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George Washington

why his Presidency is worth reviewing

This is a brief review of George Washington the man and what prepared him to succeed as the first President of the United States. 

Hopefully it will help us understand the sure foundation he laid for others who led and transformed the country and how they were transformed by the Presidency.

Profile

  • Born: February 22, 1732, Westmoreland County, Virgnia
  • Died: December 14, 1799, Mount Vernon Virginia
  • Spouse: Martha Dandridge Custis, married 1759
  • Children: John Custis, Martha Custis (stepchildren)
  • Education: Home-schooled
  • Religion: Episcopalian
  • Occupation: Surveyor, Planter, General, President
  • Government positions: Virginia House of Burgesses, member; Continental Congress, representative; Constitutional Convention, chairman
  • Dates as President:4/30/1789 - 3/4/1793 (first term), 4/4/1793 - 4/4/1797 (second term)
  • Political Party: Federalist

Life Before the Presidency

The first President of the United States, he has been called the "father of his country". He was always outspoken about American independence from Great Britain. He came from a large family. His father Augustine died when George was eleven.

He was schooled primarily at home by his mother because she didn't want to send him to England to get his education, which was customary at the time.

George would accompany his sister-in-laws brother when he would survey the land in the area. As a result he learned a skill that would eventually land him the position of official surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia.

George Washington would eventually inherit the family estate of Mount Vernon from his half-brother, Lawrence. He was soon appointed to his half-brothers post as an officer in the Virginia militia.

He was later commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in 1754. He soon led an attack on a French stronghold located where he had recommended to the Governor of Virginia that an American fort be built. The attack ended up killing ten French soldiers along with their commander Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers.

However, while waiting for reinforcements his own troops were overcome by the French and he was forced to surrender. As part of the terms of surrender he unwittingly confessed to the assassination of Ensign Coulon becuase he did not speak the language.

His performance was not at the time appreciated or recognized by the British military. He was not given a command position. In spite of this he was later assigned in 1755 as an aide to General Edward Braddock. After serving Braddock he was eventually assigned as colonel of the colonial troops with the responsibility of guarding Virginia's three hundred mile frontier from attack by the French.

After marrying Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759, he settled into the life of a gentlemen farmer experimenting with new agricultural methods and equipment. His new wife was a wealthy widow with two children of her own. He eventually adopted the children as his own.

His life as a framer led to his anti-British sentiments. George Washington lost money as a tobacco farmer which he was convinced was a result of British sales agents cheating him. These sentiments would deepen between 1759 and 1774 while he was a member of the Virginia legislature, the House of Burgesses.

Many of the colonists joined George Washington in protesting what they regarded as unfair taxation beginning with the 1765 Stamp Act whichrequired the purchase of stamps to make documents legal. When the House of Burgesses grew increasingly rebellious the British authorities dissolved it.

Secret meetings began to take place among the former legislators throughout the colonies and anti-British sentiments continued to grow as a result of increased taxation. They would eventually express sympathy for Massachusetts in it's refusal to pay the taxes imposed by the British.

George Washington was later chosen as Virginia's representative to the First Continental Congress when it convened in 1774. A year later he was chosen as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. In 1775 he was appointed the militias first commander in chief.

George Washington Legacy

During his two terms as president Washington left behind an impressive legacy that set the bar for all that followed him as President of the United States. 

He demonstrated to the electorate (the popular vote was not yet in existence) that they had chosen wisely when they all selected him to occupy the nations highest elected office. 

His personal accomplishments show that he was an outstanding citizen, a victorious general and an effective executive.

His insight and wisdom regarding the office that he occupied can be seen in the way he conducted his affairs demonstrating his use of authority while respecting the equal and balancing powers of Congress and the Supreme Court.

Although he faced opposition from various factions within the young government, George Washington's administration established national financial institutions.

He used the authority of the federal government to stop a rebellion and to avoid a war with England he believed would have been devastating to the young nation.

He filled his cabinet with men holding various viewpoints of government. His effective leadership held together a group of idealistic and inexperienced revolutionaries through difficult debates as they progressed toward becoming a stronger nation.

In 1789 the First Congress established the nation's court system with the Judiciary Act. IT also passed the first tariff tax, a tax that would make imported goods more expensive. This tax was intended to protect American manufacturers while generating much needed income to run the federal government.

The governments of Europe were still in distress during his tenure and America was soon impacted by the French Revolution when France declared war on England. Again, George Washington recognized the importance of keeping the country out of such conflicts because it could not afford to finance another war nor lose the revenue that was earned from the trade conducted with Great Britain.

To further protect the young nation Washington proclaimed American neutrality. However, the French were not amused by this stand and neither were many of its American supporters because of the alliance treaty that had been signed by America and France during the American revolution.

This served as an opportunity for Washington to exert the authority of the office. He realized that The Constitution gave Congress the power to declare war, however, it did not address the issue of declaring neutrality. To appease everyone he issued a statement that did not use the word neutral but agreed to a careful interpretation of the terms of the treaty.

Unfortunately, this did not bring about the results Washington had hoped for. Tensions among the Americans soon grew worse when the British started stopping ships at sea, using the pretext that they were searching for British citizens who had deserted the army.

If that wasn't bad enough the British soon began seizing all cargoe not bound for Great Britain on the suspicion that they were bound for it's enemies. To quickly ease tensions Washington sent John Jay to England to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

The resulting treaty was not well received by everyone because it did not address British aggression at sea and it didn't allow America to restrict British imports or open up British-controlled West Indies to American trade. However, the terms were finally agreed to by Washington and Congress.

In George Washington's view the treaty achieved two things; first, it avoided war,  and second, Great Britain agreed to vacate all American forts on the Great Lakes. As a result the United States would become the major power in the northwest territory.

By the end of Washington's term a number of other treaties were signed that ensured America's boundaries and maintained peace at large with other nations that were conducting trade with them.


Washington's Farewell Address

There was much to reflect upon when he completed his second term. George Washington had grown extremely fond of his country and it was quite evident in the comments of his farewell address. Here are some excerpts from that address:


  • "as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment, that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual  happiness..."
  • "Citizens, by birth of choice, of a common countrythat country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habitsand political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the Independence and Liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts, of common dangers, sufferings and successes."
  • "One the expedients of party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart-burnings, which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those, who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection."
  • "The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and alter their Constitutions of Government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish Government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government."
  • "The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to part dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The orders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purpose of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty."

Summary

There is much wisdom that is to be gleaned from this man's words even today. Unfortunately, George Washington was not able to convince his countrymen to stay the course for very long.

In the elections that year factions did indeed incur and in years to come regional politics. Northern politicians lobbied for favorable business policies and Southerners responded with strong objections that eventually led to the American Civil War.

His decisions and actions demonstrated a keen understanding of the importance of maintaining balance between the three branches of government in order to maintain the unity of the nation and assure it future existence.

Much like a mother caring for her first-born child George Washington took great care in not setting precedents that could be used by future 
Presidents later to harm the nation. Nurturing the young nation they had birthed was a great responsibility that he took seriously and encouraged his countrymen to not forsake.

He proved by example that the American system could work by creating a model of how the Presidency should function.

His concerns and fears revealed in his last address proved to be somewhat prophetic. We have seen some of our Presidents violate some of the precautions he referred to and we have paid the price as a nation. How different would we be today had they listened to his counsel?

George Washington- return to "List of Presidents"

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