George Washington by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn

President #1, C-SPAN historians ranking #2

You Never Forget Your First Time

georgewashingtonThe face of George Washington is well known to Americans. He stares at us on dollar bills. His profile is on the quarter. His portrait used to be a fixture in school classrooms. The capital city of the nation is named for him.

And, just like all of us, George Washington was just one person. One person, full of the typical needs and wants, features and defects, highs and lows, just like anyone else. He was the first true hero of the United States of America. But, why him? What made George Washington, Virginia plantation owner, into GEORGE WASHINGTON, American icon?

Historians James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn, both of Williams College, try to cut through the mystique that often clouds our judgment of George Washington. Their book is not revisionist by any means. But, it is a way for people to get a better grasp on just who the first President of the United State truly was.

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732; although, at the time, he thought his birthday was February 11. The British had not yet adopted the Gregorian calendar, so they were 11 days behind. (This would be the case until 1752.  Although, it would be fun if we celebrated Washington’s birthday one day before Lincoln’s.)

Washington didn’t attend any university; but, he did receive training in surveying. He also received a commission to serve in the Virginia militia. The two jobs would end up setting Washington on his path to fame.

One of Washington’s first major jobs as a surveyor was to map the parts of Virginia near the Ohio border in 1753. This put Washington into close contact with the French, who controlled that part of North America.

In 1754, France and Britain went to war in North America over the control of the territory of what was then called “The Northwest.” Washington served alongside British generals during this conflict, known as the French and Indian War in North America and the Seven Years War in Europe. (The war lasted nine years in North America, so it needed a different name.)

Washington was attached to British General Edward Braddock, who led his troops into an ambush at the Battle of the Monongahela. Braddock was killed; but, Washington was able to rally the remaining troops. For his efforts, Washington was sent to accompany General John Forbes in an attempt to capture Fort Duquesne.

There was no battle at Fort Duquesne, though. The French abandoned the fort in the face of the overwhelming size of the British forces. Fort Duquesne became Fort Pitt, and later Pittsburgh. Forbes ended up with a baseball stadium in Pittsburgh named after him.

For all of his service, Washington hoped that the British Army would give him a commission. But, no commission would be awarded. Washington took this as a tremendous slight. Washington was keenly aware of the importance of titles and status. He realized that the British Army would never consider a colonial like him worthy of honor.

Washington did receive a generous grant of property for his service, and he was able to parlay that into great personal wealth. And with this wealth, Washington did become one of the most famous and most important people in Virginia. Washington would serve in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Although not as radical as other members of that body, such as Patrick Henry, Washington did join others in calling for a boycott of imported goods from Britain.

When the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1774, Washington was part of Virginia’s delegation. Washington dressed in his military uniform for all the meetings. And when the American Revolution began the following year, the Congress decided to appoint Washington as the head of the Continental Army. Presumably, this was because he already had a uniform.

Washington agreed to serve without pay, asking only to be reimbursed for expenses. During the Revolution, Washington became, in the words of Burns and Dunn, a transactional leader. Washington had to take care of forming an army, keeping it equipped and fed, making sure people all over the colonies (soon to be states) were happy. It was almost a triumph of management, more than military expertise.

After eight long years, Washington and the Americans won their independence from Britain in 1783 (although hostilities had ended in 1781 after the Battle of Yorktown.) Washington addressed his officers in what was known as his Farewell Address. It would turn out that Washington’s public life was far from over.

The United States, under the terms of the Articles of Confederation, was almost ungovernable. The Congress had very little authority. States tried levying tariffs on goods imported from other states.

Meanwhile, in Western Massachusetts, a Revolutionary War veteran named Daniel Shays led a popular uprising against the government of Massachusetts. Shays’ wanted the state to stop property seizures by creditors against farmers. Although the violence was relatively muted, the concept behind Shays’ Rebellion stirred Washington to take action to change the American government.

The action turned out to the Constitutional Convention. Washington did not directly call for it, but encouraged others to do so. And Washington also welcomed an invitation to participate in it. And Washington had little trouble in accepting the job as the president of the convention.

Washington’s job at the Constitutional Convention was not to come up with new ideas. The heavy lifting, from an intellectual standpoint, was left to people such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. But, it was Washington’s air of authority (he wore his military uniform during much of the convention to help with this) that kept the delegates in line.

After the Constitution was ratified, there was little doubt who would be the man chosen to be the first President. It had to be Washington. He won every electoral vote in 1789.

Washington had one of the most difficult jobs as President because nobody knew just what the President was supposed to do.  Washington had no example to go by. He had to find out how to make it all work. And he had to do it right away.

During the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, many thought that Congress would end up as the most powerful branch of government. But, Washington was able to shape the office of President into a more powerful force.

Burns and Dunn point out two main ways Washington accomplished this. First, Washington, thanks to the efforts of Hamilton, made the President a proactive force in making legislation. Washington did not want to sit back to wait for Congress to propose action. Most notably, Hamilton sent to Congress plans to consolidate state debts into one national debt, as well as a plan to set up a national bank. Washington fully supported these policies.

The second area where Washington asserted the authority of the President was in foreign affairs. After Washington negotiated a treaty with several Indian tribes early in his Presidency, he went to the Senate to discuss the treaty with its members. But, the initial meeting was a disaster as the senators were not prepared to ask questions and Washington was asked to come back later. Washington had no desire to ever repeat that experience. Since then, all presidents have negotiated treaties and then just presented the completed document for the Senate to vote on. Washington also knew that since the President had the right to receive and appoint ministers and ambassadors, the President had the right to recognize nations.

Washington relied heavily on Hamilton and Jefferson for advice and counsel. The two men were given a great deal of latitude to make decisions. But, it was Hamilton who ended up being Washington’s favorite adviser.

Hamilton, who during the Constitutional Convention proposed an executive who would be elected for life, saw great promise in the United States. Hamilton felt that a strong Chief Executive was needed for this. Washington was of the same mind. The favoritism that Washington gave to Hamilton would ultimately to the rise of the two-party system in the United States.

Burns and Dunn point to a 1791 article anonymously written by Madison as the beginning of factionalism in U.S. government. At this time, Hamilton’s plan for the assumption of state debts by the Federal government was before Congress. Madison opposed this because he felt it was outside the scope of Congress’ powers according to the Constitution. Also, Madison felt that the plan was unfair to many Revolutionary War veterans who had sold off their debt certificates to speculators at a fraction of their value. Hamilton’s plan had all of the certificates redeemed at full value.

Although most in government knew that Madison had written the piece, Washington and Hamilton believed that Jefferson was the man behind the whole idea. Jefferson also believed that his views were being ignored by Washington.  So, he resigned his position as Secretary of State in 1793.

In addition to domestic differences, the American political system also split along the lines of France and England. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the United States was left in the position of having to choose whether to honor its Revolutionary War alliance with France, or, try to remain neutral and avoid the wrath of England.

Jefferson and his supporters backed France. Hamilton and his supporters sided with England. Washington opted for a policy of neutrality, knowing that the United States could not afford a war with any European power.

However, the English were not going to allow American ships to trade with their French enemies. The Royal Navy began to seize American merchant ships and choke off trade. Washington opted to try diplomacy to get the English to relent in their attacks.

So, Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to London in 1794 to negotiate a treaty. Jay didn’t have much to bargain with. When he returned, the treaty didn’t have much in the way of concessions from the British. There were no provisions to relieve the pressure on American shipping; but, the British did agree to abandon their forts along the Canadian border.

Jay’s Treaty (as it would be called) was sent to the Senate in 1795, where it was debated in secret. (The Senate conducted almost all of its business behind closed doors in the early years of the Republic.) The Senate voted to ratify the treaty.

It did not take long for details of the treaty to emerge. Public reaction to it was harsh. Mobs burned effigies of Jay throughout the country. (Jay said he could ride up and down the country at night using the lights from his burning effigies.) Hamilton was shouted down at a public meeting trying to defend the treaty. Washington was stunned by the reaction. It was the first time that Washington faced an enormous amount of opposition from the American public. (Washington had been reelected in 1792 unanimously.)

Washington was not sure if he would sign the treaty; but, the decision was made for him in the summer of 1795. At that time, Washington was given a letter written by his Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph, to the French minister to the United States. Randolph seemed to indicate that he felt that the treaty was favorable to England, instead of France. Also, Randolph, somewhat obliquely, solicited a bribe from the French to prevent the treaty from going into force. Washington would not tolerate such disloyalty from his Secretary of State. Randolph was fired, and the treaty was signed by Washington.

Toward the end of his second term in 1796, Washington was a tired man. He complained of vision and hearing problems, and, even worse, memory lapses. He had worked nearly all of his adult life to the creation of a new nation that he was extraordinarily proud of. But, Washington knew it was time to retire from public life for good. Washington’s example of serving two terms would be followed by all presidents until Franklin Roosevelt. (The 22nd Amendment made the two terms limit a requirement instead of an example.) Washington delivered a second Farewell Address.

In this address, Washington bemoaned the partisanship that had taken over American politics. He also famously warned against the United States from entering into any alliances that would force the country to become needlessly involved in European matters. This philosophy would guide American foreign policy for most of the 19th Century.

In 1797, after the inauguration of John Adams as the second President, Washington returned to his home at Mount Vernon. Burns and Dunn portray the retired Washington as one who had come to accept partisanship in government. When Washington was asked to lead the Army by Adams in a possible war against France, Washington insisted that all his officers be Federalists (as the supporters of Adams and Hamilton had become known.) Washington also worried that the United States was in danger of being taken over by the Illuminati. (Someone had traveled through time and given Washington the collected works of Dan Brown.)

Washington passed away on December 14, 1799 at the age of 67. Henry Lee, in a eulogy for Washington, described him as being “first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” George Washington, the man, was dead. George Washington, the myth, lives on to this day.

Other stuff: Normally, this section is reserved for listing places that are memorials dedicated to the President reviewed. However, I don’t have enough space or energy to list all of the homes, monuments, and memorials dedicated to George Washington.

Washington’s Mount Vernon home is not a national park or monument. It is run by a private foundation called the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Foundation. The Washington Monument is not considered to be a National Monument by the United States Park Service. It is a National Memorial. Construction began on the Washington Monument in 1848; but, it was not completed until 1884. There were problems with raising money for the monument. Also, there was this thing called the Civil War….

For those not wishing to travel to Virginia or the District of Columbia, you can just visit the state of Washington. I hear it’s pretty much the same as our nation’s capital.

Washington had no children with his wife Martha. However, Martha did have two children by her first husband.

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Thomas Jefferson by Joyce Appleby

President #3, C-SPAN Historians ranking #7

Embargo! O grab me!

jeffersonIn this biography of the Third President, UCLA professor Joyce Appleby begins the seventh chapter of the book with this sentence: “Americans’ most pressing history assignment is coming to terms with Thomas Jefferson.”

And speaking as someone who was taught by Professor Appleby at UCLA, this woman can give out tough assignments. (Do you want to read a good paper on the importance of mob action prior to the American Revolution? If so, don’t read the one I wrote for her class.)

Thomas Jefferson is someone that nearly everyone would like to be. For starters, he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He also designed his own home, Monticello, one of the nation’s architectural jewels (and for many years on the back of the nickel.) He was an inventor. He was an author. He was an intellectual. He was a civil libertarian. And he was tall (reportedly 6’3″, making him something of a Yao Ming of that era.)

But, there is also the Thomas Jefferson who owned slaves. The Thomas Jefferson who quite likely fathered a child or children from one of his slaves, and still kept them as slaves. There is the Thomas Jefferson who believed in liberty for all, as long as you were a white male. There is the Thomas Jefferson who believed in the sanctity of the Constitution, unless it got in the way of something he really wanted to do. There is the Thomas Jefferson who was not afraid to get revenge on his political enemies.

Thomas Jefferson was a definitely a man of his time. But is he a man for our time? Appleby tries to make the case for Jefferson. Her task is difficult because her book concentrates almost exclusively on the eight years Jefferson served as President, which were not his best years. However, this is a presidential biography series, so it’s those eight years we have to look at.

Jefferson had been one of the major political figures in the U.S. since 1776 because of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Later, Jefferson served as governor of Virginia, although he was accused of cowardice after fleeing into the Virginia hills in the face of oncoming British troops.

In 1782, Jefferson’s wife, Martha, passed away, likely of complications from the numerous pregnancies (seven) she went through in their 10 years of marriage. Martha gave her husband two daughters before she passed away. Thomas Jefferson would destroy all his correspondence with his wife, which is about all the writings of his that he didn’t save. Jefferson’s complete papers still have not been completely published and may not be for another 40-50 years.

After the Revolutionary War ended, Jefferson served for a time in the Continental Congress, where he helped to draft the Northwest Ordinance, one of the few accomplishments of the pre-Constitution version of Congress. In 1784, Jefferson was sent to Paris as a U.S. representative, serving alongside John Adams for a period.

While Jefferson was in Europe, the United States adopted the Constitution. While Jefferson was returning home in 1789, George Washington appointed him to be the first Secretary of State.

Soon after joining the new government, Jefferson realized that Washington’s ear and mind belonged to Alexander Hamilton, a man whom Jefferson disagreed with. A government that was not supposed to have parties or factions quickly devolved into one with two of them: Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans. The battle between the two men would be over the nature of American politics. Would it be a government run by an aristocracy or a government dominated by “the common man.”

The party structure first showed up in the election of 1796, which John Adams won by just three electoral votes over Jefferson. Under the terms of the Constitution at the time, Jefferson became Vice President as the second place finisher.

The political climate grew even more rancorous during the Adams administration. Tensions from the French Revolution spilled over to the United States. Jefferson and his supporters backed France, while Adams and the Federalists feared the radical ideas of the French government.

By 1800, the political tide of the country had shifted just enough to give Jefferson the presidency. Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the most electoral votes with 73 and Adams finished in third place with 68.

With a tie in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives had to choose between Jefferson and Burr. However, the House was still controlled by Federalists. And they were in no hurry to choose a President. It took five days and 35 ballots before the deadlock was broken. Hamilton ended up being the kingmaker. While Hamilton despised Jefferson, he despised Burr twice as much.

Jefferson was upset that Burr, whom he had considered an ally, did not concede the Presidency to him. For the rest of his political career, Burr was shut out by Jefferson. Burr would eventually end up killing Hamilton in a duel. Although, he avoided prosecution for that crime. Also, Burr would be tried for treason in 1807 for trying to foment a separatist rebellion in the West. However, Burr was acquitted.

In his Inaugural Address in 1801, Jefferson struck a conciliatory tone by stating, “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” The spirit of bipartisan cooperation lasted about as long as the speech. As soon as he got to work, Jefferson appointed a new Cabinet, and also began to replace Federalists who held various government jobs through the country.

Jefferson also had one Federalist judge impeached, and then took aim on a Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase, for another impeachment. While the first judge was often drunk and possibly insane, Chase had committed no crime bigger than being obnoxious.

Chase’s impeachment trial ended with the Republicans failing to get the necessary 2/3 majority to remove Chase from the bench. The Supreme Court, under the leadership of John Marshall, would remain as the last Federalist bastion in American government.

Appleby writes that Jefferson had a hard time finding people to serve in government. Most people with an inclination toward serving in government at the time were Federalists. Jefferson’s supporters didn’t want to leave their current ways of life to work in Washington. Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, suggested that Jefferson appoint women to some of the offices. Jefferson nixed that idea, as his world view didn’t include women working in government. (Or voting. Or doing much of anything other than having children. The only state where women could vote in Jefferson’s time was New Jersey, and that was only for single, white women who owned property. That law was repealed in 1807.)

Not long after taking office, Jefferson lucked into his greatest accomplishment as President: the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson had found out that Napoleon had reacquired the Louisiana Territory for France from Spain in a secret treaty. He dispatched ministers to France to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans. Napoleon counteroffered with the whole territory, which proved to be difficult to govern. Jefferson, who at first was worried that there was no provision in the Constitution for a President to acquire new territory, decided that he could live with the idea of doubling the size of the country. Ultimately, Jefferson decided the Louisiana Purchase was a “treaty revision.”

Jefferson was incredibly popular during his first term. He was sent a 1,235 pound wheel of cheese in his honor. At the time, it was the biggest wheel of cheese ever made. (Subsequent wheels of cheese have been bigger.)

The clergy feared Jefferson because they assumed he would completely remove religion from public life in the United States. Jefferson was asked to speak to a group of Baptists in Connecticut in 1802 or, alternatively, to declare a national day of fasting. Jefferson’s reply was famous (emphasis mine and if you count the ampersands as words, the first sentence has 83 words in it):

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

It seemed that for Thomas Jefferson, his political philosophy had caught on. His approval ratings, if such a thing had existed in 1804 when he was up for reelection, were through the roof. But, the good times would not last.

In 1802, Scottish immigrant James Callender, who had run afoul of the government under the Alien and Sedition Acts of the Adams Administration, printed a story that Jefferson had fathered a child with one of his slaves. While the story may have seemed to have been nothing more than a scurrilous acussation, it was also not entirely dismissed. And Jefferson did not deny the allegation. Nor did he confirm it.

Callender was not the first person to notice that Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, seemed to have close relationship. Abigail Adams had noted a closeness between Hemings and Jefferson back in 1787 in Paris.

Appleby gives a balanced presentation of the evidence that would link Hemings to Jefferson. First, Jefferson did not list the names of the fathers of any of Hemings’ children in his ledger, which was unusual for a fastidious recordkeeper like Jefferson. Second, DNA evidence from 1998 confirmed that there was some male from the Jefferson family who fathered a child with Hemings. However, because Jefferson had no sons (only two daughters, one of whom passed away in 1804), there is not enough evidence to positively assert whose DNA it is in the Hemings gene pool.

There is no “smoking gun” that conclusively links Jefferson and Hemings, but Appleby leans to the side of Jefferson being the father of at least some of Hemings’ children. Appleby notes that Jefferson petitioned the Virginia Legislature to allow the Hemings family (who were received their manumission after Jefferson’s death) to remain in the state. Virginia law at the time, which Jefferson supported, did not allow free blacks to live in the state for more than one year.

The Federalists would try to use the Hemings story as a campaign issue in 1804, but it didn’t have much effect. The Federalists had few good candidates available, especially since Burr had murdered the party’s leader, Hamilton. Jefferson won all but two states, besting Charles Pinckney by a 162-14 margin in the Electoral College. The Vice President was elected separately and George  Clinton took over that task.

Jefferson’s second term was marred by international problems. In particular, the Napoleonic Wars slopped over on to the shores of the U.S. British ships preyed on American merchant ships looking for deserters from the Royal Navy. France wouldn’t allow American ships to trade with Britain. Britain wouldn’t let American ships trade with France.

What was Jefferson’s solution to this? An embargo. Jefferson, hampered by a greatly reduced navy and a reluctance to take on either Britain or France, ordered a complete cessation of overseas trade. Jefferson hoped that Britain and France would feel the pain of not receiving American goods.

However, the result was that the British and French continued what they were doing. Furthermore, American port cities lost millions of dollars in revenues. Enforcement of the ban was a nightmare and was about as successful as Prohibition would be over 100 years later.

Jefferson could have run for a third term in 1808, but opted not to, following the example set by Washington. He seemed quite burnt out by the job. After James Madison was elected in December of 1808, Jefferson did almost no government work. He spent the time boxing up materials to send home to Monticello. The Federal Government was essentially paralyzed.

In his retirement, Jefferson spent his time with various tasks. He founded the University of Virginia, primarily to establish a college for Virginians that would not be dominated by the Presbyterian Church. He also spent much of his time writing letters to his old adversary, Adams. And, he spent time trying to avoid creditors, as he lost much of his money in the Panic of 1819. Jefferson, who was a profligate spender, understood government finance much better than his own finances.

One major problem remains though in evaluating Jefferson: slavery. How could a man who wrote such eloquent words about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” spend his life owning slaves. And not just owning slaves, but most likely using them for his own sexual gratification. And buying and selling them like they were livestock.

Jefferson had his view of the world. And it was a view born out of growing up in comfortable surroundings in Piedmont Virginia, where his wealth derived from slaves. Jefferson could not escape his heritage. His racial attitudes were instilled in him from birth.

But why didn’t he change as he got older? American history is filled with people who changed their attitudes about slavery or racial equality through time. But, Jefferson is not one of those men. It is an unescapable fact.

Also, did Jefferson, a firm believer in states rights, lay the foundation for the secessionist movement in the South? That too seems to be true.

Is Jefferson still an admirable figure? In Appleby’s view, the answer is yes. Jefferson was responsible for carrying out the first peaceful change in power in world history in 1801, when his Republicans took over control of the government. Jefferson and his followers would hold on to the Presidency for all but eight years from 1801 through 1861.

Jefferson believed in a government where the common people ruled, not the aristocracy. However, Jefferson’s common people were just white males. He hadn’t been able to make the mental leap to include all parts of society. Was it that Jefferson was not ready, or was America not ready? There lies the dilemma in evaluating the life of Thomas Jefferson.

Appleby concludes that Jefferson’s greatest contribution to American history is his belief that an aristocracy was not preordained. Jefferson believed that the people could make themselves better.

If you look at Jefferson’s presidency from what the country was like when he assumed office in 1801, the changes were dramatic. But over 200 years have passed, and the country has changed even more dramatically, and, perhaps, Thomas Jefferson is not all what he thought he may have been. But for his time, he was a giant, both physically and metaphorically.

Other stuff: Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is run by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and is located in Charlottesville, Virginia. The National Park Service operates two facilities dedicated to Jefferson. One is the Thomas Jefferson National Memorial in Washington. The other is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which is underneath the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Jefferson is buried at Monticello, with a small obelisk on his grave.

Jefferson’s portrait has been on the rarely-used $2 bill since 1929. Jefferson has appeared on the nickel since 1938 and, in 2006, his portrait was changed so he faced forward instead of in profile.

For those not scoring at home, this is biography #13.

John Adams by John Patrick Diggins

President #2, C-SPAN Historians’ ranking #17

May all your wars be Quasi Wars

johnadamsFor most of our lives, John Adams was an historical figure whom people recognized, yet thought little of. We figured he must have been important since he helped write the Declaration of Independence and also became President. But he was no George Washington, a larger than life military hero and “Father of the Country.” He was no Thomas Jefferson, Renaissance man, and thinker of deep thoughts.

John Adams was one of the Founding Fathers whom people had never developed a great deal of reverence for. His face didn’t appear on any currency that was commonly in use. He was just “that guy between Washington and Jefferson.” He doesn’t have a monument or memorial in Washington, D.C. that people go out of their way to see. (There are plans to build a new Adams memorial there.)

But recently, John Adams has had a significant revival among historians. Much of this came from David McCullough’s John Adams, which was a best-seller and later an HBO miniseries. And 175 years after he passed away, John Adams has become one of the most popular historical figures in American history.

John Patrick Diggins, a professor of history at City University of New York, got on board the John Adams train with his biography of the second president, which was published in 2003. Diggins’ biography, for a 150+ page book, is densely packed with discussions about Adams political writings. If you’re looking for something that would be starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, this isn’t the book.

Diggins spends one chapter discussing at length (at least it seemed so to me because it was a slog despite being just over 20 pages) going over two of Adams political writings. One is A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America, which Adams had published in 1787 and 1788. It was Adams’ response to criticisms of the new U.S. Constitution by French philosophers.

In Defence, Adams explains why America needed a relatively complex system of government with numerous checks and balances instead of a model like the French National Assembly, where all the power was held by one body. If you’ve read the whole thing (it’s three volumes long), you have my admiration.

The other book Adams penned was titled Discourses on Davila. It serves as something of a fourth volume to Defence and it was published in 1790. In it, Adams answered charges that he was a monarchist and an aristocrat.

Adams felt that an aristocracy was something that could not be avoided in society. There was a natural tendency for people to associate with people from their own backgrounds economically. Also people always wanted to better themselves, so there was always going to be some group that people wanted to aspire to become part of. Adams felt that the U.S. Constitution was well-suited to providing a maximum amount of liberty despite the presence of an aristocracy.

Diggins spends a long time in a short book comparing the political philosophies of Adams and Thomas Jefferson and Diggins clearly believes that Adams was the superior. Jefferson is portrayed by Diggins as someone who claimed to be a champion of civil liberties and the common man, but failed to grasp the fact that the style of government Jefferson advocated ended up being the Directory of France, which led to the Reign of Terror. Diggins argues that Adams, as a constitutionalist, actually did more for civil liberties because it takes government action to grant such liberties. The Constitution, as Lincoln said, protects us from ourselves.

One of Adams arguments against always bending to majority rule boiled down to this “What if one day 51 people supported one issue and 49 people opposed it? And what happens if one person changes his mind the next day?”  John Adams would not be a big fan of California’s initiative system.

However, Diggins book was supposed to be about Adams’ presidency. And after about 80 pages, Adams takes over the Presidency, edging out Jefferson in the election of 1796 by three electoral votes (there was no popular vote at the time). Prior to 1804, the Vice President was whomever finished second. So, Adams had the uncomfortable position of having his arch-rival serving as his second in command. (Hey, it’s like California where we have a Republican governor and a Democratic lieutenant governor!)

Adams was not a successful president as he was presented with a difficult diplomatic situation with France and he faced opposition from Jefferson’s Republicans (who thought Adams was a monarchist) and  Alexander Hamilton’s arch-Federalists (who thought Adams was too conciliatory toward Jefferson).

One of Adams first acts was sending three envoys to France to start negotiations about the problem of French ships preying on American merchant ships that were trading with England. But the French demanded, for lack of a better word, a bribe before they would talk with the Americans. This event became known as the XYZ affair and since zippers had not been invented, I will state that XYZ referred to the three anonymous people who solicited the bribes. That ended that attempt at diplomacy and the United States and France soon started what became known as the Quasi War, a war that existed in all but name (see also Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc.).

Adams hoped that building an American Navy would help with the problems with France, but Hamilton wanted an Army and managed to get himself appointed to be general. Jefferson and his faction opposed any hostility with the French because they admired the French Revolution, which was mostly about lopping off heads at the time. A full-scale war was averted through a mixture of diplomacy and increased internal problems in France (such as Napoleon coming to power) which left the French not particularly interested in pursuing a war with a pipsqueak republic in North America.

Tensions during the Quasi War ran high in the press, which was extraordinarily partisan at the time. Personal attacks on Adams and Jefferson by either side were the norm, and often done by printers who were on the government payroll.  To combat this, Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, which served to curb immigration (Irish and French immigrants tended to be on Jefferson’s side) and also make it crime to say anything bad about the President and Congress in the press.

So you might be saying to yourself, “This Sedition Act sounds unconstitutional.” It very well was, but there was never a court test of it and the concept of judicial review wouldn’t be established until 1803. The Acts themselves had built in expiration dates, and they ended as Adams left office. Diggins doesn’t believe Adams came up with the idea of the Alien and Sedition Acts, but since they happened on his watch, he was ultimately responsible, and they remain the biggest blot on the historical record for Adams.

Another event in Adams’ term in office that is little remembered now, but was a big issue at the time was something called Fries’ Rebellion. John Fries was a German immigrant who worked as auctioneer in Pennsylvania. To help fund the Quasi War, Adams had Congress pass a measure which was called the House Tax, which was a nationwide property tax of sorts. Fries led a movement (a rather tame one) that encouraged Pennsylvanians to not pay the tax since it wasn’t proportional to the population. Fries and two others were arrested for this and convicted of treason and sentenced to hang.

However, Adams pardoned Fries because he felt that he had not committed treason, but rather just led a protest that was not intended to overthrow the government. Hamilton and his supporters were aghast and in the election of 1800 they would get revenge on Adams for his perceived apostasy.

The election of 1800 is often called “The Revolution of 1800.” As Diggins points out, it was the first time that a nation that was born out of a violent revolution ever had a peaceful change of power. The election was nasty as Adams’ and Jefferson’s supporter slung mud in what would soon become an American tradition for campaigns. Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr tied for the top spot and Hamilton (who didn’t campaign too much for Adams) was able to get the House of Representatives to put Jefferson in the top spot, because while Hamilton hated Jefferson, Hamilton hated Burr twice as much. And of course, Hamilton and Burr ended up as the Tupac and Biggy of the early 19th Century.

And on March 4, 1801, heroic Thomas Jefferson rode his horse into Washington, D.C. and was inaugurated in front of an adoring crowd and gave an inaugural address that would be the standard by which others were judged for over a century. And dour John Adams slipped out of town and didn’t watch his successor’s inauguration, although Diggins speculates that Jefferson never invited Adams.

After both men had left office, Adams and Jefferson patched up their differences and started a famous series of correspondence where they debated the issues of the day. The standards of the time prevented either man from going on the lecture circuit or writing memoirs to make money, which is sad because I would have paid pretty good money to watch John Adams and Thomas Jefferson debate the issues of the day. It sounds a bit more appealing than watching David Frost interviewing Richard Nixon.

If you are inclined to take in Diggins book about Adams, bring your thinking cap. It is not a romp through the American Revolution and the Federalist Era. It’s a study about how Adams and his political philosophy stood up against the likes of Jefferson, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. It’s a biography of Adams for people who may be interested in placing Adams in the grand scheme of things as a political thinker, rather than just picturing him as a character in a premium cable series.

Other stuff: As mentioned in his son’s post, the Adams are remembered at the Adams National Historic Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. Henry Adams, the great grandson of John Adams, does have a famous statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens by his grave at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington.

John Adams died on July 4, 1826 at the age of 90 years, 247 days. That was the longest lifespan of any President until Ronald Reagan surpassed Adams in 2001. Gerald Ford later surpassed Reagan’s lifespan, passing away at age 93.

Adams was the first U.S. President who was a college graduate. Adams graduated from Harvard, the first of five alums (as undergrads) from Harvard who would become Chief Executive. John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy were the others. George W. Bush received an MBA from Harvard, but was an undergrad at Yale. Rutherford Hayes and Barack Obama attended Harvard Law School, but were undergrads elsewhere.

For technical reasons (like me not knowing how the software worked) this might have appeared in your RSS reader before it was visible. Sorry about that.


James Madison by Garry Wills

Invade Canada!

President #4, C-SPAN historians rank #20

jamesmadisonJames Madison was definitely a president with an impressive resume. For starters, Madison wrote much of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He was a passionate defender of religious freedom. He served in the House of Representatives. He was Secretary of State for eight years under Thomas Jefferson. But his eight years spent as President are almost entirely remembered for the War of 1812 (which only lasted a little over two years), an event that had two effects: 1) it made Madison appear to act in a way that was very much the opposite of what he believed in for most of his life and 2) created dread in the minds of American schoolchildren who feared that their history teacher would make them write about the War of 1812 on a test and they’d have to figure out just what the whole war was about.

Garry Wills, who has profiled historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Saint Augustine, tries to make sense of the presidency of one of the Founding Fathers who seemingly succeeded at everything in life, except being president. But Wills makes the case that Madison’s eight years as president were not as bad as some historians made them out to be. Wills doesn’t believe that Madison was the greatest president, but he defends Madison for not giving up his most cherished principles, embodied in the Bill of Rights, in a time of war. Madison’s biggest problem in Wills’ eyes was that he made poor choices for his Cabinet and tried to fight a war without much of a standing army.

Madison’s contributions to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are easily his greatest achievements. And it would have been hard for Madison to accomplish anything greater during his term as a president, especially in light of the world he was entering. And just what was that world?

When Madison was inaugurated in March of 1809, the United States was still suffering the effects from an embargo on trade that President Thomas Jefferson had pushed for, and Madison, his Secretary of State, fully supported. The embargo on trade was supposed to put economic pressure on both the British and French from attacking American ships who tried to trade with either country. The United States wanted to be a neutral. But in the Napoleonic Wars, there were just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line. Wait, that’s a Bruce Springsteen song. Sorry…

Where were we? Oh yes, the Napoleonic wars and the U.S. getting caught up in them. Madison hoped that economic pressure would force either the British or French to give in and allow the U.S. neutral trading rights, but that was not to be. And by 1812, Madison, tiring of British attacks on U.S. merchant ships by press gangs trying to get back sailors who had left the British Navy, asked Congress to declare war on Britain. The U.S. had an equal beef with France, but the French had slightly better P.R. among Americans. Madison, who always thought economic sanctions could fix any problem, had aligned himself with the “War Hawks” in Congress, led by Speaker Henry Clay.

With a war started over maritime matters, the American response, logically, was to attack Canada. Why? Well, why not? It’s Canada. How hard could it be?

It turned out to be rather difficult. It was especially difficult because Madison entrusted the command of the troops to Revolutionary War heroes (who were old and mostly incomptetent), political appointees (who were mostly incompetent, but not necessarily old), or people who were crooks (such as General Robert Wilkinson who had taken bribes from Spain and thought about overthrowing the government in a plot with Aaron Burr and once decided to quarter most of his soldiers near a swamp in New Orleans in the summertime and half of them got malaria and died.). The U.S. takeover of Canada never happened, although U.S. troops did burn the city of York (now Toronto) to the ground. This served only to make the British angry and they responded in kind by burning down large parts of Washington, such as the White House.

The U.S. Navy had a few big victories, but the biggest one served to give them control of Lake Erie, which seemed like a lot of effort to just keep the future site of Cleveland safe. And the U.S. had enough victories on the battlefield to keep the British at bay. The biggest U.S. victory came in New Orleans in 1815, a few days after a peace treaty was signed in Ghent, Belgium. The battle went something like this.

Wills mentions how the U.S. had little intelligence of British troop movements during the war. The primary source of information came from reading newspapers. The Secretary of State, James Monroe, decided to do some scouting on his own since few people in the Army were willing to do so. Monroe was also told to go take command of the troops in the Northwest that had failed to take over Canada, although Monroe did not take official command.

Many of these problems that Madison encountered were Jefferson’s fault, in the eyes of Wills. Jefferson shunned a large navy, preferring a system of small gunboats, which proved to be almost, but not quite entirely, useless in defending the coastline. And Jefferson feared a standing army. However, a standing army can come in handy when you’re going to war against a very, very, very, very big and rich country.

However, Madison, unlike other presidents during wartime (including revered figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt) did not restrict civil liberties. Madison didn’t shut down presses of people who opposed the war. Madison didn’t imprison the members of the Hartford Convention, a group of New England Federalists who were thinking of seceding from the United States (they didn’t, mainly because they realized it was a bad idea and people were making fun of them.) And when Congressional leaders asked Madison to proclaim a National Day of Prayer and Fasting when the war started, Madison declined, figuring that people who wanted to pray “would do so on their own.”

Wills’ history of Madison’s presidency accomplishes something that took this history major his whole life to figure out: just what was the War of 1812 fought for. And now I can drop in references to Macon’s Bill Number Two and force people to use Google to see if I am making sense.

For those interested in the full James Madison experience, you should visit his home, Montpelier, which is in Orange, Virginia. Or perhaps you can just take a look at the Bill of Rights. Madison would probably appreciate that more.

Miscellany: Madison’s first vice president, George Clinton, also ran against him as president and received six electoral votes for president. Clinton was Jefferson’s second vice president. Clinton was one of Madison’s chief political rivals. Clinton died before his term was up.

For his second term, Madison chose Elbridge Gerry as his Vice President. While Gerry agreed with Madison, he died in office too.

Being James Madison’s Vice President was sort of like being a drummer for Spinal Tap.

Housekeeping note: You can reach this site now also by using the URL http://allthepresidentsbooks.com.

Also I’ve gone through my backlog of books I’ve read, so give me a few days to get to a new one.

Furthermore, I’m going to use the tag “Democrats” for presidents who would have been described as “Republican” or “Democratic-Republican” at the time because it’s simpler. And if you don’t know what I’m getting at, you’re probably not interested in reading this blog to begin with.