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George Washington: Second Term

By the end of his first term, it had become clear to Washington that he needed to stay on. The division within his cabinet between Hamilton and Jefferson had a regional dimension to it. It wasn't just a disagreement between two private individuals. It reflected a split between northern states, with economies dependent on trade and finance (like Hamilton's New York) and southern states, which relied on agriculture (like Jefferson's Virginia). This fault line, just like the earlier divisions between large and small states and slave and free states, risked undoing all the progress toward unity that Washington had accomplished in his first term. As Jefferson argued, "North & South will hang together [only] if they have you to hang on[to]."13

Besides, Washington's political program had yet to come to fruition. And the emergence of a powerful opposition allied with Jefferson—the "Democratic Republicans," or just plain "Republicans"—made the fulfillment of Washington's Federalist program all the more urgent. Two decades after the Revolutionary War, tensions with Britain still ran high, and conflict with Spain was growing as well. Meanwhile, the United States could ill afford an international war, especially since fighting against the American Indians on the new country's western frontier was heating up. And yet, as Washington knew, the Republicans wanted to support France in its revolutionary endeavor, which risked endangering American security. Washington felt the safety of the Union demanded that he stay on. Begrudgingly, he filed away the valedictory address he'd had Madison prepare for his retirement and allowed himself to be reelected—again, unanimously—for a second term.

After reelection, Washington's policies were not much changed. His overwhelming concern was still strengthening the nation. The circumstances, however, were different. Whereas in Washington's first term, foreign affairs had been fairly quiet, in his second term they took center stage. To stave off war with Britain, he sent John Jay, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a staunch Federalist, to negotiate a new treaty, which most historians credit with keeping the United States out of another war with Britain until 1812. With the Atlantic theater safe, Washington turned his attention west. Through a combination of cudgeling and coddling, he tried to neutralize potential Indian enemies and convince Spain to open up the Mississippi river to American navigation. Although it might look to us today like a piecemeal approach to foreign affairs, the underlying priority was strengthening the nation.

By and large, Washington's program worked. The very disagreement some of these policies provoked illustrates how much the United States had changed by the end of Washington's second term. Consider Jay's Treaty, signed in 1794. Many of Jefferson's Republican allies hated the treaty: they felt it was a betrayal of America's founding principles. But their disagreement never led them to withdraw or threaten to break the Union. Rather, it spurred them to want to take control of the government and change its policies from within. The spirit of partisan division was unexpected, but it proved that the government's framework had "set." The United States was very much established.

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