Introduction and Early Life
In 1789, George Washington became the first president of the United States. Perhaps if it had not been for him, the United States may have never even existed in the first place. Today he is typically seen as one of the greatest presidents in American history and is largely looked at. Washington, born on February 22, 1732, gained several traits from his family, including his tall height and an interest in owning land. He had tragedy early in his life. His father died when he was 11 years old so his half-brother Lawrence took care of him. However, at the age of 34, Lawrence died of disease leaving Washington his plantation at Mount Vernon in Virginia. Washington did not have a college education and decided to serve in the British army during the French and Indian War. Early in the war, he was captured along with a band of troops during a battle at Fort Necessity. He was eventually allowed to return home where he again joined the British army and led a Virginia regiment. He entered politics when he was elected into the House of Burgesses in 1759. This made him a member of Virginia's unique legislative body. He now had valuable military, political, and leadership skills.
When the American Revolution started, the new Continental Congress appointed him as commander of the American army. Washington wild have to deal with a great task in fighting the British Empire. He turned an army weak militia forces and farmers into a force of experienced continental troops. When France joined the war, the British lost their many advantages during the war and were eventually forced to give up the fight. He returned to public life and was present at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to form the government. The making of the Constitution stated how the government would be organized. He watched and gave his opinion as the convention debated the three branches and the Bill of Rights. Washington probably wanted nothing more than to return home and retire, but he knew many people thought he had to be the first president. After all, it was he who helped secure American independence.
The First President
George Washington was the only president ever to be unanimously elected in terms of the Electoral College. The American system to elect the president basically allowed the people in each state to vote. That state's electoral votes would go to the candidate that the majority of people in the state voted for. However, electors could be "faithless" and vote for a different candidate if they felt the majority of the state's population made the wrong choice and the candidate presented a danger to the Constitution. Because Washington was the only man considered to become president, the electors went with the majority of the American people and elected the war hero president of the United States. He was inaugurated on April 30, 1789 at Federal Hall in New York City. At the end of the presidential oath in which he declared that he would protect the a Constitution, he added the words "so help me God." This was the first precedent Washington would set as president, reinforcing the new country's Judeo-Christian values.
George Washington was now president of a new nation in a weak position. The only other republics at the time were the Netherlands and Switzerland and these countries were only as big as one American states. To organize the executive branch, Washington hired five men that would make up the first American Cabinet. John Adams was his vice president, Thomas Jefferson eventually became his secretary of state for his diplomatic work in Europe, and the bold Alexander Hamilton was his secretary of the Treasury. His secretary of war was his reliable artillery officer Henry Knox and his attorney general was former Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph. Washington and his Cabinet faced a number of great crises. There was a mountain of debt, an empty Department of Treasury, and a military numbering no more than 672 men with no navy. The Supreme Court also needed to be organized. While the Constitution defined that the judiciary branch was to rule if federal laws were legal or not and handle disputes between the states and the federal government, it did not explain how this branch was to be set up. Eventually, this problem was resolved with the Judiciary Act of 1789 that gave the Supreme Court a chief justice and five associates as well as thirteen district courts and three circuit courts. Diplomat John Jay became the first chief justice and opened the first session on February 2, 1790, where the justices wore large black cloaks but not wigs because Jefferson believed it would mimic the royal courts in Britain.
Immediately members of Washington's Cabinet argued over the role of the federal government and the state governments. Jefferson was in favor of strong state governments. He believed states made the federal government and thus the federal government had limited power over the state governments. He aimed to balance the power if the nation between the states and the federal government. Hamilton believed in a stronger federal government. He has always believed that people, not states, created the federal government and thus the federal government should hold more power over the states. Hamilton wanted a strong federal government to keep order. While members of Congress debated over what the people wanted, he believed it was the federal government's to tell people what to do. This caused disagreements through the rest of the government as well. Supporters of a strong federal government were called Hamiltonians while supporters of strong state governments were called Jeffersonians. Washington hoped to remain more neutral in these issues, but as tensions rose he had to take sides.
The National Bank
The main issue that the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians debated was the national bank. In 1791, Hamilton proposed the establishment of a national bank to hold federal funds and issue paper money as well as provide loans to the federal government and capital for investment. Congress eventually passed the Bank Act that would set it up. Jefferson and his supporters were strongly against the national bank and requested Washington to veto the bill. This showed just how divided the first Cabinet was. Hamilton was in charge of the strongest department in the federal government at the time. The foundation for the power of the Treasury Department was established with the passage of the Organic Act of 1789. This act gave the secretary of the Treasury a wide variety of powers like collecting revenue, preparing budgets, running navigation services, and handling the mail. Hamilton intended to use this power to shape the nation the way he wanted it. Born in the British West Indies in 1755, the red-haired Hamilton arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in 1772 and received his academic education at King's College (now Columbia University) in New York City. From his northern background, he looked up to manufacturers and laborers to provide the wealth of the nation. Jefferson on the other hand came from Virginia and looked to plantation owners and farmers to dominate the country's economy. These divisions showed that both men had different ideals based on the economies of where they lived.
Washington was stuck in a tough position. He wanted to represent both the northern businessmen and laborers as well as the southern planters and small farmers. Jefferson believed that because the Constitution did not discuss a national bank, the federal government could not establish a national bank. Hamilton argued the opposite. If the Constitution did not discuss a national bank, then the federal government could establish it anyway because it was not stated in the Constitution that it could not. Know he could no longer be neutral, Washington agreed and signed the Bank Act into law, but it was controversial decision. Aside from the Banking Act, Hamilton was getting what he wanted. Washington passed largely Hamiltonian economic policies. These policies made Hamilton a key contributor to the financial stability of the United States. The federal government took all financial debts held by states and paid them off. The Jeffersonians opposed this move because they felt that it meant states that had paid off their debts would have to pay for larger debts made by other states. However, it was necessary to eliminate these debts and put all states on a fresh start. Hamilton's plan worked and national debt steadily declined while the nation was refreshed with sound credit. At the same time, Hamilton was able to create protective tariffs for American manufacturers to protect them against foreign competition.
The First Second Term
Like his first term, Washington was unanimously victorious in the Electoral College in the 1792 presidential election. As his second term began, divisions continued to brew between the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, but this time they were over foreign policy. The political divisions spilled over both houses of Congress where senators and representatives divided themselves between those who were for the Washington administration and those who were against it. Representative James Madison of Virginia was in the Jeffersonian camp and established himself as chief opposition to Washington. Foreign policy issues dealt mainly with European nations. The two superpowers at the time were Britain and France. The British still had forts along the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes even though the treaty ending the American Revolution declared that those lands were now American territory. If the British could not be kicked out then western settlers could not remain in the union. Hamilton did not want to be hostile to the British and instead wanted a close relationship the former mother country. However, Secretary of State Jefferson who previously served as a minister to France did look favorable to the British. He and his supporters wanted to close relations with the French. He reinforced his views with the French Revolution that overthrew the very monarchy that supported the Americans during the war of independence. In Jefferson's view the French people were creating a new nation to benefit themselves like the American people were doing.
In addition to the tensions between Britain and France, the Americans had to deal with Native Americans in the western territories and Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. As more Americans expanded westward, conflicts began between American settlers and Native American tribes. Washington and Congress issued a series of laws to protect both their citizens and Native Americans. These included land guarantees to the Native Americans as well as punishment of Americans who committed crimes against the natives. Federally regulated trade was allowed between Americans and the Native American tribes. While Native Americans were not considered American citizens, they could become citizens if they wished. As for Barbary Pirates, American merchant vessels were constantly under attack as they did trade with other nations in the Mediterranean. Often called corsairs, these religiously Muslim pirates had bases all over North Africa and the American ships carried no naval protection. Captured sailors that were captured were jailed in dungeons in Barbary territory and converted to Islam. The Washington administration and Congress both protested, but there was nothing they could do.
The European problem still dwarfed anything else. When war broke out again between Britain and France, Washington declared neutrality while the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians fought over which country to take sides with. Washington focused on reinforcing some treaty agreements with Britain. It would be wrong to upset the British again. He sent Chief Justice Jay to negotiate a new treaty with the British. The Jay Treaty of 1794 was very unpopular with the Jeffersonians who considered it favorable to the British. They argued it would hurt American trade and only benefit the British economy. However, it instead boosted exports for both countries and increased trade between the new country it's former sovereign. Revenue from import duties dramatically increased for the Americans. At the same time, British troops finally left their forts in the west and the Americans now had full control of all land up to the Mississippi. This treaty was followed by another one with Spain which further opened up international trade and American westward expansion.
The American economy started to boom from this new trade. When Benjamin Franklin returned to Philadelphia from Paris in 1785, he was shocked to see the great improvements fueled by private enterprise. While Hamilton's budgets included the government's intervention in trade policy, there was nothing else he really interfered with making the United States a laissez faire capitalist paradise similar to the one economist Adam Smith had idolized in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. Real GDP growth from 1790 to 1800 grew at 6.27 percent and real GDP per capita grew at 3.14 percent. This was a good start for a new nation. Businessmen had virtually unlimited room to expand their industries. By this time, Washington's presidency was coming to an end as he refused to run for a third term. This was a major precedent and he wanted to make it clear that no one should hold the power of the presidency for life. On September 19, 1796, he published his final address in the American Daily Advertiser. He didn't work on it alone and received advice from Hamilton. In it he made three main points: first he praised unity and opposed divisions set by region, religion, and ideology; second he argued against foreign entanglements and did not want to see the United States involved in foreign wars; third he argued against secularism and for the morals and traditions that influenced the Constitution.
Legacy and Later Life
Washington left office in March 1787 and finally got the retirement he wished. He mainly focused on his plantation, distillery, and other businesses. In addition, he provided military advice in case of an invasion from either Britain or France. Sadly, his retirement was short. On December 12, 1799, he was inspecting his plantation on horseback in snow, hail, and freezing rain. The next day he woke up with a severe sore throat that got worse over time. Three doctors came to Mount Vernon to see him and tried bloodletting, but Washington lost so much blood and it didn't work. On December 14, 1799, a bedridden Washington said "tis well" before dying at 10 pm at the age of 67.
Washington's slaves were freed as he had wished when he died. Thousands of people wore black clothes for months and France First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte ordered ten days of mourning. In order to keep their privacy, his wife Martha burned their family correspondence. George Washington remains a major leader in American history. A Founding Father, a leader of the American army, and the first president of the United States, no one can ignore his legacy during the birth of a new nation. It is hard for any leader to steer a new nation into certain stability and Washington's job as president was no cakewalk. As the first president, he had knew he had to hold true to the Constitution. He said on several occasions that he did not want more power than it gave him but at the same time he did not want less. Because of him the Constitution survived during its most fragile time. There have been many times in which constitutions are created, but the governments break the laws set by them. Washington never did that and kept the nations together which is why he is one of America's greatest presidents.