On April 30, 1789,
George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United
States. As years go by, the public
knowledge of historical figures grows dim, although soldiers tend to have a
relatively long shelf-life in the collective memory bank.
still has some currency as the dauntless commander who kept his troops in the
field despite infrequent paydays and scant supplies until his ragtag soldiers
conquered Britain’s professional army.
President Washington is a different matter, for many people scarcely
more than an imposing figure in a white wig in some famous painting.
however, is worth remembering. The
trajectory of the American government over its first eight years is
awesome. Three executive departments --
State, War and Treasury -- were conceived and activated. Ten constitutional amendments were ratified. The federal judiciary was established and
appointments made to the circuit, district and supreme courts.
important treaties were negotiated: with Britain to avert war; with Spain, to
certify western and southern boundaries of the United States and guarantee
American navigational rights on the Mississippi River; and with the Barbary
States, to terminate pirate attacks on American shipping, and secure the
release of Americans who had been taken prisoner.
The location for a
permanent capital was chosen and land was acquired from Virginia and Maryland
to create the District of Columbia.
Arrangements were made to pay America’s debt to France and Holland,
incurred during the Revolutionary War, and also to meet the obligations of the
were mounted against marauding Indians along the land frontiers and treaties
were secured with some of the warring tribes.
Pennsylvania, citizens angry about whiskey taxes engaged in an open rebellion
that had to be suppressed by armed force.
As this sampling
indicates, what was accomplished in those first eight years would be remarkable
under the most favorable circumstances, but the new government over which
Washington presided operated in a climate of tension and hostility.
repayment of colonial debts was resented by those colonies that had already met
their obligations at some sacrifice.
Agricultural priorities worked against commercial and industrial ones,
just as frontier interests collided with those of the Eastern seaboard. The French Revolution of 1789 generated
sympathies among some Americans and antagonism among others and those feelings
were intensified in 1793 when France declared war on Britain, Holland and
jealousies stirred heated arguments about the location of the capital. Some citizens wanted a strong central
government. Others greatly preferred to
allocate governmental responsibilities to state and local jurisdictions.
most basic issues became polarized between the Democratic-Republican Party,
headed by Thomas Jefferson, and the Federalist Party led by Alexander
Hamilton. Imagine President
Washington’s situation with Jefferson as Secretary of State and Hamilton as Secretary
of the Treasury!
And yet, before the
second presidential election, both Hamilton and Jefferson insisted that George
Washington should serve another four years.
That astonishing double tribute to the president’s wise leadership was
reinforced several months later when Washington was chosen for a second term by
the presidential electors without a dissenting vote. It should be remembered that in those days the electors chosen
from the states had individual responsibility, each to judge who would best
serve the nation.
was a truly extraordinary leader. He
refused to accept pay when asked to head the Revolutionary Army and did the
same when he was elected president. His
proclamations about the use of military force against the Indians and in the
whiskey rebellion explained the specific circumstances and were models of
fairness and firmness in calling for the suppression of violence and
In his speeches
and other formal statements, he never failed to express fervent thanks to God
for the blessings bestowed on the American nation. In his first inaugural address, Washington spoke primarily about
the importance to the country of virtuous, moral and patriotic citizens. In his Farewell Address he turned again to
“Of all the
dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and
morality are indispensable supports. In
vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert
these great pillars of human happiness -- these firmest props of the duties of
American president was the living embodiment of the qualities he commended to
the nation -- integrity, fairness, magnanimity, wisdom and attention to
duty. These attributes enabled him to
lead our fledgling nation wisely and solidly through difficult and contentious
times and to earn the profound admiration, respect and gratitude of his people.