The Indispensable Man
By Monte Melnick
The first fifteen years of the United States proved to be a very precarious time. The new government had trouble creating a stable country. Domestic threats and foreign threats endangered the young nation. Many wondered if the freedom they had fought for would be preserved or destroyed. Luckily the president at that time was a man named George Washington. As the first President of the United States of America, Washington succeeded in a position that no else had ever been in. Not only did he manage to keep the country in a stable position, but he also set precedents in doing so. Washington’s crucial decisions during this time helped create the role of the President. A leader who acted with the best intentions for the country they served. It was because of virtues of Washington’s character that he was best suited for this role. Washington’s character made him the indispensable leader.
There are several qualities that made George Washington into the man he was. Examples of these qualities can be found in many decisions he made throughout his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and as President. Washington was a heroic man. As a general of the Continental Army Washington often rode with his troops along the front lines and rallied them during decisive battles. One such occurrence was before the Battle of Trenton. In December of 1776, Washington personally led his troops across the icy Delaware River into New Jersey on a surprise attack on a Hessian outpost. Upon reaching the shore near Trenton, Washington looked back at his army assuring himself “his army was here, had made it across without accident, without a single man lost,” (Shaara 144). This victory secured new supplies and more importantly a better morale for the untrained troops. Washington was also experienced when it came to military matters. His knowledge came from his experience. Because he had fought during the French Indian War and proved to be skilled in commanding troops he was chosen as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Like any good General, Washington knew military tactics; he realized how the large British army could have trouble mobilizing and knew how to exploit this weakness. Another important quality Washington possessed was fair-mindedness. Washington took a moderate position on decisions often until he knew everything about that situation. He never acted in haste. When French revolutionary Edmond Genêt attempted to undermine the United States by establishing Jacobin Clubs, Washington didn’t make the wrong decision. Instead of creating a diplomatic faux pas by sending Genêt back to France, he instead invited him to stay as a private citizen. Washington was also a very wise leader; he knew that he could form an alliance with either Britain or France during the 1790’s. It was too dangerous to side with one or the other because of the political turmoil in Europe. So instead he crafted the United States to follow on a strict path of neutrality. Although it took several years for both nations to acknowledge the United States’ neutrality, Washington’s position for the country paid off and set the precedent for another 150 years.
During the years of Washington’s presidency, the relationship between the different branches of government was slightly unstable. Political ideologies often interfered with the development of the new government. Fortunately, as president, George Washington was able to relieve some of the tension between political groups. Washington’s attempts to do so created the way subsequent administrations dealt with problems. As president, he often went to congress to discuss proposed treaties with the senate. One such treaty regarded the Native Americans on the western frontier. The Senate questioned him on the treaty which was not expected by Washington and he vowed never to return to congress to get approval form them again. From then on, presidents made many decisions without congressional approval beforehand. Washington also fended off attempts by Congress to increase its power at the expense of the executive branch. Congress originally wanted the heads of the executive departments to report directly to congress because congress had created them. Washington wanted the department heads to report to him, because they were part of the executive branch. Another problem Washington faced was the relationship between various members of his cabinet. The Secretary of the Treasury at the time was Alexander Hamilton, a federalist who believed in a strong commercially based central government. The Secretary of State during that time was Thomas Jefferson, an anti-federalist who believed in an agricultural based government. The two often had trouble co-existing as advisors to Washington and their ideas came as complete extremes to one another. One such argument that the two had was over the creation of a national bank. Hamilton strongly tried to convince Washington of a national bank and Jefferson opposed it. Washington, trying to be mindful of the Constitution, at first planned to veto the bank bill as unconstitutional. But Hamilton brought Washington around to his point of view. Washington tried to best decide whether he would rule the country based on a loose or strict view of the Constitution.
Washington also had to deal with the settlers of the western frontier of the United States. The new government had to establish authority in the Ohio River Valley and secure the land there. So with the help of Alexander Hamilton, Washington issued the Whiskey tax. This tax could help raise revenue for the government, but more importantly it could control westward expansion. The settlers in the west were outraged at the tax and they staged protests and attacked federal tax collectors. So in the fall of 1794, Washington sent an army to western Pennsylvania to quell the rebellion. The military exercise was just a show of force, and there was no real fighting. In the short term the army spent so much money in the area that the whiskey distillers came up with enough money to pay the tax. In the long term the federal government showed it was able to enforce it’s authority.
Washington’s administration also struggled with being a neutral nation in world politics. The larger nations of Britain, France, and Spain were bossing the young United States around. In the early 1790’s French and British ships would attack or seize American boats throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean. Both nations, at any time wanted the United States to side with them and forced the issue of an alliance. In 1794, Washington urged Congress to create a navy and the construction of ships for a navy. After the navy was created the British backed down on seizing ships in the Caribbean. Washington then sent representatives to Britain and Spain to negotiate their presence in North America. These treaties Jay’s Treaty and Pinckney’s Treaty increased the land area for the United States.
If Washington had not been elected as president, the United States would have been formed much differently. Washington’s presidency served as a model to all future administrations. His character helped him make the most appropriate decisions during his administration. He realized he had to guide the nation in its formative years. He also knew that the key to creating a strong government was to make a stable one. So Washington used the idea ‘the key to stability is neutrality’ during those precarious times. Washington kept the country in a neutral position and helped it develop. In doing so, George Washington was essential to the government, he was the indispensable man.
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"Qualities of Mind & Character." Rediscovering George Washington. PBS. Nov.-Dec. <http://www.pbs.org/georgewashington/index.html>.
Shaara, Jeff. The Glorious Cause: A Novel of the American Revolution. New York: Ballatine Group, 2002.
"George Washington." American President. University of Virginia: Miller Center of Public Affairs. Nov.-Dec. 2005 <http://www.americanpresident.org/history/GeorgeWashington/>.