The Importance of the Washington Presidency - Laurence Jurdem
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The Importance of the Washington Presidency

What is it about George Washington and more particularly what is it about his presidency that makes him so important? There are many reasons, but the central one was that Washington best represented the ideas of “the spirit of 1776” or what was then called disinterestedness. The term, as historian Gordon S. Wood states, was an important concept in 18th century America. It was the idea of putting the whole above the individual or the common good above partisanship and financial gain.[1] Washington showed he possessed that quality when he symbolically surrendered his sword to the continental congress resigning his command of the army. Washington’s choice to relinquish control of a devoted military proved to the citizens of the new nation that the former general believed in the ideas of republican government, a central tenant of those principles being that “the military were servants of the people.”[2]

In analyzing Washington’s achievements, historians have characterized him in such terms as “the great unifier” or “a nation builder.” Both terms are correct.[3] At a time when the people of the new nation identified more with their individual states and communities Washington’s presence, reputation and judgment really held the country together when it very easily could have broken apart. Washington was important because he created traditions that other chief executives would follow. During his administration that went from1789 to 1796, Washington established the concept of the president’s cabinet, the presidential veto, the issuing of executive appointments as well the standard that the president was the key decision maker when it came to foreign affairs. These precedents all in use today, reflect actions Washington took during his presidency.

The issue that really set the standard of the president being the leader in the realm of foreign affairs was represented by what was known as the Jay Treaty. In 1793 another war began between France and Great Britain. As an old military commander President Washington realized that the state of the American military was incapable of undertaking any kind of major engagement. Washington believed in the long-term interests of the nation. He had been selected for the presidency because people knew he had the capacity to unify the country, to hold the nation together until tradition and precedent took over. Washington had a clear vision for the future of the United States and unlike many of his colleagues was not caught up in the passions of the moment in coming to the aid of their old ally.

Washington believed that to make certain that neutrality was secured a treaty with the British was necessary. At the time significant tensions existed between Great Britain and her former colonies. There was still animosity between the nations over the revolution and a number of British merchants were upset over unpaid debts that had been incurred before the conflict began. Despite the war having concluded more than a decade ago the tradesmen still had not been compensated. While the British had indeed been defeated, London continued to have troops stationed in the northwestern part of America as its navy repeatedly boarded American merchant vessels traveling in the Caribbean. The British believed that despite America’s declaration of neutrality those ships were carrying cargo bound for France. Washington saw all of these circumstances as a ticking time bomb that could lead to a conflict with the British.[4]

During 1794 in an attempt to stabilize the situation Washington sent his friend and chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay over to Britain to negotiate a treaty that the president hoped would solve these issues. While Washington was known to give his advisors autonomy in managing their assignments, Washington was fully engaged in the negotiations over the treaty and followed Jay’s progress as closely. As one can imagine the idea of negotiating with the British was highly unpopular in the United States and the treaty Jay subsequently negotiated was decidedly unpopular. While the treaty called for the removal of British troops from North America and allowed the merchants who had lost their goods to British ships to be compensated that was about all. The British in return were given the right to allow their traders and their Native American allies to trap and trade in the Northwest Territory, an area that encompassed the entire Mississippi river. The British were also be given favored nation status in terms of its trading relationship with the United States that included British merchants being compensated for those debts incurred before the revolution. Finally, it was decided that American ships were no longer allowed to transport goods from British ports to French ones thus settling the issues that had caused problems in the Caribbean.[5]

Washington felt that while the treaty was not perfect it was the best Jay could have done and it accomplished two long term goals: preventing war and keeping solid trade relations with America’s major trading partner. Despite the treaty receiving highly negative notices in the American press and Washington being accused for not only working with the British, but of also being obsessed with power, the president sent the treaty on for ratification in the Senate. In asking the Senate for its consent on the treaty, Washington again showed the public that the Presidents power was not absolute and that the position was not a monarchy, but one part of a mechanism that could accomplish nothing unless all parts were willing to work together. After a couple of weeks of debate the treaty was ratified and was then sent to the presidents desk for signature. Despite discord within the country over the treaty’s conditions Washington signed the document knowing that the treaty benefited the nation in the long term as it kept the United States out of war and allowed the country to mature until it could develop into an international power.

[1] Gordon S. Wood, “First Annual George Washington Lecture” (The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., February 25, 2013).

[2] Edmund S. Morgan, The Genius of George Washington (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982, 13.

[3] Don Higginbotham, George Washington, Uniting a Nation (Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield, 2002), 10. Peter R. Henriques, Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 47.

[4] James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensible Man (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1969), 306-313.

[5] “John Jay’s Treaty.” The U.S. Department of State, office of the Historian. Web. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/jay-treaty