The Federalist Republic
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The ratification of the Constitution launched a new experiment in government. The men who had brought about the Revolution, the Confederation, and the Constitution now had to make a success of the new republic. George Washington took stock of his political and economic inheritance when he reached New York in late April of 1789 to be inaugurated: the old Confederation had bequeathed to him a foreign office headed by John Jay, assisted by three clerks; a diplomatic corps consisting of John Adams in London and Thomas Jefferson in Paris; a Treasury Board without funds; a War Secretary who supervised an 840-man army; a staff of twelve clerks who wondered when they would next be paid; a vast, uncertain debt; a minuscule revenue; and no credit. During the first decade of the new federal government's tenure, this unlikely inheritance was transformed into a working and durable republic.
Washington And The New Republic
The census of 1790 indicated that there were now almost 4,000,000 Americans, all but a few of whom resided within a hundred miles of the Atlantic seaboard. But already the restless pioneer had breached the Allegheny Mountains. By 1796, the original thirteen states had been joined by Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792), and Tennessee (1796). The virtually imperial domain of the United States was bounded on the north by the uncertain border with Canada, and on the south by the even less clearly defined boundaries of Spanish Florida and Louisiana. The West was still largely the realm of the Indian, but already the curiosity of pioneers was being stirred by rumors of untold wealth and boundless land.
Strong sectional antagonisms had developed between the staple-crop South, the commercial East, and the backwoods West. Especially aggravating to the Northern states was the constitutional provision giving the South the right to claim representation in Congress for three-fifths of its slave population. Frontiersmen viewed the new federal government with suspicion as it seemed to threaten new taxes. Despite some uneasiness over the future of a nation thus divided, no one doubted that the United States had the human and natural resources necessary for success. The problem was to mobilize these resources in support of the national interest. At this juncture, the Americans were fortunate enough to have at the helm George Washington, a man whose character seems to have had Olympian proportions.
Washington as President. No one who met Washington came away unmoved. One contemporary recalled a "tall, upright, venerable figure" characterized by "a seriousness in his manner which seemed to contribute to the impressive dignity of his person, without diminishing the confidence and ease which the benevolence of his countenance . . . inspired." He added, "So completely did he look the great and good man he really was, that I felt rather respect than awe in his presence." His prestige was a valuable asset, as was his determination "to commence the administration, upon a well adjusted system, built on tenable grounds, [rather] than to correct errors or alter inconveniences after they shall have been confirmed by habit."
A single objective governed his behavior and his administration: the happiness of his fellow citizens. Although "unpracticed in the duties of civil administration," he brought to his high office a steady practicality which "united knowledge of men and things, industry, integrity, impartiality, and firmness." He used his prestige to persuade two exceptionally able and yet very different men - Hamilton and Jefferson - to accept high office in his cabinet. And although Jefferson was eventually to leave the group, unable to accept Hamilton's pre-eminence, he remained long enough to give vital help in enabling institutions of the new government to achieve stability. "In general," Jefferson could declare as early as 1791, "our affairs are proceeding in a train of unparalleled prosperity."
By the end of his first term, Washington had succeeded in establishing three administrative departments: State, Treasury, and War, and had secured executive control of appointments to their top posts. A customs and internal revenue agency was in operation; national credit had been put on a stable basis; an effective army had been organized; a vigorous diplomatic service was stationed abroad; postal service extended to the farthest reaches of the republic; a federal judiciary enforced its decisions throughout the country. With the growing rivalry between Hamilton and Jefferson there had come into existence a vigorous, though ill-defined, party system. Washington, whose private sympathies were Federalist, insisted upon remaining aloof from partisan politics. In the formative years of the republic he made the presidency a symbol of national unity, and had established executive autonomy. Partisanship he left to others.