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)
The history of the United States is profoundly connected to the institution of slavery. It was enslaved labor that allowed the economic development of the new nation in its agriculture. The legacies of slavery are present in our communities today, and understanding the nation’s fraught past is one way to address today’s issues. The perspectives of enslaved men and women are as crucial to understanding the United States as are those of U.S. Presidents. George Washington is the first in a 44 part series.
George Washington bought, sold, inherited, and otherwise acquired hundreds of slaves over his lifetime (owning as many as 317), at one point even helping to manage a lottery in which slave children were “prizes.”
Here, for example, are a few documented cases:
- In a letter on July 20, 1772, Washington directed that money from the sale of flour be invested “in Negroes, if choice ones can be had under Forty pounds Sterl[ing]; if not, then in Rum & Sugar …. If the Return’s are in Slaves let there be two thirds of them Males, the other third Females — The former not exceeding (at any rate) 20 yrs of age — the latter 16.”
- On February 4, 1787, Washington wrote Henry Lee about his desire to purchase “the Bricklayer which is advertised for Sale,” telling Lee that if the slave’s “price does not exceed one hundred, or a few more pounds, I should be glad if you would buy him for me. I have much work in this way to do this Summer.”
- In a letter to James Ross on November 13, 1797, Washington wrote:
“The running off of my cook, has been a most inconvenient thing to this family; and what renders it more disagreeable, is, that I had resolved never to become the master of another slave by purchase, but this resolution I fear I must break.” Washington then directed Ross to inquire about a slave cook in Fredericksburg and “discover the lowest terms on which he could be had.”
Washington also arranged to have his dentures fitted with teeth pulled from slaves, and in some cases, he was deceptive about his practices concerning slavery:
- In a letter to his secretary on April 12, 1791, Washington wrote of his slaves:
“It behooves me to prevent the emancipation of them, otherwise I shall not only loose the use of them, but may have them to pay for. If upon taking good advise it is found expedient to send them back to Virginia, I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public.” (misspellings in original)
- In a letter to William Pearce on March 22, 1795, Washington offered to secretly join in the expense of recapturing a runaway slave but said “I would not have my name appear in any advertisement, or other measure, leading to it.”
In contrast to the mythical story of Washington chopping down a cherry tree and confessing his act with the famous line “I cannot tell a lie,” the real George Washington was the first president to cover up misdeeds from the public.
States Admitted Into The Union
- North Carolina became the 12th state on November 21, 1789 from the crown colony of North Carolina
- Rhode Island became the 13th state on May 29, 1790 from the crown colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations
- Vermont became the 14th state on March 4, 1791 from the Vermont Republic
- Kentucky became the 15th state on June 1, 1792 from ( counties of Virginia making up its District of Kentucky
- Tennessee became the 16th state on June 1, 1796 from the Southwest Territory
The 11th amendment was proposed on March 4, 1794, when it passed the House; ratification occurred on February 7, 1795, when the twelfth state acted, there then being fifteen states in the Union.
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. Washington chose neutrality for a war weary nation, a decision that would haunt his successors.
The Whiskey Rebellion (also known as the Whiskey Insurrection) was a tax protest in the United States beginning in 1791 and ending in 1794 during the presidency of George Washington, ultimately under the command of American Revolutionary war veteran Major James McFarlane. The so-called “whiskey tax” was the first tax imposed on a domestic product by the newly formed federal government.
Beer was difficult to transport and spoiled more easily than rum and whiskey. Rum distillation in the United States had been disrupted during the American Revolutionary War, and, whiskey distribution and consumption increased after the Revolutionary War (aggregate production had not surpassed rum by 1791). The “whiskey tax” became law in 1791, and was intended to generate revenue for the war debt incurred during the Revolutionary War. The tax applied to all distilled spirits, but consumption of US whiskey was rapidly expanding in the late 18th century, so the excise became widely known as a “whiskey tax”.
Farmers of the western frontier were accustomed to distilling their surplus rye, barley, wheat, corn, or fermented grain mixtures to make whiskey. These farmers resisted the tax. In these regions, whiskey often served as a medium of exchange. Many of the resisters were war veterans who believed that they were fighting for the principles of the American Revolution, in particular against taxation without local representation, while the federal government maintained that the taxes were the legal expression of Congressional taxation powers.
Throughout Western Pennsylvania counties, protesters used violence and intimidation to prevent federal officials from collecting the tax. Resistance came to a climax in July 1794, when a US marshal arrived in western Pennsylvania to serve writs to distillers who had not paid the excise. The alarm was raised, and more than 500 armed men attacked the fortified home of tax inspector General John Neville.
Washington responded by sending peace commissioners to western Pennsylvania to negotiate with the rebels, while at the same time calling on governors to send a militia force to enforce the tax. Washington himself rode at the head of an army to suppress the insurgency, with 13,000 militiamen provided by the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The rebels all went home before the arrival of the army, and there was no confrontation.
About 20 men were arrested, but all were later acquitted or pardoned. Most distillers in nearby Kentucky were found to be all but impossible to tax—in the next six years, over 175 distillers from Kentucky were convicted of violating the tax law. Numerous examples of resistance are recorded in court documents and newspaper accounts.
The Whiskey Rebellion demonstrated that the new national government had the will and ability to suppress violent resistance to its laws, though the whiskey excise remained difficult to collect. The events contributed to the formation of political parties in the United States, a process already under way.
The whiskey tax was repealed in the early 1800s during the Jefferson administration. Historian Carol Berkin argues that the episode in the long run strengthened US nationalism because the people appreciated how well Washington handled the rebels without resorting to tyranny
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.
- Alexander Hamilton . Timeline . Treasury Secretary. (n.d.). Alexander Hamilton | The New-York Historical Society. https://www.alexanderhamiltonexhibition.org/timeline/timeline4.html
- Behind the name: Foggy Bottom. (2011, November 6). DCist. https://dcist.com/story/11/11/06/behind-the-name-foggy-bottom/
- Book excerpt from ‘The Whiskey Rebellion’: The burning of Neville house. (2006, April 23). Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. https://www.post-gazette.com/ae/book-reviews/2006/04/23/Book-excerpt-from-The-Whiskey-Rebellion-The-Burning-of-Neville-House/stories/200604230207
- Brigadier general John Neville. (n.d.). Collier Township, PA | Official Website. https://www.colliertownship.net/231/Brigadier-General-John-Neville
- Britain in the wars with France – 1793 – 1815. (2013, February 1). Historia Nerdicus. https://historianerdicus.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/britain-in-the-wars-with-france-1793-1815/
- DuVal, K. (2017, May 31). The birth of American nationalism. WSJ. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-birth-of-american-nationalism-1496269763
- Whiskey Rebellion. (n.d.). George Washington’s Mount Vernon. https://www.mountvernon.org/educational-resources/encyclopedia/whiskey-rebellion
John Adams (1797-1801) would follow George Washington
John Quincy Adams (1825 – 1829) was the first President after the founders and would precede the transformative Andrew Jackson (1829 – 1837)
Zachary Taylor (1849 – 1850) would assume the presidency after the Mexican War
Andrew Johnson (1865 – 1869) would assume the presidency after the assassination Abraham Lincoln (1861 – 1865)
Grover Cleveland (1885 – 1889) and would assume the presidency again from 1893-1897
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Harry Truman (1945 – 1953) would assume the presidency after the death of the iconic FDR (1933 – 1945)
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.