• What issues made the politics of the 1790s so divisive?
• How did competing views of freedom and global events promote the political divisions of the 1790s?
• What were the achievements and failures of Jefferson's presidency?
• What were the causes and significant results of the War of 1812?
On April 30,1789, in New York City, the nation’s temporary capital, George Washington became the first president under the new Constitution. All sixty-nine electors had awarded him their votes. Dressed in a plain suit of “superfine American broad cloth” rather than European finery, Washington took the oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall before a large crowd that reacted with “loud and repeated shouts” of approval. He then retreated inside to deliver his inaugural address before members of Congress and other dignitaries.
Washington’s speech expressed the revolutionary generation’s conviction that it had embarked on an experiment of enormous historical importance, whose outcome was by no means certain. “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government,” Washington proclaimed, depended on the success of the American experiment in self-government. Most Americans seemed to agree that freedom was the special genius of American institutions. In a resolution congratulating Washington on his inauguration, the House of Representatives observed that he had been chosen by “the freest people on the face of the earth.” When the time came to issue the nation’s first coins, Congress directed that they bear the image not of the head of state (as would be the case in a monarchy) but “an impression emblematic of liberty,” with the word itself prominently displayed.
American leaders believed that the success of the new government depended, above all, on maintaining political harmony. They were especially anxious to avoid the emergence of organized political parties, which had already appeared in several states. Parties were considered divisive and disloyal. “They serve to organize faction,” Washington would later declare, and to substitute the aims of “a small but artful” minority for the “will of the nation.” The Constitution makes no mention of political parties, and the original method of electing the president assumes that candidates will run as individuals, not on a party ticket (otherwise, the second-place finisher would not have become vice president). Nonetheless, national political parties quickly arose. Originating in Congress, they soon spread to the general populace. Instead of harmony, the 1790s became, in the words of one historian, an “age of passion,” with each party questioning the loyalty of the other and lambasting its opponent in the most extreme terms. Political rhetoric became inflamed because the stakes seemed so high—nothing less than the legacy of the Revolution, the new nation’s future, and the survival of American freedom.
An early American coin, bearing an image of liberty and the word itself, as directed by Congress in a 1792 law.
President Washington provided a much-needed symbol of national unity. Having retired to private life after the War of Independence (despite some army officers’ suggestion that he set himself up as a dictator), he was a model of self-sacrificing republican virtue. His vice president, John Adams, was widely respected as one of the main leaders in the drive for independence. Washington brought into his cabinet some of the new nation’s most prominent political leaders, including Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state and Alexander Hamilton to head the Treasury Department. He also appointed a Supreme Court of six members, headed by John Jay of New York. But harmonious government proved short-lived.
Political divisions first surfaced over the financial plan developed by Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton in 1790 and 1791. Hamilton’s immediate aims were to establish the nation’s financial stability, bring to the government’s support the country’s most powerful financial interests, and encourage economic development. His long-term goal was to make the United States a major commercial and military power. Hamilton’s model was Great Britain. The goal of national greatness, he believed, could never be realized if the government suffered from the same weaknesses as under the Articles of Confederation.
Hamilton’s program had five parts. The first step was to establish the new nation’s credit-worthiness—that is, to create conditions under which persons would loan money to the government by purchasing its bonds, confident that they would be repaid. Hamilton proposed that the federal government assume responsibility for paying off at its full face value the national debt inherited from the War of Independence, as well as outstanding debts of the states. Second, he called for the creation of a new national debt. The old debts would be replaced by new interest-bearing bonds issued to the government’s creditors. This would give men of economic substance a stake in promoting the new nation’s stability, since the stronger and more economically secure the federal government, the more likely it would be to pay its debts.
The third part of Hamilton’s program called for the creation of a Bank of the United States, modeled on the Bank of England, to serve as the nation’s main financial agent. A private corporation rather than a branch of the government, it would hold public funds, issue bank notes that would serve as currency, and make loans to the government when necessary, all the while returning a tidy profit to its stockholders. Fourth, to raise revenue, Hamilton proposed a tax on producers of whiskey. Finally, in a Report on Manufactures delivered to Congress in December 1791, Hamilton called for the imposition of a tariff (a tax on imported foreign goods) and government subsidies to encourage the development of factories that could manufacture products currently purchased from abroad. Privately, Hamilton promoted an unsuccessful effort to build an industrial city at present-day Paterson, New Jersey. He also proposed the creation of a national army to deal with uprisings like Shays’s Rebellion.
Liberty and Washington, painted by an unknown artist around 1800, depicts a female figure of liberty placing a wreath on a bust of the first president. She carries an American flag and stands on a royal crown, which has been thrown to the ground. In the background is a liberty cap. Washington had died in 1799 and was now immortalized as a symbol of freedom, independence, and national pride.