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George Washington

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So I turn to consider the administrations of President Washington, the policy of which, in the main, was the rule of the succeeding presidents,--of Adams and "the Virginia dynasty."

The cabinet which he selected was able and illustrious; especially so were its brightest stars,--Jefferson as Secretary of State, and Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, to whose opinions the President generally yielded. It was unfortunate that these two great men liked each other so little, and were so jealous of each other's ascendency. But their political ideas diverged in many important points. Hamilton was the champion of Federalism, and Jefferson of States' Rights; the one, politically, was an aristocrat, and the other, though born on a plantation, was a democrat. Washington had to use all his tact to keep these statesmen from an open rupture. Their mutual hostility saddened and perplexed him. He had selected them as the best men for their respective posts, and in this had made no mistake; but their opposing opinions prevented that cabinet unity so essential in government, and possibly crippled Washington himself. This great country has produced no administration comprising four greater men than President Washington, the general who had led its armies in a desperate war; Vice-President John Adams, the orator who most eloquently defined national rights; Jefferson, the diplomatist who managed foreign relations on the basis of perpetual peace; and Hamilton, the financier who "struck the rock from which flowed the abundant streams of national credit." General Knox, Secretary of War, had not the intellectual calibre of Hamilton and Jefferson, but had proved himself an able soldier and was devoted to his chief. Edmund Randolph, the Attorney-General, was a leading lawyer in Virginia, and belonged to one of its prominent families.

Outside the cabinet, the judiciary had to be filled, and Washington made choice of John Jay as chief-justice of the Supreme Court,--a most admirable appointment,--and associated with him the great lawyers, Wilson of Pennsylvania, Cushing of Massachusetts, Blair of Virginia, Iredell of North Carolina, and Rutledge of South Carolina,--all of whom were distinguished, and all selected for their abilities, without regard to their political opinions.

It is singular that, as this country has advanced in culture and population, the men who have occupied the highest positions have been inferior in genius and fame,--selected, not because they were great, but because they were "available," that is, because they had few enemies, and were supposed to be willing to become the tools of ambitious and scheming politicians, intriguing for party interests and greedy for the spoils of office. Fortunately, or providentially, some of these men have disappointed those who elevated them, and have unexpectedly developed in office both uncommon executive power and still rarer integrity,--reminding us of those popes who have reigned more like foxes and lions than like the asses that before their elevation sometimes they were thought to be.

Trifling as it may seem, the first measure of the new government pertained to the etiquette to be observed at receptions, dinners, etc., in which there was more pomp and ceremony than at the present time. Washington himself made a greater public display, with his chariot and four, than any succeeding president. His receptions were stately. The President stood with dignity, clad in his velvet coat, never shaking hands with any one, however high his rank. He walked between the rows of visitors, pretty much as Napoleon did at the Tuileries, saying a few words to each; but people of station were more stately and aristocratic in those times than at the present day, even in New England towns. Washington himself was an old-school gentleman of the most formal sort, and, although benevolent in aspect and kindly in manner, was more tenacious of his dignity than great men usually are. This had been notable throughout the war. His most intimate friends and daily associates, his most prominent and trusted generals, patriotic but hot-headed complainants, turbulent malcontents,--all alike found him courteous and considerate, yet hedged about with an impassive dignity that no one ever dared to violate. A superb horseman, a powerful and active swordsman, an unfailing marksman with rifle or pistol, he never made a display of these qualities; but there are many anecdotes of such prowess in sudden emergencies as caused him to be idolized by his companions in arms, while yet their manifestations of feeling were repressed by the veneration imposed upon all by his lofty personal dignity.

Thus also as President. It was no new access of official pomposity, but the man's natural bearing, that maintained a lofty reserve at these public receptions. Possibly, too, he may have felt the necessity of maintaining the prerogative of the Federal head of all these independent, but now united, States. Hence, on his visit to Boston, soon after his inauguration, he was offended with John Hancock, then governor of Massachusetts, for neglecting to call on him, as etiquette certainly demanded. The pompous, overrated old merchant, rich and luxurious, though a genuine patriot, perhaps thought that Washington would first call on him, as governor of the State; perhaps he was withheld from his official duty by an attack of the gout; but at last he saw the necessity, and was borne on men's shoulders into the presence of the President.

In considering the vital points in the administration of Washington the reader will not expect to find any of the spirited and exciting elements of the Revolutionary period. The organization and ordering of governmental policies is not romantic, but hard, patient, persevering work. All questions were yet unsettled,--at least in domestic matters, such as finance, tariffs, and revenue. One thing is clear enough, that the national debt and the State debts and the foreign debt altogether amounted to about seventy-five million dollars, the interest on which was unpaid by reason of a depleted treasury and want of credit, which produced great financial embarrassments. Then there were grave Indian hostilities demanding a large military force to suppress them, and there was no money to pay the troops. And when Congress finally agreed, in the face of great opposition, to adopt the plans of Hamilton and raise a revenue by excise on distilled spirits, manufactured chiefly in Pennsylvania, there was a rebellion among the stubborn and warlike Scotch-Irish, who were the principal distillers of whiskey, which required the whole force of the government to put down.

In the matter of revenue, involving the most important of all the problems to be solved, Washington adopted the views of Hamilton, and contented himself with recommending them to Congress,--a body utterly inexperienced, and ignorant of the principles of political economy. Nothing was so unpopular as taxation in any form, and yet without it the government could not be carried on. The Southern States wanted an unrestricted commerce, amounting to "free trade," that they might get all manufactured articles at the smallest possible price; and these came chiefly from abroad. All import duties were an abomination to them, and yet without these a national revenue could not be raised. It is true that Washington had recommended the encouragement of domestic manufactures, the dependence of country on foreigners for nearly all supplies having been one of the chief difficulties of the war, but the great idea of "protection" had not become a mooted point in national legislation.

Hamilton had further proposed a bank, but this also met with great opposition in Congress among the anti-Federalists and the partisans of Jefferson, fearful and jealous of a moneyed power. In the end the measures which Hamilton suggested were generally adopted, and the good results were beginning to be seen, but the financial position of the country for several years after the formation of the Federal government was embarrassing, if not alarming.

Again, there was no national capital, and Congress, which had begun its labors in New York, could not agree upon the site, which was finally adopted only by a sort of compromise,--the South accepting the financial scheme of Hamilton if the capital should be located in Southern territory. All the great national issues pertaining to domestic legislation were in embryo, and no settled policy was possible amid so many sectional jealousies.

It was no small task for Washington to steer the ship of state among these breakers. No other man in the nation could have done so well as he, for he was conciliatory and patient, ever ready to listen to reason and get light from any quarter, modest in his recommendations, knowing well that his training had not been in the schools of political economy. His good sense and sterling character enabled him to surmount the difficulties of his situation, which was anything but a bed of roses.

In the infancy of the republic the foreign relations of the government were deemed more important and excited more interest than internal affairs, and in the management of foreign affairs Jefferson displayed great abilities, which Washington appreciated as much as he did the financial genius of Hamilton. In one thing the President and his Secretary of State were in full accord,--in keeping aloof from the labyrinth of European politics, and maintaining friendly intercourse with all nations. With a peace policy only would commerce thrive and industries be developed, Both Washington and Jefferson were broad-minded enough to see the future greatness of the country, and embraced the most liberal views. Hence the foreign envoys were quietly given to understand that the members of the American government were to be treated with the respect due to the representatives of a free and constantly expanding country, which in time would be as powerful as either England or France.

It was seen, moreover, that both France and England would take every possible advantage of the new republic, and would seek to retain a foothold in the unexplored territories of the Northwest, as well as to gain all they could in commercial transactions. England especially sought to hamper our trade with the West India Islands, and treated our envoys with insolence and coldness. The French sought to entangle the United States in their own revolution, with which most Americans sympathized until its atrocities filled them with horror and disgust. The English impressed American seamen into their naval service without a shadow of justice or good faith.

In 1795 Jay succeeded in making a treaty with the English government, which was ratified because it was the best he could get, not because it was all that he wished. It bore hard on the cities of the Atlantic coast that had commercial dealings with the West India Islands, and led to popular discontent, and bitter animosity towards England, finally culminating in the war of 1812. The French were equally irritating, and unreasonable in their expectations. The Directory in 1793 sent an arrogant and insulting envoy to the seat of government "Citizen Genet," as he was called, tried to engage the United States in the French war against England. Although Washington promptly proclaimed neutrality as the American policy, Genet gave no end of trouble and vexation. This upstart paid no attention to the laws, no respect to the constituted authorities, insulted governors and cabinet-ministers alike, insisted on dealing with Congress directly instead of through the Secretary of State, issued letters of marque for privateers against English commerce, and defied the government. He did all that he could to embroil the country in war with Great Britain; and there was a marked division of sentiment among the people,--the new Democratic-Republican societies, in imitation of the French Jacobin clubs, being potent disseminators of democratic doctrine and sympathy with the French uprising against despotism. The forbearance of Washington, in suffering the irascible and boastful Genet to ride rough-shod over his own cabinet, was extraordinary. In ordinary times the man would have been summarily expelled from the country. At last his insults could no longer be endured and his recall was demanded; but he did not return to France, and, strange to say, settled down as a peaceful citizen in New York. The lenient treatment of this insulting foreigner arose from the reluctance of Washington to loosen the ties which bound the country to France, and from gratitude for the services she had rendered in the war, whatever may have been the motives that had influenced that government to yield assistance.