George Washington (1789-97): The First Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
George Washington is the first in a 43 part series covering why those of you who predict impending economic and social disasters as well as the moral decay of our great nation are not unique nor special in your proclamations of doom. You have always existed. You have taken different forms over the years, but you are the same people you have always been. This is not to say you haven’t been right before, nor is it to say you won’t be right in the future. This only addresses the immediacy, or lack thereof, of the certain doom you foresee.
Washington became a slave owner at age eleven. His marriage to Martha Custis significantly increased the number of enslaved people at Mount Vernon. The person closest to Washington happened to be his slave Billy Lee, and at the time of his death, the Mount Vernon enslaved population consisted of 317 people. Washington left instructions in his will to emancipate the people enslaved by him, upon the death of Martha Washington.
The threat of physical and psychological violence underpinned slavery. With little free time and control over their everyday life, Mount Vernon’s enslaved population attempted to exert some free will and choice when it came to their private lives. On numerous occasions, people enslaved by the Washington household ran away in an attempt to regain their freedom. People at Mount Vernon also resisted their enslavement through less noticeable means. Still, in December of 1775, Washington–the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army–received a letter from Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American author of a published book of poetry, containing an ode written in his honor.
Landmark Supreme Court Cases
In Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), the Supreme Court granted federal courts the affirmative power to hear disputes between private citizens and states. Thus, state conduct was subject to judicial review.
In 1795, the Eleventh Amendment was ratified to negate the holding in Chisholm. Under the 11th Amendment, citizens of one state or of foreign countries can only sue a state with the state’s consent or if Congress, pursuant to a valid exercise of Fourteenth Amendment remedial powers, abrogates the states’ immunity from suit.
Arguably, George Washington’s greatest achievement as President was naming Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury (1789-1795). This decision set the course for the country in terms of the economy, for it established the framework of a national banking system. Hamilton proposed that the new government assume all of the leftover Revolutionary War debt of the thirteen original colonies thereby establishing a federal line of credit.
In order to do this, Washington, who backed the idea of the bank, had to make deals with people like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, a state that had already paid off most of its war debt. Washington suggested that Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton consider a compromise behind closed doors. In return, he offered the location of the new capital. He let them hammer out the details. Hamilton got the funding for the bank, and the Virginians got the capitol of the new nation, a piece of swampland in Virginia known as Foggy Bottom.
In 1793, war broke out between England and France. As a new nation who traded with both countries, we were asked to choose sides. The President chose neutrality for a war weary nation, a decision that would haunt his successors.
In 1794, Pennsylvania farmers were upset over a federal excise tax on liquor. They even dusted off an old battle cry from the Revolution “no taxation without representation”. President Washington felt that in 1776, they were rebelling against taxes that were passed at Parliament in London. These taxes were passed in Philadelphia and are the law of this land; therefore, they must be paid. Washington personally mustered 13,000 militiamen as a show of force in Pennsylvania quashing the aptly named Whiskey Rebellion. As the very first President of our new nation, Washington knew everything he did would be watched and would set the precedent. At this point, he felt it would be important to teach the country a lesson.
From the very beginning, complaints about the overreach of the federal government, assumption of too much debt by the government, protection of American interests by engaging (or not) ourselves from foreign disputes, and complaints about “taxation without representation” all with the backdrop of closed door Washington compromising has been the modus operandi. Any call to a return to “what our founders intended” would put us right where we are today which is the point.
Second President: John Adams (1797-1801)