George Washington

Presidency

At the war's end he was the most important man in the country. He retired from the army (at Annapolis, Md., Dec. 23, 1783), returned to Mt. Vernon, and in 1784 journeyed to the West to inspect his lands there. Dissatisfied with the weakness of the government (see Confederation, Articles of), he soon joined the movement intent on reorganizing it. In 1785 commissioners from Virginia and Maryland met at Mt. Vernon to settle a dispute concerning navigation on the Potomac. This meeting led to the Annapolis Convention (1786) and ultimately to the Constitutional Convention (1787). Washington presided over this last convention, and his influence in securing the adoption of the Constitution of the United States is incalculable.

After a new government was organized, Washington was unanimously chosen the first President and took office (Apr. 30, 1789) in New York City. He was anxious to establish the new national executive above partisanship, and he chose men from all factions for the administrative departments. Thomas Jefferson became Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury. His efforts to remain aloof from partisan struggles were not successful. He approved of Hamilton's nationalistic financial measures, and although he was by no means a tool in the hands of the Secretary of the Treasury, he consistently supported Hamilton's policies. In the Anglo-French war (1793) he decided against Jefferson, who favored fulfilling the 1778 military alliance with France, and he took measures against Edmond Charles Édouard Genet. Jefferson left the cabinet, and despite Washington's efforts to preserve a political truce the Republican party (later the Democratic party) and the Federalist party emerged.

Washington was unanimously reelected (1793), but his second administration was Federalist and was bitterly criticized by Jeffersonians, especially for Jay's Treaty with England. Washington was denounced by some as an aristocrat and an enemy of true democratic ideals. The Whiskey Rebellion and trouble with the Native Americans, British, and Spanish in the West offered serious problems. The crushing of the rebellion, the defeat of the Native Americans by Anthony Wayne at Fallen Timbers, and the treaty Thomas Pinckney negotiated with Spain settled some of these troubles. Foreign affairs remained gloomy, however, and Washington, weary with political life, refused to run for a third term. Washington's Farewell Address (Sept. 17, 1796), a monument of American oratory, contained the famous (and much misquoted) passage warning the United States against "permanent alliances" with foreign powers. Washington returned to Mt. Vernon, but when war with France seemed imminent (1798) he was offered command of the army. War, however, was averted. He died on Dec. 14, 1799, and was buried on his estate.

There are many portraits and statues of Washington, among them the familiar, idealized portraits by Gilbert Stuart; the statue by Jean Antoine Houdon, who also executed the famous portrait bust from a life mask; and paintings by Charles Willson Peale, John Trumbull, and John Singleton Copley. His figure also has bulked large in drama, poetry, fiction, and essays in American literature. The national capital is named for him; one state, several colleges and universities, and scores of counties, towns, and villages of the United States bear his name. Wakefield and Mt. Vernon are national shrines.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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