GEORGE WASHINGTON 1732 - 1799  (G2, G3a, G3b)


xxxxxAs we have seen (1776 G3a), at the end of the War of American Independence in 1783 George Washington retired as commander-in-chief, returning to his estate at Mount Vernon. He remained concerned, however, about the lack of a strong, central authority, especially with the outbreak of the Shay Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786. This convinced him and others that a new constitution was vital. As we have seen, he presided over the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 and, after a federal constitution had been hammered out, was elected the first president of the new republic in 1789. He attempted to remain aloof from the rivalry of the political factions within the government but, in his second term of office this proved too difficult. The Democratic Republican leader Thomas Jefferson resigned in 1793, opposed to Washington’s policy of neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars, and then the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, whose fiscal and foreign policies were favoured by Washington, was forced out of office because of his pro-British stance. Attacked on a number of issues, Washington declined a third term of office, and retired in 1797.

xxxxxAs we have seen (1776 G3a), the soldier George Washington played a leading and vital role in the War of American Independence. When it came to an end in 1783, he retired as commander in chief, but before doing so, he saw the need to send a letter to all the states urging them to agree to and support the establishment of a strong central authority. He then returned to his home at Mount Vernon, anxious to put his estate in good order, but from here, too, he continued to plead for an “indissoluble union”, constantly fearing that the country was about to slide into anarchy. Evidence to support this possibility came in 1786 with the outbreak of Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts. This convinced many Americans, including Washington, that the Articles of Confederation were in urgent need of amendment, if not replacement. Thus, as we have seen, in 1787, as one of the delegates from Virginia, he attended the Philadelphia Convention, summoned to draw up a form of federal Government that was “adequate to the exigencies of the Union”. Not surprisingly, he was chosen to preside over the proceedings.

xxxxxDespite many difficulties, over the next four months the Convention hammered out and put down on paper its first draft of the American constitution. Ratified the following year, this republican and federal form of government safeguarded the rights of each state but, at the same time, provided a central Congress (made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate) to maintain law and order, defend the new nation, and preserve the liberties of its individual citizens. As was to be expected George Washington was elected unanimously as the first president of the new state - though he would have much preferred to go home and look after his estate!

xxxxxOn his journey to New York, then the nation’s capital, and in the city itself, he was given a rousing reception. On the last day of April 1789 he took the oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall, close to the where his statute stands today in Wall Street. Once sworn in, he quickly put his own stamp of authority on this high office. He rented good properties in both New York and Philadelphia, dressed in black velvet for formal occasions, and, accompanied by four resplendent liveried outriders, travelled in a coach drawn by a team of four or six horses. After much debate as to the title he should adopt, he was happy with the simplest form of address: The President of the United States.


xxxxxIn his inaugural speech, he cautiously avoided identifying himself with the various factions within government and, once in office, made a nation-wide tour, visiting both the northern and southern states to learn of their particular problems. On his return he put one day a week aside for members of the public who wished to speak to him. For his first cabinet - an executive body he himself created - he chose four men, selecting two from each of the parties which were beginning to emerge. ThexFederalists, mainly conservatives from the landed gentry and business, were represented by Alexander Hamilton (c1755-1804) (illustrated right), appointed first secretary to the Treasury. The Democratic-Republicans, primarily made up of small farmers, merchants and working men, were led by Thomas Jefferson (illustrated left), the first secretary of state for foreign affairs.

xxxxxFor the first few years, despite favouring the policies put forward by Hamilton, Washington managed to tread an impartial line between the rival political factions. But this balancing trick between President and Congress, deftly performed with dignity and propriety by Washington, could not be maintained indefinitely. During his second term of office, beginning in 1792, new problems arose, and he became subject to much criticism. By now, the two parties had become firmly established and looking for a fight. There was no shortage of flashpoints. First and foremost, the two parties became bitterly divided over the French Revolution. In 1793 Thomas Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State, opposed to Washington’s strict policy of neutrality towards France, and his support for Hamilton’s fiscal policy. There followed the Whisky Rebellion of 1794, a revolt by the farmers of western Pennsylvania against an excise tax which had been levied by Hamilton and supported by the president. There was no bloodshed, and the rebels were pardoned, but Washington was again accused of favouring the Federalists. And in the same year came Jay’s treaty with Great Britain, whereby trade links were re-established between the two countries. This agreement - manipulated behind the scenes by Hamilton and virtually forced through congress by Washington - caused a storm of protest. Democratic Republicans condemned it as a surrender to the British, and Hamilton was forced to resign as a consequence. Amid the rancour and recrimination that followed Washington then became the chief whipping boy.

xxxxxIt was because of this vitriolic abuse on the part of his political opponents - a far cry from the genuine respect they had shown him when he was first elected - that Washington decided not to serve a third term. In his farewell address he urged the people not to allow regional differences and loyalties to weaken the union, and he warned the government not to become entangled in foreign alliances or meddle in European affairs. He returned to Mount Vernon in March 1797, feted all the way by the common people he had served so well in war and peace. He died two years later after catching a chill. His funeral was a modest affair with only local friends and dignitaries in attendance, but his death was mourned throughout the country and by leaders in Europe. In the words of Congressman Henry Lee, Washington - admired as a man of character, courage and virtue - was the “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”. He was succeeded by his vice-president, the Federalist John Adams.


xxxxxDespite the political turmoil of his second period in office, when Washington retired in March 1797, the country’s finances were in a more stable condition, and both political parties had come to accept, in principle at least, the need for a strong federal government. Over the next seventy years or so the number of states was to increase from 13 to 36, and the new nation was to grow considerably in size, population and wealth. But quite apart from the inevitable social and economic problems to be faced, two major issues were to loom large on the American stage during this period. One was the precise balance of power which was to be struck between the individual states and Congress. The other was the extent to which the institution of slavery should be permitted to develop - an issue which was to divide the new nation and end in civil war, putting the very existence of the union in jeopardy. But, as we shall see, in 1812 (G3c), long before these issues were resolved, the United States, for a variety of good reasons, chose to declare war on Great Britain and to suffer the consequences.

xxxxxIncidentally, New York served as the capital of the United States from 1785, but the seat of the nation’s government remained at Philadelphia, where it had been situated since 1776. In 1791 President George Washington selected a site for a new capital city at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, close to the centre of the original thirteen colonies. First known as Federal City, but then named Washington after the nation’s first president, it was opened as the new capital and seat of government in 1800. It is situated in the federally owned District of Columbia - named after the Italian-born navigator Christopher Columbus. ……

xxxxx…… Thexportrait of Washington above was painted by the brilliant American artist Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828). It is considered the best of his 1,000 portraits but, as this illustration shows, it was far from finished! Known as his Athenaeum Portrait (because it is now held at the Boston Athenaeum) it provided the likeness for the President’s portrait on the U.S. one dollar bill. It was this painting that the president’s wife, Dolly Madison, rescued from the White House when the British set fire to the house in the War of 1812. Stuart went to London in 1775 where he was a pupil of the American painter Benjamin West, and was much influenced by the work of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. Apart from Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (the second and third Presidents of the United States), and the British Kings George III and George IV also sat for him. And anotherxAmerican artist at this time - and likewise a pupil of Benjamin West - was Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827). He painted no less than fourteen portraits of Washington.


Washington: by the American portrait painter Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), 1796 (unfinished) – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA.  Resignation: by the American artist John Trumbull (1756-1843), 1822 – US Capitol Rotunda. Jefferson: by the American painter Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), 1791 – Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, PA. Hamilton: by the American painter Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), c1795 - Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA. Deathbed: by the American painter Junius Brutus Stearns (1810-1885), 1851 – Dayton Art Institute, Ohio, USA. Houdon: Washington – State Capital, Richmond, Virginia; Rousseau – Musée Lambinet, Versailles; Artist’s Wife – The Louvre, Paris; Gluck – Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio; Diana – Museo Calouste, Gulbenkian, Lisbon; Jefferson – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Franklin – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Écorché – National Gallery of Art, Washington.




xxxxxAfter a visit to Mount Vernon in 1785, the brilliant French sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), produced a life-size marble figure of President Washington. Completed in 1788 it was put on display in the state capitol at Richmond, Virginia in 1796. Houdon, who excelled at portrait sculpture, was much in demand in France and elsewhere. His sitters included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great of Russia, and the French philosophers Denis Diderot, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. He produced a particularly fine bronze bust of Rousseau, developed from a death mask (now in the Louvre, Paris), and, in addition to his celebrated seated figure of Voltaire, he made four busts of the famous satirist. He remained much in demand during the Napoleonic era, and did a number of studies of Napoleon himself. His beautiful figure of Diana, produced in 1717, stands supreme amongst his mythological works.

xxxxxThe Frenchman Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), the foremost sculptor of his day, was invited to America in 1785 by the American diplomat Benjamin Franklin. He stayed at Mount Vernon for several weeks and then took his detailed studies of Washington back to France with him. The imposing, full-length marble statue, dated 1788 (illustrated), was placed in the rotunda of the state capitol at Richmond, Virginia in 1796. While in America he also made busts of a number of dignitaries, including those of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

xxxxxBorn in Versailles of humble parents, his remarkable skill as a sculptor was evident by the age of nine. He attended the art and sculpture school at the Royal Academy, along with his fellow countryman Jean Baptiste Pigalle, and won the Prix de Rome for sculpture in 1761. On returning to Paris in 1771 he struck up a friendship with the French encyclopedist Denis Diderot, and produced a bust of him in 1775. Diderot introduced him to many of the rich and famous, and this brought in the commissions. His patrons included Catherine the Great of Russia, Benjamin Franklin, the German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, and the French philosophers Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. The bronze bust of Rousseau, now in the Louvre, Paris, was developed from a cast of his face, taken by Houdon a short while after the philosopher died in 1778. And it was three years later that Houdon exhibited his famous seated figure of Voltaire.

xxxxxHoudon’s portrait sculpture is remarkable above all for its vitality and realism, which capture not simply the likeness but also the very character of his sitter. He would first produce his subject in clay, and then work in plaster, bronze or marble, showing a remarkable sensitivity and technical skill in all three mediums. Apart from portraiture - the genre in which he excelled - he also produced religious and mythological works, the most celebrated being his beautiful statue of Diana, first exhibited in 1777. He continued to work throughout the Napoleonic era, producing studies of Napoleon himself, and in 1803 was appointed professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. After the fall of the French Empire in 1815, commissions were few and far between, but towards the end of the century the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin spoke highly of his skill, and this revived interest in his work. Shown here (left to right) are Houdon’s Wife, the composer Christoph Gluck, the huntress Diana, and the statesmen Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

xxxxxIncidentally, when Houdon was studying in Rome in the 1760s he made a close study of muscles, attending medical dissection to perfect his knowledge. As a result he produced a sculpture to demonstrate the anatomical structure of a man. Known as Écorché (the man with no skin), it made his name. Plaster castes were made of the figure and these became widely used in art schools as anatomical models - and some are still in use today. ……

xxxxx…… Axnoted Parisian sculptor at this time was Augustin Pajou (1730-1809). He was directed by Louis XVI to create statues to honour great Frenchmen, and among the busts he produced were those of René Descartes and Georges Buffon. One of his finest works was his Psyche Abandoned of 1791.