With the War of Independence won, Washington returned his military commission to Congress and made haste to leave for Mount Vernon. Horses were waiting at the steps of the Federal Building and he looked forward, as he hastened along with his companions to a new era in his life.
Just at dusk on Dec. 24, 1783, to the delight of his extended family and servants, Washington arrived to enjoy his first Christmas at home in eight long years.
Now he looked for new ways to fill his days, restoring his beloved farms, furnishing the new wings at Mount Vernon and riding a 24-mile circuit of daily inspections if his properties. But his mind was still centered on what was happening to the country to which he had given so much of himself as Commander in Chief. This was an unsettled time for the new country, still so loosely bound, and Washington could see inherent dangers. He was convinced a convention of the states was needed to deal with the problems that had developed. He wrote and spoke about this to his friends. When the Federal Convention of 1787 was called, Washington headed the Virginia delegation and once there was elected to preside over the proceedings.
His quiet manner lent dignity and prestige to the daily sessions. He voted according to his principles, which included a strong central government; election of the chief executive by the people, not the state governments; and a three-fourths vote to overturn a presidential veto. The delegates came to realize that no other person would satisfy the nation as its very first President but George Washington.
At the close of the Convention four months later he returned to Mount Vernon and was working in the fields on April 14 when the Secretary of Congress, Charles Thompson, arrived with the official announcement that informed him of his unanimous election to the Presidency with an annual salary of $25,000. There had been no Army pension and he was facing financial hardships along with many others of that period. Washington had to borrow funds to pay his expenses for the trip.
Within two days, Washington was on his way to New York City, the temporary capital. Throngs turned out all along the way to cheer their President-elect. But Washington was filled with misgivings about his abilities, just as he had been when called by Congress to head the American Army. He would serve out of a sense of duty tempered by the awesome responsibility.
Dressed in a dark brown suit, made in America at his insistence, Washington arrived at Federal Hall where Congress was assembled and was introduced by the new Vice President, John Adams, who had already been sworn in, thus setting the inaugural precedent. Stepping onto a balcony, standing before the joyous crowd, Washington was administered his oath of office by Robert R. Livingston, Chancellor of New York State. There was an inaugural speech, a church service of thanksgiving and then fireworks, before Washington presided at a private dinner with his aides.
In the first year, both the President and Lady Washington were careful in defining their responsibilities and social activities. They realized that whatever was done might well become the accepted practice in future administrations.
Taking advice from both Hamilton and Adams, “visits of complement” with the President were scheduled
twice a week in the afternoon; every Tuesday he would hold a one-hour levee for suitably dressed men
only; he chose to be addressed in person as Mr. President.
Mrs. Washington presided over a public tea party for "ladies and gentlemen" every Friday; together they would host a small dinner party every Wednesday at 4 p.m. by invitation only. These arrangements made them accessible to ordinary citizens and was part of their routine for all eight years .
Washington’s ability to choose capable and worthy men to serve in the newly created Presidential Cabinet was a bright light on a rather clouded horizon. He called only five Cabinet meetings in his first term, but he read and countersigned all letters sent by various the Cabinet members.
Over 1,000 personal appointments were made by the new President to fill he offices required to run the new government and its agencies. This went as far as appointing lighthouse keepers and approving the orders for the oil to run the lighthouse lamps.
When Senators complained that they should have some say in the appointments in their own states, the arrangement of “advise and consent” was devised.
And also, the Legislative, Judicial and Executive branches began feeling their respective ways in the halls of government set forth by the Constitution under the thoughtful and discerning guidance of the President and his advisors. Washington did not believe the President should interfere with the Congress.
Although he would have preferred to end his presidency in 1792, he was deeply concerned by problems that existed within the government and between the new states, such as the development of a two-party system, and the threat of an English and French war that might easily draw American into it. Both Jefferson and Madison pleaded with him to “make one more sacrifice.” Washington could not bring himself to forsake the call of duty, which had always guided his actions. The Electoral College, in December of 1792, again elected him to serve. They knew he would never refuse the call of his countrymen.
The farmers of Western Pennsylvania became a serious problem in 1794. Their only cash crop was corn, and welling it in the East was very expensive due to its bulk. Solution: convert it to whiskey and ship that. But a new Federal tax on whiskey was levied, and when tax agents tried to collect, riots and civil unrest resulted. Washington knew Federal laws must not be scoffed at. He called up a large number of troops from the militia of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland.
Donning his old uniform he traveled to Bedford as commander and soon all resistance was ended. Twenty “rebels” were sent to Philadelphia for trial; 18 were released for lack of evidence, two were convicted. Washington pardoned them both due to their mental problems. Washington’s use of State militia to enforce Federal laws set a precedent still in use today. He is the only sitting President to actually command a military unit during his term in office.
The waters of the Presidency were rough and even tempestuous as he served those final years. It required great wisdom and patience at home and abroad. He counseled prudence and moderation on all sides.
Weary from the demands of the past eight years, he was dismayed by the criticisms of Congress, by the opposition
press, which he labeled “discontented characters; a corrosive and disuniting force.”
Washington wrote to Henry Lee, “No man was ever more tired of public life.” This, after 47 years of service to his country from his first military experience in the British militia, through the long eight years of the Revolution, the Constitution debates, and finally another eight years as the president of a new political system.
We must marvel at his integrity, leadership and his resolve to make this new concept of government successful:
A government that served the people, a government of new ideals, a government whose strength was in the vision
of its people.