Jacob E Cooke. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
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 aprivate 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 confident 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.