Feeds:
Posts
Comments

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

“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.

Nope.

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…

Read Full Post »

 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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »