These are troubling and rancorous times. Every day there seems to be another headline about the country’s ever-widening political divide. And it’s not just Democrat versus Republican. Within each party the gulf between the extremes is growing as progressives shout angrily at centrists and Donald Trump’s faithful refuse to tolerate the slightest deviation from his ironbound party line. The word “unprecedented” is often used to describe the level of combative partisanship that has gripped the nation.
And yet, despite all the fury and dissent, a bipartisan infrastructure bill somehow made its way through the Senate. Is President Biden justified in saying that the way forward is through dialogue and compromise? If George Washington were magically transported to today, I’m confident he would say something like, “Yes, but don’t set your hopes too high.”
Washington also had to deal with a partisan divide at the beginning of his presidency in 1789. There were no formal parties, but the ratification of the Constitution had divided the American people into two distinct (and today eerily familiar) factions: those who embraced the strong national government the Constitution created (the Federalists) and those who distrusted the notion of a centralized government superseding the powers of the states (the Anti-Federalists).
It could be argued that the only reason the Constitution was ultimately ratified by the nine states required for a national election was that no matter what a person believed about the merits of the new government, just about everyone could agree on the person to lead it: the 57-year-old Revolutionary War hero George Washington. That said, two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, had refused to ratify the Constitution by the time of Washington’s inauguration in New York City.
Early on in his presidency, Washington realized he needed to do something to appeal to all Americans — no matter on which side of the political fence they stood. Instead of proposing an infrastructure bill, Washington decided to hit the road. In an age before mass media made the president virtually omnipresent, Washington believed that he needed to go out and visit as many of the country’s towns and cities as possible.
Once Congress went into recess that fall, he embarked on the first of a series of presidential journeys “in order,” as he put it, “to become better acquainted with principal characters and internal circumstance, as well as to be more accessible to numbers of well-informed persons, who might” provide “useful information and advice on political subjects.”
Over the next two years, Washington ventured as far north as Kittery Point, Maine, and as far south as Savannah, Ga. He traveled by horse-drawn carriage, and just about everywhere he went he was greeted by large enthusiastic crowds. People began to realize they were now part of something bigger than their town or state or political faction; they were part of the Union. As a newspaper in Salem, Mass., reported, the appearance of the president “unites all hearts and all voices in his favor.”