President George Washington’s Legacy

The Constitution, ratified in 1788, called for a President and Vice President to lead the new country.  In early elections, there were no set parties and it was seen as unbecoming and arrogant to campaign for oneself.  Friends, colleagues, or political figures would campaign for those on the ballot. The candidate with the highest number of votes was elected president; the candidate with the second highest number of votes became vice president.  For the first presidential election on February 4th, 1789 Washington received a near majority of 69 electoral votes for president, while John Adams received a narrow victory of 34 votes for vice president, beating out Thomas Jefferson.

Americans had been wary of instituting a new monarchy since the fight for independence from England.  The ratification of the Constitution took power away from states and gave it to a central government with a president at its head.  This awoke fears in many of an emerging monarchy.  Factions between Federalists and Anti-federalists were growing in Congress alongside fears of being pulled into a war with tensions between France and Britain on the rise. Washington had to balance these fears while creating the new government.  The Constitution laid out a rough form of what the new government should look like with the legislative, judicial, executive branches and a few departments, but Washington had over 1,000 new positions to fill.

For most of his time in the public sphere, George Washington struggled with being in the spotlight.  During the Revolutionary War he constantly wrote to Mount Vernon and its caretakers about his farm, the ever-expanding renovations, and his desire to return home.  With the end of the American Revolution, Washington resigned his post as Commander of the Continental Army to return to Virginia, becoming a ‘gentleman farmer’ as he is often called.  He attempted to avoid politics, politicians, and the public, but more often than not they arrived at his doorstep to see the man who they saw as America’s hero.  On his trip to and from Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention and his tours of the states as President, he would often arrive early, find alternative routes into town, or leave unannounced to avoid the parades and festivities held in his honor. 

When Washington was unanimously elected president in 1789 he was 57 years old and has spent eight of the last thirteen years away from Virginia, Mount Vernon, and his family.  He argued for month at his disinterest in the presidency while many in Congress, and in the public, viewed Washington as the ideal first president of the United States: he seemed disinterested in holding into power, had the air of heroism from the Revolutionary War, and had no heirs to pass the title to.  Washington eventually agreed to have his name on the ballot, being won over through the need to form a stable government.  Two years into his first term, he had plans to resign due to the rise of political infighting and growing slander of his presidency, but Hamilton convinced him that his reputation would be forever tarnished if he did so. 

At the end of his first term, Washington again had to be convinced to run for a second term, won over by the fear that the country could be split apart due to the growing split between Federalists (on the side of Hamilton) and Anti-Federalists (on Jefferson’s side).  By the end of his second term, Washington was 64 and felt the government was as stable as he could make it.  He decided to step down and retire to Mount Vernon, a move that surprised many.  Federalists hoped he would remain president indefinitely while the public could not imagine the position without him.  European countries could not believe anyone would stepped down and give up power.  Neither could they believe a country could survive without authoritarian rule.

In September 1796, Washington announced his intention to step down and in March of 1797 he returned to Mount Vernon where he spent the next three years tending to his plantation.

By the end of his two terms, Washington accomplished much with several of his practices becoming standard for the other presidents.

  • Restored American credit 
  • Created a bank and the mint
  • Created a coast guard and diplomatic corps, inaugurated the navy, and bolstered the army
  • Introduced first accounting tax and budgetary procedures
  • Shored up coastal defenses and infrastructure
  • Proved the country could negotiate and create treaties
  • Protected frontier settlers
  • Exports soared, shipping too, state taxes declined
  • Opened Mississippi to commerce and negotiated trade with Barbary States and forced Britain to leave western forts
  • Created a cabinet of advisers influenced by his wartime days, known today as the Cabinet
  • Moved the capital form New York City to Maryland
  • Instituted the inaugural ball
  • Set the tone for the State of the Union address
  • Washington’s two terms as presidents was added into the Constitution in 1951 with the 22nd Amendment, but was followed by all presidents (except for Franklin Roosevelt) who were elected to a second term.