By 1790, the early leaders of the fledgling United States—George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson—had begun to establish the foundations of American governance. Who had the most influence on the American political system?

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The early leader that was most influential in establishing the American political system in the 1790s is an opinion question, so one could argue in favor of any of the men listed.

To claim, for example that George Washington was the most influential leader, consider that Washington was the first president of the independent nation. It is reasonable to say that the proceedings of his presidency established a number of precedents for future presidencies. While Washington was president, the Constitution was ratified. Treaties were also signed to avoid further conflict with Europe. The trend toward neutrality that Washington established would play a critical part in America’s political system and foreign policy during the 1790s as well as the decades to come.

To argue that John Adams was more influential, consider his emphasis on a forceful executive, or president, who could act as “father and protector” of America. As James Madison is sometimes called the “Father of the Constitution,” it could be logical to nominate him as having the most influence. Thomas Jefferson’s influence on the political system can be seen through his relationship to slavery. On paper, he railed against it, calling it a “hideous blot.” Yet Jefferson had hundreds of slaves. Such an acute ideological paradox seems to be a deep part of the early American political system.

Finally, it’s sensible to state that Hamilton had the most influence since he believed the political process should mainly benefit the rich. He said the government should aim to “unite the interest and credit of rich individuals with those of the state.” Policies like the whiskey tax, which taxed the regular farmer instead of the wealthy, indicate Hamilton's influence. More than 200 years later, as income inequality continues to soar, Hamilton’s influence remains omnipresent.

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