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George Washington

The Presidency, Second Term

The Presidency, First Term

Curtain Call, Death, Legacy


Washington was reelected president, almost against his will, on February 13, 1793. The vote was again unanimous. Nearly everyone seemed to agree that only Washington could do the job. That didn't stop politicians from attacking him, however. They attacked him for supporting the national bank, for living in luxury at the presidential mansion, and for remaining distant and aloof from the common people. They even accused him of wishing to become a monarch.

Though these attacks hurt Washington, he had bigger problems to deal with. The French Revolution was under way. The United States had close ties with France as a result of the Revolutionary War, but now France threatened to drag America into war. The French king and queen had been executed, and France was ruled by terrorists. In 1793 France and Britain went to war. Many Americans sympathized with the French revolutionaries, believing the French were throwing off their oppressors as America had done in 1776. Others, including Washington, were shocked by the bloody French behavior.

With Britain and France at war, America was in danger. Pro-French Americans called for the United States to support France against tyrannical Britain; pro- British Americans believed that France had descended into anarchy and would threaten American prosperity. Faced with these competing demands, Washington announced his Neutrality Proclamation. He declared that the United States would not take sides. This was easy to say, but America was tangled in the affairs of both European nations. At the end of the Revolutionary War the British had promised to withdraw their troops from the Ohio River Valley. They never did. From their forts along the Ohio they now supplied Indians with weapons to use on American settlers. The French, meanwhile, claimed that America was bound by its treaty from 1778 to help them against the British. Both nations threatened to confiscate the cargo of American trading ships, which would have destroyed America's growing economy.

Washington worried constantly about the threat posed by Britain and France. To make matters worse, the French representative in the United States, Edmond Genêt, was rousing support for France in the streets. He even urged Americans to disobey their own government, overthrow Washington, and join the war against Britain. Genêt's behavior frightened many leaders, including the Republicans who supported France. Washington demanded the French government recall him and sent John Jay to London to negotiate a treaty. Jefferson, believing that Washington had fallen under the pro-British influence of Hamilton, resigned in frustration.

Jay returned to America in 1794 with a treaty. Leaders from both Federalist and Republican camps denounced it as a bad deal for America, but Washington felt he had no choice but to support it. After fierce debates in Congress, Jay's Treaty was approved. America would not go to war with Britain. Washington's trouble was not over, however: later that year settlers in western Pennsylvania revolted against a federal tax on whiskey. Many people believed the Whiskey Rebellion, as it was called, was a fulfillment of the democratic promise offered by the Revolutionary War. Washington did not agree. He personally led a force of 12,000 men and crushed the revolt. He dealt swiftly with the uprising, but in the hopes of reconciling the settlers he pardoned the rebellion's ringleaders.

Though Washington later won a diplomatic triumph with Pinckney's Treaty, the rest of his second term was consumed by the threat of war with Britain and/or France–and the fight within his own government between Hamilton and Jefferson. Washington wanted desperately to retire, and as soon as it seemed like America would not have to fight another war, Washington decided to step down when his term was up. His friends urged him not to, but he was determined.

With Hamilton's help, Washington wrote a farewell address to the American people. He never actually delivered the speech, but he published it in a Philadelphia newspaper instead. In it he warned Americans against political parties, affirming his belief that a devotion to duty and country could and should rise above party spirit. He also warned Americans to stay out of foreign wars: America was too weak to look out for any interests other than its own. With this advice, Washington quietly left office.


Washington spent much of his time as president deeply frustrated. He couldn't understand why honorable, reasonable, intelligent men couldn't agree. He hated partisanship; he was a social man who believed that everyone could and should get along. Yet while he genuinely liked people, he was often very formal and distant as president. He would not allow his advisors to form personal relationships with him, and he limited who was allowed to see him. This behavior led many to attack him as arrogant. These attacks hurt Washington deeply. Jefferson noted that at one point Washington swore that "by God he had rather be in his grave than in his present situation; he had rather be on his farm than be made Emperor of the World; and yet they were charging him with wanting to be a King."

Washington felt he had to behave in a formal way in order for the office of president to have prestige. In stark contrast to today, Washington did not believe that the president should mingle with the people; the president should remain a distant and authoritative figure. This wasn't the result of arrogance or lust for power. It was the opposite. Washington believed in a government of laws, not of people. In other words, he believed that it was the duty of leaders to follow the will of the people as expressed by the laws; they did this through their offices as senators, representatives, judges, and presidents. The individual who held office was less important than the office itself.

The constant attacks and bickering among Congress and his cabinet slowly wore Washington down. He grew increasingly paranoid, both of his own people and of foreigners–especially the French. While Jefferson welcomed the French Revolution as a triumph for democracy, Washington worried that it would end in bloodshed and tyranny. History proved Washington correct: France suffered civil unrest until it was conquered by Napoleon.

Washington felt his time as president, especially his second term, was a failure. In some ways he was right. He had lost Jefferson, one of his most intelligent advisors, and was forced to replace him with a less capable man. He failed to keep the divisions in America–between North and South, farmer and merchant, pro-France and pro-Britain–from deepening. Jay's Treaty, though now seen as a diplomatic victory for the United States, was considered a failure at the time. Just about the only bright spot was Pinckney's Treaty, which went far to opening the West. Yet even here, Washington sacrificed some of his own well being for his country. With the Mississippi open to American ships, there was no need to build a canal between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers. Washington's land would still be valuable, but not as valuable as it could have been.

Against all of these failures must be weighed one overriding success: the United States of America continued to exist, against all odds. Even more amazingly, the man who did so much to keep it together now intended to go quietly once again into private life. Most Americans assumed he would remain president for life. (There was no term limit on how many terms a president could serve until the twentieth century.) Upon his death, the Vice President would succeed him. Washington knew he didn't have long to live and worried that if he died in office, all following presidents might follow his example and remain in office until their deaths. He was determined to keep the presidency an elected office just like any other. So he retired.

In truth, Washington was eager to leave. He was tired and disappointed. He had lost many of his close friends through political conflicts and had been deeply hurt by attacks from the press. Worst of all, he doubted that the government could survive the turmoil it was in. He left office, and would die, not knowing if the nation would last.

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