From the early beginnings of the American Revolution, through his two terms as President, George Washington held a significant leadership role in the United States of America. President Washington entered office with the full support of the national and state leadership, and established the executive and judicial branches of the federal government of the United States. His leadership guaranteed the survival of the United States as a powerful and independent nation, and set the standard for future presidents.
The Electoral College elected Washington unanimously in 1789, and again in the 1792 election. Washington was a well-respected war hero, serving the British colonies as a Major in the French and Indian Wars, and selected to lead the American Revolution as a Major General. In 1976, Washington was post-humously promoted to the rank of “General of the Armies of the United States”, theoretically a 6-star General. This Act of Congress also stated that George Washington will always remain the highest ranking officer of the US Army. Washington was also one of the wealthiest Americans at the time with extensive land holdings in Virginia and Ohio.
John Adams was elected vice president. Washington took the oath of office as the first President under the Constitution for the United States of America on April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York City although, at first, he had not wanted the position. Washington proved an able administrator. An excellent delegator and judge of talent and character, he held regular cabinet meetings to debate issues before making a final decision. In handling routine tasks, 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 reluctantly served a second term as president. He refused to run for a third, establishing the customary policy of a maximum of two terms for a president, which later became law by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.
Major Acts as President
- Organized the first United States Cabinet and the Executive Branch
- Established the United States federal judiciary
- Oversaw the ratification of the United States Bill of Rights
- Oversaw the establishment, location and planning of the future District of Columbia
- Established a small, but permanent standing army and navy
- Negotiated important peace agreements with Great Britain, Spain, Tripoli, and the Native Americans
Campaigns & Elections
George Washington did not campaign for election in 1788 or 1791 and there’s no record of a campaign platform. Washington attempted to preside over a “national unity” administration without political parties, but his actions as President revealed a tendency to support the Federalist Party. He chose his cabinet to reflect the political and geographical range of the newly formed nation.
Alexander Hamilton, the First Treasurer of the United States, favored the creation of a national bank, a national program of internal improvements and industrial development, and greater central control. Hamilton represented New York with its banking and manufacturing interests.
As Hamilton wrote in The Report on Manufactures: “Capital is wayward and timid in leading itself to new undertakings, and the state ought to excite the confidence of capitalists, who are ever cautious and sagacious, by aiding them to overcome the obstacles that lie in the way of all experiments.”
Thomas Jefferson, the First Secretary of State, favored decentralized power spread throughout the states with a federal government that was “rigorously frugal and simple”, “which shall restrain men from injuring one another [but] shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”
Jefferson thus opposed a national bank and economic program. He believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution and hoped that adding the 10 “Bill of Rights” amendments would restrict the national government to those powers expressly stated in the Constitution. Jefferson represented Virginia, the southern states, their interest in agriculture and import/exports.
Hamilton’s point of view would soon become the foundation for the Federalist Party. The proposals of a national bank, national industrial favoritism, central planning of infrastructure improvements, and high taxes would continue throughout the 19th Century in a succession of political parties: the Federalists, the Whigs, and the Republicans. In foreign policy, these parties favored an alliance or friendship with England.
Jefferson eventually resigned from his position in Washington’s administration to organize political opposition to the Federalists. Jefferson founded the Republican Party (which historians refer to as the Democratic-Republican Party to differentiate it from the modern Republican Party). The Republicans (and later Jackson’s Democrats) would support decentralized national government, no national bank, the gold standard, and low taxes during the 19th Century. Washington reportedly would never speak again to Jefferson for this perceived insult.
“If the Judiciary Act of 1789, the funding of the national debt, the assumption of states’ debts, the national bank, the system of internal taxation, Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain (1794), and the creation of a professional standing army and navy had been submitted to a popular referendum, probably none of them would have been approved, nor would the federal Constitution have been ratified in the first place. Early Federalist political success in passing their program and holding on to power can be attributed to three factors: the lack of an organized political opposition until the late 1790s, the success of the new political system in thwarting the popular will, and General Washington’s tremendous popularity and prestige.”
Taxes and Spending
As the first Treasurer of the United States, Alexander Hamilton sought to centralize taxing, spending, and debt. The states’ debts were centralized into the First Bank of the United States. In order to pay these debts, the Federalists in Congress advocated and passed a 15% tariff on international trade and a sales tax on distilled liquor. Both taxes adversely affected farmers and generally benefited bankers and manufacturers.
Currency had been in short supply in the colonies, and many farmers produced alcohol from their surplus crops to keep their value and barter for life’s necessities. In 1791, Congress imposed a tax on these distilled spirits that were being used as a form of currency. In effect, it was a sales tax imposed on this informal barter system.
Farmers in western Pennsylvania used the same tactics against Washington’s tax collectors as they had previously used against the King of England. President Washington used the newly passed Militia Act of 1792 to call up several state militias to quell the violent demonstrations and arrest its leaders. Fortunately, no one died in battle, but several people died indirectly from the incident.
Impact on Personal Freedom
George Washington did not actively propose new legislation to Congress. He allowed his Cabinet and the Congress to work with as little influence as possible. His Treasurer, Alexander Hamilton, strongly pursued the creation of a central bank, national currency, and strong central economic planning.
- Judiciary Act of 1789 – established the federal judiciary, as well as the United States Attorney General
- Indian Intercourse Acts – regulated commerce between American Indians and non-Indians and restricting travel by non-Indians onto Indian land
- Naturalization Act of 1790 – provided the first rules to be followed by the United States in the granting of national citizenship for “free white persons” of “good moral character”, and the only legislation in all of US Code other than the Constitution to use the terminology natural born citizen
- Residence Act of 1790 – designated Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as the temporary capital city of the United States federal government for a period of ten years, and specified the permanent capital be located on the Potomac River
- Bank Act of 1791 –established the First Bank of the United States
- Coinage Act of 1792 – established the United States Mint, established the United States dollar, and regulated coinage of the United States
- Militia Act of 1792 – established the various states militia and granted the President the authority to call out the state militia under federal control
- Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 – made it a federal crime to assist an escaping slave, and established the legal system by which escaped slaves would be returned to their masters
- Slave Trade Act of 1794 – limited the United States’ involvement in the transportation of slaves by prohibiting the export of slaves from the United States
- Naval Act of 1794 – established the United States Navy
- The Apportionment Act, vetoed April 5, 1792, on constitutional grounds
- A Bill to alter and amend an Act entitled, “An Act to ascertain and fix the military establishment of the United States”, vetoed February 28, 1797, on the advice of Secretary of War James McHenry
Use of Force
George Washington was a strong advocate against the use of force in foreign wars and negotiated peace agreements with Great Britain, Spain, the Pasha of Tripoli, and the Native American tribes of the Ohio valley.
In Washington’s Farewell Address, he writes, “Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all… The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political conexion as possible… Why quit are own to stand upon foreign ground? It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world… Harmony, liberal intercourse, with all nations are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand… There can be no greater error than to calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope that they will make a strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course, which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations.”
- Treaty of Greenville (1795) – brought an effective end to the Northwest Indian War with the ceding of Indian lands in the Ohio River Valley to the United States
- Jay Treaty (1795)- averted war with Great Britain, solved many issues left over from the Revolution, and opened peaceful trade; highly controversial and led to formation of opposition party under Jefferson
- Pinckney’s Treaty (1795) – established friendship between Spain, defined boundaries with Spanish colonies, and guaranteed navigation rights on the Mississippi River
- Treaty of Tripoli (1796) – the United States agreed to pay a yearly tribute to the Pasha of Tripoli in exchange for the peaceful treatment of United States shipping in the Mediterranean
Personal Biography and Family Life
Overall Impact on History
George Washington’s impact on the United States is immeasurable. His every action and omission has been examined and imitated by future American Presidents and others around the world. Most notable is his comparison to the Roman General Cincinnatus who returned to his farm after reluctantly being called to war. Nearly all the American Presidents followed his example of two terms until that tradition became the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.
Economic Freedom Score: 70%
Establishment of a national bank, the whiskey tax, the nationalization of state debt, and the restriction of trade with Native Americans all contribute to lowering Washinton’s score. Some of the President’s decisions, including the placement of the nation’s capital city, enriched his family and friends.
Personal Freedom Score: 95%
The vast majority of Washington’s positions, including his support for the first ten amendments, the “Bill of Rights” enhanced personal freedom for Americans. Unfortunately, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made it a federal crime to assist runaway slaves in the states where slavery was otherwise illegal. The Treaty of Greenville restricted an American’s right to travel west of the Appalachian Mountains. For this reason, we’ve lowered the President’s otherwise perfect score to 95%.
Use of Force Score: 95%
The President’s Farewell Address, his peace treaties, and willingness to give up power peacefully at the end of his terms of office as both a General and President created a strong and powerful legacy in the United States. This ranks him among the most peaceful of all political leaders. His willing interest and apparent legal maneuvering to use force in opposition to the Whiskey Rebellion lowers his score to 95%.
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