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The presidency of George Washington

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, 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.
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, 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?
Choose 1 answer:

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?
Choose 1 answer:

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?
Choose 1 answer:

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?
    (16 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.
      (25 votes)
  • leafers seedling style avatar for user uniquedee
    Why did they tax the farmers and not take the money from the elites? This is still happening today but was there a specific reason in these times? Or just the rich wanted to stay rich?
    (8 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Alan Vitale
      This is a complicated issue. Under the Constitution, there was no explicit right to tax the income of individual Americans. The ability to initiate a Federal Income Tax would not formally exist until the passage of the 16th Amendment over 100 years later. So most of the Federal revenues came from either Tariffs or excise taxes on a trade good or class of trade goods like Whiskey. Most of the Whiskey makers were small farmers, often on the frontier where roads were poor and extra grain could not be easily shipped to market. So although the wealthy tended to pay a higher percentage of tariffs, poor farmers often suffered more from the excise tax.

      Another inequity which hurt poor farmers and former Revolutionary War soldiers was the repayment of state debts at full face value under Hamilton's economic plan. Many of the government's IOU's were held by these poor men and were worth as little as 2% of face value. Rich speculators came in and bought them up dirt cheap when they realized Hamilton was going to pay full value for them. When the government did, the farmers were left with only a tiny amount of what they were owed while the rich buyers who tricked them into selling their IOU's made massive fortunes. Both of these show the tension between the rich and the poor, but it is unfair to say the rich just taxed the poor as that did not happen at that point. Today, it might be more accurate to make that claim.
      (28 votes)
  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Nathan Lopez
    Was the tax on whiskey still in action even after George Washington suppressed the mob of protesters? And if so, for how much longer was the tax in action?
    (7 votes)
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    • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Jordan W.
      Although Washington was able to quell violent opposition to the whiskey tax, political opposition to it remained. People who opposed internal taxes supported Thomas Jefferson, who opposed the policies of Washington and John Adams, in the 1800 presidential election. Jefferson beat Adams, and by 1802, his administration had repealed all internal taxes, including the one on whiskey.
      (15 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Leo Williams
    Throughout the article, it states in one form or another that Washington's policy of Isolationism "set a precedent for isolationism, or refraining from involvement in international affairs, that set the tone for US foreign policy over the next century". What about the Barbary Wars and the US's involvement (as a main belligerent)? Doesn't this contradict Washington's hope about America staying out of foreign affairs in Europe? Or were the Barbary Wars seen as an economic protection rather than a direct political involvement, and therefore was subject to a vague area of conflict which was not resolved within the Constitution? In any case, it certainly somewhat contradicts the narrative that the US wasn't involved militarily in European conflicts up until the early 20th century, or that Washington's precedents were at least somewhat respected during the early phase of the United States.
    (7 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      You make a very good point.
      Perhaps this could be understood as "the exception proves the rule", or perhaps it could be seen as a case of the Barbary Pirates being an African or Middle Eastern problem, and therefore not European. In either case, you are right to question, because the Barbary Pirates thing was certainly foreign.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user sticksnpucks100
    What does it mean to assume states' debt? Where is this money going? How is it being paid? Thank you!
    (6 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Manish
      Hello,
      This is a little confusing, but the state debt was joined together and made the national debt of the United States. This was fiercely advocated for by Alexander Hamilton because it made the United States seem like a Nation instead of a loose collection of individual states.
      - Manish V.
      (7 votes)
  • female robot amelia style avatar for user Ealaíne
    Did Alexander Hamilton write Washington's Farewell Address? Reason I'm asking is because I read Alexander Hamilton's biography and it said that he did write the Farewell Address. So after reading about the Farewell Address, I'm getting mixed messages now. It's confusing me.
    (7 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Rebekah Vigil
    I'm having a very hard time understanding presidential speeches. Is There a different way to understand it a little better?
    (6 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user matthew.higgins
      Unfortunately, it is a skill that, like anything, takes time and attention. I have a feeling that you may be being assigned a school project to read and understand a speech of George Washington's and I bet its over Washington's Farewell address. I'm a teacher and I can help you at least grasp the two most important points.
      A. Washington wanted America to remain neutral in foreign affairs and not pick favorites. England and France had long had an intense rivalry and both nations were much stronger than the US. Washington feared that picking sides between England and France would draw the US into an unnecessary and unwinnable war.
      B. Political parties are BAD. Some people believe that political parties allow voters to vote as a group and that their views have a louder voice. Washington feared that political parties were the primary source of national division and would destroy the country that he had worked so hard to build.

      So, in the briefest of summaries, Washington's Farewell address said "Lets not get too friendly with Europe and make sure to avoid political parties. These things will ruin the cradle of liberty that I have created for us!"

      Washington's advice was wise, but was mostly ignored.
      (5 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Jude
    What was the main difference between the federalists and democrat-republicans?
    (4 votes)
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  • 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?
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user YourAverageJoe
    I think the most important precedent Washington set was isolationism.
    (6 votes)
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