I. Washington’s First Term: Building the United States Government
A. Diversity or Uniformity?
In the wake of winning his country's independence and then overseeing the formation of its government, George Washington thought he had done enough. He desperately wanted to live out his final years in privacy at Mount Vernon, but Americans wanted no one else to lead them. America’s first presidential campaign was more an effort of Americans to convince Washington to take the job. Washington didn’t have to convince anyone that he was the ideal person for the job; in fact the American public almost assumed that Washington would be president. Washington was reluctant, and expressed to a friend that he felt like a dead man walking.
In 1789, America was a diverse country. With the recent addition of Vermont, there were fourteen states. The population numbered 4 million, and about 750,000 slaves (or 20% of the population), lived mainly in the South. The majority of Americans were farmers, white or black. Only six percent of all Americans lived in cities; there were twenty-four cities with populations greater than 2,500. By the end of the decade, 500,000 people, principally from Virginia and North Carolina, had moved inland, west of the Appalachian Mountains, where they confronted 100,000 Native Americans who had lived there for hundreds of years. Indeed, in the rural farm areas of the Atlantic seaboard, a third of the households moved elsewhere during this time period, and in the cities, closer to 50 percent of the population relocated.
French visitor Hector St. John Crevecoeur observed that Americans had a few things in common: they treasured their freedom, had no extremes of rich and poor, had no distinctions between people based on hereditary status, and the majority of white men were farmers or self-employed craftsmen. However, he also chronicled the diversity of the country: he saw three distinct regions and temperaments: Those who lived near the sea, those who lived in the middle settlements, and those on the frontier. Those who lived by the sea were the most enterprising, gregarious, and restless; those who lived in the middle settlements were the hard-working farmers and the frontiersmen were lazy, drunken, brutal, and lawless. He also noticed regional diversity in terms of North, mid-Atlantic, and South.
In the opinion of Crevecoeur, the Yankees (those who lived in the North) appeared cold, stingy, serious, cheap, vulgar, and plain, they talked too fast and with an obnoxious accent. Among these Northerners there were English descendants of the Puritans, French, and Jewish immigrants. In the mid-Atlantic, there was tremendous diversity; from Native Americans that remained in upstate New York, to an equal percentage of Dutch, Scottish, Blacks, and German, French, Scandinavians and Jews, there were a variety of religions practiced, from Dutch Reformed to Anglicanism, to Judaism to Lutheranism and Quakerism. The general impression of the South was the image of the gentry, of giant slave plantations, yet upon a closer glimpse the South was just as diverse as the mid-Atlantic. There were Scotch-Irish frontiersmen, South Carolina low country gentry, Yankee immigrants, and giant populations of slaves.
There was also a noticeable difference, a difference that became important during the debates of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson: there was an obvious division and even tension, between country dwellers and city dwellers, between merchants and farmers, and between small businesses or farms and big businesses or plantations. The new government, then, would have the tremendous challenge of governing this diverse group of people. This is the America that George Washington would have to preside over. Washington could not refuse, and he could not afford to fail, for if he failed, it would make his entire life’s work a meaningless failure.
Once everyone arrived in Washington, Congress began its work in April, and began to count the votes of the Electoral College. Washington won easily, and at the time, since the Founding Fathers had not expected any political parties or anything like the ideological division easily observed today, the runner-up in the presidential election, John Adams, became the vice-president. Washington began his leisurely trip to the temporary capital of America, New York City. His presidential inauguration was held near New York's Wall Street in late April 1789. A tremendous crowd showed up to see the man now known as "the Father of His Country." Borrowing a custom from English monarchs, who by tradition address Parliament when its sessions open, Washington gave a brief speech. It was the first inaugural address and the first of many contributions that Washington would make to the office of the presidency. But this would be no monarch; the new leader wore a plain brown suit. Washington realized that his actions would set the tone for future presidencies: "I walk on untrodden ground," Washington wrote soon afterward. "There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent."
Several things got accomplished in 1789: organizing government, filling jobs, settling debts and finances, passing the Bill of Rights, creating the judiciary, and the creation of the Cabinet. Washington knew that he himself could not run the country without advice and help, so he went to Congress and got permission to create a Cabinet, similar to what had existed under the Articles of Confederation. To head up the State Department, Washington chose Thomas Jefferson, who had been the ambassador to France. To chair the Treasury Department, Washington chose his former aide, the young Alexander Hamilton. To direct the War Department, Henry Knox became the nominee; he had been the head of the army. Washington also created two offices: that of the Attorney General and post office. The Attorney General was John Randolph of Virginia, the author of the Virginia Plan. Samuel Osgood of Massachusetts became the postmaster general.
With these new government departments and agencies created, Washington had a number of jobs to fill; people were stopping by to visit him at his residence in New York, were coming by just to meet him or to have their children see him—Washington had to set visitation boundaries and he had to use a set of guidelines for how to fill all the government jobs (about 1,000), that were created in all the different departments of the government. He accomplished this task by selecting people who were supporters of the Constitution, who could provide some recommendation from someone else. He allowed upper level government employees to choose who they wanted and trusted to work for them. Finally, if any Senator recommended or disapproved of a candidate from the senator’s state, he got the final say.
B. Setting up the Country
Money was the most critical problem that Congress had to deal with—the national government was bankrupt. Congress agreed to pass a tariff, a tax on imported goods, and taxed the weight of goods brought in on ships with the Revenue Act of 1789. This was a step in the right direction, though the government was in debt to its citizens and needed some way to convince investors that their money would be paid back. (More on this below.) At the same time, federal employees had to be paid. Congress set George Washington’s salary at $25,000, which was more than he expected, however, Washington’s expenses were quite high--$2,000 a month for liquor alone because there were frequent parties at the presidential mansion. Interestingly, the question of how much to pay the President of the United States reveals a larger question facing the leaders of this young, new country: how to understand the Office of the President – was he a king? Was he a Prime Minister? The office of “president” was not common at this time, and the Founding Fathers has in many ways modeled the entire US Constitution on that of the ancient Roman Republic (where the executive was a “consul” but later functioned as an emperor). Congress spent 3 ½ weeks discussing how to address the President (meaning what the proper title should be). There were all sorts of suggestions, from “his excellency,” and ultimately the Congress decided that “Mr. President” was appropriate.
Congress had other work to do as well, most notably completing a Bill of Rights to amend to the Constitution during the summer of 1789. Virginia’s George Mason, a planter and neighbor of Washington in Northern Virginia, was a congressman from Virginia, and had drafted a Bill of Rights for the state of Virginia; he and James Madison narrowed down 80 proposals they had received from the states to ten, and in September, 1789, Congress approved the Bill of Rights, 10 Amendments to the Constitution. The Bill of Rights had been ratified by the following June. The first amendment dealt with freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition; the next two guaranteed the right to keep and bear arms (expecting that men would be citizen-soldiers), the third limited the quartering of troops in private homes, the next five dealt with judicial procedures: the fourth amendment prohibited “unreasonable searches and seizures,” the fifth and sixth established the rights of the accused, such as “due process,” and the right to not say something that would incriminate oneself. The seventh outlined the right to a jury trial, the eighth forbade “cruel and unusual punishments,” the ninth and tenth amendments reserved all things not specified to the states.
Congress was not done. They also needed to create the judiciary branch of the federal government. (The Constitution outlined how the executive and legislative branches would operate but only said that the Congress should also create a court system, without spelling out how to do it.) The system that Congress would set up would change significantly in the future but we should still take a look at the origins. Senator Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut and William Paterson, of New Jersey and author of the New Jersey Plan, worked to strike a balance between state and federal courts. Until 1789, there was no federal legal system. The Judiciary Act of 1789 changed that; it created the Supreme Court and lower courts. The Supreme Court had six justices, there were two levels of federal court, a circuit court with three districts, and sixteen district courts. The Supreme Court was limited in the new cases brought before it; cases had to start elsewhere and work their way up to the Supreme Court. (The Supreme Court is commonly referred to today by political junkies and policy wonks as the “SCOTUS,” Supreme Court Of The United States.) To give states a bit more power, Congress said the Supreme Court judges would travel to serve as additional circuit court judges. Each state also had a district court. John Jay of New York became the first chief justice of the SCOUTS; John Rutledge of South Carolina, James Iredell of NC, John Blair of VA, James Wilson of PA, and William Cushing of Massachusetts made up the remaining justices. The Supreme Court handled very few cases early on of any lasting significance.
C. Signs of Trouble
On September 29, Congress adjourned and everyone went home until the following January. Washington visited New England. Yet the House instructed Treasury Department head Alexander Hamilton to survey the public debts and come up with a plan for paying them off. Hamilton’s proposal, and the controversy that it ignited, attracted the bulk of Congress’ attention in 1790 and 1791. When Congress re-adjourned in 1790, Hamilton issued his First Report on Public Credit. He wanted the government to deal honestly with people that it owed money, and to pay off debts, which would encourage people to borrow again. The government owed money to individual citizens who had loaned it money during the war, it owed money to foreign countries, and some also argued that it should reimburse the states for many of the expenses related to the war. Hamilton proposed that:
a) The Federal Government would pay of all the federal debts owed in full
b) The Federal Government would pay without discrimination to whoever currently owns the debt (sometimes it had passed hands)
c) Federal Government would assume state debts because their debts were war-related (to pay for the national defense).
Because Hamilton was a Federalist and wanted the government to be strong, he thought that if the government assumed the states’ debts, it would make the central government stronger and would gain people’s allegiance the central government. Under Hamilton’s plan, though, the states would have to help the federal government pay a portion of the debts to private citizens.
James Madison countered with a different proposal. He explained that it was more complicated, because most of the debt had been in the North—most of the state debt had been in the North. Many of the Southern states had tried to pay off their debts already, so Hamilton’s plan would help the North more than it would the South. We should pause to note that, in the dispute over Hamilton’s plan, we see the signs of significant differences emerging with the ranks of the Founding Fathers. Hamilton and many others close to Washington believed that the Federal Government should be large, powerful, and take on many tasks to promote the economic growth of the new country. Many of these people were northerners (but not all), and many envisioned the United States as a center of international trade and commerce (a position that probably meant the northern states would be more economically, and therefore politically, important). These people came to be known as Federalists. Opposed to the Federalists were the faction eventually known as the Republicans, later Democratic-Republicans (and even later, Democrats). This second group centered around James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, both of Virginia, and they had a vision for the United States that called for a nation of small, independent farmers. In this vision, the Federal Government was much more limited in size and activity, and state governments wielded more power (because they were closer and more responsive to the will of the voters). So with Madison and Hamilton, and their supporters disagreeing on both the question of the debt, but also the question of how this new Federal Government would work, Congress was deadlocked.
Hamilton sought out Thomas Jefferson, to work out a deal. Hamilton promised to move the national capital to Philadelphia for ten years, then to a site on the Potomac River, in Northern Virginia. Virginia would thus get a major port city, and locating the future national capital (Washington, D.C.) would benefit Virginia, since Virginia would have the national government in its backyard. In exchange, the Virginia senators agreed to support Hamilton’s plan on the debt. Congress approved a 20-year charter for the first Bank of the United States; the bank would hold government deposits and issue banknotes that would be received in payment of debts owed the federal government. The Government paid off the debt with bonds, and a small number of northern investors benefited. The government established credit, by showing itself to be trustworthy, and many northerners invested again in the government.
In 1791, Hamilton presented to Congress his Report on Manufactures, which outlined plans for the development of industry and manufacturing in the United States. Hamilton argued that a nation could never be truly independent if it relied on European nations for manufactured goods. He proposed several ideas that Congress adopted; for example, Congress agreed to Hamilton’s proposal of a limited tariff to encourage American manufacturing and also to a steep tax on whiskey. It would be a valuable source of revenue, taking on New England and New York rum distillers. Most involved in the distilling business were Scotch-Irish frontiersmen who had a lack of respect for the new national government and Hamilton agreed that these westerners should be made to feel the lash, as well as the benefits, of government. (This tax on whiskey will be important later.) By now, the midpoint of Washington's first term, cooperation had deteriorated and Washington's administration had split into the two rival factions noted above, and much of the President's energies were spent in mediating their differences.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz #1: How did the unanimity of Washington’s election in 1788 break down into antagonism between two political factions? WHICH of the following issues helps to explain this break down?
a. Federalists and Democratic-Republicans disagreed on whether to pass the Bill of Rights
b. Federalists and Democratic-Republicans disagreed on whether Washington should be President-for-Life
c. Federalists and Democratic-Republicans disagreed on the nature of the Federal Government, with Federalists like Jefferson supporting a large, powerful Federal Government while Democratic-Republicans like Hamilton supporting a weak Federal Government and more power for states
d. Federalists and Democratic-Republicans disagreed on the nature of the Federal Government, with Federalists like Hamilton supporting a large, powerful Federal Government while Democratic-Republicans like Jefferson supporting a weak Federal Government and more power for states
II. Washington’s Second Term: Working Out the Kinks?
The story of Washington’s second term was one of even greater challenges. Washington wanted to retire. He was sixty, his hearing and eyesight were deteriorating, and he longed for the tranquility of Mount Vernon. But he slowly realized that there were crucial problems to be resolved, and at his advisors’ request, Washington ran again for president and easily won. John Adams was again voted Vice-President. However, Thomas Jefferson, tired of his conflict with Hamilton, resigned his position as Secretary of State.
A. Domestic Disputes
One of the taxes created as a result of Alexander Hamilton’s programs was a steep tax on whiskey. Whiskey production had increased dramatically in the 1790s, and the high taxes enraged many western citizens, especially in Western Pennsylvania. Whiskey was often used as barter— a medium of exchange with which to trade. That is, if a farmer had little or no gold or silver, and no credit at the bank, they might trade barrels of whiskey for seed or tools or other goods they needed to purchase. Thus this high tax on whiskey, which had to be paid with money or else the farmer went to jail, meant that the farmer lost what little money he had. It seemed that with the tax, the federal government was trying to reduce him to the status of a European peasant.
These small-time farmers believed instead in a land tax. The taxing of western land would force land investors to sell that land at reasonable rates to small farmers, enabling them (the farmers) to move west into new areas of the country and set up farms cheaply. (This was important as some areas of farmland in the old colonial regions was becoming depleted of nutrients in the soil, and so farmers needed new lands to continue farming.) This new tax on whiskey made it seem like the Federal Government was favoring the land owners (by not taxing land holdings) and investors, over small farmers and consumers (by taxing the product they consumed). Plus, tax officers were searching homes and forcing people to make oaths to the federal government. There were numerous people being prosecuted, but to make matters worse, the Philadelphia federal court would hear the cases. With a small farm, a distillery, and little else, how could that small farmer possibly get all the way to Philadelphia to be in court, while simultaneously being absent from his farm during farming season, have to pay a lawyer, and get witnesses there if he hoped to win the case? It seemed like a deliberate and contrived government conspiracy. To make matters even worse, these frontier farmers were already upset with the Washington administration because Hamilton’s economic plans seemed to represent the needs of the manufacturing and industrial east, and did not take into account the needs of the western farmers.
Resistance to the whiskey tax boiled over in western Pennsylvania with attacks on tax collectors and the formation of several well-armed resistance movements. These participants in the Whiskey Rebellion were convinced that the rising commercial and industrial class was allied with the federal government to crush out the small entrepreneur and cut off the farmers’ only source of income. Plus, with a denser population than in Kentucky and western Virginia, there was more government interference in Pennsylvania, and it was more difficult to evade the law. Finally, there were more people involved in distilling whiskey there, and thus more people affected.
Washington was alarmed by the Whiskey Rebellion, viewing it as a threat to the nation's existence. In an extraordinary move, designed to demonstrate the federal government's preeminence and power, the President ordered militia from several other states into Pennsylvania to keep order. He then personally led an army of 13,000 men to Western Pennsylvania to show the federal government’s strength and seriousness. The insurrection collapsed quickly with little violence, and the resistance movements disbanded. Twenty prisoners were captured and paraded to Philadelphia, where crowds insulted them. Stuck in jail for six weeks, most prisoners were found not guilty for lack of evidence. Only two men were found guilty; Washington pardoned them. Resistance disappeared, and moonshiners evaded the law. People became convinced that the Democratic Societies had put the rebels up to it, and the Federalists remained strong.
Rural farmers were not the only ones causing the U.S. Government problems. In the early-1790s, the Miami Confederacy of Indians, located in Ohio, refused to sell their territory to America and defeated two American military expeditions, killing over 600 American soldiers and militia. In response, Washington sent an army commanded by “Mad Anthony” Wayne, a Revolutionary War veteran, to launch a new expedition against a coalition of tribes led by Miami Chief Little Turtle. Wayne spent months training his troops to fight using forest warfare in the style of the Indians before marching boldly into the region. After constructing a chain of forts, Wayne and his troops crushed the Indians in the Battle of Fallen Timbers (near present-day Toledo) in the summer of 1794. Defeated, the Miami and their six allies—the Shawnee, Ottawa, Chippewa, Iroquois, Sauk, and Fox, ceded large portions of Indian lands to the United States in the Treaty of Greenville (1795).
B. Foreign Policy Challenges
In 1789, the French Revolution began, but by 1793, the Revolution had turned more radical, and the King and Queen of France, and many of its nobility, had been executed. The French republic outlawed Christianity. In 1793, Revolutionary France and England went to war. Americans were deeply divided over whether the United States should continue its alliance with France (from the time of the American Revolution) or support Great Britain (whom many in the U.S. were not sure they completely trusted). This choice was made more difficulty because, in some ways, the French Revolution could be seen as emerging out of concerns similar to the American Revolution: high taxes, unpopular king with too much power, inability for regular citizens to have a voice in the political system (although there were also many differences from the American example, too), yet the direction taken by the French Revolution was much more radical by 1793 than anything seen in the United States to that point.
Hamilton and his allies, the Federalists, viewed the French Revolution as anarchy, as out of control. They believed that the United States should renounce the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France and should side with Great Britain. But the British were inciting Native Americans to attack American settlers along the frontier of the new country. American anger in response to these attacks served to reinforce sentiments for aiding France in any conflict with Great Britain. Jefferson and his supporters favored a continued alliance with France.
In 1793, the situation became more complicated when in April, Edmund Genet, known as “Citizen” Genet, a representative of the French government, arrived in Charleston, South Carolina to recruit Americans for expeditions against British and Spanish colonies in the western hemisphere, to gain support for the French by distributing pamphlets, and to spread pro-French ideas. Washington did not want to get the United States involved in any foreign conflict; the nation was too young, too weak, too economically unstable, to fight another war with a major European power. Washington issued a proclamation of American neutrality in the conflict, declaring that the U.S. would follow “a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers,” and prohibiting “aiding or abetting hostilities.” When Genet allowed a French-sponsored warship to sail out of Philadelphia against direct presidential orders, Washington demanded that France recall Genet. Ultimately, when the government in France changed, Citizen Genet could not return, yet his ideas, which often overlapped with the ideas of the Jeffersonians, led to the creation of dozens of Democratic-Republican Societies in the 1790s. These societies criticized Washington and Hamilton, and spread opposition views against the Washington administration.
America continued to trade with both France and Great Britain, even though France and Britain were at war with each other. Thus France and Great Britain both refused to respect the rights of (neutral) American ships in their respective waters, seizing American ships for supporting the other side. Even worse, British naval ships seized American ships and cargoes and kidnapped American sailors and forced them to serve in the British Navy! (This action was called impressment.)
In mid-1793, Britain announced that it would seize any ships trading with the French, including those flying the American flag. In protest, widespread civil disorder erupted in several American cities. By the following year, tensions with Britain were so high that Washington had to stop all American shipments overseas. Six large warships were commissioned; among them was the USS Constitution, the legendary "Old Ironsides." An envoy was sent to England to attempt reconciliation, but the British were now building a fortress in Ohio while increasing insurgent activities elsewhere in America.
The President's strong inclination in response to British provocations was to seek a diplomatic solution. Washington sent John Jay to England, but Jay negotiated a very unpopular treaty (the Jay Treaty of 1795). For the US, Britain agreed to evacuate the Northwest by 1796, though Fallen Timbers already happened. The British East Indies (basically the Caribbean) would open to Americans; this trade brought millions in profits over the next few years. Britain got in return restrictions preventing Americans from carrying certain commodities to Europe, even if they were imported from French or Spanish colonies, or if they were produced in the US. Both sides benefitted in that war was averted and each nation placed the other in terms of tariffs, on a most-favored nation status. The Treaty did not settle boundaries, pre-Revolutionary debts or compensation for maritime seizures. It said nothing about the kidnapping of American sailors. These issues would be resolved by committees. The Treaty did not mention of confiscated slaves during the Revolution and thus angered Southerners. Though the treaty insured neutrality, it protected the Hamiltonian system, and many of the Federalists in the North were content.
Jay’s Treaty continued to have negative consequences for the remainder of the Washington administration. France declared the U.S. to be in violation of American-French treaties signed during the Revolution, and by 1796, the French were harassing American ships and threatening the U.S. with punitive sanctions. Diplomacy did little to solve the problem, and in later years, American and French warships exchanged gunfire on several occasions. John Adams, the next president, would inherit this tense situation.
Besides France and Great Britain, the U.S. was also still dealing with the former colonial power Spain but an agreement with Spain had a much happier outcome for Washington. Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina negotiated a treaty with Spain (the Pinckney Treaty of 1795) giving the United States navigation privileges on the Mississippi River and the right to use the port of New Orleans. Spain agreed not to incite any Indians against the United States and to recognize American freedom on the seas. This was a boost to the West and the South, and this further encouraged settlement and trade in the West. (The Mississippi River and port of New Orleans were basically the only way that farmers on the frontier could ship their crops to market for sale or export; the ability to use these venues thus removed a large obstacle to western expansion.) Taken together, the two treaties brought enormous advantages to the US: neutrality, commercial prosperity, and territorial expansion.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz #2: What were some of the challenges facing the new U.S. Government during the early years? Which of the following was NOT an example of these challenges?
a. War with the Miami Indian Confederacy, resulting in the Treaty of Greenville
b. Diplomatic tension with Great Britain, leading to the Jay Treaty
c. Diplomatic tension with France, leading to the Pinckney Treaty
d. Resistance to tax laws, leading to the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania
III. A Closer Look: The End of the Washington Era
If he wanted to, Washington could have served a third term. It was not until 1951 with the 22nd Amendment that the Constitution limited a president to two terms. But Washington was exhausted physically, mentally, and financially, and simply wanted to return to Mount Vernon. With the help of Hamilton and Madison, Washington prepared a farewell address that he delivered to the public upon the end of his presidency: He outlined the challenges that America faced and warned his fellow citizens against "the baneful spirit of faction," referring to the party spirit that had disrupted his administration, and he warned against "foreign entanglements." But he could not prevent the formation of parties, nor did his warning against "foreign entanglements" prevent his successors from engaging in active diplomacy with European nations, often leading to de facto alliances. To this day, Washington's farewell address is read aloud every year in both houses of Congress as a tribute to his service and foresight.
On December 12, 1799, Washington noted in his diary, "At about ten o'clock it began to snow, soon after to hail, and then to a settled cold rain." For five hours that day, Washington had been outdoors on horseback, inspecting his property. The next day he complained of a sore throat, and that night he became deeply ill. Doctors, heeding the medical tenets of the day, extracted blood from him and performed other practices that did him more harm than good. Yet Washington never complained of the pain. He calmly gave orders to servants and apologized for the trouble he was causing everyone. Around midnight he breathed his last breath.
Washington's funeral was not the simple ceremony he had requested. Thousands of mourners attended the services, a band played, and a ship anchored in the Potomac fired a grand salute. He was buried in the family tomb at Mount Vernon. His forty-two page will, which he had personally drafted in 1799, left his estate, which was valued at $500,000, to his wife, Martha, for use during her lifetime, after which it would pass to his nephew, Bushrod Washington. He freed his personal slave, William, with a $30 grant of money to be paid him every year for life, and he ordered the rest of his slaves freed upon Martha's death. Washington left some of his wealth to a school for poor and orphaned children and other amounts to support the construction of a national university in Washington, D.C. His two grandchildren received large, choice tracts of farmland in Virginia, and he left his numerous friends gifts drawn from his household and personal effects. Washington's five nephews inherited his five swords along with the instructions to never "unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self-defense, or in defense of their Country and its rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof."
Lady Washington, Martha Washington, was like her husband, reluctant to do the work that the nation asked of her. However, she set a positive precedent with her actions as the first First Lady. Despite her many objections to life as a presidential spouse—she didn’t like being in the spotlight—as she put it, "the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions and not upon our circumstances." With that spirit in mind, Lady Washington attended honorary birthday balls, stood in for her husband at public events, personally greeted the public in an annual New Year’s Day open house, held weekly buffet receptions. She set a tone for the charitable work that many first ladies since have been involved in—she took a particular interest in veterans, often giving them money, interceding on their behalf for pardons, and welcoming them at special receptions. She was less sympathetic to the plight of slaves, however, and her views on slavery remained those of a plantation owner, believing "Blacks" as a race were subordinate, inferior, and ungracious. She stayed out of politics, became an advocate for young women’s rights. The movements and activities of Martha Washington came to define the responsibilities associated with the role of First Lady. In addition, with her quiet acceptance of a second term, especially when she yearned to return to private life, Martha's sense of self-sacrifice became a model for many presidential wives faced with similar situations. Above all, the lack of privacy, independence, and freedom of speech, as well as the many demands placed upon her as a public figure, would characterize the challenges facing future First Ladies in the years to come.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz #3
What are some of the ways in which the Washington Administration established the expectations for future presidents’ actions and conduct? Which of the following is NOT true?
a. George Washington voluntarily retired after two terms, despite his legal ability to serve longer
b. George Washington served as President until his death in office, despite pressure to retire
c. Martha Washington held social events but stayed out of politics in her role as First Lady
d. George Washington warned against the dangers of foreign entanglements and political division
IV. The Adams Administration (1797-1801)
A. The Election of 1796
John Adams rose to become Boston’s most famous attorney, a Johnny Cochran, Mark Geragos-type figure. He had successfully defended nine British soldiers arrested after the “Boston Massacre,” and was one of the leading patriots during the war of independence, a delegate to the Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, in fact part of the Committee that wrote it, had negotiated the Treaty of Paris to end the War, and briefly served as an ambassador in Europe. In late-1796, the Federalist members of Congress held a meeting in which they nominated Adams and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina, a diplomat and negotiator of the Pinckney Treaty, to be their candidates for President in the election of 1796. The Democratic-Republicans in Congress likewise met and named Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr of New York, who had served in the Continental army and as a United States Senator early in Washington's presidency, as their choices.
It might seem strange to you that each party named two presidential candidates but that was the strategy, hoping their two candidates would win the election. Remember, the person receiving the most electoral votes, if it was a majority of the electoral votes cast, would be the president, and the runner-up would be the vice president. If no candidate received a majority of votes, or if the two candidates tied with a majority of votes, the House of Representatives would decide the election, and each state, regardless of size, would have a single vote. So at this time, people did not run for the office of Vice President, and they did not really have a “ticket” of two candidate, because the President and Vice President could ultimately come from opposite political parties (which became a problem, as we shall see).
In the election of 1796, only Aaron Burr actively campaigned; the campaign was really carried out in the newspapers. The Federalists labeled Jefferson as a Francophile, questioned his courage during the War of Independence—he had never fought in any way, and charged that he was an atheist. A rumor, based on some fact, also emerged that he had fathered some children by a slave, and that red-haired, dark-skinned slaves had been seen running around his plantation at Monticello.
The Democratic-Republicans, on the other hand, labeled Adams as a snobby monarchist, an England-lover who was probably going to try to establish a family dynasty by having his son succeed him as President. Rumors swirled that Alexander Hamilton did not like Adams.
In the end, Adams won by only three electoral votes, basically in the North. Jefferson won the South. Thus, the nation would have a President from one party and a Vice President from the other party. In 1804, the Twelfth Amendment was passed, which prevented this from happening again. After that point, there would be a president-vice-president ticket, and so the vice-president would be the person that went along with the president elected.
A. An Unpopular Presidency
Adams’ superiority complex and harsh Yankee attitude put him on a collision course with nearly everyone in government. He stuck to his guns and often insisted on doing things his way. With his inability to win support from either Hamiltonians (Federalists; Adams’ own party) or Jeffersonians (Democratic-Republicans), Adams made few friends.
Adams inherited an already-tense situation in which France was harassing American ships at sea. The Jay Treaty provoked the French to retaliate by ordering its ships to seize American vessels carrying British goods. In response, Congress increased military spending and built up the U.S. Navy. Prime Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand of France insulted the American diplomats by first refusing to officially receive them. He then demanded a $250,000 personal bribe and a $10 million loan for his financially strapped country before he would begin peace negotiations.
Negotiations with France went nowhere, and Democratic-Republicans insisted that the transcripts of the negotiations be handed over to Congress. When news of these discussions became public, it was known as the XYZ Affair, because the names of the French ambassadors had been blacked out and replaced with X, Y, and Z. A tremendous outcry ensued. Federalist leaders wanted to go to war with France. Congress officially disowned its treaty with France during the Revolutionary War. Military spending and training increased. Adams was not sure what to do. An unofficial naval war broke out as ships in each navy openly and freely raided the fleets of the other, and Britain continued to impress American sailors and seize ships suspected of trading with France.
Meanwhile, Federalist leaders attempted to quiet opponents at home. In 1798, the Federalist-controlled Congress adopted a set of four laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts attempted to suppress dissent and to prevent further growth of Democratic-Republican Societies and to put a stop to Democratic-Republican propaganda and criticism of Adams and the Federalists. Three of the laws were aimed at immigrants, most of whom tended to vote for Democratic-Republican candidates. The Naturalization Act lengthened the residency period required for citizenship from five to fourteen years. The Alien Act, the only one of the four acts to pass with bipartisan support, allowed for the detention of enemy aliens in time of war without trial or counsel. The Alien Enemies Act empowered the President to deport aliens whom he deemed dangerous to the nation's security. The fourth law, the Sedition Act, outlawed conspiracy to prevent the enforcement of federal laws and punished subversive speech -- with fines and imprisonment. There were fifteen indictments and ten convictions under the Sedition Act during the final year and a half of Adams's administration. One of these convictions was Senator Matthew Lyon of Vermont, a Democratic-Republican who had publicly criticized Adams in 1798. No aliens were deported or arrested although hundreds of alien immigrants fled the country in 1798 and 1799.
To pay for the military measures it enacted during the XYZ crisis, the Federalist Congress enacted a direct tax on homes, lands, and slaves, sometimes called the Direct House Tax of 1798. Pennsylvania was called upon to contribute $237,000 of the intended $2 million. Because there were few slaves in the state, the tax was assessed on homes and land, the value of the houses determined by the number and size of the windows. The proceedings angered Pennsylvania Germans and many of them refused to pay. John Fries, an auctioneer, assumed leadership of the protesters, organized an armed band of about 60 men, a force that grew to about 400 by mid-day, who marched about the country intimidating the assessors and encouraging the people to resist. In March 1799 the governor called out the militia, and the leaders were arrested. Fries and two others were twice tried for treason (the second time before Samuel Chase) and were sentenced to be hanged, but they were pardoned by President John Adams in April 1800, and a general amnesty was issued on May 21, 1800.
In response to the Federalists' draconian use of federal power, Democratic-Republicans Thomas Jefferson and James Madison secretly drafted a set of resolutions. These became known as the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. These resolutions were introduced into the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures in the fall of 1798. Jefferson and Madison argued that since the Constitution was created by a compact among the states, the people, speaking through their state legislatures, had the authority to judge the legitimacy of federal actions. Hence, they pronounced the Alien and Sedition Acts null and void. Although no other states formally supported the resolutions, they rallied Democratic-Republican opinion in the nation. Most importantly, they placed the Jeffersonian Republicans within the revolutionary tradition of resistance to tyranny.
The resolutions also raised the issue of states' rights and the constitutional question of how conflict between the two authorities would be resolved short of secession or war. This will be very important to remember later, when the issue of “states’ rights” becomes part of the American Civil War. While the “state’s rights” at issue in 1860 are really about slavery, the right being argued about in 1800 are really the power of the Federal Government to upend the Constitution. That’s not to say that slavery is not a factor in 1800; by 1800, the United States had now increased to 5 million people, still 20% black and 90% of these were slaves. In other words, 4 million whites, 800,000 African American slaves, 200,000 free African Americans, and as the economic and political differences between the northern and southern parts of the country become more pointed, the issue of slavery will increasingly enter the picture.
In Conclusion, Adams finally did establish peace with France by single-handedly negotiating a peace treaty ending the conflict between French and American ships and naval vessels, but not in time to help restore his popularity. During his final year in office, he was publicly criticized as a man of "vanity" and "egotism" who was "unfit" for the office of chief executive. "It was utterly impossible that I could have lived through one more year of such labors and cares," he wrote. "It is a sad thing that simple integrity should have so many enemies in the world."
C. The Campaign and Election of 1800
Adams faced a difficult reelection campaign in 1800. The Federalist Party was deeply split over his foreign policy and many were disgusted that Adams had fired two members of his cabinet because they disagreed with him. In addition, the Democratic-Republicans had gained political support through the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Federalist members of Congress nominated Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina. The Democratic-Republicans meanwhile nominated Jefferson and Aaron Burr, their candidates in the previous presidential election, but designated Jefferson as their choice for President.
Similarly to the 1796 campaign, the 1800 campaign was filled with personal attacks and lies. But it was Adams’ own party that sank him—In October, Alexander Hamilton wrote that Adams was emotionally unstable, irrational, difficult to get along with, and generally unfit to be President. Hamilton worked to elect Pinckney, but New England supported Adams, and as a result, Jefferson and Burr tied for first place with seventy-three votes each, Adams came in third, and Pinckney fourth.
With the election a tie, the decision was remitted to the House of Representatives, as specified by the Constitution. Every Democratic-Republican delegation in the House stood by Jefferson; however, some northern Federalists favored Burr, whom they found more palatable than their longtime nemesis from Virginia. After thirty-five ballots and five days of voting, the House was deadlocked.
Throughout the long battle, Alexander Hamilton had urged the election of his old rival, Jefferson. He viscerally disliked Jefferson and objected to his democratic and egalitarian principles, but he feared and mistrusted Aaron Burr as an unprincipled opportunist. In the end, however, the outcome in the House appears to have hung on Federalist bargaining with both Jefferson and Burr. In return for their vote, Federalist House members sought a commitment from one or the other to preserve Hamilton's economic program, keep the enhanced Navy intact, and leave Federalist officeholders in their jobs. Burr appears to have refused to bargain. Jefferson, ever after, denied making such a bargain, although several Federalists claimed that he had agreed to their terms. The truth can never be known. What is clear is that on the thirty-sixth ballot, a sufficient number of Federalists broke from Burr and gave their votes to Jefferson. The final House vote was Jefferson with ten states and Burr with four states while two states (South Carolina and Delaware) abstained. With that, Jefferson became the third President of the United States. When Jefferson assumed office, his opponents stepped down peacefully. This return to domestic tranquility established a powerful precedent for the future.
Yet, at the same time, knowing that Adams had lost the election, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which created sixteen federal judgeships. Adams appointed Federalists who opposed the Democratic-Republican principles of his successor, Thomas Jefferson. Many of the papers were signed just before midnight as a gesture of antagonism toward Jefferson, who called the men "Midnight Judges." Jefferson and his supporters were bitter, considering it immoral for Adams to make judicial appointments after his defeat for reelection. By expanding the Judiciary, it seemed he was trying to preserve and enlarge Federalist influence at the expense of the incoming Jeffersonian administration.
Further, Adams refused to take part in Jefferson’s inauguration. Instead, in the middle of the night, he quietly slipped out of town and returned home to Massachusetts. Adams’ hasty departure has often been branded as the pettiest action of his life. "I left Washington on the 4th," he wrote, "and arrived at Quincy on the 18th having trotted the bogs five hundred miles. . . . I found about a hundred loads of seaweed in my barnyard, and I thought I had made a good exchange-honors and virtues for manure." Adams thus gained a reputation as a corrupt man, a grouch, and a sore loser.
Adams has often been criticized along these lines.
But recently, historians have taken a more sympathetic view of Adams. Adams became a punching bag for the Democratic-Republicans, a villain sort of, but they blew things out of proportion. For example, with the “midnight appointments,” Adams had urged the expansion of the judiciary more than a year earlier. Plus, he had been reading and evaluating recommendations for these positions for many weeks.
As far as Adams’ leaving town goes, his letters reveal no bitterness. Further, the relationship between Jefferson and Adams probably was not good, but wasn’t as bad as historians have suggested. There was no suggested protocol about handing over the government. Adams was probably disappointed, he was exhausted from his presidency, his wife was back in Massachusetts, his 30-year old son had died the previous autumn in Massachusetts as a result of alcoholism—he probably just wanted to be with his family. Further, it was a 16 hour stage-coach trip to Massachusetts, and in order to get there in one day, it was necessary to leave at like 4 in the morning.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz #4
What are some of the controversies of the Adams Administration that exemplify the unpopularity of his presidency, to supporters and opponents alike? Which is NOT an example of such a controversy?
a. The XYZ Affair with France
b. The Alien and Sedition Acts against Democratic-Republicans
c. The “midnight judges” appointed before Adams’ departures from office
d. The Jay Treaty with Great Britain
Key for 60-second Quizzes:
1. c. Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican, Hamilton was a Federalist
2. c. The Pinckney Treaty was signed with Spain
3. b. Washington retired and died in his home in Mount Vernon
4. d. The Jay Treaty was in 1795, under the Washington Administration