Washington didn't want the presidency, but he didn't really have a choice. At the Constitutional Convention, it had become clear that a pair of fault lines risked splitting the nation apart: one running between large and small states and another between free and slave states. Only a series of precarious compromises between the opposed interests had enabled the Convention to produce a Constitution at all. And just what status that document would have was still unclear. Most Americans had no attachment to a national "United States." If the new government was going to succeed, it would need a leader who could inspire trust in its institutions and foster citizens' attachment to them, without exacerbating any of the oppositions that risked tearing the nation asunder. The government needed a leader of dignity who could unite all hearts. As historian Forrest McDonald put it, "Washington was the only man who measured up to the job." On 14 April 1789, Congress's secretary arrived at Mount Vernon to tell Washington that he had just been unanimously elected president of the United States.12
Washington was only slightly more clear on the role of the president than the Constitutional Convention had been. He understood the role's symbolic significance and had a sense that it should be a strong and dignified office. As he made his way from Mount Vernon to New York City, then the capital, he was hailed as a king and revered as a saint. He spent his first days in New York investing the office of the presidency with the pomp suitable to a chief executive. In those first days, there just wasn't much else to do.
Eventually, James Madison began introducing the legislation necessary to set up the government, and Washington found himself with a real job. Madison and Washington had long been friends, and Madison, then in Congress, consulted with Washington before introducing many of the laws that gave the government its structure. By design, many of them left substantial room for interpretation. It wasn't clear, for instance, how much authority executive officers should have, or what it meant to seek the Senate's "advice and consent." Washington was left to figure out these things on his own. Unsurprisingly, he went with what he was comfortable with. He discovered the Senate was too big to be a real advisory body, so he turned his department heads into an advisory "cabinet." Washington knew that everything he did would set a precedent (presidents today still use the cabinet system he invented), so he tried to be as deliberate as possible in his actions. He was, he knew, acting for the long term.
Still, Washington wasn't just presiding for posterity; he had a concrete political program to accomplish. To make the nation stronger, he supported any proposal that would bind the states closer together: road construction, the postal service, even a national university. He supported Alexander Hamilton's plan to nationalize state debts. He took long trips around the country to help citizens better identify with their national government. But strength, for Washington, wasn't just a matter of identity; it was also a matter of security. As Europe became embroiled in the deadly Napoleonic Wars, Washington issued the Neutrality Proclamation to keep the United States out of harm's way. His overall political program to strengthen the nation came to be known as Federalism, and those who followed him, Federalists.
As Washington soon discovered, Federalism was not universally embraced, not even by everyone in his administration. Thomas Jefferson, his Secretary of State, had a radically different perspective. Although he acknowledged the importance of a national government, Jefferson believed state governments were still more important. National centralization reminded Jefferson too much of the tyrannical British regime. Washington's "dignified" behavior didn't help: it reminded Jefferson of a European monarch. The Federalists, Jefferson felt, were betraying the "Spirit of '76." The new, consolidated government they were building was downright antidemocratic.
Although Jefferson never fought directly with Washington, he became increasingly estranged from Washington's closest minister, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. By the end of Washington's first term, the two men were in perpetual conflict. It got to be so bad that Jefferson begged Washington to let him resign. Washington, who didn't like the idea that his cabinet was divided, convinced Jefferson to stay on for another year, but the experience marked him profoundly. Just because the Constitution had been ratified did not mean that the battle for a stronger national government had actually been won.