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Taking office in New York City, Washington acted carefully and deliberately, aware of the need to build an executive structure that could accommodate future presidents. Hoping to prevent sectionalism from dividing the new nation, he toured the New England states and the South. An able administrator, he nevertheless failed to heal the widening breach between factions led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Because he supported many of Hamilton’s controversial fiscal policies–the assumption of state debts, the Bank of the United States, and the excise tax–Washington became the target of attacks by Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.
Washington was reelected president in 1792, and the following year the most divisive crisis arising out of the personal and political conflicts within his cabinet occurred–over the issue of American neutrality during the war between England and France. Washington, whose policy of neutrality angered the pro-French Jeffersonians, was horrified by the excesses of the French Revolution and enraged by the tactics of Edmond Genet, the French minister in the United States, which amounted to foreign interference in American politics. Further, with an eye toward developing closer commercial ties with the British, the president agreed with the Hamiltonians on the need for peace with Great Britain. His acceptance of the 1794 Jay sTreaty, which settled outstanding differences between the United States and Britain but which Democratic-Republicans viewed as an abject surrender to British demands, revived vituperation against the president, as did his vigorous upholding of the excise law during the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.
There had never before been a government like the one Washington was called upon to organize in 1789. The states had once been wards of England, and they wanted no more of it. They had been in fact 13 independent republics, and they wanted no more of that either. No one knew how the new Constitution would work or how it would limit the freedom of the states. Washington was determined to build a real federal government for the United States.
The new government was launched April 30, 1789, when Washington took his oath as president in New York City, the first national capital. In 1792 the nation reelected him to a second term.
In appointing men to office Washington acted fairly and without favoritism. John Jay became chief justice of the Supreme Court and was also sent on many special missions. Edmund Randolph was appointed attorney general. Thomas Jefferson, who became the third president of the United States, was secretary of state. General Henry Knox became secretary of war, and Alexander Hamilton, a rising young statesman, took over the Department of the Treasury.
Washington organized his Cabinet into an executive council, in much the same form as it is today. With the Cabinet and with Congress he moved slowly at first, feeling his way. Relationships were new and not especially happy. Each group, executive or legislative, was testing its own power.
One of the first problems he took up was national defense. “To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace,” he said1. Another problem was national finance. The government under the Articles of Confederation was unable to govern largely because it lacked the power to tax. The Constitution gave this power to Congress. A customs duty, or tariff, was laid upon imports and a direct tax was put on certain kinds of property. Money was soon paid into the treasury, and bills were settled. Congress even agreed to assume debts incurred by the individual states during the Revolution.
On tour Washington saw the results of careless farming and recommended a board “for the study and promotion of agriculture2.” In 1790 the site of the future federal capital, later to be named Washington, D.C., was fixed at the falls of the Potomac. Philadelphia was to be the temporary capital until 1800.
By March 1797, when Washington left office, the country’s financial system was well established; the Indian threat east of the Mississippi had been largely eliminated; and Jay’s Treaty and Pinckney’s Treaty with Spain had enlarged U.S. territory and removed serious diplomatic difficulties. In spite of the animosities and conflicting opinions between Democratic-Republicans and members of the Hamiltonian Federalist party, the two groups were at least united in acceptance of the new federal government3. Washington refused to run for a third term and, after a masterly Farewell Address in which he warned the United States against permanent alliances abroad, he went home to Mount Vernon. He was succeeded by his vice-president, Federalist John Adams.
Although Washington reluctantly accepted command of the army in 1798 when war with France seemed imminent, he did not assume an active role. He preferred to spend his last years in happy retirement at Mount Vernon. In mid December, Washington contracted what was probably quinsy or acute laryngitis; he declined rapidly and died at his estate on Dec. 14, 17994.
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