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 $\$25 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.
The “necessary and proper” clause states that Congress had the power to “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution” its other duties.
For example, if delivering the mail is one of Congress's duties, it would be considered "necessary and proper" to make laws establishing post offices, which are necessary for carrying out that duty.
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.
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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.
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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?
In both Shays’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion, troops were sent to suppress the rebellion, but in the case of Shays’ Rebellion the troops were not sent by the federal government. This could be due to the fact that during Shays’ Rebellion, the US government was operating under the Articles of Confederation, which did not give the government the ability to fund a military.
Read more about Shays's Rebellion.

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. . . .
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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?
Article written by Leah Cabrera-Marquez. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Bibliography
Marco Basile et al., “A New Nation,” Tara Strauch, ed., in The American Yawp, Joseph Locke and Ben Wright, eds., last modified August 1, 2016.
Andrew T. Hill, "The First Bank of the United States," Federal Reserve History, 2015.
Alan Taylor, "The New Nation, 1783-1803," The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 2017.
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