George Washington faced many problems as the first executive in the constitutional era. Survival of the nation was the biggest. Europe expected America to fail.
America had won its independence from Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. They had formed a government through the Articles of Confederation. And it had failed. The new Constitution would, it was hoped, keep the colonies from splintering into thirteen independent nations.
Fear of Monarchy Would Hamper the New President
Americans had just thrown off the burden of a remote monarchy and “taxation without representation.” This was the only type of government Americans knew. So the Articles of Confederation had gone too far in the other direction:
- The Federal government had almost no power to collect taxes or raise revenues; and
- The president was extremely weak, having almost no power.
As the nation was about to implement a new government with a stronger executive and greater taxing power, the performance of the first president would be critical. Many saw it as the last chance for success. The nation unanimously turned to George Washington.
Washington: A Reluctant President
George Washington did not want to be president. His estate at Mount Vernon had suffered when he was away commanding the colonial army during the Revolution, and he had not come close to setting things right. He preferred to remain in Virginia.
Yet he realized the struggling nation needed him. The American republic was a fragile experiment (once broken already), the first modern attempt at a people governing themselves. The five year disaster under the Articles had convince the European monarchies that America would fail as one nation, and European style hodge-podge of small kingships would result.
Washington thought he could help, but was reluctant. Others felt he was the only one who could fill the executive office. The Electoral College chose him unanimously, and he agreed to serve. His war service had earned for him a great deal of good will, and his total lack of desire for power, frame, or financial reward proved to the nation he could be trusted with the highest office.
Problems Unique to the First President
Every president faces a basket of problems unique to the times. Washington faced his, but had to do so with no precedent. He had to feel his way, use his instincts and experience as an army commander, and expend political capital as needed. Some of his problems were:
- The lack of precedents. Everything Washington did would be a first, and would become a model for the future. He could not act in any matter without considering how his actions would affect future presidents.
- National debt. The Revolutionary war had left American finances deep in the hole, and the years under the Articles had made it worse.
- Dueling Cabinet officers. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton could not get along. Both saw the other’s actions as undermining the government. Their battles were a constant irritation and took much of Washington’s time.
- Sectionalism and Partisanship. The commercial North, the agrarian South, and the growing, independent West were all starting to distrust each other. Political parties were forming as a result. Washington had to be an arbiter between all factions.
- A capitol city. The Federal government had no offices and no permanent location, renting quarters first in New York City and then in Philadelphia. Many decisions about the capitol fell to Washington.
- European Entanglements: A general war in Europe, brought about by the French Revolution, threatened to drag America in. Washington had to fend off those who would side with France or with England, and find a place of neutrality that did not ruin American commerce.
George Washington’s administration faced problems successor administrations would never face. Yet Washington left office after eight years, with the nation at peace, with finances improving, with the west growing, with the North and South cooperating and partisanship delayed, with a national capitol under construction, with his integrity intact, and with his reputation enhanced.