Posts Tagged ‘President George Washington’

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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In today’s political landscape, taking a side on any particular issue is likely to get a person on the wrong side of about half the country.  But that’s not really news.  We live with a strongly-divided two-party system with each one holding positions that are, in most cases, diametrically opposed to each other.  Whether it be about the size of government, some social issue, or whatever, taking a position generally involves very little middle ground.

But sometimes, taking a stand in the middle offers little or no protection, either.  Let’s look at one such instance from the pages of history.

As the 18th century came to a close in America, few issues were more divisive than the French Revolution.  Whether it was the general population, or those Founders in charge of the fledgling government, opinions pretty much fell into two camps.  There were those that favored the uprisings that began in Paris, heralding them as “the son of the American Revolution”.  Others maintained that it was little more than a sadistic, reverse-engineered purge, one in which the people not only overthrew their leadership, but led them to the guillotine to relieve them of their “headship”.

Once Louis XVI had felt the blade’s bite on his neck in January of 1793, it took but a week for the French to declare war on England and Holland.  And that put President Washington in a difficult position.  Did he side with the French, who had clearly been an ally in America’s own struggle for independence?  Or would it be with England, an enemy not so long ago, but not so now?  The country was deeply split on the issue, but the President didn’t pander to either side.

In his biography of the man, Ron Chernow writes that “Washington hoped to win respectability from foreign powers, but he also wanted to stay free of foreign entanglements so the young nation could prosper.”  And on April 22, 1793, he did just that, landing directly in the middle of the issue with what came to be known as the Proclamation of Neutrality.  The final document didn’t actually contain the word neutrality, but asked the nation’s citizens to “pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers.”

And you can probably predict what happened.  A few people (mostly those less inclined to the French position) were pleased with the President’s stance.  But many others had a completely different reaction, one that was neither friendly nor impartial.  They believed Washington and his “minions” were turning their backs on the one alliance that had sustained them during the Revolution.  It mattered little that a strong case could be made for France supporting the Colonies out of self-interest (keeping the British pre-occupied) as opposed to some sort of Revolutionary altruism.  Also ignored in much of the negative feelings was the small fact that most of the French supporters of the Revolution now had their disconnected heads stuffed between their knees.

Members of Congress was also upset, believing they had been side-stepped by the President.  They contended that if Congress had the power to declare war, it also had the power to declare neutrality.  Some went so far as to say that Washington was acting the part of a monarch, issuing an edict from his Hamiltonian-inspired throne.

There appears to be truth to the old adage that landing in the middle of an issue only serves to make everybody mad.  It certainly worked for Washington on this day in history…

Recommended Reading: Washington – A Life

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Well, it’s the last day of February, and that means another year of Today’s History Lesson is about to enter the history books.  I’ll have to do a count of the number of pieces that have come out since March 1st of last year.  Three years.  That’s how long we’ve been together.  Some of the articles have been short, some long.  Some alright, with a few stinkers thrown in for good measure.  Tomorrow begins year four of this little experiment.  I’m not sure how long it will continue, but I know we’ve got a little something for this evening.

On February 28, 1792, Thomas Jefferson met with George Washington.  The topic of discussion between the nation’s first President and its first Secretary of State was supposed to be about the post office, signed into existence just the week before.  But it turned out that the Secretary of State really wanted to talk about the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.

In our three years together, it should now be obvious to you that our first Secretary of State (Jefferson) did not like our first Treasury Secretary (Alexander Hamilton).  But in case it’s not yet obvious, let me try this…JEFFERSON COULD NOT STAND HAMILTON.

Hehehe…maybe that’ll do the trick.

Jefferson was absolutely, totally, completely, 100%, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die convinced that, from his position at Treasury, Alexander Hamilton was paving the way for a return to a British-style monarchy.  And nothing could change Thomas Jefferson’s mind on the matter.  Every little thing Hamilton did was twisted by Jefferson to smack of desiring a king.  Hamilton could have mentioned that he measured a monarch butterfly with a ruler, and Jefferson would have told someone (likely James Madison or Philip Freneau, who ran the anti-Hamilton National Gazette) that Alexander spoke positively of “monarch rule.”

Seriously…it had pretty much gotten to that point.

Now, no legit historian (at least that I can see) really thinks that Hamilton, nor Washington, nor even John Adams (who made more pro-king comments than anyone) wanted a king.  That’s complete hogwash.  We know that Hamilton wrote the bulk of the Federalist Papers, and he alone was the single biggest reason the Constitution was ratified in New York.  He liked elements of the British system of government and even suggested some of them when offering his plan at the Constitutional Convention (we’ve mentioned that before and will discuss it in greater detail in the future), but that’s as far as it went.  Once a Constitution was created and agreed upon, he was behind it completely.

But President Washington listened to Hamilton…a lot.  More than he listened to Jefferson.  There is no doubt that Alexander Hamilton was the second most powerful man in America’s first government.  He was more powerful than Jefferson, he was more powerful than Vice President Adams, and he was certainly more influential than either of them.  And that created jealously.  And let’s face it, Washington was the hero of the Revolution, and he was the unanimous choice as President.  The vast majority of the populace loved him.  He was unassailable.  So, if you can’t rail on the top guy, go after the next guy in line.  And that’s just what happened.

But a bit of balance.  Thomas Jefferson had some legitimate differences with Hamilton.  As a devout agrarian, he believed the Treasury Secretary was setting up a system that favored speculators, gamblers, and industrialists at the expense of farmers.  This talk of stocks and bonds, of banks and financing the public debt, and the “city of the future” didn’t really appeal to Jefferson.  He also had valid questions about the government’s role in these enterprises.  Did the Constitution allow for such activity?  Were people equipped to deal with this?  These were all important issues, worthy of discussion and debate.

But Jefferson didn’t really focus on these issues.  He (and others) simply decided that Hamilton wanted a monarchy and that was that.  Everything was filtered through that prism.  Jefferson warned the President that “the department of the Treasury possessed already such an influence as to swallow up the whole executive powers and that even future presidents…would not be able to make head against this department.”  Of course, the Secretary of State immediately reminded his Commander-in-Chief that he had no political ambitions of his own.

Hehehe…I’m no expert, but other than getting a hundred times more intrusive, a billion times bigger, and a trillion times more expensive, I don’t think government in these United States has really changed all that much in all these years.

And with that, we’ll close the books on our third year.  I’m so grateful to my good friend Michael for creating this venue and giving me the chance to contribute.  Though it’s just me now, his influence lives on in these pages…and always will.  And of course, I’m grateful to all of you.  Your occasional thoughts and your correction of my mistakes sharpen me, as iron sharpens iron.

Thank you.

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There are some who might think I’ve spent way too much time writing about Alexander Hamilton.  Pick a different Founder, you say.  My response is that I will…when I do more learning about them.  Or maybe you don’t much like our First Treasury Secretary, believing him to be the first man to really monkey with the Constitution.  I would point you to the Federalist and argue that, while Hamilton made moves and created financial structures that were controversial in his time, no one better understood the constructs of the Constitution and the limits it placed on the branches of government.

So there!!

Still not convinced?

Oh well, that’s what makes history so intriguing.  Looking back, studying people and events, attempting to put some context around them, and coming to conclusions.  And sometimes, the conclusions we come to are different.

But today is a good day for those of you who are not fans of Alexander Hamilton.  Because even though his influence is felt today here (and all over the world), you can take solace in the fact that he was no longer doing anything under the auspices of the United States Government.  January 31, 1795 was the end of his tenure.

In December of the previous year, a worn out (and somewhat dejected) Alexander Hamilton had told President Washington that he was leaving office.  The reasons were many.  Exhaustion played a role, both in his own life and that of his wife, Eliza.  Then there was the job itself.  Almost since the inception of the Department, Hamilton had battled naysayers.  Members of Congress had railed against him.  They dug through financial dealings line by line, looking for the smoking gun to throw him from office.

The country’s first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, had waged a one-man war against Hamilton.  He had hounded the President about him, strategized with James Madison to discredit him, and partially funded a newspaper to sling mud at him.  And after more than three years of trying, he simply resigned his office in frustration.  We know that Alexander Hamilton was no saint, but in his dealings from the Secretary’s office, there was nothing but honesty, integrity, and sound judgement.

So while sainthood eluded him, his homecoming to New York in February probably felt heaven-sent.  He was declared the patron saint of prosperity.  He was given a lavish party that overflowed with praise as much as food and drink.  The former Secretary received nine cheers that evening (President Washington and Vice President Adams received three each).  There was much tongue-wagging and speculation about his future.  George Clinton, New York’s governor, had just announced he wasn’t running for reelection, and scuttlebutt said the job was Hamilton’s for the taking.  There were even whispers of higher aspirations…some said he would be the second President of the United States.

But Hamilton’s needs were more practical.  He needed money.  For those who accused Hamilton of skimming money from the Treasury, his heavy debt proved otherwise.  Hamilton (like most men who served their country back then) made a meager salary, just $3,500 a year, far less than what he and his large family needed.  He had set aside his law practice (which probably would have made him 10 times his Secretary’s salary) to serve, and paid a large financial price for it.  He had worked tirelessly to clean up the country’s debt, and it was time to do the same for his own.

Alexander Hamilton was ready for private life and private practice, and he would begin on February 1st.  But make no mistake, he would never be far from the public eye and its scrutiny.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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“A little after noon on January 8, 1790, George Washington climbed into his cream-colored coach and rode off to Federal Hall behind a team of four snow-white horses.  In its sparsely worded style, the Constitution mandatd that the president, from time to time, should give Congress information about the state of the Union, but it was Washington who turned this amorphous injunction into a formal speech before both houses of Congress, establishing another precedent.”  Ron Chernow, “master” of Alexander Hamilton, penned those words in his biography of our first President, which was just recently released and is ready for your absorption.

In today’s world, with 220+ years of tradition to back us up, the State of the Union speech is something to which I look forward every year…to not watching.  I suppose it’s because I’ve become jaded to a process that has become so complicated and so expensive (to say nothing of being so mired in unrecoverable debt) that I no longer care to sit for 90 minutes and listen to the Commander-in-Chief talk about spending additional billions (or more) to assist us in our “pursuit of happiness”.  My dad has said many, many times that “everything translates to bucks”, and every word from a President’s lips (nowadays, at least) sounds to me suspiciously like a cash register ringing.

But in 1790, it wasn’t quite that way.  Oh, there was money that needed to be spent, but it wasn’t due to massive bloat in government.  It wasn’t caused by a debt so deep that simply paying on the interest was nearly impossible.


It was more about getting an actual government started.  Everything was new.  Chernow writes that everything (including the protocol for this first State of the Union Address) “still had an improvised feel.”  There was no precedent to follow, because new precedent was being set as the sun rose on each new day.  And President Washington talked hopefully about each step forward, desirous that would make the country stronger and more prosperous.

There was joy for North Carolina’s entrance into the Union.  She had rejected statehood in 1788, but voted to join in November of the following year.  He talked of the need to establish credit and spur economic growth, hinting at Hamilton’s upcoming report (which I hope to discuss next week) and accompanying financial program.  Washington spoke of national defense which, along with the Revenue Cutter service (to be started later that year), had some folks already worrying about government expansion and intervention.  Improved learning and a proposal for a national university also had a place in an “Address” that was both brief and to the point.

And then it was done.  The legislators stood up, Washington bowed, and stepped down.

Recommended Reading:  Washington – A Life – Thanks to Martin over at What Would the Founders Think for a review that pushed me over the edge to purchase this book.  If I can ever get Madison’s biography finished…

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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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It is no real secret that John Adams had a difficult Presidency.  The reasons are many.  He followed in the shadow of the revered George Washington.  He was fully exposed to the unbridled fury of the press which, as we have seen before, showed little restraint and an even more fleeting adherence to the truth.  His enemies were numerous and powerful, reading like a “who’s-who” of the Founders.  Jefferson (his own VP).  Madison.  Hamilton.  Even Washington, the great diplomat, didn’t get on well with John Adams.  Just before the end of the 18th century, there was a war brewing between the U.S. and France, and Adams’ enemies were certain that he was leading them towards it.  Of course, they knew that Adams had sent a peace delegation to France to negotiate a treaty (a treaty that would eventually be signed), but again, that mattered little.

And while Adams had his own issues (a raucous temper and a pronounced arrogance), there is small doubt that external forces really had it in for the 2nd President.  Today we focus on another of his problems…his Cabinet.  When Adams was elected, there was no precedent for how to handle Cabinet members, so Adams simply carried them over, and it turned out to be his biggest mistake.

We talked about it before, but when Washington was President, his real #2 man was not Adams (the VP), but Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.  And Hamilton got on well with all of Washington’s circle…except Adams.  When Adams took over as President (Hamilton had resigned by then), there was no room for Hamilton in his world.  So Hamilton worked through Adams’ Cabinet, influencing their decisions and generally getting in Adams’ way.  All three of the primary Secretaries (Pickering, James McHenry, and Wolcott) were under the sway of Hamilton.  Adams would prospose policy, Hamilton would be informed, who would then offer his opinions, which would influence the Cabinet.

If Donald Rumsfeld (former Defense Secretary in President Bush’s Cabinet) was quietly directing members of President Obama’s Cabinet, you can imagine that the President would take pretty strong exception to it.  Well, Adams did, too.  But he didn’t really do anything about it.

Until May 5, 1800.

With his 1st term winding down and Jefferson looking more and more like the 3rd President, Adams had finally had enough.  That evening, as an insignificant meeting between Adams and War Secretary James McHenry (shown above) was ending, something McHenry said or some attitude he showed (no one knows for sure) set the President off.  He accused McHenry of working with Hamilton (which was true) to undercut his administration (which was less true, but had merit).  And while Adams actually liked War Secretary personally, he thought he was incompetent (which also had merit) and finished with, “You cannot, sir, remain longer in office.”

When McHenry offered to resign, Adams became quite apologetic, and he later badly regretted his outburst.  But, as David McCullough writes in his biography of our 2nd President, “…nothing he had said was untrue, nor was his anger without justification.  In firing McHenry he had done what he should have done well before this.”

As it turns out, he fired Secretary of State Pickering a few days later, and Wolcott was out at Treasury just before Adams’ term ended.

We see turnover in Cabinets pretty regularly now, so we’re kind of used to it.  But as far as I can tell, this incident was the first in U.S. history where a President fired a Cabinet Secretary.

Recommended Reading: John Adams

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I’ve been away from the electronic “pen” far too long.  There were topics on my list for the days I missed, but I didn’t really make the time for the research necessary to do them justice.  Of course, I could have just gone to some other site, paraphrased/copied some material, and called it good, but the research part is often as enjoyable as the typing.  So I apologize for being ill-prepared this last week of the year.

But as we exit 2009, I want to briefly discuss another exit…the one made by Thomas Jefferson.  When President Washington had announced the first presidential cabinet in American history, it was no surprise that Jefferson was among the selections.  Author of the Declaration and an ambassador to France with John Adams during the Revolution, Jefferson certainly possessed the talents and initiative to help guide the States through their infancy.  He became the country’s first Secretary of State.

But it didn’t take long for this new appointee to start opposing not only other cabinet members, most particularly the Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, but the President himself.  So often when we think of those first Presidents, we put the party system we have now out of our thinking.  There weren’t parties, we say to ourselves, and the Founding Fathers were largely in agreement on matters of policy, we might think.  We see old paintings of the Fathers standing together in the meetings halls as the Constitution was formed.  Together they grace the cover of many books.  Washington reposes right next to Jefferson on Mount Rushmore!!  Our natural inclination is to think of the Founding Fathers as “Founding Friends.”  Such is not the case.

Jefferson clashed badly – initially on ideological grounds, later on most everything – with Washington and Hamilton.  Before the President’s first term had ended, Jefferson had tried to resign.  In early 1792, he tried to quit, but was convinced by Washington to do otherwise.  In October of that same year, he again met with the President, and was less subtle in his “Hamiltonian” disfavor.  Jefferson told Washington that Hamilton had told him the “Constitution was a shilly-shally thing of mere milk and water, which could not last and was only good as a step to something better.”  The President had heard enough.  Pinning the Secretary of State with his own words, he responded sharply that “as to the idea of transforming this government into a monarchy, he did not believe there were ten men in the United States whose opinions were worth attention who entertained such a thought.”  Ouch!!  Jefferson’s take-away was that Washington was now too old and weak to think and act for himself.  He again announced his intention to resign in March of 1793, when Washington’s term ended.  He ended up staying on into Washington’s second term.

Then Citizen Genet appeared on the scene – which we’ll discuss at some point, but in the meantime, go here for some great insight – and Jefferson, his ambition to rid the government of Hamilton all but destroying his wisdom and sound judgement, found himself on the wrong side of the mess Genet tried to, and partially did, create.  This time it was enough.  Jefferson agreed to stay on until the end of 1793 if the full story of Genet’s antics and misdeeds was not published until later.

On December 31, 1793, Jefferson “admitted defeat” to Washington and Hamilton and resigned his post.  He claimed he was overjoyed to be “liberated from the hated occupations of politics and sink into the bosom of my family, my farm, and my books.”  But, of course, Jefferson’s ambition meant retirement from politics was merely an attempt to direct the play from an agrarian stage.  Vice President Adams, never one to miss an opportunity to opine, said of Jefferson’s departure, “Jefferson thinks by this step to get the reputation as an humble, modest, meek man, wholly without ambition or vanity….  But if the prospect opens, the world will see and he will feel that he is as ambitious as Oliver Cromwell.”

Thomas Jefferson would be back.  And, ironically, it would be Adams that would provide the “prospect”.

I wish you all a wonderful, and safe, Happy New Year.

Recommended Reading: American Sphinx

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Alexander Hamilton’s tenure as the country’s first Treasury Secretary was a stormy one.  In those 5 years, he had overseen the creation of America’s financial system and a national bank.  He had witnessed the first stock offering and, a few months later, the first stock market crash.  He had created a system by which the fledgling U.S. Government could pay down its debts and establish good credit with foreign powers.  Ultimately, he set in motion (in the 1790’s) many of the financial principles we still utilize today.

Alexander Hamilton had also made quite a few enemies.

His views (and his actions) produced, in the minds of his opponents, a stronger central government than was necessary or desired, and it brought him into sharp debate with them.  These “anti-federalists” (those against a strong federal government) argued long and loud against the “federalists”, claiming their final plan was a return to the hated monarchy.  And while Alexander Hamilton was not the leader of the Federalist party – that honor went to President Washington and Vice President Adams – Hamilton became the poster-child for all that was wrong with their philosophy.  He was the Anti-Federalist whipping boy.

His opponents scoured the “Hamiltonian landscape” for anything untoward…any kind of official misconduct that could form the noose of his political lynching.  For several years they peered into the records.  But Alexander Hamilton, as many of you know, was painstakingly precise with the books.  Any appearance of official misconduct was abhorrent to the young Secretary.  Anti-Federalists pored in vain over the ledgers and found nothing…until 1794.

In the spring of that year, they discovered what they thought to be the smoking gun.  Back in 1790, Congress had set aside monies to be used to pay overseas creditors.  Hamilton had diverted some of the funds to domestic spending, after consulting with the President…but Hamilton had no evidence to prove the meeting took place.  President Washington was consulted and, 5 years after the fact, had no evidence of the meeting, either…and no recollection that it had taken place.  The President was quick to add that, if the meeting had taken place, he was sure he would have advised Hamilton to do what was consistent with the Congressional directives of the legislation.

To some degree, the President had thrown his Secretary to the wolves.

The formal inquiry turned up Hamilton’s misconduct (which we’ll visit in a couple weeks), but none of it was official.  Hamilton ended up being exonerated of any misappropriation.  The damage, however, had been done.  The Secretary felt betrayed.  The character of his office had been called into question, and that was anathema to Hamilton.  And while he and the President would remain on good terms (Washington asked Hamilton to compose his Farewell Address just two years later), any blot on his integrity (real or implied) was too much.

But there was more.  Hamilton had just return from an exhausting trip west with the President as head of the army.  Their mission to squelch the Whiskey Rebellion had been successful, but had served to make Hamilton more hated among the “drinkers of hard liquor”, so much so that he required a six-man escort.  And Eliza, his devoted wife, had just suffered a miscarriage, which Alexander largely blamed on the stresses of his constant absence.

On December 1, 1794, America’s first Treasury Secretary announced his departure, effective January 31, 1795.  In accepting his Secretary’s resignation, Washington spared little of his most effusive praise.  Thinking back over their strong 20-year working relationship, the President cast aside the rantings of Jefferson and the ravings of Madison and wrote, “In every relation which you have borne to me, I have found that my confidence in your talents, exertions, and integrity has been well placed.  I the more freely render this testimony of my approbation, because I speak from opportunities of information which cannot deceive me and which furnish satisfactory proof of your title to public regard.  My most earnest wishes for your happiness will attend you in retirement.”

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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There is little doubt that President George Washington could have held his position as Commander-in-Chief longer than he did.  The people, to some degree, revered him.  It’s true that, during his second term in office, the gloves of his political opponents had come off and a significant amount of venom had been spit at “His Excellency”.  But it’s also true that more than a little of that poison was directed at his second-in-command.

I don’t mean Vice President Adams, though he took his share of the heat.  The real #2 man in Washington’s Presidency was Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.  In a relationship that spanned nearly 25 years, the two had become a de-facto team.  Washington was the steady, calm and collected leader.  Hamilton was the visionary, the brilliant and impetuous “idea man”.  The two of them laid the governmental landscape on the canvas of the American experience.

It also made them some powerful enemies.  Thomas Jefferson was one, having resigned his position as the first Secretary of State due to his intense dislike of the Treasury Secrtary and his (somewhat inaccurate) perception that the President simply bowed to Hamilton’s wishes.  Another was James Madison.  As a co-writer of The Federalist Papers with Hamilton, the two had, in less than 10 years, moved from pen-fellows in a common cause to bitter rivals.

For his part, Washington stayed above the fray, attempting to maintain working relationships with all these men, despite their passions.  But it was tough.  And when the war with the press was included, it was very wearing.  The anti-Federalist newspapers, hesitant to denigrate the President in his first term, came out swinging in the second.

In our day, controversial men and women sprinkle newspapers, internet sites, radio, and TV with what we consider to be libelous talk.  But many of these folks are amatuers in the art of “character assassination” when compared with men like Benjamin Franklin Bache in the late 18th Century.

President Washington had decided not to run for a second term 1792 and had asked Madison to compose a farewell address for him, but was “compelled” to stay on for an additional four years.  There was little debate, even among opponents, and 100% agreement in the Electoral College.  But in May of 1796, Washington was done.

As he prepared to announce his departure, he dug out the text Madison had prepared four years prior.  Looking it over, he decided that, in light of all that had changed, the document needed refreshing.  So he sent it, along with some ideas of his own, to…Alexander Hamilton.  Now himself out of government, Hamilton didn’t just modify the first address.  He wrote two farewell addresses, one a “Madison-modified” piece, the other completely his own.

The President preferred Hamilton’s work, but (like everything Hamilton wrote) he felt it was too long for a newspaper.  So Hamilton pared it down and returned it to the President, who did some final editing.  On September 19, 1796, just two months before the election, Washington’s farewell address appeared in Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser.

America now had two months to prepare for its first real contested election.

Recommended Reading: His Excellency: George Washington

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As you might know, I’ve been working through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.  At my current pace, I probably won’t have it finished before the end of the year.  But if I speed it up, I might have it done…by the end of the year.  At better than 700 pages, it’s a bit daunting, but the quality of the work makes it a worthy task.  And as a guy who’s always looking for the specific date an event occurred, Chernow has accomodated me nicely. I’ve gots tons of stuff, like this…

On September 2, 1789, Congress acted to create the Department of the Treasury.  The responsibility of this department was pretty simple:  manage the government’s money.  Well, it sounds simple, but there’s a lot more to it than that.  Collecting taxes, managing government accounts, handling debt, supervising the banks, and paying the government’s bills are all part of job.  And there’s the crime-fighting role, going after evaders and cheats and such.  It’s probably a “25-hour-a-day” job.

Anyways, in 1789, when President Washington was looking to fill the position, he selected Robert Morris.  A Pennsylvanian who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a strong backer of the Constitution, Morris had an important role in the finances of the Revolutionary War.  When the Revolution ended, he was appointed Superintendent of Finance, though mostly what he managed was war debt.  What I’m getting at is that Morris was a pretty good candidate.

So it comes as something of a surprise that he refused the job.  It wasn’t due to health reasons, hidden scandal, or ambitions of his own (a bigger surprise, since that’s usually why one refuses the President).  Robert Morris refused because he believed he wasn’t the best man for the job (the biggest surprise of all, since people in these situations tend to let their egos rule the day).  His choice was Alexander Hamilton, and Morris told the President that Hamilton should be his selection, too.

Washington listened, and he had a history with Hamilton that reached back to the Revolution, when Hamilton had served on then-General Washington’s staff.  They had a good relationship and a strong respect for each other, though they didn’t always agree (a subject we will cover down the road).  And nine days later when Hamilton walked into an empty office, he probably had little idea of how much that space would shape his legacy.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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As President Washington’s first term of office got under way, the United States was pretty much broke.  The Revolution, while great for the soul, had been awful on the back pocket.  War loans from the French and the Dutch were hanging over the government, there were other war debts still outstanding, and there were new bills being created as the government ramped up.  And, of course, there was precious little money to pay for any of it.

In 1790, there wasn’t any income tax.  There weren’t taxes on capital gains, nor were there taxes on estates, gasoline, phones, or cars that used too much fuel.  But the one area where the government could collect some “money off the top” was imports.  Goods coming into the States had to come through the harbors, so officials would be there to assess the duties on all the stuff shipped from Britain, France, the West Indies, and other places.

But guess what?  People hated taxes in the 18th century, too.  And because loopholes in the “tax code” didn’t yet exist, the Colonists-turned-Americans simply returned to the methods they used when circumventing the British tariff system.  A smuggling racket was born (or reborn), whereby product was spirited into the country, beyond the eyes and, more importantly, beyond the reach of the taxing bodies that awaited it.

The government needed to do something, as it could only run on good will (and a mediocre credit rating) for so long.  The newly-appointed Treasury Secretary, ultimately responsible for the money, had an idea.  Alexander Hamilton suggested a small fleet of single-masted vessels, called “revenue cutters”, be built to patrol offshore and intercept vessels that seemed to be heading toward land, but avoiding the ports.

And on August 4, 1790, President Washington signed the bill creating the Revenue-Marine.  And Hamilton’s penchant for precision meant he had most of the details of the service already on paper, right down to the number of muskets, bayonets, and foodstuffs each boat should carry.

The Secretary of the Treasury also created a rigorous code of conduct for the captains and crews, because the power these men wielded needed to be tempered, lest the public become inflamed against it.  Hamilton said crews need “always keep in mind that their countrymen are free men and as such are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of a domineering spirit.”  And the men were trained to “refrain from whatever has the semblance of haughtiness, rudeness, or insult.”

It was a success as the Revenue-Marine.  It was a success when it became the Revenue Cutter Service in the late 19th Century.  And it remains a success today…as the United States Coast Guard.

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President George Washington was presented with a bill concerning how representatives would be apportioned among the states.  When he rejected the bill on April 5, 1792, he was casting the first Presidential veto in the county’s brief history.

It would certainly not be the last.

In the 217 years since Washington’s first veto, the 42 subsequent Presidents have exercised their veto power on more than 2,500 occasions.  Most Commanders-In-Chief have used the veto power.  In fact, only 7 Presidents have not.  The last President to veto the veto?  James Garfield…of course, he only served 6 months of his term, so he didn’t get much of a chance.  Current President Barack Obama has also yet to veto any legislation, but he’s only a couple months into his 1st term, so there’s still plenty of time.

U.S. Presidents have two ways to veto a bill.  The first is to explicitly return the bill to Congress, which is the most common method and has been used in about 1,500 cases.

The President also has the option to neither sign the bill nor return it to Congress.  After ten days, the bill automatically becomes law.  But (and pay attention here), Article 1, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution states that if the Congressional session ends before the ten days has elapsed and the President does nothing with the bill, it is vetoed.

Called the “pocket veto” (the President effectively puts the bill in his pocket and ignores it), this veto is more powerful because it effectively kills the possibility of a Congressional override (the bill is in the President’s pocket).  There is some ambiguity concerning pocket vetoes, and they’ve been challenged in the past.  They’ve been exercised by various Presidents more than 1,000 times.

Remember Schoolhouse Rock?  Well, I do, and the famous “I’m Just a Bill” clip from Saturday mornings should give you low-down on bills becoming law and the whole veto process.

Some interesting facts about vetoes:

  • The President with the most vetoes?  Franklin Roosevelt (635 of them in his 3+ terms).
  • Among 2-term Presidents, Grover Cleveland exercised veto power 414 times.  A strong opponent of earmarks, he rejected spending bills left and right.  And only two of his vetoes were overridden.
  • President Roosevelt exercised 263 pocket vetoes.
  • Presidents that did not use their veto power:  Adams I, Jefferson, Adams II, Harrison, Taylor, Fillmore, and Garfield.

Recommended Reading:  Presidents – All You Need to Know – An outstanding compilation of facts about the first 43 Presidents.

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When George Washington took the Presidential Oath of Office for the second time in 1793, he did so reluctantly.  He had served his first term as the first President of the United States with distinction, and proved himself to be a very capable leader.  But a second term?  He wasn’t really in favor of that.  The Colonists-recently-turned-Citizens, however, would not be denied and support for Washington was overwhelming (as a 100% vote in the Electoral College would bear out), and so he served.

When election time came again in 1796, the luster of Washington’s leadership had dimmed just a bit, and even this most-loved-of-Presidents had his detractors.  But there was no question that the First President could, and would, be elected again if he so chose.  He did not so choose, and without expressly saying so, set a “two-term” precedent of that would stand for nearly 150 years.

There were some Presidents who sought to serve more than Washington’s self-imposed 8 years (President Ulysses Grant and President Theodore Roosevelt come immediately to mind), but none did…until Franklin Roosevelt was elected to a third term in 1940 and a fourth in 1944.  Of course, by 1944, our 32nd President was in very poor health, and would serve only a few months of his 4th term before his death in April of 1945.

Based on the timing of events, I would guess that President Truman had barely been sworn into Office when Congress went to work on what would become the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  It essentially mandated that…well…it’s short, we’ll just write it out:

Section 1. No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.

Section 2. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by the Congress.

The Amendment was passed by Congress in March of 1947, and became law on February 27, 1951, when 75% of the States (Minnesota being the 36th) ratified it.

There are some who claim that the 22nd Amendment may not cover all contingencies.  For example, a person serves two terms as President and is then selected as a Vice Presidential candidate.  As first-in-line to become President, what if something happens to the actual President in his first year?  The answer may lie back in the 12th Amendment, which states that only people eligible to be President can run for Vice President.  But even that’s a bit nebulous, which is why we have the Supreme Court.

The 22nd Amendment had its detractors back then, and it still does.  Some have said that it dimishes the “will of the people”, who may want someone in Office for more than two terms.  Others say that mandated term limits hamstring 2nd-term Presidents (which is probably true), robbing them of some of their ability to do work.

But for now, the 22nd Amendment stands.  And that means re-elected Presidents will continue to be associated with water fowl that limp.  Congress can be fun!

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I don’t pretend to know much about our first President’s demeanor, so if I were discussing that as part of Today’s History Lesson, there’s at least a 50% chance that the title of this piece is way off the mark.  But happily for all of us, I’m not writing about George Washington’s attitude nor his bouts with anger, because I’d pretty much have to stop here.

On February 20, 1792, the President signed into law the Postal Service Act, which created the United States Post Office Department.  But the Postal Service Act wasn’t the creation of a new agency as much as it was the “officialization” of an existing one, so let’s step back to just before the Revolution got started…to 1775.  It was then that the Second Continental Congress established the Constitutional Post with some guy named Franklin as the first Postmaster General…Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin served in the position until late 1776 (when he was sent to France) and while in office, he did much of the initial work, setting up postal routes and rate charges.

Fifteen years later, the Revolution had ended, the Constitution had been written and ratified, and States were joining the Union.  And the Constitutional Post was there, well-established and functional and growing with the size of the country.  The Postal Service Act simply gave Postmaster General more power to organize and standardize the postal system.  Timothy Pickering would be the first official U.S. Post Office Postmaster General (he held the position when the President signed the legislation), and the Post Office would remain a part of the Federal Government until 1971, when it became an independent government agency called the United States Postal Service.

Today, the U.S. Postal Service is still the primary method of mail and package delivery in the United States.  I pulled a few stats from the Postal Service pages, and the numbers are staggering.

  • Each year, more than 210 billion pieces of mail are processed each year.  That’s 6,000 items a second.
  • The Postal Service operates a fleet of 214,000 vehicles that log, in total, a billion miles a year.
  • According to their site, the USPS uses boats, bicycles, and even mules to deliver the mail (though not to my house).
  • The USPS processes well over 40 million change-of-addresses each year.
  • If the USPS delivered only 99.9% of the mail accurately, it would still mess up 21,000,000 pieces of mail.

So, next time the mail arrives and you happen to be outside, thank them for a job well done.  And think of President George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who made it all happen more than 200 years ago.

Recommended Reading: A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

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February 4, 1789 marks the first time that the Electoral College was called upon to do its duty:  elect the President of the United States.  And for one of only two times in the history of U.S. elections, the vote was unanimous.  George Washington, Virginian, hero of the French and Indian War and the War of Independence that brought freedom to the Colonies, received 100% of the Electoral Votes.

Not that there were all that many Electors, as the Union on this day in 1789 comprised just 11 States.  But still, Washington had received his mandate to lead the new nation through its infancy.  And when he took the Oath of Office in April, he did so without any party affiliation or allegiance…the only President that has been really able to say that.

And the other unanimous selection?  That would be Washington again, four years later, when the country (now 14 States in all) begged him to serve a second term, a request he reluctantly accepted.

Recommended Reading: His Excellency: George Washington

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I watched a couple of Charlie Brown Thanksgiving specials last night, and that’s put me in the mood to talk a little about the holiday.  As we probably all know, the Thanksgiving tradition goes all the way back to the Pilgrims, the Mayflower, and Plymouth, Massachusetts.

When the Pilgrims first arrived in late 1620, they barely survived that terrible first winter.  But the coming of spring and Squanto (who taught them much of agriculture) meant the Colony survived.  In 1621, they set aside a day to give thanks to God and to the natives that had helped them.  The tradition carried on in an irregular pattern for the next 160 years, with colonial leaders declaring days of thanksgiving, usually after the harvest, but not on any particular day.

In October of 1789, it was President George Washington that declared the first Thanksgiving holiday in the newly-formed United States of America.  His proclamation read (in part):

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.”

I think our first President said it well, so we’ll leave it at that.  On November 26, 1789, Thanksgiving was celebrated as a national holiday for the first time.  And on this date in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt would sign a bill establishing, by law, Thanksgiving as the 4th Thursday of November.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, take some time in the midst of all the eating and the egg-nog and the football to give thanks.  For what (and whom) are you thankful?

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