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... a fayette. Outnumbering the British by two to one, and with 36 French ships offshore to prevent Yorktown from being relieved by sea, Washington forced Cornwallis to surrender in October after a brief siege. Although peace and British recognition of United States independence did not come for another two years, Yorktown proved to be the last major land battle of the Revolution.
Washington as a Military Leader Washington's contribution to American victory was enormous, and analysis of his leadership reveals much about the nature of the military and political conflict. Being selective about where and when he fought the British main force prevented his foes from using their strongest asset, the professionalism and discipline of their soldiers. At the same time, Washington remained a conventional military officer. He rejected proposals made by General Charles Lee early in the war for a decentralized guerrilla struggle. As a conservative, he shrank from the social dislocation and redistribution of wealth that such a conflict would cause; as a provincial gentleman, he was determined to show that American officers could be every bit as civilized and genteel as their European counterparts. The practical result of this caution and even inhibition was to preserve the Continental army as a visible manifestation of American government when allegiance to that government was tenuous.
Political Leadership In one of his last acts as commander, Washington issued a circular letter to the states imploring them to form a vibrant, vigorous national government. In 1783 he returned to Mount Vernon and became in the mid- 1780 s an enterprising and effective agriculturalist. Shays' Rebellion, an armed revolt in Massachusetts (1786 - 87), convinced many Americans of the need for a stronger government. Washington and other Virginia nationalists were instrumental in bringing about the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to promote that end. Elected as a delegate to the convention by the Virginia General Assembly, Washington was chosen its president.
In this position he played virtually no role-either formal or behind the scenes-in the deliberations of the convention; however, his reticence and lack of intellectual flair may well have enhanced his objectivity in the eyes of the delegates, thereby contributing to the unselfconscious give and take that was the hallmark of the framers' deliberations. In addition, the probability that Washington would be the first president may have eased the task of designing that office. Washington's attendance at the Constitutional Convention and his support for ratification of the Constitution were critically important for its success in the state conventions that met in 1787 and 1788. First Administration Elected president in 1788 and again in 1792, Washington presided over the formation and initial operation of the new government.
His stiff dignity and sense of propriety postponed the emergence of the fierce partisanship that would characterize the administrations of his three immediate successors-John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. He also made several decisions of far-reaching importance. He instituted the cabinet, although no such body was envisioned by the Constitution. He remained socially aloof from Congress, thus avoiding the development of court and opposition factions.
By appointing Alexander Hamilton secretary of the treasury and Thomas Jefferson secretary of state, he brought the two ablest and most principled figures of the revolutionary generation into central positions of responsibility. Washington supported the innovations in fiscal policy proposed by Hamilton-a funded national debt, the creation of the Bank of the United States, assumption of state debts, and excise taxes, especially on whiskey, by which the federal government would assert its power to levy controversial taxes and import duties high enough to pay the interest on the new national debt. Similarly, he allowed Jefferson to pursue a policy of seeking trade and cooperation with all European nations. Washington did not foresee that Hamilton's and Jefferson's policies were ultimately incompatible. Hamilton's plan for an expanding national debt yielding an attractive rate of return for investors depended on a high level of trade with Britain generating enough import-duty revenue to service the debt.
Hamilton therefore felt that he had to meddle in foreign policy to the extent of leaking secret dispatches to the British. Second Administration The outbreak of war between revolutionary France and a coalition led by Britain, Prussia, and Austria in 1793 jeopardized American foreign policy and crippled Jefferson's rival foreign policy design. When the French envoy, Edmond Gen^et, arrived in Charleston in April 1793 and began recruiting American privateers-and promising aid to land speculators who wanted French assistance in expelling Spain from the Gulf Coast-Washington insisted, over Jefferson's reservations, that the U. S. denounce Gen^et and remain neutral in the war between France and Britain. Washington's anti-French leanings, coupled with the aggressive attitude of the new regime in France toward the U.
S. , thus served to bring about the triumph of Hamilton's pro-British foreign policy-formalized by Jay's Treaty of 1795, which settled outstanding American differences with Britain. The treaty-which many Americans felt contained too many concessions to the British-touched off a storm of controversy. The Senate ratified it, but opponents in the House of Representatives tried to block appropriations to establish the arbitration machinery. In a rare display of political pugnacity, Washington challenged the propriety of the House tampering with treaty making.
His belligerence on this occasion cost him his prized reputation as a leader above party, but it was also decisive in securing a 51 - 48 vote by the House to implement the treaty. Conscious of the value of his formative role in shaping the presidency and certainly stung by the invective hurled at advocates of the Jay Treaty, Washington carefully prepared a farewell address to mark the end of his presidency, calling on the U. S. to avoid both entangling alliances and party rancor. After leaving office in 1797, Washington retired to Mount Vernon, where he died on December 14, 1799. Evaluation Washington's place in the American mind is a fascinating chapter in the intellectual life of the nation.
Washington provided his contemporaries with concrete evidence of the value of the citizen soldier, the enlightened gentleman farmer, and the realistic nationalist in stabilizing the culture and politics of the young republic. Shortly after the president's death, an Episcopal clergyman, Mason Locke Weems, wrote a fanciful life of Washington for children, stressing the great man's honesty, piety, hard work, patriotism, and wisdom. This book, which went through many editions, popularized the story that Washington as a boy had refused to lie in order to avoid punishment for cutting down his father's cherry tree. Washington long served as a symbol of American identity along with the flag, the Constitution, and the Fourth of July.
The age of debunking biographies of American personages in the 1920 s included a multi volume denigration of Washington by American author Rupert Hughes, which helped to distort Americans' understanding of their national origins. Both the hero worship and the debunking miss the essential point that his leadership abilities and his personal principles were exactly the ones that met the needs of his own generation. As later historians have examined closely the ideas of the Founding Fathers and the nature of warfare in the Revolution, they have come to the conclusion that Washington's specific contributions to the new nation were, if anything, somewhat underestimated by earlier scholarship.
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