Washington's Challenges & the Federalist in Charge

  • The New Republic: The United States, 1789-1800
    Part 1 
    Copyright © 2005-2010, Henry J. Sage



    We tend to think in this age that the writing of the Constitution and its ratification, the setting up of the new government under the Constitution, the early years of Washington’s administration, and indeed the whole series of events in the post-Revolutionary War period had a certain inevitability, that these things were the logical and only possible outcome of the struggle with Great Britain.  Along with that idea goes the notion that American history was pretty much ordained to come out as it did, that subsequent events would have taken us along the same general path to the future, that America would become the great 20th-century powerhouse that has dominated world affairs for the past sixty years.  In fact, particularly if one accepts the general premise of chaos theory as applied to historical events, which we discussed in the opening sessions, nothing at all was inevitable about what happened from 1775 to 1800.

    In other topic summaries we have discussed Washington as “the indispensable man.” Just suppose that he had gone out riding in December of 1788, got wet and chilled and came down with the disease that killed him in 1799? Suppose that Jefferson had come back from France in time to be elected the first president, or that the honor had gone to John Adams, just back from England, or Madison, the father of the Constitution? All three were great men and made great contributions to our history. Yet Jefferson was a minimalist with respect to government and might have been comfortable taking the presidency down the road toward irrelevancy, a kind of ceremonial office that followed the general path taken by the British monarchy. Adams was a cantankerous, passionate political infighter who might not have been able to bring the warring factions of Federalists and Republicans to heel. And Madison, brilliant as he was, might, like Jefferson, have brought so little power to the office of President (though perhaps more from personality and “presence” than by design, as compared with his close friend Jefferson) that the office would have evolved in very different ways.

    We also tend to think of our own times as politically troublesome—people get angry over politics and think the worst of our political leaders with a cynicism that present day pundits find disturbing. How wonderful, we think, it must have been to have lived under government conducted by those great founding fathers, who had to have gotten along famously in order to have achieved what they did. Yet Page Smith, a superb historian of that period, has written that the 1790s were so bitter that “many Americans of various political persuasions felt little hope that the republic could survive.” He discusses the election of 1800 in terms of “a quantum of Republican and Federalist rage difficult to account for” and adds that the loss of the election of 1800 for the Republicans “would almost certainly have driven them mad,” and that the loss of that election did just that to many Federalists. (The killing of Alexander Hamilton by Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel in 1804 is but one highly visible symptom of the political antagonism of that era.)

    Looking back with a more critical eye we can see that the decade of the 1790s was a time of enormous turmoil, both in America and Europe, and the troubles on the two continents were connected in various, not always obvious ways. Certainly the successful American Revolution had its impact on French thinking before and during their Revolution, and we can but wonder at how differently those two upheavals turned out. Yet it is not too great a stretch to suggest that the bloodshed and violence of the French Revolution may have had a dampening effect on political discord in this country even as the struggle in Europe from 1792 to 1815 drove the American political parties even farther apart. It is not difficult to imagine the American Revolution turning out just as badly as the French, had it not been for the right people in the right places at the right time. Few nations in history have had such good fortune as ours, and even with good fortune, we might well have lost it all, as we came perilously close to doing on numerous occasions. What, then were the 1790s about?


    This age of American history from the beginning of the Revolution through the first years of government under the Constitution is the age of the “founding fathers,” the political giants whom we have elevated to nearly godlike or at least mythical proportions.  In so doing we tend to forget that they were human beings with all the faults, foibles, idiosyncrasies, and failings we all have.  That they were supremely capable men and women does not alter that fact, and only by digging beneath the myth can we begin to see the person underneath.  The problem is that we don’t always like what we find—we prefer our heroes and heroines neat.  During the ’60s when American society and culture were coming under close scrutiny, a popular pastime—and indeed a serious undertaking for many historians and biographers—was to attempt to explode the myths and bring those “so-called heroes” down to earth.

    While for the most part well-intentioned, the effort may at times have gone too far.  For in the course of demythologizing those giants, by extension we brought all public figures under closer scrutiny, and many of them did not bear that much attention from the media or other critics very successfully.  If we discover that Jefferson and Washington and Lincoln and others were, by our standards, less than democratic or racist or shortsighted in other ways, then what can we expect from lesser men in modern times?  When we look closer at men such as Hamilton and Jefferson, however, and examine their characters, we discover that they were very complex individuals who lived in very different times from ours, faced different challenges, and operated on a different set of assumptions.  By reading the fine biographies that exist of all those men, we can look at their lives and contributions with more sophistication.

    Hamilton was much more in favor of a strong national government than was Jefferson.  An immigrant from the Caribbean, Hamilton came to New York in 1773 at the age of sixteen.  When the fighting started he joined the Continental Army, an experience that changed the thinking of many young men.  John Marshall, the great chief justice, for example, said of his war experience, “I went into the war a Virginian, and came out an American.”  Washington, Marshall, Hamilton, and many others lived in a state of almost permanent frustration at how inefficiently the Continental Congress, which evolved into the Confederation Congress, handled the war effort.  The states’ representatives were seen as chintzy and narrow minded, putting their own interests first whenever asked to provide supplies and money for the army.  Jefferson, who did not serve in the Continental army but remained in Virginia, serving in various capacities of that state’s government, felt for all of his political career a definite loyalty to Virginia.  (Robert E. Lee is probably the most famous spokesmen for that idea—he referred to Virginia as “my country.”)  Jefferson and his friend Madison were among the first to articulate the “states’ rights” position and open the debate over the issues relating to the  limits of federal power that would finally be decided only by Civil War.

    Whatever their backgrounds, and whatever the reasons for their differences, Hamilton and Jefferson became the focal points of what was probably the period of sharpest political antagonism in American history, so much so that one historian has opined that if the Republicans under Jefferson had not defeated Adams’ Federalists in 1800, the country might have been torn apart.

    The Constitution transferred control of the national government from the states to the people. As ordinary American voters became keenly interested in political issues and debates, elected officials learned that public opinion, not just the leadership of a social elite, would play a major role in guiding the country's future. The basic cause for the development of political parties was the ambiguity of republican ideology. The Hamiltonians, or Federalists, stressed the need to create a national economy to preserve the independence of the United States. The Jeffersonians, or Republicans, preferred to keep government small, local, and responsive. Federalists and Republicans agreed upon ends but differed about means.

    Review: Ratification was a near thing: Massachusetts, Virginia, New York: Less than 5% change in votes out of over 1500 would have defeated ratification: it it entirely possible that ratification of the Constitution would not have passed a popular vote. Thus we should keep in mind that the United States in the 1790s was a very precarious arrangement—it was an experiment that might well have failed.

    The New Government

    The political figures who assumed office under the new Constitution had varying ideas of how the government should work. Some wanted a strong chief executive to keep order, while others saw the president as merely enforcing the will of Congress. Most political figures were nervous about too much democracy, fearing something like mob rule. The Senate, elected by the state legislatures, was seen as a balance against the excessive democracy of the House, to thwart, when necessary, the will of the people. Elbridge Gerry: The mass of people are “neither wise nor good.” Full democracy in America was still decades off.

    Thus the new government was an experiment, and no one could be sure how it was going to turn out, or indeed, if it was even going to succeed. In our time we take in for granted that it had to have worked, but the 1790s were a perrilous time, perhaps the most politically divisive decade in American history. Even the revered George Washington did not escape the political vitriol that often spilled out.

    Trying on the Constitution for Size:  The Bill of Rights

    In the 1780s, the American people met the challenge of self-government.  When they discovered that it was dangerous to give themselves too much power, they created governments regulated by a system of checks and balances that protected the people from themselves.

    The ratification of the Constitution closed an era of protest, revolution, and political experimentation.  The future seemed to belong to the free people of a strong nation.  The American people had won their sovereignty and accepted the resulting responsibility, and created a new, stronger government based on the Constitution.  Yet no one really knew whether this republican experiment would work.

    The anti-Federalists lost the ratification battle, but because of them the nationalists had to promise to add a bill of rights to the Constitution.  By 1791, the first ten amendments had been added.  Anti-Federalists had also protested the Constitution’s lack of guarantees for individual rights.  To overcome those objections, the Federalists agreed to add the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

    The United States began to function on March 4, 1789, with eight senators and thirteen  representatives; no quorum was achieved until sometime in until April.  Matters of protocol had to be decided, such as the proper terms of address for the President.  Was Washington to be called “Your Highness,” or perhaps “Your Republican Majesty”?  We smile at such things, but they point out the experimental nature of this new government.  (They finally decided on the republican sounding “Mr. President.”)

    Congress had to write its own rules—there was no Roberts’ Rules of Order to guide them, only precedents borrowed from the British, and that done very cautiously.  That new government had very little bureaucracy—the State Department consisted of Secretary of State Jefferson and a couple of clerks.  Jobs and responsibilities of the four cabinet officers—secretaries of State, Treasury, and War and the attorney general—and their “departments” had to be invented, and under the Constitution Congress was required to create a federal court system; the Constitution named only one specifically—the Supreme Court—and even there the number of justices was left to Congress to determine.

    Because America had been governed by congresses or assemblies since 1775, that branch probably had the easiest time finding its way.  Its first major act was to create a federal court system, which was accomplished by the Judiciary Act of 1789.

    Recall also that ratification of the Constitution had been a near thing:  In Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York a mere handful of votes otherwise probably would have doomed the Constitution.  Ratification was possible in part because the conventions attached to their acceptance of the document suggestions for the amendments that became the Bill of Rights.  Thus one of the first orders of business in the First Congress was the adding of the Bill of Rights, a task ably managed by James Madison.  From more than two hundred proposals submitted by the state conventions, Madison narrowed the list to seventeen.  (There was much duplication on the suggested amendments.)  Of those proposals, twelve were approved by Congress in 1791, and ten were quickly ratified and became the “Bill of Rights.”

    One more amendment, a historical oddity, languished unratified for almost two hundred years until a graduate student in history discovered that it was still technically alive.  That student raised the issue with the states that had not ratified the forgotten amendment, and it was finally declared ratified in 1992, 201 years after being passed by Congress.  It is now the 27th Amendment. It reads:

    No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

    It is interesting that in that very skeptical age that amendment did not get ratified quickly enough to keep pace with the addition of new states.  The wheels of government sometimes turn v-e-r-y slowly!

    George Washington as President: Setting the Tone

    Washington was unanimously elected president in 1789 and thus began his third and final labor in the creation of the United States, and—given the temper of the times—it is fortunate that a man of his character and reputation occupied that office for the first eight years under the Constitution.  Even he did not escape the political turmoil, and had to be encouraged to serve a second term lest the government fall apart without his firm hand to guide it.  Washington set the tone—he adopted trappings for his office that some found pompous or pretentious, but his purpose was to create an office as a symbol of America that would command the respect of the Europeans, who remained skeptical of this “republican experiment.”  Washington, like most of his countrymen, assumed that the government would function smoothly, but it was a trying time.

    Washinton really wanted to serve only one term; he missed his home at Mount Vernon and his life as a prosperous gentleman farmer. But by the end of Washington's first term, politics had already become bitter enough that Hamilton urged him to stay, arguing that without his firm hand at the helm, the ship of state might well founder upon the shoals of partisan bickering. Reluctantly, Washington agreed, but to a certain extent lived to regret his decision. In his second term politics continued to become more sharply focused, and even Washington himself was not above the slings and arrows of his partisan opponents. He learned how to play politics, however, as when he withheld the Jay Treaty from the Senate until the time was ripe for its likely approval. Hamilton remained close to him, but Jefferson, his Secretary of State, drifted away, and by the end of Washington's second term Washington and Jefferson were no longer on speaking terms, a sad situation that continued to the end of Washington's life.

    At the end of his second term Washington did retire, leaving his famous farewell address as a guidepost for the future of the nation he had served so well. During his brief retirement Mount Vernon became something of a mecca for people interested in and admirers of the new American Republic. Visitors came in droves from far and near, and were greeted with warm hospitality, although Washington himself kept his traditional aloofness from all but his very closest friends. His retirement lasted less than three years, for he was struck down after becoming chilled while riding during a winter storm; he died on December 14, 1799.

    In summary, Washington's presidency could be defined as follows:

    • He was firm, dignified and cautious.
    • He understood that the separation of powers was important for success of the government.
    • Thus he exhibited respect for Congress, but knew his own place as well.
    • There was little guidance in the Constitution about a cabinet, so the offices had to be created under his guidance: War, State, Treasury and Justice (the Attorney General) were the first cabinet posts.
    • Washington tried not to to make decisions according to politics, but rather according to what seemed best for the nation. In the end he tended to agree with the Federalist ideas of Hamilton.
    • Nota bene: The great Presidents have tended to to be those who are most able to rise above partisan politics when deciding critical issues.
    • Note also: For all his restraint, Washington asserted presidential power, as with the Creek Treaty ratification by the Senate.

    Hamilton and Financial Reform

    Note: An excellent recent biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow covers Hamilton's financial ideas in great detail. The book was rated one of the top 10 books of 2004 by the New York Times Book Review.

    Hamilton can truly be called the father of American capitalism. Whether ones approves of the capitalist system or not, it was still a great achievement by that most controversial of the founding fathers. His achievement as first Secretary of the Treasury was to create a stable and sound federal financial system, without which the economic development of America would have been severaly hampered.

    In addition to telling about Hamilton, Chernow's book also reveals much about the difficulties of creating a stable dxemocratic government in the aftermath of a violent revolution, a topic a special relevance in today's world.


    Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indies, had questionable parentage, but through benefactors made his way to America. He eventually married well, became an officer in Washington's army and was a valued military thinker. After the war he was one of the “nationalists” who believed that the Articles of Confederation needed to be revised to strengthen the national government, and helped get the Constitutional Convention off the ground. He was an active delegate from New York at the Convention and was the only signer from that state. During ratification he authored several of the Federalist Papers, aimed at leaders in his own state who were opposed to the Constitution. That state ratified by a vote of 30-27, and it is safe to say that Hamilton was indispensable in that narrow victory.

    Washington named his former lieutenant to the post of Secretary of the Treasury, a post from which he managed to get the country under its new Constitution off on a sound financial basis. He did that in large part by getting the wealthy members of American society behind the new government. He has been severely criticized for so doing, both then and later, but the fragile nature of that first attempt at a new republic suggests that it needed all the help it could get. Hamilton is as responsible as anyone for that fact of its survival.

    One of Hamilton's acts was to assume all the outstanding state debts under the federal government and fund them at 100% of their original value. That brought profits to wealthy speculators, but it built confidence in the soundness of the government and gave influential people a heavy stake in its success.

    Hamilton also argued that the nation needed a national bank.  Although Washington sought Jefferson’s opinion (and the latter was strongly opposed), he went along with Hamilton and the bank was created.  It will become a recurring issue as we go forward into the 1800s.  Hamilton also issued reports in support of creating a national mint for coinage and supporting manufacturing as a means of advancing America’s fortunes.  Hamilton’s exhaustive work—his reports totaled 140,000 words—helped establish the financial foundations of the United States. (Note: Chief Justice John Marshall later uses Hamilton's "necessary and proper" arguments in McCulloch v. Maryland in upholding the constitutionality of the national Bank.

    America and the French Revolution

    Liberty—Equality—Fraternity!  These inspiring words promised for many a continuation of the revolutionary fervor that had sprung up in America decades earlier.  Although the American Revolution had yet to demonstrate its staying power, people saw in it the promise of the future, and in 1789 that future seemed to be emerging among the French people.  Instead, the French Revolution, while it did indeed reform many aspects of French life, evolved into a spectacle of unspeakable horrors, as thousands of people were executed for political reasons and violence swept across France and spilled out across the rest of Europe.  For twenty-five years, the events of the French Revolution and Empire—the Napoleonic Era—dominated not only Europe but the rest of the Western world.

    delacroixIt is fortunate that America got its Constitution written and ratified before the French Revolution got into high gear.  Many saw what happened in France during the terror—and under Napoleon—as the inevitable result of an excess of democracy:  mob rule, as it was called.  Such attitudes would inevitably have affected the formation of the United States had we not completed our Constitution on the very eve of the outbreak in France.  Many seeds sown in America were harvested in France:  the French were tuned in to what America had done; many veterans of American campaigns participated in the French Revolution, including the Marquis de Lafayette.  But the two revolutions had very different outcomes. Washington was no Napoleon; Napoleon was no Washington.  Yet the two great events of the late 1700s are inextricably connected.

    With Thomas Jefferson in Paris as America’s ambassador to France, leaders of the French Revolution naturally look to him and to the United States example for inspiration.  We shall not review in detail the course of the French Revolution here, but we will highlight some of the important events.
    Like Great Britain in the 1760s, France found itself in debt following its wars, including support of America during the Revolution.  In 1789 King Louis XVI convened the Estates General, a gathering of leaders of the French Estates:  the First Estate (the Church), the Second Estate (the Nobility), and the Third Estate (the middle class and peasants, or Commons.)  With republican fervor in the air, the Commons decided to proceed independently, but Louis closed the assembly hall, so the Third Estate retired to a tennis court, where they took an oath not to adjourn until France had adopted a constitution.  Joined by members of the clergy and nobility, the assembly designated itself the National Constituent Assembly.

    As revolutionary feelings continued to mount, violence broke out, and reform-minded revolutionaries stormed the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789.  Over the next months new constitutions were written, new governments installed, and eventually King Louis and his wife, Marie Antoinette, attempted to flee Paris in the face of the angry mobs protesting harsh conditions.  The royal couple were captured, brought back to Paris, and eventually executed.  Not long after, the Revolution degenerated into what was known as the Reign of Terror as thousands of Frenchmen were executed on the guillotine for political reasons.
    The fury of the French Revolution was seen as a threat to the neighboring monarchies, and in 1792 the wars of the French Revolution erupted.  By 1799 as a series of governments had come and gone, Napoleon Bonaparte, the successful general, having put down riots in Paris, proclaimed the consulate that led to his becoming dictator and then emperor in 1804.  Over the course of the next decade, Napoleon fought against every major power in Europe with spectacular success.  In 1812, however, he made the fateful error of invading Russia, where he saw an army of six hundred thousand reduced to tatters.  Removed from power and exiled, he staged a comeback but was finally defeated by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo at 1815.

    As a result of the wars of the French Revolution and Empire, much of American public life was dominated by the turmoil in Europe.  As a neutral nation, the United States sought to trade to its advantage, but often found that the warring powers made that extremely difficult.  Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison all had to deal with issues arising from the French Revolution and Empire.

    Federalists and Republicans:  The Rise of Political Parties

    Political groups and parties:  This was a time of great political discord.  It had begun during the Revolution when the two political groups were Patriots and Loyalists, who at times fought bitterly against each other on the battlefield and in the streets.  As we have already mentioned, this was a bitter time in American politics, and personalities were attacked on both sides of the political divide.  Much of the anger was based on fear that this experiment in republican government might not survive.  In addition, the fear of strong central power that had been expressed during the ratification debates persisted.  People were concerned with safeguarding personal freedom and feared that liberty as they understood it might not survive.  Those feelings were heightened by the specter of the revolutionary turmoil in France.

    The Federalist party evolved out of those who supported adoption of the Constitution, its leaders being John Adams (recently returned from his time as ambassador to Great Britain), Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Washington.  The anti-federalists evolved into the Democratic Republican party. known as Republicans.  Their leader was Thomas Jefferson, and although Madison had been an ardent Federalist until the Constitution was adopted, he soon moved into the Republican camp alongside his friend and colleague Jefferson.

    The two parties both thought they understood the meaning of the American Revolution and the nature of republican government as defined by the Constitution.  The stakes were high, and feelings quickly grew bitter between the two parties.

    Major Outlines of the First Two American Parties


    (Democratic) Republicans



    Well-born leaders 

    Talented leaders; meritocracy





    Strong federal government

    States’ rights/limited federal power

    Strong judiciary

    Strong legislature; weak courts

    Permanent debt financed by wealthy

    Elimination of national debt

    Support merchants/manufacturing

    Support farmers, artisans

    Property qualifications to vote

    Open vote

    Evolved into Whigs in the Jackson years, then Republicans in 1854.

    Evolved into the Democratic Party under Jackson in 1828.

    Important Early Political Figu