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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