Read an Excerpt
ISBN: 0395788897 EXCERPT: GEORGE WASHINGTON
George Washington, the first president of the United States, spent two-thirds of his life as a British subject. Forty-four by the time the colonies declared their independence, he was fifty-five when the Constitutional Convention created the presidency, an office designed by men who intended that he would be the first to fill it. No other president so embodies the epochal events out of which the United States arose; none played a more important part in them. In many ways, Washington would invent the presidency, just as he helped to create the United States.
Washington was a Virginian long before he became an American, and the marks of a Virginia upbringing remained with him throughout his life. He was born on February 22, 1732, at a plantation on the banks of the Potomac in Westmoreland County, the first child of Augustine Washington (1694-1743) and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington (circa 1708-1789). By Augustine's day, the Washingtons were solid members of the Virginia gentry, the interlocking group of families that had emerged from the turbulent conditions of seventeenth-century Virginia as a coherent ruling group, dominating politics and owning the lion's share of resources, whether in land or in slaves and indentured servants.
Despite the stories famously recorded by Washington's early biographer Parson Weems (the demise of the cherry tree, the silver dollar hurled across the Rappahannock), little is known about Washington's childhood. What must have been important was his position within the family: he was a younger son, and in the Virginia of that day younger sons lacked the life chances enjoyed by firstborn males. Washington's limited pros pects were confirmed by his father's will. Augustine Washington died in 1743, when Washington was eleven, leaving the largest share of his estate (in toto it comprised about ten thousand acres of land and fifty slaves) to Lawrence, the eldest son. Washington himself received a 260-acre farm, other tracts of land, and ten slaves. What mattered now, in shaping Washington's future, was a combination of his own intense ambition and his ability to attract patrons willing to instruct him in the ways of the world and ease his hoped-for ascent.
Washington was fortunate in attracting the support of his older half brother Lawrence, the first of the essential sponsors who furthered his career. Lawrence took his fatherless half brother into his family at Mount Vernon. There Washington completed what little formal education he received. It was practical rather than classical, and it stressed mathematics, surveying, and accounting, in short things useful to someone expected to make his own way in the world of mid-eighteenth-century Virginia.
The adolescent Washington struggled to acquire the accomplishments that would make up for his lack of fortune. The story of Washington's continuous self-fashioning is one of the great tales of early American history, best illustrated, perhaps, by his 1747 manuscript, which he called "Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation."
The crucial part of his early training came when he began to learn surveying. Virginia in the middle of the eighteenth century was still largely wild, and surveying was a significant calling. It gave those who went out into the woods firsthand acquaintance with the quality of the land and a considerable advantage when it came to locating new settlements. Over the course of his life, these were skills that would serve Washington well. In 1748, at sixteen, he began working as a surveyor. Using the insider's information he had been accumulating, Washington made his first purchase of land in 1750, of 1,459 acres in the Shenandoah Valley; in the years to come, he would buy many more, and at his death he owned some 56,000 acres.
Washington's career was interrupted when his half brother developed a serious lung ailment. In the fall of 1751, Washington went with Lawrence to Barbados in search of a cure. While there, Washington caught smallpox, acquiring immunity to a disease often fatal in the eighteenth century. Lawrence's health did not improve, however, and in 1752 he died, leaving most of his property to his wife and daughter, who died in 1761 and 1754, respectively. His will provided that Washington would inherit Mount Vernon if he survived the other heirs.
By itself, surveying could not guarantee the rise in status Washington desired. Politics might, but here he was at a disadvantage. Unlike many in the House of Burgesses, he was not a lawyer. Nor did he yet have the substantial landholdings that would legitimate a bid for office. But another route was opening up as Washington came of age: the military. Virginia's territorial goals in the Ohio Valley were threatened in the 1740s and 1750s by the French and their Indian allies, and Washington was to be involved in the French and Indian War (1754 to 1763) from the outset.
Washington began his military career in the fall of 1753, traveling to the Forks of the Ohio (present-day Pittsburgh) and then to Fort Le Boeuf (near Lake Erie) to assess the situation and del iver Virginia's demand that the French abandon their positions in the Ohio country. The journey brought Washington a measure of fame when his account of the mission, published in Williamsburg in 1754 as The Journal of Major George Washington, was reprinted in Massachusetts and Maryland and then as a pamphlet in London.
Hostilities broke out in earnest in the spring of 1754. The Virginia militia was the front line of imperial defense, and Washington seized his chance. Having received a commission as a lieutenant colonel, he went off at twenty-two to defend Virginia's claims to the Ohio region. Defeating a small enemy force in western Pennsylvania on May 28, he built Fort Necessity but was compelled by the French and Indians to surrender it on July 3. Worse, he had to sign a capitulation (written in French) acknowledging that the English had trespassed on French territory and that he had "assassinated" the French commander in the encounter on May 28. Washington knew no French and denied having made the admissions, later claiming that he had been misled by his translator.
Again Washington's activities attracted notice beyond Virginia. His letter describing the May 28 affray appeared in London, and Washington enjoyed a brief transatlantic celebrity. "I heard the Bulletts whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound," he had written to his brother John Augustine, words that supposedly led the king, George II, to remark that "he would not say so, if he had been used to hear many." Washington's first command had ended in failure, but his military career went on.
He received his commission as a colonel of the Virginia forces on August 14, 1755, and for the next three and a half years he struggled to defend the frontier with an inadequate and undependable militia and without the supplies his troops needed. Endlessly frustrating, the experiences of these years broadened Washington's horizons. Conferences with the British commanders in North America took him to Boston in 1756 and to Philadelphia in 1757. In 1758 he led the Virginia contingent in the successful campaign that finally took Fort Duquesne from the French. Only twenty-six in 1758, Washington had already become a person of note in the colonial world.
Nonetheless, once it was clear that his goal of a commission in the British army was unattainable, Washington turned his attention to his long-term aim of acquiring a substantial position in the ranks of the gentry. In 1758, the voters of Frederick County elected him to the legislature. He held the seat until 1765, then won election in his home county of Fairfax and served for that constituency until the outbreak of the Revolution.
Another prize came his way in 1758, perhaps the most important of all: the widow Martha Dandridge Custis, whom he married in January 1759, shortly after resigning his commission in December 1758. He married up. Though herself of undistinguished family, Martha Dandridge Custis had bettered her position appreciably when she married Daniel Parke Custis, who came into a large inheritance soon after the wedding in 1749. When Daniel died in 1757, Martha found herself in the marriage market, and it did not take long for Washington to win her.
By marrying, Washington obtained the financial base that would support his ambitions, and while it would be wrong to say that he married for money alone, the bride's wealth was clearly a consideration. Now that he had a family and the means, he moved to establish a home of his own, and he chose as his residence a property with strong family connections. He had already leased Mount Vernon from his half brother's widow in 1754; following her death in 1761, he inherited it outright under the terms of Lawrence's will. Washington now began to modify the existing house on the property, though Mount Vernon as we know it, with the cupola and the pillared piazza, would not be finished until the 1780s.
Washington's political activity intensified in the second half of the 1760s. An orthodox Whig in his prerevolutionary politics, espousing the core ideas of the republican philosophy that guided him throughout his life, he worked with his neighbor George Mason to mobilize Fairfax County's response to British measures that, as they and others saw it, infringed on colonial liberties. Throughout this period, Washington's correspondence reveals his unquestioning acceptance of the basic notions that inspired colonial resistance to British measures and, ultimately, the Revolution. Suspicious of power exercised from London by those over whom the Virginia gentry had no control, he shared the widespread view that concessions on matters of principle would be fatal.
The early 1770s brought a relaxation in tensions between the colonies and the mother country, but the underlying problems remained, and Parliament's imposition of the Tea Act in 1773 reopened the conflict. Once the news of London's response to the Boston Tea Party - the Intolerable Acts of 1774 - arrived in Virginia, Washington was again active in urging resistance. His standing among his fellow gentry was confirmed by his election as one of the Virgin ia delegates to the First Continental Congress, held in Philadelphia in the fall of 1774. Chosen again to represent his colony at the Second Continental Congress in the spring of 1775, and then chosen to command the Virginia forces, Washington left for Philadelphia on May 4, beginning a six-year absence from Mount Vernon that would last until the summer of 1781. Attending Congress in his military uniform, Washington consciously or unconsciously advertised his availability for higher command. On June 14, 1775, John Adams of Massachusetts nominated him as commander of the Continental forces. Unanimously confirmed the following day, Washington accepted the position on June 16.
The mature Washington, who was forty-three when Congress offered him command of the army, cut an impressive figure. At least six feet tall, weighing between 175 and 200 pounds, and possessed of legendary physical strength, Washington literally towered over most of his contemporaries. A superb horseman, fond of hunting (fox hunts were one of his principal recreations), he was happiest when out-of-doors. His health was good, apart from his teeth, which already troubled him, and he would survive the Revolution without serious illness.
Congress's choice of Washington to lead its armies was the turning point in his life. In conventional terms, he was not a success. Between the conclusion of the siege of Boston in the spring of 1776 and the effective end of the war in America with the siege of Yorktown in the fall of 1781, there were few victories to report. The British had no difficulty in the summer of 1776 ousting him from New York. Nor was he successful in defending Philadelphia in 1777; here, too, the British overcame Americ an resistance, though the battle at Germantown on October 4, 1777, was hard fought and at first Washington appeared to be winning. There was another major encounter in 1778 at the controversial battle of Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey, but once again the British prevailed, as they usually did when confronting Washington's forces. For the rest of the war, until the Yorktown campaign in 1781, the troops under Washington's direct command played little part in shaping the military outcome.
The odds against Washington were enormous. With inadequate supplies, with men whose conditions led them to mutiny, especially in 1780 and 1781, with officers increasingly alienated from their ineffectual civilian superiors in Congress, it was all Washington could do to keep the army together. In the end, that turned out to be what mattered.
Yet the effort Washington and his troops expended would have been in vain without the French. Eager to avenge its defeat in the Seven Years War, France formally joined the war in 1778, after news of the American victory at Saratoga persuaded Louis XVI and his advisers that the American revolt was worth backing. French support meant two things, each critical in shaping the war's outcome: more supplies for American armies, and the diversion of enemy resources as the French threatened the British West Indies and turned the contest into a global conflict.
Washington was finally able to achieve victory, thanks in large part to the French navy. Defeating a British fleet on its way to relieve Lord Cornwallis in a battle off the Chesapeake capes on September 5, 1781, French ships under Admiral de Grasse prepared the way for the successful siege at Yorktown, the last military en gagement of the Revolutionary War over which Washington presided. There, on October 19, in a moment long remembered in American legend, the British trooped out to surrender as the band allegedly played "The World Turned Upside Down."
Washington retired from the army in 1783, but he could not retire from public life. By the end of his service as commander in chief, no American was better known or more widely revered. For the rest of his life, Washington was lionized wherever he went. In 1787, his trips to and from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia took on the character of public occasions. The same was true, on an even larger scale, in the spring of 1789 when he traveled north from Mount Vernon to the capital in New York City to be sworn in as president; on this journey, Washington participated in elaborate "entries," formal receptions as he arrived in towns and cities which are best understood as republicanized versions of the ceremonial practices of European royalty.
For those who wanted souvenirs of Washington, there were many options. The hero's image (often in military uniform) appeared on paper in various media, and on textiles and ceramics as well. Washington repeatedly sat for the leading American painters, among them Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart. His portraits had wide circulation as prints and engravings. Washington was also one of the first Americans to be sculpted. For his American contemporaries, the living Washington was like no one else.
Despite his great popular stature in the nation, Washington shifted his focus for a time after the Revolution to more local and personal concerns. He took an interest in regional economic development and joined in proje cts to improve the Potomac region and Virginia more generally. He also attended to his own affairs. Mount Vernon - like his other property - had suffered from his long absence, and the Revolution had had a serious impact on his fortune. Convinced that no sacrifice for the glorious cause was too great, Washington resented the way those sacrifices fell more heavily on some (himself, for example), for during the war he had incurred major losses when his debtors used the tender law to pay him off in worthless paper money.
The Washington who returned to Mount Vernon in 1784 was no longer simply a local notable and the master of a Virginia plantation. His home was fast becoming an obligatory stop for traveling Americans and foreigners seeking a glimpse of the hero in repose. He was already, as he himself understood as well as anyone, a historical figure, and he engaged a secretary to copy and organize his wartime papers. But in the background, never far from the center of his concern, was the state of the nation.
The union of the new American states, weakly joined by the Articles of Confederation (ratified in 1781), seemed on the verge of collapsing before the experiment had received a fair trial. The states did not comply with Congress's directives; the British still retained several key posts on the western frontier - an especially sensitive point for Washington, with his dreams of westward expansion. In the 1780s, a decade of economic difficulties, the state legislatures created paper money and otherwise interfered in what Washington understood to be the proper relation between creditor and debtor. The instability of these years seemed to him to jeopardize the country's continued existence. "Anar chy" became Washington's standard description of what menaced the nation in the 1780s.
In 1786 and 1787, with the outbreak of Shays's Rebellion, an uprising by disgruntled Massachusetts farmers against their state government, these sentiments crystallized and moved Washington, and others, to action. As news of the Shaysites reached him, Washington's alarm grew. The uprising had to be suppressed, of course, but the very fact that it had broken out was reason enough to demand new measures. And so, after the failure of earlier attempts to reform the Confederation, Washington endorsed the call for a convention to meet in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to propose amendments to the Articles, amendments that would strengthen the Confederation and provide Congress with essential powers it lacked, above all the power to tax.
Washington would have preferred not to attend the convention, but it was clear to him and others that his presence would confer a legitimacy far greater than any resolution of Congress. Chosen president of the convention on May 25, 1787, he presided for the rest of the summer, taking no part in the floor debates. Once the delegates decided to craft a new document, rather than simply repair the old one, and once they moved to create a strong one-man executive, it was inevitable that Washington would be the first president. No other national figure enjoyed so much prestige, at home or abroad. Powers could safely be entrusted to a single leader, the delegates thought, because it was obvious that the president would be Washington. On the much debated question of whether the president should be eligible for reelection, Washington was again a key factor. No one feared Washington's be coming a de facto monarch, for his conduct during the Revolution had shown that he had no dangerous ambitions. And his lack of offspring and thus of a direct heir provided additional assurances: Washington could be the father of his country in part because he was, literally, the father of no one.
Hammered out over the summer, the Constitution was ready for signature early in September. Washington happily signed it. It was not perfect, he argued, but it was the best that could be had under the circumstances. Washington's endorsement of the document was critical to its success; its proponents took full advantage of his prestige to insist that the nation had nothing to fear from something the immortal Washington accepted.
Among the Founders, Washington often appears the least intellectually interesting. He served the new nation less as a fount of ideas than as the living exemplar of its political and moral values. To his contemporaries, he seemed a reincarnation of the ancient Roman hero Cincinnatus. By the end of the Revolution, most of the American people regarded him as indispensable to their political existence, and he knew it, although he was never entirely comfortable with the implications.
Washington remained at Mount Vernon during the ratification process, receiving reports from his correspondents as the Constitution made its way through the state conventions. Each new ratification was reason for rejoicing, each setback cause for dismay. By the end of June 1788, ten states had ratified, including Virginia, ensuring that the new charter would go into effect.
The elections of 1788 and 1789 produced few surprises. Washington's selection as president was a foregone conclusion; interest in the doings of the electoral college centered on the choice of vice president. More important as evidence of the nation's mood were the elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate, the latter in the hands of the state legislatures. Washington was relieved when the House elections, including those in Virginia, returned a majority of friends to the new Constitution, although his own state's choice of senators (both of them Anti-Federalists) was disappointing.
Well before he was formally notified on April 14, 1789, of his election as president, Washington began to consider an inaugural address, perhaps the first innovation in national politics under the Constitution. For while Article II stipulated that the president furnish an annual message on the state of the union, it made no mention of an inaugural address. Yet Washington understood the importance of setting the tone for the renewed experiment in republican government by giving the people an expression of the principles underlying it. Patriotically garbed in a suit of American cloth, Washington read his address - largely the work of James Madison - from the balcony of New York's City Hall (Congress's temporary home) on April 30.
The weather was good, the crowd was large, and by all accounts the first Inauguration went off without incident. Although Washington had confessed before leaving Mount Vernon that his feelings were those of a "culprit . . . going to his place of execution," once in New York he rose to his task. "The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of th e American people," he told his listeners. And he warned Congress against those "local prejudices, or attachments," "separate views," and "party animosities" that would "misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great Assemblage of communities and interests."
Politics, for Washington and many others in 1789, was the province of a virtuous and disinterested elite of white men whose talents and stations in life uniquely qualified them to rule. As he explained it in 1796, "the People" (by which he meant white males qualified to vote) had "the power and right . . . to establish Government," but this "presuppos[ed] the duty of every Individual to obey the established Government." Liberty did not imply license; the United States was to be an ordered republic, not an unruly democracy. The national good, discerned by the people's representatives, rather than the people themselves, was unitary. "Faction" and party were anathema in this mental universe.
Still, in 1789 no such set of assumptions, no matter how firmly held, could determine what it meant to be president. Washington was conscious that a major part of his duty as chief executive was to define and invent that role. From the outset, he realized that everything he did as president would be scrutinized by the public, and on matters large and small he sought the advice of those he trusted. Establishing the ceremonial side of the presidency - the Constitution said nothing about this - proved difficult, and not all of Washington's initial decisions met with approval. First there was the controversy over titles. How was the president to be addressed? The Senate proposed the unfortunate title of "His Highness the Presid ent of the United States of America, and the Protector of their Liberties." Wiser heads prevailed, but the damage had been done.
Controversy continued when Washington attempted to establish formal rules of etiquette for the presidential dinners and receptions. At a distance, not least from the perspective of some of his neighbors in Virginia, it looked as though the president was intent on adopting the trappings of royalty, or at least a ceremonial role not in keeping with their notions of republican simplicity. Washington never quite lived down this stir; in later years, with the growth of an opposition press, such features of social life in the capital as the annual celebration of the president's birthday (continued by the Federalists even after Washington retired from office in 1797) were constantly cited as proof of his monarchical inclinations and, even more, of those of some of his supporters.
On other fronts as well, Washington was beginning to investigate the limitations of the Constitution and discover what would and what would not work in his new role. In the summer of 1789, he met with the Senate to seek its constitutionally required advice and consent on negotiations then under way with a delegation from the Creek Nation. The effect of Washington's presence on the upper house was to stop discussion rather than stimulate it, and Washington was not at all pleased when one of the senators moved to refer the president's documents to a committee. "This defeats every purpose of my coming here," he is recorded as having said. Henceforth, the executive would conduct diplomatic negotiations on its own; advice and consent effectively became consent only.
Likewise, the presidential veto wa s part of the original constitutional scheme; and here too there was the problem of knowing what it was to mean in practice. Washington followed a conservative course, and the model of restraint he established would determine the behavior of his successors down to the time of Andrew Jackson. Early on, he concluded that he would not veto bills simply because he disapproved of them; only if his duty to uphold the Constitution required it would he use the veto. He exercised his right only once, vetoing the congressional reapportionment bill of 1792.
Washington's decision to use the senior executive officers as a cabinet may seem natural, even inevitable, in retrospect, and indeed it was common in those days at the state level for the governor to be advised by a council. Yet the Constitutional Convention had rejected proposals to create such a body. Washington's practice, clearly influenced by his reliance on councils of war on the battlefield, was a significant addition to the constitutional structure. The small size of the cabinet in his day meant that it could function as a genuinely deliberative body; similarly, the fact that it was composed mostly of men of national stature with whom Washington had long-standing relationships meant that the president could place a good deal of confidence in the advice he received. And while the intense rivalry between Hamilton and Jefferson, each of them bidding feverishly for the president's support, at times made the cabinet less harmonious than Washington wished, on the whole it was a productive body.
Selection of the secretaries, in fact, was high on Washington's list of priorities in 1789. Once Congress authorized the creation of executive departments (T reasury, State, and War; there was also an attorney general, although the post was not at first annexed to a specific department), Washington could proceed with his choices. He seems to have had few doubts about the cabinet-level officers: Alexander Hamilton for Treasury, Thomas Jefferson for State, and Henry Knox (a holdover from the Confederation) for War. Edmund Randolph, once an opponent of the Constitution but now reconciled to it, was to be attorney general. Candidates for the Supreme Court, led by John Jay, secretary for foreign affairs under the Confederation, were identified, nominated, and confirmed, as was a host of minor officeholders. Washington's appointment policy in the opening stages of his first term was straightforward: he wished to secure the services of those he called the "best characters," above all men who had proved themselves by their services during the Revolution and by their support of the new Constitution.
Lack of money had hobbled government under the Articles; the Constitution, with its grant of taxing power to Congress, was intended to remedy that. In 1789, the substantial debt from the Revolution, not to mention additional loans from Dutch bankers during the Confederation, posed a major problem. Reaching agreement on what to do about the revolutionary debt thus became the first substantive test of the new system's viability. Hamilton presented a controversial plan to Congress in January 1790 that rewarded speculators who had bought up the debt at deep discounts and seemed to treat some states more favorably than others. Washington firmly supported it, despite the outrage it caused in Virginia, because he believed it offered the best promise of restoring public cr edit. In the complex negotiations for the compromise known as the "Dinner Table Bargain," which led to the acceptance of a modified version of Hamilton's original plan, Washington's role, though shadowy, was surely significant. The horse-trading that produced the result involved an issue as near and dear to his heart as establishing public credit: the placement of the future permanent national capital on the banks of the Potomac.
Throughout his terms and afterward, Washington devoted considerable attention to the creation of the new Federal City. He selected its site, and in his Masonic regalia he presided over the laying of the Capitol's cornerstone. Despite his efforts, the project was plagued with difficulties. Neither Virginia nor Maryland (both of which had contributed the territory that made up the original ten-mile square of the District of Columbia) was willing to subsidize development, and federal appropriations were so modest that some feared the government would not relocate in 1800 as planned from the temporary capital in Philadelphia, then the country's largest city.
Just how important it had been to put finances on a sound footing became clear as Washington confronted problems on the frontier that lasted well into his second term. In 1783, the peace treaty with Britain had brought the Americans the northwest, the area beyond the Appalachians and north of the Ohio, but until the United States subdued the region's Native Americans there would be little chance of fully opening the Ohio country to white settlement. During the later 1780s, the Confederation's inability to support a military force on the frontier had been painfully apparent, and even after the revival of national autho rity under the Constitution, the situation continued to deteriorate. Matters did not improve until Anthony Wayne's victory on August 20, 1794, at the battle of Fallen Timbers (near the site of present-day Toledo, Ohio) broke the logjam in the northwest and led to the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, which quieted that frontier for the next decade and more. None of this could have happened without the tax dollars Alexander Hamilton was collecting at the Treasury.
The events of 1791 and 1792 made it clear how many illusions the Founders had entertained about the conduct of politics under the new regime. No one had imagined that political parties - universally condemned as "factions" - would have a role to play in the new republic, but that is precisely what now happened, much to Washington's chagrin. Arising from sectional interests, differences over foreign policy, and alternative visions for the new nation, groupings began to form, at first in Congress, then at the state and local levels. If not quite a replay of the contest between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists of 1787 and 1788 (Madison, for one, found himself switching sides), there was nevertheless considerable continuity in the basic positions. Supporters of Hamilton, taking the name of Federalists, argued for an energetic policy that would reduce the role of the states and use the resources of government for national economic development; their opponents, who called themselves Republicans, were suspicious of power, favored the states over the national government, and in general worried that the Federalists were far too enamored of the British model of government, even of the monarchical system.
Ideology and interest both played roles in shaping the first party system in the early 1790s, and the result was a bitter politics that left Washington at a loss. Never a party leader in the modern sense, he knew himself to be a good republican and a staunch patriot, and it was difficult for him to come to terms with the idea that he, too, was a partisan figure. In fact he never did, and his 1794 denunciation of the "self-created societies" that dared to organize opposition to the constituted and constitutional authorities came directly from the heart.
By the summer of 1792, the divisions in his cabinet were common knowledge. Insinuating articles appeared in the press, as Hamilton and Jefferson (or his surrogates) each denounced the other. Washington was appalled; convinced that the split did no good either to the country or to those personally involved, he entreated his warring secretaries to make peace. Carefully considering and replying to both Jefferson's charges against Hamilton (the secretary of state claimed, among other things, that Hamilton was intent on introducing the British system of political management by "corruption") and the latter's point-by-point rebuttal, Washington hoped that he had patched up matters by the fall of 1792. At best, however, it was a truce with no prospect of lasting; things had gone too far, and the divisions were too deep, for there to be any chance of a permanent resolution. Partisanship was now a fact, and both sides - the Federalists, as Hamilton's supporters were known, and the Republicans, as the Jeffersonians called themselves - knew that Washington alone supplied the façade of national unity. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, Washington consented to stand for office again. As in the fir st election, he had no rivals in 1792, winning all of the 132 votes cast in the electoral college.
The second term was full of incident, but like so many second terms in the future, it also seemed to mark a falling off from the accomplishments of the first. The fatigue of office took its toll on Washington. The original cabinet departed for private life, leaving the aging president to soldier on without them. None of the replacements who eventually served Washington in the second term had the stature of their first-term predecessors.
Foreign relations dominated the second term. Britain's entry into the war against revolutionary France early in 1793 presented the United States with an endless series of international problems. Washington had watched the progress of the Revolution in France from the outset, often suspending judgment. The cabinet divided bitterly: Jefferson hailed the progress of liberty in France; Hamilton made no attempt to hide his hatred of the Revolution.
In the spring of 1793, with France and Britain now at war, the president and his cabinet were forced to consider what course to take. The United States was France's ally, for the treaty of alliance of 1778 was still in effect, and under its terms the United States was bound to come to France's aid if summoned. Too active a policy in favor of France, however, threatened to bring on war with Britain, and that was exactly what the president and cabinet did not want. The Neutrality Proclamation of April 22, 1793, the result of contentious cabinet negotiations, satisfied Washington but raised a storm of controversy.
The arrival that spring of the new minister from republican France, Edmond Charles Genêt, did nothing to redu ce tensions. "Citizen Genêt," an ardent advocate of spreading revolution, at first found himself cheered by the crowds that turned out to celebrate the progress of the French Revolution. Expecting an equally warm welcome from Washington, Genêt found instead a president who appeared to keep up the rituals of the ancien régime, a dubious republican hostile to revolutionary France and anything but a friend of the people. Genêt attacked the Neutrality Proclamation as treason to the cause of liberty, and over the weeks that followed he proceeded to commit blunder after blunder, alienating the president and exhausting even Jefferson's reservoir of friendship. Matters came to a head when Genêt had boasted that he would appeal to the people to reverse the executive's decisions. The president exploded and demanded Genêt's recall.
The difficulty over, at least for the moment, Washington faced the year 1794 with the hope that matters might take a smoother course. But he was to be disappointed. The French had been the source of trouble in 1793; now it was the turn of the British, whose seizures of American ships in the West Indies brought cries of protest and unleashed two years of continuous crisis that would last through the spring of 1796. Sensing their opportunity, the Republicans attacked what they saw as the pro-British course of foreign policy. (Behind it, they discerned what they considered the malign influence of Alexander Hamilton.)
Pressure in Congress mounted during the early months of 1794. The House adopted a motion for an embargo. War with Britain seemed imminent. Leading Federalists urged the president to send a mission to London. They hoped to buy time, allow passions to cool, and perhaps in the interim the British would adopt more sensible courses. On April 16, 1794, Washington nominated Chief Justice Jay as his special envoy, and Jay sailed for London, where he concluded an agreement with the British in November. For months, Washington and his cabinet and Congress waited for news, but they heard nothing of substance until a completed treaty arrived nearly a year later.
In the meantime, long-simmering unrest in western Pennsylvania over the tax on distilled spirits came to a boil, and Washington received reports of armed resistance to the excise law. It was Shays's Rebellion all over again, the president and his advisers believed. Predictably, Hamilton urged strong measures, and Washington concurred. The president issued proclamations against the insurgents in August and September, and the militia in the middle states was called out to put down what was termed the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington took command of the twelve-thousand-man force himself, accompanying it in October on the first stages of the journey west. The show of strength - combined with negotiations and some needed reforms - defused the situation. Washington's considered view of the matter was presented in his annual message to Congress that fall; its denunciation of those who fomented resistance to the laws was widely - and correctly - understood as a condemnation of the Republicans.
When it finally arrived, in March 1795, Jay's treaty with the British turned out to be explosive. At first glance, the chief justice appeared to have surrendered everything an American envoy ought to have insisted on. But Washington and his advisers realized that Jay had gained as much as could be expected, given the disparities of power between the United States and Great Britain. Accordingly, the treaty was submitted to the Senate, which approved it in special session in June 1795 by a vote of 20 to 10, and then only after stipulating that an article limiting the size of ships in the West India trade be dropped. Senator Stevens T. Mason, a Virginia Republican, leaked the text, which was supposed to remain confidential until the exchange of ratifications. Published on July 1, 1795, by a Republican newspaper, the treaty's contents created a sensation. Jay rather than Washington was the immediate target of public anger, but the treaty's effects on the president and on politics were far from over.
Several of the treaty's provisions required appropriations, and under the Constitution the House of Representatives had to initiate all money bills. The Republicans therefore insisted that the Senate's advice and consent was not enough in this case. The House, they held, had a constitutional right to judge the treaty - and reject it, if need be. After all, they said, if the president and the Senate could jointly approve treaties that required appropriations, then the constitutional design of lodging the power of the purse in the popular branch would be fatally wounded. This case again showed the Framers' failure to anticipate; for Washington, it would be the supreme constitutional crisis of his two terms in office.
Confident that their superior numbers in the House assured victory, the Republicans launched an assault on the treaty once Congress reassembled in December 1795. On March 25, 1796, the House called on the president to submit the papers relating to Jay's negotiation. Washington refused, noting the need for secrecy in d iplomatic matters and pointedly mentioning the Senate's role in treaty-making. In April, after a prolonged struggle in which the Republicans' strength melted away, the House finally approved the appropriations to support the treaty.
Washington had had enough. Exhausted after years of public service, disgusted by the rise of partisanship, and longing to return permanently to Mount Vernon, he announced in the fall of 1796 that he would not run for a third term. A farewell address drafted in 1792 by Madison was dusted off, and Washington, now estranged from his fellow Virginian, chose Hamilton to help with revisions. Delivered on September 17, 1796, the farewell address was a lecture on the dangers of party and factionalism.
Later generations have seen it as a warning against entangling alliances and European involvements. Washington did insist that connections with foreign powers were dangerous, but most of all because "a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils," including domestic divisions. Domestic divisions - the growth of faction and party - were what Washington, never more a traditionalist than in this message, feared, especially when those divisions threatened to organize themselves "on Geographical discriminations." The outgoing president gave "the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party" the full treatment: "in [governments] of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy," he thundered.
The address, then, emphasized core republican themes as Washington understood them, themes he hoped would provide a basis for unity. If Federalists found those arguments self-evident, the Republicans in 1796 believed that the p eople were wholeheartedly behind them and that only the dark forces of "corruption" kept the popular will from prevailing. The address did nothing to diminish partisanship, and the election results that fall showed that the voters had failed to heed Washington's warnings.
Washington was still the nation's hero when he left office in March 1797, but there were signs that his reputation was beginning to fray. If many of his contemporaries had virtually deified first the general and then the president, that view had never been uncontested. On the contrary, almost from the outset of his Continental career in 1775, there were always some unfavorable opinions. Apart from the Loyalists, there had been military critics during the war; civilians like John Adams and Benjamin Rush, who thought they knew who had really done the work of the Revolution, privately deplored the praise heaped on Washington. After 1789 critics began to complain, first of the president's apparently monarchical pomp and circumstance and later of his politics, especially when those politics seemed to favor Britain rather than France. Yet the critics never prevailed. Even after Washington had become identified with the interests of the Federalist party, it was still difficult to attack him directly and escape unscathed.
Washington's retirement was brief. In July 1798, as the undeclared naval war with France began to heat up, he reluctantly accepted President Adams's plea that he command the forces being raised to defend the country against the possibility of invasion. Of Washington's many public services, this one was the least happy. Controversies over the appointment of officers were bitter; Secretary of War James McHenry's incom petence led to complications. Apart from a trip to Philadelphia in November 1798 to consult with Adams and others, Washington remained at Mount Vernon, commanding from his study.
Washington knew he was aging. And he was not satisfied with the way things were going at Mount Vernon. Repeated absences over the previous two decades had not helped, and he gradually came to conclude that, whatever its other evils, slavery no longer worked as a labor system. He had too many slaves; his profits would be greater, he thought, with only half the slaves now at Mount Vernon. Like a number of other Virginians in the 1790s, he expressed himself in favor of gradual emancipation, though only in private and with trusted correspondents.
Washington understood that it was time to put his affairs in order and in July 1799 rewrote his will, a long and meticulous document that provided for his wife and relatives and disposed of his real estate and other property. He offered one of his slaves, William Lee, who had accompanied him throughout the Revolution, the option of immediate freedom; the other 124 slaves at Mount Vernon who were his to dispose of were to be freed after Martha Washington's death. But the remaining human chattels at Mount Vernon, the 153 "dower" slaves, were the property of the Custis estate, and neither Washington nor his wife could legally emancipate them.
Washington spent December 12, 1799, inspecting his plantation in miserable weather and caught a serious cold. His condition degenerated rapidly, and he soon realized that he was dying. The doctors bled him profusely, and on the night of December 14, he expired at age sixty-seven. He was interred in the family tomb at Mount Vernon on December 18. News of Washington's death spread rapidly, and public mourning was intense.
Virginia Federalist Representative Henry Lee, whose district included Mount Vernon, established the pattern of subsequent commentary in his oration for Congress on December 26. Washington, "Light Horse Harry" declared, was "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Washington still stands near the head of the list when historians and political scientists rank the presidents; first in chronological order, he remains near the top in order of importance as well. Washington may not have been everything his mythologists claim, but no one else could have performed so well in the unique role that was his.
For Further Reading and Research
Donald Jackson et al., eds., The Papers of George Washington (Charlottesville, Va., 1976-) is the new standard edition. A one-volume selection is George Washington, Writings, John H. Rhodehamel, ed. (New York, 1997). For the life, see Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington, A Life, 7 vols. (New York, 1948-57); James T. Flexner, George Washington, 4 vols. (Boston, 1965-72); and John E. Ferling, First of Men: A Life of George Washington (Knoxville, Tenn., 1988). For the public image, see Garry Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (Garden City, N.Y., 1984), and Barry Schwartz, George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol (New York, 1987). On some of the many "Washington and" topics, see Don Higginbotham, George Washington and the American Military Tradition (Athens, Ga., 1985); Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal (Columbia, Mo., 1997); and Glenn A. P helps, George Washington and American Constitutionalism (Lawrence, Kan., 1993). Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 (New York, 1993), puts the postrevolutionary career in context.
America during the presidency of George Washington
Area of the United States in 1790
864,746 square miles
Population in 1790
757,000 blacks (697,700 slaves)
4.5 persons per square mile
Electoral information, 1789
George Washington 69 electoral votes
John Adams 34
John Jay 9
Electoral information, 1792
George Washington 132
John Adams 77
George Clinton 50
(Note: Because electors voted twice, both of these tallies indicate unanimous approval for Washington.)
Summary of federal finances, 1792
(in thousands of dollars)
Surplus or Deficit 21,410
Total Public Debt 80,359
Continued federal outlays, 1792
(in thousands of dollars)
War Dept. 1,101
Navy Dept. [less than $500]
Debt Interest 3,202
The first family
Much of Washington's fame depended on inaction rather than action. During the Revolutionary War, his retreats were often more successful than his attacks. After the war, he won the nation's trust by withdrawing to his plantation. He declined a third term as president, and his farewell address preached the wisdom of reluctance. There is something fitting, perhaps, in the fact that the Father of Our Country had no children of his own.
His marriage was otherwise a fortunate one. Martha Dandridge Custis was already a rich widow when Washington wed her in 1759. Her wealth enlarged his estate at Mount Vernon, and her quiet competence supported him and the household amid the extraordinary stresses of war and office.
Martha joined General Washington in his winter encampments, and later adeptly handled her responsibilities as First Lady. In the absence of a traditional residence, she and her husband rented homes in the two capitals, New York City and Philadelphia. At first, the cautious president limited the couple's social life to official functions, leading his wife to remark, "I am more like a state prisoner." In time, she was able to loosen these strictures, and the couple began to accept private invitations.
They retired to Mount Vernon in 1797 but could not escape the crush of visitors. Indeed, they rarely dined alone once the general became a national politician. His death in 1799 was a severe blow to Martha. She closed their bedroom and for the rest of her life slept in a small garret. Nevertheless, she continued to see her many callers until she died in 1802.
Martha Custis brought two children into her marriage with George Washington. Martha ("Patsy") died in 1773 following an epileptic fit. John ("Jacky") succumbed to camp fever after joining his stepfather at Yorktown. The Washingtons raised Jacky's two youngest children without formally adopting them. Critically, the nation's first president was therefore able to preside without any taint of dynastic ambition.
Washington's leadership style
We picture him in uniform, and indeed, George Washington's political instincts were distinctly military in origin. Unlike every president who followed, he never had to play the role of national candidate. Instead, W ashington forged his style of leadership on the battlefield.
He made an early, conscious decision to elevate his social standing through military achievement. At first, the plan worked admirably: in 1755, by the age of twenty-three, he had risen to the rank of colonel in the Virginia militia and was acting as commander in chief of the colony's troops in the frontier war against France. But he was denied recognition in the form of a commission in the regular British army. The rejection stung deeply and caused Washington to reassess his career choice. Still, when he attended the Second Continental Congress in 1775, he came in uniform and readily assumed command of the army.
Washington recognized that defeating the British would require fashioning ragtag American troops into a regular army. Holding that "an Army without Order, Regularity and Discipline, is no better than a Commission'd Mob," he implemented strict regulations and stiff punishments. He drilled and paraded his troops in textbook European style. And he lobbied hard against relying on militia units.
Given the advantages of the British army, this strategy was ambitious and risky. In fact, Washington struggled mightily to keep his army in the field, executing a campaign that amounted for the most part to a string of tactical retreats and counterattacks, while scrapping constantly for enough supplies, provisions, and money to keep going. But he believed that if he maintained an army in the field long enough, the enemy would eventually wear down. More fundamentally, he was convinced that only a regular war, waged by a regular army, could achieve and sustain American independence. He would preside over the new nation with the same convi ctions about organization, discipline, and the value of enduring institutions.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. END