In the Revolutionary War as well as the formative years of our nation’s independence, no one played a bigger role than George Washington.
The late historian James Flexner called him “the indispensable.” Without his leadership, it is hard to imagine the fledgling nation surviving intact. At Washington’s funeral, Rep. Henry Lee famously eulogized him as, “First in war — first in peace — and first in the hearts of his countrymen…”
In war, Washington was made the leader of the Continental Army in June 1775. In 1776, when America declared its independence, Washington told his troops, “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us only the choice of brave resistance, or the most abject submission. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die.”
Washington left a comfortable life at Mount Vernon to serve his country. His resolve and his compassion for his men inspired them. And, as a wealthy man, he had everything to lose, if the American Revolution failed. He risked his fortune and his life to take on the greatest military force of the age, because he had come to believe wholeheartedly in the cause of independence.
While he was defeated in a number of major battles, he never surrendered his army and fought the British relentlessly to the very end. It would be another five years before the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781.
After the revolution, Washington stunned class-stratified Europe by resigning as the commander of the armies. Europeans had thought the military would seize power. Yet, for this act, King George III called Washington “the greatest character of the age.”
Our young country would need him again, when he added to his prestige by presiding over the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Once the new Constitution was completed and ratified, many people urged Washington to stand for the new office of president because they were sure that only he could unite the country.
Washington stood for re-election four years later to hold the country together. After eight years, he retired from power to his beloved Mount Vernon with his wife Martha. By leaving office, he proved to the world that America was different from all other countries.
He could have been another president for life, but he chose to live an honorable life. He wanted our country to be a republic.
When Washington, and James Madison, wrote the final version of Washington’s inaugural address, they understood that this was an unprecedented event. Instead of a coronation, the United States would hear the first address of a national leader who had been elected.
Washington told the American people that a republican form of government itself was on trial:
“And since 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 the American people.”
To ensure the success of our republic, he promised to be a unifying figure with “no local prejudices, or attachments; no separate views, nor party animosities” to governing as the president of all Americans. It is hard to see anyone promising to govern like that today.
Washington felt this was the best way to have an administration “which can win the affections of its Citizens, and command the respect of the world.” There is no doubt he succeeded by working with Congress.
The 1st Congress (1789-1791) passed legislation that allowed the government to function. By the end of 1789, the Washington Administration was able to persuade Congress to pass the Tariff Act of 1789, otherwise known as the “Hamilton Tariff,” to finance Revolutionary War debts. In 1789, Congress also established the Departments of State, War, and the Treasury.
Through the Judiciary Act of 1789, the office of Attorney General was also created. Originally, the principal duties of the Attorney General were to argue cases before the Supreme Court and provide the President with legal advice. The act also established district courts and circuit courts, while setting the original number of Supreme Court Justices at six. In the lower courts, the system of U.S. Attorneys was established though they were independent of the Attorney General until the Justice Department was established in 1870.
Even without a justice department, many of our first procedures governing federal crimes and trials were established with the Crimes Act of 1790. That year, the Congress also passed the Patent Act and the Copyright Act.
While a Cabinet was not mandated by the Constitution, Washington established it to coordinate and manage a functioning government. He understood that for a Cabinet to be seen as legitimate that there had to be some geographic balance to hold the states together. From the north, Alexander Hamilton (New York) was Secretary of the Treasury and Henry Knox (Massachusetts) was Secretary of War. From the south, Washington appointed Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General (both were from Virginia).
Almost immediately, Hamilton represented the Federalists, who wanted a strong judiciary, a larger government, a more industrial economy, and better relations with Britain. Jefferson and opponents of the administration wanted an agrarian economy and more power to the states. They also were favorable toward Revolutionary France.
While it was clear that Washington agreed more with Hamilton, he also understood that the Jeffersonian Republicans had to win a few victories, if the country were to stay together.
For example, Jefferson and Madison were able to work with Hamilton to get votes to pass the Residence Act, which put the nation’s capital in the south. In exchange, Hamilton got the votes to pass the Assumption Act. Meanwhile the Democratic-Republicans (as the Jeffersonians called themselves) were able to claim a few important victories, such as passing the Bill of Rights and vetoing the Apportion Act.
When Washington signed the law creating the First National Bank, Jefferson opposed it because he thought it was unconstitutional and it would concentrate power in the northern business elite at the expense of the south. Jefferson pointed out that a bank was not in the Constitution. Hamilton prevailed over Washington that a bank was both necessary and constitutional.
Washington was also able to pass the Militia Act of 1792 and the Naval Act of 1794. The former was necessary to put down the Whiskey Rebellion and win the Northwest War. This act allowed state militias to be formed and gave the President the authority to take over these militias during an invasion or a rebellion.
It was clear that a larger and more disciplined force would be required to deal with Native American tribes. Under Gen. Anthony Wayne, they would eventually achieve a final victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. The Whiskey Rebellion also showed that the federal government had to be willing to use force to make its laws prevail.
While Washington’s first term established a government, the second term should be remembered for keeping the country together. Although some of the Founders had moral objections to slavery, they understood that they could not end the institution and still hold the country together. It was under these circumstances that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 passed. It made it a crime to help slaves escape slavery.
Northerners were only able to limit American participation in the slave trade by passing the Slave Trade Act of 1794. This law prevented slaves from being exported from the United States.
Providing balance between North and South was difficult. Eventually, relations between Americans divided between sympathies to Britain and France turned poisonous. At first, there was some agreement between Hamilton and Jefferson that it would be better for the United States to stay out of any war between Britain and France.
What Jefferson could not accept was the need for an official proclamation of neutrality by Washington. The ultimate compromise was the Neutrality Act of 1794, which forbade American citizens from acting as privateers and waging war against a country not at war with the United States.
This neutrality angered both the French and British governments. Britain seized American merchant ships, and it soon became clear that the United States also had several outstanding issues with Britain, including compensation for merchant vessels seized, evacuation of British military forts on the Great Lakes, compensation for slaves taken by the British during the American Revolution, impressment of Americans into serving the British military, and several other border and trade disputes.
While Jay’s Treaty did not resolve issues of the U.S.-Canadian border, impressment, and compensation for slaveholders, it did prevent war between the United States and Britain. It also largely helped establish better trade relations.
The Jeffersonians were outraged, and only the influence of Washington was able to get this treaty passed. For years, Jefferson worried that Federalists were turning away from the ideals of the American Revolution and turning Washington into a monarch. Jefferson felt that President Washington had fallen under Hamilton’s spell.
President Washington had good reason to avoid entangling alliances. Beyond the treaty with Britain, the administration also concluded the Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain in 1795. It defined boundaries between Spanish Florida and the United States, while also providing navigation rights.
In his second term, Washington also signed treaties with the Barbary States. This involved paying ransom to avoid piracy on the high seas. It would take a few years before the U.S. Navy was strong enough to go into the Mediterranean and stop this practice. Ultimately, Washington understood that he had to keep the peace until America was strong enough.
Not all of his actions were popular. Washington managed to overcome the country’s bitter divisions, because a majority of Americans trusted him to do what was necessary to make sure our republic would succeed.
If Washington had not been president, it is possible a civil war could have occurred several decades earlier. Washington proved that the ability to bring change to this country requires trust. It’s a lesson worth recalling today, as trust in government has steadily eroded over the decades.
In 1964, more than 77 percent of Americans believed that the government would do the right thing either “just about always” or “most of the time.” It shouldn’t surprise anyone that in 1964 and 1965, Lyndon Johnson was able to pass Medicare and Medicaid. People trusted the government to do the right thing. Since then, with perhaps a few exceptions, it’s been all downhill.
By 2015, trust in government fell to 19 percent. Neither party today can make any big changes without trust. How can they regain it? For starters, by going back to our first presidency and pondering how George Washington had earned it, what it means to have it, and what it takes to keep it.
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