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First President, 1789–1797
During the Revolutionary War, conditions were dismal for American colonists. Against heavy odds, Washington outmaneuvered British forces to lead the colonists to victory. But after the war’s end, Washington watched with dismay as the very officers who had fought off the rule of a monarch made grabs for their own individual power. Washington was now tired and wanted only a quiet life, but his peers knew that his leadership and charisma were unsurpassed. The colonists had fought the war as a set of different nations, without unity, until Washington assumed command of their forces. As he had united them during the war, he would do so again in the aftermath. America’s first presidential campaign was, in fact, a broad effort to persuade Washington to accept the office. Citizens across the colonies as well as former comrades in arms insisted that only he could forge a nation. Washington won the presidency by unanimous electoral vote in both 1788 and in 1792.
Upon his inauguration as the first president on April 30, 1789, George Washington assumed office under the tenuous circumstances of an untested federal government. The newly established Constitution was not yet a year old and still lacked ratification by two of the thirteen states, North Carolina and Rhode Island. A discerning group of state delegates had also refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights. Two of these delegates, Patrick Henry and George Mason, were prominent Virginians; in fact, Mason and Washington were neighbors. While it was a time of great hope and promise for the nation’s future, there were also grave doubts about the present. In accepting the presidency of what was still an experiment in republican democracy, Washington proved a model of confidence and restraint. For example, his decision to serve no more than two terms set a lasting precedent. A century and a half later, after Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four terms, that precedent was cemented in the Twenty-Second Amendment.
Washington’s prestige and patriotism helped galvanize the new republic at a time when it was most vulnerable to domestic and foreign turmoil. In 1791, he successfully suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion, invoking the power of the federal government over the states. To avoid becoming embroiled in the war between Great Britain and France, he issued a Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793. In 1795, the Jay Treaty strengthened American economic ties with Britain and vacated English forts in the American west. The Pinckney Treaty with Spain granted American ships free navigation of the Mississippi River via the port of New Orleans. And the Naval Act of 1794 created the United States Navy. Through actions like these, Washington launched the fledgling nation on a promising course of peace and prosperity for future generations.
George Washington established precedents for the executive office that have since become customary practice. Washington is responsible for establishing the tradition of the inaugural address and the cabinet system, neither prescribed by the Constitution. Washington also wrote a well-publicized farewell address still relevant today for its call for political unity among Americans. Ironically, few presidents since have delivered such profound parting words.