George Washington and the New United States Government

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clint Hughes

Clint has taught History, Government, Speech Communications, and Drama. He has his master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology.

Learn how George Washington helped to form the new United States Government. The topics covered are the inauguration of Washington and Adams, organizing the courts, Washington's Cabinet, Hamilton's Plan, and the interpretations of the Constitution. Updated: 08/16/2021

Washington Takes Office

The President and Congress begin to set up the new government. Why does it matter? The strength of the U.S. today is due to the decisions of the founders about how to organize our government.

In 1789, George Washington takes office. Washington was the top vote-getter. (John Adams received the second-highest number of votes to become vice president.) In April, he headed north to New York City, the new nation's capital. The capital would later move back to Philadelphia from 1790 - 1800 while Wash.D.C. was being constructed.

On April 30, 1789, Washington and Adams were inaugurated, or sworn in, as president and vice president. Washington was in a uniquely difficult position. He knew every action he took would set a precedent. Initially, they couldn't even agree on what to call him. The debate in congress over 'His Excellency' or 'His Highness' and other things lasted over a month, finally settling on 'Mr. President'.

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  • 0:05 Washington Takes Office
  • 1:05 Organizing the Courts
  • 1:49 Washington's Cabinets
  • 3:04 Hamilton's Plan
  • 4:58 Interpretation of the…
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Organizing the Courts

Washington appointed John Jay as the first Chief Justice
John Jay

Congress had many other differences to settle on how to run things - for instance, organizing the courts. The Constitution left many things to be decided by the Congress. The 3rd Article creates the Supreme Court but left it up to Congress to decide the number of justices on the court. The power of the court was also an issue. States have their own courts, so how would authority be divided between them?

The Federal Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the court six justices - that's five associates and one chief justice. Today, the court has been increased to nine justices. The act also established other lower federal courts. President Washington appointed John Jay as the court's first Chief Justice.

Washington's Cabinet

So what is this cabinet of Washington's? Congress had the job of creating departments to help the president lead the nation, but the president would be able to appoint the head of the departments. These department heads are to assist and advise the president with the nation's problems. This group is called the president's Cabinet.

Congress established three departments: the War Department, the State Department and the Treasury Department.

Okay, first, the War Department. The first Secretary of War was Henry Knox. The War Department would oversee the defense of the nation. Then the State Department and the first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson; the State Department oversees relations between the U.S. and other nations. And the Treasury Department: the first Secretary of the Treasury was Alexander Hamilton. The Treasury Department manages the government's money. Washington picked Edmund Randolph as the first Attorney General to advise the government on legal matters.

The department heads and Attorney General made up Washington's Cabinet. Now, the Cabinet is not mentioned in the Constitution. Washington began the practice of calling government heads together to advise him.

Hamilton's Plan

In his new post as Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton inherited the old problem of the huge war debt. By 1789, it was $52 million. Hamilton and the other leaders knew that the debt had to be paid to gain the respect of foreign nations. Respect equals business.

Hamilton knew the war debt had to be repaid to gain respect of other nations
War Debt

Hamilton believed in a strong central government; that is reflected in his plan. He knew the nation's economy would depend on rich merchants and manufacturers. He knew they needed to pay them back. In 1790 he proposes the plan to Congress:

  1. Pay off all war debts
  2. Raise government revenues
  3. Create a national bank

He wanted the federal government to pay the states' war debt, but those states which had already paid theirs (Virginia, Georgia and other Southern states) didn't like the idea of covering the Northern states' debt.

To gain support, Hamilton got help from his political rival Thomas Jefferson. They reached a compromise. The South would support the plan to repay the debt, but the North agreed to move the capital to the South on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia. Today we call this spot Washington D.C..

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