It was not a political difference of opinion; rather, it was a political war. It was a classic case of the younger generation taking on the older generation, or the outsiders versus the establishment. Being politics, it got nasty at times. One was a divider, while the other was a uniter.
In our times, we often hear of the politicians who are running against Washington. In this case, this politician was literally running against Washington. This was the political battle of wills between two Virginians—George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Although their countenances reside peacefully together on Mount Rushmore, and although their fingerprints can be found on many of the founding documents and ideas, and although their names are on cities and counties across the country, Washington and Jefferson feuded over political visions.
George Washington was the master of political warfare using few or no words. Some say it was Washington’s awkwardness over dental problems that kept him quiet. In an age of political rhetoric that put such Virginians as Patrick Henry to the forefront, Washington’s political skills were honed apart from the speaker’s lectern.
His main battleground for learning about politics was actually the battlefield. The darkest days of his Revolutionary War experiences were during the long, cold winter when his army was freezing, sick, and hungry at Valley Forge. But neither the elements nor the British army were his greatest threat. Rather, it was the opposition of generals and others wanting to remove him from office.
While Washington is ranked highly among the greatest of generals, battlefield victories most often eluded him. His main success during his six years of waging war in the fields was in avoiding total defeat and holding at least a semblance of an army together. In contrast, General Horatio Gates had commanded an army that actually won a great victory at Saratoga. Dissatisfied subordinates, a few members of the Continental Congress, and other critics lobbied secretly to put Gates in Washington’s position.
The Continental Congress during the Revolution was largely incompetent in effecting policy. Thankfully, Washington outwitted his opponents and prevented the Congress from losing the war by sacking the Father of Our Country. When the war ended, another movement in a different direction threatened the country‘s political future. Officers of the Continental army, disgusted at receiving no pay and little gratitude from the Continental Congress, conspired to make Washington head of a movement to take control of the country.
Known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, Washington addressed the group who were ready, in effect, to make him king or dictator for life. His speech to the eager officers began with his unfolding of a letter from the Continental Congress. Then, in an action of pure theater, Washington paused, fumbled in his pockets, and said, “Gentlemen, you will forgive me for putting on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.”
That small act, which left his hearers in tears, saved America from a political dictatorship. Granted, Washington would have been an effective and benevolent dictator, but had the country started under military rule by force, the rest of our history would have been radically different and much worse.
From there, Washington went on to shock the world when he presented his sword to the President of the Continental Congress and retired to his farm at Mount Vernon. King George III reportedly said that if Washington actually stepped aside from his position of military leadership and became a private citizen, then he was truly the greatest man in the world. He did exactly that.
Later, as political troubles threatened the newly created country, Washington gave his assent to the meeting where the Constitution was written. It was there that he was chosen to preside over the long, hot summer of meetings in Philadelphia. It was his presence, more than anything else, that gave the delegates a model for what the Presidency would look like.
If ever the United States was almost totally united, it was when Washington was chosen to be the first President. He was reluctant to take office due to age and health. It is surprising for us to realize that he was only fifty-seven years old at the time, his years of warfare and labor had exacted a great toll on his body. His expectation was to serve as President for only one term.
At that time, the nation would have gladly offered the job to Washington for life. Although political polling is a modern device, it appears that Washington’s high approval ratings plummeted during the next eight years.
When he became President, Washington took the four brief paragraphs of Sections 2 and 3 of Article 2 of the Constitution and fashioned the office of the Chief Executive of the United States. He found the middle ground between an unrestrained one-man rule and a mere figurehead. He took the phrase about “the principal Officer in each of the Executive Departments” and created the Cabinet.
Washington’s first Cabinet spoke volumes of his political wisdom. Although weighted with two Virginians and two former officers from the war, it was both balanced and brilliant. The two greatest lights were Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Virginian, who served as Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, a former officer and protégé, who served as Secretary of the Treasury. Only a Washington could have taken these two highly ambitious, strong-willed, geniuses on opposite sides of political theories and use them effectively for governing.
Washington depended upon his Cabinet member’s advice and even their political clashes to extract wisdom from both sides. Also, it was a benefit that the leader in the House of Representatives was yet another Virginian and Washington supporter, James Madison.
Harmony doesn’t tend to last long in politics. Alliances form, break, and reform with political tides. Since we tend not to learn from history, we often assume that our times are defining of political differences and harsh rhetoric in the political processes. But Washington’s Cabinet resulted in lots of strife, and, in time, strong opposition to Washington himself.
Factions, already in bud form before the Constitution, came to full bloom as Washington led the country through the early years of our republic. The main rift was between Hamilton and Jefferson. Although Washington was never Hamilton’s man, nor was Hamilton ever a pawn for Washington, they were often drawn together in political battles.
On the other side was Jefferson, and in time, James Madison became his right-hand man. One of the earliest battles was over foreign policy. The issue was America’s great benefactor in the War for Independence—the nation of France.
A revolution hit France in 1789, the same year that the Constitution of the United States took effect. In the late 1700’s, both the United States and France experienced revolutions. In both, a king was opposed for being a tyrant. In both, declarations proclaiming liberty and rights were published. In both, change was in the air.
Yet the many similarities between the revolutions in the two countries did not hide the philosophical differences at the root or foundational levels. Some historians have opted to call the American events a Conservative Revolution or a Counter-Revolution. In contrast, the French Revolution would lead in the short term to the terrors of the guillotine and in time to the dictatorship of Napoleon. Washington opposed the dark side of Enlightenment philosophies at work in France. Jefferson, in contrast, hailed the events there.
Along with this major difference, Jefferson chafed against Washington and Hamilton’s economic policies, especially the formation of the Bank of the United States. Great statesman that he was, Jefferson was a sneaky political fighter. He hired Philip Freneau to publish a newspaper, The National Gazette, which railed against Washington. Freneau also worked for the State Department under Jefferson, an unusual conflict of interest.
After eight years of being President, it was a relief to Washington to be able to leave the burdens of office and go home to his farm. Jefferson was able to turn his political fire against his former friend John Adams.
With the passage of time, the political fires of that age have left us, and we can honor many of the political rivals of that time. They were not perfect, but each contributed to the nation and earned our gratitude. None, however, deserve greater honor than Washington himself.