George Washington

17c. The First Administration

Inauguration of Washington
Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives rendered this portrait titled The Inauguration of Washington in 1875.

Washington happily resigned his military command at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. He saw himself living out his days as a farmer at Mt. Vernon. But he would be called on to lead the country again — this time not in war, but peace.

During the critical period of the 1780s Washington privately feared that the weak central government dictated by the Articles of Confederation threatened the long-term health of the nation. He supported the call for a Constitutional Convention and after some hesitation attended as a delegate where he was elected the presiding officer.

He took a relatively limited role, however, in the debate that created the proposed Constitution. Nor did he publicly favor ratification. It seems that his sense of personal reserve prevented him from actively campaigning. As he was likely to become the first president, he avoided the appearance of self-serving motivation by not aggressively supporting the Constitution in public.

The significance of the first presidential administration under the Constitution is hard to overstate. The Constitution provided a bare structural outline for the federal government, but how it would actually come together was unclear. The precedent established by the first president would be enormous. Washington generally proceeded with great caution. For the most part he continued precedents that had been established under the Articles of Confederation. For instance, he carried over the three departments of the government that had existed before the Constitution.

But the nationalist Washington favored a stronger central government and made sure that executive authority was independent from total legislative control. For instance, Washington appointed his own head to each department of government whom the legislature could only accept or reject. Furthermore, Washington identified the three leaders (Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, Alexander Hamilton of the treasury, and Henry Knox of war) as his personal "cabinet" of advisers, thus underscoring the executive's domain. Particularly in his first term as president from 1789-1792, Washington's enormous personal popularity and stature enhanced the legitimacy of the modest new national government.

Unfortunately for Washington, events in his second term somewhat clouded his extraordinary success. For one, his own cabinet split apart as Thomas Jefferson increasingly dissented from the economic policies proposed by Alexander Hamilton, most of which Washington supported.

Even more disturbing to Washington was the emergence of a new form of political activity where the public divided into opposing parties. Although now a fundamental feature of modern democracy, Washington and many others perceived organized opposition to the government as treasonous!

These clouds at the end of Washington's public career, like the difficulties of his first military command in the 1750s, remind us that even this most stellar of the Founding Fathers hardly glided through public life without controversy. As impressive and even as indispensable as Washington had been to the creation of the new nation, he remained a leader with qualities that could not appeal to all of the people all of the time. Most interestingly perhaps, is that some of the personal qualities that made him extraordinarily effective are also ones that might make him extremely unpopular today.

Washington consciously cultivated a distance from the public and a personal reserve that made him aloof. He was a curious combination of late-18th century qualities — a regal republican whose disdain for democratic excess helped give life, power, and respectability to what would soon become the world's first modern democracy.

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Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.
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