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The presidency of George Washington

AP.USH:
KC‑3.2.III.A (KC)
,
KC‑3.2.III.B (KC)
,
PCE (Theme)
,
Unit 3: Learning Objective L
As the first president of the United States, George Washington set several important precedents for the federal government. 

Overview

  • Virginian and Revolutionary War General George Washington became the United States's first president in 1789. His actions in office set a precedent for a strong executive branch and a strong central government.
  • The major political questions and conflicts during the 1790s concerned foreign policy, economic policy, and the balance of power between states and the federal government.
  • During Washington's presidency, factions began to emerge that would soon form the first two political parties in the United States: the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists.
  • Washington’s decision to stay neutral during the French Revolution set a precedent for the United States government to practice isolationism as its main foreign policy strategy for over a hundred years.

Washington's presidency

The states ratified the new Constitution of the United States in 1787, which created three branches of the federal government: Congress, the courts, and the presidency. In 1789, George Washington became the first person to hold the office of President of the United States.
Portrait of George Washington.
Portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart, 1797. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
As president and head of the executive branch, Washington was responsible for enforcing the government that the Constitution created. He and the rest of the First Federal Congress quickly realized that the Constitution did not have clear solutions to every problem they would face.
The way that Washington and the First Federal Congress handled some of the issues the country faced during his tenure as president created a precedent, or an example for how future presidents should deal with similar situations. In the next few paragraphs, we'll take a look at some of the important questions Washington and his cabinet took on during his presidency.

Debate over the national bank

Coming out of the American Revolution, the United States was faced with the issue of a large national debt. After taking out loans from France to cover the expenses of fighting the war, the state debt totaled about dollar sign25 million. But after the Constitution brought the states under a central government, who would be responsible for the debt that the states owed? Would each individual state be responsible for paying back its debt, or would the new federal government pay?
Newly-minted Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed a two-part solution: the federal government would assume the states’ debt and create a national bank. Hamilton believed a national bank would help to promote business by printing federally-backed money. There was just one problem: the Constitution said nothing about creating a national bank. However, Hamilton and his followers believed that under the “necessary and proper” clause of Article I, the Constitution gave Congress the right to create the bank to fix the debt problem.
Thomas Jefferson and his followers disagreed with Hamilton’s argument, stating that it was a misinterpretation of the necessary and proper clause. He believed that creating a national bank would be an abuse of power by the federal government.
Portrait of Alexander Hamilton.
Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, painted by John Trumbull, 1806. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
After much debate between these two emerging factions—the Federalists, represented by Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans, represented by Jefferson—the bill establishing the first Bank of the United States passed the House and Senate, President Washington signed the bill into law in early 1791.
Test your knowledge
What was the main constitutional question surrounding the creation of the national bank?
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The French Revolution and the Proclamation of Neutrality

The American Revolution sparked several other revolutions across the world, including the Haitian Revolution and the French Revolution.
At the start of the French Revolution in 1789, the United States had just ratified its new Constitution and Bill of Rights. When French revolutionaries came to the United States asking for assistance, Washington decided to issue a Proclamation of Neutrality, guaranteeing that the United States would stay out of the war and not take anyone’s side. This was a risky decision, since France had been the United States's major ally during the Revolutionary War.
Washington's decision to issue a Proclamation of Neutrality was rooted in the fact that the United States was still dealing with a sizable debt after the American Revolution. With this act, along with the recommendations he made in his Farewell Address upon leaving office, Washington set a precedent for isolationism, or refraining from involvement in international affairs, that set the tone for US foreign policy over the next century.
Test your knowledge
Why did Washington issue a Proclamation of Neutrality in the war between France and Britain?
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The Whiskey Rebellion

In order to raise money to repay the debt after the American Revolution, Alexander Hamilton proposed a tax on whiskey in 1791.
For farmers in rural areas, whiskey was a form of currency. Distilled from grain, farmers found it was more profitable to sell grain to a distillery than it was to ship it across several states to be sold in the eastern half of the United States. The new tax enraged farmers.
When tax collectors came to the farmers for their payments for the whiskey, they were met with armed resistance, sometimes even tar and feathering. After about 500 men gathered and burned down the house of a tax collector in Pennsylvania, Washington ordered a force of about 13,000 troops to crush the resistance.
Although no fighting broke out, the Whiskey Rebellion had one profound impact on the future of the United States. It affirmed the fact that the federal government could handle political unrest and was much stronger than it had been under the Articles of Confederation.
Stop and consider: How did the government's response to the Whiskey Rebellion compare to its response to Shays's Rebellion? What accounts for the differences?

Washington's Farewell Address

Washington’s presidency was significant beyond the fact that he was the first president. His actions established a strong central government and helped put in place a plan to fix the problem of the national debt.
On his way out of the presidency, Washington delivered a Farewell Address in which he advised the country to avoid political factions, based on party or geography, and avoid long-term alliances with other countries.
Excerpt from George Washington's Farewell Address, 1796.
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. . . .
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. . . .
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 connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. . . .
Test your knowledge
According to the passage above, why did George Washington think political parties were dangerous?
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Despite Washington's warnings, America’s first two political parties emerged in the 1790s: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Washington's successor, John Adams, became the first Federalist president.

What do you think?

What was the most important precedent that George Washington set while in office?
Do you think the Constitution gave Hamilton the power to create a national bank? Why or why not?
Why did Washington advise the United States to pursue a policy of isolationism?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user mthomas9871
    What was the most important precedent that George Washington set while in office?
    (12 votes)
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    • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Yumna Safi
      I don’t believe that there was a “most important precedent” as practically everything Washington did was foundational for future presidencies. He started the two term tradition and having a cabinet. He also advocated isolationism and political unity (stay away from political parties). The latter was expressed in Washington’s Farewell Address.
      (3 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user 270059246
    Do you think the Constitution gave Hamilton the power to create a national bank? Why or why not?
    (4 votes)
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  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user Tiki
    Did George Washinton end up removing The Whiskey Rebellion?
    (2 votes)
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    • duskpin sapling style avatar for user alexandra.beyret
      He never ended up removing the Whiskey Rebellion, so to say. He did however bring forces of his military(I think it was 15,000 men)to scare of the rebels. In the end, when the army arrived in the location- all the rebels had run off or escaped. So, yes, George Washington did stop the rebellion and gave a powerful reminder that if laws are not followed, the federal government will enforce them with power.
      (3 votes)
  • stelly blue style avatar for user SweetSourBlueberry
    Why did the George Washington decide not to help France in the French Revolution, when the French had helped him gain independence?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      George Washington was not the King of the United States, but the president thereof. His power was checked and balanced by two other co-equal branches of the government. As president, he swore alliegance to the constitution of the nation which he led. I suppose that he could have resigned his position and sailed personally to aid whichever side of the revolution he supported, but he could not, of his own volition, commit the resources of his nation to support the revolution in France.
      (0 votes)
  • female robot amelia style avatar for user Anushka Bendigiri
    Why did Washington advise to have "as little political connection as possible" with foreign nations? What's the idea behind this line? Also does the "political connection" mentioned here include economic relations, like trade?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin seed style avatar for user Danica
    What was the job of Thomas Jefferson when George Washington was president?
    (1 vote)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Jude
    What was the main difference between the federalists and democrat-republicans?
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Pranav Soma
      Federalists believe in the elastic clause. The elastic clause means that they mean in a loose interpretation of the Constitution, and they wanted to give the national government a lot of power.
      The Democratic-Republicans were the opposite of this. They believed that the Constitution must be interpreted strictly, and the National government can't do any greater amount, or any less.
      - Pranav Soma
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Micah23
    WHat happened to the political parties that split ?
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin seed style avatar for user krisha shah
    so what were the decisions and precedents which made Washington's presidency a key in the stability of the united states
    (0 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user 270059246
    Why did Washington advise the United States to pursue a policy of isolationism?
    (0 votes)
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