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
*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
*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
*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
*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.
page last updated 15 September, 2003.