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The Presidency, First Term

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Summary

On April 30, 1789, Washington took the oath of office and began his new job as President of the United States of America. He had traveled from Mount Vernon to New York City slowly, accompanied by celebrations, cannon salutes, and parades. Soon afterwards he fell very ill. A tumor was discovered in his leg. When the surgeons went to remove it (they had no anesthesia then) they were certain they would kill him. Jefferson feared that his death would sink the government. But Washington recovered, and within a month he was back on the job.

At first he had little to do. He began by appointing his cabinet: Henry Knox as Secretary of War, John Jay as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General. He was happy with this group, though less happy with his Vice President, John Adams. Washington and Adams did not get along, and they mostly ignored each other.

He devoted much of his time to working out the details of his office, such as how and when to receive visitors. Otherwise he waited for Congress to present him with bills to bring into law. Because he felt it was his duty as president to make a decision for the good of everyone, he did not try to influence Congress when it considered a bill. For the same reason, he refused to veto a law unless he believed it contradicted the Federal Constitution.

The first session of Congress considered several issues, most important of which was Hamilton's financial plan. Merchants and traders, mostly based in the north, generally approved of Hamilton's plans. Many farmers, including southern planters such as Jefferson and Madison, opposed it. Though a planter, Washington supported Hamilton's plan because he believed it would strengthen the nation. His kept his opinions to himself, however, so as not to influence the Congress. Finally, Jefferson brokered a compromise: he would persuade southern Congressmen to vote for Hamilton's plan if Hamilton would persuade northerners to support moving the national capital to the South. A deal was reached, and Washington selected the site for the future capital of Washington, D.C. He chose a spot on the banks of the Potomac, not far from Mount Vernon.

During this time, Washington's mother died. Mary Ball Washington had lived to the ripe age of eighty-one. She had been a willful woman, eager to control her son. She even objected to his job of president, complaining that his duties caused him to neglect her. Washington's relationship to Mary was rocky, but he mourned her death.

In his first term Washington also made two tours of the new country. He went first to New England, where he was greeted with cheers everywhere, then to the South, where he traveled almost alone. He returned convinced that the nation was more prosperous as a united nation.

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