One of the most important developments of Washington's first months in office was congressional creation of executive departments and the president's appointments to head them. An act establishing the State Department became law on 27 July; a measure creating the Department of War was approved early in August; and the Treasury Department was created on 2 September.
Congress also provided for two executive officers who lacked a department: an attorney general and a postmaster general. To fill the former, the president chose Edmund Randolph, a Richmond lawyer, former governor of Virginia, and Antifederalist apostate of whom Washington was particularly fond personally. As postmaster general, Washington designated Samuel Osgood, whose assignment in those comparatively simple days was carried out in a single room with the aid of two clerks.
The president's predictable candidate for the War Department was Henry Knox, who had administered the corresponding office under the Confederation. Although genial and cooperative, Knox proved to be the cabinet's least capable administrator and least independent and forceful member. Washington's choice for secretary of state came as something of a surprise: Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Virginian, who was on the eve of returning from France, where his service as United States minister since 1784 had earned him diplomatic distinction and Washington's esteem. To head the Treasury Department, the president called on a former aide-de-camp and one of the nation's foremost nationalists, Alexander Hamilton.
The practice of presidential consultation with the cabinet collectively was to develop only slowly. At the outset, Washington solicited advice from his principal ministers individually, sometimes asking for reports on designated issues or occasionally inviting one or another to discuss matters over the breakfast table. By the end of 1791, the president had begun to convene meetings of heads of the executive departments (the attorney general included, largely because most high-level problems often involved legal issues). The group met with increasing frequency during the remainder of Washington's first term and frequently during his second.
Washington went to cabinet meetings with an agenda in mind, thus restricting discussion to issues of his choosing and discouraging the introduction of unrelated subjects. He did not actively participate in cabinet meetings, leaving debate to his ministers, whose opinions he occasionally requested in writing. Once he reached a decision, he expected his heads of departments to carry it out without dissent.
Although he no doubt would have liked unanimity, the president more often than not was obliged to choose from among sharply divided views of his principal ministers, notably those of Hamilton and Jefferson (who, the secretary of state later recalled, were "daily pitted . . . like two cocks"). Knox almost always slavishly sided with the treasury secretary, Jefferson usually disagreed with both, and Randolph steered an erratically independent course, which, although closer to that of his fellow Virginian than to Hamilton's and Knox's, prompted Jefferson to describe him as "indecisive" and a "chameleon."
Of greater historical consequence than cabinet dissension was its secure establishment as an advisory body to the president. This was not an inevitable development, for no such function was prescribed by the Constitution. But it was a predictable one for reasons that the first president had set forth at the end of the Philadelphia convention: "The impossibility that one man should . . . perform all the great business of state I take to have been the reason for instituting the great departments, and appointing officers therein to assist the supreme magistrate in discharging the duties of his trust." And such a view has remained the rationale for an extraconstitutional body that has been a major government institution from that day to this.
Many other developments of Washington's presidency established precedents that permanently shaped the structure of the federal government. As Washington himself put it, "Few who are not philosophical spectators can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation has to act. . . . I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent." This was because the Constitution provided only the skeleton of a government and because the new government had few established guidelines on which to rely.
Instead of viable precedents, the Confederation bequeathed merely a small number of unpaid clerks, a large debt, worthless paper money, and, in effect, a bankrupt and weak Union. Major problems, old and new, urgently required solutions. North Carolina and Rhode Island, for example, stubbornly remained outside the new Union; citizens of Vermont still schemed with Canada; Great Britain continued to refuse to relinquish its posts in the American West; and there was only a minuscule army and no navy at all. Virtually every effort of the administration to settle these difficulties constituted a precedent, as did its decisions and actions on most other issues, particularly those involving interpretation of the Constitution.
In the process of establishing precedents, Washington proved to be an uncommonly able executive. "In his daily administrative tasks," Leonard D. White, a distinguished authority on American public administration, commented, "he was systematic, orderly, energetic, solicitous of the opinion of others but decisive, intent upon general goals and the consistency of particular actions with them." Washington, in sum, demonstrated his mastery of administrative detail and reserved for himself the final say in major affairs of state.
This did not ordinarily include legislative affairs. Although Congress—despite the virtually unanimous belief in the separation of powers—was initially receptive to presidential direction, Washington was not inclined to offer forceful leadership personally. He did, of course, obey the constitutional injunction that the chief executive advise Congress on the state of the Union and "recommend to their consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." In performing this duty, Washington chose to appear in person at the opening of each session of Congress in order to review the record of the preceding year and to recommend subjects for congressional consideration. During the course of sessions he occasionally submitted special messages, chiefly informational, on important issues as they arose. At the outset elaborate protocol was observed, with Congress drawing up formal replies to the president's annual messages, although it did not always respond favorably to his recommendations.
During his first administration, Washington's department heads also played an active role in advising Congress on legislative policy. This was particularly true of the secretary of the treasury. Although the House was unwilling to allow Hamilton to appear before it in person, he nevertheless exercised instrumental legislative leadership. This included the submission of written reports and the use of influence over members of congressional committees. But the trend toward executive leadership of Congress—especially as exercised by Hamilton—drastically changed during Washington's second administration. The alteration was not due to revised views of Washington or his ministers on presidential leadership but rather to Congress' less friendly response, which was, in turn, tied in with the gradual development of political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
Despite Hamilton's attempt to exercise decisive influence, the First Congress initiated most of the legislation that it enacted. So it was with the stipulation of salaries for public officials; the adoption of titles, forms, and ceremonies consonant with what Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania called "republican plainness"; the provision of a bill of rights; and the enactment of tariff legislation.
In one conspicuous instance, Congress also enhanced the powers of the presidency. In question was the right of the chief executive to remove unilaterally from office those public officials for whose appointment the Constitution mandated approval of the Senate. James Madison of Virginia, one of the ablest and most influential members of the House of Representatives, sought to deprive the Senate of any claim to veto executive dismissals, by moving that department heads could be removed by the president solely on his own authority. The House approved Madison's motion, but the Senate was less easily persuaded. The vote on the resolution was a tie that was broken by its presiding officer, Vice President John Adams, in favor of exclusive executive authority. An important source of presidential power was thus established, although the silence of the Constitution on the subject led to a century and a half of sporadic controversy concerning it.
Rather less precedent-setting was Washington's position on the chief executive's veto power. As he saw the issue, that power had been conferred to enable the president to preserve the Constitution by blocking legislation that in his view violated it, a function that subsequently would be assumed primarily by the Supreme Court. So far as executive power itself was concerned, Washington had no need to use the veto to safeguard it from inroads by Congress (as Hamilton, in The Federalist , had predicted he would), largely because Congress' confidence in Washington forestalled any such attempts. Further, it never would have occurred to Washington to veto legislation because he disagreed with it on political grounds, if only because he did not consider himself a party leader. In short, during his eight years in office, Washington, adhering to his resolve that the separation of powers required him to pursue a hands-off policy toward Congress, vetoed only two comparatively minor pieces of legislation.
Although the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government would in the future turn out to be more consequential, issues of presidential protocol seemed to Washington to be of similar, if not greater, importance. He established a social schedule comprising three types of affairs: his "levees" for men only, staged on Tuesday afternoons; his wife's tea parties (which he also attended), held on Friday evenings; and official dinners, held on Thursdays at four in the afternoon. The dinners and the levees were stiff and formal affairs, leading some disgruntled Republicans to complain that Washington's style of entertaining was more regal than George III's—the harbinger, more radical critics complained, of an American monarchy.
Washington's entertainment schedule was designed to harbor his time by sparing him the otherwise constant intrusion of callers; the stilted quality of presidential entertainment was due to his own reserve and formality. (That silence prevailed at official dinners, for example, was because the president, who was expected to initiate table talk, was no dazzling conversationalist.) The president's critics, as Marcus Cunliffe has remarked, were "unfair in not realizing that the presidency was more than the man who occupied it. It was a symbolic office, which the majority of Americans then and later expected to see maintained with a degree of decorum."
The ceremonial aspects of Washington's presidency were also demonstrated by tours of the country. Although they were simple and brief by comparison to similar trips by much later presidents, they were, like so many seemingly inconsequential acts of the first president, precedent-setting. Washington took two such tours, one through New England in the fall of 1789 and another of the southern states in April 1791. The trips not only set a precedent but taught Washington what many later presidents would discover: the deep satisfaction derived from personal contact with the generality of Americans, who in his case manifestly admired, respected, and even revered him. It should be emphasized that Washington, unlike many of his successors, did not seek partisan advantage or personal popularity from such tours.
Nevertheless, it was largely because of Washington's enormous popularity that he was instrumental in establishing an effective administration and reconciling most Americans to the new government and, concomitantly, national authority. It was Hamilton who gave what he himself described as "executive impulse" to Washington's presidency. In appointing Hamilton, Washington, on whose staff the young New Yorker had served during the Revolution, realized that he was tapping the best financial talent the country could offer.
The president's satisfaction was the greater because he properly perceived that the Treasury Department would be the nerve center of the new government. Fiscal ineptitude had been chiefly responsible for the series of events that had toppled the Confederation and led to the adoption of the Constitution. Among the most important provisions of that document was the pledge that "all debts contracted and engagements entered into before the adoption of the Constitution shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution as under the Confederation." The most pressing problem of the new government was the fulfillment of this pledge, and it fell to Hamilton to propose the ways and means.
His recommendations created the most bitter controversy of Washington's presidency. Hamilton's proposals were submitted to Congress on 14 January 1790, in his Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit , which was also his blueprint for a prosperous, strong, even preeminent, central government. The report began an acrimonious controversy that preoccupied Congress for the rest of its session. In this famous state paper Hamilton divided the public debt—comprising accrued interest in addition to principal—into three categories: first, the foreign debt, totaling around $11.7 million; second, the domestic debt, amounting to $40.4 million; third, the debts of the states, approximately $25 million. He called for a discharge of the foreign debt (plus interest) in full; payment of the face value of the principal of the domestic debt but with a reduction of stipulated interest rates; and assumption of state debts on the same terms as public securities but with interest payments to be postponed until 1 January 1792. To maintain the price of public securities and to manage any government surplus the treasury secretary proposed the establishment of a sinking fund.
Initially, the debate on Hamilton's report centered on the national domestic debt and was sparked by James Madison, who in mid-February 1790 offered an amendment to Hamilton's recommendations. At issue was the question, To whom should payment be made, those to whom certificates had originally been issued or, as the treasury secretary proposed, the present owners, many of whom were speculators? Madison's plan was intended to do justice to the original holders of the debt and also satisfy the cupidity of assignees. Let those who bought up government securities be paid the highest value they had reached, he proposed. Let the difference between this amount and par value of the stock be paid to the original holders. In rebuttal, Hamilton's supporters argued that discrimination, as Madison's plan was termed, would mean an unacceptable increase in the already swollen national debt and that the task of distinguishing between original holders and assignees would involve the government in an administrative quagmire. Primarily for these reasons, discrimination was decisively defeated on 22 February.
Congress now centered its attention on a bill for the assumption of state debts by the federal government, an issue on which it was deadlocked until the eve of its adjournment, some six months later. Those states whose revolutionary debts remained for the most part unpaid championed the measure, those whose financial obligations had been largely discharged opposed it, and those with moderate and funded debts were uncommitted or unpredictable. Congress had also reached an impasse over the site of the nation's capital city, then New York City, an issue that at the time appeared to many legislators as important as Hamilton's fiscal measures. Boosters of the country's major cities (Baltimore and Philadelphia chief among them) eagerly sought the coveted prize, as did southerners, who insisted that it be located in a wilderness near the Potomac River. The situation was ripe for a compromise or compromises that would break the congressional logjam on this issue and on assumption. The votes of congressmen from Pennsylvania, widely believed to be the swing state, assured the success of a residence bill providing that Philadelphia should serve as the capital for a decade, at the end of which time the government would move to a permanent location near Georgetown, on the Potomac. Hamilton's timely concessions to make assumption more palatable to its opponents provided the votes necessary for passage of that measure.
As was his wont, Washington did not intercede on behalf of either bill or even publicly comment on them. Their passage was left to the administration's congressional allies and to Hamilton's behind-the-scenes legislative leadership. But the president favored both measures and, on 4 August 1790, unhesitatingly signed them into law, no doubt pleased that such divisive issues had been satisfactorily settled.
Had he known about it at the time, Washington would have been anything but happy over the gradually widening rift between his principal cabinet members, Hamilton and Jefferson. During the months immediately following Jefferson's arrival in New York in March 1790, the official association and personal relationship between the two men was on the surface harmonious. But viewed in retrospect, an eventual clash between two such egocentric, strong-willed, and ambitious men who were divided by political philosophy, divergent family backgrounds, social status, personality, and manner was inevitable.
Soon after the convening of the Second Congress in 1790, the two men's initial but superficial stance of personal forbearance and official cooperativeness was replaced by undisguised mutual suspicion. It surfaced during the controversy that was provoked by Hamilton's Report on a National Bank , the single most important issue debated by the Congress that assembled in Philadelphia on 6 December 1790, the first session to be held in the temporary capital. Hamilton called on Congress to charter a national bank capitalized at $10 million, one-fifth of the total to be provided by the government on its own account and the rest by individual investors. Although principally "under a private and not a public direction," the bank was based on the resources and credit of the United States, and a major purpose was to assist in the nation's financial operations. It was designed not only to aid but also to strengthen the new government, objects that were not lost on the treasury secretary's opponents, notably Madison and Jefferson. A majority of Congress, however, accepted Hamilton's argument: a bill chartering the Bank of the United States sailed smoothly through the Senate, and in mid-February the House gave its assent after only two weeks of debate. The measure was presented to the president on 14 February 1791.
Although brief, the debate in the House was heated enough and the opposition's arguments were plausible enough to make Washington uneasy about the measure's constitutionality. To dispel such misgivings, he solicited the advice of Attorney General Edmund Randolph, who pronounced the bank unconstitutional. Still undecided, Washington turned to his secretary of state. A constitutional fundamentalist and fiscal conservative, Jefferson set forth in his opinion on the bank a rigidly literal and strict construction of the Constitution that would have virtually strangled the national government in its infancy. Still undecided, the president sent copies of Randolph's and Jefferson's opinions to the secretary of the treasury, implicitly requesting him to refute them. Although he was confident of Hamilton's ability to do so, Washington could not have forecast the masterfulness of the essay in constitutional law that he received in reply.
While demolishing Jefferson's position point by point, the major thrust of Hamilton's argument was that his antagonist's constitutional literalness would destroy "the just and indispensable authority of the United States." Rejecting almost scornfully Jefferson's negative approach, the treasury secretary set forth a boldly affirmative view, one that emphasized the scope, rather than the limits, of government power. The president may or may not have fully perceived the drift of Hamilton's thought, but he was persuaded by the treasury secretary's argument that the proposed bank was a constitutional exercise of the government's enumerated powers to regulate trade, collect taxes, and provide for the common defense. On 25 February, Washington signed the bill chartering the Bank of the United States.
By siding with the secretary of the treasury on the establishment of a national bank, Washington unintentionally brought out into the open and intensified the rivalry between the prima donnas of his official family, Hamilton and Jefferson. But as many historians have long insisted, this contest was largely the personal expression of a deep-seated and intense sectional conflict between slaveholders and other agrarians of the South versus mercantile and related commercially oriented interests of the North.
Since Washington sided with Hamilton on the bank as well as on other economic issues, he has often been depicted as the unwitting supporter of northern business. The first president actually represented neither one section nor the other, nor any particular class. Rather, as James Thomas Flexner perceptively commented, he "visualized a mixed economy in which agrarianism and business activity would move together." He supported Hamilton's program because he believed that it would benefit all sections by promoting national prosperity and a more closely knit union. The restoration and firm establishment of public credit, moreover, was a means to the same goal. Far from being disturbed by the speculation engendered by the sale of government bonds and bank stock (which horrified Jefferson), Washington congratulated himself and his countrymen that "our public credit stands on that ground" which at the time of the launching of the new government "would have been considered as a species of madness to have foretold."
Although the president thus approved of most of Hamilton's policies, he by no means automatically endorsed them all. Believing that the United States would remain for generations to come an agricultural nation, he did not, for example, share his treasury secretary's vision of a powerful, industrialized nation, as attested by his refusal to back Hamilton's most ambitious (and in the event prescient) report—his plea for the encouragement of manufactures. In sum, the stereotyped view of Washington as merely a figurehead whose administration was actually run by Hamilton (a view first and most forcefully set forth by Jefferson) is inaccurate. Washington not only made the major decisions of his administration (usually, as has been said, after soliciting and pondering the opinions of his advisers), but he also skillfully and patiently tried to establish some semblance of harmony between his prickly principal secretaries.
No diplomat, however adroit, could have accomplished that assignment. By the summer of 1792 the conflict between the two secretaries had ripened into open warfare. Late in July 1792 the treasury secretary began an anonymous (although his authorship was no secret) newspaper crusade designed to discredit his rival and to drive him from office. As article after article appeared, Hamilton's attack on the secretary of state became increasingly shrill. Jefferson was an "intriguing incidenary" whose tenets tended to promote " national disunion , national insignificance , public disorder and discredit ," the perpetrator of "the most wanton and flagitious acts that ever stained the annals of a civilized nation." Jefferson publicly ignored such vicious assaults, confining himself to the excoriation of his rival in his personal and official correspondence. To Washington, for example, he charged that Hamilton's program "flowed from principles adverse to liberty, and was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic." For his part, Jefferson was determined that his own retirement, on which he soon planned, not "be clouded by the slanders of a man whose history, from the moment history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country which has not only received and given him bread, but heaped honors on his head."
Washington was greatly disturbed by the deadly warfare conducted by advisers he personally liked and officially trusted. Persuading himself that the differences between the two were not irreconcilable, he decided to write essentially the same letter to both, pleading with them to subordinate personal antagonism to the national interest. Since neither secretary shared the president's equitable temperament and willingness to subordinate private pique to disinterested public service, the attempt was predictably futile. Both Hamilton and Jefferson politely acknowledged the soundness of Washington's advice and then proceeded to ignore it. Jefferson was especially testy, insisting that rather than continue to battle with an antagonist he scorned, he would soon resign as secretary of state, which he in fact did a year and a half later.
Washington was upset by the recalcitrance of his chief ministers not only because of personal concerns but because of practical and political considerations: The feud between Hamilton and Jefferson could prove irreconcilable and consequently increase party strife. Furthermore, the rift in his official family might oblige him to reconsider his firm decision to retire at the end of his first term. Additionally, disunity within his official family might adversely affect the conduct of foreign affairs, always to Washington an object of overarching concern.
During his first term in office, Washington's principal diplomatic difficulties concerned the Indian tribes, Great Britain, and Spain. The most immediate menace to national security came from Native Americans, who roamed and largely controlled the western frontier. Had they been able to effectively deploy their manpower and exploit their skill in guerrilla warfare, they would have presented an even graver danger, one that the sparsely manned American military forces could not have readily parried. But individual Indian tribes often appeared more intent on fighting each other than the white man, on whom they also were hazardously dependent for guns and gunpowder. For their protection and security they acquired them by playing the three contending North American empires against each other. Of these, Native Americans most trusted Spanish Louisiana and British Canada and most distrusted the United States. The former two not only supplied them with munitions but were also less interested in seizing territory than in pursuing the mutually profitable fur trade; fellow Americans in the United States were less interested in trading with the natives than in acquiring their lands, often by treaties fraudulently obtained.
Although the Spanish attempted to block U.S. expansion in the Southwest by negotiating profitable trade alliances with Indian tribes that served as a buffer against attempts of the United States to seize Louisiana and to open the Mississippi River to its commerce, the British posed the greater threat to the new nation's sovereignty. The northwestern frontier was the scene of seemingly endless warfare between Native Americans (aided and abetted by their British allies) and American frontiersmen (intent on retaliation against murderous assaults on U.S. settlements in the West). The crux of the problem, as the United States saw the matter, was that redcoats of His Majesty's Canadian regiments still occupied seven forts in the Old Northwest, posts that England had by the terms of the 1783 peace treaty ceded to the United States. England justified its refusal to abide by this provision of the treaty by pointing to stipulations that the United States had failed to honor: the repayment of revolutionary debts due to British merchants and the return of Tory property. Britain's true reason for holding on to the forts was to safeguard the route along which Indian furs were shipped to Canada.
Washington did not immediately perceive the nature and extent of British machinations in the West. When he belatedly did so, he swiftly asked Congress to enlarge the small regular army by one regiment. That done, he decided in 1791 to restore peace to the area by sending a punitive expedition against the warring tribes. Commanded by General Arthur St. Clair, the army advanced from Fort Washington into present-day Indiana. On 4 November, St. Clair's forces were, despite Washington's warnings about such an eventuality, ambushed and humiliatingly defeated by a confederated Indian army. Although he was charitably exonerated by Washington as well as by a committee of the House of Representatives, St. Clair resigned his commission. The United States Army, reorganized and enlarged, was now placed under the command of General Anthony Wayne, a leading Revolutionary War commander. During 1792 and 1793, Wayne postponed an active campaign while he patiently instructed his troops in the tactics of forest warfare.
In the meantime, Washington took the initiative in another type of training program by seeking to convince Congress and the state governments that the solution to the problem of Indian-American relations was not war but a change in attitude and the resultant adoption of policies that would assure justice to Native Americans. The murder of a Native American, for example, should be judged as the murder of a white person, measures should be taken to protect natives' property, and "such radical experiments . . . as may from time to time suit their condition" should be launched in order that Indians might gradually be integrated into U.S. culture. The period was not auspicious for the acceptance of such ideas, particularly in view of the persistence of Native Americans in conducting savage raids against U.S. settlers on the frontier.
For Washington, a more immediate and personal problem was the approaching presidential election of 1792. Early in his first administration he had made the decision to retire at the end of a single term, and wishing above all else "to return to the walks of private life," he balked at reversing it, the more so since for the moment the foreign scene appeared serene and domestic developments, particularly the success of Hamilton's economic program, gratifying. But would the rift in his official family oblige him to reconsider his earlier decision to retire? Pressure to do so crowded in from every quarter, from north and south, from private citizens and official colleagues. Among the latter, none were more importunate than the principal rivals of his cabinet, who suspended their acrimonious disagreement on everything else political to urge the president to stand for reelection.
Neither Hamilton's nor Jefferson's pleas, nor those of many other prominent Americans, had any effect on the president's unwillingness to announce his candidacy for reelection. Nevertheless, over the months following his return to Philadelphia from Mount Vernon in October 1792, Washington continued to remain mute. Predictably no rival candidate presented himself, and there was not even a whisper that one would. Aware that he was in a field of one, Washington certainly knew that the electorate would take his silence for assent, and it did. On 13 February 1793 the electoral college unanimously elected him to a second term. His running mate, John Adams, was also returned to office, although by a vote of only seventy-seven to fifty. To Washington, now past sixty and in poor health, what others saw as an electoral triumph was rather another four-year sentence to what he described to Jefferson as "the extreme wretchedness of his existence."