As one of the Founding Fathers, George Washington holds a special place in American history. During his first term as the first president of the United States, Washington helped unify the new nation and was a leading force behind the ratification of the Constitution. From 1789 to 1792, he oversaw the establishment of the nation's capital, appointed the federal judiciary, and shaped foreign and domestic policy alike.
The fiercely private Washington didn't want to serve a second term as president, but reluctantly agreed to do so after winning reelection in 1792. For the subsequent four years, Washington fought to keep the country together in the face of domestic upheaval and foreign pressures - not to mention the bickering of his closest advisors. The Whiskey Rebellion, a conflict in Europe, and administrative instability fed by the strife within Washington's cabinet all factored into his decision to walk away from the office.
The difficulties of Washington's second term took a toll on the president and the American people, all of which contributed to the warnings he gave to the country when he retired in 1797.
Washington was unanimously elected president of the United States in 1789; he came out of pseudo-retirement from his home at Mount Vernon and took the oath of office in April of that year. As the first person to ever hold the office, Washington established precedent after precedent for four years as the new country took shape around him.
By 1792, Washington was tired and frustrated by the emerging partisanship all around him. He wanted to return to Mount Vernon, but also feared the direction the country would go in his absence. There was tension between the North and South, conflicts abroad, and policy disputes among his closest advisors, all of which gave him pause.
When cautioned that the country was too fragile to be in the hands of new leadership, Washington agreed to accept the position of president again. He was unanimously elected for a second time.
As the voting for the presidency loomed, Washington wrote a letter to Alexander Hamilton in August 1788 indicating he "should unfeignedly rejoice, in case the Electors, by giving their votes to another person would save me from the dreaded dilemma of being forced to accept or refuse."
Once elected for a second term, Washington took the oath of office in March 1793. From the podium in Philadelphia, PA - the temporary home of the national government - he gave the shortest inaugural speech on record.
Washington's speech was a mere 135 words, expressing his thoughts on the position he was about to assume yet again:
Fellow citizens, 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 (beside incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.
The two most powerful people in Washington's Cabinet, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, found themselves at odds on almost every issue. Secretary of State Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican, an ardent anti-Federalist, and a proponent of intervention in France. Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, was a Federalist interested in protecting economic interests and building a strong federal government.
Jefferson saw Hamilton and the Federalist agenda as a threat to agrarian life, slowly moving down a path to a monarchy and the establishment of an urban elite. Democratic-Republicans emphasized states rights, while Federalists pushed for centralized authority.
Washington wasn't opposed to competing points of view among his Cabinet members, but the personal and professional fights between Jefferson and Hamilton tested him and the stability of his administration. By Washington's second term, the debate between Jefferson and Hamilton over neutrality and conflict in France dominated their rivalry. Washington did his best to appeal to both men to conduct themselves with the interests of the nation in mind. He wrote to Jefferson in 1792:
How unfortunate, and how much is it to be regretted... that whilst we are encompassed on all sides with avowed enemies and insidious friends, that internal dissentions should be harrowing and tearing our vitals. The last, to me, is the most serious - the most alarming - and the most afflicting of the two. And without more charity for the opinions and acts of one another in Governmental matters... I believe it will be difficult, if not impracticable, to manage the Reins of Government or to keep the parts of it together.
He sent a similar letter to Hamilton, essentially saying the same thing while assuring the Secretary, "I do not mean to apply this advice to measures which are passed, or to any character in particular... l have given it in the same general terms to other Officers of the Government."
When Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the former finally recognized the establishment of the latter, but tensions between the two countries didn't disappear. As part of the Treaty, Great Britain relinquished its claim on territory west of the Mississippi River, but held onto Canada. Americans agreed to treat British loyalists fairly and return confiscated land. Great Britain also signed a peace agreement with France, Spain, and the Netherlands - all countries it had fought against during the American Revolution.
Over the next 10 years, Britain and America both pushed the boundaries of the treaty. Britain refused to give up forts within the land they'd handed over and the United States didn't return confiscated property. It looked as though another conflict between England and the United States was inevitable.
When hostilities broke out between Britain and France in 1793, concerns over borders, neutrality, and loyalty in the United States prompted Washington to send Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay to England to negotiate overlooked and unenforced provisions of the 1783 treaty. When Jay arrived in England, he was supposed to address three main grievances: trade restrictions on US goods in Britain, impressment of American sailors and ships, and Britain's refusal to vacate some of its forts.
Jay negotiated a new treaty, one that would later take his name, and the United States managed to avoid a new conflict with Britain. Congress narrowly ratified the treaty on June 24, 1795.