*George Washington saw many great events during his presidency, including the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, in 1791.  Twelve amendments had been proposed, but only ten passed at the time.  One of them would later become the XXVII Amendment in 1992 and regulate the pay of Congressmen.

*Just as President Washington had problems at home with the Whiskey Rebellion and constant arguments among his own cabinet members, he also 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) enters 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.  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 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 US into a European war for which we were not prepared.  Even Jefferson and Madison grew weary of him quickly, and he was stripped of his post.

*There are problems with Britain, too.  As mentioned before, the British are outfitting Indians in the Northwest and encouraging them to attack American settlements and military units.  This is the time of St. Clair’s defeat, Mad Anthony Wayne’s victory at Fallen Timbers, and the Treaty of Greenville.

*Britain also maintains some of her forts in the old northwest, despite being required by the Peace of Paris to withdraw.  The US and UK also debate the exact border of the US and Canada and the right to navigate the Mississippi River.

*Worst of all are Britain’s depredations on the high seas.  Regarding America as an ally of France, the Royal Navy seizes about 300 American merchant ships and impresses numerous American sailors.

*To address some of these problems, John Jay concluded a treaty with Great Britain in 1794.  According to the treaty, the boundary of the US and Canada would be worked out by a joint commission, the US 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 they would pay damages for their harassment of American shipping.  It makes no promises about the future treatment of American shipping, though, nor does it give any assurance against future Indian attacks.  Britain will receive most-favoured nation status.  Furthermore, America agrees to pay back all the money owed to British merchants and other creditors from before 1783.  

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

*Washington supports the treaty despite its unpopularity, because he has 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 most of Jay’s treaties.

*Shortly before the election of 1796, George Washington let it be known 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 old, tired, suffering from riding injuries, sick of politics, and ready to go home.

*Tired, old, sick after a horse riding injury, and weary of the bickering among Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and others, Washington announced shortly before the election of 1796, on 19 September, 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.  Only two presidents have tried to break this:  Theodore Roosevelt, who failed, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who won four terms.  After FDR’s death in office, however, the tradition was made law through the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution.  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 alliances with foreign nations that might draw the US into war (but not all alliances—he just wanted the US 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.  Their constant disagreement would lead to the XII Amendment’s creation.


This page last updated 15 September, 2003.