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Posts Tagged ‘James Madison’

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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On April 10, 1803, James Monroe arrived in Paris, France.  His task, as given him by the Jefferson Administration, was to attempt to purchase New Orleans from the French.  But this statement probably needs a bit more context.

The Spanish-American treaty of 1795 had given America commercial access to the southern port.  Because the monster Mississippi River flowed out into the Gulf there, it was of immense importance to people living in what was then deemed “the West” (that area between the original Colonies and the Mississippi River).  In fact, when writing to Charles Pinckney (then the minister to Spain), Secretary of State James Madison penned, “The Mississippi is to them everything.  It is the Hudson, the Delaware, the Potomac and all the navigable rivers of the Atlantic States formed into one stream.”

But Monroe didn’t go to France because of the Spanish-American treaty.  He went, because in November of 1802, the Administration learned that the Spanish intendant in New Orleans had closed the port to American business.  And because the French had just purchased New Orleans from the Spanish, it was suspected that some shenanigans by Napolean was in the works.

The Spanish minister in Washington tried to quell the incident as a mistaken act by the over-zealous intendant, but protests against the Spanish and the French had already begun.  It quickly became clear that if American trade down the largest of America’s rivers was to be protected, it was simply in America’s best interest to own New Orleans.

And so James Monroe was sent to Paris.  Madison was quick to remind him that the Jefferson Administration was not interested in the land west of the Mississippi, just protecting its interests on the river itself, particularly at the port.  Furthermore, word had come to Washington that the French might have acquired the Floridas as well, so if they wanted to be rid of that territory, the States were more than interested in purchasing it as well.

So it’s not too hard to imagine everyone’s surprise when Robert Livingston (the American minister already in Paris) met with French minister Talleyrand the next day.  It was then…

…well, let’s look at that tomorrow.

Recommended Reading:  The Last Founding Father – I just received my copy this past week and anxiously await its turn on my bookstand.

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As anyone with a pulse probably knows, the United States government is pretty badly in debt.  I did a few searches to try to find the total, but that was difficult.  It appears that most “debt-clock” sites show the nation in the hole by more than $14,000,000,000,000…14 trillion dollars.

But then there’s this thing called “unfunded liabilities”.  What’s the difference between those and traditional debt?  As best I can tell, a “debt” is money you owe for something you’ve purchased.  You borrowed to buy a car, or a house, or a boat.  So you have the asset, but you still owe money for it…that’s debt.  But let’s say you’ve committed to buying a house, even though you don’t have the money to pay for it.  That’s an unfunded liability.  Once you buy the house and get a physical loan for it, the unfunded liability becomes actual debt.

Like I said, the U.S. government’s debt is more than $14 trillion (and it’s gone up a couple million dollars in the time it’s taken you to read this far).  But the unfunded liabilities (commitments to pay for things) total more than $100 trillion…$100,000,000,000,000.

And since everyone in the country earns (added together) in the neighborhood of just (just!) $60 trillion, well…uh, I’m pretty sure that we’re in deep financial doo-doo.

In 1790, there was debt as well.  The U.S. government had borrowed heavily from the French and Dutch to finance the Revolution, to the tune of roughly $12 million in principle and interest (or about a minute’s worth of modern-day debt).  But in addition, the government had borrowed more than $40 million from its own citizens, handing out I.O.U.s like chucking candy from a float on the 4th of July.

And now that an “official” government was getting under way, one of first things on the docket was establishing good credit.  That meant paying off the debt.  Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton felt strongly (as did most of his contemporaries) that debt was bad for people, and worse for governments.  He would write that debt “is perhaps the NATURAL DISEASE of all Governments.  And it is not easy to conceive anything more likely than this to lead to great and convulsive revolutions of Empire.”

And so he set to work, building a plan to erase the debt and pay back the lenders, which would improve the new nation’s standing, both with its citizens and with the world.  That plan, called the Report on Public Credit, was 51 pages in length (the first page is illegibly shown above), and was read aloud to Congress on January 14, 1790.  It contained (essentially) three parts.

First, there was immediate repayment of the foreign debt.  Hamilton argued that those countries had given us hard currency in a time of great distress.  National honor was at stake.  Second, the United States would repay the $40 million in domestic debt to those that held I.O.U.’s from the government.  They would be paid at full face value with accrued interest.  And finally, since all of the states had built up some debt financing their own portions of the Revolution, the government would assume those debts as well.  They totalled about $25 million.  The grand total of debt to be paid was something less than $80 million (or what our government has run up while you’ve been reading this).  All members Congress agreed with the first point…repaying foreign debt was paramount.

But the battle began in earnest over the second and third points.

Point Two, paying off the domestic debt was important, but who would get the money?  Many of those owed money by the government were soldiers, who had left the army at fight’s end with nothing but a promise of compensation.  And promises don’t pay the bills.  So many of them had sold their I.O.U.’s (for 15 cents on the dollar or less) to speculators, who hoped to make a profit should the government decide to make good.  Now that it was, those folks stood to make a killing, while those who originally owned the debt got nothing.  Detractors of Hamilton’s plan said it wasn’t fair.  Speculators had taken advantage of others and now stood to make a fortune.  Something should be given to both groups.

Hamilton (and those that sided with him) argued that, while many people had sold their debt in time of crisis, they too had engaged in speculation…speculation that the government was not going to make good.  How was that really any different?  And to go back and try to find all these people was a logistical impossibility.  But what’s more, it amounted to the government giving people money that were no longer owed, which many considered discrimination.

As for Point Three (the assumption of state debt), this one really got some states steamed.  Yes, every state had debt after the Revolution.  Massachusetts and South Carolina, in particular, had very large debts.  But some (including powerful Virginia) had already paid off its debts through taxing its citizens.  Others still had some debt, but had sound plans already in place for repayment.  Now the federal government was going to assume all the debts and states like Virginia would be re-taxed.  Once again, Hamilton argued that having one overarching “debt-paying” plan in place was far better (and far more efficient and ultimately less expensive) than individual state programs.

But there was more to it.  Politically, the government was still in its infancy, and many still railed against it.  There were questions as to its long-term survival.  Placing the debt in the federal government’s hands meant that people’s allegiances shifted to the central government.  If people wanted to get their money back, it was in their best interests to see that government survived at least long enough to do so.  And since the plan included paying off 5% of the debt and interest each year, Hamilton’s motive was clearly not to make the central government an all-powerful entity to control the lives of its citizens.  He was basically using a bit of debt to buy a little time for a brand-new system to get grounded.

The Report on Public Credit would create months of debate in Congress.  James Madison, not present at the plan’s unveiling (he was late returning due to a bout of dysentery), would strongly disagree with Hamilton’s proposals.  In our musings together, we’ve often alluded to the friendship-turned-rivalry of these two great men.  That split began right here.

Recommended Reading: James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Read the perspectives of each.

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Nowadays, the government has all sorts of ways to generate revenue.  When you get your paycheck, part of it goes to the government.  When you buy something, there’s almost always a tax on it.  Still have a land line at your house?  Guess what?…you probably pay a tax to Washington each month.  Win the lottery?…you paid taxes.  Do you drive?  Every gallon of gas is heavily taxed.  Taxes when you live, taxes when you die, and taxes for just about everything in between.  It’s the American way.

In 1790, the government had about one way to generate revenue, and that was via import tariffs.  People tried all sorts of ways to avoid paying them, but the Revenue-Marine, created in August of that year by the Treasury Department, made avoiding the tax man pretty difficult.  And that was good for Washington…well, actually it was still Philadelphia (though Washington was the President).

As 1790 came to a close, a couple of things were pretty apparent.  First, the revenues coming in were substantial.  Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s goal of reducing the debt and improving America’s credit was being achieved.  The economy was growing and the value of government securities had tripled.  The United States was operating at a surplus.

Second, it was Great Britain that was paying most of the bills.  The old mother country was far and away the biggest importer, which meant she paid most of the tariffs.

Third, at Hamilton’s urging, the federal government had taken on all the leftover war debts of the individual states.  This issue had caused the first major disagreement in Congress (and will eventually get some ink time around here), but had been resolved with one of the country’s first compromises.  It also left the Treasury Secretary in something of a bind.  Import duties were about as high as Hamilton dared raise them and he believed it was necessary to spread the pain around a bit.  But direct taxation of the people was fraught with peril, and a land tax (while good for the coffers) would have been universally loathed.

So Hamilton looked at “sin” taxes, particularly whiskey and domestic spirits.  It wasn’t a new idea.  As Hamilton had taken his post the year before, he had written to his friend James Madison.  “May I ask of you friendship to put to paper and send me your thoughts on such objects as may have occurred to you for an addition to our revenue…”.  Among Madison’s ideas was a tax on home distilleries, believing that “as direct taxes would be still more generally obnoxious and as imports are already loaded as far as they will bear…”.  He also believed that such an excise tax had a social benefit, reducing drunkeness and disease.

On December 13, 1790, Alexander Hamilton presented his plan to Congress.  And as expected, howls of protest were heard.  Home breweries were a sacred part of local culture, and government intervention of any kind (to say nothing of direct taxation) was badly resented.  It was clear that many distillers would only give the government its share at the end of a musket…which is exactly what happened.  And we’ll cover that at some point as well.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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I’ll keep it brief this evening…hopefully…

More than a year ago, we discussed the publication of the first of the Federalist Papers.  This collection of essays, which comprise what is quite likely the single greatest defense of any government charter anywhere in the world, was penned by three hands under one pseudonym.  Publius, the author in the papers, was actually the 3-headed brain of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.

In the weeks following the Philadelphia Convention, James Madison (like Hamilton) looked around and saw newspapers churning out anti-Constitutional articles one after another.  Some of Madison’s comrades, from his very own state of Virginia, were pushing hard against ratification.  Men like George Mason and Patrick Henry, good men to be sure, saw the Constitution not as a natural fix to the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, but as a direct threat to the freedom of every American.

Opposition had really begun in New York, when Yates and Lansing left the Convention in Philadelphia early and returned home.  By the time October rolled into November, Madison found that many northern newspapers were filled “with vehement and violent calumniations of the proposed Government.”

Plans for a pro-government response had begun even before the Convention had adjourned in September, and Hamilton and Madison (as well as others) were besieged with requests to publish a readable defense of the Constitution.  And as we know, young Hamilton got the ball rolling, and would work in prolific manner to keep it rolling, publishing 51 of the 85 essays.  But the only-slightly-older Madison contributed as well, completing 29 essays…

…including the famous Number 10, Madison’s first, which was published in New York’s Daily Advertiser on November 22, 1787.  In his biography of the “Father of the Constitution”, Ralph Ketcham summarizes this most important of writings, in which Madison defended the concept of a “large republic”.  “Madison asked his readers to consider the likely result of extending the representative principle to a large territory.  He granted that this would result in great diversity of interests in the government, but then pointed out what other theorists had overlooked:  in a system which fairly represented the people, this would preserve freedom rather than threaten it, because no one interest would be able to control the government;  each interest – economic, religious, sectional, or whatever – would be a natural check on the domineering tendencies of others.  Thus Madison made a virtue of human diversity and neutralized the selfishness of mankind.”

There is some sense of irony in Madison’s masterful defense.  As a member of the Virginia delegation, he had argued strongly against equal representation in the Senate, only giving in to the Great Compromise when it was readily apparent that the Convention could go no further without it.  He had left Philadelphia (as had Hamilton and many other Constitutional “supporters”) with reservations about the final product.  But as we know, giving a greater voice to the minority helps offset one of the weaknesses of a pure democracy:  the tyranny of the majority.  And clearly Madison understood that danger, and Number 10 addresses it directly.

In one fell swoop, Madison turned the anti-Federalist argument of loss of freedom on its head.  A large republic, rather than restricting freedoms, was the most suitable protector of freedom.

We read The Federalist Papers now and are impressed with their thoroughness and scope.  But we overlook the fact that these three men rarely had time for editing and word-smithing.  Madison reported that the time crunch was such that the documents barely had time to be reread by the author himself, to say nothing of passing them between the men.

Remarkable…

UPDATE:  Martin and Marcia over at What Would the Founders Think? have dissected Madison’s #10 in far more detail than my format allows.  It’s definitely worth a read.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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I don’t know about you, but when I come to the end of a project, I like that last day to be a relaxed one.  Maybe I tie up a loose end here or there.  Tweak a piece of code or a PowerPoint slide.  Some final edits on a document for the big presentation.  Maybe a little bit of last-minute word-smithing on the manuscript before it heads to publication.  But that’s about it.

I don’t want to be running around in a franctic panic, trying to take care of a dozen unfinished tendrils while simultaneously being hit with four or five “could-you-just-add-this” requests with three voice-mail messages informing me of problems sit in the phone queue.  That’s not my idea of a good time.

But in some sense, that second scenario is what faced the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.  September 15, 1787 was the Convention’s final working day.  The Pennsylvania legislature, which normally met in the room they were using, had already been in session for nearly two weeks and had graciously moved upstairs to give this body time to complete its work.

The Committee of Style and Arrangement, which had formed on the 8th, had finished its work five days later, presenting to the delegates a finished Constitution.  And from that point, debate had begun over wording, phrasing, style, and structure.  There were small changes suggested and accepted.  There were major changes suggested (like a Bill of Rights) and rejected.  And in between, there was dissension against and support for issues small and not-so-small.

And the 15th, rather than a wind-down, saw the flurry of activity continue.  It began with Maryland’s Daniel Carroll, who suggested that an address introducing the Constitution be prepared for the people, as that was a fairly common practice in that day.  After some debate, it was decided (in the interests of time) to have the standing Congress draft such a document.

There was argument (yet again!) over representation, as some delegates didn’t believe their state had quite enough representatives for their respective populations.  And once one state made such a demand, others were bound to follow.  It quickly threatened to rage out of control.

There was a continuation of old issues.  Mason again said that the Senate had way too much power.  Edmund Randolph (who had proposed the Virginia Plan) increasingly showed dissent for the government in its final form.  George Mason agreed and then offered up the proposal that, on this last day of business, stopped everyone in their seats.

He suggested a Second Constitutional Convention.

George Mason…who had come to Philadelphia swearing he’d be buried here rather than leave before a workable solution was found.  And it was more than a proposal, the man was insisting on it.

South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney stood to respond.  James Madison records that “Pinckney descanted on the consequences of calling forth the deliberations and amendments of the different states on the subject of government at large.  Nothing but confusion and contrariety could sping from the experiment.  The states will never agree in their plans – and the deputies to a second Convention coming together under the discordant impressions of their constituents, will never agree.”

In other words, it was now or never.  Nearly every member had some minor (or major) disagreement with the finished product.  But it would always be that way…no Constitution would be perfect, regardless of how much time was given to its construction.

There was much trepidation when the Second Convention came to a vote.  All states voted no.

Madison records the final acts as follows:

“On the question to agree to the Constitution as amended.  All the States aye.  The Constitution was then ordered to be engrossed.  And the House adjourned.”

There would be Monday’s signing, but the Convention was over.  The U.S. Constitution was completed.  It had been an exceptional three months.  The ratification process was about to begin.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia

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On September 14, 1786, the Annapolis Convention came to a close.

Well, sort of.

The reality is that it never really got started.  Only five of the states were represented by just a dozen delegates.  And that wasn’t nearly enough representation to really get any business done.  But that’s not to say nothing was accomplished at this non-Convention.

First off, the small number of people kept the meeting short…the Convention lasted just three days.  Second, sparse attendence allowed for a greater comraderie and intimacy among those present, which meant the discussions freely ranged far beyond just those listed on the itinerary (interstate commerce and trade problems) to more fundamental issues, like the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.

In fact, the focus came to be on the Articles themselves, and this was probably the most important result of the gathering.  Chernow writes, “The Annapolis attendees soon agreed that the commercial disputes among the states were symptomatic of underlying flaws in the political framework, and they arrived at a breathtaking conclusion:  they would urge the states to send delegates to a convention in Philadelphia the following May to amend the Articles of Confederation.”

It fell to Alexander Hamilton (shown on the left) to write the appeal urging states to attend, but it was so strongly worded that Edmund Randolph asked him to tone it down.  Hamilton bristled at the request, but James Madison (shown on the right) took him aside and urged him to give ground, warning him that such stout language would alienate Virginia (whose support would be essential).  Hamilton took the advice and softened the letter’s tone.

As it turns out, the legislature in Hamilton’s home state of New York was absolutely opposed to the recommendations of the Annapolis address, thanks in large part to Governor George Clinton’s strong stance against it.  In Madison’s (and Edmund Randolph’s) state of Virginia, however, the letter was welcomed with enthusiasm and, early on, George Washington was selected to lead the delegation that eventually attended the Constitutional Convention.

The other good thing…well, great thing…that came from Annapolis was the renewing of the friendship between Hamilton and Madison.  They probably hadn’t seen each other since their congressional days, and this time together put them on the same page concerning the need for a change in the governmental structure.  And while they would eventually become intense rivals, that was several years down the road.  In the meantime, there would be Philadelphia (where both play crucial roles), and together they would pen nearly all of the Federalist Papers, quite possibly the finest collection of essays that has ever defended a national charter.

The Annapolis Convention may have been brief, and it may have been sparsely attended, but its effects are (thankfully) still with us more than two centuries later.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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There has been some significant debate recently over the idea of “American Exceptionalism”.  Some argue that it’s reality, while others say it’s a bunch of hooey.  What is it?  Well, I’m probably the wrong guy to be defining obtuse nine-syllable phrases, but here goes my best attempt.  American Exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is a special country (something of a one-of-a-kind nation), due to the nature of its founding, its rather unique form of government, and the success it has achieved.

Needless to say, some people argue from a different perspective.  They contend that American Exceptionalism is, in the best case, extreme jingoism…a self-exalted view that arrogantly puts America on a higher plane than other countries.  In the worst case, opponents of the concept say that this attitude is what permitted the scourge of slavery until the 1860s, allowed gross mistreatment of numerous Native American tribes, and continues to foster American imperialism around the world.

I happen to think that many things about the creation of this country were exceptional, and its likely that Today’s History Lesson has covered several of them.  And I think our topic for today may fit the mold as well.

On September 8, 1787, the Committee of Style and Arrangement was formed.  Hmm…not that exceptional?  I disagree.

If you look back over the last four months, you’ll find we’ve shared a handful of articles focused on the Constitutional Convention.  And what you’ll discover is that, far from being in agreement on anything, a great many of the delegates fought tooth-and-nail to prevent the creation of a new government.  Men like Luther Martin, Gunning Bedford, and John Lansing argued vociferously against changing the status quo…against that pesky concept of innovation.

In her book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Bowen writes that, “In spite of disagreement, indecision, threats of withdrawal and articles not settled, the Convention was ready to put the Constitution into final form and present it to the country.”  Was the Constitution being ram-rodded through?  Absolutely not!!  Hundreds of years ago, Sir Francis Bacon said, “Let the losers have their words.”  And those who were against the various articles (and against the whole proceeding in general) more than had their say.  It’s part of what made (and what continues to make) the Constitution so powerful.

The Committee of Style was tasked with collecting all the documentation and putting it into a cohesive, easily-read document.  Five men comprised the committee, and their names read much like a Founding Fathers All-Star team.

James Madison, who would spend the rest of his life defending what the Committee created, and is known as the Father of the Constitution.

William Samuel Johnson, a quiet strength from the South who hadn’t missed a single day of the proceedings.

Gouverneur Morris, who spoke more during the Convention than anyone else, but also had the fortitude to publicly admit when he was wrong.  It was his hand that penned our Constitution.

Alexander Hamilton.  Bowen writes, “…his speech of June eighteenth had not been forgotten, with its monarchical slant; yet delegates knew his grasp of the situation, knew also that his pen was quick and eloquent;  nobody could say better what he wanted to say about the constitution of governments.”  He, along with Madison, would spill an enormous amount of ink defending what was about to be created.

And finally, Rufus King.  He had arrived in Philadelphia full of doubt, believing that the Congress under the Confederacy should take up changing the Confederacy.  But over the course of the Convention, he became a staunch supporter…and converts are always strong believers.

These men penned a letter (also written by Morris) to accompany the final document, and its words are timeless, too.  “It is obviously impractical in the foederal government of these States, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all.  Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest.  The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on siuation and circumstance, as on the object to be obtained.  It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved…”

Exceptional?  I think so.  Bowen summarizes in agreement with me.  “The wonder is that twelve states got through months of discussion without disbanding, and that the Committee of Style could now go on with their task unhampered.”

And for five days, these five men would work.  They condensed, they word-smithed, and they debated amongst themselves over language and detail.  And in the end…well, let’s cover that when the time is right.  But I’ll give you a hint…it begins with three remarkable (dare I say “exceptional”?) words…“We the people…”

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia

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If Annapolis, Maryland was a person and not a city, I’m guessing it would feel kind of left out and ignored.  And that’s not to say it’s not important…a thousand times no.  It’s just that when you’re located in a relatively small state, the rest of the country probably sees only Baltimore, your much bigger brother.  And a goodly number of people incorrectly think that Baltimore is Maryland’s capital.  Carson City shares a similar fate out west in Nevada, completely blinded by the lights and casinos of Las Vegas.  By the way, if you want a fun refresher on U.S. capitals, go to Sporcle’s website and take their U.S. Capitals quiz.  Once you have it mastered, try one of their thousands of other quizzes on nearly every subject known to man (for dedicated fans of Bob Ross, try the “name-the-colors” quiz).

But there was a time when “smallness” and “out-of-the-wayness” was a benefit for Annapolis, and that was in 1786, when it served as a figurative pathway to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  America, just barely out of diapers, was struggling immensely with interstate commerce.  Disputes had broken out over navigation of the Potomac River, and states were fighting over border and trade issues.  In a letter to Thomas Jefferson (then a minister to Paris), James Madison (shown above, much later in life) described the current situation as “the present anarchy of our commerce”, using the word “anarchy” to put it in the most negative light possible.

The squabbles over the Potomac River had been addressed (and solved) by commissioners from Maryland and Virginia at Mount Vernon in 1785.  The Virginia commissioners believed that a similar gathering might be able to address the problems of commerce, so they called for a convention “for the purpose of framing such regulations of trade as may be judged necessary to promote the general interest.”

Their desired location?  George Mann’s City Tavern in Annapolis, Maryland.  They chose George Mann’s place because of the wonderful celebration it laid out when George Washington had resigned his military commission a couple of years earlier.  And they chose Annapolis because…it was small!!  Hooray for smallness!!  The ever-quotable Ron Chernow writes, “By choosing the relatively secluded town of Annapolis, Madison explained, the conference organizers had purposely bypassed the main commercial towns and congressional precincts to guard against any accusations that the commissioners were in the thrall of outside parties.”

Alexander Hamilton set out from New York on the 1st of September.  His state had originally planned to send a half-dozen delegates, but in the end, just he and his friend Egbert Benson would participate.  James Madison left Virginia in August, having spent much of the preceding time studying books (sent by Jefferson) about politics, history, and government structure.  On the way, he looked at the countryside and, seeing beyond the beauty to the underlying troubles, wrote, “[N]o money comes into the public treasury, trade is on a wretched footing, and the states are running mad after paper money.”

And as was typical of Madison, he got there early, arriving in Annapolis on September 4, 1786 (a week early, as it turned out), ready to discuss, debate, and decide.  Events would see a different outcome, and…well, I think we’ll discuss some of that when the proper day is here.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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No one spectating the Federal Convention during Philadelphia’s blistering summer of 1787 would have said that the first month’s proceedings had gone smoothly.  Of course, the meetings were secret, so there were no spectators.  But still the point remains.  The first month had seen some progress, but also some serious hangups.  The biggest sticking point, without a doubt, was the issue of representation in the legislature.  Small states wanted essentially a “one state, one vote” structure, while larger states preferred representation to be based on population.  Like most disagreements in life, the real issue was control.

Under the Articles of Confederation, each state had an equal voice and each state had the power of veto.  This meant that small states, like Maryland or Delaware, could suppress legislation that affected the entire remaining population.  And frankly, the small states liked it…they had serious power.

The plans being proposed (by larger states like Virginia) radically altered the existing imbalance of power to the other side of the scale.  And the small states were vehemently opposed to it…and they made their feelings known.  Plus there was the whole issue about what kind of people should comprise the Senate, which led to another set of arguments.  Not too long ago we mentioned Luther Martin, the Marylander with a penchant for verbosity.  His speech on June 20th, in some sense, lit a fire under opponents of the Virginia Plan (and pretty much any idea upsetting “small state” power established by the Articles), and for a while, things weren’t looking so good in Independence Hall.

On June 27th (and most of the 28th) Martin was at it again, quoting Locke, Priestly, Somers, and others as he rambled toward a conclusion that the convention had no business taking power away from the states.  Madison scribbled in exasperation that Martin labored, “at great length…with much diffuseness, and considerable vehemence…”.  New York delegate Robert Yates, who actually sided with Martin, said of Martin’s meanderings, “It was not possible to trace him through the whole, or to methodize his ideas into a systematic or argumentative arrangement.”

Once Luther Martin had finished his “dissertation”, Virginian James Madison got up and worked to refute all that Martin had contended, using his typical logic to attack Martin’s ideas point-by-point.  But the small states were steadfast.  It was at this point that elder statesman Benjamin Franklin, looking at the division and hearing the harsh rhetoric, suggested that each day’s proceedings open with prayer.  Clearly assistance of a Divine nature was not unwelcome.

In his biography of James Madison, Ralph Ketchum writes that June 30, 1787 was the Federal Convention’s “rock bottom.”  It was then that Gunning Bedford (shown above), a somewhat large man from the (small) state of Delaware spoke words most dangerous to the convention’s purpose.  “I do not, gentlemen, trust you,” he shouted.  The larger states wouldn’t dare kill the Confederation, he threatened, because the small states had another option.  “…sooner than be ruined, there are foreign powers who will take us by the hand.”  One can almost imagine the stifling silence that followed those words that flirted with the precipice of treason.

Rufus King, from the relatively small state of Massachusetts, rose and said, “I am concerned for what fell from the gentleman from Delaware – ‘Take a foreign power by the hand’!  I am sorry he mentioned it, and hope he is able to excuse it to himself on the score of passion.  Whatever may be my distress, I never will court a foreign power to assist in relieving myself from it.”

June 30th was a day of vitriol and acrimonious debate in Independence Hall.  It’s a very good thing it was a Saturday, as Sunday (for most of the delegates) would provide time for solemn reflection and reconsideration in a local house of worship.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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When James Madison addressed the men meeting in the stifling heat of Independence Hall on June 19th, he made no mention of the preceding day’s events.  Actually, “events” (plural) is incorrect, as there was really on one event on the 18th.  The entire day was devoted to Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a new American government.  For nearly six hours, Hamilton’s laid out his plans.  The big problem was that it was too British in scope.

In broad strokes, he laid out a panorama of strong central government with a very powerful President, Senators elected for life, and state governors appointed by the national government.  There was no real debate over his plan…probably because the remaining delegates at the Federal Convention were completely stunned into silence.  To many, his plan was dangerously close to monarchy.  Diminished states’ rights put supporters of the existing Articles of Confederation instantly on the defensive.  Hamilton was a brilliant thinker, and the proceedings of the Convention were to be kept secret until all attendees had died, but Hamilton’s speech was leaked to the public and it would follow him for the rest of his life.

And while Madison may have only agreed with parts of Hamilton’s plan, he was thrilled that it made the Virginia Plan (which he fully supported) seem very moderate by comparison.

But June 20, 1787 was more than just the first day since the Virginia Plan was presented that George Washington sat through a full day of debate.  It was the day the opposition really started to dig in.  New York’s John Lansing got up and gave a long speech protesting the proceedings in general (he would end up leaving the Convention early in protest).  He was followed by Virginia’s George Mason, who disagreed with the power being given to Congress.

But it was Luther Martin (shown above) who worked his voice the most that day.  The Marylander was characterized throughout the 3-month process as an angry dissenter.  In her book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Bowen described him as “impulsive, undiscipline, altogether the wild man of the Convention, furious defender of state sovreignty, by no means foolish in all that he said…”  His verbosity was off-putting and, on this day, he spent a lot of time disputing the need for two branches of Congress.  Giving a national judiciary power over the states was anathema to Martin, as were most of the rest of the proposals.

There had been debate throughout the Convention, but on this day, it became apparent how difficult the debate was going to be.

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 The Constitutional  Convention that ended in September of 1787 certainly ended differently than the one that began in May.  In fact, it’s only known as the “Constitutional” Convention because of the results.  It began as a “Foederal” Convention.  But actually, it kind of began before that.

In 1785, Maryland and Virginia got into a heated argument over navigation on the Potomac River, and representatives from each state decided to meet at Mount Vernon to reconcile the issue.  Using this as a springboard issue, the commission was enlarged and met instead in Annapolis, Maryland in September of 1786.

But Alexander Hamilton, long a champion of a modified charter (to the Articles of Confederation), suggested to Congress that all thirteen states gather for even broader-reaching discussions…as he wrote, “to take into consideration the trade and commerce of the United States.”  Since all things financial were Hamilton’s specialty, and commerce was very weakly addressed in the Articles, it made sense to him.

To many, however, the Articles of Confederation were perfect because they strictly limited the power of any federal government.  All this talk of “trade and commerce” sounded way too far-reaching and more like a trashing of the Articles than a modification.  In the end, Congress resolved that the convention meet “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”

The meeting place was appropriately Independence Hall (where the Declaration was signed eleven years prior) in Philadelphia, and the start date was May 14, 1787.  Seventy-four delegates were named, of which fifty-five showed up.  Of course, transportation wasn’t what it is now, and the spring of 1787 had been particularly wet, so delegates kind of mucked their way into Philadelphia.  The ever-punctual James Madison arrived on the 3rd of May, but others would straggle in.

Rhode Island sent no one, and was resolutely against any measures that forced them to give up the financial racket they had built using their own currency.  “Rogue Island” it was often called.  One man said that “Rhode Island has acted a part which would cause the savages of the wilderness to blush.”  George Washington wrote that “Rhode Island still perseveres in the impolitic – unjust – and one might add without much impropriety scandalous conduct, which seems to have marked all her public councils of late.”  Harsh rhetoric, to be sure, coming from a man of guarded words.

And what of Washington?  Well, he arrived on May 13, 1787 to a hero’s welcome.  The bells chimed (and not just because it was Sunday morning), artillery was fired, and the General was escorted through Philadelphia by the City Troop.

The Federal Convention was about to begin…

Recommended Reading:  Miracle at Philadelphia – As I’ve been plowing through Ketcham’s book on James Madison, I’ve been taking little tangents for related material.  This is one of them.

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The winter of 1779-1780 was a pretty bad one for thirteen Colonies struggling to free themselves from cross-Atlantic control.  First off, the weather was miserable.  “Washington’s army, encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, suffered more than it had at Valley Forge from severe frosts and six-foot banks of snow.”  Those words, from Ralph Ketcham’s extensive biography of James Madison, succinctly summarize some of the worst conditions anyone could remember.  Even the British, with a recent run of successes, called a halt to operations.

A young Madison (shown above), snowbound in Virginia, took the time to investigate the Colonies’ second problem:  money.  The Colonies had lots of money floating around…roughly $200 million in paper currency.  The real issue was that it wasn’t worth the paper on which it was printed.  The previous couple of years had seen currency values fall, in some cases, to less than 1% of their face value.  And James Madison came to some interesting conclusions.

After extensive reading, he determined that the value of money…well, let’s just quote him directly.  “…does not depend on its quantity.  It depends on the credit of the state issuing it, and on the time of its redemption; and is not otherwise affected by the quantity, than as the quantity may be supposed to endanger or postpone the redemption.”

Of course, a good many people disagree with that premise, even today.  Many times, we’ll say things like, “If the government has trouble paying its bills, they’ll just print more money.”  It’s a derisive statement that implies the following:  if the government prints more money, there are more dollars in the system for the same amount of goods and services.  This serves to make dollars less valuable and, by extension, goods and services more expensive.  I’m no economist, so while that line of thinking resonates with me and seems to make sense, I have no idea as to whether things really operate like that.

Anyways, Madison’s thoughts flew in the face of conventional wisdom during the Revolution as well.  So it’s not surprising that he disagreed with the rest of the Continental Congress when, on March 18, 1780, that body resolved to reduce the $200 million of outstanding currency to just $5 million with a 1:40 reverse monetary split.  Ketcham writes, “It was hoped the new currency would escape depreciation and thus stabilize Congressional finances…Yet the act stopping the Continental currency presses took power from Congress precisely when it needed more to prosecute the war.”

James Madison was despondant.  Writing to Thomas Jefferson, his new (and eventual life-long) confidant, his depressed pen would write, “It is to be observed that the situation of Congress has undergone a total change from what it originally was.  Whilst they exercised the indefinite power of emitting money on the credit of their constituents they had the whole wealth and resources of the continent within their command, and could go on with their affairs independently and as they pleased.  Since the resolution passed for shutting the press, this power has been entirly given up and they are now as dependent on the States as the King of England is on the Parliament.”

General Washington, from his vantage point in an army that, to this point, was largely unpaid and very poorly-provisioned, said, “I see one head gradually changing into thirteen…I see the power of Congress declining for the consideration and respect which is due to them as the grand representative body of America, and am fearful of the consequences.”

A twenty-something Alexander Hamilton, now part of Washington’s military staff, pored over the situation and partially agreed with Madison, though he strongly believed that foreign loans were the best solution.  He would write, “The quantity of money in circulation is certainly a chief cause of its decline.  But we find it is depreciated more than fives times as much as it ought to be. … The excess is derived from opinion, a want of confidence.”  These words were part of a letter, more than six-thousand words in length, that outlined a financial system and was composed under a pseudonym and sent to a congressman (Robert Morris).

But for the time being, the devaluation of the currency was a painful decision, and wiped out the savings of many Americans.  And 1780 was only 3 months old, and much more hardship was in the works.

Recommended Reading:  Alexander Hamilton’s letter to Robert Morris – It’s hard to believe he was just 23 years old when he penned this.

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In May of 1787, men from all over the United States (it probably still sounded a little strange to them) gathered in Philadelphia to discuss the Articles of Confederation.  As the country’s first constitution, it had met a need as the Revolution was winding down.  But there were weaknesses.  Issues like foreign and inter-state commerce, tax collection, and the whole concept of a central government weren’t adequately addressed.  Under the Articles, each state had complete veto power, meaning legislation that was good for the whole country would be impossible if one state’s delegates disagreed.  Changes needed to be made.

And these 55 men gathered to make them.  But among these men were some who simply thought the Articles had served their purpose and a completely new charter was necessary.  Numerous plans were considered.  Alexander Hamilton’s idea, put together with the meticulous detail only he could do, was lauded for its completeness, but looked a little too “British” in scope, with a central government that was deemed too strong.

The idea submitted by James Madison offered a “lower” house elected by the people, an “upper” house elected by the “lower”, and an executive elected by both.  But both houses would be proportional to population, which gave the larger states a distinct advantage in the power of their voice.  It didn’t help that Madison hailed from Virginia, the largest state at the time.

The smaller states quickly recognized this and called a “time-out”.  When play resumed, William Paterson, from the “small” state of New Jersey offered a plan.  He left the legislature as it currently stood under the Articles, which provided for a single house that gave small states the same power as large states.  The large states, of course, took exception.

They might still be arguing over this today, except that someone (in this case, Roger Sherman from Connecticut…a small state) solved the issue.  He proposed a lower body populated based on each state’s population, and an upper body of “one state, one vote”.

They hashed this idea out for another two weeks, and then the Great Compromise (as the Connecticut Compromise came to be known) passed on the June 23rd.  There was more haggling over issues (particularly the sticky, divisive issue of slavery which was ultimately shelved for the sake of the rest) and then there was the drafting of the language into a single document, handled by Gouverneur Morris’ (I love that name) Committee of Style and Arrangement.

The U.S. Constitution was submitted for signing and ratified by the Convention on September 17, 1787.  The sigh of relief for a job well done was short-lived, as each state’s delegates now had to persuade their home state to adopt the new document.  For some, that would be a most difficult task

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton – I’m approaching the end of this massive, yet very readable book.

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It didn’t take long for the leadership in the newly-freed 13 Colonies to realize that the current charter, the Articles of Confederation, were seriously lacking.  A meeting was planned in September of 1786 in Annapolis, Maryland to address the issues, but only five Colonies were represented.  So they decided to shelve the meeting and try again in May of the following year.

That meeting, which became known as the Constitutional Convention, lasted nearly four months and didn’t just amend the Articles, it wadded them up in a little ball and chucked them from the window into the Philadelphia heat and humidity.

An entirely new government had been created, and those present at the meetings now had to go to their respective homes and sell their constituents on the idea.  In some states, that proved to be a most tedious process, and it didn’t take long to realize that 13 Colonies, united just a few years before under the push for independence, could just as quickly become ugly and divisive over the Constitution.  Those that supported the new government were labeled Federalists, those against it, Antifederalists.

Nowhere was that better seen than in New York.  When Alexander Hamilton (shown above) returned there from Philadelphia, the fight was waiting for him.  Governor George Clinton, no friend of Hamilton’s and a staunch Antifederalist, campaigned hard against ratification.  Marinus Willett, formerly one of the Sons of Liberty, called the document “a monster with open mouth and monstrous teeth ready to devour all before it.”

Hamilton, for his part, responded by taking on the secret identity of Publius and writing The Federalist Papers (with some help from James Madison and John Jay), a series of newspaper articles defending each piece of the Constitution to the New York public.

As the winter of 1787 turned into the spring of 1788, Colonies began achieving statehood by ratifying the Constitution.  And in New York’s legislature, the battle continued.  The Federalist Papers were bound and published, and James Madison distributed hundreds of copies in Virginia to aid with ratification.

But the tone of the argument changed radically when New Hampshire ratified the Constitution as the 9th state in June of 1788.  The new government was now activated, and the debate was not over forming such a union, but rather joining it.  Four days after New Hampshire, the Madison-led delegation passed ratification in Virginia.

Back in New York, Hamilton and his entourage put the screws to the Antifederalists.  With tireless energy, he pushed and prodded the delegation.  And finally, on July 26, 1788, a group of Antifederalists led by Melancton Smith (the leading voice of Gov. Clinton’s opposition) changed their votes.  Ratification in New York had passed, and the Colony had become the 11st State in the Union.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton – Chernow’s work is all-engrossing and 100% worth the effort.

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In May of 1787, the city of Philadelphia played host to 55 men who spent a lot of time debating, arguing, and trying to convince each other of their (and their state’s) beliefs.  It had been four years since the American Revolution had officially ended with the stroke of the pen in Paris, and the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781 by the Second Continental Congress, had created the “United States of America” and been its charter document.

But six years later, the Articles were found wanting.  Stronger, more permanent language was needed, and the middle months of 1787 provided the venue for the creation of the U.S. Constitution.  By July 1 of the next year, all but two of the Thirteen Colonies had ratified it (North Carolina would come aboard in 1789 and Rhode Island in 1790).

Still, not everyone was completely satisfied.  Some believed that the Constitution had done a great job of listing the powers of government, limiting them, providing checks and balances, and the like.  But they didn’t think it spoke specifically to the basic rights of the individual.  Others thought that the Constitution didn’t need to address them, because the Constitution was not a surrender of rights, and listing rights in a document might limit rights to only those listed.

But both sides had lived through the time before the Revolution, when the British Crown had stifled their freedoms and denied them what they believed to be their basic rights.  So I’m guessing they pretty quickly understood how a good government today could turn tyrannical down the road, and rights not enumerated could be become rights denied

And so James Madison (drawing heavily from George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights) proposed a set of protections (called the Bill of Rights) for the individual citizen from the government, addressing issues such as religious practices, speech, bearing arms, due process, and self-incrimination.  Support from many of the Founding Fathers such as Jefferson and Washington meant relatively quick passage through the First Congress.  But as Amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights needed to be ratified by three-fourths of the States as well.  This was accomplished on December 15, 1791, and they became part of the Constitution.

The Bill of Rights are the “10 Commandments” of the U.S. citizen.  They are not laws we have to follow, but “Thou Shalt Nots” by which our government must abide.  They were created by the citizen, who was very familiar with a government of tyranny and desperately wanted to avoid it.  And they were written by the citizen, whose finger had been dipped in the blood of the American Revolution to shake off that government of tyranny.

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Birthday wishes go out to James Madison, our 4th president, who would turn a ripe, old 247 today – if he had made it this long.

Despite his impressive resume (principal author of both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and Commander-in-Chief during the country’s 2nd American Revolution), he’s not thought of that highly by historians.  

He had the misfortune of being short, socially awkward and possibly even nerdy.  Perhaps his work in actually creating the government set the bar too high.  In fact, I guess he could’ve been our first presidential underachiever.  But it’s safe to day that regardless of what he achieved as president, his entire career shaped the country in a way that few others have.

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