Library Dissertation Showcase

‘For a while, like the sun in the centre of the universe, you influenced and attracted the admiration of mankind’: representations of George Washington in the Partisan Press and the divides of the First Party System

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2021

This study seeks to rectify a gap within the historiography of the First Party System, which has largely ignored the impact of partisan perceptions of George Washington, and how they were weaponised by the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Focusing primarily on representations of Washington perpetuated within the partisan press of the Washington administration, this project will assert that perceptions of George Washington were crucial to both increasing the divides of the First Party System and to the success of the Federalist party in the debates of Washington’s second term. To explore the impact of these perceptions, this study will utilise three case studies. The first will analyse how perceptions of Washington were successfully propagated by Federalists, whilst Democratic-Republicans failed to account for Washington’s popularity when attempting to portray him as a distant monarch. These trends continued into the second case study which investigates how Federalists applied a paternal conception to Washington’s unassailable status, whereas Democratic-Republicans failed to learn from the mistakes of the neutrality debate. Washington’s condemnation of societies after the rebellion was suppressed inflamed Democratic-Republicans and contributed towards a disconnect between the image of a revered, virtuous Washington and the reality perceived by Democratic-Republicans. The final section explores how the trends observed previously culminated in the debate surrounding the Jay Treaty. Federalists continued to exploit the image of Washington’s infallibility and virtuous intent, whilst Democratic-Republicans conceded ground by attempting to convince Washington to their side by arguing it would mean he had lived up to that revered status. However, once he ratified the treaty they counterproductively exploded into a mix of outrage and denial which was reflected in how they attempted to portray Washington. Analysis of these three case studies substantiates this project’s conclusions that perceptions of Washington were central to the political fortunes of the Federalist party during his presidency, and that they contributed to the increasing divides of the First Party System.

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