When Congress convened in December of 1790, Hamilton unveiled a plan to establish a national bank. Southern planters, as the voice of agrarianism, protested. Northern merchants and business people supported the idea. The rift between these two groups widened. From this division the nation's first political parties would emerge: Republican and Federalist. Washington tried to stay above the fray, but he ultimately supported Hamilton's plan.
Washington's term as president drew to a close in 1792. He had done much to establish the government in general and the presidency in particular. He had kept his cabinet together and established a working relationship with Congress. He had also sought, futilely, to peacefully negotiate with Indian nations on the frontier. The country, though divided, was prospering. Washington decided to retire and asked Madison to help him write a farewell speech. As the time approached, however, the conflict between Federalists and Republicans grew so intense that it seemed no one would be able to reconcile them. Hamilton and Jefferson, the respective leaders of these groups, both urged Washington to stay on for a second term. Reluctantly, he agreed.
Washington moved slowly and carefully as president because he knew that the prestige of the office would hinge on his behavior. If Washington handled the job well, people would accept the idea of having a president. If he failed, people would not just reject him but the entire office of president too. Yet again the fate of the nation rested largely on him. Though not the most brilliant man of his generation, he perhaps alone had the strength of character and respect of the people to succeed.
Part of what made Washington's job so difficult was the fact no one quite knew what it involved. How should he lead? Whom should he consult? How should he deal with Congress? What kind of image should he project? There were no answers in the Constitution; Washington had to make it up as he went along. He wrote: "Few can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation has to act I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent." Washington established many of the basic aspects of the president's job; he created the role that later presidents up to now have filled.
In making his appointments, Washington sought experienced people from all regions of the country. He also sought a diversity of opinions. He wished to hear all the sides of an argument, then decide as impartially as he could. This worked for a brief time, but the growing rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton made it increasingly difficult. Washington could not understand why good men could not reach agreements. He was disgusted by the arguments he heard in Congress. He feared that when he left office the whole system of government would break down.
In our era, we expect governments to represent competing interests. As much as we complain about "partisanship" and "gridlock," we would be surprised if every member of Congress and the President really were "above politics." Yet that is what Washington expected of himself and his contemporaries. He saw the government in personal terms: it was not a group of politicians representing different interests, but rather a group of virtuous individuals working for the good of the entire nation. Though politicians today sometimes talk of "virtue" and "character," they generally act in the interests of whomever they represent. Washington thought politics could be different, but history seems to have proven him wrong.