Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States had several presidents. Their job was to lead Congress, and they were not strong chief executives. The government under the Articles was weak and ineffective. When delegates met to reform the government, they wrote a new Constitution that included a strong executive branch headed by a single president.
On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of office as the first president of the United States under that new Constitution. John Adams became vice president.
Washington knew that his actions and decisions would set precedents (PREH • suh • duhnts), or traditions, that would help shape the nation's future. "No slip will pass unnoticed," he said. Washington worked closely with Congress to create an effective government. In those first years, the president and Congress created departments within the executive branch and set up the court system. Congress added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. Washington set the standard for how long a president should serve and for how the nation should relate to other nations.
The executive branch of government took shape during the summer of 1789. Congress set up three departments and two offices within the executive branch. Washington chose leading political figures to head them. He picked Thomas Jefferson to head the State Department, which handles relations with other nations. He named Alexander Hamilton to manage the nation's money at the Department of the Treasury. Henry Knox was the choice to look after the nation's defense as the secretary of the Department of War. To address the government's legal affairs, Washington chose Edmund Randolph to be attorney general. Congress also created the office of postmaster general.
The three department heads and the attorney general had many important duties. Among them was giving advice to the president. Together, this group of top executive advisers formed what is called acabinet.
Congress was unsure how much power the president ought to have over the cabinet. In a vote on this question, senators were evenly divided. Vice President John Adams broke the tie. He voted to allow the president the power to dismiss cabinet officers without Senate approval. This established presidential power over the whole executive branch.
Establishing the Court System
The first Congress also faced the job of forming the nation's court system. Some favored a uniform legal system for the entire nation. Others favored keeping the existing state systems. The two sides reached an agreement in the Judiciary Act of 1789. This act established a federal court system. The states kept their own laws and courts, but the federal courts had the power to reverse state decisions. The act marked a first step in creating a strong and independent national judicial system.
The Constitution established the Supreme Court as the final authority on many issues. President Washington chose John Jay to lead the Supreme Court as chief justice. The Senate approved Jay's nomination.
The Bill of Rights
Americans had fought a revolution to gain independence from British control. They did not want to replace one unjust government with another one. As protection from the powers of a strong national government, many Americans wanted the Constitution to include a bill of rights. It would guarantee civil liberties. In fact, some states had agreed to ratify the Constitution only with the promise that a bill of rights be added.
To fulfill this promise, James Madison introduced a set of amendments during the first session of Congress. Congress passed 12 amendments, and the states ratified 10 of them. In December 1791, these 10 amendments, together called the Bill of Rights, became part of the Constitution.
The Bill of Rights limits the power of government. It protects individual liberty, including freedom of speech and the rights of people accused of crimes. The Tenth Amendment says that any power not listed in the Constitution belongs to the states or the people. Madison hoped this amendment would help protect Americans against a national government that was too powerful.
The New Economy
As president, Washington focused on foreign affairs and military matters. He rarely suggested new laws and almost always approved the bills that Congress passed. For the government's economic policies, the president depended on Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury. Hamilton was in his early thirties when he took office, but he had bold plans and clear policies in mind.
Hamilton faced a difficult task. The federal and state governments had borrowed money to pay for the American Revolution. They now owed millions of dollars to other countries and to American citizens. As a result, the nation faced serious financial trouble. Hamilton tried to improve the government's finances and strengthen the nation at the same time.
The House of Representatives asked Hamilton to make a plan for the "adequate support of the public credit." This meant that the United States needed a way to borrow money for its government and economy. To be able to borrow in the future, the government had to prove it could pay back the money it already owed.
Hamilton proposed that the federal government take over and pay off the states' wartime debts. He argued that paying off the debt as a nation would build national credit and make it easier for the nation to borrow money. Hamilton also believed that federal payment of state debts would give the states a strong interest in the success of the national government.
The Plan Faces Opposition
Congress agreed to part of Hamilton's plan—to pay the money owed to other nations. However, Hamilton's plan to pay off the debt owed to American citizens caused protest.
When borrowing money from citizens during the American Revolution, the government issued bonds. These are notes that promise repayment of borrowed money in the future.
While waiting for repayment, many bond owners— shopkeepers, farmers, and soldiers—sold their bonds. They accepted less money than the bonds' stated value. Often, the buyers of these bonds were speculators, people who risk money in hopes of making a large profit in the future.
Now, Hamilton was proposing to pay off the old bonds at full value. This would make the speculators rich. The original bondholders would get nothing. Many people were upset by this idea. One newspaper said Hamilton's plan was "established at the expense of national justice, gratitude, and humanity."
Even stronger opposition came from the Southern states. These states had accumulated, or built up, much less debt than the Northern states. Several had already repaid their debts. Yet Hamilton wanted the entire nation to pay all the debt together. Southern states complained about having to help pay other states' debts.
Compromise and a Capital
To win support for his plan, Hamilton worked out a compromise with Southern leaders. If they voted for his plan to pay off the state debts, he would support locating the nation's capital in the South.
Congress ordered a special district to be laid out between Virginia and Maryland along the banks of the Potomac River. There, George Washington chose the site for the new capital city, later named Washington, D.C., in his honor. While workers prepared the new city, the nation's capital shifted from New York to Philadelphia.
The Fight for a National Bank
Hamilton also asked Congress to create a national bank—the Bank of the United States. The proposed bank would hold government funds and make debt payments. It would also issue a single form of money for use throughout the nation. At that time, different states and banks issued their own currencies. Having a national currency would make trade and all other financial actions much easier.
Madison and Jefferson opposed a national bank, believing it would help the wealthy. They argued that the Constitution did not give Congress the power to create a bank. Hamilton believed the Constitution indirectly gave Congress power to create a bank when it gave Congress power to collect taxes and borrow money. Washington agreed, and Congress created the national bank.
Tariffs and Taxes
Hamilton believed that the United States needed more manufacturing. He proposed high tariffs—taxes on imports. The tariffs would raise money for the government and protect American industries from foreign competition. The South had little industry and opposed such tariffs. Congress passed only low tariffs. Hamilton also called for national taxes to help the government pay the national debt. Congress approved several taxes, including a tax on whiskey made in the United States.
Hamilton's ideas created conflict. Jefferson and Madison worried that Hamilton was building a dangerously powerful government run by the wealthy. They began to organize opposition to Hamilton and the policies he favored.
9 Section Readings 9.2
Trouble in the New Nation
Washington faced difficult challenges while in office. Britain and France were pushing the United States to get more involved in their conflicts. President Washington stood firm against this pressure. Native Americans, aided by the British and Spanish, fought the westward advance of American settlers. In addition, there was growing unrest from within the American population.
The Whiskey Rebellion
The new government wanted to collect taxes on some products made in the United States. In 1791 Congress passed a tax on the manufacture and sale of whiskey, a type of alcohol made from grain. Western Pennsylvania farmers were especially upset by this tax. Their anger turned into violence in July 1794. An armed mob attacked tax collectors and burned down buildings. This protest, called the Whiskey Rebellion, alarmed government leaders. They viewed it as a challenge to the power of the new government. Washington sent federal troops to meet the challenge. His action sent a strong message to the public: The government would use force to maintain order.
Challenges in the West
Washington worried about ongoing European interest in the Northwest Territory. The British and Spanish were trying to stir up Native American anger against American settlers in the region. To block these efforts, Washington signed treaties with Native American groups. Yet American settlers ignored the treaties and moved onto lands promised to Native Americans. Fighting broke out between the two groups.
Again, Washington decided to use force. He sent an army under General Arthur St. Clair to restore order in the Northwest Territory. In November 1791, St. Clair's army met a strong Native American force led by Little Turtle, a Miami chief. More than 600 U.S. soldiers died in the battle. It was the worst defeat U.S. forces had ever suffered against Native Americans.
Americans hoped an alliance with France would help them achieve full control in the West. The possibility of French involvement led Great Britain to take action. In 1794 the British urged Native Americans to destroy American settlements west of the Appalachians. The British also began building a new fort in Ohio.
Native Americans demanded that settlers who were living north of the Ohio River leave the area. In response, Washington sent Anthony Wayne, a Revolutionary War general, to the region.
In August 1794, Wayne's army defeated more than 1,000 Native Americans under Shawnee chief Blue Jacket. The Battle of Fallen Timbers, near present-day Toledo, Ohio, crushed the Native Americans' hopes of keeping their land. In the Treaty of Greenville (1795), Native American leaders agreed to surrender most of the land in what is now Ohio.
In 1789 France erupted in revolution. Americans cheered at first as the French rose up against their king. The French struggle against royal tyranny was familiar to them. By 1793, however, the revolution had turned terribly violent. Some Americans were horrified by the bloodshed. Public opinion became divided.
When Britain and France went to war in 1793, some Americans sympathized with France. Others supported Britain. Washington hoped that the United States could stay neutral and not take either side.
Staying neutral proved difficult. The French tried to draw the United States into their conflict with Britain. They sent Edmond Genêt (zhuh • NAY) to ask American volunteers to attack British ships. President Washington issued the Proclamation of Neutrality, which prohibited Americans from fighting in the war. The proclamation also barred French and British warships from American ports.
Britain also challenged Washington's desire for neutrality. The British captured American ships that traded with the French. Then, they forced the American crews into the British navy. Americans were outraged by this practice of impressment.
Washington sent John Jay, chief justice of the United States, to discuss a solution with the British. The result of this negotiation was called Jay's Treaty. In the treaty, the British agreed to withdraw from American soil. There was no mention of impressment or British interference with American trade.
Few Americans approved of this treaty. Washington also found fault with it but believed it would end the crisis. After fierce debate, the Senate approved Jay's Treaty in a close vote.
Pinckney's Treaty With Spain
Spanish leaders were nervous about Jay's Treaty. They feared that the United States and Great Britain would now work together against Spain in North America. Washington sent U.S. diplomat Thomas Pinckney to Spain to settle differences between the nations. In 1795 Pinckney's Treaty gave the Americans free navigation of the Mississippi River and the right to trade at New Orleans.
Washington Leaves Office
After eight years in office, Washington decided not to seek a third term as president. In his Farewell Address, Washington urged his fellow citizens to "observe good faith and justice toward all nations. . . . It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances." These parting words influenced the nation's foreign policy for more than 100 years.
Washington also warned against something he saw as a growing threat to the young nation: political parties. You will read about this threat in the next lesson.
9 Section Readings 9.3
The American people generally admired President Washington and his service to the nation. Still, harsh attacks appeared from time to time in newspapers. One paper even called Washington "the scourge and the misfortune of his country."
Most of the attacks on Washington came from supporters of Thomas Jefferson. They hoped to weaken support for the policies of Alexander Hamilton, which the president seemed to favor. In fact, by 1796, the supporters of Jefferson and Hamilton were beginning to form the nation's first political parties.
At that time, many Americans thought political parties were harmful to good government. The Constitution made no mention of parties because its authors saw no good use for them. Washington disapproved of political parties, or "factions" as they were known. He warned that they would divide the nation.
To others, though, it seemed natural that people would disagree about issues. They also knew that people who hold similar views tend to band together.
Washington's cabinet was clearly divided on key issues. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson had very different views. They disagreed on economic policy and foreign relations. They did not share the same opinion on the power of the federal government or on the meaning of the Constitution. Even Washington was partisan (PAHR • tuh • zuhn)—clearly favoring one faction. The president believed he stood above politics, but he usually supported Hamilton's views.
Political Parties Emerge
The differences found in Washington's cabinet also existed in Congress and among the public. They formed the basis for two distinct political parties that emerged at this time.
One party was the Federalists. Led by Hamilton, this group favored a strong federal government. They believed the Constitution gave government "implied" powers. These implied powers are not enumerated, or listed clearly in the Constitution. Instead, Federalists believed the enumerated powers imply the power to do other things. Federalists believed Congress could make all laws "necessary and proper" to carry out its enumerated powers.
The Democratic-Republicans, or Republicans, stood against the Federalists. Jefferson and Madison led this faction. They believed in a strict reading of the Constitution. They rejected the Federalist idea of implied powers. They believed congressional powers were limited to what is absolutely necessary to carry out the enumerated powers.
Debate over the national bank highlighted these differences. The Constitution gave Congress specific powers to do such things as issue and borrow money. To Hamilton, this implied that the federal government could create a bank to help with these tasks. Jefferson disagreed.
The Role of the People
The two parties also disagreed about the role of ordinary citizens in government. Federalists supported representative government, in which elected officials ruled in the people's name. They did not believe it was wise to let the public become too involved in politics.
Federalists thought that educated, wealthier men should hold public officice. They did not trust ordinary people to make good decisions. In Hamilton's words, "The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right."
The Republicans feared a strong central government controlled by only a few people. They believed that democracy and liberty would be safe only if ordinary people took part fully in government. As Jefferson wrote in a letter, "I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence [what we depend on] for continued freedom."
The growing differences between the parties—and between Hamilton and Jefferson—troubled President Washington. He tried to get his two cabinet members to work out their differences. He wrote to Jefferson, trying to persuade him: "I . . . ardently wish that some line could be marked out by which both of you could walk."
Washington's efforts to get Jefferson and Hamilton to work together failed. The split was so strong that Jefferson left the cabinet and his job as secretary of state. Soon afterward, Hamilton resigned as secretary of the treasury. The rival groups and their points of view moved further apart. As the election of 1796 approached, the two parties each prepared to seek control of the presidency.
The Presidential Election of 1796
To prepare for the election, both parties held caucuses (KAW • kuhs • uhz). At these meetings, members of Congress and other leaders nominated, or chose, their parties' candidates for office.
Each party chose two presidential candidates, and the electors voted for any two. The Federalists chose John Adams and Charles Pinckney. The Republicans chose Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. There was no candidate identified as a vice presidential candidate on the ballot.
The Federalists carried the New England region. Republican strength lay in the Southern states. Adams got 71 electoral votes, winning the election. Jefferson finished second with 68 votes. Under the rules of the Constitution at that time, the person with the second-highest electoral vote total—Jefferson—became vice president. The administration that took office on March 4, 1797, had a Federalist president and a Republican vice president.
John Adams as President
John Adams spent most of his life in public service. He was well-known as one of Massachusetts's most active patriots in the period before and during the Revolutionary War. He served two terms as vice president under Washington before becoming president. His time in office, however, was troubled.
The XYZ Affair
The nation was in the middle of a dispute with France when Adams took office. The French viewed the 1794 Jay's Treaty as an American attempt to help the British in their war with France. To punish the United States, the French seized American ships that carried cargo to Britain.
President Adams sent a team to Paris to try to resolve the dispute in the fall of 1797. French officials chose not to meet with the Americans. Instead, the French sent three agents, who demanded a bribe and a loan for France from the Americans. The Americans refused.
When Adams learned what had happened, he was furious. The president urged Congress to prepare for war. In his report to Congress, Adams used the letters X, Y, and Z in place of the French agents' names. As a result, the event came to be called the XYZ affair.
Alien and Sedition Acts
When the public found out about the XYZ affair, many grew angry at foreign attempts to influence their government. They became more suspicious of aliens—residents who are not citizens. Many Europeans who had come to the United States in the 1790s supported the ideals of the French Revolution. Some Americans questioned whether these aliens would remain loyal if the United States went to war with France.
In response to these concerns, Federalists in 1798 passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Sedition (sih • DIH • shuhn) means activities aimed at weakening the government. The Alien and Sedition Acts allowed the president to imprison aliens. The president could also deport—send out of the country— those thought to be dangerous. President Adams was a strong supporter of these laws.
Domestic and Foreign Affairs
Democratic-Republicans saw the Alien and Sedition Acts as Federalist tyranny. They looked to the states to respond and protect people's liberties. Madison and Jefferson wrote statements of protest that the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures passed as resolutions.
The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799 claimed that the Alien and Sedition Acts violated the Constitution. They declared that the states should not put them into action. The Kentucky Resolution further said that states could nullify (NUH • luh • fy)—legally overturn—federal laws they thought were unconstitutional.
The resolutions supported the principle of states' rights. This principle held that the powers of the federal government were limited to those clearly granted by the Constitution. To prevent the federal government from becoming too powerful, the states should have all other powers not expressly forbidden to them. The issue of states' rights would remain an important issue in American politics for many years.
Meanwhile, the Federalists urged Adams to declare war on France. Adams, however, resisted this pressure. Instead, he sent a representative to seek peace with France.
In 1800 the French agreed to a treaty and stopped their attacks on American ships. Though it had bene fits for the United States, the agreement with France was unpopular and hurt Adams’s chance for reelection. Rather than cheering the agreement, Hamilton and his supporters opposed their own president. The Federalists were now split. This improved Democratic-Republican hopes for winning the presidency in the 1800 election.