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George Washington: Our First President’s First Term

By Sam Blumenfeld
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #85, 2008.

Setting traditions for those who followed - George Washington: Our First President’s First Term

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Sam Blumenfeld

The government of the United States under the new Constitution got underway in the first week of April 1789 when the new Congress achieved its first quorum. Their initial duty was to pass the Bill of Rights, as promised.

Earlier that year, on January 7, electors were chosen for the first Presidential election in United States history. The electors, chosen by the eligible voters in the various states, were free to cast their ballots for whomever they wished. On February 4, they cast their ballots as follows: 69 for Washington and 34 for John Adams, who therefore became Vice President. This method of selecting a Vice President was changed by the 12th Amendment in 1804.

On April 6, the ballots were counted in the Senate, and George Washington was informed that he had been elected the First President of the United States. The inauguration took place on April 30 in the Senate Chamber of Federal Hall, New York City, the temporary capital of the nation.

Washington immediately got to work organizing his administration. He demonstrated that the new government under the new Constitution would be what the citizens hoped it would be: a prudent and benevolent instrument of governmental power in keeping with the precepts of the Declaration of Independence and strictly limited in its powers. Every step had to be taken in strict conformity to the guidelines set out in the Constitution.

In September, Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, General Henry Knox as Secretary of War, Edmund Randolph as Attorney General and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State.

On September 29, the United States Army was created, consisting of the forces already on hand during the final months of the Confederation. In all, it consisted of only 1,000 men.

On November 26, President Washington proclaimed the nation’s first Thanksgiving Day, in humble recognition of the great blessings that God had bestowed on the new nation.

The year 1790 saw the first Census of the United States, as called for by the Constitution. There were 4,000,000 inhabitants in all thirteen states. Negro slaves accounted for 19.3 percent of the total population. Many of the Founding Fathers hoped that slavery would be abolished, but the economics of the South made that politically impossible. A West Jersey Quaker wrote: “This trade of importing slaves is dark gloominess hanging over the land; the consequences will be grievous to posterity.”

Patrick Henry stated in 1773, “A serious view of this subject gives a gloomy prospect to future times.” And Jefferson wrote: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

Madison held that where slavery exists “the republican theory becomes fallacious. Slavery is the greatest evil under which the nation labors—a portentous evil—an evil, moral, political, and economical—a blot on our free country.”

It had been Washington’s hope that Virginia should remove slavery by a public act; and as the prospects of a general emancipation grew more and more dim, in utter hopelessness of the action of the State, he did all that he could by bequeathing freedom to his own slaves.

In August 1790, the Capital was moved from New York to Philadelphia. In June Hamilton had convinced Congress that the Federal Government should assume the states’ debts. He won the support of the Southern States by promising to move the nation’s capital to the South. This demonstrated how compromise and promises would become major tools in crafting and enacting legislation.

In 1791, two major philosophies of government began to emerge, polarized around Hamilton and Jefferson, which set the stage for the creation of political parties. The Hamilton faction, known as the Federalists, advocated a strong central government and the development of industry. Jefferson’s followers, the Democratic-Republican faction, favored a weaker central government and stronger local control.

The Hamilton-Jefferson debates became the fodder of rival newspapers, which became either pro-Federalist or pro-Democratic-Republican. Thus, the two-party system got a very early start in our political history. Of course, President Washington remained above the fray, maintaining the utmost cordiality among his cabinet members. He was more of a referee than a partisan.

On April 2, 1792, Congress passed the Coinage Act, authorizing the establishment of a mint and prescribing a decimal system of coinage. The U.S. dollar was to contain 24.75 grains of gold or 371.25 grains of silver, in a fixed legal-tender ratio of 15 to 1.

On August 21, 1792, the Federal government levied an excise tax on whiskey and on stills, which provoked strong protest in Western Pennsylvania. Whiskey was the chief transportable and barterable Western product. The Whiskey Rebellion was the most serious insurrection to face the newly established Federal government. In 1794, President Washington was finally forced to call up the militia army to end it. The result of the insurrection was simply to strengthen the political power of Hamilton and the Federalists.

Education expert Sam Blumenfeld’s Alpha-Phonics reading program is available on www.samblumenfeld.net. His latest book, The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, is about the Shakespeare authorship mystery.

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