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How President Washington confronted crises
and set the template for presidential leadership

John Avlon is an author, columnist, and commentator. He is a senior political analyst and fill-in anchor at CNN. This essay is adapted from his book, Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations.

The United States seemed to be breaking apart

Democracy was being tested by bitter political partisanship. Overseas, autocrats watched expectantly, trying to influence American policy and hijack its elections. Armed gangs protested federal power amid threats of “riot and insurrection.” And, oh yes, a deadly epidemic raged, causing fear and panic. Sound familiar?

This all happened during George Washington’s second term, from 1793 to 1797. A president without precedent, he set the American model for steady leadership in crisis, and so helped unite a fractious young nation. He established an image of a leader focused on long-term benefits rather than short-term squabbles, who balances strength with mercy.

French Meddling

The Constitution makes no mention of political parties, and George Washington was the first—and to date, only—independent president. But he found himself “encompassed onall sides with avowed enemies and insidious friends,” and worried that “the wheels of Government will clog,” destroying the hope that America’s fledgling democratic republic represented to the world.

Washington’s two most talented surrogate sons, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (Secretaries of Treasury and State in the administration), were feuding behind his back, scheming to create opposing political parties under the president’s unassuming gaze. The fault lines had to do with France.

Jefferson had fallen in love with the promise of the French Revolution, and chose to overlook the populist tyranny that was lopping off heads onto the cobblestone streets of Paris. He accused the administration of being pro-British because of its policy of neutrality between the two perpetually warring nations. But Hamilton—along with Washington and Vice President John Adams—were aghast at the indiscriminate violence in France, mindful of the way utopian dreams turn into nightmares. The Washington administration—now called “Federalists” by Jefferson’s “Democratic-Republican” coalition in Congress—was determined to steer a middle course between monarchy and the mob.

The partisan press had gotten uglier and more personal, fueled by Jefferson’s secret subsidy of a newspaper dedicated to attacking the foreign policy of the administration he served as secretary of state. The constant attacks caused Washington to complain in private that he was being slandered “in such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero; a notorious defaulter; or even to a common pickpocket.”

The simmering resentments hit a boiling point in 1793 with the arrival of a new envoy from Revolutionary France, Edmond Charles Genet, who was greeted like a rock star by members of the Democratic-Republican Societies, which were partisan political clubs. “Citizen Genet” claimed to have only solidarity between the two countries in mind, but behind the scenes he was on a mission to stir up discord and swing American policy toward full-throated support for France. As historian Harlow Giles Unger explained, “If Washington’s government refused to cooperate, he was to exploit the Jeffersonian pro-French ferment in America to foment revolution, topple the American government, and convert the United States into a French puppet state. Once under French control, the United States would become part of a French-dominated American federation of Canada, Florida, Louisiana, and the French West Indies.”

Genet’s tour from Charleston up the Eastern Seaboard inspired increasingly raucous crowds. When he reached the capital of Philadelphia, Adams recalled “the terrorism excited by Genet in 1793, when ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his house and effect a revolution in the government, or compel it to declare war in favor of the French Revolution and against England.” Adams was so unnerved that he ordered a cache of weapons from the War Department to protect his home.

Genet eventually overplayed his hand, as extremists often do, and his plot was exposed at the same time as a yellow fever epidemic compelled many citizens to flee Philadelphia [see story, page 28], dispersing the pro-French protests. Congress was adjourned, and the government operated for a time out of nearby Germantown, so named because of its immigrant population and their stubborn adherence to their native language—a reminder that America has always been a diverse liberal democracy. The epidemic’s passing broke the fever of the French uprising as well.

Washington was dismayed by the fractures the episode had revealed. He’d been trying to negotiate a peace between Jefferson and Hamilton in private, writing that it was a matter of great regret that “we find that men of abilities—zealous patriots—having the same general objects in view… will not exercise more charity in deciding on the opinions and actions of one another.”

The Whiskey Rebellion

His commitment to the idea that democracy depends upon an assumption of goodwill between fellow citizens soon faced another violent challenge in 1794’s Whiskey Rebellion. Locals in western Pennsylvania had not taken kindly to the Washington administration’s 25 percent tax on their beloved Monongahela rye whiskey. Washington had predicted the sin tax could stir up trouble. “It is possible,” he wrote, “perhaps not improbable, that some demagogue may start up.”

That’s exactly what happened. An Alleghany tax collector was tarred and feathered and left tied to a tree, while the home of Governor John Neville was burned to the ground. An ambitious local attorney named David Bradford assumed the role of ringleader of the resistance, proclaiming to the Mingo Creek Democratic Society, “We are ready for a state of revolution and the guillotine of France.” He called on militia members to make an assault on Pittsburgh, threatening to burn down the town of 376 residents that some of the more religious-minded rebels were already calling a “second Sodom.”

News of the unrest made its way to the president in Philadelphia. An alarmed Hamilton noted “[T]here is no road to despotism more sure or more to be dreaded than that which begins at anarchy.” To tamp down the rebellion, an aging Washington rode on horseback to lead 12,000 troops, firmly establishing the president as commander in chief. But the threat of federal force helped the rebels listen to reason and Washington pardoned two captured leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion who had been sentenced to death by hanging, later explaining that it was his desire “to mingle in the operations of Government every degree of moderation and tenderness which the national justice, dignity, and safety may permit.”

George Washington Leads Troops to Confront Whiskey Rebellion

George Washington solidifies the president’s role as commander in chief by leading troops to confront the Whiskey Rebellion.

Washington Reviewing the Western Army, at Fort Cumberland, Maryland, ca. 1795
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY)

Riots Over The Jay Treaty

While France was scheming, Washington was fighting a cold war with Britain as well. The British still had an embargo on American imports and hung on to redcoat-occupied forts in the Great Lakes region. But the United States wasn’t in a sufficient position of strength to risk turning the cold war hot, so Washington sent Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay on a secret mission to negotiate a treaty with Britain.

Washington’s decision to send Jay raised concerns about the separation of powers. After all, the judiciary was supposed to check and balance the executive as a co-equal branch of government. Washington’s eagerness to negotiate with England also fit the pro-British bias narrative pushed by political opponents.

Jay returned from London after six months with a treaty that was far from perfect. Even Washington was initially disappointed, feeling it did not afford America the respect of an equal nation. But despite its deficiencies, it cracked open British ports and compelled Britain to abandon western forts it still occupied.

In the summer of 1795, the president submitted the Jay Treaty for Senate ratification, provoking a new constitutional crisis. The Democratic-Republicans formally caucused as a party, constituting a majority. They demanded to see executive papers detailing the negotiations. In the first invocation of national security to protect presidential prerogative, Washington refused to hand them over.

Newspapers raged that the Jay Treaty “originated in submission, progressed in secrecy, and is at last established by fear.” Jay was burned in effigy and Washington denounced as a puppet of the British monarchy. Near his home in lower Manhattan, Hamilton was stoned by an angry mob when he tried to defend the treaty. Southern states threatened secession. The executive mansion in Philadelphia was again surrounded by protestors.

Washington nonetheless guided the treaty to a narrow victory in Congress by biding his time, pairing the Jay Treaty with a more popular treaty with Spain to open the entire Mississippi River for trade, and leveraging his still considerable national popularity. In time, the Jay Treaty proved a success. Its terms served Washington’s aims of increasing trade by reopening British-controlled ports to American goods. Aided by the innovation of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, American exports increased 50 percent and import prices declined. Perhaps the supreme achievement of the treaty was simply the time it bought for the United States to grow in economic and military strength and establish itself as an independent nation on the world stage. 

A Precedent for the People

All these second-term crises informed Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796, written with Hamilton over several months and edited by Jay. It crystallized all of Washington’s hard-won wisdom from a half century serving his country in war and peace. In it, the president warned of the dangers that could destroy the country’s democratic republic—chief among them, hyper-partisanship, excessive debt, and foreign interference in domestic debates. To counteract these forces, he proposed pillars of liberty—the values of national unity, political moderation, fiscal responsibility, public education, private morality, andan independent foreign policy focused on increased trade rather than foreign wars.

Perhaps the section most relevant to the factional crises Washington faced retains its resonance in current times, warning that the “continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption.”

When Washington’s Farewell was published in the nonpartisan American Daily Advertiser newspaper on September 19, the big news was that Washington was voluntarily stepping away from power. It was a final revolutionary act. As Thomas Jefferson later wrote, “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of the liberty it was intended to establish.”

Word spread across the land and overseas, where one London paper described the act as being “replete with wisdom,” and the address as a voice against “the force of foreign corruption and foreign treasons, and of domestic violence and the tyranny of factions.”

George Washington would not survive the century, but the nation’s first president left the republic in far better shape than it was following the failures of the Articles of Confederation. Washington was strong but calm amid chaos, moderate and magnanimous. He consistently elevated the national interest over special interests and always dismissed self-interest. His Farewell Address would become civic scripture. Americans no longer had Washington to lead them, but they still had his advice to guide them.

And we still do today.