George Washington assumed the presidency as Europe began a long period of strife begun by the 1789 French Revolution, events balanced by crucial domestic problems.
George Washington was inaugurated in April, 1789, as the first American President. Significantly, 1789 was also the start of the French Revolution. During Washington’s presidency, France would go through various phases of revolution, culminating in the infamous Reign of Terror in 1793. Confronted with significant domestic problems, President Washington wisely chose a policy of neutrality. The United States would not enter an entangling alliance but would put its own house in order.
Europe and the United States under Washington
The French Revolution unleashed a series of events leading to continental war. President Washington, however, followed a path of neutrality, insisting that the European powers honor and respect American commercial enterprises. France remained outraged that the United States refused to honor treaty commitments that went back to the Revolutionary War.
Great Britain also refused to treat the United States as neutral, boarding American vessels, seizing contraband cargoes, and impressing American seamen into British service. Although Jay’s Treaty as ratified in 1795 allowed small American ships to trade in the West Indies, the region was still closed to unlimited trade as it had been since 1783. Ultimately, Jay’s Treaty did very little to alleviate American complaints regarding British impediments in terms of neutral rights.
Pinckney’s Treaty, also in 1795, was a far more beneficial agreement. Forged with Spain, the treaty guaranteed the use of New Orleans as a port of deposit without tariff duties and gave Americans unhindered use of the Mississippi River. By clearly delineating a southern boundary in line with the northern border of Florida, American settlers could freely migrate to areas west of Georgia.
Pinckney’s Treaty is viewed by many historians as the greatest achievement of the Washington administration, eliminating a potential threat from Spain and encouraging an already steady westward movement. Ironically, Spain gave so much to the Americans because of the fear that Jay’s Treaty was somehow linked to an American-British alliance. British troops were already vacating some forts in the Ohio River Valley region, giving impetus to such fears.
Domestic Concerns under George Washington
As the new government sought to define itself in terms of national power, political factions coalesced around different views of how to interpret the Constitution. This would lead to bitter debates over such issues as the creation of a National Bank. Alexander Hamilton, leading the faction that saw a need for such a bank, reasoned the legitimacy of the bank on the basis of Constitutional implied powers. Those who opposed this view were led by Thomas Jefferson who believed in a “strict construction” of the Constitution.
These factions, despite Washington’s warning in his Farewell Address, would comprise the beginning of the two party system in American politics. Hamilton’s financial plan for the nation, designed to, in part, eliminate the debt load of the nation as well as those of individual states, would lead to the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. The effect of an excise tax on distilled whiskey, the rebellion would be crushed and its leaders sentenced to death. (Washington later commuted the sentences)
By the time Washington returned to Mount Vernon in 1797, political factions could not be reconciled. Events in Europe had turned worse as France attempted to cut off trade with Britain by seizing American ships, resulting in the Quasi-War. Washington’s wisdom and leadership had kept the United States out of European struggles and overcame internal obstacles. His precedent left a lasting legacy on the Executive Branch.
- Samuel Flagg Bemis, Pinckney’s Treaty: America’s Advantage From Europe’s Distress, 1783-1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960)
- Page Smith, The Shaping of America: A People’s History of the Young Republic Vol. 3 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1980)