Washington, George (1732–1799)

views updated


The people of the United States are indebted to no man so much as they are to George Washington. And the debt extends to his role in the creation of the American Constitution. As the general who led the revolutionary armies to victory and so vindicated American independence, as one of the few men who had traveled in virtually every part of the United States, including the vast Western wilderness, and as a leading citizen of northern Virginia, Washington was actively involved in the movement of affairs that culminated in the constitutional convention of 1787. When the Convention met, he became its presiding officer. During the controversy over the ratification of the constitution, the opposition to a strong executive was overcome by the universal assumption that Washington would be the first man to hold the office. When the Constitution was ratified and Washington did become President, he self-consciously seized the opportunity to set precedents for the conduct of governmental affairs. And when, after two terms in that office he handed over the reins of executive authority, he did so in perfect constitutional order and retired to his country seat.

The third son of a prosperous planter, Washington learned the surveying trade in his teens, and as a surveyor he traveled widely in the area west of the Appalachian Mountains. At twenty-one he was appointed to major in the Virginia militia, and when the French and Indian War broke out in 1754 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed second in command of a regiment dispatched to the Ohio Valley. On his colonel's death, Washington took command and managed, without supplies, funds, competent subordinates, or trained noncommissioned officers and troops, to achieve initial military success. He was subsequently made an aide to the British commanding general, and in 1755, at the age of twenty-three, was promoted to colonel and made commander-in-chief of all Virginia forces, the highest ranking American military officer.

In 1759, Washington married Martha Custis, the wealthiest widow in Virginia, and, adding her holdings to his own, achieved a financial independence that would subsequently permit him to engage in a career of uncompensated public service. For a decade and a half he lived the life of a gentleman planter, with the attendant civic duties of serving as a justice of the peace and as a member of the House of Burgesses.

In 1769 Washington introduced in the House of Burgesses a series of resolutions (drafted by his friend and neighbor george mason) denying the right of the British Parliament to tax the colonies and initiating the first association. After passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774, Washington introduced in the house the Fairfax County Resolves closing Virginia's trade with Britain. He was also elected a delegate to the first continental congress, which he attended in military uniform.

The Revolutionary War began in Spring 1775 when the Massachusetts militia forcibly resisted the attempt of British troops to seize its weapons and supplies. In June, on the motion of john adams, the continental congress adopted the Massachusetts militia as the Continental Army and appointed Washington commander-in-chief. The war lasted eight and one-half years, and Washington was the American commander for the whole period. The war was not an unrelieved military success on the American side, but the commander did learn to deal with Congress and with foreign allies, and he became, in his own person, the symbol of American national unity. Just before resigning his commission in 1783, he resisted the suggestion that the army, which had been shamefully left unpaid, should overthrow the Congress and establish its own government.

After his return to private life in 1784, Washington devoted his time to management of his property in Virginia and in the Ohio Valley. He became president of the Potomac Company, which had as its object the development of the Potomac River as a navigable waterway. And he engaged in a wide correspondence, always urging, in letters dealing with politics, the strengthening of the Union and an increase in the powers of Congress under the articles of confederation. In March 1785 he was host to a conference of commissioners from Maryland and Virginia that was supposed to discuss the navigation of the Potomac River but that, in the event, called for a broader conference—the Annapolis Convention—that ultimately led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Pleading pressures of financial reverses and ill health, Washington was reluctant to accept election as a delegate to the Convention, but he did so at the repeated urging of james madison and edmund randolph. At Philadelphia he was unanimously elected president of the Convention, although, as most of the debates were conducted in a committee of the whole house, he did not actually have to preside on most occasions. Although Washington did not take an active part in the recorded debates of the Convention, his attendance and his signature on the document as president of the Convention were offered as a guarantee of the result.

The first electoral college under the new Constitution was elected in January 1789, and every member cast one of his two votes for George Washington. Washington learned of the result on April 14. His journey from Virginia to New York took a week, and involved parades and ceremonies in every town he passed through along the way; the affection and gratitude of the population were genuine, and Washington's task was to retain them while directing the executive affairs of the government.

Following his inauguration on April 30, Washington immediately began the business of running the executive branch of government. Everything he did set a precedent, not only for America but for the world, because his position as a republican chief executive was unique. Attention had to be given to such matters as the form of address and the conduct of social events so as to insure both the dignity of the federal executive and the republicanism of the country.

Every act in the process of governing had to be done a first time: the performance of each executive task, however routine, set the pattern for the permanent conduct of the presidency. The first bill to pass the new Congress was presented for Washington's signature on June 1: he affixed his signature, and the first statute under the Constitution became law. The first occasion for negotiating a treaty arose in August; in strict compliance with Article II, section 2, Washington appeared in person before the Senate to ask for advice and consent and, when the Senate referred the matter to committee he stalked out. Since that day, Presidents have submitted treaties to the Senate after they are negotiated, but no President has asked for the Senate's advice before negotiations begin.

Statutes creating the three executive departments of state, war, and treasury were enacted during the summer of 1789. Washington appointed his fellow Virginian thomas jefferson to be the first secretary of state, his wartime chief of artillery, General Henry Knox, to be secretary of war, and his former aide, Colonel alexander hamilton, to be secretary of the treasury. Although the Constitution provides only that the President may require written opinions from the principal executive officers, and that only as to their peculiar duties, Washington began the practice of meeting regularly with the three secretaries and the attorney general, Edmund Randolph, to discuss affairs of state generally. From this practice has come the notion of the American cabinet, as well as the accepted opinion that the heads of the executive departments are responsible primarily to the President, and not to Congress, for their official conduct.

But Washington had to appoint not only his cabinet officers but also every official in the executive branch down to customs inspectors and lighthouse keepers. Although the Constitution permitted Congress to vest inferior appointments in the chiefs of the departments, Congress did not immediately do so. Washington was besieged with applications from would-be federal bureaucrats. Indeed, had Congress desired to hamstring the President it might have been enough just to leave all federal appointments in his hands.

Besides the cabinet officers, the most important appointees were the Justices of the Supreme Court. The judiciary act of 1789 provided for six Justices. Washington nominated his friend john jay, who had been secretary of foreign affairs in the old government, to be Chief Justice. The other five nominees were drawn from different states, both to facilitate their performance of circuit duty and to make the Court representative of the whole country. Among them were three men who had been Washington's fellow delegates to the Constitutional Convention, james wilson, john rutledge, and john blair. (See supreme court, 1789–1801.)

Once the machinery was in place, the issue became what policy the new government would follow. Washington, who had relied on Congressman James Madison for the machinery, turned to Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton for the policy. Hamilton's program was set forth in a series of reports submitted over the next two years. The program called for an alliance between the federal government and the wealthier citizens to promote the unity and prosperity of the nation. The Hamiltonian program provoked a controversy over the proper interpretation of constitutional provisions conferring power on the national government. Hamilton argued for broad construction; Jefferson, for strict construction. The arguments were reduced to writing at Washington's request to help him to decide whether to sign or to veto the bank of the united states act (1790). Washington, convinced by Hamilton's doctrine of implied powers, signed the act.

The French Revolution of 1789 provoked a further division between Washington's chief advisers. Most Americans initially sympathized with the French overthrow of the monarchy and the attempt to establish a republican form of government. But as the French Revolution became more extreme and expansionary, and as the conservative states of Europe mobilized to resist it, opinion became divided. Jefferson and his supporters continued to sympathize with the revolution, while Hamilton and his allies were inclined to side with the embattled British.

By 1793, the Wars of the French Revolution had become global, and American interests, particularly American shipping, were suffering the effects. Washington, with the assent of his whole cabinet, issued a proclamation of neutrality in April 1793, warning American citizens to refrain from becoming involved on either side. Hamilton published a series of newspaper articles asserting, among other things, that the proclamation had been necessary because of the active support of France on the part of the Jeffersonians. Madison, replying in his own newspaper essays, claimed that Washington, by his unilateral issuance of the proclamation, had usurped the power of Congress to declare war and of the Senate to share in treaty making.

The first party lines in American politics under the Constitution had been drawn, and drawn on constitutional grounds. Jefferson resigned from the cabinet at the end of 1793. Thereafter, Washington's was a "Federalist" administration, with Jefferson, Madison, and the "Republicans" in opposition.

The whiskey rebellion of 1794 presented the first organized resistance to the national government. Western Pennsylvania farmers, upset by an excise on whiskey that seemed unduly to burden their section of the country, threatened to use force to impede collection of the tax. Washington called 15,000 militiamen into federal service and himself set out to command the expedition. The rebellion was ultimately put down without bloodshed, and when two rebel leaders were subsequently convicted of treason, Washington pardoned them.

The administration's foreign policy also led to controversy at about the same time. Chief Justice Jay had been sent to Britain to negotiate a settlement of certain continuing difficulties in relations between the two countries. jay ' streaty contained many provisions favorable to British interests, and apparently detrimental to the economic interests of some regions of the United States, especially the South and West. The treaty also provoked constitutional controversy about the operation of the treaty power. For example, would the Senate be required to advise and consent to the treaty as it was presented, or could the Senate amend a treaty? And could the President and the Senate enter into treaty commitments that would involve the expenditure of funds without the concurrence of the House of Representatives whose agreement was required for the appropriation of the funds? The treaty was approved in a partisan vote, but with a reservation suspending operation of certain objectionable provisions.

Washington chose not to seek a third term as President in the election of 1796. He was dismayed and distressed by the bitterness of the partisan rivalries that had grown up among men who had once been close colleagues, and he himself attempted always to remain above the partisan fray. washington ' s farewell address to his countrymen contained his strictures against the spirit of party, as well as his advice on foreign affairs and on public morality.

Even after his retirement to his estate at Mount Vernon, Washington could not escape either public service or partisan intrigue. When war with France seemed inevitable in 1798, President john adams nominated and the Senate unanimously confirmed Washington as commander-in-chief. There immediately followed a scramble among Federalist military men for the subordinate general officer positions. Washington supported Hamilton, who ultimately became second in command. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that Washington thought of the Republicans, who had been pro-French, as dangerous men and that he supported the alien and sedition acts.

Nevertheless, when Washington died in 1799 he was eulogized by Federalists and Republicans alike. More than any other individual, Washington was responsible for America's being independent, adopting the Constitution, and having a functioning republican government.

Dennis J. Mahoney


Cooke, Jacob E. 1987 Organizing the National Government. In Levy, Leonard W., and Mahoney, Dennis J., eds., The Constitution: A History of Its Framing and Ratification. New York: Macmillan.

Flexner, James Thomas 1965–1972 George Washington. 4 Vols. Boston: Little, Brown.

Freeman, Douglas Southall 1948–1957 George Washington. 7 Vols. New York: Scribner's.

Marshall, John (1804–1807) 1925 The Life of George Washington. 5 Vols. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co.

Matteson, David M. 1970 The Organization of the Government under the Constitution. New York: Da Capo Press.

About this article

Washington, George (1732–1799)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article