On three ways in which our first president’s second term set precedents for his successors.
George Washington was reeelected unanimously (and unopposed) in 1792, the last time a president ran uncontested, but much of his second term was dominated by unexpected crises and scandals. That included the unfolding effects of the French Revolution and the related European wars, about which I’ll write more below; but no event was more striking and significant than the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. Tensions had been boiling over since Washington and his Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton instituted a new whiskey excise in 1791, and came to a head three years later when a group of Pennsylvania farmers destroyed a tax inspector’s home and began armed resistance against the federal government. When diplomatic resolutions failed and Hamilton led a military force (of 13,000 militia men) against American citizens, it became clear that Washington’s honeymoon period was over; the presidency and government had become the controversial and debated entities that they have remained ever since.
Striking as the Whiskey Rebellion was, it paled in comparison to the domestic rebellion across the pond, the event that dominated the world’s headlines throughout the decade: the French Revolution. That event, and the war between France and England that followed it, threw a number of unexpected twists into Washington’s presidency, including the seditious efforts of French ambassador Edmond-Charles “Citizen” Genêt, who attempted to gain popular support for the French government in direct opposition to Washington’s neutrality. But these international threats allow led Washington to strive for the kinds of ambitious successes toward which many subsequent second-term presidents have worked; in this case, that meant treaties which would strengthen America’s international relationships and make the new nation more formidable on the world stage. As would always be the case, the popular responses to those ambitious efforts were mixed: the 1795 Jay Treaty with Britain was widely condemned by the opposing Democrat-Republican Party, while the same year’s Treaty of San Lorenzo (known here as Pinckney’s Treaty) with Spain was seen as a coup for Washington.
Despite these ambitious treaties, or perhaps because of the wars and threats which necessitated them, Washington was very worried about international affairs, and dwelt at length on their dangers in another precedent-setting event: his 1796 farewell address to the nation. In that lengthy text, which he did not deliver but had published in newspapers, Washington reflected on what he had learned in his eight years in office, praised the best of American life and society and warned of its worst tendencies (particularly in the form of political parties, above which the no-longer-running-for-office Washington could now safely stand), and departed the national scene with a few final words of wisdom. Given that term limits had not been established, and that Washington could have run for a third term had he chosen, this farewell address reflects a clear choice on the first president’s part, a decision to end his administration on his own terms and to do so while seeking to influence the subsequent administrations and centuries of American life. It’s fair to say that every departing president since has tried to do the same, one more way in which Washington got our traditions started.
Next second term tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Takes on Washington, or any other president’s second term?
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