A More Perfect Union
Watch our animated presentation of George Washington and the forming of the U.S. Constitution.
Unanimously elected President of the United States twice, George Washington played an essential part in shaping the role and function of the President of the United States.
George Washington is the only US president to have never occupied the White House. In New York and then later in Philadelphia, the Washingtons occupied a series of grand houses, where they received members of Congress, officials, foreign dignitaries, and other prominent people according to a standing weekly schedule.
In July 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act which called for the permanent capital of the United States to be located on the Potomac River (the future Washington D.C.). President Washington personally overlooked the building of what he once termed "the seat of Empire." He specified the location of the ten-mile square federal district, the President's mansion (the White House), and the Capitol.
Washington involved himself in almost all aspects of the project, even after his retirement from the presidency in 1797.
While the Constitution calls for the creation of executive departments, it only explained that the heads of executive departments were unelected officials who had to answer to the president. Washington defined how these roles would function.
While the current presidential cabinet includes sixteen members (fifteen heads of executive agencies and the vice president), Washington’s cabinet included just four original members: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. Washington set the precedence for how these roles would interact with the presidency, establishing the cabinet as the chief executive’s private, trusted advisors. Further, Washington sought to include multiple perspectives in the cabinet, perhaps best exhibited by the political spectrum ranging from Hamilton to Jefferson.
While variance helped ensure that differing ideas would be aired, it also created tensions, particularly regarding debates over the establishment of a national bank. As Jefferson himself admitted, "Hamilton and myself were daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks.” Despite the harsh disagreements, Jefferson believed that the tone had little impact on quality of governance, explaining that "The pain was for Hamilton and myself, but the public experienced no inconvenience."
On May 31, 1790, President Washington signed the Copyright Act of 1790 into law. Formally titled, “An act for the encouragement of learning by securing the copies of maps, charts, and books, to the authors and proprietors of such copies, during the times therein mentioned,” the legislation was the first law protecting copyright in the United States. The act explained that it intended to protect “the author and authors of any map, chart, book or books already printed within these United States,” and that authors would “have the sole right and liberty of printing, reprinting, publishing and vending such map, chart, book or books.” Copies of the law bearing Washington’s signature were re-printed in newspapers throughout the country.
Washington was concerned that the presidents of the Confederation Congress had been overwhelmed by visitors in the past. As a result, during the presidency Washington set aside the late afternoon for meetings with the public and evenings for dinner parties with invited guests. On Tuesday afternoons Washington received male callers from three until four o'clock in the afternoon. The reception was a series of gentlemanly introductions and greetings where Washington was visited in a formal manner as President of the United States. Friday evenings included both women and men and were less formal affairs featuring interaction with colleagues and other politicians.
Days of thanksgiving were celebrated since the beginning of European settlement in North America. In 1789, President Washington formalized the holiday by issuing a proclamation designating November 26 as a national day of thanksgiving. Washington declared that the day sprung from the Almighty’s care of Americans both during and after the Revolution. The proclamation was distributed to state governors, requesting that they announce and observe the day within their states. Newspapers subsequently published the proclamation and celebrations were held throughout the United States. Washington himself marked the day by attending services at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City, and subsequently donating beer and food to imprisoned debtors in the city.
Suffering under a heavy debt load originating from the American Revolution, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in January 1791 proposed to Congress an excise tax “upon spirits distilled within the United States.” This tax, which was passed into law in March 1791, was angrily opposed by many Americans living in Western Pennsylvania. Many of these frontier citizens relied heavily on distilled spirits for income and violently opposed this tax. Attempts to end the uprising peacefully were rejected by the growing opposition.
By 1794 the Whiskey Rebellion threatened the stability of the new United States and challenged the authority of the democratically-elected federal government. President Washington organized a militia force of 12,950 men and personally led them towards Western Pennsylvania, warning locals "not to abet, aid, or comfort the Insurgents aforesaid, as they will answer the contrary at their peril." The calling of the militia had the desired effect of essentially ending the Whiskey Rebellion. By the time the militia reached Pittsburgh, the rebels had dispersed and could not be found. The militia apprehended approximately 150 men and tried them for treason. Limited evidence and the inability to obtain witnesses hampered the trials. Two men, John Mitchell and Philip Weigel, were found guilty of treason, though both were pardoned by President Washington. George Washington's firm actions during this crisis served to build the strength and authority of the new federal government.
Washington rejected both pieces of legislation based on ideological concerns and in each instance Congress was unable to overturn the veto. The first bill that Washington vetoed was the Apportionment Bill of April 5, 1792 which aimed at providing guidelines for the number of congressional representatives based on the results of 1790 census. Washington vetoed the legislation based on constitutional concerns, believing that the law would not divide each state’s population evenly when determining representation. Further, Washington argued that the law had unfairly “allotted to eight of the States, more than one [representative] for thirty thousand,” potentially creating an imbalance in power.
On February 28, 1797 (shortly before leaving office), Washington vetoed a bill aimed at cutting the size and cost of the military. The veto was utilized based on the advice of Secretary of War James McHenry and was policy-driven, objecting to one specific provision that dissolved two companies of light cavalry.
On August 18, 1790, congregants of the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island, warmly welcomed George Washington to both their place of worship and their city. Washington’s letter of response to the synagogue, delivered on the same day, has become famous for reinforcing the ideal of religious liberty in American life. Washington promised the synagogue more than mere religious tolerance, explaining that "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights." The letter continued with the promise that "the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support." Washington's remarks established a precedent for protecting religious liberty and pluralism in the United States that persists to this day.
Washington’s second inaugural, delivered March 4, 1793, clocked in at less than two minutes and was only 135 words in length. The text of that ever-so-brief address reads:
“I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.”
“ Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.”
Washington’s Farewell Address, which warned against “the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party,” encouraged a focus on education and morality, cautioned against sectionalism within the nation, and admonished against entangling foreign alliances, has continued to have influence over American culture and political debates long past when it was first published.
In the midst of the Civil War, on February 19, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling on Americans to mark Washington’s birthday. Lincoln “recommended to the people of the United States that they assemble in their customary places of meeting for public solemnities on the 22d day of February” to “celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the Father of his Country by causing to be read to them his immortal Farewell Address.”
Since 1896, the United States Senate has commemorated Washington’s birthday with an annual reading of the Farewell Address, all 7,641 words, by a selected sitting Senator. At the conclusion of the reading, the chosen Senator signs and writes his or her thoughts on the significance of the address in the pages of a leather-bound book that is maintained by the Secretary of the Senate.
Judiciary Act of 1789
Established a 6-member Supreme Court and the position of Attorney General
Naturalization Act of 1790
Established rules to be followed in granting national citizenship
Residence Act of 1790
Directed that the permanent federal capital be positioned along the Potomac River near Georgetown - the future Washington DC.
Copyright Act of 1790
The first federal copyright legislation designed for the “encouragement of learning.”
Bank Act of 1791
Created the First Bank of the United States
Excise Tax on Whiskey 1791
This measure levied a federal tax on domestic and imported alcohol, earmarked to offset a portion of the federal government’s recent assumption of state debts. This highly unpopular tax led to the Whiskey Rebellion.
Coinage Act of 1792
Created the United States Mint and the Dollar as our official currency.
Militia Acts of 1792
Two acts that allowed the President to call out the militia when threatened by foreign or domestic threats and created a more uniform and regulated militia structure.
Fugitive Slave Act of 1793
Made it a federal crime to assist an escaping slave and created a system that would return escaped slaves to their masters.
Naval Act of 1794
Ordered that six frigates be built (ex. USS Constitution) and created the United States Navy.
Slave Trade Act of 1794
This law restricted American ships from participating in the Atlantic slave trade.
Jay Treaty (1795)
Normalized trade relations with Great Britain, removed British forts along the western frontier of the United States, and resolved various debt related issues with Great Britain.
Pinckney's Treaty (1795)
This treaty of friendship with Spain also helped to clarify the borders between US and Spanish held territories in North America and opened the Mississippi River to American commerce.
Treaty of Tripoli (1796)
Agreement to pay a yearly tribute to the Pasha of Tripoli in exchange for free, unmolested access to Mediterranean shipping lanes.
North Carolina (1789)
Rhode Island (1790)