What were George Washington's biggest challenges as the first president?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

George Washington had many challenges as President of the United States. One of them was dealing with other countries that were trying to push us around to see how we would respond to their aggressive actions. Britain and Spain were causing issues in North America. Spain insisted that our border with Spanish Florida was further north than we said it was. Spain also made it difficult for us to use the Mississippi River. Both Britain and Spain were accused of encouraging the Native Americans to attack us. Britain interfered with our trade, impressed our sailors, and wouldn’t leave forts in the western areas. Washington decided the best way to deal with these issues was through negotiations with Britain and Spain. Washington believed a war would be harmful to us. Thus, Pinckney’s Treaty was negotiated with Spain, and Jay’s Treaty was negotiated with Great Britain. These treaties helped to resolve some of the issues we faced with these countries.

Another issue facing President Washington was dealing with our debt. We owed a lot of money to other countries. Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, proposed a plan that would combine the federal debt with the state debts. Then, the government would issue new bonds to pay the debt. Some tax dollars also would be used to be the debt. This plan was accepted after much discussion with an agreement also being made to move the capital to Washington, D.C.

A final issue that President Washington faced was getting people to buy into the new system of government created by the Constitution. Some people didn’t want to give up the power that they had with their state government and didn't want to follow federal laws. When farmers protested the whiskey tax and rebelled against it, President Washington sent in the military to show that he was going to enforce federal laws. President Washington made it clear that federal laws were supreme. President Washington faced many issues as President of the United States.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What major challenges did President Washington face when he took office? 

President Washington faced several changes when he took office and while he was President. One challenge he faced was in dealing with other countries. Spain and Great Britain were interfering with our trade. These countries also were encouraging the Native Americans to attack us. Great Britain, which was supposed to leave the forts in the West, failed to do so. President Washington knew we weren’t in a position to go to war against either country. Despite calls by some Americans to go to war, President Washington used diplomacy to negotiate treaties with Spain and Great Britain to resolve the issues we had with them. Jay’s Treaty was signed with Great Britain while Pinckney’s Treaty was signed with Spain.

President Washington also faced issues at home. Our country had significant debt that needed to be repaid. We also had a weak financial system since both the state governments and the federal government printed money during the days when the Articles of Confederation was our plan of government. The government under that plan was not able to tax the people. Working with his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, a debt plan was developed to repay our debts.

There were issues with keeping order at home. Under the plan of government created by the Articles of Confederation, the federal government had difficulty maintaining order at home. Shays Rebellion was a good example of this. President Washington made it clear the federal government would respond forcefully when disorder occurred. This was seen in his response to the Whiskey Rebellion. The federal government moved in and restored order.

President Washington faced several changes when he took office and during his two terms as President.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What were several challenges that confronted George Washington during his years as president?  

George Washington was the first president of the United States under the United States Constitution. He had to set a precedent for future presidents regarding what the role of the executive branch would be. It was his responsibility to not infringe on the lawmaking powers of Congress and at the same time, set the president and the executive branch as the director of foreign policy. This was a fragile balance, and how he handled this challenge would affect the future of American government.

After the French Revolution, a major war broke out between England and France. Washington, despite strong overtures from members of his cabinet to intervene, kept the United States neutral in this affair. On the domestic front, Washington had an even greater challenge. Private citizens, as well as the states, had fallen deeply in debt. The entire economic system was in disrepair. Washington, with his Secretary of the Treasury, needed to remedy the debt.

A major challenge to the federal government's ability to tax occurred in Western Pennsylvania. The young nation was watching to see how the president would respond to the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington, after attempting a peaceful resolution, was forced to send over 12,000 militia to squelch the rebellion and enforce federal policy.

Although the economic hardships were probably Washington's greatest challenge, the responsibility of being the first president was significant. The actions that he took would be used as a precedent for future presidents. Washington understood this challenge and acted very deliberately to protect the new Consitution. He did this while navigating the competing political interests that existed between federalists and anti-federalists.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is one challenge that George Washington and the nation faced during his presidency?  

Another challenge that Washington and the nation faced was the question of how to keep the newly formed government solvent.

After the Revolutionary War, the United States owed millions in war debt. Washington was adamant that the United States met all its financial obligations honorably. At the time, the federal government had yet to impose a federal income tax; so, Alexander Hamilton, the Treasury Secretary, imposed several tariffs to raise the revenue needed. Both Washington and Hamilton wanted the government to function as a self-supporting entity. However, both also underestimated the unpopularity of the new tariffs.

In 1786, states like New York and Rhode Island voted to prevent the passage of a national tariff, frustrating Washington's efforts to discharge war debts in an efficient and timely manner. The question of taxation invariably led to issues about representation. There were two camps of opinion about representation and taxes. James Madison's "Virginia Plan" proposed that larger states in a bicameral legislature be given higher representation in the federal government, while William Patterson's "New Jersey Plan" coalesced around the rights of smaller states. 

In the end, Madison's "Virginia Plan" was amended: one house of the legislature would give equal representation to all states, while the other house would apportion congressional seats according to population size. Today, that first house is called the Senate, and the second is the House of Representatives. At the time, however, achieving consensus on the tax issue was a logistical nightmare. Some states fought tooth and nail to avoid the idea of a national tax altogether, citing states rights to design unique fiscal solutions without federal oversight.

In fact, the issue of taxes was so unpopular that the United States came close to a civil war because of it. In 1791, Congress passed a Whiskey tax, and this unpopular tax led to what was called the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. Basically, farmers felt betrayed by the tax, as they relied on their corn and rye crops to earn profits. Farmers in Pennsylvania were especially angry about the tax on spirits. So, in the summer of 1794, 6,000 men gathered at a field near Pittsburgh to openly challenge the federal government and to defy Washington to disperse them. Another 400 men set fire to the home of John Neville, Pittsburgh's regional tax collection supervisor.

Washington had no choice but to send in federal troops to keep the peace. He issued a public proclamation in August of 1794 that allowed Alexander Hamilton to put together a militia contingent of almost 13,000 men. In the end, the heavy-handed response dispelled the rebellion. However, Washington's efforts drew swift criticism from a former member of his cabinet, Thomas Jefferson, who cited the possibility of federal overreach in the tax matter. The issue of taxes continued to prove a challenge to Washington and the new nation long after the Whiskey rebellion was quelled. In fact, the pitting of rural, agricultural interests against urban, industrial interests soon led to what we know as the two-party system today.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is one challenge that George Washington and the nation faced during his presidency?  

One of the most significant challenges faced by the Washington Administration was the outbreak of war between France and Great Britain in 1793. While the wars of the French Revolution had been ongoing for more than two years at this point, Great Britain's declaration of war on France was significant because it raised the possibility that the United States might get dragged into the war. France hoped, due to a treaty with the United States, that the United States would side with them. But many Americans favored Great Britain, in particular wealthy merchants, and so Washington faced a great deal of foreign and domestic pressure on the issue. In response, he issued a proclamation of neutrality that affirmed the right of the United States to remain neutral in the conflict. Washington feared the new country would have been destroyed just a few years after its creation had it become involved in the war. Over time, this position was challenged by both Great Britain and France, as the navies of the belligerent nations attacked American ships that sought to maintain commercial relationships with each. The war became a major domestic political issue, as well, as many Americans overtly favored supporting the French, whose revolution espoused ideals not unlike those that motivated the American revolutionaries.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on