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Getting to Know George
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Getting to Know George is a weekly series leading to the opening of the
Acts of Congress exhibit at the Eisenhower Presidential Library on April 23!
George Washington's personal copy of the Laws of the United States, First Session 1789, known as the Acts of Congress will be on display at the 13 Presidential Libraries.
For tour details, please visit www.archives.gov/exhibits/acts-of-congress

1789 - 1797: PRESIDENT WASHINGTON


"Citizens by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of AMERICAN, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism . . . ." - GW

What were the presidential years like for George and Martha Washington?

George and Martha Washington were true "partners" in life. During the presidential years, their 30-year marriage was an asset in establishing the standards for the presidency and the role of first lady. They longed to live out the remainder of their days, content in the rural Virginia countryside they loved; however, a deeply held sense of duty for both Washingtons was always a higher priority. With great care, they calculated every action and behavior, always with future presidents and first ladies in mind. For the first ten months, the Washingtons settled into the Samuel Osgood House, the first of three presidential mansions---the first two in New York and the last in Philadelphia---they would call home. The presidential mansion was a lively place with two energetic grandchildren. By the time they returned home to Mount Vernon in 1797, Nelly would be a very pretty young lady of 18, and Washy, a carefree teenager of 16 who would be the epitome of his father, Jacky. A permanent capital was under construction in the new District of Columbia by 1793, including the future "White House," but the Washingtons would never live in the city that would bear their name. Martha Washington established Thursday night formal dinners, and Friday nights were reserved for informal receptions for anyone, within reason, who wanted to attend. The President attended these casual receptions and appeared to be relaxed and cordial, obviously enjoying himself. When the seat of government moved to Philadelphia in 1790 (where it would remain until 1800), Martha, never particularly happy in New York, was thrilled to be reunited with old friends.   

 

What precedents did George Washington establish for future presidents? 

George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States on April 30, 1789. Placing his hand on a hastily located Bible, Washington recited the oath of office, kissed the Bible, and, closing his eyes, reportedly said, "So help me God." He was dressed in an American-made brown suit, the equivalent of today's business suit. He then briefly addressed a joint session of Congress, delivering the first inaugural address. (One senator observed that Washington's hands trembled, and he appeared awkward and embarrassed.) One of his first acts as President was to gather a circle of trusted advisors into the first presidential cabinet. He selected his cabinet with great attention paid to individual abilities and to achieving an ideological balance. The Senate would confirm Washington's nominations for the first Supreme Court Justices, originally six in number. Although intending to serve only one term of office, Washington worried that the new government was not yet on firm footing and agreed to serve a second term. But when voices began to clamor for a third term he voluntarily stepped down from power, just as he had at the end of the war. In what would later be called a farewell address, Washington wrote a thoughtful letter to the American People, which was published on September 19, 1796. His strongest admonitions were to counsel against political partisanship, "factions," and "foreign entanglements." The precedent for a peaceful transfer of power was accomplished when John Adams was sworn into office on March 4, 1797. 

 

What were Washington's greatest challenges as first President of the United States?

Perhaps Washington's greatest challenge was breaking uncharted ground. Only one thing was certain, the Constitution would be his handbook, and the intent of the framers his guide. At the time of Washington's inauguration, the states still viewed themselves as very separate entities, and acted accordingly. This independence led to a growing regional rift between the northern and southern states. For Washington, national unity was essential. He had preached unity during the war and had been the embodiment of it ever since. Very early in his administration, political partisanship began to tug at the fabric of the nation; much of it could be traced to his own cabinet members. Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, was the central figure for those who called themselves Federalists, and Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, led the Democratic-Republicans -- "Republican" for short -- the precursor of today's Democratic party. When there were disputes, more often than not, Washington came down on Hamilton's side, which did nothing to create common ground between the warring factions. Washington's efforts to remain neutral in the escalating rivalry between France and England were particularly troublesome because France had come to our aid during the Revolutionary War. To stave off intensifying problems with Great Britain, Washington sent John Jay to negotiate a treaty, which proved very unpopular. His second administration was particularly plagued by criticism and outright attacks on his reputation, which caused Washington no end of distress. When he left office in March 1797, he likely wondered if it had been worth the sacrifice.

 

What were Washington's greatest accomplishments as our first President?

Washington was as important to the survival of the United States under the new Constitution as he was the Revolutionary War. He, among all his contemporaries, was without a doubt most suited and able to accomplish these Herculean tasks. As one of his modern biographers asserts, "Washington's catalogue of accomplishments was simply breathtaking." In the broadest terms, he took the blueprint of government that had been crafted in the summer of 1787 and brought to life the promise of a republican government. He set aside personal happiness and a life of assured ease in order for this great American experiment to begin to take root. George Washington was first and foremost a principled man. As President, he was disciplined and selfless, tolerant of public criticism, dignified and measured in his words and actions, yet bold when he judged it necessary. His countrymen had known only kings, so he set the example of what an American president should be. A simple reading of the preamble of the Constitution illustrates more succinctly than anything else just how successful his strategy was for governing. He took a nation embroiled in chaos and uncertainty and left it ordered and confident. He began his presidency with a bankrupt treasury and ended it with a solvent and credit-worthy nation. He had avoided a dangerous war in Europe and instead enlarged and strengthened the nation's military forces. He set the United States on a solid footing toward its destiny. His greatest gift was in proving that a free People were capable of governing themselves.

 

"Getting to Know George" Series next week will focus on 1797 - 1799: Father of our Country and will be our final article in the series.

 

Did George Washington really throw a silver dollar across the Potomac River?

Certainly George Washington possessed great physical strength, but there are a couple of problems with this story. First, there was no such thing as a silver dollar when Washington was growing up! Secondly, the Potomac River is more than a mile wide, a daunting throwing distance. More likely than not, young George enjoyed the challenge of throwing a rock across the Rappahannock River near his boyhood home. He embraced contests like this that highlighted and tested his strength, particularly as a competitive young man.  

Explore the Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition at: 

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