George Washington was the United States' first president. He knew everything he did would set the stage for future presidents of the country. A heavy weight was on his shoulders, and much of what he established in his two terms set the precedent for presidents today.
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.
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'.
Organizing the Courts
Washington appointed John Jay as the first Chief Justice
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.
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.
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
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:
- Pay off all war debts
- Raise government revenues
- 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..
For raising revenue, Hamilton liked tariffs. A tariff is a tax on imported stuff. It brings in money and encourages people to buy American products. At this time many European products were popular; you know all the cool kids wanted clothes from France! The tariffs would be good for the government.
The creation of a national bank: Hamilton called for the creation of the bank to have a safe place for the government to keep money, to make loans to businesses and government and to issue bank notes (that's paper money). This plan would strengthen the central government.
Differences in Interpretation
A lot of the issues come down to differences in interpretation of the Constitution. Hamilton's plan brought out differences in thoughts. The Constitution is purposely loosely written so it could be flexible - so disagreements are inevitable.
Jefferson and Madison believed in narrow, strict interpretation of the Constitution. They said the Constitution did not authorize the feds to set up a bank. Hamilton disagreed.
The capital was moved south because the South agreed to cover the debt of the North
He believed in this loose interpretation of the Constitution. He states that 'necessary and proper' steps may be taken to carry out the needs of the government - it is written in Article I of the Constitution. He said the bank was 'necessary and proper'. Hamilton and Jefferson brought their cases to President Washington. Hamilton won this one. The Bank of the United States was established in 1791.
One amazing precedent set by President Washington is that he did not run for a third term. Washington was so respected, he could've won the presidency for the rest of his life, but he chose to step aside after eight years. A few tried, but no president had more than two terms until Franklin Roosevelt - and in 1947, the 22nd Amendment made Washington's precedent the law. Today, no president may be elected to more than two terms.
President Washington created his Cabinet from his department heads to assist and advise the president on the nation's issues.
The new government had to solve the economic problems of paying off war debts and creating a plan to handle other debt, and Congress had to agree on it.
Hamilton's plan arranged for the government to pay off the states' war debts, argued to raise revenue through tariffs and supported a national bank.
President Washington stepped aside after two terms, setting a precedent of American presidents only serving a max of eight years.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Explain the precedents George Washington set as president, including creating the Cabinet
- Define The Federal Judiciary Act of 1789, tariff and national bank
- Identify John Jay, Henry Knox, Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Randolph as well as their roles in the first Cabinet
- Identify Alexander Hamilton, describe his plan to pay off the war debt and understand the controversy over his plan as it regards the Constitution