The First Four Presidents

Essential Questions

What was America's physical landscapes and territorial expan­sion during the first four presidents?

What were the early political divisions during the first four presidents?

President George Washington (1789-1797)


When George Washington was elected as the first president, the United States consisted of only 13 states, from New Hampshire to Georgia, almost all along the Atlantic Coast

The country was moving west and going to the Northwest Territory, an area that included what is now Ohio. By the early 1800s, thousands of Americans were pouring across the Appalachians to settle in the area between the mountains and the Mississippi River. The country stopped at the Mississippi River.

Pinkney’s Treaty (1795) – settled boundary disputes between Spain and the United States; allowed Americans to travel freely along the Mississippi River

Treaty of Greenville (1795) – 12 Indian tribes gave up land to the U.S. government that constituted most of present-day Ohio and Indiana

During his presidency, he added the following states: North Carolina, (1789), Rhode Island (1790), Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792), Tennessee (1796)


Politically the government was very stable under Washington. He won his election by 100% of the states; votes. An accomplishment not repeated by any other president. Washington used his immense popularity to keep the country together.

However, political parties developed from the split of opinions in Washington’s cabinet. Primarily, Jefferson (Democratic-Republicans) and Hamilton (Federalists). For a while power was divided fairly evenly.

The U.S. capital was in New York, then it moved to Philadelphia in 1970.

Washington had to appoint the entire supreme court. He also oversaw the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

Washington was the first president, so he created the model of how a president should be and act.

He chose to only serve two terms. Some people wanted him to rule for life. However, it was important for Washington to see the control of government to move on peacefully.

President John Adams (1797-1801)


No significant gains.


Adams had a stubborn and argumentative personality, which made it hard for him to compromise.

Adams was elected as a Federalist. However, he was a bitter rival of Alexander Hamilton. The two divided the Federalist party. As time went by, the Federalists lost power, until the party died out by the end of Madison’s presidency.

Adam's Presidency was also troubled by many foreign conflicts, primarily France.

Passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 which were four laws that made it illegal to publish any criticism of the government.

The U.S. capital moved again in 1800 to the District of Columbia, which was the middle of the country at that time.

President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)


In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson bought the territory of Louisiana from France for $15 million. It included the important port city of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and land between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains, including the Missouri River. When the United States acquired the Louisiana Territory it doubled the size of the United States, and it was adding unknown terrain (land). Explorers were busy for years exploring and mapping this territory. Most famous of which was the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806)

During his presidency, he added the following state: Ohio (1803)


Then Jefferson was elected as a Democratic-Republican.

He ran against Adams in 1797 but Jefferson lost and served as Adam's Vice President. However, Jefferson disagreed with many of Adam's policies and ran against him in 1801, this time defeating him.

As president, he shrunk the federal government by lowering taxes, cutting down on military spending, and reducing the national debt.

Jefferson tried to remain neutral during the Napoleonic Wars. European powers had been battling Napoleon's French Empire for years. After merchant ships were attacked, Jefferson outlawed all exports to Europe. This damaged America's economy since America depended on exports. Jefferson eventually ended the policy, but his reputation was so damaged he chose not to run for a third term.

President James Madison (1809-1817)


During his presidency, he added the following states: Louisiana (1812), Indiana (1816), Mississippi (1817)


When Madison was a Congressman, he was a vocal critic of Washington and Adams.

Then Madison was elected as a Democratic-Republican and the two presidents after him would be Democratic-Republican as well.

He worked to limit federal power and ended the national bank in 1811. He also reduced the size of the military.

Britain had been provoking the United States in a number of ways. So Madison asked Congress to declare war in June of 1812. This began the War of 1812. In 1814 the British burned down the White House. Madison had difficulty fighting the war because he had no bank or army.

Before he left office he increased the size of the military and created a new national bank.

Discussion Questions

  • Which President was responsible for the most territorial growth?

  • Which President had the most political stability?

  • Which president was the most effective based off their territorial growth and political stability?

Activity 1: What were the territorial growth and political stability during each of the first four presidencies?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activity