Liberty, when it begins to take root, isaplant of rapid growth."
After the war Washington returned to Mount Vernon, but he was soon drawn back into politics. The articles of confederation proved ineffective for governing the national affairs of the thirteen states. shays's rebellion, named after its leader Daniel Shays, was an armed insurrection in Massachusetts in 1787 and 1788 that convinced U.S. political leaders that a strong national government was needed. Washington agreed and consented to serve as president at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. Though he played no part in the drafting of the Constitution and did not participate in behind-the-scenes political discussions,
Washington's presence lent legitimacy to the effort to craft a new government.
As the leading national figure, Washington was the logical choice to become the first president of the United States. His election in 1788 helped shape the executive branch of federal government. Washington decided to surround himself with a group of national leaders as his advisors and administrators. Though the presidential cabinet is not discussed in the Constitution, Washington's use of it made it a traditional part of a president's administration.
The first cabinet included thomas jefferson as secretary of state and alexander hamilton as secretary of the treasury. Washington was sympathetic to Hamilton's belief that a strong national government was needed, including the establishment of a national bank. In contrast, Jefferson believed that the states should continue to be dominant, with the national government confined to the enumerated powers contained in the Constitution. The conflict between Hamilton and Jefferson dominated Washington's administration.
Jefferson supported the French Revolution, whereas Hamilton favored British efforts to organize a coalition to topple the new regime through warfare. As events unfolded, Washington announced in the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 that the United States favored neutrality in the war between France and the British coalition. U.S. neutrality clearly favored the British. When the French emissary Edmond-Charles Genet tried to recruit U.S. soldiers to serve as volunteers for the French cause, Washington had Genet recalled and repudiated the 1778 treaty with France. Jefferson opposed Washington's actions and resigned as secretary of state, causing a rift in the republican party and precipitating the formation of the federalist party, with Hamilton as its leader.
Reelected in 1792, Washington faced domestic problems in 1794 with the whiskey rebellion in Pennsylvania. Organized as a protest against a federal liquor tax, the Pennsylvania uprising was quelled when Washington ordered the militia to maintain peace.
In 1795 Washington faced opposition to the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, which john jay had negotiated to settle commerce and navigation rights. One section of the treaty permitted the British to search U.S. ships. The treaty was adopted because of Washington's popularity, but both the president and the treaty were severely criticized.
Washington did not seek reelection in 1796. In his celebrated "Farewell Address," he advised against "entangling alliances" with European nations. He returned to Mount Vernon, where he spent the rest of his years managing his estate.
Washington died on December 14, 1799, at Mount Vernon.
Marshall, John. 2000. The Life of George Washington. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Rozell, Mark J., William D. Pederson, and Frank J. Williams, eds. 2000. George Washington and the Origins of the American Presidency. Westport, Conn: Praeger.
Shogan, Colleen J. 2001."The Moralist and the Cavalier: The Political Rhetoric of Washington and Jefferson." Northern Kentucky Law Review 28 (summer).
Zall, Paul M., ed. 2003. Washington on Washington. Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky.