Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 2. Segment 7
Establishing Precedents

No one could tell George Washington how to be president, for no one had ever had the job before. What he did would set an example for all the presidents to come. And he himself recognized this. He wrote, "I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent."

As president, Washington was head of the executive branch of our three-branch government. (The other two branches are the legislative, which is Congress, and the judicial, which is the courts.) Washington knew he couldn't make all the decisions of the executive branch by himself. So he appointed advisers—the secretary of state, the secretary of the treasury, and so on. All together they were known as the cabinet See It Now - George Washington's Cabinet. Washington picked the very best people he could find. For secretary of state, he needed a man who knew a lot about foreign nations, so he chose Thomas Jefferson. He needed a good financial adviser, so he chose Alexander Hamilton to be secretary of the treasury. Hamilton and Jefferson were brilliant men. But their ideas clashed. They wanted to do the best for their country. They just disagreed on what was best. As Jefferson later remembered: "Hamilton and myself were daily pitted ... like two fighting cocks Check The Source - A Letter from Washington to Jefferson."

Those two fighters disagreed about power and who ought to have it. Jefferson saw a strong, centralized government as a possible enemy of individual liberty. He feared a kinglike president and thought that ordinary people could govern themselves if they were educated. Hamilton believed the federal government should be strong if it was to work for all the people, instead of just those with the loudest voices See It Now - The Federalist Papers. He didn't have much faith in the people, as he himself explained: "Give all power to the many and they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many. Both therefore ought to have power, that each may defend itself against the other."

Hamilton and Jefferson's differences gave rise to the first American political parties. Hamilton's followers formed the "Federalist Party." Jefferson's followers were the "Democratic-Republicans." George Washington didn't like the idea of parties at all. He called them "factions" and warned against them Check The Source - President Washington on the Dangers of Faction. But James Madison understood that people don't think alike. He said that parties would balance each other, so that no one group could become too strong. The tension and the compromises between the two traditions, liberals and conservatives, represented by Jefferson and Hamilton have helped make this country great.




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