The Greatest Man in the World


*George Washington saw many great events during his presidency, including the ratification of the Bill of Rights, and set many precedents that would define the executive branch and shape its relationship with the other branches of the government.  However, he also had problems at home with the Whiskey Rebellion and constant arguments among his own cabinet members.  Furthermore, he faced crises in the international arena.


*France was in the throes of Revolution in the 1790s.  In 1792, just before Washington’s first term was to end, the French Revolution, already worrisome to Federalists (but still admired by Democratic-Republicans) entered what is sometimes called its Radical Phase, which is, if anything, too charitable a name for the year in which the guillotine was first used (it would be used for the last time in 1977).


*Initially many Americans supported even the Radical Phase, cheering when the armies of the French Republic repelled invasion by foreign monarchies.  Some even admired the efficient guillotine at first, as it severed the heads of oppressive nobility.  Some Americans even wore miniature guillotines as charms.  Jefferson said that this was to be expected and was a small price to pay:  after all, the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.  However, by 1793, when the Reign of Terror began in earnest and thousands were killed for any crime, real or imagined, against the Republic, even Jefferson and his friends condemned the revolution that ate its children.


*One embarrassment for the US was the Franco-American Perpetual Alliance of 1778, created just after the victory at Saratoga.  This bound the US to France, and thus opposed the US to France’s growing collection of enemies.  The Democratic-Republicans, especially early in the Revolution, wanted to honour this commitment, but the Federalists did not want to because it would cut their trade with Britain, and Washington did not want to because it would embroil the US in a costly and dangerous war.  He asserted that the treaty was between the United States and the King of France, and once the king had lost his head, the United States had no obligation to honour a treaty with the French Republic.  However, he did not want to side with anyone else, either, and in 1793 issued a neutrality proclamation, but he did so on his own, without consulting Congress, which made it a controversial action.


*France created problems in other ways, too.  Her representative, Citizen Genêt, arrived in Charleston and, feeling that most Americans disapproved of the Neutrality Proclamation, acted under the old Franco-American Alliance to outfit privateers to attack British shipping and tried to raise an army with which to invade Florida, Louisiana, and Canada.  Had he done so, he might well have drawn the United States into a European war for which America was not prepared.  Even Jefferson and Madison grew weary of him quickly, and he was stripped of his post.


*There are problems with Britain, too.  The British were still outfitting Indians in the Northwest and encouraging them to attack American settlements and military units. 


*Around 1790, Little Turtle led the Miami Confederation in attacks against the United States (which had already been fighting the Western Indian Confederation since 1785).  The Northwest Territory's Governor, General Arthur St Clair, led over 1,000 troops against them, made up of both regular US Army solders and western militia, including some from Tennessee. 


*On 4 November, 1791 they were attacked by Indians while they were eating breakfast.  Many of the militia broke and ran, and although St Clair tried to rally his men, his force was nearly annihilated.  After several failed attempts to break out with bayonet charges he finally got about a third of his force back to the safety of Fort Jefferson, but over 600 of his soldiers were killed or captured (along with about 200 women camp followers), and almost all the approximately 300 who escaped were wounded.  This 98% casualty rate in a battle in which one fourth of the entire US army was engaged, makes St Clair’s Defeat, also known as the Battle of the Wabash, the worst (proportional) defeat in the history of the US Army, and prompted the first Congressional investigation in US history (and in response, the first full cabinet meeting and the first use of executive privilege to refuse to turn executive records over the Congress).


*In response, a new unit, the Legion of the United States, was formed under General Mad Anthony Wayne.  They marched into the Ohio Valley and 3,000 of them defeated about 1,500 Indians of various western tribes (primarily Shawnee, Delaware, and Miami, many of them armed with British muskets) at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.  In 1795 the defeated tribes signed the Treaty of Greenville, giving up claims to Ohio but setting the precedent that white men had to buy land from the Indians.  However, one Shawnee war leader, Tecumseh, did not sign.


*To Federalists, Little Turtle's War was proof that a strong national government capable of supporting a strong, professional army was necessary for the security of the nation.  Democratic-Republicans, despite including many Westerners threatened by Indians, were unconvinced.


*Besides inciting Indian attacks, Britain also maintained some of her forts in the old Northwest, despite being required by the Peace of Paris to withdraw.  The British justified their breach of the treaty by citing America's failure to reimburse Loyalists for property lost during the American Revolution.


*The United States and Britain also debated the exact border of the United States and Canada and the right to navigate the Mississippi River (which was also contested with Spain).


*Worst of all are Britain’s depredations on the high seas.  Regarding America as an ally of France, the Royal Navy seized about 300 American merchant ships and impressed numerous American sailors, arguing that if they were born as British subjects, they were still subject to impressment into the British navy.


*To address some of these problems, John Jay concluded a treaty with Great Britain in 1794.  According to the treaty, the boundary of the United States and Canada would be worked out by a joint commission, the United States and Britain would share the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, the British would abandon their forts in America (but they had promised this before, and still did not honour their promise), and they would pay damages for their harassment of American shipping.  It made no promises about the future treatment of American shipping, though, nor did it give any assurance against future Indian attacks.  Britain also received favoured trading status.  Furthermore, America agreed to pay back all the money owed to British merchants and other creditors from before 1783. 


*Most of this debt belonged to Virginians and other southerners, and the South was offended by this treaty.  Furthermore, because it contained no provisions against future attacks and impressments by the Royal Navy, many people felt Jay gave away good trading rights and $2.7 million in debt for very little.


*Washington supported the treaty despite its unpopularity, because he had no desire to go to war with Great Britain, and without the treaty he thought he would eventually be forced into that.


*Another, less offensive, treaty was negotiated with Spain in 1795 by Thomas Pinckney.  Pinckney’s treaty set the border of Florida, allowed the US to use the Mississippi and to ship goods through New Orleans (until this point, many Americans chose to legally become subjects of the King of Spain for this purpose), and caused both sides to agree not to incite Indians to attack the other.  The navigation of the Mississippi was vital to western farmers, which made this more popular than the Jay Treaty.


*Westerners were increasingly important, too, as Washington had added three western states to the Union:  the Republic of Vermont (which had declared independence from Britain, New Hampshire, and New York) was admitted as a state in 1791 and Kentucky gained independence from Virginia in 1792, bringing the national flag to 15 stars and 15 stripes, as it stayed until 1818.  The Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio became the state of Tennessee in 1796, with John Sevier as governor, William Blount and William Cocke as US senators, and Andrew Jackson as Congressman (Tennessee had enough population for two congressmen, but Federalists in congress managed to limit Tennessee's delegation to one out of fear that Tennessee would vote Democratic-Republican).  Tennessee allowed all free adult property-owning men to vote, although it did not matter how much property they owned.  Even free adult Black men could vote.


*By 1796, Washington was tired, old, sick after a horse riding injury, and weary of the bickering among Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson.  So, shortly before the election of 1796, on 19 September, he announced that he would not serve as president again.  He had not wanted to in 1792, but was convinced to do so in order to have a president who stood above the bickering factions of the day.  By 1796, though, he was ready to go home.  This set the precedent that the President would not rule for life like a king, and also set the tradition that the president would only serve two terms. 


*In his Farewell Address (which was actually a letter to the American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia’s biggest newspaper), Washington said farewell to the nation, asking his people to remain united and to avoid permanent entangling alliances with foreign nations that might draw the US into war (but not all alliances—he just wanted the United States to be cautious).

*The campaign of 1796 was extremely dirty, each side slandering the other with abandon.  John Adams ultimately was selected over Thomas Jefferson by a margin of three votes (71 to 68), and Jefferson, as the runner-up, became Vice-President, leading to four years of constant disagreement.

This page last updated 8 September, 2016.
Powered by Hot Air