The idea that there would be a first President of the United States was not common at the end of the Revolutionary War. The Articles of Confederation had no provision for a president. All domestic power under the Articles of Confederation was with the states. For George Washington, this was only an issue when it came to the subject of paying soldiers for the time served in the Revolutionary War.
While in the process of starting to take care of his estate at Mount Vernon, the future first President was asked to help lead an investment team creating a canal starting in the Potomac River that would take trade from the Western Frontier through Virginia. Washington was in favor of this plan as it would drive trade through Alexandria. With Washington as the head, the Potomac Company was incorporated in Maryland in 1784 and in Virginia in 1785. In order for the Potomac Company to succeed it needed the support of both Maryland and Virginia legislators. To work out the many issues, a conference was held at Mount Vernon in March 1785. The conference proposed to meet annually to address issues between the states. The success of the Mount Vernon conference led Virginia to invite all 13 states to attend a meeting on commercial issues. The Annapolis Convention was held in September 1786. Only five of the 13 states sent delegates to the Annapolis Convention, but they agreed to hold another Convention in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.
In August 1786, Shays’ Rebellion started in Central and Western Massachusetts. The armed uprising was the result of financial difficulties that small New England farmers were facing. Farms were being foreclosed as New England merchants and businessmen were calling on loans to pay their own debts from the Revolutionary War. The rebellion was eventually put down by a militia financed by Boston merchants. The rebellion is significant in that it scared the leaders in America to move toward a more powerful central government that could deal with the issues that caused the rebellion. The timing of the rebellion increased the importance of the Philadelphia convention. George Washington, who had not been planning to attend the convention, was now urged to lead the Virginia delegation. The importance of Washington's attendance and the difficulty he had in giving up his retirement to return to public life is captured in a quote from James Madison, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson. "To forsake the honorable retreat to which he had retired and risk the reputation he had so deservedly acquired, manifested a zeal for the public interest that could, after as many and illustrious services, scarcely have been expected of him." The Potomac Company, the Annapolis Convention, and Shays' Rebellion set the stage for George Washington to become the first President of the United States.
The future first President reached Philadelphia in May 1787. The members of the convention elected Washington as president to preside over the meeting. Once a quorum was reached, James Madison introduced the Virginia Plan that would form the basis of the Constitution of the United States. The Philadelphia Convention is also known as the Constitutional Convention as the delegates decided to discard the Articles of Confederation and propose a Constitution for a new country. The future first President provided steady guidance over the group. He personally wanted the group to find common ground. He believed that the union of the states was most important and that different factions must not leave the convention with differences that would doom the new country from the start. Beyond the role of president, Washington's presence and popularity gave the convention political power with the people. Washington was also the model the framers had in mind when crafting the responsibilities for the Executive office. When the Convention concluded the Constitution was passed to the states for ratification. Debate raged both for and against. Washington read the pamphlets on both sides of the argument, but did not make his feelings known publicly. In June 1788, the Constitution was ratified by the 10th state. At this point it was inevitable that Washington would be the first President.
On February 4, 1789, Washington was unanimously elected the first President of the United States by the Electoral College. The election was not official until the votes were counted in front of both the House and Senate. On April 14, 1789, the vote was confirmed. On April 30, 1789, Washington gave his first inaugural address to a joint meeting of both houses of Congress. The meeting was held in the Senate chamber in the Federal building on Wall Street in New York City.
The first session of Congress of the United States lasted until September 30, 1789. The session has been known as the Second Constitutional Convention because members of Congress worked on adding more details to the basic framework that had been ratified by the states. The session went smoothly. The only major crisis was the first President being diagnosed with a leg tumor. The tumor was removed and Washington recovered before Congress adjourned. The other item of major importance for Washington and the presidency was the precedent that the President would appoint the members of his cabinet and the Senate would approve the nomination. Washington's first cabinet included Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury, Henry Knox as Secretary of War, and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General. The mother of the first president, Mary Ball Washington, passed away at the age of eighty one during this session.
Between the first and second sessions of Congress, George Washington took a month long trip through New England. The trip brought the first President to Connecticut (Fairfield, New Haven, and Hartford) and Massachusetts (Springfield, Worcester, Boston, and Newburyport). Washington took note of local economies, both agricultural and industrial. He visited a sail making factory in Boston and like many visitors to Massachusetts complained about the terrible roads and awful directions.
The major issue for the second session of the United States Congress was payment of the debts which had been incurred during the Revolution. Alexander Hamilton presented a plan to Congress that would have the Federal Government pay for debts assumed during the Revolutionary War. After agreement was reached that the federal government would pay the debts there were three major issues of the plan to be decided - discrimination, funding, and assumption. Discrimination was an attempt to pay war bonds to the original holder. In the years following the war many soldiers sold their bonds to speculators for hard currency. The logistics to implement discrimination proved to be too difficult and it was dropped. Funding, which in retrospect should have been more controversial, passed Congress easily. The major points of Hamilton’s funding plan were that the war bonds would be exchanged for new securities, tax money collected by the Federal Government would pay for the interest and 2% of the principle each year, and the new notes would be backed by the Federal Government. The final issue, assumption, proved to be the most difficult. The plan for assumption was that the Federal Government would assume war debts of the states. Virginia and many of the southern states had already paid off most of its debts. Massachusetts and many of the northern states were waiting for the Federal Government to help. Most of the war bonds were in the north as speculators and financiers from the north had accumulated much of the debt. A compromise was worked out between Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson. The southern states would agree to assumption in exchange for the northern states agreeing to a southern location for a permanent spot for the United States capital. The first President was pleased that the two sides were able to reach a compromise and he was pleased that he would be able to realize one of his life’s dreams to create a major city on the Potomac near his home at Mount Vernon. He was concerned that the tone of the debate would damage the public’s impression of the government.
In May 1790, Rhode Island ratified the Constitution. This gave the first President the freedom to visit Rhode Island after the second session of Congress. He chose not to visit on his first trip to New England because Rhode Island had not ratified the Constitution. On his trip to Rhode Island he visited Newport. Washington received a letter from the Hebrew Congregation of Newport that welcomed him to the city. In Washington’s response he stated, "The Government of the United States ...gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance". Washington’s letter is re-read in a public ceremony each year by Newport’s Congregation, now known as the Touro Synagogue.
In December 1790, Congress reconvened for its third session. This session was located in Philadelphia. As part of the agreement to locate the capital of the United States on the Potomac, Congress agreed to locate the capital in Philadelphia for 10 years to allow the permanent capital to be built. In the third session, Hamilton urged that Congress charter the Bank of the United States. In Hamilton’s plan, the Bank of the United States would be one fifth owned by the government of the United States and the government would elect one fifth of the directors. The bank would service the national debt and make loans to the government for major projects. The bank’s bills of indebtedness would circulate as the basic currency of the United States. The bank bill passed the Senate with a voice vote. At the final vote in the House, Madison argued that the Constitution did not grant the federal government the power to incorporate. Even after Madison’s question, the House passed the bank bill thirty-nine to twenty. The debate then was passed onto Washington. Jefferson and Madison argued that Washington should veto the bill based on a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Hamilton argued that strict interpretation would soon make the federal government obsolete as it would be prohibited from reacting to new situations, but the state governments would not. The first President sided with Hamilton’s argument and signed the bank bill. The debate between Hamilton and Jefferson about the bank was the beginning of the formation of political parties in the United States. Washington may have been the only leader that did not choose sides in the debate. Instead, he attempted to hold together a government and a cabinet that benefited from opinions from both Hamilton and Jefferson.
In April 1791, the first President toured the southern states for two months. He traveled from Philadelphia down along the coast and back along the fall line making stops in North Carolina (Halifax, Newbern, Wilmington, and Winston-Salem), South Carolina (Camden, Charleston, and Salisbury), and Georgia (Augusta and Savannah). This trip was Washington’s first to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Washington noted in his diary the number and fairness of the women that greeted him in every community.
Unfortunately, for the first President, he was unable to keep Jefferson and Hamilton together on his cabinet beyond his first term. In the days leading up to the election of 1792, Jefferson and Madison contracted Philip Freneau to start the National Gazette. Freneau moved to Philadelphia and was appointed a translator to the Department of State by Jefferson. This gave him time to publish the National Gazette and attack Hamilton and his policies. The goal was to increase the number of Jeffersonian members in the House of Representatives. The attacks caused Hamilton to issue rebuttals and attack Jefferson.
Washington wished to leave office at the end of his first term, but wanted his cabinet to stay on without him. When he announced this to his cabinet, Jefferson said that he would not continue in his role under any circumstance. Washington tried to persuade him to stay, but was unsuccessful. In the meantime, the rancor in the newspapers made much fear what might happen if Washington were to leave. Jefferson told Washington that, “North and south will hang together if they have you to hang on.” Others expressed the need for him to stay. Convinced by his advisors to stay on, the first president was unanimously elected to a second term on February 13, 1793.