Washington’s Presidency – His Cabinet Problems

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George Washington

Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were so at odds during George Washington’s presidency that he had to act as a go-between. Jefferson would eventually resign.

As George Washington assumed the presidency, if he made public a to do list, it might have included the following among top priority items.

  • Restore internal confidence in self-government
  • Restore foreign confidence in the USA’s viability
  • Tackle the national debt
  • Keep the states from splintering into independent nations

These tasks were interrelated. For example, reducing the debt was necessary to restore international confidence. Success at self-government was necessary to keep the states committed to being one nation.

Washington’s Cabinet Choices Would be Critical

To achieve these goals, Washington needed the help of a strong cabinet. Since finances were so critical, he chose for Treasury secretary a man who understood public finance: Alexander Hamilton. Since dealing with foreign powers after the failure of the Articles of Confederation would require considerable experience and finesse, he chose Thomas Jefferson, then serving as US minister to France, for Secretary of State. Henry Knox was serving as War Department secretary, and Washington kept his old colleague in that position.

From the start, Hamilton and Jefferson did not get along. Jefferson, from Virginia in the predominantly agrarian South, was suspicious of commercialization. Manufactures could stay overseas and the finished goods imported as needed. A commercial society would become corrupt, he believed, which would make society unable to govern itself in a republican form of government.

Hamilton, from the commercially developing state of New York, saw a commercial society as the best way to improve the economic status of the most citizens. A purely agrarian society would be dominated by landed interests, which would tend to maintain an entrenched elite. Hamilton wanted to use government policy to accelerate commercialization.

Jefferson and Hamilton Fought Over How to Reduce the National Debt

Jefferson and Hamilton had not met prior to Jefferson’s return from France to serve in the cabinet. Almost immediately there was friction between them. Hamilton had been in his cabinet position for several months, and was implementing his vision and program through policy and congressional legislation. Jefferson thought Hamilton’s “Financial system was the entering wedge of a conspiracy to impose a monarchy on the US.” Hamilton thought Jefferson was merely trying to maintain the landed elite in their positions. He had the better grasp on public financial management than did Jefferson, who was brilliant in other ways.

Washington saw this dispute as essentially sectional in nature: North vs. South. He attempted to arbitrate between the two secretaries. He personally favored Hamilton’s program, yet did not want to alienate his fellow Virginian. Jefferson’s grasp of foreign affairs was too great to lose him as a cabinet officer.

Personality and Style Helped Cause the Hamilton-Jefferson Split

Not only were their politics different, but Hamilton and Jefferson also had clashing personalities and social styles. Jefferson had great intellect, and was accomplished in many fields. Yet he was rigid in his politics and tended to see a conspiracy behind every political idea that differed from his. Despite his years of government service, he was not at ease in public. Others found him humorless.

Hamilton was close to Jefferson’s intellectual equal, but was comfortable in public. He made political allies easily, and knew how to make deals so as to push forward his agenda. He got things done. He was perhaps a better reader of character than was Jefferson. He knew who his friend and enemies were, while Jefferson tended to confide in those who turned out to be in the other camp. Hamilton’s big weaknesses were his ego and being overly protective of his reputation.

Washington Tried to Placate Both Jefferson and Hamilton

George Washington did not fully understand all that Hamilton recommended as far as public financial policy, but he knew he needed both men to move the country forward and to hold it together, to gain favor with the European powers. He knew Hamilton had no designs on moving the nation toward becoming a monarchy, and sought to convince Jefferson of that.

When the dispute broke out into rival newspapers, Washington was deeply disturbed. He met with Jefferson and corresponded with him, in an attempt to end the “internal discussions..harrowing and tearing our vitals” and to ask for “more charity for opinions and acts of one another in Governmental matters” [Washington to Jefferson, August 23, 1972]. He began to hold more meetings with Department secretaries, which became the forerunner of the modern cabinet system.

Washington was not fully successful in his efforts. Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State in 1793. Perhaps he had done all he could to work with Hamilton, and Washington had had his services long enough to strike the right balance in foreign relations. In these relationships, Washington was able to get the men to work together long enough to help the nation further along on a firm footing.

Source:

  1. The Presidency of George Washington by Jack D. Warren, Jr.; Mount Vernon Ladies Association, 2000