While George Washington became President of the United States, he almost established two crucial foreign policy rulings. He took command of negotiations with a hostile power, in this case, the Creek Nation of Native Americans, and then requested approval from Congress once they were completed. Furthermore, he dispatched American envoys to the Middle East for negotiations without obtaining legislative approval.
Taking a Global Position
The French Revolution sent shockwaves across the Atlantic in 1789. Many Americans, remembering French assistance during their struggle for independence, favored repaying the favor. At the same time, the British were inciting Native Americans to attack settlers in the West once more to destabilize the fledgling Republic. The outpouring of rage in the United States in response to these attacks fueled support for France in any conflict with the United Kingdom. Washington was wary of foreign involvement, believing that his country was too weak and unstable to fight another war with significant European power. George’s insistence on neutrality in foreign quarrels set another important precedent, as did his claim on vested power in the presidency to make such a determination.
In days of Washington’s second inauguration, France declared war on many European countries, including England. The debate over America’s involvement in the conflict has heated up again. The factions of Jefferson and Hamilton fought endlessly over the issue. Meanwhile, the charismatic, audacious French ambassador to the United States, Edmond Genet, toured the country, rallying support for the French cause. This subversive meddling irritated Washington, and when Genet allowed a French-sponsored warship to sail out of Philadelphia against direct presidential orders, the president demanded that France recall Genet.
More British Challenges
Britain declared in mid-1793 that it would seize any ships trading with the French, including those flying the American flag. In response, widespread civil unrest erupted in several American cities. By the following year, tensions with Britain had risen to the point where Washington had to halt all American exports to the rest of the world. Six large warships were commissioned, including the legendary USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides. They dispatched an envoy to England to seek reconciliation, but the British were now constructing a fortress in Ohio while ramping up insurgent activity elsewhere in America.
In response to British provocations, the President’s first instinct was to seek a diplomatic solution. However, John Jay, the American envoy to England, negotiated an insufficient convention that compromised free trade agreement on the high seas and failed to compensate Americans for slaves taken by the British during the Revolution. Worse, the treaty made no mention of the then-common British practice of impressment. Congress approved the treaty with the condition that England’s trade barriers be reduced. While dissatisfied with some aspects of the treaty, Washington signed it anyway.
Members of the government openly criticized Washington for the first time. While this undoubtedly caused some resentment, it was also a watershed moment. The fledgling government took partisan sides, sparred verbally with their President, everyone was heard, the public hurled angry rhetoric—and the government survived. It was the first instance of the partisan give-and-take that has been critical to the survival of American Democracy in this country for more than two centuries.
There was only one terrible casualty. Washington’s advisers presented evidence that Jefferson’s successor as secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, had allegedly sought a bribe from a French envoy to disagree with England. Despite Randolph’s denial of the charges, an enraged Washington forced his old friend to resign. With this action, who set another critical precedent. The Constitution permits the President to appoint his principal officers with the advice and consent of the Senate; however, the Constitution says nothing about the chief executive’s authority to dismiss appointees. With Washington’s dismissal of Randolph, the federal government’s administrative system became inextricably linked to the President. Washington fired three foreign ministers, two consuls, eight collectors, and four internal revenue surveyors without seeking advice or approval from Congress.
Domestic Policies Debts and Finances
The young country was experiencing severe financial difficulties. The war had resulted in domestic and foreign debts, and how to raise revenue for the government was hotly debated. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed governmental financing through tariffs, surcharges on imported goods, and a liquor tax. Who set a large portion of this revenue aside to pay off war debts. Hamilton also suggested a national bank to centralize the nation’s financial base and urged the new government to develop the economy’s manufacturing sector. He exchanged his support for Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson’s proposal to locate the nation’s permanent capital near Virginia, with Philadelphia to become a temporary capital, for Jefferson’s support of his debt-reduction policies.
However, by the midpoint of Washington’s first term, such cooperation had degenerated. The president’s administration had split into two rival factions: one led by Jefferson, which would later become the Democratic-Republican Party, and Hamilton, after the Federalist Party. They disagreed on almost every aspect of domestic and foreign policy and spent much of the President’s time mediating their disagreements.
War Over Whiskey
One of the critical portions of Hamilton’s fiscal program was a tax on whiskey, the production of which had increased dramatically in the 1790s. Many citizens were enraged by this taxation. In 1794, opposition to the whiskey tax erupted in western Pennsylvania, with threats on tax collectors and the development of several well-armed resistance movements. The Whiskey Rebellion alarmed Washington, who saw it as a threat to the nation’s survival. In a remarkable move designed to demonstrate the federal government’s preeminence and power, the President dispatched militia from several other states to keep order in Pennsylvania. He then traveled to the scene of the conflict to personally oversee troop buildup and lend his support to the effort. The insurgency ended quickly and peacefully, and the resistance movements disbanded. Washington later pardoned the men convicted of treason in the case.
However, soon after this incident, a pair of high-level departures lowered the quality of the Washington administration. December 1794, Secretary of War Henry Knox resigned, and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton followed.
Series of firsts
A succession of firsts distinguished George Washington’s administration. He signed the first copyright law in the United States, which safeguarded writers’ copyrights. He also marked the first Thanksgiving proclamation, designating November 26 as a National Day of Thanksgiving for successfully adopting the Constitution and ending the struggle for American independence.