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Archive for the ‘Constitutional period (1789-1809)’ Category

During the first decade the United States lived under the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton (on the left) was a political force.  In fact, one could go so far as to say he was the second-most powerful man in the country, a rung or two below President Washington.  A good number of men loved and respected him (including the first President), and a good number loathed and reviled him (including the second, third, fourth, and fifth Presidents) .  But no one could argue with the presence and influence the country’s first Treasury Secretary enjoyed.  If you’ve spent any time on the pages of Today’s History Lesson, you know that to be true.  His legacy, now nearly two-and-a-half centuries in length, still lives with us.

During the second decade, Hamilton’s power began to dwindle.  Some of that was his own fault, some not.  Clearly, the Federalist party (to which Hamilton belonged) was falling out of favor, wilting under the pressure of an Anti-Federalist party led by Jefferson and Madison.  Federalists were under constant attack and in those days, before the “gentleman’s press” had come into being, those attacks were vicious and in numerous cases, untrue.

But Hamilton’s own indiscretions hadn’t helped his situation.  His affair with Maria Reynolds had been made public in the late 1790s, causing him to offer up a well-intentioned, but ill-advised public apology.  Then there was the even more ill-advised attack on President Adams (a fellow Federalist), published in the newspapers shortly before the 1800 election.  At this point, he was still hated by Anti-Federalists, but a good number of Federalists were keeping their distance as well.

By 1804, Hamilton was doing very well in his law practice, but struggling mightily for political significance.  The upcoming governor’s race in New York provided Hamilton with chance to gain some ground.  Aaron Burr (on the right above), the current Vice President, had decided to run for the position.  Of course, the feud between Hamilton and Burr needs no introduction around here.  Hamilton was incredibly worried that Burr would win, so he drafted a letter to his close friend Rufus King, currently the ambassador to England, asking him to run.  Hamilton knew that King might not be able to win the election outright against the firmly entrenched Clinton machine, but maybe he would siphon off enough “Burr” votes to prevent his arch-enemy’s victory.

On the day he wrote the letter, February 23, 1804, Hamilton became the center of attention again, and again, for all the wrong reasons.  The “Clinton machine”, led my New York governor George Clinton (another bitter rival of Hamilton’s), began circulating the report that, way back in 1787 (during the time of the Constitutional Convention), Hamilton and John Adams (then the ambassador to England) had negotiated with King George III to create an American monarchy with one of George’s sons as king.  In return, England would give up Canada, Nova Scotia, and other land holdings.

The story was utterly false.  Yes, both Hamilton and Adams had made statements in the past that, taken on their own, could be seen to favor a monarchical government.  But each man’s overall body of work clearly showed that neither, under any circumstance, wanted to return to that form of rule.  And having England in control of America in any way, shape, or form, was anathema to both men.  But the timing of the story was perfect, as Hamilton was beginning to gain a bit of political traction via his law practice.

Without letting go of his current work, Hamilton began tracing threads to determine the story’s originator.  He was a man that, above all else, treasured his own honor.  People began to detect the smell of gunpowder in the air and pistols at ten paces.

Hamilton was in the thick of it again.  Dates are a bit fuzzy, but I’m going to try put together a proper conclusion to this story on the proper day.

Recommended Reading:  Duel:  Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America – A good composite read on the feud between these two powerful men.  It starts a bit slowly for my tastes, but finishes with a flourish.

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James Callender.  The name probably means little to you.  The name meant nothing to me until I started reading about this country’s Founding Fathers a few years back.  But you would certainly know the type of man he was if I gave you just a one-word description.  That word, first used by Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century (as I learned on Jeopardy a few days ago), is “muck-raker”.  Wait, is that two words?  One word?

Whatever, James Callender was a muck-raker.  In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow describes him as a “hack writer“, an “ugly, misshapen little man who made a career of spewing venom.”   He spent most of his life doing it and, as we’ll soon see, his life ended in muck.  That’s the kind of guy he was.

He arrived in the United States, having left Scotland, in the early 1790s.  Well, “left” is something of a euphemism…”got out of town in a hurry” is more apt, fleeing the country to escape a sedition rap from the British government.  It didn’t take him long to anger folks on this side of the pond, either.

He got in with Republican interests early on, landing a job with Benjamin Franklin Bache’s newspaper, the Aurora.  Firing darts at Federalists like Washington, Adams, and Hamilton made him really good friends with Republicans like Jefferson.  In fact, our third President called Callender “a man of genius” and “a man of science fled from persecution.”

It was all tea and crumpets when James Callender released History of 1796, a pamphlet which exposed to the public a scandal involving “the prime mover of the federal party.”  He enticed his audience by writing that “we shall presently see this great master of morality, although himself the father of a family, confessing that he had an illicit correspondence with another man’s wife.”  He then went on to publish all the papers concerning Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds.  These were the accounts Hamilton had given to James Monroe, Frederick Muhlenberg, and Abraham Venable.

As we remember, these three men approached Hamilton because they believed the Treasury Secretary was involved in some sort of financial corruption with James Reynolds.  When he buried them with the details of the affair and the extortion, the men left knowing that Hamilton, while acting immorally, was not acting illegally.  Of course, Callender paid no attention to niceties like the truth, and published the corruption stuff anyways.

But Callender was an equal-opportunity muck-raker.  In 1802, he broke another story, this one about the relationship between President Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.  It was probably at this time that Jefferson’s opinion of James Callender changed from that of a man of science to “hypochondriac, drunken, penniless, and unprincipled.

And then there was the court case in 1803.  The People vs. Croswell involved Harry Croswell, a publisher charged with libel who claimed that Thomas Jefferson had paid Callender to defame President George Washington.  Of course, that meant that James Callender would likely be called to the witness stand.  He never made it.

On July 17, 1803, his body was found in the James River.  Apparently, he was in a drunken stupor and drowned in three feet of water…or did he?  History is unclear.

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When President Washington took the oath of office for the first time, political parties didn’t really exist.  Well, they sort of did, in the sense that groups of people (and therefore, groups of politicians) held different views of how this infant governmental experiment should work.

By the time John Adams had taken office, there were two pretty well-defined parties, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.  What’s rather humorous is that members of each party still believed there was only one party…their own.  The other party was considered to a break-away faction, a group of naughty boys that needed a good spanking to be brought back in line.

When Jefferson’s tenure as President ended, members of the two parties pretty much wouldn’t talk to each other about their differences.  The divide was growing more pronounced.  These days, Republicans and Democrats in Congress squawk at each other from the relative safety of the microphone and dais.  In Jefferson’s day, opposing politicians occasionally fought each other with fists, and “pistols at 20 paces” wasn’t out of the question.

Against this backdrop, James Madison took office as the fourth President.

The First Lady, Dolley, wasn’t much into the whole fighting thing.  In fact, she wasn’t a fan of conflict at all.  But she liked to entertain and, apparently, she liked to decorate as well.  And both of these came together quite nicely on this day in history.  When the Madisons moved into the White House, it was entering its second decade of service to the First Family.  They decided the place could use some sprucing up.

The process of redecorating began and, as the end of May approached, enough progress had been achieved for Dolley to plan something of a party.  On May 31, 1809 (which happened to be a Wednesday), guests were treated to the first White House “drawing rooms” gathering.

In his biography of James Madison, Ralph Ketcham described the occasion.  “Congressmen and their wives, socially prominent Washingtonians, visiting belles, and foreign emissaries crowded the White House rooms for a glimpse of the new furnishings and the new presidential pair.  Military music filled the house, and the guests helped themselves from buffets loaded with punch, cookies, ice cream, and fruit.

Here, members of opposing political viewpoints actually put their differences aside to engage in pleasant conversation while listening to music and eating their favorite goodies.  It helped to build a bit of camaraderie between highly volatile factions.  In her biography of the fourth First Lady, Catherine Allgor goes so far as to say, “If for no other reason than this, the drawing room contributed to the construction of a workable government.”  That may be a bit of an overstatement, but clearly, men were more civilized in their dealings with each other.

The event was a tremendous success, and Dolley was roundly praised for her elegance and hospitality.  The Wednesday “drawing rooms” became a regular occurrence.  A single room came to be the State Dining room and the attached parlor (today’s Red Room) along with another room.  Over time, attendance mushroomed to several hundred guests and a new, possibly more appropriate name – “Wednesday Squeezes” – came into being.

The Wednesday event continued until the White House was burned by the British…on a Wednesday.  The story goes that Dolley was awaiting the arrival of guests when word came that the list be dominated by a gaggle of British soldiers.  She grabbed what she could, left the dinner on the table, and got out.

Recommended Reading:  A Perfect Union:  Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation

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It wasn’t the White House, because it didn’t yet exist.  It was the Capitol building, because it didn’t yet exist, either.  And it wasn’t even Washington, D.C. because, well, that property still belonged to the states of Maryland and Virginia.  But when we think of a Presidential inauguration, all of those places are usually top of mind.  In 1789, however, they were completely out of mind.  So New York City provided the locale, and City Hall provided the venue for the very first Presidential inauguration.

George Washington was a very nervous man; probably way more nervous than when he had spoken his wedding vows.  He had been unanimously nominated to lead a new country with a new charter and a completely new form of government.  He had spent the winter talking about how he was unqualified to lead, even while the country believed, almost without exception, that he was the most capable man to do so.  His wife, Martha, didn’t really look forward to being First Lady.  In fact, in his biography of the First President, Ron Chernow writes that Mrs. Washington “talked about the presidency as an indescribable calamity that had befallen her.

Regardless of feelings, there was no backing out now.  Vice President Adams, in front of the First Congress, turned to the President-elect and said, “Sir, the Senate and the House of Representatives are ready to attend you to take the oath required by the constitution.

Washington stepped out onto the balcony shortly after noon on April 30, 1789 to an immense roar and took the oath.  Though not required, a committee thought it appropriate, at the eleventh hour, to have the President place his hand on a Bible.  But where to find one?  In the end, a local Masonic Lodge provided its Masonic Bible and Washington was administered the oath.

Then the President addressed the crowd.  Again, this was not required by the Constitution, but it seemed right.  Washington’s original speech, written by David Humphreys, spent too much time defending his decision to accept the Presidency.  It spent too much time talking about his faith in the American people (not necessarily a bad thing).  It spent too much time downplaying any form of dynasty (Washington was childless, after all).  It delved too close (and again, at too great a length) to legislative matters for executive branch comfort.  In fact, at seventy-three pages, it spent too much time on everything.

When Washington sent the speech to James Madison for his thoughts, he promptly tossed it out and wrote a much more succinct address that steered clear of legislative issues, which the President readily accepted and delivered.

Washington had become a household name in the Colonies during the French and Indian War.  He had become the hero of the American Revolution.  He had been a calming force (though he barely spoke) at the critical and sometimes contentious Constitutional Convention.  And now he was the President, chosen by the people (by a wide margin) and the Electoral College (by unanimous consent).

Recommended Reading: Washington – A Life

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The French Revolution, which began with the 1790s, was seen by many American citizens as a chance for another country to throw off the shackles of tyranny.  After all, the Colonies had, in the previous decade, successfully removed British control.  The idea of the French doing the same had big appeal in the Colonies-turned-States.

But as we know, this upheaval quickly turned from “Revolution” to “Reign of Terror”, and fall of the guillotine’s blade became more common than sunrise and sunset in France.  Thousands of the nation’s leaders were slaughtered and tens of thousands of its civilians massacred in a display of countryman-against-countryman butchery that has been rarely duplicated in history.

King Louis XVI was beheaded in January 1793, his head and body stuffed in a basket, then eventually buried in a box.  One executioner began an impromptu business, selling bits of the King’s hair and clothing, as schoolboys cheered and licked the King’s blood.  Make no mistake, the American Revolution was about freedom, and the French Revolution was a disgusting display of man’s basest inhumanity and brutality.

England watched from across the Channel in horror.  William Pitt the Younger called the King’s execution “the foulest and most atrocious act the world has ever seen.”  France’s response?…a declaration of war on February 1.  News travelled slowly back then, and word of war didn’t arrive in America until early April, but it was immediately felt in the States, as pro-British and pro-French elements took their sides and waited for the government to make its position known.  President Washington very quickly (and very wisely, in my opinion) acted and, in April, offered up the Proclamation of Neutrality.  America would not take any side.

But in between the arrival of the news of war and the government’s decision to remain neutral, there was another arrival…this one in Charleston, South Carolina.  On April 8, 1793, the French Minister to the United States arrived aboard the frigate Embuscade.  His name?…Edmund Charles Genet.  But, as Chernow writes, “he would be known to history, in the fraternal style popularized by the French Revolution, as Citizen Genet.

For those with British sympathies, Genet was their worst nightmare.  For anyone siding with the French, here was a man to greet with effusive praise and much regailment.  Genet’s pomp and arrogance not only made him an incredibly polarizing figure, it also meant he was “all the news” for a while.  And that made it easier for the Frenchman to move about and peddle his influence, for Citizen Genet didn’t come to America to escape the Reign of Terror.  This man had an agenda.

And over the course of the next year or so, his disregard for American authority and American foreign policy, which under most circumstances was likely treated as sedition, would cause no end of trouble.

We’ll check back in on Citizen Genet again…trust me.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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Well, it’s been quite a while since I last put fingers to keyboard, but I’ve got a good excuse.  We took a vacation to Clearwater Beach, Florida.  I actually took the laptop with me, figuring I’d have time for a bit of work and maybe bit of typing.  Such was not the case.  The weather was absolutely perfect (bright sunshine, blue skies, beautiful beaches, and temperatures in the 70s), the condo was fabulous, and there were plenty of things to do.

I love to eat fish, and being on the Gulf meant there was plenty to be had…all of it was great.  But then we found The Gondolier, an East Coast chain that specializes in pizza.  Their food was outstanding…so good in fact that on our last evening, we simply went back there a second time.  Had we tried that place first, we may have eaten every meal there.  If we go back to Clearwater (and that’s a pretty serious possibility), we may do just that.

The long and short of it is that the laptop stayed mostly parked on the dresser.  But now we’re back to reality (and single-digit temperatures), so I’m hoping to get going this year.  Last year averaged fewer than eight pieces per month, so I’d like to improve on that.

“On January 20, 1791, a bill to charter the Bank of the United States for twenty years virtually breezed through the Senate.”

It’s a pretty simple statement taken from Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and one that’s easy to just gloss over because we’re so used to banks in the 21st century.  We have banks of every shape and size on nearly every corner.  We can bank online, at the teller window, in the lobby, at an ATM machine, or on a smartphone.  Banks are as common as grocery stores.

In the 18th century, that was not the case.  And while there are people today that don’t trust banks and bankers, 18th-century opinions against the banking system was almost violent.  For Founders like James Madison and John Adams, their political differences found common ground in their opposition to banks.  Jefferson wrote, “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural…”  He would describe banks as “an infinity of successive felonious larcenies.”

For those against, banks were seedbeds of corruption and vice, turning honest men into money-hungry, money-grabbing monsters.  I think of a bank as a place to store our money safely and earn a bit of interest.  Men like our third President, through the lens of the 1780s, saw it as an oppressor of the poor and a creator of a class-based society…somewhat ironic considering Jefferson’s adherence to slavery despite his vocal abhorrence of the practice.

Some would say that Jefferson and Madison and Adams and those on their side were somewhat backwards in their stance.  Sure, America was largely agrarian now.  But was agriculture the only industry with a future in brand-new America?  Manufacturing and heavy industry, while not a major force at the time, would certainly increase in importance.  They required large amounts of capital to get started…the kind of capital only a bank could hold.  Furthermore, a national bank would help establish credit with other countries as well as manage and reduce the nation’s outstanding debt.

But for James Madison, it went beyond class and oppression and ended at the Constitution.  Alexander Hamilton had authored the idea of the bank using that most famous little piece of our founding charter…Article 1, Section 8.  We know it best as the “necessary and proper” clause.  It gave (and still gives) Congress the power to pass legislation “necessary and proper” to exercise its delegated duties.  Madison didn’t see a bank as “necessary”.  Nice?…maybe.  Convenient?…maybe.  Necessary?…absolutely not.

Madison had argued for the Constitution’s elasticity when writing pieces for The Federalist, but he believed a national bank pushed that elasticity beyond the breaking point.  Many agreed with him.  Hamilton had also argued for flexibility in the Constitution and believed the bank fit nicely under that clause.  And more Senators agreed with him than with Madison, so the bill passed the Senate.

Curious about the bank’s ultimate claim to fame?  How about the party system we enjoy (or loathe, depending on your bent) today?  Yep, it was along the banks of the “banking river” that political parties were born.

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The world has changed since I wrote that piece on Joseph Goebbels just a couple of days ago.  In fact, I was just finishing that article when our son called and told us to turn on the news.  And of course, we heard what you all now know.  The most wanted man in the United States, Osama Bin Laden, was not only found, but was confronted by special forces and ultimately killed.  I’m sure that, like the events of September 11, 2001, many will remember what they were doing on the evening of May 1, 2011, when they heard that America’s #1 enemy had finally received justice for his crimes.

So far, this evening hasn’t provided any news that approaches that level, but it can’t be like that every day.  So let’s head back a couple of hundred years and spend a moment on a bit of news.  In May of 1789, America was young enough to still be in the hospital awaiting release.  President Washington had just taken the oath of office, the country’s flag had but eleven stars, and people were arguing about the Constitution.  In fact, the debate over the Constitution had been continuous and often contentious in the eighteen months since its approval in Philadelphia.

One of the biggest issues involved the rights of the people.  Many believed the Constitution didn’t say enough about them, and there was fear that, over time, the new government would begin taking power away from the people.  Others believed that the government only had the power to act on the powers it was expressly granted in the Constitution, and all other powers were, by extension, granted to either the States or the people directly.  But what was supremely clear was that the Constitution’s lack of a set of enumerated rights caused great concern for a great many people.  It had weighed heavily at the Constitutional Convention, to the point that a commitment to address it in the future was necessary to allow the document’s passage.  It had weighed heavily in several of the State conventions.  And it was one of the reasons North Carolina and Rhode Island still held out against statehood.

And now those in favor of a weak government were using the call for a “Bill of Rights” as a springboard to try to gut the federal government’s power.  Amendments were being proposed in Congress that would limit the power to tax, to make treaties, and regulate commerce.  In essence, what was being put forward was a return to an “Articles of Confederation”-style of government, which would have mortally wounded the Constitution.  James Madison, who initially opposed a Bill of Rights, came to see that it was necessary, not only as a way to keep his promise and end a lot of debate, but also to thwart an Antifederalist agenda to gut the document he (and others) had worked so hard to create and defend.

And so on May 4, 1789, he stood up in Congress and announced that, once more important getting-the-government-off-the-ground matters had been addressed, work would begin on a bill of rights.  Madison said, “If we can make the Constitution better in the opinion of those who are opposed to it, without weakening its frame, or abridging its usefulness in the judgment of those who are attached to it, we act the part of wise and liberal men to make such alterations as shall produce that effect.”  And James Madison didn’t have to look very far to find good suggestions for consideration, as the States (when debating ratification of the Constitution) had come up with hundreds of ideas.

Actual work on these enumerated “rights of the people” would not begin until August, and the process would be lengthy.  But in the end, the Bill of Rights we know today are vitally important (and often-debated).  As I wrote some time ago, they are ”Thou Shalt Nots” by which our government must abide.

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