National Archives

George Washington Was the Last President to Face an All-out Foreign Policy Uprising

Jefferson called him a traitor and Paine wished him dead.

Turns out there’s a close precedent for the spectacle of a poisonously contrary opposing party urging Americans and foreigners alike to ignore the sitting US president. But we must reach back all the way to George Washington and the 1790s, says a leading scholar.

In his day, Washington was branded senile by his opponents—the precursors to today’s Democrats but back then called Republicans—one of whom wished for his early death, according to Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning US revolutionary-era scholar. Calling Washington a traitor, the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, tried to defund a treaty he had negotiated with the British.

“To the degree that the current right-wing Republicans don’t think that Obama represents the best interests of the country, they felt the same way about Washington,” Ellis tells Quartz. “The lunacies that we see are not unprecedented. They were there at the creation.”

First, let’s discuss contemporary politics

Today’s Republicans have been in a fairly regular lather almost since Barack Obama was elected president, casting doubt on his legitimacy and generally working to lock him in a full nelson. But over the past two weeks, they’ve gone into a higher state of agitation, into something resembling open rebellion.

On March 4, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell urged governorsof the 50 states to defy expected new federal rules governing carbon emissions from power plants, rules that in his view are illegal.

The day before that, House of Representatives speaker John Boehner hosted Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu for a big speech. Obama had opposed Netanyahu’s appearance because it was staged to undercut advanced nuclear negotiations under way with Iran. But, in one of history’s strangest episodes of diplomatic sabotage, it went ahead anyway: House and Senate Republicans, plus some Democrats, cheered as Netanyahu, facing a close election at home, suggested that Obama is a naïve foreign policy actor.

In the latest event, 47 Republicans on March 9 signed an open letter to Iran’s leadership: Tehran could conclude any nuclear deal it wanted with Obama, but Congress would have to approve it, and “the next president could revoke” it, the signees said. The letter appears not to have violated the Logan Act, which bars unauthorized people from conducting negotiations on behalf of the US, a role relegated solely to the president, but some legal scholars say it came close.

Aaron David Miller, a presidential scholar at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, says both the invitation to Netanyahu and the Republican letter are unprecedented. Other experts and commentators have said the same—that the president’s right to conduct foreign policy has never been so infringed. “Together they demonstrate that while politics really never stopped at the water’s edge, these days those domestic politics are way off shore,” Miller tells Quartz.

But that ignores the father of the nation

Perhaps no modern president has faced such a revolt, but Ellis points out that Washington confronted—and defeated—a similar uprising.

The issue back then was a diplomatic accord with Britain that came to be called the Jay Treaty. Negotiated just a few years after the cessation of the Revolutionary War, a time when emotions remained brittle between Britain and its former American colonies, the treaty, Washington argued, was nonetheless necessary if the US was to get onto its feet and not disintegrate.

But Jefferson and his political allies wanted the young country to enter a commercially hostile posture with Britain, and instead maintain its cozy relationship with the French.

Washington proceeded, peacefully settling outstanding issues from the Revolutionary War, including extricating residual British troops from present-day Ohio and neighboring states, and ushering in a decade and a half of normal trade between the former combatants.

So began the open warfare among the founding fathers. James Monroe, a Jefferson acolyte (and future president) who was then US ambassador to France, openly told Parisians they could ignore Washington—arguing that he was not the United States’ legitimate leader. Washington summarily fired Monroe. Another Jeffersonian aide behaved similarly, and Washington sacked him, too.

Paine’s diatribe against Washington.
 

The rhetoric became shrill. Jefferson called Washington senile. A grandson of Benjamin Franklin—Benjamin Franklin Bache—charged that Washington was a traitor, who had collaborated with the British in the war. Tom Paine wrote an open letter (left) in which he prayed for Washington’s imminent death, Ellis said.

To withhold Senate approval of the treaty, Jefferson and his acolytes fired up the public into an anti-British frenzy. Washington out-maneuvered them and won Senate ratification, at which point the Republicans shifted the field of battle to the House of Representatives, where they attempted to deny funding to put the treaty into effect. Washington won that, too, by a close, 51-48 vote.

Ultimately, Jefferson abided by the treaty when he himself became president in 1801. But the die for no-holds-barred partisan politics was cast. 

NEXT STORY: America Has Another Ebola Patient

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.