President Washington and the Origins of Party Politics

This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

For Your Consideration:
  1. Name one presidential tradition that originated with George Washington.
  2. How did the Federalists differ from the Democratic-Republicans?
  3. What was the Compromise of 1790?
  4. Describe one American reaction to the events of the French Revolution.
  5. Compare and contrast the government response to Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion.

President Washington

One of the last acts of the Congress of the Confederation was to arrange for the first presidential election, setting March 4, 1789, as the date that the new government would come into being. One name was on everyone’s lips for the new chief of state—George Washington. He was unanimously chosen president and took the oath of office at his inauguration on April 30, 1789. In words spoken by every president since, Washington pledged to execute the duties of the presidency faithfully and, to the best of his ability, to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Washington's_Inauguration
George Washington’s inauguration as the first President of the United States which took place in New York City on April 30, 1789.

When Washington took office, the new Constitution enjoyed neither tradition nor the full backing of organized public opinion. The new government had to create its own machinery and legislate a system of taxation that would support it. Until a judiciary could be established, laws could not be enforced. The army was small. The navy had ceased to exist.

Congress quickly created the departments of State and Treasury, with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton as their respective secretaries. Departments of War and Justice were also created. Since Washington preferred to make decisions only after consulting those men whose judgment he valued, the American presidential Cabinet came into existence, consisting of the heads of all the departments that Congress might create. Simultaneously, Congress provided for a federal judiciary—a Supreme Court, with one chief justice and five associate justices, three circuit courts, and 13 district courts.

Meanwhile, the country was growing steadily and immigration from Europe was increasing. Americans were moving westward: New Englanders and Pennsylvanians into Ohio; Virginians and Carolinians into Kentucky and Tennessee. Good farms were to be had for small sums; labor was in strong demand. The rich valley stretches of upper New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia soon became great wheat-growing areas.

Although many items were still homemade, the Industrial Revolution was dawning in the United States. Massachusetts and Rhode Island were laying the foundation of important textile industries; Connecticut was beginning to turn out tinware and clocks; New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were producing paper, glass, and iron. Shipping had grown to such an extent that on the seas the United States was second only to Britain. Even before 1790, American ships were traveling to China to sell furs and bring back tea, spices, and silk.

Washington’s two-term administration set many policies and traditions that survive today. He was again unanimously elected in 1792. But after his second term expired, Washington again voluntarily relinquished power, thereby establishing an important precedent that was to serve as an example for the United States and also for other future republics. Washington also abjured titles. He didn’t want to be called “Your Excellency” or “Your Majesty.” He insisted on being called “Mr. President,” and referred to as “The President of the United States”. Because of his central role in the founding of the United States, Washington is often called the “Father of his Country.” Scholars rank him with Abraham Lincoln among the greatest of United States presidents.

Hamilton vs. Jefferson: Strong or Weak Central Government?

Over the course of Washington’s two terms as president, rivalries arose between his closest advisers, particularly between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Out of these developments evolved two new political parties: The Federalists, who shared the same name as the earlier pro-ratification party, and the Democratic-Republican Party, also known as the Jeffersonian party, or as the Anti-Federalists.

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Federalists used a black and white cockade as a symbol.

Led by Alexander Hamilton, the Federalists represented the interests of trade and manufacturing, which they saw as forces of progress in the world. They believed these could be advanced only by a strong central government capable of establishing sound public credit and a stable currency. Openly distrustful of the latent radicalism of the masses, they could nonetheless credibly appeal to workers and artisans. Their political stronghold was in the New England states. Seeing England as an example the United States should try to emulate, they favored good relations with their former mother country.

The Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, spoke primarily for agricultural interests and values. They distrusted bankers, cared little for commerce and manufacturing, and believed that freedom and democracy flourished best in a rural society composed of self-sufficient farmers. They felt little need for a strong central government; in fact, they tended to see it as a potential source of oppression. Thus they favored states’ rights. They were strongest in the South and in the West.

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Republicans used a red, white, and blue cockade as a symbol.

The conflict between the Federalist party and the Democratic-Republican party can be seen in the debate on how to pay off Revolutionary War debts. Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists wanted to put state debts and federal debts into one huge national debt. The Treasury would issue bonds that rich people would buy, thereby giving the rich a tangible stake in the success of the national government.  When the new federal government had succeeded in paying off this debt, it would increase confidence in the stability of the central government, encouraging foreign governments to loan money to the U.S. Hamilton also proposed a National Bank to help stabilize the national economy. This private Bank of the United States would serve as a place to put the government’s money, increasing central financial power and economic control.

Jefferson did not agree with Hamilton’s idea of a national bank. Jefferson’s faction envisioned an America more similar to ancient Athens or pre-Imperial Rome, with independent farming households following their own interests and nurturing liberty. Jefferson believed America should teach people to be self-sufficient farmers, and he wanted the federal government to stop interfering in state matters. In the end, in what came to be known as the Compromise of 1790, Jefferson agreed to Hamilton’s plan in exchange for Hamilton’s agreement to locate the government’s permanent capital in the South, on the Potomac River in what would become Washington, D.C.

The good credit established by this deal later allowed Jefferson to borrow in Europe to finance the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, as well as to borrow to finance the War of 1812.

Compromise_of_1790
Jefferson and Hamilton met in private with James Madison to hammer out the deal that came to be known as the Compromise of 1790.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution broke out in 1789, a few months after the American Constitution had gone into effect. At first, as France overthrew the monarchy and declared itself a republic, many Americans supported the revolution. They believed their own revolt against England had spurred France to republicanism. But as the Reign of Terror began, and thousands of French aristocrats went to the guillotine, many Americans were shocked at the revolution’s excesses. By the mid-1790s, as France went to war against neighboring monarchies, the revolution polarized American public opinion. Federalists viewed England, France’s traditional enemy, as the bastion of stable government against a growing tide of French anarchy. Members of the emerging Democratic Republican Party, on the other hand, who took their party’s name in part from the French Republic, believed the Terror to be a temporary excess and continued to view England as the true enemy of liberty.

President Washington’s policy was neutrality. He knew that England, France, or even Spain, would be happy to eat up American resources and territory. The United States in the 1790s was still new and frail. He hoped that America could stay out of European conflicts until it was strong enough to withstand any serious foreign threat. Yet both England and France found opportunities to each use American resources against the other.

Hamilton and Jefferson clashed here as well. The former argued that the mutual defense treaty that the United States had signed with France in 1778 was no longer binding, as the French regime that had made that treaty no longer existed. The latter disagreed. But Washington sided with Hamilton, issuing a formal Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793. Washington repeated his belief in neutrality and argued against factionalism in his Farewell Address of 1796.

That same year, Citizen Edmund Charles Genêt arrived as the French minister to the United States. He soon began issuing commissions to captains of American ships who were willing to serve as privateers for France. This blatant disregard of American neutrality angered Washington, who demanded and got Genêt’s recall.

The British Royal Navy, meanwhile, began a policy of impressment – forcing ordinary sailors into military service, including sailors on American merchant ships. Many English sailors had been lured into the American merchant service by high wages and comparatively good standards of living, and England needed these sailors to man its own fleet, on which England’s national security depended. This violation of the American flag, however, infuriated Americans, as did the fact that England had not yet withdrawn its soldiers from posts in the Northwest Territory, as required by the Treaty of Paris of 1783.

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British officers inspect a group of American sailors for impressment into the British navy, ca. 1810, in a drawing by Howard Pyle. The practice angered Americans – and was left unaddressed by the Jay Treaty, angering them further.

In response, President Washington sent Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay to negotiate a treaty with England. But Jay had little leverage with which to negotiate: the final treaty did require immediate English evacuation of the frontier forts, but it said nothing about the matter of impressments. The Jay Treaty provoked an outcry among American citizens, and although the Senate ratified it narrowly, the debate it sparked was the final blow which solidified the Federalist and Republican factions into full-scale political parties, Federalists agreeing to the treaty, and Republicans viewing it as a sell-out to England (and against France).

The Whiskey Rebellion

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“Famous Whiskey Insurrection in Pennsylvania,” an 1880 illustration of a tarred and feathered tax collector being made to ride the rail.

The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 proved to be one of the most visible challenges of Washington’s time in office. The new Republic needed funds. This motivated Alexander Hamilton to press Congress to pass an excise tax on the sale of whiskey. Rural Pennsylvania farmers, who had never known a centralized American authority, were horrified by a call on what they considered their own profit and refused to pay the tax. A mob of 500 men attacked a tax collector’s house. In response, Washington and Hamilton led an army of 15,000 men to quell the rebellion, an army larger than the force Washington had commanded in the American Revolution. When the army showed up, the rebels dispersed.

In leading the militia against the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington became one of only two sitting U.S. presidents to exercise battlefield authority.
In leading the militia against the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington became one of only two sitting U.S. presidents to exercise battlefield authority.

The suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion met with widespread popular approval. This was the first time the new government had been directly opposed, and through a clear show of federal authority, Washington established the principle that federal law is the supreme law of the land, and demonstrated that the federal government had both the ability and willingness to suppress violent resistance to the nation’s laws. The government’s response to the rebellion was, therefore, viewed by the Washington administration as a success, a view that has generally been endorsed by historians.

After crushing the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington publicly blamed the Democratic-Republican Party for the rebellion, and Jefferson began to view Washington as “the head of a party” rather than “the head of a nation.” Hamilton’s followers, who coalesced into the Federalist Party, were thrilled by Washington’s remarks, and the party sought to closely associate itself with Washington.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The Formation of a National Government
  2. The Early Years of the Republic
  3. The Whiskey Rebellion

A New Nation in Crisis: Shays Rebellion and the U.S. Under the Articles

This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

For Your Consideration:
  1. What were the Articles of Confederation?
  2. What was one weakness of the Articles of Confederation?
  3. What did the Northwest Ordinance say about slavery?
  4. Why was Daniel Shays upset?
  5. Why wasn’t the government easily able to stop Shays’ Rebellion?

The Articles of Confederation

The struggle with England had done much to change colonial attitudes. Local assemblies had rejected the Albany Plan of Union in 1754, refusing to surrender even the smallest part of their autonomy to any other body, even one they themselves had elected. But in the course of the Revolution, mutual aid had proved effective, and the fear of relinquishing individual authority had lessened to a large degree.

John Dickinson produced the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” in 1776. The Continental Congress adopted them in November 1777, and they went into effect in 1781, having been ratified by all the states. Reflecting the fragility of a nascent sense of nationhood, the Articles provided only for a very loose union. The national government lacked the authority to set up tariffs, to regulate commerce, and to levy taxes. It possessed scant control of international relations: A number of states had begun their own negotiations with foreign countries. Nine states had their own armies, several their own navies, and there was no U.S. army. In the absence of a sound common currency, the new nation conducted its commerce with a curious hodgepodge of coins and a bewildering variety of state and national paper bills, all fast depreciating in value.

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The Articles of Confederation were meant to create a weak national government. However, as time went on, these weaknesses came to threaten the very existence of the United States.

The Problem of Expansion

With the end of the Revolution, the United States again had to face the old unsolved Western question, the problem of expansion, with its complications of land, fur trade, Indians, settlement, and local government. Lured by the richest land yet found in the country, pioneers poured over the Appalachian Mountains and beyond. By 1775 the far-flung outposts scattered along the waterways had tens of thousands of settlers. Separated by mountain ranges and hundreds of kilometers from the centers of political authority in the East, the inhabitants established their own governments. Settlers from all the Tidewater states pressed on into the fertile river valleys, hardwood forests, and rolling prairies of the interior. By 1790 the population of the trans-Appalachian region numbered well over 120,000.

Before the war, several colonies had laid extensive and often overlapping claims to land beyond the Appalachians. To those without such claims this rich territorial prize seemed unfairly apportioned. Maryland, speaking for the latter group, introduced a resolution that the western lands be considered common property to be parceled by the Congress into free and independent governments. This idea was not received enthusiastically. Nonetheless, in 1780 New York led the way by ceding its claims. In 1784 Virginia, which held the grandest claims, relinquished all land north of the Ohio River. Other states ceded their claims, and it became apparent that Congress would come into possession of all the lands north of the Ohio River and west of the Allegheny Mountains. This common possession of millions of hectares was the most tangible evidence yet of nationality and unity, and gave a certain substance to the idea of national sovereignty. At the same time, these vast territories were a problem that required solution.

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Northwest Territory created by the Northwest Ordinance (1787).

The Confederation Congress established a system of limited self-government for this new national Northwest Territory. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided for its organization, initially as a single district, ruled by a governor and judges appointed by the Congress. When this territory had 5,000 free male inhabitants of voting age, it was to be entitled to a legislature of two chambers, itself electing the lower house. In addition, it could at that time send a nonvoting delegate to Congress. Three to five states would be formed as the territory was settled. Whenever any one of them had 60,000 free inhabitants, it was to be admitted to the Union “on an equal footing with the original states in all respects.” The ordinance guaranteed civil rights and liberties, encouraged education, and prohibited slavery or other forms of involuntary servitude.

The new policy repudiated the time-honored concept that colonies existed for the benefit of the mother country, were politically subordinate, and peopled by social inferiors. Instead, it established the principle that colonies (“territories”) were an extension of the nation and entitled, not as a privilege but as a right, to all the benefits of equality.

State Constitutions

The success of the Revolution gave Americans the opportunity to give legal form to their ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and to remedy some of their grievances through state constitutions. As early as May 10, 1776, Congress had passed a resolution advising the colonies to form new governments “such as shall best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents.” Some of them had already done so, and within a year after the Declaration of Independence, all but three had drawn up constitutions.

The new constitutions showed the impact of democratic ideas. None made any drastic break with the past, since all were built on the solid foundation of colonial experience and English practice. But each was also animated by the spirit of republicanism, an ideal that had long been praised by Enlightenment philosophers.

Naturally, the first objective of the framers of the state constitutions was to secure those “unalienable rights” whose violation had caused the former colonies to repudiate their connection with Britain. Thus, each constitution began with a declaration or bill of rights. Virginia’s, which served as a model for all the others, included a declaration of principles: popular sovereignty, rotation in office, freedom of elections, and an enumeration of fundamental liberties: moderate bail and humane punishment, speedy trial by jury, freedom of the press and of conscience, and the right of the majority to reform or alter the government.

Other states enlarged the list of liberties to freedom of speech, of assembly, and of petition. Their constitutions frequently included such provisions as the right to bear arms, to a writ of habeas corpus, to inviolability of domicile, and to equal protection under the law. Moreover, all prescribed a three-branch structure of government—executive, legislative, and judiciary—each checked and balanced by the others. Pennsylvania’s constitution was the most radical. In that state, Philadelphia artisans, Scots-Irish frontiersmen, and German-speaking farmers had taken control. The provincial congress adopted a constitution that permitted every male taxpayer and his sons to vote, required rotation in office (no one could serve as a representative more than four years out of every seven), and set up a single-chamber legislature.

The state constitutions had some glaring limitations, particularly by more recent standards. Constitutions established to guarantee people their natural rights did not secure for everyone the most fundamental natural right—equality. The colonies south of Pennsylvania excluded their slave populations from their inalienable rights as human beings. Women had no political rights. No state went so far as to permit universal male suffrage, and even in those states that permitted all taxpayers to vote (Delaware, North Carolina, and Georgia, in addition to Pennsylvania), office-holders were required to own a certain amount of property.

Shays’ Rebellion

Economic difficulties after the war prompted calls for change to this precarious system. The end of the war had a severe effect on merchants who supplied the armies of both sides and who had lost the advantages deriving from participation in the British mercantile system. The states gave preference to American goods in their tariff policies, but these were inconsistent, leading to the demand for a stronger central government to implement a uniform policy.

Farmers probably suffered the most from economic difficulties following the Revolution. The supply of farm produce exceeded demand; unrest centered chiefly among farmer-debtors who wanted strong remedies to avoid foreclosure on their property and imprisonment for debt. Courts were clogged with suits for payment filed by their creditors. All through the summer of 1786, popular conventions and informal gatherings in several states demanded reform in the state administrations.

Protesters watching a debtor in a scuffle with a tax collector by the courthouse at Springfield, Massachusetts.
Protesters watching a debtor in a scuffle with a tax collector by the courthouse at Springfield, Massachusetts.

That autumn, mobs of farmers in Massachusetts under the leadership of a former army captain, Daniel Shays, began to forcibly prevent the county courts from sitting and passing further judgments for debt – which would have resulted in the loss of property, livelihood, and the right to vote for Shays and many of his followers. In January 1787 a ragtag army of 1,200 farmers moved toward the federal arsenal at Springfield. The rebels, armed chiefly with staves and pitchforks, were repulsed by a small state militia force; General Benjamin Lincoln then arrived with reinforcements – privately funded by wealthy creditors in Boston – and routed the remaining Shaysites, whose leader escaped to Vermont. The government captured 14 rebels and sentenced them to death, but ultimately pardoned some and let the others off with short prison terms. After the defeat of the rebellion, a newly elected legislature, whose majority sympathized with the rebels, met some of their demands for debt relief.

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Contemporary engraving depicting Daniel Shays (left) and Job Shattuck, another rebel leader; the artist intentionally rendered them in an unflattering way.

At the time of the rebellion, the weaknesses of the federal government as constituted under the Articles of Confederation were apparent to many.  All the same, it was clear – the U.S. government had been unable to deal with a disorganized rebellion of its own farmers.  Anarchy threatened.

Thomas Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France at the time and refused to be alarmed by Shays’ Rebellion. He argued in a letter to James Madison on January 30, 1787 that occasional rebellion serves to preserve freedoms. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” In contrast, George Washington had been calling for constitutional reform for many years, and he wrote in a letter to Henry Lee, “Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.”

Shortly after Shays’ Rebellion broke out, delegates from five states met in Annapolis, Maryland from September 11-14, 1786, and they concluded that vigorous steps were needed to reform the federal government, but they disbanded because of a lack of full representation and authority, calling for a convention of all the states to be held in Philadelphia in May 1787.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The Formation of a National Government
  2. Shays’ Rebellion