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Posts Tagged ‘President John Adams’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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As my knowledge of America’s Revolutionary era has reached the “ankle-deep” stage over the last couple years, there are a few authors that I should probably thank.  Without question, Ron Chernow’s studies of Alexander Hamilton and (most recently) George Washington get a mention.  David McCullough is another, especially for his biography of John Adams.

For you internet junkies, I have to thank Frances Hunter’s American Heroes and Martin and company over at What Would the Founders Think.  These two sites have both taught me so much about the early days of this nation, and both deserve a look from you. 

But one author that I think may sometimes get overlooked is Joseph Ellis.  My first exposure to his writing came several years ago with His Excellency.  Then I read American Sphinx, his work on Thomas Jefferson.  A couple of months back, I picked up First Family, which represents Ellis’ return to John and Abigail Adams.  One of these days, I’ll actually get it finished.

In the introduction to First Family, Ellis reminds us that John and Abigail shared one of the most remarkable relationships in U.S. history.  It wasn’t just the steadfastness of their marriage, the struggles raising of a family (including a future President), and growing old together that set them apart.  In fact, those things are pretty common to many couples.

But Ellis writes, “Abigail and John traveled down that trail about two hundred years before us, remained lovers and friends throughout, and together had a hand in laying the foundation of what is now the oldest enduring republic in world history.  And they left a written record of all the twitches, traumas, throbbings, and tribulations along the way.  No one else has ever done that.”

He informs us that the record consists of “roughly twelve hundred letters between them” and describes it as “a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor.”

Throughout the Colonies’ push for independence, this second “First Couple” spent quite a bit of time apart, as duty often called John away, whether it be to Philadelphia and the Second Continental Congress, or even further away to Paris.  David McCullough writes that Abigail’s letters often concerned news from the homefront.  “…family, of politics, of her day-to-day struggles to manage expenses, cope with shortages, and keep the farm going…”.

However, Abigail was far more than just the keeper of the house while John was away.  She was a shrewd woman with a strong mind and a keen sense her husband’s work and its implications, not only for them, but for generations that would follow.  On March 31, 1776, she wrote to John concerning the British evacuation of Boston and smallpox vaccinations.

But then she followed up with some seemingly parenthetical thoughts that have become her most famous words.  “And, by the way,” she wrote, “in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands.”  She continued on (quoting Daniel Defoe), “Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.”  And then she offered up a playful (or was it?) threat for her husband’s consideration.  “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to forment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Mrs. Adams final statement here is most remarkable.  A woman, living in a society completely dominated by men, talking of independence and equality.  And while her husband took her statements as playful banter, I cannot but imagine that the phrase “will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation” really packed a punch.  This was the reason he and other men were meeting in Philadelphia, talking about revolution and independence from the rule of tyranny.

Abigail Adams threw down the proverbial gauntlet to her husband, challenging him (and those with whom he gathered) to consider the possibility that freedom involved more than “taxation with representation” and more than throwing off the shackles of King George III.  Maybe it also included equality for women in the voting booth.  She and John both detested slavery (their letters discuss it on numerous occasions), and maybe freedom had something to say about that as well.

Ninety years and a bloody Civil War would be required to ultimately end the curse of slavery in America.  And more than 150 years would pass before women were finally allowed to vote.  But Abigail’s letter saw that “city of the future” in the spring of 1776, when the battle-cry of freedom was just warming up.

Recommended Reading:  First Family:  Abigail and John Adams

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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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America’s first two elections were basically uncontested.  Everyone knew George Washington would be elected to the top post, and his 100% tally in both Electoral College votes bore that out.  The election of 1796, won by John Adams, was the first election that showed just how divided a country, recently united by Revolution and victory, could become.  It also gave us some insight into the power of a muck-raking press not conditioned to the niceties of 21st-century subtlety.

Which brings us to the election of 1800, which may have been the most dramatic in the country’s history.  There was little doubt who wasn’t going to win.  President John Adams had been demonized by the Anti-Federalist Party and marginalized by his own Federalist Party.  The threat of open war with France had split the powers in government into two camps.  The Anti-Federalists, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, wanted peace with France…the Federalists, war.

President Adams’ envoys to France brokered peace, but the “slow boat to America” brought news of the treaty too late to act as the catalyst that almost surely would have garnered Adams another term.  So it came down to Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.  Everyone knew the election would end in an Electoral College tie, and that was verified when the ballots were opened on February 11th, 1801.  The vote would go to the House of Representatives, a chamber dominated by Federalists, which spelled doom for Jefferson.

But not so fast.

Aaron Burr was a pretty unpopular fellow amongst those in power.  And one of his biggest rivals was Alexander Hamilton.  The two had engaged in an on-again-off-again cycle of trust, distrust, collaboration, and outright hatred that boggles the senses.  Hamilton saw Burr as a two-faced hypocrite, who swapped allegiances and ideologies to suit whatever constituency gave him the most power.  He (correctly) saw Burr as a man of exceeding ambition who, if he couldn’t gain power by rightful election, was capable of using any means necessary.

Burr, for his part, was initially gracious about the tie, stating that “It is highly improbable that I shall have an equal number of votes with Mr. Jefferson, but if such should be the result, every man who knows me ought to know that I should utterly disclaim all competition.”  Some Federalists were inclined to favor the ever-ambitious Burr over Jefferson.

Alexander Hamilton was horrified. He and Thomas Jefferson had also been bitter rivals for years, but in this case, Burr was the bigger evil, as we’ll begin to unravel in a few days.  As always, he let his pen do the talking, writing to Congressional Federalists that “As to Burr, there is nothing in his favour…He is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country.  His pubilc principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement…If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power…”

The irony here is startling…Hamilton defending Jefferson by saying of Burr the same things Jefferson said of Hamilton…read that carefully.  President John Adams, relegated to spectator status in this and a recipient of Hamilton’s ire just prior to the election, laughed at the situation.  “The very man – the very two men – of all the world that he was most jealous of are now placed above him.”

Thirty-five ballots were cast in the House over a week’s time.  And thirty-five times the deadlock remained.  The politiking in the House grew as electors looked for any leeway that could break the deadlock.  That leeway came to Delaware’s James Bayard.  Possibly influenced by Hamilton’s constant letters to Congress, this anti-Jefferson Federalist met with Jefferson supporters and set forth a few requirements which, if promised by Jefferson, could likely win Bayard’s vote.

What Bayard heard in response must have been enough, because the thirty-sixth vote, taken on February 17, 1801, saw Bayard cast a blank ballot, removing Delaware from Burr’s column.  Thomas Jefferson had a new title…President of the United States.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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“The immense house was still unfinished.  It reeked of wet plaster and wet paint.  Fires had to be kept blazing in every fireplace on the main floor to speed up the drying process.  Only a twisting back stair had been built between floors.  Closet doors were missing.  There were no bells to ring for service.  And though the furniture had arrived from Philadelphia, it looked lost in such enormous rooms.  Just one painting had been hung, a full-length portrait of Washington in his black velvet suit, by Gilbert Stuart, which had also been sent from Philadelphia.

The house stood in a weedy, wagon-rutted field with piles of stone and rubble about.  It all looked very raw and unkempt.”

I don’t usually borrow large chunks of text from books I read, but this seemed so appropriate.  Taken from David McCullough’s masterful John Adams, it shatters the stereotypical minds-eye view that we usually have when the White House is mentioned in conversation.  We see cherry trees in blossom, the impeccably manicured South Lawn, and the flower gardens.  Maybe we think of that big fence were people with a point to make (and signs to prove it) will often gather.  Possibly, we hear the “whump, whump” of Marine One as it prepares to touch down, pick up the President, and whisk him to Air Force One and more high-level meetings across the globe.

Whatever our image, it bears little resemblence to what McCullough described, and what President John Adams saw when arrived by unescorted stage to his new home shortly after 1pm on November 1, 1800.  But that’s what greeted Adams…a big house pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  One imagines that it was a lonely site for the 2nd President, which likely added to his own feelings of melancholy.

Adams had been largely marginalized by his own Federalist Party, trivialized by the opposition Anti-Federalist Party, and just weeks before, villianized by fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who in a fit of I-don’t-know-what (rage, vengeance, jealousy, ??) published a 50+ page pamphlet that called the President everything but a deranged lunatic.  Even Anti-Federalists (to say nothing of the Federalists) were aghast at Hamilton’s stunning move, which was nothing short of political suicide.

What little chance Adams had against his opponent, the scheming Thomas Jefferson, in the upcoming election largely vaporized.  News of a peace treaty with France might have swayed the vote, but there was still no word, and the election was right around the corner.

McCullough’s thought continues…“Yet the great white-washed stone building, the largest house in America – as large as the half of the capital that had been erected – was truly a grand edifice, noble even in its present state.”

The words speak of better things to come, and apparently our country’s 2nd President largely saw that hope through the clouds of his own political despair.  The next morning, he would write to his wife back home those famous words:  “I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit.  May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

The Executive Mansion has been lived in, burned down, rebuilt, lived in, completely rennovated, and lived in some more.  But Adams’ words remain our desire, constant more than 200 years later.

Recommended Reading: John Adams

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John Adams, a prominent Massachusetts lawyer, liked to mince words.  A seasoned orator often accused of being overly enamored with the sound of his own voice, Adams didn’t address a lot of topics that weren’t worth talking about for a long time.  Ok…actually he did.  In later years, his penchant for pontification (coupled with his Santa-Claus-like figure) earned him the nickname “His Rotundity”.

But when speaking of Independence Day in a letter to wife Abigail, he kept it pretty simple.  He wrote:  “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.  It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.  It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.“

Now it may come as a surprise to some that Adams wasn’t writing about July 4th. Yeah, it’s the day we celebrate our independence from Great Britain. But for the members of the Second Continental Congress, “Independence Day” didn’t occur then.

It actually started almost a month before (on June 7, 1776), when Richard Henry Lee, another lawyer (from Virginia), proposed what became known as The Lee Resolution.  It called for a formal severing of ties with the British Crown and declared the Colonies independent.  But before actually committing the Resolution to a vote, some time was taken for the Congressional delegates to consolidate their support and gain the necessary votes for passage.  Furthermore, five delegates were formed into a committee to draft an official declaration of independence.

A final draft copy was presented to the Congress on the 28th of June, and debate and counting votes began in earnest on July 1st.

And on July 2, 1776, a breaththrough was achieved when South Carolina’s delegates changed their position and voted for independence.  In addition, Delaware’s deadlock was broken, and John Dickinson and Robert Morris abstained in Pennsylvania’s delegation.  The final vote showed a unanimous vote among the 13 Colonies…sort of.  Only 12 voted as the delegates from New York (in the heart of Tory country) hadn’t yet received authority from their constituents to vote on independence (they got it the following week).

Ties with Great Britain and the King had officially been ended, and this event, on the 2nd, was what put Adams’ pen to paper.

So why do we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July?  Well, after the vote on the 2nd, Congress had to approve the language of what was to become one of America’s two most famous documents…the Declarlation of Independence.  That approval came on the 4th and it’s when printing and distribution of the document commenced.

Recommended Reading: 1776

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