George Washington's Presidency

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What challenges did George Washington face as president?

Perhaps George Washington's most significant challenge as president was the lack of precedent to guide him, as he would shape the template which other presidents have followed. In addition, his administration was divided by the emergence of the Two Party System, with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton politically opposed to one another. Finally, in the realm of foreign policy, there was the impact of the French Revolution and the war in Europe.

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The challenges that George Washington faced as president were both internal and external. Washington's Farewell Address offers a cogent general summary of the major overarching problems that he dealt with while in office and the concerns that he harbored about the new country as it moved forward without him.

Internally,...

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The challenges that George Washington faced as president were both internal and external. Washington's Farewell Address offers a cogent general summary of the major overarching problems that he dealt with while in office and the concerns that he harbored about the new country as it moved forward without him.

Internally, Washington saw the dangers of regional factionalism and the rise of the two-party system as a grave threat to the union. He had come into office not even a year after the United States ratified the Constitution, which was a stronger glue than the Article of Confederation to hold the country together as a single entity. Yet he worried that small groups could hijack the larger democratic will of the people by putting their own needs and desires ahead of the greater good. This had plagued him throughout his presidency, and he warned very strongly against it moving forward, excoriating the idea that some wanted

to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party; often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community.

These words continue to be important today.

Second, foreign policy became a plague during his administration. Shortly after he took office, the French Revolution broke out. This highly destabilizing event established France as a republic. The other major powers in Europe, all monarchies, reacted aggressively, fearful that republicanism would spread.

France wanted the United States's unconditional support since it had supported the colonies in the American Revolution and since the two countries were in the rare position of being republics. Britain, on the other hand, used its traditional ties with the young country to try to pressure it into supporting Britain against France. Washington had to navigate an uneasy path between the two nations, not wanting the energies of the new nation to be diverted into Europe's affairs. He famously advised the US to make no permanent alliances with Europe and to turn to isolationism in order to nurture its own growth.

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Perhaps the most significant challenge that Washington had to face was the lack of any precedent to guide him. From his political and policy decisions to matters of personal conduct and decorum, his example would create the template which other presidents would follow. This extends even to his decision to step down after his second term—an informal precedent that would, in the twentieth century, be written into the US Constitution by the amendment process.

At the same time, Washington had to navigate around the emergence of factionalism in United States politics and the beginning of the Two Party System. These divisions sharply affected his own administration: his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, emerged as the leader of the Democratic-Republicans, while his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, emerged as the leader of the Federalist Party. Washington was often caught between these two mutually opposed personalities, even as he himself struggled to remain above these Party divisions.

Meanwhile, he faced severe challenges in Foreign Policy as well. In Washington's time, the United States was not an established power, as it is today, and there was no guarantee that the United States would survive in the long term with its independence intact. Furthermore, in Europe, there was the impact of the French Revolution and the war on the Continent. There was significant debate over whether the United States should align with France or with Britain. Across the course of his presidency, Washington sought to chart a path of neutrality, but the political situation remained highly unstable and precarious where Europe was concerned.

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Washington faced a number of challenges, including one that no President will ever have to face again. Namely, Washington was the first chief executive of the United States. While all presidents are under intense scrutiny, Washington had no precedent to follow, and was conscious of the fact that he himself was setting precedents. He had to balance the need to display a certain amount of dignity in the office with a desire not to seem too monarchical in his actions and bearing.

Washington presided over a nation that was struggling to find its footing, especially from a fiscal standpoint. His presidency witnessed a number of acrimonious debates over the direction it would take in doing so. These debates did not just take place among prominent leaders like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, but increasingly were played out in the burgeoning eighteenth century press. Alexander Hamilton's multi-point plan for strengthening the federal government, for instance, met with strident opposition from Jefferson, but also from common people throughout the country. The Whiskey Rebellion, a response to what many viewed as an onerous excise tax, was the most prominent and serious protest. All throughout the country, ordinary Americans, especially farmers, decried the nation's economic policy, especially federal assumption of state debts, as clearly favoring wealthy elites and "stockjobbers" at the expense of common people. 

Washington also faced a dangerous international situation. Revolutionary France and Great Britain were embroiled in a war that began in 1793, and Washington determined to maintain American neutrality. There was major popular support in the United States for the French Revolution, especially in urban areas. This support was only increased by the visit of Edmond-Charles Genêt, a French diplomat who was received warmly by a number of pro-French societies. The Jay Treaty, negotiated by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay with Great Britain, gained some important concessions from the British, and ensured that the new nation would at least not enter the war on the side of France, but it was very unpopular with many Americans. It also angered the French, paving the way for a deteriorating diplomatic situation that would reach its nadir with the so-called "Quasi-war" against the French navy during the presidency of John Adams. Also on the diplomatic and military front, American expeditions against Indians in the Ohio River Valley led to disastrous defeats that were finally reversed in 1794 with Anthony Wayne's victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. This battle, and the Treaty of Greenville that followed, ended what had been a major, and expensive headache for the new government even as it drove natives out of the Ohio valley.

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