[Abridged] Presidential Histories

01.) George Washington 1789-1797

March 29, 2020 Kenny Ryan Episode 1
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
01.) George Washington 1789-1797
Chapters
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
01.) George Washington 1789-1797
Mar 29, 2020 Episode 1
Kenny Ryan

Everyone knows George Washington was the first president of the United States. But that little phrase, "First president of the United States," hides a big story. Washington entered an office imbued with few clear powers or expectations and responsible for a young nation surrounded by potential enemies. Luckily for us, Washington had nerves of steel.

From his youth as a frontier warrior to his campaigns as a revolutionary general and his two terms in the White House, we'll follow Washington as he learns from his shortcomings and grows into the father of a nation.

Bibliography
1. Washington, A Life - Ron Chernow
2. Hamilton - Ron Chernow
3. John Adams - David McCullough
4. Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power - Jon Meacham
5. James Madison - Richard Brookhiser
6. The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness - Harlow G Unger
7. The Presidents Fact Book - Roger Matuz

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

Show Notes Transcript

Everyone knows George Washington was the first president of the United States. But that little phrase, "First president of the United States," hides a big story. Washington entered an office imbued with few clear powers or expectations and responsible for a young nation surrounded by potential enemies. Luckily for us, Washington had nerves of steel.

From his youth as a frontier warrior to his campaigns as a revolutionary general and his two terms in the White House, we'll follow Washington as he learns from his shortcomings and grows into the father of a nation.

Bibliography
1. Washington, A Life - Ron Chernow
2. Hamilton - Ron Chernow
3. John Adams - David McCullough
4. Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power - Jon Meacham
5. James Madison - Richard Brookhiser
6. The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness - Harlow G Unger
7. The Presidents Fact Book - Roger Matuz

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

The presidential history of the United States starts with George Washington, which is probably the one thing anybody can tell you about George Washington. That, and he had wooden teeth, and maybe something about cutting down a cherry tree.

But that simple little line, “first president of the United States,” it hides a big story. This is a guy who stepped into a role that was way different back then than it is today. Just think about it, today the United States is the most powerful country in the world, and the president is the most powerful person in that country. Everybody knows what the presidency is and what the president can do. And because the country is so powerful, the president can afford to make a few mistakes. Like, even 80 years ago, Pearl Harbor happens, we lose the Pacific Fleet, that’s terrible, but we rebuilt the fleet and won the war. 

When George Washington was elected President in 1789, he didn’t have the luxury of being allowed a few mistakes. Shoot, he didn’t even have a navy. 

In 1789, the presidency was a vaguely defined chief executive of a fractious country that was surrounded by imperial powers who would be all-too-happy to tear the “United states” apart. There was precious little room for error.

Luckily for us, George Washington was a steady, commanding presence. He’s the man who won the revolutionary war by not losing it, assembled America’s first team of rivals by appointing Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton as cabinet secretaries, and he established norms for the office that exist to today – things like executive privilege, a strong role in foreign policy, and = the peaceful transition of power.

He’s also sometimes called America’s first action hero, and you’re about to learn he’s far more interesting than a dollar-bill portrait with wooden teeth.

INTRO

George Washington was born in 1732 to a well-off, upper class Virginia plantation family and when you look at his first 20 years, there are two things that stand out. He’s a little bit entitled, and he’s a whole lot lucky in the sense that he benefits tremendously from a number of unfortunate deaths.

If that sound suspicious, it’s not suspicious.  Washington’s father died when he was 11 and his older half-brother, who he loved dearly, died nine years later when George was 20. Between these two deaths, George was left a very nice inheritance that included the plantation of Mount Vernon which he’d always call home. He also benefits when the husband of a woman named Martha Custis died, leaving her with a tremendous fortune. When Washington later met her and married her, that fortune kind of became his fortune. By age 27, Washington was tremendously wealthy.

And that maybe played a bit into the entitled part. And when I say entitled, well. Maybe that’s not the right word, but he displayed tremendous ambition in chasing lofty roles and he did things like, before meeting Martha, acting very flirtatiously with his best friend’s wife – there’s no evidence they had an affair, mind you, but it’s not how you’d want someone talking to your spouse. 

And this kind of sets up one of the most fascinating things about George Washington. He’s a man who, through the course of his life, is going to recognize his flaws and learn from them and become a better person and a better leader, which I think we all know is hard to do. When you look at the other early presidents, there’s not a lot of personality change from youth to adulthood, but there is in Washington. There is a character arc from being a bit hot headed, a bit brash, a bit vainglorious, to becoming an elder statesman who puts country before self. 

Anyway, the main point is, Washington is a rich man by the age of 27, and he’s also not the most likeable chap.

But he’s about to become internationally famous.

In 1752, when Washington was 20 years old – this is before he meets Martha, by the way. Sorry to go a little out of order – His habit of vigorously pursuing what he wanted landed him a position as the commander of one of Virginia’s military districts at a time when the British were in a bit of a feud with the French about where the border between their territories was. Today, we think of the world as a place of clearly defined maps and borders, but back in 1752, some of those borders were, well, kind of your opinion, man. Vast portions of the Americas remain unexplored. People didn’t even know Antarctica existed yet. They certainly hadn’t finalized where one nation’s claim ended and another’s began in the American backwoods.

In this setting of Britain and France feuding with each other about who owned what beyond the edge of the map, a frontier force Washington was leading ambushed a French force in quote-unquote “British territory” and killed its captain. What Washington didn’t realize was the French captain was on a diplomatic mission, and, well, you’re not supposed to kill diplomats. When France found out what had happened, it responded by declaring war on Britain. Both countries called on their allies and soon all of Europe was up in arms in a conflict that played out on a global scale. In America, we know this conflict as the French and Indian war, because that’s what the fighting looked like over here – colonists and red coats vs. the French and their native American allies, but the rest of the world knows this conflict as the 7-year’s war, and it really could be considered the first true world war. Many of those European powers had colonies, and those colonies fought each other much the same as the American colonists fought the French colonists. All told, there were battlefields on five continents. And George Washington started it all.

Atta boy, George.

A few years into this war, Washington found himself in the midst of the action again when a British army landed in America to drive French out of the Ohio valley. The British general was a man named Edward Braddock and he hired Washington on as an aide. Since Washington was a local who knew the region well, he expected this position to come with a lot of influence, but Braddock kind of ignored him. There were probably two reasons for this. 1.) The American colonists were sorta viewed as backwoods yokels by many back in England – in fact, the British military had a policy that only men born in great Britain could lead their troops, and 2.) Washington had already fought a battle in this war that I skipped over and been soundly defeated, so it’s not likely he had a reputation as someone who knew how to win. The thing is, Braddock didn’t exactly know how to win, either, and his army was soon ambushed and he was killed in a battle that went all sorts of bad for the British, but also launched the Washington legend. Washington was actually bedridden with sickness when the battle began, but when word came that Braddock had been killed, he leapt out of bed and into the saddle. He rallied the army’s survivors to form a rear guard that allowed the rest to escape. Washington had two horses shot out from under him during this fighting and left the battle with bullet holes in his clothing, but was never hit himself, which led to the Indian chief in this battle reportedly later saying the Great spirit was clearly protecting Washington, and “He will become the chief of nations, and a people yet unborn, will hail him as the father of a mighty empire!” Which, as far as prophesies go, not bad.

Washington showed all the cockiness of a modern action hero after this fight. In a letter to a friend, he wrote the bullets flying past his ears had sounded like music. 

This experience had a huge impact on Washington’s life for a two big reasons. First, the fact that Washington had actually seen a battlefield and kept his cool when the bullets started flying would one day contribute to him being named commander in chief of the revolutionary army. Second, the callous way Braddock had ignored him and bruised his ego might have been one of the first grievances that put Washington on the path to becoming a revolutionary. Who knows, if Braddock had treated Washington with more esteem, he might have fought on the loyalist side of the revolution.

Let’s fast forward 20 years to the summer of 1775. This is the start of the revolution. The past 10 years had been marked by increasingly harsh British taxes and increasingly violent American protests. To recap it quickly, you had the Stamp Acts in 1765, that was a tax on the stamps that all legal documents needed to be considered official. Then you had the Boston Massacre in 1770, we’ll hear a lot more about that in John Adams’ episode.. The Boston Tea Party was 1773, then the British passed a series of taxes the colonists dubbed the Intolerable Acts in 1774, and then you had the shot heard around the world in early 1775 – that’s when British troops marched the small towns of Lexington and Concord to secure some arms that were stored there and the colonial militia gathered to stop them and both sides opened fire.

So by the summer of 1775, things were getting mighty hot.

Washington has largely been on the periphery the past 20 years – he was in the loop, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and an attendee at the first continental Congresses, but he wasn’t the star of the show. That’s about the change. The Second Continental Congress had just been called into session in 1775 and it needed a general to lead the revolutionary army that was gathering outside Boston, which was basically British HQ, and it also needed Virginia, the largest, wealthiest, and most-influential of the colonies, to get with the program and really throw its lot in with the revolution. Sure, Virginia had been sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, but most of the action had been happening way up in Boston and did Virginia really care about Massachusetts?

That’s the backdrop when George Washington, who remember, is from Virginia, showed up to the second continental Congress – I kid you not – dressed in a brand new military officer’s uniform he had just bought himself.

Revolutionary leaders of the Continental Congress realized that Virginia would be more likely to support the revolution if prominent Virginians were given starring roles in the show, and seeing a prominent Virginian sitting in the back of the room dressed as a general, well, why not put that guy in charge of the army? That’s when John Adams, a leading voice for independence and  future American president, nominated George Washington to lead the revolutionary army. The convention unanimously approved the decision the next day. It probably helped that Washington swore off ever collecting a salary. Because, you know, he was already super rich.

Just like that, 43-year-old George Washington and his fancy new uniform walked into one of the most difficult life or death situations any American has ever faced. 

The revolutionary army was camped outside British-occupied Boston and in a sorry state when Washington arrived in the winter of 1775. Most Americans weren’t sure the revolution would succeed. Some weren’t sure they wanted it to – there were still significant numbers of royalists in the colonies. And if the revolution failed, you can bet leading the army would put Washington at the front of the line for getting his head chopped off.

But when folks are a little desperate, they can sometimes get a lot creative. Benedict Arnold, who would later famously commit treason, but who was currently one of the revolution’s better military leaders, captured some cannons from a British wilderness fort in upstate New York and General Washington had a colonel named Henry Knox, drag the cannons through the snow to his base outside Boston. Then, working hastily overnight, Washington fortified the cannons on some hills overlooking Boston harbor. When the British woke up in the morning, they were shocked to realize the city that had once been their fortress might now become their tomb. Washington’s cannons could shell the British fleet at will, and they couldn’t be destroyed without risking significant casualties in a frontal assault on Washington’s position. If the British didn’t vamoose in a hurry, their fleet would be destroyed.

And so they fled.

It was the first of three brilliant accomplishments Washington would achieve during the Revolutionary war. Unfortunately for Washington, most of the rest of the war was going to be a really bad time.

Everyone suspected the British, having fled Boston, would hit back by attacking New York for three reasons: First, it was one of America’s biggest cities, second, Manhattan Island would be easier to defend than Boston, and third, its harbor could serve as an launching point for future British operations. Washington’s army made it to New York first, but the British arrived soon after and promptly chased him right off Manhattan and pursued him through the winter across New Jersey. It looked to all the world like Boston had been a fluke and the revolution was about to die when Washington manage another spectacular victory on a cold Christmas night in 1776. Suspecting his pursuers had slowed to celebrate the Christmas holiday, Washington turned his army around and attacked a mercenary garrison at Trenton the morning of Dec. 26. Have you ever seen that famous painting of Washington on a boat in an icy river? If not, google the crossing of the Delaware. That is this moment. 

The surprise attack was a resounding success. The Americans lost only 2 two men and killed or captured nearly a thousand mercenaries. Even more importantly, the victory convinced European investors that the American cause was a cause worth investing in – they had been about to cut bait and cut credit, and no money would have meant no war.

International support was secure, but American victory was still a long way off. If Boston Harbor and Trenton were Luke blowing up the death star, most of the next five years were The Empire Strikes back, complete with a lot of miserable snowy conditions, such as the famously harsh winter at Valley Forge. 

These winters were made all the more difficult by the fact that Congress was never able to secure the funds or supplies the army needed. Remember, this whole war had started with a protest over taxation, so Congress certainly couldn’t impose taxes harsher than what the British had done, even if the money was badly needed. As a result, Washington and his army froze and starved as nearby farmers refused to supply them for free and sold their crops to the British army instead. This experience, seeing men freeze to death because the government wasn’t able to raise money, led Washington and many of the army’s officers to develop an appreciation for strong, central government that will become important when the war is over. 

But if Washington had one super power as a general, it was his ability to hold an army together. Washington only took the field against the British if he had to or if the opportunity seemed ripe. He knew that if he lost his army, he lost the war, but as long as he had an army in the field … the British would never be able to pack up and declare victory. And so, as they say in the movie Dodgeball, he dodged, ducked, dipped, dove, and dodged British forces through a majority of the revolution until, in 1781, the French sent a navy that trapped a British army at Yorktown, and Washington marched his men down from New Jersey to besiege the city and accept its surrender.

And with that victory at York Town, Washington’s third key win of the war, American independence was won.

But George Washington wasn’t president yet. In fact, the office of president didn’t even exist yet. It’s only 1781. Washington won’t be elected president for another eight years.

So what happens in that time? Well, the first big news was Washington went home to retire, which is a really big deal. Remember, there are no major democracies in the world yet. Europe is ruled by Kings and Emperors, and most of human history to this point said that when you win a war, if you’re the general, you declare yourself king. It says a LOT about his character, and how much his youthful ambition had cooled, that he didn’t ask to be named king. And there were people who wanted him to ask! Instead, he retired back to his home at Mount Vernon in Virginia and operated his plantation in peace.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, a new American government formed under the articles of confederation. This loose union of states was led by a single house of congress where every state had only one vote. There was no president, no supreme court, no power to raise taxes, and no power to do much of anything unless nine out of 13 states agreed and, well, how often do you think that happened? 

Within six years, the articles of confederation were clearly a failure, and a new convention was called to fix them up a little. Alexander Hamilton, a brilliant and prominent revolutionary war Aide to Washington who would later inspire a fantastic hip hop opera, was one of the driving forces behind this convention. As was James Madison, a future president who had basically spent his whole life daydreaming about what the perfect government would look like. Hamilton and Madison knew the convention would need legitimacy to make the sweeping changes they secretly had in mind, so Hamilton decided to borrow some of Washington’s and set about recruiting him to preside over the convention as, well, president of the constitutional convention. Washington agreed. And though he largely stayed silent during the proceedings, his clout was tremendously important in getting the resulting constitution to stick – and it’s still that same constitution that we live under today.

And what did that constitution offer? Hopefully this sounds familiar. A congress with two chambers – a lower house and an upper senate – a judiciary that, well, didn’t have much a defined role at the time, but would claim a huge role later – and a presidency. The so-called executive office. And everyone in America knew there was only one man who could fill that office.

George Washington.

And so, on April 30, 1789, a 56-year-old George Washington, the revolutionary war hero who had hung up his spurs after winning the war, was sworn in as the United States of America’s first president, and he reported to the nation’s capital in New York City – yup, New York City – to assume the presidency.

So what did the United States, and the world, look like when Washington became president? Let’s take a quick look.

On April 30, 1789, the United States was composed of 11 states – You’re probably thinking, I thought there were 13 colonies? Yes, but North Carolina and Rhode Island still hadn’t ratified the constitution yet. They would formally join within the next year. 

The nation’s territory stretched from roughly the same northeastern boundaries we have today, albeit with British Canada across the border, to Florida in the south and the Mississippi river in the west. Florida and the land west of the Mississippi were controlled by Spain. And you might be thinking, wait, doesn’t America buy the Louisiana territory from France? Yes, it will, but France doesn’t own that land yet. It will take the Napoleonic wars for that to happen, and those are coming soon. Don’t you worry.

Within the United States’ territory, much of the land west of the Appalachian mountains became federal land to be settled and converted to new states at a later date.

What about the international situation?

Overseas, way overseas, China and Japan were ruled by Emperors. Europe was a collection of monarchies. King George the 3rd, the villain of American independence, still sat on the English throne, and French King Louise the 16th, the savior of American Independence, sat on the French throne.

But that would hold true for just another four years. King Louise would be deposed and killed by the French revolution early in Washington’s second term, and it would have a major impact on American politics, and the world, for decades after.

This was the world that greeted Washington. And well, the first question was, well, what does a president do, anyway?

It may seem like a silly question today, but remember, we have 230 years of American history to draw from to look at and say, ‘Oh, THAT’s what a president does.” All George Washington had to go by was a new-fangled constitution and, to put it nicely, the constitution had a LOT of gray area in it. It wasn’t clear yet what the limitations of the president’s power were, or even how he should be addressed. One of the first debates of the first congress was if the president should be introduced as Mr. President, or something a little fancier, like “His highness, the president of the united states, and protector of the rights of the same,” which was Vice President John Adams’ idea. Thankfully, they went with, “Mr. President.”

So, charting his way through this unknown thing called “The presidency,” Washington got permission from Congress to organize the executive office by creating several departments led by cabinet secretaries – Henry Knox, who had dragged those cannons from New York to Boston during the revolutionary war, was named secretary of war; Alexander Hamilton, the former war aide who became an architect of the Constitution, was named secretary of the treasury; and Thomas Jefferson, who had written the declaration of independence, served as ambassador to France, and, spoiler alert, would serve as America’s third president, was named secretary of state.

Though Washington didn’t know it yet, the conflicting ideologies of Hamilton and Jefferson would define the major issues of his presidency and lead to a thing Washington dreaded – the creation of America’s first political parties.

I want to take a quick aside to dwell a bit more deeply on this. Washington’s presidency will be defined by the personalities of his cabinet members more than any other presidency in the history of the United States, and the reasons why say a lot about how quickly the presidency started getting away from what the founders envisioned and how far it’s come in the 200 + years since the country’s foundation, and it starts with how elections have changed.

You’re probably familiar with modern elections. They start with a series of primaries or caucuses through the spring where a large batch of candidates go state-by-state earning delegates and narrowing the field until one candidate is clearly going to win the majority, and then that candidate is crowned their party’s nominee at the party convention in the summer. After that, the major party candidates engage in a series of debates, host a ton of rallies, and buy all sorts of advertisements on their way to election day – the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November – when the whole nation votes and learns who the winner is that night.

None of that was the case when Washington was elected president. And I mean none of it. There were no primaries, no conventions, no political parties, no popular vote, you didn’t even have a single election day. Instead, each state chose its delegates to the electoral college using a variety of methods in a process that spanned for months and then those delegates gathered as an electoral college and debated who they thought would make the best president. Each elector had two votes for two candidates. Whoever got the most votes became president and whoever got the second-most votes became vice president. In 1789, everyone knew Washington would be the president. The only campaigning that went on was an effort by Hamilton to convince delegates to cast fewer votes for John Adams, the presumptive vice president, ostensibly to make sure a narrow vote didn’t offend Washington, but more realistically to make sure Adams didn’t accidentally win. Washington won unanimously – every elector cast one of their two votes for him – making him the only presidential candidate to be elected unanimously in the nation’s history.

Because there was no politicking, Washington was elected president with no platform and no campaign promises. When he became president, it was largely because he won the revolutionary war and because he hadn’t become a dictator after winning that war, so everyone trusted he wouldn’t become one now. So whenever a major issue came up during his presidency, Washington turned to his cabinet to have them debate the various sides of the issue, and then he went with the more compelling argument. So, as I dive into the decisions that really dominated the Washington administration, you’re going to hear a whole lot from Hamilton and Jefferson, and not much from Washington until he decides who wins each debate.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get to the meat of Washington’s presidency. There were four major political conflicts that Washington confronted during his presidency – whether to establish of a national bank, whether the federal government should assume the remaining state debts from the revolutionary war, the permanent location of the nation’s capital, and whether to get involved in the French revolutionary wars against the rest of Europe. 

In every case, Hamilton and Jefferson dug in with strong, well-articulated, and opposite stances. Hamilton argued that creating a national bank and having the federal government take on the remaining states’ war debts was the surest way to secure the nation’s economic future. Jefferson, who owed a lot of money to bankers and so probably really didn’t like them, argued that a national bank was unconstitutional because the constitution didn’t explicitly say one could be created. He also argued that having the federal government assume each state’s war debts would be unfair to the wealthy states, like Virginia, who had already paid their debts, as taking on the debts of the poorer states would mean wealthy states effectively pay twice. Not fair.

And then there was the question of the nation’s capital. When it came to picking a permanent location for the capital, Hamilton supported keeping it in New York, a major financial center and his adopted home. Jefferson, a Virginian, supported moving it to the south, preferably in Virginia. Both sides assumed the nation’s capital would bring wealth and influence to the region that hosted it.

It wasn’t easy, but Hamilton won Congress’s approval for his plan to take on the state’s war debts. The other two issues, whether to create a national bank and where to locate the capital, soon became intertwined.

Hamilton and Jefferson held a private backroom meeting where, nobody knows exactly what was said, but Jefferson agreed to no longer oppose the bank if Hamilton agreed to no longer opposed a future capital adjacent to Virginia. This is why the nation’s capital is Washington DC and not New York City.

As for the fourth question, whether the United States should support France against England and the rest of Europe in the wars of the French revolution, well, get ready, because this question is about to dominate American foreign policy for the next 25 years. 

A bit of background. Remember how France supported the American colonists during the revolutionary war? Well, that cost France a lot of money. So much money that France basically went bankrupt. When the king called for higher taxes to pay off his debts, he got a revolution instead. He was deposed four years into Washington’s presidency, and France’s new, revolutionary government declared war on England and most of Europe shortly thereafter.

That’s about all I’m going to say about the French revolution, but if you’re curious to learn more about it, I highly recommend listening to Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast. It’s awesome.

Ok, so France and Europe are at war, and France wants the United states to join it in war against Britain while Britain wants the United States to stay neutral, or better yet, cut off all trade with France. 

Sec. of State Thomas Jefferson argued the United States should support France for three reasons: 1.) The united states had signed an alliance with France during the revolutionary war, which, you know, that’s a fair point. 2.) the United States never would have won its independence without French support and we kind of owed it to them. And that’s also fair. And 3.) France was now a republic, and America should naturally support its sister republics against the world’s monarchies. 

Sec. of Treasury Alexander Hamilton argued the United States should stay neutral, and he had his own three good reasons: 1.) The United States had signed its alliance with the king of France, and the French revolutionaries had just cut off his head, so he considered that treaty void, which, ok.; 2.) Did I just mentioned the French had cut off their king’s head? Are these really the types of people we want to be in an alliance with?; 3.) America’s economy depended on trade with England and England’s navy was the most powerful navy on earth. Siding with the French meant losing all that trade with England and possibly the rest of the world if England imposed a blockade. And, let’s be honest, the American military wasn’t strong enough to put a dent in Britain anywhere anyway. War would be dumb.

After carefully considering both sides of the debate, Washington sided with Hamilton’s economic realism and issued the neutrality proclamation. Basically, a statement that he wasn’t going to get involved in Europe’s wars. With the benefit of hindsight, It was a wise move, but it led to Jefferson leaving the administration and founding a political party that would become the antithesis of Washington and Hamilton’s policies.

So, if anyone ever asks you to name three things George Washington did as president, you can tell them his administration established the first national bank, blessed Washington DC as the eventual site of the nation’s capital, and kept America out of war in Europe at a time it could ill afford to fight anyone.

It’s also worth noting that Washington established basically all norms for the office, because, remember, the constitution didn’t exactly provide exhaustive detail. Washington established the right of executive privilege –  which is the idea that a president’s correspondence with his cabinet secretaries are private and can’t be subpoenaed by Congress. He also established foreign policy as the president’s domain. Remember that neutrality proclamation? There were more than a few senators who thought that, since the constitution said only the senate could sign treaties or declare war, that meant the senate was in charge of foreign policy. Washington firmly said, no, that’s the president’s domain. It was the president’s job to negotiate treaties and Congress’s job to approve or disapprove them. I can also totally imagine the clever Hamilton pointing out the constitution might have given congress the power to declare war, but it said nothing about declaring neutrality. Washington maintained this position of neutrality in the face of further British provocation, such as the boarding of American vessels and the confiscation of any trade not headed for England, which was very unpopular with the American people, but probably prudent given the nation’s weakness. Those challenges were left for the next president, John Adams, to try and resolve.

And then, in 1796, Washington established the biggest precedent of all by announcing his retirement after two terms and a year later overseeing a peaceful transition of power to John Adams, who was elected the second president of the United States. In his farewell address, Washington warned against getting involved in European entanglements, establishing a tradition of American isolationism from European affairs that would last for more than 100 years.

When George Washington retired from office at the end of his second term in 1797, he left a nation that was more prosperous, and more political divided, than it had been when he’d been sworn in eight years earlier. No new territory had been added during Washington’s presidency, but there were now 16 states, up from 11 – Rhode Island, North Carolina, Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee had all joined the club. The newest technology of the day was the cotton gin, which was already spreading across the south and would leave a dark legacy by basically making southern slavery more profitable, and thus harder to get rid of. On the lighter side of technological innovations, an American chef invented the first cupcake at this time. Most importantly, the United States was safely neutral as the wars of the French revolution ravaged Europe, where a General named Napoleon was starting to make a name for himself by winning impressive some French victories in Italy.

Washington lived another two years after retiring from the presidency. He even donned the general’s uniform again during John Adams presidency during a brief, but unrealized threat of war with France. He otherwise stuck to his retirement at Mount Vernon until, on Dec. 14, 1799, he died of an illness he caught while riding his horse in the rain. His death, coming at the end of the 18th century, left many Americans wondering what the 19th century would hold in store.

So that is the life of George Washington. But what were the traits that made him successful, and what were the traits that prevented him from being more successful? What lessons in leadership does he offer? 

1.     The first thing lesson he leaves is to never stop growing. Washington is not terribly likeable as a young man, with his flirting with his best friend’s wife and his habit for chasing glory, but as an older man, he has the humility to step down from command of the army and later step down from the presidency. He could still have a fierce temper and was a commanding presence, but he learned to fight the battles that truly mattered.

2.     Washington teaches the value of presenting a calm and stoic front. Washington the general reminds me a lot of the unflappable football coach. Standing on the sideline in his headset, never showing emotion when good or bad things befall the team. For example, when Washington was leading those men at Valley forge, there’s one report of someone walking into his study and catching him crying in despair over the hopeless situation, but when Washington realized someone had entered, the waterworks immediately ended and he presented only a calm exterior. That’s what his men saw, they saw that no matter how much they despaired, Washington was calm and in control, and that provided the reassurance the army needed to endure.

3.     But Washington did have his shortcomings, and I think the leadership team he assembled as president – his cabinet – proved to have an unhealthy level of rivalry, and later enmity, between Hamilton and Jefferson. You might have heard the phrase “Team of Rivals,” which Doris Kearns Goodwin made popular in her so-named book on Lincoln’s cabinet and how it navigated the civil war. Those men were rivals because they’d all wanted to be president, but they were rivals who largely believed in the same end-goal. They all favored emancipation and preserving the union, they just all wanted to be the ones doing it themselves. Hamilton and Jefferson had radically different and opposing views of what the United States of America could and should become. Maybe team of rivals isn’t the right term for Washington’s first cabinet. Maybe team of enemies is more appropriate. And this may have allowed Washington to hear excellent arguments for both sides of every major policy decision, but it also resulted in a level of hyper partisanship beyond anything we seen today. If you’re going to be a successful leader, you need to create a shared vision of where you want to go. Let the debate be how to get there, not where you’re going. And this is one area where President Washington came short.

Thank you for joining today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.

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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.

The primary biography for today’s episode was Washington, a Life, by Ron Chernow.

In our next episode, we’ll look at the presidency of John Adams. A man who was at the forefront of leading America into the revolution, a president who found himself in an undeclared war with France, and a political leader who passed one of the most despised laws in American history – the alien and sedition acts.

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.