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George Washington and the Rule of Law

2. Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion

George Washington faced a serious challenge to the rule of law during his first term as president. The new Constitution had replaced the Articles of Confederation. To avoid the financial problems experienced under the Articles, the Constitution allowed the federal government to collect certain kinds of taxes. In 1790, an excise tax on whiskey and some other items was passed to raise money to meet the financial obligations of the government. Farmers west of the Appalachian Mountains bitterly opposed the whiskey tax. These farmers were unable to move their grain to far away markets and still make a profit, so instead they distilled their grain into whiskey. Jugs of whiskey could be traded for supplies locally, and more easily exported over the mountains to profitable markets in the east. Certain Pennsylvania farmers decided not to pay the whiskey tax. By 1794, violent opposition erupted in four western counties of Pennsylvania.

Washington was always aware that as the first president he was establishing precedents, or examples. He knew that he could not allow such a blatant disregard for the rule of law. He believed that if any group was permitted to disobey the law, “there is an end put at one stroke to republican government, and nothing but anarchy and confusion is to be expected thereafter.” Washington sent word to the rebels to disperse and go home. He also ordered nearly 13,000 state militiamen to prepare to march if his orders were not followed. Facing such an overwhelming show of force, the farmers laid down their weapons and agreed to pay the tax. The Whiskey Rebellion had ended and the rule of law was secure. Later that year, Washington commented on the rebellion in his Sixth State of the Union Address:

It has demonstrated that our prosperity rests on solid foundations; by furnishing an additional proof that my fellow-citizens understand the true principles of government and liberty; that they feel their inseparable union; that, notwithstanding all the devices, which have been used to sway them from their interest and duty, they are now as ready to maintain the authority of the laws against licentious invasions, as they were to defend their rights against usurpation. It has been a spectacle, displaying to the highest advantage the value of republican government….


3. Washington Relinquishes Power

As Commander in Chief during the Revolutionary War and then as the first president, Washington held the most powerful positions in the new nation. In May 1775, at the Second Continental Congress, John Adams lobbied for Washington’s selection as Commander in Chief. But Adams knew that throughout history strong political men usually grasped for power when given the opportunity. He commented that Washington would be remarkable if he did not use his command of the army to seize power for himself. George Washington, however, never used his command for his own advantage. He even rebuked his men when they suggested that he become king or that the army assert its control over the civilian authorities. As Commander in Chief, Washington demonstrated his respect for the rule of law by his consistent deference to the elected Continental Congress. When he ended his service at the end of the war, he resigned his commission in 1783 and retired to Mount Vernon.

After presiding at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Washington was elected the first president. He was elected unanimously by the Electoral College, something that has never been repeated in American history. After two terms Washington thought it was important that he step aside. He believed that a peaceful transition of power to a newly elected president was necessary before his death. He feared that if he died in office and the vice-president ascended to the presidency, it would appear too much like an heir ascending to the throne after the death of a king. When Washington stepped aside at the end of his second term, George III said that Washington’s retirement from the presidency along with his earlier resignation of Commander in Chief, “placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living,” and that his relinquishing power made him “the greatest character of the age.”

Throughout world history, the transfer of political power has been marked by struggle, deception, and bloodshed. George Washington’s commitment to the rule of law, however, often at the expense of his own personal power and advantage, set the example by which political rule in America would be decided by ballets, not bullets. In his first inaugural address in 1981, Ronald Reagan commented on this remarkable fact:

My fellow citizens: To a few of us today, this is a solemn and most momentous occasion; and yet, in the history of our Nation, it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.

This statement of President Reagan nicely summarizes the importance of the rule of law, and helps us understand why the American experiment in self- government is such a unique thing in human history.


Discussion Questions:

Why is the rule of law, or constitutional government, important?

Why did Washington refuse to steal from the countryside to provide for the army at Valley Forge?

What did Lewis Nicola propose to Washington? What was Washington’s response?

What precedent did Washington establish by acting decisively to stop the Whiskey Rebellion?

Why did George III call Washington “the greatest character of the age”?

Why did Washington decide to step aside after two terms as president?

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