George Washington / George Washington - Key Events

George Washington - Key Events


George Washington inaugurated as the first President of the United States in New York City, the nation's capital.

Congress enacts tariff

Congress, led by Representative James Madison, enacts the first protective tariff. Madison consulted with President Washington about the need for the measure.

First naturalization law

Congress passes the United States' first naturalization law, establishing terms of citizenship.

Ratifying the Constitution

Rhode Island ratifies the Constitution, becoming the last of the original thirteen states under the Articles of Confederation to join the newly formed Union.

Copyright law

President Washington signs the first United States copyright law.

Establishing the capital

President Washington signs a bill into law that permanently places the nation's capital along the Potomac River, in an area to be called the District of Columbia.

Revolutionary War debts

President Washington signs a bill into law that directed the federal government to assume the Revolutionary War debts of the states.

Moving the capital

The United States Capital officially moves from New York to Philadelphia, where it remains until the completion of the District of Columbia in 1800.

U.S. Capital Moves to Philadelphia

On December 6, 1790, the United States Capital officially moved from New York City to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The capital remained in Philadelphia until 1800 when it permanently settled in Washington, D.C.

The United States government spent its first year (1789-1790) under the Constitution in the city of New York. During much of the preceding confederation period (1776-1787), however, Congress had resided in Philadelphia. Upon the formation of a new national government under the Constitution, the city campaigned vigorously for the federal government to return. While Congress chose to establish the nation's capital along the Potomac River in the District of Columbia, it also rewarded Philadelphia; it chose the Pennsylvania city to house the federal government until 1800 while its offices in Washington were under construction.

Arriving in time for the December 1790 session, Congress moved into Philadelphia's county courthouse, Congress Hall. These quarters quickly proved too small, and in 1793 the building had to be enlarged. The Supreme Court met in the mayor's courtroom in Philadelphia's city hall, and President George Washington moved into the former home of a local politician. As part of its improvement program, Pennsylvania offered to build Washington a presidential mansion. Washington, however, feared the city would use the residence in a bid to keep the capital in Philadelphia permanently. He also worried that living in grandeur would send the wrong message to Americans and the world about the nature of the new American republic. When Pennsylvania built the mansion anyway, Washington refused to live in it.

The initial adjustment period proved somewhat chaotic as legislators searched for housing in a city rapidly filling with tailors, barbers, shoemakers, and other entrepreneurs who hoped to capitalize on the presence of the federal government. Prices rose accordingly with the increased demand for goods and services, and many congressmen bemoaned the higher cost of living. The profusion of balls, dinners, dances, public lectures, musical performances, and theater spurred by the federal presence created a rich cultural environment. President Washington's weekly reception for politicians and foreign diplomats and Martha Washington's Friday evening soirées commanded the highest priority in the city's social scene. Washington's careful cultivation of public esteem and deference in Philadelphia enhanced his image as a national symbol and fostered the growth of American nationalism. In an era when most Americans looked to Congress as the primary branch of government, Washington's public persona in Philadelphia helped to elevate the stature of the presidency and solidify its importance in the American political system.  

Creating a national bank

Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, with President Washington's support, sends Congress a controversial message (The Report on a National Bank) calling for the creation of an official Bank of the United States. After a hard-won approval by Congress, Washington signs the bill on February 25, 1791.

03/03/1791: First revenue law

Congress approves its first internal revenue law, creating fourteen revenue districts and placing a tax on all distilled spirits.

09/09/1791: Naming the capital

Commissioners name the territory within the District of Columbia (and the future seat of the Federal Government) the city of Washington in honor of the nation's first President.

Fighting in Miami

The Miami Indians soundly defeat an American military force of 1400 men led by General Arthur St. Clair at the cost of 900 American lives. The Washington Administration had sent St. Clair to the Ohio country with the hope that his presence would clear the way for American settlers.

Ratifying the Bill of Rights

The states officially ratify the first ten amendments to the Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights. President Washington had called for their ratification in his first inaugural address.

Appointing Thomas Pinckney

President Washington appoints Thomas Pinckney as the first United States minister to England. Washington instructs him to convey a spirit of “sincere friendship” and to seek the liberation of American commerce from British regulations.

The President's mansion

The cornerstone for the President's mansion is laid in Washington D.C.

Washington reelected

George Washington is unanimously re-elected President of the United States by the Electoral College. John Adams is elected for a second term as Vice President.

Proclaiming neutrality

President Washington issues a proclamation of neutrality, warning Americans to avoid aiding either side in the emerging conflict between Britain and revolutionary France.

Receiving french envoy

President Washington cautiously receives France's envoy to the United States, Edmond Charles Genet. Washington fears that Genet wants to enlist U.S. aid in the conflict between Britain and France.

Washington Receives “Citizen Genet”

On May 18, 1793, President George Washington received the French minister to the United States, Edmond Charles Genet. Known as “Citizen Genet,” the minister had come to the United States to try to gain U.S. support for France. He arrived in the country in April 1793 and journeyed to Philadelphia, stopping to celebrate along the way with adoring, supportive crowds.

France and the United States had maintained friendly relations since signing an alliance in 1778. When the French Revolution turned violent in 1792, however, many Americans re-evaluated that friendship. Republicans, including Thomas Jefferson, sympathized with the revolution, seeing it as an emulation of America's own freedom struggle. Alexander Hamilton and his fellow Federalists feared that the chaos and violence would spread to the United States and destroy the young republic. When revolutionary France and Britain went to war in early 1793, Washington declared the United States neutral, warning Americans to avoid aiding either side in the emerging European conflict. However, this proclamation of neutrality only deepened domestic partisan divisions over the tenor of Franco-American relations.

Edmond Charles Genet arrived in the United States in April 1793 with instructions to persuade the President to observe the 1778 treaty by supporting the French war effort. Twisting Washington's definition of neutrality, Genet immediately set to work attempting to use American commercial ports as French military bases. He cultivated support against neutrality and tried to stir up agitation in the western United States against the Spanish territories of Louisiana and Florida. Even Jefferson, initially a supporter of Genet, tried to restrain the Frenchman, but to no avail. When Washington refused to cooperate with Genet's schemes, Genet threatened to appeal directly to the American people.

Washington and Hamilton believed Genet's activities constituted a threat to the stability of the American republic. Hamilton and other Federalists worked to discredit Genet, and Republicans tried to distance themselves from him. In August 1793, Washington and his cabinet unanimously agreed to request that France recall Genet. However, a new government had come to power in France during Genet's absence, and it had decided that his actions were hurting its cause and called for his arrest. Fearing for the Frenchman's safety, Washington allowed Genet to remain in the country as a private resident; he lived in New York until his death in 1834.

Genet's activities in 1793 sharpened the existing divisions between Federalists and Republicans, adding to the growing political partisanship that marked the 1790s. As the American citizenry became further politicized, President Washington's ability to promote consensus quickly eroded and his ability to govern was compromised. Washington's second term stalled under intense partisan political turmoil, one of the reasons he happily retired to Mount Vernon when his presidency ended.  

Straining relations with Britain

American relations with Britain begin to deteriorate rapidly after the British government issues secret orders for the Royal Navy to confiscate any vessels trading with French possessions in the Caribbean. The Royal Navy seizes more than 200 American ships.

Jefferson resignation

Thomas Jefferson resigns as secretary of state. President Washington appoints Edmund Randolph as his successor.


Congress responds to British aggression by authorizing the production of six warships (March 11) and announcing a sixty-day embargo on American shipping (March 26). The Washington administration supports both measures.

Special envoy to Britain

In the hopes of quelling mounting tensions between the United States and Britain, Washington selects Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay to serve as a special envoy to Britain, in the hope that he can broker a deal with the British government to improve relations and address American grievances.

Farmers' rebellion

Farmers in western Pennsylvania rebel over the strict enforcement of an excise tax on whiskey passed in 1791. President Washington issues a proclamation on August 7 ordering the insurgents to return home. When this fails, he calls up more than 12,000 militiamen and dispatches them to Pennsylvania, whereupon the insurrection dissolves.

Battle of Fallen Timbers

General Anthony Wayne defeats an Indian force numbering more than 1,000 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The victory helps open the Ohio territory for American settlement and is a defeat for Britain, which had allied with the Native Americans in the region.

Jay Treaty

On November 19, 1794, American statesman John Jay signed the Amity, Commerce, and Navigation Treaty with Britain. The treaty, now known as Jay's Treaty, was designed to resolve issues between the United States and Britain. Although the treaty left some important issues unresolved and its ratification divided politicians in the young federal government, it successfully allowed the United States to avoid war with its more powerful adversary, Britain.

In the 1790s, the United States was struggling to assert both its political and economic independence, and the new nation encountered difficulties in foreign relations when its two primary trading partners, Britain and France, went to war yet again. President George Washington sought to follow a policy of strict neutrality, allowing American merchants and ships to trade with both countries while aiding neither in their war efforts. Britain, however, confiscated many American ships and their cargoes, arguing that they aided the French war effort. British naval vessels also frequently impressed American sailors, forcing them to work on British ships. Britain, in addition, still barred American ships from participating in the lucrative West Indian trade, a policy it formulated during the American Revolution. The United States was also upset by Britain's refusal to evacuate its forts in the Great Lakes area, although it had agreed to do so in the Treaty of Paris of 1783.

These British actions outraged many Americans. Attempting to keep the United States out of war, President Washington worked for a diplomatic solution. He sent John Jay, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to England in 1794 to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the issues. Jay concluded a treaty in which Britain promised to leave its forts in the Great Lakes region, agreed to arbitration for disputes over the Canadian border (one of the first instances of arbitration in diplomatic history), and gave American ships limited trading rights with British possessions in the East and West Indies. The treaty left unresolved, however, the issues of impressments and American neutrality.

Jay's Treaty still needed to earn Senate ratification - and a tough battle loomed. The ratification process, in which Federalists supported and Democrat-Republicans opposed the treaty, became bogged down in partisan differences, destroying what little remained of the consensus President Washington had tried to instill in the federal government. As a piece of diplomacy, Jay's Treaty was imperfect but still a success. The treaty did not secure everything the Americans wanted because it failed to deal with the impressment problem and American neutrality, and because it seemed to acquiesce to British supremacy on the seas. The treaty, however, did put off direct conflict between America and its much stronger rival, and it won the United States important territorial and trade concessions - no small feat for a new nation confronting a global power.  

Hamilton resignation

Alexander Hamilton resigns from his post as secretary of the treasury. Washington appoints Oliver Wolcott to replace Hamilton.

Ratifying the Jay Treaty

After fierce public debate, the Senate ratifies the Jay Treaty. President Washington signs the treaty on August 14.

Treaty of San Lorenzo

The United States signs the Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain, granting Americans the right to ship goods through the port of New Orleans without having to pay duties to the Spanish Government.

Paying the Dey

The American Government, represented by David Humphreys, agrees to pay a sum of nearly a million dollars to the Dey of Algiers for protection of American shipping in the Mediterranean and for the ransom of sailors.

Tension concerning Jay Treaty

A heated dispute erupts between President Washington and his Federalist allies and Democrat-Republicans in the House of Representatives after the latter demand that the President provide Congress with all papers relating to the Jay Treaty. Washington refuses their demands.

Tennessee becomes a state

Congress grants Tennessee's application for statehood, allowing it to become the 16th state in the Union.

Diplomatic crisis

France informs James Monroe, America's leading diplomat in Paris, that the Jay Treaty violates, and therefore suspends, certain provisions of the 1778 Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the two nations. This begins a serious diplomatic crisis between France and the United States.

Washington says farewell

President Washington releases what has become known as his “Farewell Address,” in which he advises future American leaders to minimize “political connection” with foreign powers.

Washington's Farewell Address

On September 19, 1796, newspapers around the country published President George Washington’s Farewell Address. In his address, Washington summarized his presidential tenure, cautioned against political divisions, and advised future American leaders to minimize connections with foreign powers.

President Washington, after nearly eight years as the nation’s first President, determined that he would not accept a third term in office. By this time, political divisions between Alexander Hamilton on one side and James Madison and Thomas Jefferson on the other had hardened into proto-political parties. Whereas in 1789, at the time of Washington's inauguration, loyalty to country and Constitution equated with loyalty to the President, the rise of political parties had begun to separate the two. Washington, as a result, faced increasing criticism of his domestic and foreign policies during his second term. Upon deciding to retire, he offered his Farewell Address both as a defense of his presidency and a plea for the future of the federal government.

Washington released his farewell in the nation’s newspapers in September 1796; he never presented it in person before any assembly. The President opened with a tribute to the people of the United States and with an explanation that his time for retirement had come. He then emphasized the importance of union and the need to avoid sectional and factional divisions. He also warned the country against permanent alliances with foreign nations.

Both points responded to issues in his presidency. Washington felt betrayed by the partisan criticism of his leadership and equated lack of support for his administration with lack of commitment to the Constitution. His address thus sought to vindicate his leadership, as well as promote harmony in future governance. One policy that had been criticized by the Jefferson-led opposition involved relations with revolutionary France. Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality in 1793 upon the resumption of conflict between France and Britain. Jeffersonians argued this violated the French-American Treaty of 1778 whereby each nation pledged to assist the other. Washington feared involvement in European conflicts would jeopardize the stability of the fledgling United States, and in his farewell attempted to justify his neutrality policy.

Preliminary drafts of the Farewell Address revealed Washington’s bitterness over the political climate in 1796. Revisions by Alexander Hamilton softened many of the complaints and omitted the self-pitying passages. Even so, when placed in the context of the times, the farewell reads as a lament, an ambiguous end to the first President’s career. It illustrates Washington’s belief in the central importance of the presidency, yet at the same time demonstrates that as early as 1796, the emerging political system had begun to shape, constrain, and frustrate the executive.

To read President Washington’s Farewell Address, click here.

Treaty with Tripoli

In an agreement resembling the one signed with the Dey of Algiers in 1795, the American government signs a treaty with Tripoli, agreeing to pay a yearly tribute to the Pasha of Tripoli in exchange for the peaceful treatment of U.S. shipping in the Mediterranean region.

John Adams elected

John Adams is elected President of the United States. Thomas Jefferson, the candidate with the second highest electoral vote, becomes vice president.

France rejects envoy

France refuses to accept Monroe's replacement, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, as American envoy to France, worsening relations between the two nations.

John Adams inaugurated

John Adams is inaugurated as the second President of the United States, thereby officially ending the presidency of George Washington. Washington retires to his home at Mount Vernon.