In 1787, Washington was again called to the duty of his country. Since independence, the young republic had been struggling under the Articles of Confederation, a structure of government that centered power with the states. But the states were not unified. They fought among themselves over boundaries and navigation rights and refused to contribute to paying off the nation's war debt. In some instances, state legislatures imposed tyrannical tax policies on their own citizens.
was intensely dismayed at the state of affairs, but only slowly came to
the realization that something should be done about it. Perhaps he
wasn't sure the time was right so soon after the Revolution to be making
major adjustments to the democratic experiment. Or perhaps because he
hoped he would not be called upon to serve, he remained noncommittal.
But when Shays's rebellion erupted in Massachusetts, Washington knew
something needed to be done to improve the nation’s government. In 1786,
Congress approved a convention to be held in Philadelphia to amend the
Articles of Confederation.
At the Constitution Convention,
Washington was unanimously chosen as president. Among others, such as
James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, Washington had come to the
conclusion that it wasn't amendments that were needed, but a new
constitution that would give the national government more authority. He
spoke but once during the proceedings, but he lobbied hard with his
fellow delegates in the afterhours for major changes in the structure of
In the end, the Convention produced a plan for
government that not only would address the country's current problems,
but would endure through time. After the convention adjourned,
Washington's reputation and support for the new government were
indispensable to the Constitution’s ratification. Opposition was
strident, if not organized, with many of America's leading political
figures—including Patrick Henry and Sam Adams—condemning the proposed
government as a grab for power. Even in Washington's native Virginia,
the Constitution was ratified by only one vote.
Still hoping to
retire to his beloved Mount Vernon, Washington was once again called
upon to serve this country. During the presidential election of 1789, he
received a vote from every elector to the Electoral College, the only
president in American history to be elected by unanimous approval. He
took the oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City, the capital of
the United States at the time.
As the first president,
Washington was astutely aware that his presidency would set a precedent
for all that would follow. He carefully attended to the responsibilities
and duties of his office, remaining vigilante to not emulate any
European royal court. To that end, he preferred the title "Mr.
President," instead of more imposing names that were suggested. At first
he declined the $25,000 salary Congress offered the office of the
presidency, for he was already wealthy and wanted to protect his image
as a selfless public servant. However, Congress persuaded him to accept
the compensation to avoid giving the impression that only wealthy men
could serve as president.
George Washington proved to be an able
administrator. He surrounded himself with some of the most capable
people in the country, appointing Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the
Treasury and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. He delegated
authority wisely and consulted regularly with his cabinet listening to
their advice before making a decision. Washington established
broad-ranging presidential authority, but always with the highest
integrity, exercising power with restraint and honesty. In doing so, he
set a standard rarely met by his successors, but one that established an
ideal by which all are judged.
During his first term, Washington
adopted a series of measures proposed by Treasury Secretary Hamilton to
reduce the nation's debt and place its finances on sound footing. His
administration established several peace treaties with Native American
tribes and approved a bill establishing the nation's capital in a
permanent district along the Potomac River. In 1791, Washington signed a
bill authorizing Congress to place a tax on distilled spirits, which
stirred protests in rural areas of Pennsylvania.
protests turned into a full-scale defiance of federal law known as the
Whiskey Rebellion. Washington invoked the Militia Act of 1792, summoning
local militias from several states to put down the rebellion.
Washington personally took command, marching the troops into the areas
of rebellion and demonstrating that the federal government would use
force, when necessary, to enforce the law.
In foreign affairs,
Washington took a cautious approach, realizing that the weak, young
nation could not succumb to Europe's political intrigues. In 1793,
France and Great Britain were once again at war. At the urging of
Alexander Hamilton, Washington disregarded the U.S. alliance with France
and pursued a course of neutrality. In 1794, he sent John Jay to
Britain to negotiate a treaty (known as the "Jay Treaty") to secure a
peace with Britain and clear up some issues held over from the
The action infuriated Thomas Jefferson, who
supported the French and felt that the U.S. needed to honor its treaty
obligations. Washington was able to mobilize public support for the
treaty, which proved decisive in securing ratification in the Senate.
Though controversial, the treaty proved beneficial to the United States
by removing British forts along the western frontier, establishing a
clear boundary between Canada and the United States, and most
importantly, delaying a war with Britain and providing over a decade of
prosperous trade and development the fledgling country so desperately
All through his two terms as president, Washington was
dismayed at the growing partisanship within government and the nation.
The power bestowed on the federal government by the Constitution made
for important decisions, and people joined together to influence those
decisions. The formation of political parties at first were influenced
more by personality than by issues.
As Treasury secretary,
Alexander Hamilton pushed for a strong national government and an
economy built in industry. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson desired
to keep government small and center power more at the local level, where
citizen's freedom could be better protected. He envisioned an economy
based on farming. Those who followed Hamilton's vision took the name
Federalists and people who opposed those ideas and tended to lean toward
Jefferson’s view began calling themselves Democratic-Republicans.
Washington despised political partisanship, believing that ideological
differences should never become institutionalized. He strongly felt that
political leaders should be free to debate important issues without
being bound by party loyalty.
However, Washington could do little
to slow the development of political parties. The ideals promoted by
Hamilton and Jefferson produced a two-party system that proved
remarkably durable. These opposing viewpoints represented a continuation
of the debate over the proper role of government, a debate that began
with the conception of the Constitution and continues today.
administration was not without its critics who questioned what they saw
as extravagant conventions in the office of the president. During his
two terms, Washington rented the best houses available and was driven in
a coach drawn by four horses, with outriders and lackeys in rich
uniforms. After being overwhelmed by callers, he announced that except
for the scheduled weekly reception open to all, he would only see people
by appointment. Washington entertained lavishly, but in private dinners
and receptions at invitation only. He was, by some, accused of
conducting himself like a king.
However, ever mindful his
presidency would set the precedent for those to follow, he was careful
to avoid the trappings of a monarchy. At public ceremonies, he did not
appear in a military uniform or the monarchical robes. Instead, he
dressed in a black velvet suit with gold buckles and powdered hair, as
was the common custom. His reserved manner was more due to inherent
reticence than any excessive sense of dignity.