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George Washington's Presidency

Updated on September 9, 2011

George Washington agonized over the ratification of the new constitution during the months after it was sent to the states. He also worried over the prospect that he would be asked to serve as president of the new nation. He argued that he was ready to retire, still he worried that the country would not have the proper leadership to deal with the many problems it would face. Waiting for the ratification he came to the realization that he would serve as president if asked. He could trust no one else with the responsibility of guiding the new nation forward.[1] As general and commander of the colonial forces George Washington had led the new nation to freedom from the British, with his election to the Presidency he now was faced with the task of molding these individual states into one cohesive nation.

Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts came to an end in 1786, but left a bitter taste and fear in the mouths and hearts of Washington and the other Founders who had worked so hard to establish a free country. Daniel Shays’ anarchy in Massachusetts showed that if America’s republicanism did not take preventive measures soon, it might be lost.[2] The movement to throw out the Articles of Confederation and start anew gathered momentum with the realization that America under the Articles was “a dog without much bite.”[3] It has been said that Shays’ Rebellion helped make a constitution.

George Washington headed the list of delegates from Virginia who assembled in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise or amend the Articles of Confederation. Most of the convention’s organizers realized that the government was broke – literally and figuratively- and the only way to fix it was to invent an entirely new one. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had been researching constitutions and republican history in preparation of the convention. Washington was elected President of the convention but had little to say during the long four months that the delegates debated over the proceedings wishing as the presiding officer not to influence the debates. His looks of disgust and pleasure were noted during the debates by those present. The presence of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin was required to give the meeting its legitimacy in the public eye.[4]

Eight years after Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts western Pennsylvania saw the unrest of the backwoods men that came to be called the Whiskey Rebellion. They would fight rather than yield meekly to tax gatherers who sought to execute the excise duties placed on whiskey by the revenue acts of 1791 and 1792. The revenue acts had been the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury and were noble in purpose, for the proceeds were to be used to liquidate the foreign debts of the United States. The rebels balked at this and in August of 1794 David Bradford with several thousand men occupied Pittsburg. He and his followers arranged for a congress that debated whether or not to declare independence for western Pennsylvania. Washington lost patience with the rebels and was urged by Hamilton to use force to quell the uprising. Washington needed no urging because he thought that the rebels were Republicans listening to the French revolutionary madness. The president sent commissioners to talk to the rebels and offered amnesty in return for a pledge to obey the law. The state of Pennsylvania made a similar offer. Solid influential citizens urged the rebels to comply. In the end when they realized that Washington was sending (in fact leading) a large militia against them they went home with only a minor skirmish.[5]

George Washington from the time he was elected to the office of president had to fend off office seekers. In September he began making the appointments to the executive departments. Congress in July of 1789 had created the Department of State, Washington at first offered the job of Secretary of State to John Jay as he had been the head of foreign affairs under the Articles of Confederation. Jay turned the offer down as he wanted the job of Chief of Justice on the Supreme Court. Next Washington offered the job to Thomas Jefferson, few men of the new nation had as much diplomatic experience and Washington knew him well and felt he could work with him. Jefferson at the time was on the ocean making his way home from France.[6]

As Secretary of War, Washington reappointed Henry Knox who had held the same office under the Articles of the Confederation. The office of Secretary of the Treasury he was a mind to offer to either Robert Morris or Gouverneur Morris; Robert was a member of the Senate and could not serve and Gouverneur was abroad. The next and obvious choice was their disciple, Alexander Hamilton. His appointment was not only highly recommended by the merchants and business community but urged by Madison. No one foresaw his feud with Jefferson which would lead to the first political parties.[7]

Samuel Osgood of Massachusetts was named to Postmaster General and the Attorney General appointment went to the young Edmund Randolph, who had briefly been a military aide to Washington.[8]Chief Justice of the Supreme Court went to John Jay and Washington nominated five more to be considered for the remaining seats on the High Court. He was close to three of the five: James Wilson, an old supporter from Pennsylvania; fellow Virginian, John Blair; and his former wartime aide Robert Harrison. [9]

Most of the weighty selections were consented to by the Senate with little fanfare, but the president was aghast to find that his appointee to be naval officer of the port of Savannah was rejected; Georgia’s two Senators objected, and their colleagues in Federal Hall fell into step with them to thwart Washington. Their actions established the precedent known as “senatorial courtesy”, a practice that in reality entrusted minor locale appointments to each state’s two senators.[10] In October of that year after Congress voted to adjourn until after Christmas, Washington began his first presidential trip, a tour of New England. He traveled as far as Kittery, Maine and returned to New York twenty-eight days after he set out.[11]

Washington did well as the chief administrator; he was diligent in his search for candidates for the various offices appointing only talented and worthy men, because of this the United States acquired respect at home and abroad. Congress found a source of substantial revenue in the import duties. These proceeds went far toward nourishing the federal machinery and establishing the credit of the nation.[12]

There were problems other than political during the years of Washington’s administrations. Especially in the west where the Indians, Spain and Britain all had sought to drive the ever encroaching Americans back toward the Atlantic. Frontier folk had flooded into the Old Southwest during and after the War for Independence, especially Kentucky and Tennessee. After the war they pushed westward through Georgia right into the lands claimed by the Creek Confederacy. A warlike and numerous people, they inhabited what is now north Georgia and northern Alabama. They thought their independence threatened and became increasingly more uneasy. Washington avoided war with the Creeks by offering hospitality to their chief, King Alexander McGillivray, in New York in 1790. The president’s agents soothed the successors of McGillivray and the Creek warriors with smooth talk and gifts. The Creeks remained quiet and Washington even managed to secure a cession of land in Georgia. They also became occupied with a war against their neighbors to the west, the Chickasaws and this served to moderate their behavior in the east.[13]

Britain contending that America had failed to execute all the provisions of the Treaty of Paris continued to hold a series of post on American soil adjacent to the boundary with Canada. The forts also severed as bases for disseminating propaganda against the United States among the Indians of the Northwest Territory and for supplying them with muskets, ammunition and tomahawks, in theory for hunting rather than warfare against American frontiersmen.[14] The situation in the Old Northwest irritated Washington, he did not think of Indians as a people who possessed inalienable rights to the lands they occupied. He could not and would not stop advance of pioneers into the Old Northwest. He saw it as important for the republic to push forward and this meant westward. August 1794, General Anthony Wayne defeated an Indian force numbering over one thousand at the Battle of Fallen Timbers just below the western tip of Lake Erie.[15] Less than a year later the survivors signed the Treaty of Greenville which formerly surrendered much of Ohio and Indiana to the United States and opening it up for westward expansion.[16]

Spain claimed territory north of the southern boundary line of the United States maintaining a post in territory at Natchez on the Mississippi. Spain also incited feelings among the Creeks and other southern Indian tribes against the new republic and used its possession of both shores of the lower Mississippi to bar American use of the river, needed by the frontiersmen as an avenue for sending their produce to market.[17]On October 27, 1795, the United States signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo giving them the rights to ship goods through the port of New Orleans without paying duties to the Spanish government.[18]

The French looked upon the American republic as a client state of France, a nation that owed its existence to the achievements of the French army and navy in the War for Independence. They assumed that America would gladly help them in their struggle against tyranny, not only in Europe but also in Spanish America. Washington and his advisors were divided in sympathy. Hamilton and Knox favored Britain, Jefferson and Randolph France. All agreed with the President that America should remain neutral. The French diplomat Genet was condemned by the President for his attempts to recruit men for an army to invade Canada. Washington demanded that France recall Genet in late summer 1793.[19]

The Jay treaty of 1794 was one of the most important acts of Washington’s administration and one of the most vilifying for Washington and John Jay. The treaty was an attempt to solve the nation’s chief foreign policy problem of the time: how to live in peace with a Britain that the Americans wanted to fight but were in no condition to fight. At Washington’s request Chief Justice Jay sailed for Britain as a special envoy. After some months of bargaining Jay signed a treaty. It settled two problems: Britain agreed to pay for certain goods seized off American ships and promised to withdraw from their Northwest post by June 1796. The treaty also made some improvements in Anglo-American trading conditions. There was a long list of other problems on which the treaty was silent: it did not guarantee against impressments of American seamen, nor end the interference with American shipping. It said nothing about British support of Indians or about payment for slaves removed during the Revolution and it did guarantee payment by American citizens to Englishmen for pre-Revolutionary debts.[20]

When these disagreeable terms were made public, there was a storm of protest. Jay was called a traitor who had betrayed his country for gold. Washington disliked the treaty, but he looked to the future for his country and disregarded the mood of the moment. He realized that to refuse signing was risk of increasing conflict, even war. The Secretary of State advised against acceptance of the treaty. On August 21, 1795 Washington signed the treaty.[21]

The Pinckney mission to Madrid bore fruit in the terms of the Treaty of San Lorenzo. The treaty was approved unanimously five days after it was brought to the Senate. The treaty granted the United States the privilege- not the right-to navigation of the Mississippi river and to deposit at New Orleans, and in the accord Spain recognized the thirty-first parallel as the southern boundary of the United States.[22]

Sometime in the spring of 1796 Washington decided to resign at the conclusion of his second term. The last four years had been a difficult period, especially those months after he signed the Jay Treaty. He had played the part of leader with skill and reluctance. Neither had he turned the young republic into a dictatorship nor let it tear itself apart. He remained a man who disliked politics and in his farewell Address warned against permitting political parties and the dissention they stirred up to weaken the unity so necessary for the nation’s survival. He cautioned also against permanent alliances with other countries and instead recommended “temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”[23]


[1] (Ferling 1988)

[2](Davis 2008)

[3] (Davis 2008)

[4] (Davis 2008)

[5] (Alden 1984)

[6] (Ferling 1988)

[7] (Flexner 1969)

[8] (Ferling 1988)

[9] (Ferling 1988)

[10] (Ferling 1988)

[11] (Alden 1984)

[12] (Alden 1984)

[13] (Alden 1984)

[14] (Alden 1984)

[15] (Main Events of Washington's Administration n.d.)

[16] (Ferling 1988)

[17] (Alden 1984)

[18] (Main Events of Washington's Administration n.d.)

[19] (Alden 1984)

[20] (Coit 1963)

[21] (Alden 1984)

[22] (Ferling 1988)

[23] (Coit 1963)


Alden, John R. George Washington: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisana State University Press, 1984.

Coit, Margaret L. The Life History of the United States. Edited by Henry F. Graff. New york, New York: Time-Life books, 1963.

Davis, Kenneth C. America's hidden History. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.

Ferling, John E. The First of Men: A Life of George Washington. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1988.

Flexner, James Thomas. George Washington and the New Nation: (1783-1793). Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969.

George Washington. 2009. (accessed August 28, 2010).

Main Events of Washington's Administration. (accessed August 29, 2010).


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    • maridax profile image

      maridax 6 years ago from North Central Arkansas,USA

      Thank you. I love history and biographies of famous or near famous people peek my interest. I always try to look for the things they never taught us in school. Much more interesting! LOL!

    • jblais1122@aol profile image

      jblais1122@aol 6 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri, USA

      I found that fascinating. You remember from school Washington of the revolution, but, for most people, not his years as president. My interest has been peeked somewhat lately when I discovered that my family is distantly related to Washington. His Great Aunt was a GGG Mother of mine. Very well presented.