"To have framed a constitution was showing only, without realizing, the general happiness. This great work remained to be done; and America, steadfast in her preference, with one will summoned her beloved Washington, unpractised as he was in the duties of civil administration, to execute this last act in the completion of the national felicity." Thus spoke Gen. Henry Lee, the funeral orator of Washington, and the father of a later and more famous Lee, who fought to destroy the national felicity of which his father spoke.
The test of the constitution had come; and it was indeed an experiment well calculated to arouse the liveliest anxieties of the infant nation. The passions of party ran yet more high in those days than in our own. Views the most antagonistic existed already, regarding the interrelation, as well as the probable success, of the organic instrument. But upon one point: all factions, however opposed, were agreed. The only possible first President of the United States was George Washington.
The new nation proceeded, in the autumn of 1788, to the choice of an executive. There being no contest as to the chief office, the struggle turned on the Vice-Presidency; but even in this case one candidate was conspicuous far above the others. If Virginia had the President it was right that Massachusetts should have the Vice-President; and as Washington was the pre-eminent Virginian, so John Adams was, beyond all dispute, the foremost New Englander. Ten States voted in the election, casting sixty-nine electoral ballots. Washington received the whole sixty-nine; and our government began with the happy augury of an unanimous choice for its head. For Vice-President, John Adams received thirty-four votes; John Jay nine; R.H. Harrison six; John Rutledge six; John Hancock four; and George Clinton three.
It was on the last day of April, 1789, that President Washington took the oath of office at New York, and in person delivered his inaugural address in the presence of the two branches of Congress. This masterly paper expressed the reluctance with which Washington had abandoned a retreat which he had chosen "as the asylum of my declining years"; his willingness to yield the prospect of repose to the call of country and duty; his faith in the constitution and in the future of the nation; and his devout reliance, in the burden he was taking upon himself, on "the benign Parent of the human race."
A very able cabinet surrounded and strengthened the hands of our first President. Thomas Jefferson, who had written the Declaration of Independence, had been Governor of Virginia, and was the successor of Franklin at the Court of France, was made Secretary of State. At the head of the Treasury--then, as now, the most important branch of the executive--was placed the still young but conspicuously able Alexander Hamilton; the most forcible of revolutionary pamphleteers, the most efficient of staff-officers, and already an authority on finance. Major-General Henry Knox, the chief of the continental artillery service, who had presided over the war department during the confederation, became Secretary of War. Samuel Osgood of Massachusetts, experienced in civil affairs and a judicious counsellor, was assigned to the General Post-Office; and Edmund Randolph, who had recanted his hostility to the constitution, and was now a close ally of Jefferson, was appointed the first Attorney-General of the United States.
Many difficulties surrounded the first President and his advisers at the outset. The nation was deeply in debt, and its currency was a paper one. The people, oppressed for so many years by the burdens of an unequal war, were irritated by the necessarily heavy taxes. The Indians on the borders of the settled States were troublesome. And, to add to the embarrassments of our statesmen, the relations of the United States with the European powers were strained, and at times alarming. The two parties which had struggled to fashion the constitution continued to agitate the country in a more bitter rivalry than has been seen since, with the exception of the party excitement of the period just before the Rebellion. Their antagonism became more pronounced during Washington's presidency, by reason of the great European war then going on, which divided the sympathies of our people and politicians between France and England.
On the one hand, the party which called itself "Republican," and at the head of which were Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, James Madison, Edmund Randolph, and Patrick Henry, were zealous friends of the French Revolution. They regarded that great convulsion as a desperate attempt on the part of our recent allies to found a republic like that of the United States; and they were in favor of extending the French our aid and sympathy, while the more eager went so far as to advocate our active participation in the war on behalf of France. On the other hand, the "Federalists," chief among whom were Washington, John Adams, Hamilton, and Jay, deplored the excesses of the French Revolutionists; thought their example rather to be avoided than emulated; and, with a still lingering affection for England despite her tyrannies, leaned to her side in the conflict which was so fiercely raging.
The cabinet itself was divided between these two parties. Jefferson, the "Republican" leader, was Secretary of State; Hamilton, the "Federalist" leader, was at the head of the Treasury. On other than foreign subjects the antagonism of the two parties was distinctly defined. The Republicans were the stout defenders of what they called the rights of the States. The Federalists wished to make the central government as strong as possible. The Republicans favored strict economy, a democratic simplicity of manners and costumes, and opposed official ceremony and formality. The Federalists were the aristocratic party, elegant and patrician in their tastes, sticklers for etiquette and state. Hamilton and Washington were freely charged by the Republicans with being monarchists at heart.
Political capital was made of the President's ostentatious style of living, of his cream-colored coach and six, and liveried lackeys, his velvet and gold apparel, his almost royal levees, and his well known desire that the title of "High Mightiness" should be conferred upon him. He was accused of imitating the state of the monarchs of the old world, and of wishing to gather a brilliant, ceremonious, and exclusive court about him. Thus before he had completed his two terms of office, Washington found himself confronted and opposed by a powerful democratic party. John Adams, his successor in policy as well as in office, was chosen President by only one majority in the electoral college; and when his term expired, the Republicans succeeded in placing Jefferson in the executive chair, and in holding power for a quarter of a century.
Washington's administration, however, proved his capacity for statesmanship as well as for war, his wisdom and force of character, and his pure and lofty devotion to the interests of the whole country. His policy was at once vigorous and moderate. At first he preserved an almost impartial bearing towards the two parties, as indicated by his selection of their several chiefs for the highest seats in his cabinet. Towards the close of his term, however, the government became more distinctly Federalist. Hamilton's influence became paramount; and Jefferson retired from office to put himself at the head of a very earnest and aggressive opposition.
The results of Washington's policy may be recognized, at this distance of time, as having been in the highest degree beneficial to the welfare of the young nation. He placed its finances on a sound basis. He maintained order, and put a term to the aggressions of the Indians. He compelled Algiers to prevent her pirates from preying upon our commerce. He made friendly treaties with England and Spain. With the French question he dealt in a manner most creditable to his wisdom, and in the only manner by which the United States could escape being involved once more in war. He issued a proclamation of absolute neutrality; and he saw that it was adhered to in the spirit and in the letter. Towards the close of his presidency, the arbitrary conduct of France towards this country was such that a conflict became imminent. Even an invasion by the French was threatened. This danger continued into the period of John Adams' term; but the firm and vigorous policy of Washington and his successor averted it, while the European, wars in which Napoleon soon became involved diverted the attention of France elsewhere.
Three States were added to the Union of thirteen during Washington's tenure of office. Vermont came within the circle in 1791; Kentucky followed in the next year; and her neighbor, Tennessee, became a state in 1796. What a contrast in national expenditure there was between Washington's administration and those of modern times may be judged when it is stated that the average annual expense of the government in Washington's time was something less than two millions of dollars. The population, according to the first census taken in 1790 was a little less than four millions. Now we number more than fifty millions. It may be said, generally, of Washington's presidency, that it gave the new government a good start on its career of growth, order, and prosperity. By his statesmanship, which was pure, solid, and vigorous, rather than brilliant, peace was preserved at home and abroad; and the result was that that general happiness which Henry Lee spoke of as promised only by the constitution had already at least begun to be realized.