George Washington became our first President in May of 1789. His actions during his first term set the standard for all future Presidents. Washington’s actions as President created precedents that we still follow today.


By 1789, Washington was nearly universally admired in America. As the picture notes, he was first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen. It should be no surprise that Washington was the unanimous choice to be President.


The David Reed story shows Washington’s generous character. Washington owned land in western Pennsylvania. During the War, squatters took over his land, led by David Reed. After the Revolution, Washington wanted to take back his land. Rather than evict the squatters and hold them liable for the back rent, Washington showed mercy. He let the squatters remain and forgave the back rent.


Washington began the tradition of meting with his Department heads (his “Cabinet”) on a regular basis. These Cabinet meetings are a precedent that every other President has followed. The term "cabinet" comes from the Italian word "cabinetto," meaning "a small, private room." A good place to discuss important business without being interrupted. The first use of the term is attributed to James Madison, who described the meetings as “the president's cabinet.”


Note that the Department heads are called “Secretaries” except for the head of the Department of Justice who is referred to as the “Attorney General”.


The number of Cabinet Departments has grown as the Executive Branch has grown. There are now 15 Departments, including such recent additions as the Department of Homeland Security (2002) and Veterans Affairs (1989). The Attorney General had no Department of Justice until 1870.


Jefferson believed people were basically good and if left alone would make the right decisions. This is a point of view similar to that of Rousseau. For a person like Jefferson, their biggest worry was a strong government which might abuse its powers and violate the rights of its citizens. Jefferson had experienced this in the 1770’s as King George III of England abused his power at the expense of the American colonists.


Alexander Hamilton saw the United States as being very similar to Great Britain, then going through the Industrial Revolution. Like Hobbes, he believed most people were selfish and that we needed a strong national government, both to keep people in line and to help grow the economy. His views were the opposite of Jefferson, who saw the United States as a nation of small farmers.


Having the federal government assuming (taking over) the debts of the states and then guaranteeing full repayment would help keep the United States credit rating very high amongst foreign banks. Even though we were a brand-new country without much of a history, the promise to pay all our debts in full reassured bankers abroad that the US could be trusted. Creating a national bank (the Bank of the United States) would also help commerce in that notes issued by the BUS would retain their full value anywhere in the country. Finally, by taxing imports, Hamilton’s tariff left American-made products cheaper in comparison. This boosted American industry. And hurt the South more than the North as the South was far more dependent upon English imports than the North, who tended to buy locally.


In this time, only banks issued paper money called “notes”. The notes were paper that could be redeemed for gold at the bank that issued them. This worked fine when the issuing bank was nearby, but the further one got from the issuing bank, the less the note was worth. Merchants carried giant books to help them identify the thousands of notes in circulation and their relative value based on the distance from the originating bank. It made interstate commerce difficult. Having a BUS would solve that problem. With branches in every state, notes from the BUS would never lose value and would give the young United States a stable currency.


The only loser from the stable notes issued by the BUS would be the smaller, state banks for whom the BUS would be seen as a competitor. Jefferson had many friends who owned local banks. He opposed the BUS not only because he felt its creation exceeded the powers given to Congress under the Constitution but also because its creation harmed his small bank-owning friends.


Political polarization was further intensified by the outbreak of popular protests in western Pennsylvania against Hamilton's financial program. To help pay off the nation's debt, Congress passed a tax on whiskey. On the frontier, the only practical way to transport and sell surplus corn was to distill it into whiskey. Frontier farmers regarded a tax on whiskey in the same way as American colonists had regarded Britain's stamp tax. By 1794, western Pennsylvanians had had enough. Some 7000 frontiersmen marched on Pittsburgh to stop collection of the tax. Determined to set a precedent for the federal government's authority, Washington gathered an army of 15,000 militamen to disperse the rebels. In the face of this overwhelming force, the uprising collapsed. The new government had proved that it would enforce laws enacted by Congress. Thomas Jefferson took a very different view of the "Whiskey Rebellion." He believed that the government had used the army to stifle legitimate opposition to unfair government policies.


It is important to note that neutrality is first and foremost, a safe strategy. But by being neutral, the United States could sell its products to both sides in a war, doubling its profits. This happened in the 1790’s when England and France went to war – the United States stayed neutral and sold supplies to both sides.


After the completion of his second term in office, Washington decided not to run again and retired. This two-term precedent would remain the standard for Presidents until FDR and World War II. In 1954, a Constitutional amendment was passed, making the two term limit mandatory.

 

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  • Our first President, George Washington, established many of the customs and practices that have become traditional for all future Presidents.
  • The rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton led to the creation of the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party.
  • The challenges faced by our second President, John Adams, set the stage for one of the most bitter contests in American history - the Election of 1800.

Presidents & Precedents Day 1 Resources


Related Lesson Plans

FIRST PARTIES DAY 2 

ELECTION OF 1800 DAY 3 


New Republic Timeline

1789: George Washington is the unanimous choice to become the first President of the United States.


1789: President Washington begins to meet regularly with the heads of the Executive Departments (State, Treasury and War), known as the "Cabinet".


1794: George Washington personally leads the army to supress the Whiskey Rebellion, proving that the Constitution and the federal government can survive challenges to their authority.


1796: President Washington retires after two terms and gives his Farewell Address in which he warns of the dangers of political parties and urges the United States to stay neutral in foreign affairs.


1796: In a contested election, Federalist John Adams defeats Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson to become our second President. Laws in effect at the time dictate that the defeated Jefferson now serve as Adam's Vice President.


1797: The French are attacking American ships at sea and demand bribes to stop. Adams refuses to pay and exposes the "XYZ Affair" to the world.


1798: Federalists in Congress pass the Sedition Act of 1798, making it illegal to criticize anyone in the federal government. Democratic-Republicans are infuriated and believe the Act violates freedom of speech.


1799: Madison and Jefferson publish the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves in which they lay out an idea of nulification, tat the states have the power to ignore any federal law they don't agree with.


1800: Thomas Jefferson wins a close and bitterly contested Presidential election in which no candidate receives a majority of the Electoral votes, so the election is decided in the House of Representatives.


1803: The United States pays $15 million to purchase the vast Louisiana territory from Napoleon, known as the Louisiana Purchase.


1803: The ability of the Supreme Court to strike down a law if it is unconstitutional (the principle of judicial review) is established by the case Marbury v. Madison.


1805: Jefferson refuses to pay tribute to the Barbary Coast and instead sends in our Navy and Marines to defeat and destroy the pirates.


1773: Protesting the Tea Acts, angry colonists destroy a shipment of tea in what becomes known as "The Boston Tea Party".


1774: Parliament passes the Intolerable Acts, suspending colonial governments and shutting down the port of Boston.


1775: British soldiers attempt to confiscate the weapons of the colonial militia. The colonists fight back, resulting in the Battle of Lexington and Concord. In Philadelphia, the 2nd Continental Congress meets to organize the revolution.


1777: Decisive American victory at the Battle of Saratoga convinces the French to aid the colonists.


1777-78: Continental Army spends the winter at Valley Forge where Baron Von Steuben arrives and trains the soldiers.


1781: The British Army is defeated at the Battle of Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary War.


1783: The Treaty of Paris is signed and American independence is achieved.


1785: Under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress passes the Northwest Ordinance, regulating the settling of the Ohio River lands.


1786-87: Angry over taxes and foreclosures, farmers in New England take up arms in Shay's Rebellion.


1787: The Constitutional Convention meets in Philadelphia to write a new governing document for the United States.


1789-90: North Carolina and Rhode Island are the last two states to ratify the Constitution, making it the law of the land.