The following is a teaser for the forthcoming project, A People’s History of the Presidency, a study of the men who wielded and sculpted executive power in the United States from the eyes of those they impacted.
The Invention Of The Presidency
An observer at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia would be shocked to learn that the document being drafted there would someday be considered the irreproachable blueprint of the democratic state. In fact, to hear the grandstanding of the fifty-five delegates crowded into the atrium of the Pennsylvania State House (now the legendary tourist attraction Independence Hall), one could quite reasonably come to the conclusion that they opposed democracy altogether.
Many of the delegates said so explicitly. Roger Sherman, a Connecticut lawyer who had gained celebrity for his role in drafting the Declaration of Independence, told his colleagues to prevent a directly elected legislature, insisting, “The people should have as little to do as may be about the government.” William Livingston, a newspaper magnate and the Governor of New Jersey, agreed: “The people ever have been, and ever will be unfit to retain the exercise of power in their own hands.” Elbridge Gerry, a merchant representing Massachusetts who had seen his wealth explode thanks to wartime price controls, denounced democracy as “the worst of all political evils.” James Madison, a young plantation owner from Virginia, proposed that “our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation” by “protect[ing] the minority of the opulent against the majority.” And George Washington, the old general and slaveholding land speculator presiding over the Convention, opened the deliberations by warning his fellow delegates not to “please the people” by sacrificing their own interests.
Most of these men, who less than five years before had been the political leaders of the first successful anticolonial revolution in history, were the products of the old English aristocracy. From the south, there were slaveholding planters; from the north, men with enormous fortunes in shipping and trade; but they were by and large united by old money and old connections that set them apart from the four million people with whom they shared their new nation. Surprisingly, however, the most lucidly anti-democratic voice in the Convention was that of a young man who had been born in relative poverty, whose new fortune came not from mercantilism or trade, but from the first bank on New York’s Wall Street.
Alexander Hamilton, a child of adultery born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, had been General Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolution, and had already harnessed his extraordinary ambition not only into the creation of a bank, but also the establishment of one of the country’s most well-known law practices. Perhaps it was insecurity over his own modest roots that led him to take a stand against “the imprudence of democracy.” In a speech that went on for several hours on the Convention floor, Hamilton told the other delegates,
All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the well-born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct and permanent share of the government.
In the history of American politics, “the people” who were such a source of anxiety and consternation for the Constitution’s framers have been rendered invisible by successive generations of historians more concerned with the personal heroics and palace intrigues of Great Men. Yet it should go without saying that any politics exists only in relation to the people who, despite historical erasure, cling stubbornly to their own agency and their own humanity. As was so often the case, Hamilton showed great foresight at the Constitutional Convention. The life of politics in the United States would forever lie not in the Great Men whose storied lives live and expand in narrative through generations, but in the calculated efforts of the powerful few to dominate the many, and the constant struggle of the many to break free from the will powerful few. Perhaps Hamilton was referencing the paradox laid out by the conservative philosopher David Hume, who wrote in 1741, “Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophic eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few.”
Who were “the people,” “the many,” that Hamilton and his few hoped to govern? The first US Census, taken in 1790, counted 3,140,207 free white people, 59,150 free black people, and 694,280 slaves, almost all within fifty miles of the Atlantic coast. Uncounted but very much still people were the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who had been forced by colonial militias to abandon their homelands and head west to the unorganized “Indian territory.” Governing officials were well aware of the need to maintain racial and class divisions, as one noted, “to make Indians & Negros a checque upon each other lest by their Vastly Superior Numbers we should be crushed by one or the other.” Not only were the people divided, they were also almost voiceless in the Convention: only property-owning white men could vote for their delegates, a mere 6% of the population. Though a few northern cities supported growing mercantile and industrial economies, the bulk of even the white population survived as subsistence farmers, squatters on the land of the wealthy.
As the Constitution was signed, the concept of a united American people was nonexistent. The so-called American experiment was brand new, having officially begun with the Continental Congress’s Declaration of Independence from the British Empire on July 4, 1776 just eleven years before. This text, penned by Thomas Jefferson, another Virginian with a plantation fortune, included a promise to the people incredibly risky for any government to make:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter and abolish it.
But Jefferson and the ruling class in the thirteen British colonies at large was already in an extremely risky position. The wheels of revolution, which spend so much of history frozen in place, were already turning. Riots against imperial control had spread like wildfire throughout the colonies since 1765, when British troops had crossed the Atlantic to enforce Parliament’s unpopular taxes on tea and stamps. Tax collectors and colonial governors were tarred and feathered in the streets by members of the inter-colonial organization calling itself the Sons of Liberty. In Boston in 1770, former slave Crispus Attucks led a riot against British troops who had clubbed a young boy; the soldiers responded by firing into the crowd, killing Attucks and four others, in what became known as the Boston Massacre. The agitation spread by the killing culminated on April 19, 1775, when a militia of working class Bostonians first engaged in armed combat against the British troops.
The historian John Shy estimates that only about one fifth of the British colonists in America supported war against the crown. But colonial administrators had forced poor white men to take up arms and serve in militias since a slave uprising in North Carolina in 1739 had nearly toppled the government there, so this revolutionary fifth was well-armed and prepared for open warfare. As radical writers such as Thomas Paine joined the revolutionary movement, proposing the democratic election of a new government in the colonies, wealthy elites recognized the Revolution as both a threat to their authority and an opportunity to create a new authority in which they could operate without the constraint of British taxes. Through grandiose texts like Jefferson’s Declaration, they rallied local militias to support the Continental Congress and its army, led by George Washington. Notably, many slaves escaped their masters to fight alongside the British, who promised them freedom for their service, and Native tribes, recognizing the long-term imperial ambitions of the Revolution’s leaders, overwhelmingly sided with the British as well.
The Revolution would have been crushed, and the gamble wasted, if not for the military support of the French and Spanish monarchies. When the British troops under Lord Cornwallis surrendered at the Battle of Yorktown in 1783, the new United States was suddenly thrust into the open with no effective government, thirteen competing and conflicting state economies, and an unpayable burden of debt. In order to preserve its authority, Congress began levying taxes on the poor and withholding veterans’ pensions. This provoked a violent reaction in a populace that had been led to believe they had just fought a war against unjust taxation. A farmer and rebel identified as “Plough Jogger” summed up the national mood in 1786 succinctly: “The great men are going to get all we have and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors nor lawyers.” A militant uprising of Revolutionary veterans led by the celebrated war hero Daniel Shays battled against the militias of General Henry Knox to overthrow the courts of Massachusetts. Though Shays’ Rebellion was crushed, with six rebels killed, dozens hanged, and Shays himself forced to flee to the new Republic of Vermont, the violence against the ruling class made it clear that a more powerful central authority would be necessary to, in Knox’s words, protect against “insurgents” who “see the weakness of government.” And so, on May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention gathered to determine what form that authority would take.
For Alexander Hamilton, the ideal form was clear. “The English model is the only good one on this subject,” he proclaimed to his fellow delegates, completely ignoring the irony of his statement. “The hereditary interest of the king was so interwoven with that of the nation, and his personal emoluments so great, that he was placed above the danger of being corrupted from abroad…Let one executive be appointed for life who dares execute his powers.”
As the Convention continued, the argument eventually became polarized between Hamilton’s British Plan and Madison’s Virginia Plan. Though the debate between the two men came to be viewed as a legendary clash of visions, both men shared an unspoken consensus that, in Hamilton’s words, “The primary objects of civil society are security of property and public safety,” the protection, in Madison’s words, of “the minority of the opulent.” For Hamilton, security of property meant stability of markets, promoted by a continuity of policy that lasts a lifetime. For Madison, security of property meant a revolving authority removed from the interest of landed patricians. Though both men had participated in a war against the King of England (Hamilton on the field of battle, Madison in the Continental Congress), neither disputed the notion that a republic needs an individual executive deigned with the authority of a king.
And so, after the Constitution was finished on September 17, 1787, both men worked together to produce a series of propaganda leaflets promoting the document that would come to be known as the Federalist Papers. Setting aside their differences, the two men explicitly laid out the purpose of the unprecedented bureaucracy they had planned. In Federalist No. 10, Madison argued that a powerful federal government would reduce the risk of anti-aristocratic rebellion, writing, “A rage…for the equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it.” Hamilton, in Federalist No. 9, similarly described “the tendency of the Union to repress domestic faction and insurrection.”
They laid out to a people who had so recently liberated themselves from conservative monarchy the importance of the executive position: one person, chosen by a college of distinguished electors, who could single-handedly veto an act of the elected legislature; who alone commands the army and navy during wartime and the marine corps at all times; who nominates all judges, ambassadors, and cabinet administrators. The justification for such extensive powers granted to a single person was offered only briefly in the Hamilton-penned Federalist No. 70: “A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.”
The people, particularly veterans and partisans of the Revolution against monarchical control, were well aware of the Constitution’s anti-democratic outlook. As each state’s legislature was required to ratify the document, sharp divisions arose between Federalist and Anti-Federalist camps – the former largely upper class, the latter largely organized around populist leaders like Virginia orator Patrick Henry, of whom Thomas Jefferson said to James Madison, “What we have to do I think is devoutly pray for his death.” As riots between supporters and opponents of the constitution waged on the streets of major cities, as Anti-Federalist legislators found their homes ransacked by Federalist partisans, the Framers staged political gambits to force their document through: in Pennsylvania, for example, only likely Federalist voters were warned of a snap election for legislators, and fewer than 18% of eligible voters were able to cast a ballot. Ultimately, the Federalists won a narrow confirmation in New York and Virginia only by promising major amendments to the Constitution, and in Massachusetts only by falsely promising the popular Anti-Federalist Governor John Hancock a future Vice Presidential nomination. Rhode Island and North Carolina still had not ratified the document in 1789, but the Federalists moved ahead anyway in the hope that a firm government would soon coerce their support.
As for the identity of a figure worthy of extreme control in history’s most powerful republic, among the Framers there could be no question. Who better to preserve wealth and power than the wealthiest man in the continent?
From December 15, 1788, to January 10, 1789, white men who owned property were given the opportunity to vote for a single presidential candidate or not vote at all. And on April 30, 1789, having received 43,782 votes and the unanimous backing of the Electoral College, George Washington was inaugurated the first President of the United States.
George Washington, Another King George
No president has been as thoroughly mythologized as Washington. In his classic biography of the Father of Our Country, James Thomas Flexner wrote, “In all history few men who possessed unassailable power have used that power so gently and self-effacingly for what their best instincts told them was the welfare of their neighbors and all mankind.” Thomas Jefferson would claim of Washington that, “On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect.” He is associated forever with the myth of a child who accepted responsibility for cutting down his father’s cherry tree with the adorable admission, “Papa, I cannot tell a lie!” None of these characterizations are remotely true, of course, but they fit a man whose main contribution to American politics was the role of unintelligent benefactor to flattering sycophants.
Washington was born on February 22, 1732, on an enormous tobacco plantation in Virginia. Though he inherited his father’s estate, the famous Mount Vernon, and dozens of enslaved human beings at the age of twenty, he had no interest in the business of agriculture, preferring to go adventuring as a surveyor along the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains. This put him in the perfect position to speculate on the “unspoiled” (but inhabited by Native Americans) land of the western frontier. By eighteen he had already begun to engage in the aggressive land grabs that would form the basis of his fortune; by the end of his life, he owned well over a hundred square miles. It was early in his career as a speculator that he first registered irritation with British colonial rule, for the simple rule that the crown’s treaty obligations to various indigenous nations limited his own territorial expansion westward.
His storied military career was in fact something of a joke; Gore Vidal may have exaggerated slightly when he observed that “George Washington was a famous general who never won a battle,” but only slightly. Washington inherited his brother’s rank of general in the Continental Army in 1752 and began his career by massacring 35 French Canadian scouts on French territory for no apparent reason. This unwarranted act of aggression would be a key provocation for the French and Indian War, which started the next year. The French retaliated, quickly capturing the general and his entire militia and releasing him to return to Virginia in humiliation. Washington again took up arms against the French in 1755 and retreated after losing a single battle; in 1758, he joined the successful campaign to take the French Fort Duquesne, but spent the battle accidentally firing on his own allies. Somewhat aware of his shortcomings in combat, Washington preferred slaughtering civilians in the French-aligned Native villages, and the Seneca chief Tanacharison gave him the nickname Conotocaurious, or “Devourer of Villages,” which followed him to his presidency.
Though Washington resigned from the army in disgrace in 1758, the French and Indian War served him well – the land of the Natives slaughtered by the British and American forces opened up vast new space for investment. Boosted by his marriage to the widowed heiress Martha Custis, he amassed the greatest fortune in the thirteen colonies – profiting tremendously not only his flourishing plantation with over 300 slaves, but enormous swaths of recently conquered land. Despite his repeated claims that “I am opposed to this kind of traffic in the human species,” Washington showed no qualms about the millions he made through slave labor and, counter to popular perception, could be an especially cruel master. He was known to have teeth pulled from his slaves’ mouths to construct his dentures and to sell disobedient slaves to owners in the West Indies, never to see their families again. His neighbor Richard Parkinson wrote “it was the sense of all his neighbors that he treated [his slaves] with more severity than any other man.” When a woman named Ona Judge escaped his ownership, he tried unsuccessfully to have her kidnapped from the safety of New Hampshire. The historian Linda Allen Bryant compiled substantial evidence that Washington may have fathered a child named West Ford through the rape of his sister-in-law’s slave Venus, though this this long-standing claim by Ford’s descendants is impossible to verify with DNA since Washington had no acknowledged biological children.
If he was interested in rebellion against the crown, he did not show it. The closest to revolutionary he came was voicing displeasure at the Proclamation of 1763, a Parliamentary decree that limited colonial incursion into the territory of the Ottawa nation, hurting the value of his Ohio Company. As late as 1770, he collaborated with British authorities in surveying the potential fourteenth colony, Vandalia, in what is now West Virginia.
The first clashes between British troops and the Sons of Liberty in April 1775 struck Washington as an opportunity. On June 14, he accepted Massachusetts delegate John Adams’s nomination to lead the Continental Army against the British – he had been nominated not for his skill as an officer, but because with his extreme wealth he could finance much of the army himself. During the war’s early years, he suffered a series of embarrassing defeats, abandoning New York City and failing to repel the British from the continental capital Philadelphia. His decision to make camp in Valley Forge in the winter of 1777 caused over a quarter of his men to die by freezing or starvation; when his soldiers organized mutinies, which was often, he had them quickly executed. It wasn’t until the influx of French troops and ships in 1778 that Washington had any military success; his main accomplishment in the war was chasing British forces into the firing line of the French navy in the Battle of Yorktown.
After the war, in failing health, Washington briefly retired, comparing his own virtue in relinquishing military power to that of the Roman patrician Cincinnatus. But James Madison enticed him back into politics during the Constitutional Convention, hoping that, as a fellow Virginia plantation kingpin, Washington would take his side against the charismatic Hamilton. Madison had failed to account for Hamilton and Washington’s wartime friendship, or for the simpering flattery Hamilton had already offered the general. Hamilton’s calls for a kinglike executive were designed for Washington’s ears, and as the Convention completed the document, Washington was so certain he would become President that he considered it improper to vote in favor of it and abstained. Still, when the faction calling themselves Anti-Federalists urged their state legislatures to reject the Constitution and its pseudo-monarchic proposal for concentrated power, it was Washington, already a legend among his own people, who campaigned throughout the south for its ratification.
Ignoring the astronomical debt his government faced, George Washington arrived at his inauguration on a specially built barge draped with red, white, and blue. He refused to shake hands, stood on a raised platform to meet guests, wore a sword at his hip, and traveled everywhere in a coach drawn by six matching horses like the King George III of England, whose imperial authority he had just overthrown. At the insistence of John Adams, the Senate bestowed on him the title of “His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.” Flaunting laws limiting slavery in New York City and Philadelphia, he kept an alternating staff of slaves in the Presidential residence, writing to his aides that “I with have it accomplished under [some] pretext that may deceive both [the slaves] and the Public.” Despite the apocryphal legend that Washington turned down an offer to be made King of the United States with the uncharacteristically coy remark, “The last thing we need is another King George,” the first president of our Republic seemed to consider himself very much a kind of monarch above both the people and the law.
The Washington Administration, First Term: A Tale of Two Capitalisms
With very little interest in the actual labor of governing, President Washington delegated the duties of his position almost entirely to his cabinet. His first four nominees were a geographically diverse selection of high profile figures who competed aggressively, disagreed constantly, and battled for influence over the president through complements and tricks. Thomas Jefferson was picked for Secretary of State while serving as Ambassador to France. General Henry Knox, who had crushed Shays’ Rebellion, became Secretary of War. Washington named his personal lawyer, Edmund Randolph, a cynical politician who had flipped back and forth on the question of independence, as Attorney General. And Secretary of Treasury of course went to Alexander Hamilton. John Adams, who had gained the most electoral votes in the second round of voting and thus became Vice President, irritated the President and was largely excluded from policymaking despite his cabinet position The cabinet represented a rare mishmash of moneyed interests – Jefferson’s wealth was in slaves, Knox’s in industrial shipbuilding, Randolph’s in various business dealings, and Hamilton’s in finance – Washington’s cabinet was competing not only for historical relevance but also for policies that engendered personal gain.
The Washington administration can be understood as a civil war between two forms of capitalism. vying for hegemony. On the one side, Jefferson, the cream of the old world aristocracy, at the helm of a system that still in many ways resembled feudalism, the extraction of labor value through force. On the other, Hamilton, leaping into modern capitalism, foreseeing the rise of industrialism and wage labor, riding not the production of goods but the movement of wealth. Washington, both a slaver and a speculator, had one foot in each world and imagined himself above the debate; also, he was far less competent than either Hamilton or Jefferson and likely did not understand the implications of their conflict. Needless to say, this clash of two capitalisms included only representatives of the aristocracy and the financial bourgeoisie; there was no voice for labor, for women, for the abolition of slavery, for the rights of Native people, at the table.
Before they could establish governmental programs, both Hamilton and Jefferson understood that their executive power would be in constant jeopardy without a deal with the Anti-Federalists. To that end, Washington pushed James Madison, now a Virginia Congressman and staunch ally of the President, to draft ten amendments to the Constitution that would come to be known as the Bill of Rights. The plan, introduced in June 1789, was met with skepticism – South Carolinian Congressman Aedanus Burke called the amendments “frothy and full of wind…like a tub thrown out to a whale, to secure the freight of the ship.” Still, the pro-democratic measures proposed were substantial, at least for white male citizens: they promised freedom of speech, religion, press, and assembly; freedom from torture, unreasonable persecution, or military occupation; right to a trial by jury and legal counsel. The Bill of Rights also conspicuously included a “right to keep and bear Arms,” a gift to southern slaveholders who kept militias of poor whites on hand both to suppress slave revolt and seize Native land. When in 1790 a group of anti-slavery petitioners, including a terminally ill Benjamin Franklin, demanded that Congress extend the Bill of Rights “without distinctions of colour, to all descriptions of people,” Madison rushed legislation to resolve “that Congress have no authority to interfere in the emancipation of slaves, or in the treatment of them,” which Washington readily signed.
More important to the Washington administration than the application of liberty or lack thereof the the question of immense debt accrued during the Revolution. Southern states had borrowed very little money, relying largely on their pre-existing anti-slave militias; northern states, on the other hand, owed a great deal to European governments and arms manufacturers. Hamilton, already a powerful Wall Street banker, realized that establishing a national bank by centralizing the individual states’ credit would enable the federal government – guided, unconstitutionally, by the executive – to borrow and spend money as it pleased, and wield substantial influence in the national economy. Such a plan would also involve the federal government staying in a state of perpetual debt, and making tremendous interest payments every year to the burgeoning finance industry. This plan initially alarmed Jefferson and the southern Congressmen, whose slave-backed credit would suffer if tied to northern debts. But in a secret deal known as the Compromise of 1790, Jefferson agreed to push southerners in Congress to back Hamilton’s plan if Hamilton supported taking steps to move the capital from New York City to Virginia. Hamilton agreed. In 1791, after the government was moved temporarily to Philadelphia and construction of a city named after Washington began on the Potomac River, he chartered the First Bank of the United States. Personally at the helm of both the largest public bank and the only private bank in the country, Hamilton suddenly wielded absolute power over the US economy, and he used it to tie federal power irrevocably to Wall Street financiers.
This move resulted in a rapid concentration of wealth in a new social class: the finance capitalist, masters of the old aristocracy who had the foresight to invest their wealth in banks, which in turn invested in industrial and agricultural projects. Wealth inequality surged, landlords began foreclosing on the rented homes of the working class, and popular dissatisfaction with the government and in particular the ruling Federalists reached a fevered peak. Jefferson felt duped and humiliated, witnessing his own plantation class losing economic standing to largely northern speculators. But when Jefferson convinced Madison to side with Anti-Federalists in Congress to reduce the power of Hamilton’s two banks, Hamilton convinced Washington that Congress was moving to take power from the executive branch, pulling the President tighter into his corner even as Anti-Federalists made major gains in the 1790 midterm elections for the House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, the administration was forced to come to terms with the collapse of their financier and military ally in the Revolutionary War, King Louis XVI of France, who lost control of his country in the French Revolution of 1789. At first, the liberalization of France was seen as a welcome change; Hamilton, for one, wondered whether it would lead to a forgiveness of debt. But when the Jacobins executed King Louis on January 21, 1793, and began moving to abolish basic relations of property between the aristocracy and the middle class, and when the American people began voicing support for Jacobin radicalism, Washington and Hamilton’s enthusiasm turned to horror. When England invaded France later that year to prevent the spread of revolution, Washington declared previous treaty agreements to the French null and void and pronounced the United States neutral in foreign conflicts. This neutrality would be selectively applied. Before the year was out, slaves in the French colony Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) had begun a revolution of their own. Despite their factional differences, Hamilton and Jefferson quietly agreed to send thousands of weapons to the French slave owners on the island and prevent American slaves from following suit – both forms of capitalism agreed that slavery was an institution worth preserving through armed force.
While Jefferson and Hamilton managed his foreign policy, Washington found his greatest political success – and personal enrichment – along the American frontier. He and General Knox framed the long American frontier an “embarrassment,” and set out to clear the land of its indigenous inhabitants and welcome white settlers. The federal government paid militias to scour the frontier, and widely publicized the Natives’ justified military response – after Chief Little Turtle of the Miami killed 630 federal troops while repelling them from his territory, public support for war against Natives skyrocketed. Indigenous nations in the northwestern territories united in a Confederacy, with democratically elected leaders, to repel American forces, but after thousands of them were killed in brutal campaigns targeting civilians, the Confederacy’s Shawnee leader Tecumseh agreed to sell treaty-protected land to the federal government at extortionist prices. After Washington set land prices at a minimum of two dollars an acre – then an unachievably high sum of money for poor and working class settlers – this land was bought up by banks and speculators, who then rented it out for even more profit.
The Washington Administration, Second Term: Counterrevolution, Begin
The presidential election of 1792 was something of a non-event. Washington, again, was the only candidate on the ballot, and won unanimous support of the Electoral College. But in a testament to his declining credibility, only 28,579 Americans even bothered voting – even with addition of Vermont and Kentucky to the union, Washington received just over half as many votes as he had in 1788. Meanwhile, the Anti-Federalists took control of the House of Representatives, and Adams only barely won enough second-round electors to stay in the Vice Presidency, nearly losing to Anti-Federalist New York Governor George Clinton. Washington’s term began on April 30, 1793 with chaos – Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State, writing, “I was duped…by the Secretary of the Treasury, and made a fool for forwarding his schemes.” Blindsided, Washington made his corrupt lawyer Edmund Randolph the new Secretary of State, a widely unpopular decision, while Jefferson and Madison formed their own opposition party, the Democratic Republicans, robbing the President of his chief ally in Congress.
Hamilton’s economic plan turned out to be almost uniquely bad at reducing federal deficit. Though some revenue came from foreign imports through the Tariff Act of 1790, both the President and the Secretary of Treasury understood that debt would only grow without the institution of taxes. Opposition to taxation, of course, had been the lynchpin of the Revolution, and the former Revolutionary leaders understood how a return to taxation would appear. Notably again, no progressive tax policy (such as a land tax, which would only effect the extremely wealthy) was even considered: for millionaires like Washington and Hamilton, only a flat sales tax, the brunt of which is born by the poor, would be conceivable. To win support of such a tax, Hamilton aligned himself with extreme religious conservatives decrying the evils of alcohol use: to the applause of northern Protestant churches and the horror of everyone else, a “sin tax” was imposed on all sales of whiskey. Almost immediately, opposition was fierce. Especially along the western frontier, where farmers relied on their whiskey stills for supplemental income, protests quickly became violent. As in the lead up to the Revolution, tax collectors were tarred and feathered, federal officers were threatened at gunpoint, and taxes went unpaid. In July 1794, resistance came to a peak in western Pennsylvania, when 500 armed men stormed the house of tax collector General John Neville and burnt it to the ground.
Hamilton, who had predicted such a reaction, immediately took advantage of an opportunity to expand executive power, urging Washington to use the full force of his office crush the insurrection. Washington, in his element for the first and only time of his Presidency, invoked the 1792 Militia Law to summon 13,000 troops from private militias and marched, at the head of his new army, into Pennsylvania. Taking up arms against his own people, he would be the only sitting US president to personally partake in a military campaign. Forcing many of the rebels into frigid prison camps along the frontier, Washington, the old Devourer of Villages, relished the opportunity to give “testimony to the world of being able or willing to support our government and laws” through lethal force. Speaking to Congress upon his return, he blamed the violent outburst on Democratic Republican clubs, “combinations of men, who, careless of consequences…have disseminated, from an ignorance of perversions of fact, suspicions, jealousies, and accusations of the whole government.” Americans were to support his Federalist faction or else “bid adieu to all government in this Country, except mob, or Club, government.” Here, Washington established another Presidential precedent: a fear-mongering speech framing political opposition as enemies of the people.
In 1793, as the war between France and Britain intensified, the French envoy to the United States Edmond-Charles Genêt (“Citizen Genêt,” as he was popularly known) began distributing copies of the French constitution, which, unlike its American counterpart, was a truly radical document, with claims like “All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities…according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.” Revolutionary veterans, who remembered fighting alongside French soldiers against the British, became enamored with the French cause. Their stance intensified as the British navy began attacking American ships trading France and kidnapping their crews as part of an aggressive naval blockade. Alarmed by Genêt’s popularity, Washington demanded the ambassador be deported, but when public outcry arose over Genêt’s possible execution back in France, the administration allowed him to remain in the US as long as he disavowed the revolutionary regime.
Rather than voice any solidarity with the new French Republic, Washington consistently took the astonishingly anti-democratic position that the United States should instead back the British monarchy. His stance was influenced both his personal attachment to English aristocracy, and by guidance from Hamilton, who knew that free trade with the vast British Empire would be far more beneficial for American capital than alliance with the anti-imperial insurgency occurring in France. In 1794, Secretary of State Randolph began secretly negotiating a trade agreement with British envoys. Hamilton, worried that he could not control Randolph’s delegation, had his lackey Timothy Pickering, who had succeeded Knox as Secretary of War, convince the President that Randolph, in financial distress, had taken bribes from the French government (the historical record is unclear as to whether or not this claim was grounded). Washington, no longer confident his own State Department could carry out his interests, instead had his long-time ally and partisan Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay negotiate the deal in absolute secrecy. Jay’s participation was a clear violation of the Constitution’s supposed separation of powers, but Washington felt that Jay, a fellow aristocrat and Anglophile, had the legal prowess and groveling loyalty necessary to carry out his interests with the British.
After establishing pro-British and pro-finance terms – and cementing an anti-French foreign policy – Washington had the Jay Treaty brought in secret before the Senate for ratification, hoping to keep the entire process secret from the public. But Democratic Republican Virginia Senator Stevens Thomas Mason leaked the document, and the identity of its illegal negotiator, to the press. It became immediately clear that the administration had sold out the defining principles of the Revolution for free trade with former overlords. An enormous protest movement, included women’s groups, evangelical churches, and abolitionists, began to call for both Washington and Jay’s impeachment. Crowds burnt effigies of the President and Chief Justice in the streets of New York and Philadelphia. One anonymous protestor wrote in the Aurora General Advertiser, a dissident paper that had been founded by Benjamin Franklin, that there were
important purposes to be gained by even a vote of impeachment. It would convince the world that we are free and that we are determined to remain so. It would be a solemn and awful lesson to future Presidents: it would exact a scrupulous administration…of the Constitution; it would give confidence to the people in the government; it would exact a respect for the laws, and it would impress the strongest conviction of the virtue of our representatives and the justice of our country.
Perhaps, had the power of the law constrained the blatant criminality of our first President, the Presidency could have flourished into a legitimate and legal office, one constrained in some way by the clearly expressed democratic will of the people. Instead, advocates of impeachment – that is, advocates of the most democratic branch of government exerting its constitutional authority over a violation of the law – were mocked as radicals, and Washington’s dubious credits as a war hero and pseudo-religious figurehead were touted once again. Impeachment was shelved as a potential tool of democracy, and over the next two centuries, though presidents would stand in constant violation of the law, no president would ever be successfully impeached and only one would leave office due to the threat of impeachment.
Hamilton had supported the Jay Treaty for free trade; Washington supported an alliance with Britain for a more personal reason. Once the treaty was ratified, Britain stopped supplying firearms to the various Native American tribes resisting American incursion into the western frontier. As his term approached its end, Washington had conquered as far west as what is now Wisconsin, and as far south as the border with Spanish Florida. The histories of his victims were erased in the fires of genocide, but they almost certainly numbered in the tens of thousands. He was, after all, the Devourer of Villages. But it was not just Native Americans who faced new violence under the Washington administration. By the end of Washington’s second term, the abolitionist movement had succeeded in banning slavery from Pennsylvania and all of New England, but the President through his weight behind legislation such as the Fugitive Slave Act, which authorized slave owners to hire vigilantes and hunt down their escaped slaves even in northern sanctuary states, a tactic Washington himself promptly took advantage of in the hunt for his household slave, Ona Judge.
By the 1796, the Washington presidency was in complete disarray. Hamilton, perhaps sensing the President’s political toxicity, had resigned, and Washington, who had allowed the young man to govern the republic entirely unchecked, was not creative enough to rule on his own. The threat of impeachment, and the popular discontent with his administration, disturbed Washington. His decision not to seek a third term has been framed by many historians as evidence of his profound humility and respect for the democratic transfer of power – the painter Joseph Farington dubiously reported King George III admitting that Washington was “the greatest man in the world” for walking away from power. In fact, the President may have simply been displaying political common sense: in 1796, it was not at all a given that he would win another term, and if he did, he would face constant political frustration without smarter men to do the work for him.
His farewell address, which Madison had written in 1792, and Hamilton edited as a private citizen in 1796, was published in newspapers across the nation. It drips with the insincere dignity of a properly humiliated man desperate to redeem himself in the eyes of history. Given the rare opportunity to write the first draft of his own history, Washington (that is, his more eloquent ghost writers) chose to invent a narrative that his retirement was a patriotic act: “I have the consolation to believe, that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.” In other places, the often-quoted speech is so syrupy it almost becomes absurd:
Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope, that my Country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.
We would be wiser to remember George Washington not through his own words, but with the wisdom of Thomas Paine, a true American revolutionary, who after reading the Farewell Address wrote in a letter to the President, “As to you, Sir, treacherous in private friendship (for so you have been to me, and that in an hour of danger) and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.”