Although he would have preferred otherwise, George Washington was convinced to remain in office for a second term. He wanted a new election, and to be succeeded in office in that manner. (Washington’s family had consistently short life-spans, and he didn’t want to die while still in office, thereby necessitating what he saw as a monarchical succession to the presidency.) His strong and deep concern for the new nation was to preserve its unity and to set a precedent for the turnover of administrations, whole and intact.
Although I haven’t seen it specifically stated anywhere, I have to suspect that Washington lived to regret this decision to continue his Presidency!
During Washington’s first term, a foremost issue requiring resolution had been that of national finance, leading to a plan devised by the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton for a national bank. Opposition to his plan presented itself in the arguments of James Madison, Edmund Randolph and Thomas Jefferson. The core issue up for debate, actually, was that of “strict interpretation” of the Constitution, (which interpretation would dictate that Congress could not incorporate institutions) versus “implied powers”. Hamilton”s “implied powers” stance took the lead. However, resulting from this conflict was the development of our first political parties. Jefferson’s camp called themselves “Republicans”, while Hamilton’s supporters took the label “Federalists”. (Note – In future conflicts, it would come to be seen that Thomas Jefferson’s ‘followers’ tended to favor France, while Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists tended to support British interests.)
This opposition of party and viewpoint between the two men devolved into “an intense and profound hatred” for each other, the Novaks tell us in Washington’s God.
They also tell us that Washington “understood how to use power”. He knew not to involve himself in partisan turbulence, and “gave slack to a lively cabinet to fight out issues among themselves.” Consequently, he found such hostilities as this one frequently rocking the boat.
Now, you might be wondering, what did the French Revolution have to do with anything in America? It’s a continent and an ocean away! To my surprise, it had almost everything to do with the tide of public opinion turning against Washington.
Widespread famine, resentment towards the nobility, and high unemployment levels were among the causes of approximately ten years of French Revolutionary uprisings and wars, from 1789 – 1799. In late September, 1793 the French monarchy was officially abolished, and Louis XVI was tried and executed. News of this official victory for the French Revolutionary cause fanned the flame of pro-French sentiment in the United States, as Americans (not that far removed from revolution themselves) identified.
The official American position, however, towards the new French Republic was one of neutrality. Washington was apprehensive towards the young country becoming embroiled in a foreign war, a country still attempting to fully recover from its own. America needed to be developing her own interests, establishing her own peaceful alliances. She could not afford to be drained of any of the strength she was gaining as a new country.
Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, felt otherwise. As Benjamin Franklin’s successor as minister to France (1785-1789), he had lived in France during those years leading up to the storming of the Bastille, and became an “ardent” supporter of the French Revolution. So ardent, in fact, the he used a national newspaper to assault the President for his resistance to U.S. involvement and accuse him of being an aristocrat. (It is suggested in Washington’s God that Jefferson was pushing for George Washington’s job, and was laying groundwork for the next campaign.) Less than a year after Washington’s second term began, in late 1793, Thomas Jefferson resigned from his post as Secretary of State and more fully espoused the pro-French cause.
During this time, battles were being fought not only within France, but outside her boundaries as well. One of her adversaries was England (Wikipedia, French Revolutionary Wars). As these two countries engaged in warfare, the American citizenry chose sides. What should have been an international issue only became a party issue, a contest between the Federalists and the Republicans. (see Wikipedia: Jay Treaty – Approval and Dissent) (As would be expected, Jefferson became the voice of the pro-French faction.) Neutral American ships were targeted increasingly by the French and British. The press became more and more critical of Washington’s insistence on American non-involvement.
From within and without, one way or another, George Washington began to be seen as the villian.
During these same years of domestic turmoil resulting from foreign affairs, another storm was brewing on the homefront. Discontent springing from a number of government policies and circumstances, one of which was an excise law taxing whiskey, had been growing, especially among the farmers and distillers of the western Pennsylvania area. Their protest took the form of an eventual armed rebellion, and burning the home of a federal tax inspector (link) . Washington marshalled a militia of 13,000 men, and late summer through November of 1794 saw their intimidating presence in the western counties of Pennsylvania. The Whiskey Rebellion subsided.
Next, Washington found himself caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, when, in 1795, treaty negotiations with England proved less than satisfactory to Congress and the American public. Much less. Washington, Congress and the American people were locked in debate over treaty terms that some saw as a ” complete surrender of American rights”.(see Columbia Encyclopedia: Jay’s Treaty – A Stormy Reception) Conditions in the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which treaty recognized our independence as a country, had been violated by both countries, and the situation needed to be remedied. In addition to old Revolutionary War issues, there was also the matter of a serious difference of opinion concerning U.S. maritime rights, which affected her shipping/trade activites. And American ships were being seized. Washington had sent Chief Justice John Jay to England to settle matters. The treaty with which he returned, the language of which had been formed primarily by Alexander Hamilton and reflected Federalist party interests, prompted ugly, angry responses. Hamilton was stoned and Jay was burned in effigy. Ouch!! Both men and President Washington were labeled ‘monarchists’ and accused of betraying the American way of life. (Wikipedia: Jay Treaty – Approval and Dissent) Skillful maneuvering of public opinion by Hamilton and the Federalists, as well as Washington’s still considerable prestige (despite attacks, conflicts and oppositions) behind the Treaty eventually brought it into law. The Treaty was proclaimed in effect on February 29, 1796. Though not perfect, trade was improved and yet more war with Great Britain was avoided.) I think at this point it would be safe to say that President George Washington had his hands full, and he did NOT need his new Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph to have been accused of treason. (Of which he was guilty.) Outraged (still guilty!), Randolph resigned, and responded to his President’s gracious and merciful silence on the matter by publishing…yes, folks, yet another attack, slandering the President’s mental prowess.
The accusations made by Randolph caused “many restless citizens…[to jump] on the bandwagon. Everything Washington did or said was cause for complaint.” (Washington’s God) And he did NOT need the House re-opening the whole Jay Treaty business. (Which it tried to do.) House success would have caused a severe Constitutional crisis, for only the Senate was allowed to advise and/or consent concerning treaties. Maintaining Constitutional integrity being a highest priority, Washington would not yield to House demands. His refusal provoked bitter Republican backlash, personal animosity, Washington and Jefferson stopped speaking, and worst of all, “Washington’s hope of leaving behind a unified nation was dead.” (Washington’s God) On September 19, 1796, President George Washington’s Farewell Address was published in a Philadelphia newspaper. He never actually spoke it. My heart was breaking as I read about the latter events which took place during Washington’s final weeks and months in office. He deserved far, far better. But lest the reader be left with any sense of George Washington as underdog, the unappreciated and much maligned savior of our nation (though he was our savior), let me leave you with this parting thought – My research has abundantly revealed to me that our Founding Father was deeply God-centered, and in his writings and speeches he used just about every conceivable term expressing Deity, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Washington most assuredly believed that in leading the Revolutionary cause, he was following His God, relying on His presence and protection. That same mindset applied to his service as President. So, while some may say, George Washington served his country, I say as well, He served his God. Therefore I think it to be a most worthy and fitting statement when I say of him : “Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven…”(Luke 6:22,23) Amen.