When a modern US president travels, he or she expects the electorate to cover the cost. In 1789, however, borrowed his inauguration travel funds from a
buddy. In many ways, the Father of Our Country was starting a government from
The federal government grew rapidly in the years just following George Washington’s
first inauguration. By the end of his presidential career, the democratic system had
developed much of its modern character, including 1) a highly lauded three-branch
foundation and 2) an oft-criticized tendency toward internal polarization.
Washington’s first term began with little dissent from Congress. His presidential contest
was arguably the least complicated in all of US history. As a famed hero of the
Revolutionary War, General Washington easily transitioned to President Washington in
1789; he campaigned with virtually no opposition, and he unanimously won the electoral
vote for each of two terms.
Under Washington’s welcome executive leadership, the young nation quickly established
its judicial and legislative branches. Congress passed the Judiciary Act in 1789, bringing
a hierarchy of state and federal courts and setting the Supreme Court as an arbiter of
conflicts between state laws and national laws. Washingtons government then conducted
the first national census in 1790. This facilitated the formation of congressional districts,
allowing voters to elect local legislative representatives. In addition to these important
judicial and legislative accomplishments, the early Washington years strengthened civil
liberties as Congress sent the President ten constitutional amendments, ultimately ratified
and known as the Bill of Rights.
Washington attributed his effective governing in part to his balanced consideration of
ideas. The Constitution had granted him executive power, but in many ways, it left open
how a President might deliberate or interact with Congress. Washington was not
personally a party member, and he hoped to set a precedent of non-sectarian leadership.
Truly willing to consider multiple perspectives, he populated his Cabinet with men
holding differing perspectives. Ironically, however, these very advisors hand-picked for
their ability to bring wholeness to Washingtons personal thinking soon formed two
political factions to promote their own polarized agendas.
Unity had proved easiest at the start of Washington’s first term. Once the three branches
of government were formed, the President was charged with a more divisive task:
handling debt from the Revolutionary War. As currency and taxation became more
prominent issues, the differing values of sectarian Cabinet members crystallized.
Presidential advisor and staunch Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who had developed
national currency and taxation plans, had visions of a strong central bank. This clashed
with Secretary of State Thomas Jeffersons ideal of small government. By 1793, each
man had assembled a network of supporters. By the end of Washington’s second term,
Hamiltons Federalists and Jeffersons Democratic-Republicans were regularly slinging
mud via sectarian newspapers.
When George Washington retired from public office, his Farewell Address named his
nations to struggle for unity and its current trend toward separation. He described the
federal government’s unity as the main pillar in the edifice of your real independence…of
your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that
very liberty which you so highly prize. This unity was threatened, in his view, by the
newly-formed political parties. Washington warned citizens against the baneful spirit of
faction and said it would only enfeeble the Public Administration.
Today, this Farewell Address is annually read aloud in both houses of Congress, to our
modern — and perhaps enfeebled — factions, in tribute to Washingtons service and as a
reminder of his political foresight.