Ranking George Washington

by Jonathan Hobratsch

I will be ranking all of the US presidents individually in my next series of blogs. I will conduct this chronologically. 

George Washington 1st President (1789-1797)

Score: 79 of 105 total points (75.2% ideal)


Appointments: 9 of 10

Washington, despite having some political experience, was somewhat politically naïve and unschooled in the classical and diplomatic languages, including in French, the lingua franca of the time. He had to rely heavily on other people, which is why he created the cabinet of secretaries for the executive branch. Formerly, a cabinet had existed for the Continental Congress.

Most scholars generally regard Washington’s political appointments to the cabinet as strong. However, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox and Edmund Randolph, while initially good selections for the cabinet, are not without criticism. For instance, Hamilton’s ideological influence over the president virtually nullified the influence of Jefferson, causing him to resign as Secretary of State of an administration that was counter to his values. Hamilton, who viewed himself as Prime Minister, held an influence that overshadowed all of the other cabinet secretaries, even outside his post of treasury secretary.

Hamilton’s influence over Washington’s administration was such that it engendered two political parties: one that agreed with Hamiltonian economics and a pro-British foreign policy and one that disagreed with both of these policies. The latter position, championed by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, became known variously as Republicans or Democrats, and historically labeled as Democratic-Republicans. Hamilton’s party was known as the Federalists.

To present the strength of Federalist influence over Washington, we need only look at Washington’s judicial and cabinet selections. All eleven of Washington’s Supreme Court selections were Federalists. James Monroe was the only ambassador of the four major ambassadors who was not a Federalist; however, he was removed eventually from this position for being too pro-French and too anti-British. Clearly, Washington’s political bias shone. He was a Federalists, even if he did not accept labels.

It should be noted, that along with Jefferson and Monroe, Edmund Randolph (another pro-French Virginian) was compelled to resign from office. In a near scandal, Randolph had been accused of taking bribes from the French. While absolved of the charge, he resigned after Washington publically humiliated him. One must wonder if Washington selected only Virginian Republicans to high office, because he thought, being fellow Virginians, that they’d stay loyal to his policies. By removing Republicans for office, Washington sets a tone for future presidencies to be equally partisan.

Overall, the cabinet selections of Alexander Hamilton as Treasury Secretary and Henry Knox as War Secretary have left a lasting impression.

Washington’s appointments to the court are equally impressive, except the case with John Rutledge. As the first president, Washington had the luxury of appointing every Supreme Court justice during his administration. In all, he appointed thirteen men, including four chief justices.

His inaugural chief justice was John Jay, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers. Only John Adams could have been as appropriate a choice for the first chief justice. Jay had been Washington’s first choice for secretary of state over Jefferson but declined the position. Fortunately, he accepted the position of chief justice, where he left a lasting impression on judicial procedure. However, the Supreme Court under Jay heard only four cases. Jay’s legacy in the administration rests in the Jay Treaty (which is discussed later) when he operated as a diplomat while holding the title of chief justice. In 1795, Jay was elected governor of New York, promptly resigning his role as chief justice.

Following Jay’s resignation, Washington had a hard time filling the top judicial position. His first replacement was former South Carolina governor John Rutledge, who promptly and publicly rebuked the Jay Treaty, causing the Senate to question whether Rutledge was slipping into dotage. As a recess appointment, Rutledge was later rejected by the Senate, but not before hearing two cases during the recess.

After Rutledge’s rejection, Washington tried to elevate Justice William Cushing to chief justice. However, Cushing declined the position after he was confirmed. His health was not great, and he was often absent from the court; although, he’d retain his position on the court until his death in 1810. Ultimately, Senator Oliver Ellsworth agreed to accept the nomination to the post, which he held through most of John Adams’s presidency.

Of the associate justices, James Wilson and John Blair are considered exceptional. However, Samuel Chase was impeached during the Jefferson administration for being too staunchly Federalist in his court decisions. Chase was acquitted and he remained on the court until his death in 1811 as the last Washington-appointed judge on the court. Washington had only one declined appointment for associate justice when Robert Harrison cited his poor health in turning down the job following his confirmation.

The vice president was not selected by the president during this time and operated strictly to his constitutional duties. That is, he presided over the Senate and waited for the president to die prematurely and nothing more. John Adams, while aggravated by the impotence of his position, did break more tie votes in the Senate than any other vice president. Occasionally, he dined with Washington, but he was not present in the cabinet meetings. He does not count for or against Washington’s appointment score.

Party Leadership 2/5

While Washington stacked his administration with Federalists, he refused to lead them or to officially join them. It seems he did not want party politics, but he wanted everyone to be Federalists—a one-party state if you will.

The pro-Washington administration Federalists initially controlled both houses of Congress during the Washington administration, but controversies over Hamilton’s economic policies and John Jay’s treaty strengthened the cause of those opposed to Washington’s administration.

While Washington lost support in the US House, he was able to reduce the turnover by the end of his term and maintained his dominance in the Senate. Finally, he left office popular enough that his heir apparent, Federalist John Adams, could sail into the presidency over Thomas Jefferson, who was personally more popular than Adams was.

His Party Leadership score will not affect his rating too much since the parties were just developing.

Economics and Finance: 9 of 10

When Washington took office, the country was still dealing with massive foreign and domestic debt problems incurred during the Revolution, as well as struggling with a way to generate revenue. This was a primary reason for doing away with the powerless Articles of Confederation and creating a stronger federal republic under a new United States Constitution.

Washington’s economic solution was formed by Sec. Alexander Hamilton, who had a much deeper understanding of such things than Washington had, and so the president was relatively hands off on the economy compared to many presidents. We can thank Hamilton for the National Bank, US Mint and Revenue-Marine (now the Coast Guard), all of which put us on a sounder financial footing than we were before these actions were taken.

In addition to creating these institutions, Hamilton had the government assume the debts of the states, which gave the federal government more authority. He also set up federal taxation and a five percent tariff on imports for revenue. The legacy of these decisions and the legacy of Hamilton are still debated today, but most scholars rate Washington and Hamilton positively in regards to economics for the Washington presidency.

While Hamilton could trust Washington to support his policies, he had to work out a deal with his opponents, lest they block his bill in Congress. In what is now called the Compromise of 1790, Hamilton supposedly dined separately with US Rep. James Madison and Sec. Thomas Jefferson to find a way to gain their support for his aggressive economic policy. The price for their support, as reluctant as it might be, was relatively inexpensive: Madison and Jefferson’s home state of Virginia would have their debt adjusted favorably, since they had mostly paid off their debts, and the permanent capital of the United States would be moved to the border of Southern states, Maryland and Virginia. The silence of the opposition leaders minimized the energies opposed to Hamilton’s plan.

The Washington-Hamilton economic plan, once in action, resumed the debt, but it did not pay it off. The debt saw a slight increase throughout Washington’s presidency.

Hamilton also aimed to get the government active in creating a stronger manufacturing sector, in order to compete with Great Britain. America of the 1790s had large labor plantations in the South, market farming, merchants and traders in the mid-Atlantic and shipbuilding, traders, fishing and timber industries in New England. Out West in the territories, trading with Native Americans was prevalent. The industrial revolution of Great Britain, for the most part, had yet to reach America and Hamilton and likeminded economist hoped that it soon would.

While Hamilton resigned his position in 1795 to return to law, he was still the primary influence in Washington’s decisions. No other cabinet member carried as much influence over a president in US History. The succeeding treasury secretary, Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut, was a High Federalist, just as Hamilton, and could be trusted to carry on his work and to obey his counsel.

Business & Labor: 4/5

The Washington administration predates federal action in the area of labor laws. Businesses, however, were certainly impacted by Hamiltonian economics. The protective tariff, traditionally, was favored by Northern industries, while either reluctantly accepted or outright contested by Southern plantation owners, especially those selling cotton. Fortunately for these Southerners, Hamilton’s tariff was a revenue-only tariff; although, it perhaps germinated ideas for future protective tariffs.

Overall, it is safe to say that the stronger financial institution certainly helped businesses dealing with trade overseas, especially after the Jay Treaty opened further trade with our enemy-cousin Great Britain and her Commonwealth. As for workers, unemployment wasn’t a major concern during Washington’s administration.

As business and labor were not a major concern for Washington, this grade will not affect him too greatly.

Social Welfare: 3 of 5

Outside of the 1792 disabled veterans’ pension plan, no form of federal social welfare program was in place. Local communities or local government would have handled healthcare, education, common welfare and anything else remotely resembling today’s programs. It should be noted that many, including Thomas Jefferson, had been advocates of free public education.

This score will not affect Washington too much.

Civil Rights & Liberties: 3 of 10

During Washington’s presidency, white property owners had about all the power, while women, slaves, free African-Americans, Native Americans, mixed-blood people, and white people without property could not vote. While many individuals opposed slavery, including some slave owners, abolitionism was not a major force in politics at the time. Some, such as Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, espoused woman’s suffrage but this, too, was not a major issue at the time.

If anything, the larger civil rights issue would be on the issue of whether or not white people without property should be able to vote or not.

At some point, the idea of expanded suffrage developed around this time by future supporters of Thomas Jefferson, but this involved expanding the vote by offering cheap land grants to white males willing and able to colonize disputed Native American territory in the West and South. Many Federalists did not want to expand the voting base with cheap property, believing that only the elites of society should have that power.

I should note that many states did not even have a popular vote in presidential elections at this time, leaving this important decision to the State legislature and delegates. South Carolina did not have a popular vote until the end of Reconstruction.

In order to appease Southerners, Washington, a slave-owner himself, signed the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it a crime to aid an escaped slave and required that escaped slaves be returned to their owners, even if the state is found in a constitutional Free State. While the bulk of Northerners were not abolitionist or even abolitionist-leaning at this time, this violation of their Free State status bothered many Northerners.

As for civil liberties, Congress, thanks to the efforts of Rep. James Madison and others, pushed through with the Bill of Rights and had it ratified at the end of 1791. While the strengthening of civil liberties was primarily the work of opponents of Washington’s administration, it is during his administration that these liberties were strengthened. Washington in no way hindered the process, and he accepted its result.

Washington is hit hard in this category as will anyone not making an effort to contain or abolish slavery. It is a leadership flaw to refrain from doing the right thing.  While slavery was a norm, it was also a known evil with many Southerners expressing guilt for taking part in slave culture and many in New England considering it counter to Christian values.

Domestic Unrest & Criminal Justice: 8 of 10

Prior to Washington’s presidency, the Shays’ Rebellion of 1786-1787 exposed a weakness in federal authority under the Articles of Confederation. The Constitutional Convention was held in part to form a government better capable of dealing with domestic unrest. Major property owners feared an uprising from the masses.

Two years into Washington’s presidency, the government faced its first rebellion under a strong Constitution. The Whiskey Rebellion was a reaction to Hamilton’s excise tax by several hundred Western Pennsylvania who believed this specific taxation was counter to the principles of the American Revolution, despite its legality under the new Constitution. It was the first instance of social unrest and social protest to the United States federal government.  About three years into the rebellion, Washington sent peace commissioners to the region, while calling on governors to send militia to enforce the excise tax. In all, four states raised a 13,000-man militia led personally by President George Washington in his role as Commander-in-Chief. The rebels, far outnumbered, gave up without a fight, even before Washington arrived. By the end of the rebellion, about 170 men were captured and about 20 people were killed, mostly by accident or illness. Twenty of the captured men were arrested but were acquitted or pardoned. Overall, Washington was able to show federal authority over domestic rebellion. Those opposed to government action would now have to operate within the government to fix the problem. Thomas Jefferson, elected primarily by critics of Federalist policies, would later remove the whiskey tax after his election.

Immigration and citizenship: 5 of 5

Washington signed our nation’s first two naturalization acts. At the time, most immigrants were Scots-Irish, German, and English. Washington welcomed immigrants. In a letter to vice president John Adams in 1794, he mentioned that while some may disprove of the customs and language of newcomers, their children and grandchildren will assimilate.

The first naturalization law, established in 1790, allowed only respectable white people to become citizens. White indentured servants, Native Americans, free or enslaved African-Americans, Asians, and Europeans not considered “white” in the 1790s, and others were excluded. It allowed for foreign-born children that were born to US citizens to be “natural born citizens” themselves. Other than this, the law was rather lenient. A respectable white person need only have resided in the United States for two years while living in a single state for one year to become a citizen.

By 1795, this leniency was too much for some, and so it was extended to a 5-year residency in the next Naturalization Act and required a declaration of intent. Citizenship was still open only to white people, but the act opened immigration up to people of good moral character, whether of a respectable class or not. Progress comes slowly. This act would also be replaced in 1798 by Washington’s successor.

As immigration was relatively rare, this score will affect him far less than other scores.

Infrastructure and Domestic Improvements: 2 of 5

New and improved roads, bridges and canals were essential to commerce. Thus, those in both government and business were desirous of going forward with internal improvements. Unfortunately, there was a disagreement on whether or not the government should federally fund these improvements. Some believed government involvement in this area might be unconstitutional. Federalists were generally more open to government involvement than Jeffersonian Republicans for federally funded infrastructural improvements.

Washington had vocalized his support for government-funded infrastructure. In his first year, Washington signed the Lighthouse Act of 1789, which not only established lighthouses, but it established the precedent for government involvement in this area. It took him until 1794, with the establishment of post offices, that he could get post roads pushed through Congress. While Hamilton urged greater attention to the area of improvements, Washington rarely pushed the issue.

As this was not a well-established area, Washington will not be greatly impacted by this score.

Energy, Resources, and Environment: 0 of 0

The areas of energy, natural resources, and environment were not major issues in early administrations. The expansion of our country, the establishment of stronger trade, in a way, allowed for the eventual acquisition of energy and resources of the future. Likewise, as cities expanded, and the nation became more industrialized, observant citizens became much more worried about human interaction with the environment. However, for the most part, this is an area of interest for later administrations.

This score will not be counted against Washington.

Misc. Domestic: 4 of 5

Other domestic accomplishments of the Washington administration include the establishment of Washington DC as the future capital, and the additions of Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee as states in the Union. Washington would never reside in the capital city named after him. The additions of Kentucky and Tennessee would change the political map from a North vs. South (or New England vs. Mid-Atlantic vs. South) battle over America to a political conversation including the new West, which would show similarities with the South and the Mid-Atlantic, while also seeming a little detached from the behavior of the original colonies. The Jeffersonian Republican Party flourished partially for giving much more attention to these new states than the Federalists were willing to show.

 Foreign Diplomacy: 8 of 10

Relations with Britain and France were the primary vehicle of late 18th-century foreign policy, both for America and for the less powerful countries in Europe. These were the great powers, much in the same way the US and the Soviet Union were during the Cold War. Through them and by them was commerce and trade facilitated and the globe influence. Britain and France used their dominant influence on weaker countries, much like how America has used their influence on other countries since the 20th century. The question for foreign policy was then: does America tolerate the stifling influence of their ally France or those of their enemy, but kinsman and natural commerce partner, Britain?

This choice was a key difference between the supporters of Hamilton and those of Jefferson. Our ally in independence, France, seems like the simple choice, but their culture and language was alienating to 18th century Americans. We could accept a Lafayette, but not multiple Lafayettes. The British, meanwhile, were our primary trade partner, the neighbors to our north in British Canada, and many American citizens still had relatives in England. Do we prefer someone meddling in our affairs that we can understand? Washington even modeled the presidency somewhat on the British monarchy with its pomp and circumstance, most of which Jefferson would later toss out the door. Washington, however, did refuse granting titles, which were recommended by some Federalists, such as by vice president John Adams.

The sanguinary French Revolution was the breaking point. The Federalists, being primarily a party of major property holders, demanded order. The savagery of the French Revolution and the images of mob rule spreading overseas in a country as new as America, even when it carried with it liberty and equality, would not be tolerated to the great dissatisfaction of Jefferson and his supporters. To many Federalists, the French alliance ended when the old Bourbon government fell or when Louis XVI was separated from his head. The alliance fell with the guillotine on King Louis’s death day. Republican France was a new government from the Old Regime.

This brings us back to the Jay Treaty. Jefferson’s supporters, initially unhappy with Washington’s unilateral (that is, without consulting Congress) declaration of neutrality, which was in part a retaliation for overt French influence in the country, were about to find a major issue to add to their platform. The Jay Treaty probably guaranteed that we wouldn’t face a new war with Britain, but it destroyed any semblance of our alliance with France. The British evacuated forts in Western U.S. territories and rather minimally compensated American ship owners damaged by the British navy. More importantly, America granted most favored trading partner to Britain and went along with the British maritime policies, which were soundly anti-French.

Washington chose economics, commerce, and peace over any sentimentality of the later Revolutionary War. The Jay Treaty caused a reaction of criticism arguably louder than Hamilton’s Economic Policies. Even for some Federalists, the treaty favored the British much more than it did Americans. For Jefferson’s party, the treaty was treason to the spirit of 1776, and Republican supporters were seen hanging and burning effigies of both Washington and Jay.

A strong claimed can be made about how unsatisfactory that Jay Treaty was, as it didn’t protect Americans from British impressment, a major demand for some in endorsing such a treaty with Britain. Yet, Jay’s Treaty set us on a more profitable course, it avoided a potential war in the short run, and potentially a war on the road ahead by removing British troops from Western forts in land claimed by the United States. However, the treaty turned our entire foreign policy on its head. When Washington went into office, we had a strong alliance with the essential ally that made our independence possible. When he left office, the alliance was dead, and we were close to war with France.

The Jay Treaty probably never would have occurred while France was stable; the French Revolution likely gave us the luxury of a choice in how we would begin our foreign policy. Washington was wary of alliances in the first place as he saw them as an enemy to peace. Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and foreign policy-savvy Federalists were eager to return to a profitable trade with Great Britain and her Commonwealth, and they jumped at this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Peace, Defense, and Warfare: 9 of 10

Washington’s administration was often chaotic, but he was able to avoid major wars, which is a great legacy for any president. While he promoted isolationism for wars abroad, he did not think the same of domestic military incursions. The Northwest Indian War in the Ohio Territory had been ongoing for a few years before he became president, and Washington continued it until the tribes in the region vacated the Ohio Territory for token grants of federal money and material, such as cloth. Throughout the course of North American history, European settlers and the American government exploited the fact that the American tribes were generally unschooled in capitalist economics and trade, as well as in the concept of property ownership. In the end, the tribes were forced to accept demands even when they became learned in these areas.

Washington spent 80% of the budget on wars against American Indian tribes. However, he did work diplomatically with American Indian tribes in the South, if only so that he could focus on one region at a time. Washington’s American Indian policy also includes the Non-intercourse Act, which prohibited private citizens from buying land from Indian tribes without the government’s approval. Allowing private citizens to buy land from the tribes might have made dealing with tribal affairs almost unmanageable.

Even closer to the citizen population was the before mentioned Whiskey Rebellion, which involved militant protestors of one of Hamilton’s economic policies.

There were two other potential clashing points. As with any new country, border issues must be cleared up and firmly defined. Washington was able to find peaceful solutions to some border issues through the Jay Treaty and the Pinckney Treaty.  The before mentioned Jay Treaty cleared up some of the boundary issues between British America and the United States, while the Pinckney Treaty did the same between America and Spanish Florida.

Beyond Europe, Washington did what he could to protect American merchant fleets by paying tribute to the Barbary Pirates. Today one would be aghast to think of America as paying tribute to bands of  North African pirates—the terrorists of their day—, but when you consider that individual American merchants had larger fleets than the government did during this time, it can be seen as a good delaying tactic until a fleet could be built. It was not until Jefferson’s presidency that the government chose to fight rather than pay the tribute.

Despite the divided affections towards Washington’s administration, he was unanimously elected for two terms. His nationwide respect, though showing some cracks by 1796, was such that no politician would openly disrespect the president during his reelection bid in 1792. Washington could have had a 3rd term if he had wanted it, but it is highly probable that he would not have been a unanimous choice. He left office with the seeds for a potential war with France in the future, but with enough popularity that his presumed successor, Vice-president John Adams, could sail into office and continue or attempt to improve some of his policies.

Militarily, he signed our first Naval Act, which created the navy, as well as the Militia Act, which set the rules for organizing a militia for the cases of self-defense. The Naval Act was not fully enacted until the presidency of John Adams.

Scandal and Corruption: 4 of 5

Washington’s administration was relatively scandal-free. Although, scandals involving a supposed French bribe to Edmund Randolph and an illicit affair involving Alexander Hamilton occurred. As mentioned earlier regarding the Jay Treaty, there were those that believed his policies were pro-British/anti-French enough to be considered treasonous. Washington’s claims of independence from partisanship are easily rebutted by obvious bias towards and influence from the Federalist Party, most prominently from Alexander Hamilton, often accused of illegal actions by his opponents.

Intangibles: 10 of 10

It must be emphasized that nearly everything Washington did set a precedent for future presidents, especially his refusal for a third term, which would have been assuredly his had he wanted it; although, it probably would not have been unanimous. Both major parties mythologized him as soon as he declined a 3rd term and claimed him as their own in future campaigns.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Excellent summary, Jonathan. Many new things to consider here.

    Liked by 1 person

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