The Most Consequential Elections in History: George Washington and the Election of 1789

It seemed very clear to the Founders, and to the public, that he was the man to lead the new nation.

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In 1792, Washington said he did not want to serve a second term, but he was persuaded to run again. He was supported by all 132 presidential electors. While the power of his personality and reputation maintained public support for his decisions, such as a controversial one to create a central bank, competing philosophies and interests kept growing throughout the states. Jefferson led the faction committed to building an agrarian society with a decentralized and weak government. Hamilton led the faction favoring a nation dominated by cities and towns under a strong central government. Jefferson trusted everyday people to govern themselves. Hamilton distrusted everyday people to make wise decisions and preferred rule by educated men of property. These divisions became the basis for political parties later, and Washington was powerless to stop them from forming although he was troubled by the development.

He also made some very difficult decisions in foreign affairs. In 1793, he repudiated a 1788 treaty pledging mutual assistance with France (which had been so important in helping the revolution against Britain) and issued a Neutrality Proclamation declaring that the United States would "pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers" in Paris and London. He realized that the new nation was not strong enough to fight either European nation at that time. He also signed a treaty with the British in 1794 that compromised on controversial issues, such as navigation rights and British payment of damages for the seizure of American ships. Through it all, he accomplished his main goal of keeping the nation out of war.

By the end of his second term, some of his critics attacked Washington as a tyrant and a false democrat. Most Americans, however, still prized his leadership and his wisdom. His farewell address in 1796 is remembered to this day as a sage warning that political parties would lead to dangerous sectional divisions and permanent alliances with European powers would lead to ruin.

In the end, historian Gordon Wood wrote, Washington was an "extraordinary man, who made it possible for ordinary men to rule." By the time of his death in 1799, he was eulogized by Rep. Richard Henry Lee as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." It was an epitaph that could apply to few other leaders.

More from our Most Consequential Elections series:

Thomas Jefferson and the Election of 1800
Andrew Jackson and the Election of 1828
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1860
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1864
Theodore Roosevelt and the Election of 1904
Woodrow Wilson and the Election of 1912
Franklin Roosevelt and the Election of 1932
Lyndon Johnson and the Election of 1964
Ronald Reagan and the Election of 1980