With the ratification of the Constitution, the United States celebrated a new political beginning. Yet while most Americans were optimistic, great challenges still lay ahead: national and state debts, a stagnant economy, and foreign threats lurking in Florida, Canada, and the Mississippi Valley. There were internal political divisions, as well. Over the next twelve years, two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, would play the principal role in steering the young nation through these challenges. These Federalist presidents would accomplish a great deal, both domestically and internationally, but by 1800, their party and their policies would be rejected by the American public.
Why Should I Care?
Americans still celebrate George Washington as the father of the country, but the nation that began to take shape during his presidency was not the one he had in mind. The raucous political debate, combative political parties, and broad definition of freedom of speech that emerged during the 1790s are now the very things we associate with healthy democracies. But in Washington's mind, they represented a perversion of republican government and a threat to good order.
George Washington was not the only founding father anxious to avoid these sorts of politically divisive behaviors. Most Americans believed that the survival of the republic depended on the public's willingness to set aside local and individual interests for the sake of the general welfare. And in fact, Americans turned to Washington in the dark days of the 1780s because he seemed to be the only person able to bring the whole country together behind a common vision. But in this Washington would ultimately fail, and the political landscape he passed on to his successor, John Adams, would be even more bitterly divided than the one he inherited.
There is no denying Washington's importance to American history. His support for the new government was essential to its success, and his economic and foreign policies laid an important foundation for the new nation. But his political philosophy and style simply did not suit the more energetic and democratic political arena that was emerging. While his designation as father of the nation is in many ways deserved, the political order that emerged during the 1790s might at best be considered his unwanted stepchild.