With the ratification of the Constitution, many Americans hoped for resolution to the challenges poorly met under the Articles of Confederation, but these challenges were many and complex. The debts accumulated during the Revolution by the Continental Congress and individual states totaled close to $80 million dollars (the rough equivalent of $2 billion dollars today). British troops still occupied forts on American territory in the northwest and hostile British trade policies threatened to cripple American commerce. Native Americans and Anglo-Americans clashed over territorial claims, and Spanish control of the Mississippi River threatened the economic ambitions of western migrants. Internally, critics of the new government plotted to force a second constitutional convention to overhaul the structure of the new government, and bitter regional disagreement over slavery threatened to shatter the compromises forged at the constitutional convention.
While the new government created by the Constitution had greater powers to deal with these many problems, its success would depend on the ability of the new president and congress to map out a series of critical policies. This would not be simple. A government on paper is far different than a government in practice; the day-to-day operations of government and the procedural details of lawmaking had to be worked out. And all these new policies and new practices had to be accomplished by representatives only tenuously tied together.
Today, we have an almost intuitive sense of what it means to be an American. We may differ on the details, but the identifier will conjure up a constellation of principles and images. But when the first congress met, this was not the case. In 1789, most Americans tended to identify more with their state than with the nation as a whole. They saw themselves as Virginians or New Yorkers. During the Revolution, soldiers had been most commonly organized by state—the Massachusetts Line or the Pennsylvania Division, for example. Under the Articles of Confederation, states commonly referred to their congressional representatives as "ambassadors." To a certain extent, this tendency to identify with one's state rather than the nation was rooted in old habits, but it was also tied to persisting fears of what a nation represented. Many feared the centralization of power that the concept implied; they therefore embraced more reassuring terms like "union" to describe their country.
In this regard, the founding of the American nation was different than most others born through revolution. Usually, the genesis of national feeling or identity precedes the revolutionary movement, but in America, the opposite occurred. Americans—or rather, New Yorkers, Georgians, and Rhode Islanders—declared independence from British rule before they had forged a solid sense of national identity.
The one person on whom virtually all Americans did agree, however, was George Washington. He had quickly assumed iconic status during the Revolution and his retirement at the war's end cemented his reputation as the model republican servant. At the Constitutional Convention, his reassuring presence had calmed Americans uneasy with government power; his selection as the nation's first president was almost a given. Washington recognized the place he held in the American mind, and fortunately he exercised his influence carefully. He realized that he could set the example for future presidents; he could model the republican statesman. Most every critical decision he made—from his public dress to his decision to retire after a second term—was informed by this consideration.
The republican philosophy that guided Washington has lost much of its meaning in modern-day politics. Labels like "republican" and "democrat" have been appropriated and often misused by our political parties. But in 1789, these terms were loaded with more specific meaning. Of these, republicanism was the most important and influential concept. More a political philosophy than a set of specific policies, republican ideology rested on the premise that the role of government was to identify and advance the common good. Citizens and statesmen were charged with sacrificing their personal interests to those of the community: to act virtuously rather than selfishly, reasonably rather than out of passion.
Among republican theorists, no quality was deemed more essential to the success of republican government than virtue; fittingly, no trait of Washington's was more widely praised. To his contemporaries, it was not his military skill, his economic sophistication, or his grasp of international affairs that made his service essential; it was his virtue. It was his deference to civilian authorities during the Revolution and his unprecedented surrender of military power at the war's end that made him a republican general. It was his devotion to the nation's cause and his dutiful answer to the repeated summons to public service that made him the republican statesman.
Historians have generally praised Washington's conduct and performance in office. Most consistently, they have applauded his willingness to surrender power yet again, at the end of his second presidential term. They have also given high marks to the economic and international policies his administration advanced. By the end of his second term, commercial relations with Britain had been improved and access to the Mississippi River had been secured. National and state debts had been refunded and government policies toward Native Americans had been, at least for awhile, placed on more reasonable footing. The Anti-Federalist opposition had been tamed and the authority—and, when necessary, coercive power—of the federal government had been demonstrated.
But historians have also acknowledged that by his presidency's end, there was more political division than ever. Disagreements over specific policies and broader governing philosophies had crystallized into formal parties, and the tone and character of the political arena was viciously partisan.
For Washington, this political divisiveness was the great failure of his administration, but a closer look suggests he may have been too hard on himself. Washington's failure lay not in his inability to control the character of American politics, but rather in his inability to recognize that these new political practices were unavoidable within democratic governments. While he was intent on forging consensus, a very different understanding of politics was emerging among the public. Individual citizens were coming to see the political arena as a place in which their voices—and their particular interests—had a legitimate place. Coalitions were forming to advance the specific needs of their members, often without apology or concern for broader communal goals. And dispassionate political discussions aimed at building consensus were being replaced by heated political contests that produced winners and losers.
Washington was stridently opposed to the new direction of American politics, but during his administration and that of his Federalist successor John Adams, the political developments he opposed were as important to America's national growth as the economic and international policies he pursued. Between 1789 and 1800, the United States not only worked out many of its more pressing economic and international problems; it began to define the practices and ideologies of modern democracy.