01 George Washington


OBJECTIVE(S):

  • Identify the qualities that made Washington an effective leader
  • Discuss the presidential precedents set by Washington’s presidency
  • Evaluate Washington’s impact as President

George Washington was the leader of the Revolutionary army and was selected unanimously by the Electoral College to become the first president under the Constitution.  Hailing from Virginia, he was a Federalist.  When he ran for re-election, he was selected unanimously for a second time.

As the first president under the Constitution, Washington set many precedents that shaped the American presidency.  Some say this makes him the most important of all the presidents.  Washington assembled a group of advisers to help him rule, although the Constitution does not create this part of the government.  We call these advisers the Presidential Cabinet.

Washington’s cabinet featured two strong personalities: Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury.   Washington’s appointment of Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury is cited as one of his greatest decisions.   From the debate over the Constitution, Hamilton–like Washington–was a Federalist and believed in a strong central government.   Hamilton implemented a plan of federal assumption of state debt.   From the days of the Articles of Confederation, some states had significant debts.  Others had paid off most of it already.   Hamilton proposed that the federal government consolidate all the states’ debt to put the country on a more secure financial foundation.

Like all of his policies, Hamilton sought to strengthen the power of the federal government and relied a loose interpretation of the Constitution.  Jefferson, as believer in a strict interpretation of the Constitution, believed that only things specifically mentioned in the Constitution should be allowed.  This caused him to argue against Hamilton’s plans.  The debate between these two men were the foundation of America’s first political parties.  The Federalists believed in a strong national government and generally used a looser interpretation of the Constitution.  Out of the anti-Federalists, Jefferson’s followers formed a political party that was called the Republicans.  But because we have a party called that today that has nothing to do with Jefferson’s party, we call the party he formed the Democratic-Republicans.  They believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution, states’ rights and a weak national government.

Washington followed Hamilton’s advice.  The federal government consolidated the states’ debts and began to collect taxes to pay them off.  To handle the finances of the national government, Hamilton had Congress establish a national bank, called the Bank of the United States.  The bank helped stabilize the economy of the whole country, although it was controversial.  All in all, Hamilton’s fiscal plan for the country helped make him responsible for creating the economic structure of the country and strengthening the federal government.

Hamilton’s economic policy led to another important decision of Washington’s–the Whiskey Rebellion happen in 1794.  Hamilton’s financial plan called for the repayment of the newly consolidated federal debt through new taxes, such as an excise tax on alcohol.  Farmers on the frontier of western Pennsylvania refused to pay the tax, claiming “no taxation without representation.”  Their defiance was a major threat to the authority of the new federal government.  It needed to show it could enforce its laws.  Washington, as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, send in troops to put down the rebellion, asserting federal authority.

Washington also set the course for American foreign policy in his famous Farewell Address at the end of his second term.  During Washington’s presidency, England and France were at war as the Napoleonic Wars began.  The United States was under pressure by both to form an alliance.  In his open letter to the American people that addressed many issues of the time, Washington urged that the U.S. should steer clear of permanent alliances and stay out of European affairs.  Washington’s advice on staying neutral would govern future presidents’ foreign policy.  Through much of American history, the United States has tried to stay out of European conflicts, joining both world wars late.

Perhaps one of Washington’s most important precedents was his establishment of the tradition of stepping down after two terms in office.  The Constitution originally did not set a limit on the number of terms a president can serve.  Washington, who was originally reluctant to serve as president at all, almost stepped down after one four year term.  Due to increasing tension between the new political parties (the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans), Washington was urged to seek re-election to keep the country together.  After his second term, Washington decided enough was enough and did not seek re-election.  His decision changed the way people thought about the presidency.  With the exception of FDR, all other presidents followed Washington’s example and limited themselves to two terms in office.  Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the American republic is its ability to have peaceful transitions of power.  Through much of human history things seldom went this smoothly.

Washington cast a long shadow on the American government.  His presidency is as important for what he did as it is for what he didn’t do.  He strengthened the power of the federal government and set many Presidential precedents that guided the country for many years.  But more importantly, his actions limited Presidential power as much as it expanded it, especially when he gave up power after only two terms.


Presidential Decisions:  Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton to his cabinet


Presidency of George Washington

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BEFORE:  The American Colonies  *  AFTER: 2 – John Adams


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