President Washington

President Washington

Washington resigned his commission on December 23, 1783. His relinquishing of power laid to rest any fear that he would use the army to assert political power and perpetrate, as Thomas Jefferson later wrote, "a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish." To Joseph Ellis, the act revealed Washington's mastery of his ambition, his understanding that by surrendering power he was enhancing his reputation, and demonstrated his commitment to republicanism. Garry Wills describes Washington's resignation as "pedagogical theater". It was, Wills argues, designed to give moral force to the arguments Washington made in the Circular to the States for a strong national government. Washington had seen the continental identity that had been forged in the army and how that unity had led to a successful resolution of the military situation. He saw in the new republic's post-war political situation the next crisis and hoped - vainly as it turned out - that the political capital he had built up and then magnified with his resignation would encourage the same unity of government. Washington returned to Mount Vernon, delighted to be "free of the bustle of a camp & the busy scenes of public life." From a family in which a father and three brothers had died before reaching fifty, he would soon be celebrating his fifty-second birthday. He professed a desire to spend his remaining days peacefully and quietly, "basking" in adulation according to Ferling, "enduring" it according to Chernow. One of the first American celebrities, Washington was fted during a visit to Fredericksburg in February 1784 and received a constant stream of visitors wishing to pay homage to him at Mount Vernon. Public matters were never fully out of his mind, and he wished to be seen, as a Georgia public official put it in 1787, as a "politician and States-man" who was always "virtuous and useful". But, believing he was coming to the end of his life and that his public career was over, he focused his attention on his business interests. Within a year of returning to Mount Vernon Washington had reached the conclusion that the Articles of Confederation had to be overhauled, but felt that public opinion was not yet ready to accept a stronger central government until some crisis made it clear such a government was necessary. He did not attend the Annapolis Convention, convened in September 1786 to agree the regulation of commerce throughout the thirteen states. Only five states sent delegates, and the only agreement reached was to schedule another convention in Philadelphia for the following May. The Constitutional Convention was to go beyond commerce and produce a plan designed to strengthen the federal government by amending the Articles of Confederation. Nationalists regarded Washington's support to be vital; his presence would encourage delegates from all states to attend and give weight to whatever proposals the convention came up with. Constitutional ConventionLate in 1786, the Virginia legislature nominated Washington to head its seven-man delegation to the convention. This presented him with a number of problems. He had previously declined to attend a meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati, also scheduled for May in Philadelphia, with polite excuses that masked his discomfort at being associated with an organization increasingly seen as incompatible with republican principles. To attend the Constitutional Convention would have caught him in an embarrassing lie.[n] He was anxious not to be associated with anything that might damage his reputation and feared the convention would be a fiasco if, as at Annapolis, several states did not send delegates. He was concerned about the strength of opposition to a convention that might erode state autonomy, and that, because amendments to the Articles of Confederation could only originate in Congress, the convention was not legal. Washington was also concerned his attendance would be perceived as inconsistent with the declaration he had made in 1783 to retire from public life. When Washington formally declined the nomination on December 21, James Madison requested he keep his options open, and Washington's name remained on the list of delegates "contrary to my desire and...request." As nationalists appealed to him to attend, Washington canvassed his friends for advice. The question of legality was settled on February 21, 1787, when Congress sanctioned the convention "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation." Washington was swayed by the events of Shays' Rebellion, which he saw as the crisis that would galvanize public opinion in favor of change. He was also convinced by Madison and Henry Knox that the convention would carry enough weight and have enough chance of success to be worth risking his reputation for. On March 28, Washington formally accepted the nomination. He resolved his dilemma with the Cincinnati by agreeing to address the society immediately before the convention convened. For four months, Washington presided over a convention that went beyond its remit to amend the Articles of Confederation and thrashed out a new constitution, but contributed little himself. He was happy with the proposal eventually agreed, a constitution designed to create a new national government nearly as powerful as the one only recently overthrown. Supporters of the new constitution leaned on his name heavily in their nine-month campaign to convince the states to ratify it, while he himself played an occasional, covert role in support, going so far as to self-confessedly meddle in Maryland's ratification process. PresidencyAfter the adoption of the new constitution was assured in June 1788, appeals mounted for Washington to accept the presidency, but it was not until January 1789 that he did so. He was formally elected in April, becoming the first president of the United States and the only president to be elected unanimously. His inaugural address gave little insight into his political agenda which, from private correspondence, appears to have comprised two priorities: restoring fiscal responsibility and establishing credibility for the new national government. Washington hoped to serve only two years, enough time to steer the new government towards stability then retire, but he served the full four-year term. He presided over an administration that became increasingly partisan as Alexander Hamilton battled Madison and Jefferson to set the direction of the new republic. In the last year of his first term he spoke often of retiring. He had reached sixty and his health was declining. He told friends that he did not enjoy being president, and spoke of his concern that to serve another term might invite accusations of a lust for power. It was the fear that the union would unravel in sectional tensions without him and the threat the French Revolutionary Wars posed to American unity, security and prosperity that convinced Washington to assent to a second term. Washington's second term saw the entrenchment of politics into the Federalist Party and Democratic-Republican Party. His attempts to ensure American neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars generated unprecedented levels of criticism. After signing the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, a treaty which conferred few advantages on America, Washington was castigated in the Democratic-Republican press as a "tyrannical monster" who favored "the greatest good of the least number possessing the greatest wealth." Thomas Paine, in his 1796 Letter to George Washington, attacked the president's monarchical style in office, accused him of being betraying the ideals of the revolution and siding with the Federalists to emulate British-style authority, and denigrated his record in the Revolutionary War. Farewell to politicsAdvancing years, declining health and the attacks of the press ensured Washington's second term would be his last. His final days as president were a whirlwind of social engagements in which he was able to bask in the acclaim of his achievements, though some Democratic-Republicans toasted "George Washington - down to the year 1787, and no further." His final address to Congress called for an expanded federal mandate and betrayed a Federalist bent that was at odds with his efforts during his presidency to portray himself as non-partisan. The major point in his farewell address was his belief that a capable federal government was the proper fulfillment of the American Revolution and the means by which American independence would endure. In March 1797, Washington retired once again to Mount Vernon and busied himself with his businesses. He served one last time in public office, as commander of the Provisional Army formed alongside the existing army in 1798 amid fears of a French invasion. He died at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799.

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