May 18, 2024
George Washington’s Federal Government

George Washington’s Federal Government

When a modern US president travels, he or she expects the electorate to cover the cost. In 1789, however, George Washington borrowed his inauguration travel funds from a buddy. In many ways, the “Father of Our Country” was starting a government from scratch.

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 arbiter of conflicts between state laws and national laws. Washington’s 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 Washington’s 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 Jefferson’s ideal of small government. By 1793, each man had assembled a network of supporters. By the end of Washington’s second term, Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans were regularly slinging mud via sectarian newspapers.

When George Washington retired from public office, his Farewell Address named his nation’s struggle for unity and its current trend toward separation. He described the federal government’s unity as “a 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 Washington’s service and as a reminder of his political foresight.