1792, George Washington Sets The Tone For America As Its First Elected President – Guest Essayist: Professor Joerg Knipprath
In early 1790, in just the second year of the general government under the new constitution, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton delivered on the charge made to him by the first Congress in 1789 to prepare a plan for the “adequate support of public credit.” This First Report on the Public Credit proposed to pay off the foreign and domestic debt at par through new U.S. bonds, which, in turn, were to be paid off through import duties and excise taxes, such as those on whiskey. To help tie disparate creditors of the states to the national program, the general government also would assume the Revolutionary War debts of the states. Later that year, he submitted the related Report on the Bank of the United States. This analogue to the Bank of England, but owned principally by private investors and with branches set up in various states, was to provide the core of a nascent banking system necessary for the country’s commercial development.
The program proved so successful that the foreign debt of the United States was paid off by 1795, the year Hamilton left his position as Treasury Secretary. Incredible as it may be to the modern experience, the domestic debt was paid off in 1835. The United States, until then a high-risk debtor viewed with skepticism by foreign investors, almost overnight saw its bonds become prime draws in the London and Amsterdam financial markets. European investment and speculation in American ventures soon followed.
Less successful as a program of political economy was Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures, issued in late 1791. The report was protectionist of American industry. As political economy, it was heavily suffused with mercantilism. While Hamilton actually sought to appeal to Southern interests in their future prosperity, the report proved to be a step too far for the typical Southern politician rooted in a culture of agrarian republicanism. Not until Henry Clay made the report’s vision a key component of his “American Plan” a generation later, did Hamilton’s work see results.
The significance of these reports in placing the American experiment on a sound and stable economic footing has caused some historians to refer to the 1790s as “Hamilton’s Republic.” At the same time, these reports represented an ideology of government and a perspective of the individual and society that significant parts of the country viewed with suspicion, indeed, alarm. The South and West saw an emerging elitism that threatened to replace the founding principles of republicanism and liberty with monarchy and tyranny. Sectional fault lines that had been generally dormant during the early years of the Republic reappeared. Embryonic partisan organizations formed through the efforts of Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.
The new American republic was also dragged into European power politics, in particular the friction between the emerging French Republic and the rest of the continent. Yet a third source of domestic division was British agitation among Indian tribes and the occupation by British forces of various forts along the old northwest frontier. The British acted as they did, because they could–the result of American military weakness. The Americans contributed to the problem by failing to resolve the issues of pre-Revolution debts owed to British creditors and return by the states of property they had seized from Loyalists, all as required by the Treaty of Paris. This Anglo-American rivalry was addressed in 1794 through the Jay Treaty, which, while far-sighted and practical, was so controversial that it finally ruptured the republican American ideal of non-partisan government.
Still, despite the signs so perceptible to the observer looking back from the future, from the perspective of 1792, much remained of the idealized and self-congratulatory view of the American experiment in republican government. More united the political elites’ attitudes towards their country than divided them. Despite the occasional political hyperbole, there was no real desire for a return to monarchy. On the other side, pro-French sentiment might lead to some overly-exuberant pamphleteering by Americans, but the concrete results of French revolutionary ardor were better experienced over there than in the United States.
What allowed the Americans to glide above these potentially disruptive forces, was the stabilizing influence of President George Washington. Elected in 1789 by unanimous vote of the 69 electors from the ten states represented in the Electoral College, Washington set the tone for the constitutional, political, and social dimensions of the presidency. Ever-cognizant of his role in this novel experiment in self-rule, Washington sought to portray himself as above partisanship. That role fit well his personal style of above-the-fray decision-making after seeking information from advisors with opposing views. It also, happily, comported with the dominant republican ideology that saw partisanship, the “spirit of faction,” as the bane of self-government and destructive of the general welfare. Finally, befitting his image of incorruptibility, Washington scrupulously sought to make political appointments on the basis of proper republican character and virtue, and avoided patronage and favoritism.
Washington’s popular stature and his immense political capital gave the needed political backing to Hamilton’s reports. The opposition of Washington’s fellow Virginians in the cabinet, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph, to Hamilton’s program did not prevent Congress from approving most of it. To be sure, Hamilton’s agreement to support of a bill to place the nation’s future capital in the South, along the Potomac River, mollified Jefferson to support some aspects of the program and convinced some doubters in Congress, as well. Yet it was Washington’s support of his protégé Hamilton that sealed the deal.
Still, there was the occasional flare-up of criticism even of the first President. He was criticized for monarchical symbolism, from driving about the then-capital, New York City, in a coach-and-six (horses) to the receptions for ordinary Americans and, separately, more select citizens. These were derided by some as attempts to mimic the practices and trappings of another George, Britain’s king. Others entertained themselves by publicly sharing unflattering opinions about Washington’s personality, considering him dull and stiff.
These were minor distractions, however. When the biggest controversy is what your title should be when addressed in public, your political stature is unassailable. Later occupants of the office could only look with envy at the burning issue of whether the Washington’s title should be “Mr. President” (Madison’s suggestion), or “His Highness the President of the United States of America and the Protector of the Rights of the Same” (the proposal by John Adams who considered even “His Excellency” as too common). One must be thankful that Washington was sufficiently astute to opt for the first.
With an economy that was generally prosperous, especially when compared to the 1780s, a political system that was stable and still in a lengthy honeymoon after the constitutional revolution of 1787, and a President held in respect, if not awe, by most of the country, the election of 1792 was a foregone conclusion. Washington had considered retiring after one term but was persuaded to accept another term, however reluctantly. He was duly re-elected, once again by unanimous vote of all 132 electors from, by now, 15 states. But there was a small cloud on the horizon, a distant sign of a gathering storm. Vice-President Adams was also re-elected. Unlike his unanimous election in 1789, Adams lost the electoral votes of New York, Virginia, and North Carolina to Governor George Clinton of New York. By the next election, in 1796, the storm had gathered.
An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. Read more from Professor Knipprath at: http://www.tokenconservative.com/.