Think Partisanship Is Bad Now? Try Washington's Time
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George Washington assumed the presidency in 1789 and oversaw a political landscape rumbling over territory, trade, taxes and the Constitution. View Enlarged Image
A squabbling Congress, vicious partisanship in the nation's capital, a hostile press questioning the president's integrity, political opponents accusing the administration of destroying democracy.
America in the 21st century?
Try America in the 1790s during George Washington's presidency.
When he took the oath of office on April 30, 1789, in New York, Washington had a daunting task as the first U.S. president.
Recovering from war, the nation had finances that were in shambles, burdened by debt to France and others.
States squabbled among themselves over territory and trade. The Constitution drew scorn from those who saw it as an illegal power grab at the expense of state governments.
The U.S. was a new nation of 4 million bordering the hostile empires of Britain and Spain, and containing some American Indian tribes that had allied with the British during the Revolutionary War.
The slavery question already threatened to tear the nation apart.
- First U.S. president.
- Overcame: Global war pressure.
- Lesson: Pick the right people and let them do their jobs.
- "Example, whether it be good or bad, has a powerful influence."
Two of the Constitution's signers were later shot to death in duels.
The republic's survival was uncertain. Privately, Washington said that he didn't expect the Constitution to last more than 20 years.
Age 57 when he took office, Washington (1732-99) was already a legend for leading the Continental Army to victory over Britain against huge odds, then spurning political power.
The Articles of Confederation, the nation's first try at a central government, failed because of its weakness. Congress had no taxing power and couldn't regulate foreign trade or interstate commerce.
The Constitution was the second bite at the apple, and the presidency existed only on paper until Washington was elected to the job.
It didn't come with a lot of detailed instructions.
But with his astute knowledge of potency and keen political skills, Washington was the man for it.
Despite his reluctance to return to public life, Washington rode his experience as a colonial Virginia politician, wartime general and overseer at the 1787 Constitutional Convention to top results.
"He is one of the best informed people in the country as to the job he is about to hold," Richard Brookhiser, senior editor at National Review and author of "George Washington on Leadership," told IBD.
One of President Washington's first goals was to get the nation's financial house in order. With tax revenues failing to come in, the U.S. could afford to pay only the interest on its war debt.
Among Washington's best traits as a leader was his self-confidence laced with humility. He gave his advisors ample time to express their opinions. Once he made up his mind, he moved swiftly and firmly to enforce his decisions.
He also felt comfortable delegating authority — and his choice of Alexander Hamilton as Treasury secretary was a masterstroke.
Washington's aide-de-camp during the war, Hamilton quickly set out organizing the new federal government's finances — and ignited the first battle of the presidency.
Amid fierce opposition, Hamilton argued that the Constitution's implied powers gave the federal government the authority to fund a national debt, assume the states' debt and create the Bank of the United States, the nation's first central bank. He got the federal government funded through a series of tariffs and excise taxes, including one on whiskey that rattled citizens.
The whiskey tax led to a western Pennsylvania rebellion that Washington suppressed in 1794.
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Virginia Congressman James Madison denounced Hamilton's policies, arguing that they put too much power in the executive branch and had a stench of the corrupt English monarchy.
Despite the hostility aimed at his treasury secretary, Washington stood by him, resisting calls for a sacking, and persuaded Congress to pass Hamilton's economic policies. "He lobbied quietly, and adroitly got them through," said John Ferling, a professor emeritus of history at the University of West Georgia and author of "The First of Men: A Life of George Washington."
By the time Hamilton left the Treasury department in 1795, "the economy was put on sound footing," Ferling said, noting that the U.S. paid off its debt to France within six years.
Another big fray in the first administration involved the French Revolution. Jefferson, reflecting the attitudes of many Americans, argued that the U.S. owed a duty to France from the American Revolution and should support its struggle against the monarchy.
Washington was skeptical, fearing correctly that the overthrow of King Louis XVI would result in tyranny and a bloodbath.
His proclamation of U.S. neutrality in 1793 when France and Britain again went to war infuriated America's Francophiles.
Complicating matters was Britain's refusal to abandon its military posts along the Great Lakes, from upstate New York to what is now Michigan, defying the 1783 peace treaty that ended the War of Independence.
State Of Turmoil
Also boiling the brew: Several U.S. states ignored the treaty's recommendation that property be restored to American loyalists who supported Britain during the war. And some states ignored their obligation to pay off debt to Britain.
Aware that the nation wasn't strong enough to go to war again despite public anger at its former colonial master, Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to England to negotiate a settlement.
Jefferson and Madison strongly opposed the Jay Treaty of 1794. They ripped it as a sellout of America's republican ideals.
Washington threw his prestige behind the pact, arguing that it was the best deal that could be reached.
The Senate ratified it, and the British army left U.S. territory, but the struggle led to the formation of the nation's first political parties, each arguing that their opponent threatened the nation's survival.
Jefferson and his supporters dubbed themselves Democratic-Republicans, the ancestors of what became the Democratic Party.
Hamilton and his allies called themselves Federalists.
Broadly speaking, Democratic-Republicans favored a small central government, states' rights and farmers; Federalists supported a strong national government, cities, manufacturing, banking and the stock market.
Washington tried staying above the strife, but he usually sided with the Federalists.
Fueled in part by the press, the partisan squabble spilled over into Washington's Cabinet.
While leading the State Department, Jefferson promoted newspapers hostile to the administration.
Treasury's Hamilton retaliated by anonymously blasting Jefferson on the printed page.
Meanwhile, Washington increasingly found himself the target of press attacks that accused him of being power-hungry and using his public office to enrich himself.
At one Cabinet meeting, the president exploded about the negative press coverage, Jefferson noted.
Still, Washington never let his temper cause him to do anything rash such as ordering the government to shut down opposition newspapers. "He doesn't let the attacks goad him into overreacting," Brookhiser said.
Weary of the stress and strain of two terms as president, Washington in 1797 voluntarily relinquished power, causing one opposition newspaper to rejoice: "Every heart in unison ... ought to beat high with exultation that the name of Washington from this day ceases to give currency to political iniquity and to legalized corruption," according to biographer Ron Chernow's "Washington: A Life."
Today, Washington is consistently ranked as one of the greatest presidents. Aware that he was setting precedents, he held to a high standard for ethics and competence.
He made sure that the executive branch controlled foreign-policy decisions but was mindful of congressional authority.
On his watch, the nation's financial standing was boosted, and the dollar was established as the nation's basic unit of account.
Washington helped set up a functioning federal government that survived without his guidance.
After two terms of peace and prosperity, he retired to private life, establishing a tradition of the peaceful transition of political power.
Ultimately, perhaps his greatest legacy is the ongoing survival of the republican form of government that he so steadfastly advanced. "So many revolutions go off the rails," Brookhiser said. "But his didn't."