Wednesday, February 21, 2007

G.W. Visits the Original G.W.'s Home

On Presidents Day, President Bush paid tribute to the first president, George Washington, at his beloved Mount Vernon. Bush made quite an interesting speech, one that no doubt left some in the media smirking at his comparisons to the present war to the Revolutionary War. Indeed, I was admittedly taken aback, until I read the speech.

He visits Washington’s Mount Vernon and identifies with Washington in a way that’s difficult for you or me: persevering over the course of a long struggle, being the man in charge but faced with set-backs, a difficult congress, a tenacious enemy, a largely unfriendly or indifferent world, and a nation divided over success or failure.

Does this mean that the Revolution and the GWOT (war against Islamic fascists, including the fight in Iraq) are the same? Hardly. Each war is different.

It’s just that Bush is finding common ground with Washington. It’s not unusual for presidents to do this. FDR, for example, found common ground with Jefferson’s grand themes of liberty for the common man when he was locked in the titanic struggle against the Nazis, Italian fascists and Imperial Japanese.

Remember, Bush is a man who sees in grand themes. He doesn’t see minutia, which is what his critics continually harp on. And sure, that causes him to stumble and make mistakes, or not respond forcefully to liberals, Democrats and media who richly deserve to be slapped down for their continual attacks against him since December 2000.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Number 3: Thomas Jefferson

(February 2007, revised November 2008 and January 2009)

Years in office: 1801-1809

Pre-service occupations: delegate to the first and second Continental Congress, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, secretary of state (Washington administration) vice president (Adams administration)

Key events during his administration: Louisiana purchase (1803), Lewis & Clark expedition (1804-1806), Barbary Coast war (1801-1805), Embargo Act (1807), outlaw of international slave trade (1808), Ohio admitted to the Union (1803)

Nicknames: “Mad” Tom, the Sage of Monticello, the “Negro President”

Presidential rating: First term: highly successful and very popular; second term: somewhat unsuccessful and ultimately unpopular.


Nearly every day of my college career at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I’d pass the Thomas Jefferson marker on the Quad. The small obelisk is Jefferson’s original tombstone, which was awarded to Missouri in 1883 when Congress made a new grave marker for the Virginian. It reads:


Notice something missing?

Jefferson left specific instructions that his marker have nothing added. So, no mention at all that he was president, despite the fact that he was immensely popular, won re-election in a landslide and succeeded wresting the government from the arch-Federalists, who believed they were the government.

Jefferson is an enigma to historians, which makes writing about him a challenge. If you read one of the recent biographies about George Washington, you come to dislike Jefferson as duplicitous and scheming. If you read about John Adams, you come to detest him until late in Adams’ life. But if you read about Jefferson himself, you’re sometimes left scratching your head. He either doesn’t quite live up to the hype of fawning admirers, nor down to the depths of critics’ damnations. Rather, he occupies an often-contradictory place of his own.

A contradictory champion of the common man

Thomas Jefferson was, in historian Robert Rutland’s words, the “unquenchable idealist.” His eloquent and even beautiful words embodied the Revolution, and he guarded that embodiment jealously. He, along with fellow Virginian James Madison, was particularly keen that America had permanently overthrown the monarchy, and would spend his entire post-war life making sure it never came back. There’s no question that he loved the country he helped bring about, and was wary of anyone he thought would bring it down—hence his suspicions of one-time close friend Adams, and especially Hamilton and the Federalists.

Jefferson couched the election of 1800 in terms of a second Revolution, where the government wouldn’t be accessible just for elites, but for everybody (”everybody” then meaning propertied white men). There is a lot of truth to this, and we truly owe Jefferson a debt of gratitude for it. He believed that the “common” man, not a governmental elite, should control the government, the latter of which had been the staple of classical political thought since Aristotle. These republican values meant that in a decentralized agrarian society, free men could govern their own affairs and would—or should—reject the commerce/manufacturing nation envisioned by Hamilton coupled with the stronger central “elite” government of the Federalists.

While Jefferson’s vision of a gentile agrarian paradise never came to fruition, his opening of government to ordinary Americans had lasting impact.

Indeed, Jefferson’s belief in the common man over the elite still stirs the American soul.Not only that, Jefferson also held that each successive generation should be free to decide its affairs, and not be beholden to the past. It was not a call to overthrow the government each generation, but rather allow for an infusion of new ideas each generation. Writes biographer Joyce Appleby,

“In countries left free, the forms of social existence would be emergent and fluid. Without set practices, sacred constitutions, and inhibiting authorities, experience itself would flourish men and women with the material for making decisions. Liberated once and for all would be man the doer, the inventor, the adapter, the improver—home faber—the universal man hidden from himself by tyrants, priests and overlords. One can see in all of these expectations the source of Jefferson’s enduring appeal, for his were the values that continue to flourish in the United States today.” (p.49-50) (And yes, Appleby’s biography is very much pro-Jefferson.)

In opposing the Federalists, he often chased phantom monarchists—a “reverse red-scare” as John Adams’ biographer John Patrick Diggins labeled it—and even though he envisioned himself the champion of liberty and justice, he strangely embraced the tyranny and terrorism of the French Revolution and shed no tears for the murders carried out for “liberty, equality and fraternity” in Paris. He was suspicious of anyone who didn’t see his point of view—ironically, living the type of republican government that Adams believed was necessary; for what is constitutional government with its checks and balances, if it’s not built on a healthy modicum of suspicion of the other branches?

Thus, Jefferson was truly the most radical of the founding fathers; so, naturally he found the cautious nature—the conservatism, if you will—of Washington, Adams, the Federalists and his arch-foe, Hamilton, difficult to stomach.

The president in slippers

Personally, Jefferson was truly a fascinating character, and to be invited to dine with the president at his decidedly informal Presidential Mansion (not yet called the White House) would have been an event to be treasured for life. He could carry on about any subject: biology, agriculture, letters, politics, architecture, religion, you name it. (President Kennedy, once holding fourth with a group of Nobel laureates, famously said that it was the greatest gathering of minds in the White House “since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”)

His loathing of the formalities and elitism of the Federalists led him to develop a super-relaxed presidency, one that even today we couldn’t fathom, what with the incredible security needs and schedule of the modern president. Practically anyone was welcome to drop by. Even Jefferson himself would answer the door.

He insisted that foreign ministers and heads of state be treated no differently than the gentleman farmer down the lane, which led to this funny incident in 1803: England’s new foreign minister, the delightfully named Anthony Merry, arrived in the new capitol city and came calling at the Presidential Mansion with all appropriate English pomp and circumstance and wearing full diplomatic regalia. Merry, of course, expected the American head of state to receive him with the proper decorum. But for several minutes, Secretary of State Madison was unable to find the president. Finally Jefferson appeared, wearing slippers and what could only be charitably described as business casual.

Merry was not amused, and never called on Jefferson again. But it wasn’t so much of a tweak of a stuffy Brit by a Francophile than the tossing away of all convention by a pure radical.The portrait of Jefferson I chose to illustrate this entry, painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1805, shows the president wearing a fur-lined robe—not at all the garb one would expect a head of state to wear, especially in a portrait! Compare that picture of Jefferson to this one of England's King George III, painted shortly after his coronation, and you can begin to understand just how much Jefferson hated elitism—and why he wouldn’t consider himself a hypocrite to be master of Monticello yet “champion” of the common man.

On a more personal level, the charge persists that Jefferson had an affair with his slave Sally Hemmings, and fathered several of her children. A DNA test in 1998 provided some scientific proof that a male Jefferson did in fact sire Hemmings children. The charge became a factor in the 1804 election, and fodder for those seeking to charge Jefferson with hypocrisy (hence the unflattering nickname "Negro President.") Personally, here, I don’t care, because although it was a juicy slur or scandal (depending on one's point of view), this scurrilous election issue didn't have much of a bearing on his presidency. (Fascinating note: Descendents of both Jefferson and Hemmings now attend Jefferson family reunions together.)

So, knowing something of his political philosophy and personality, then, what kind of president did he make? When the Democrats get together for their annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner, are they celebrating the man who co-founded what became their party, or the man of the “revolution of 1800,” or the president, or all three? Jefferson’s reputation as president has had its ups and downs; let’s see what he actually did.

Mr. President: The title Jefferson wanted to forget

Jefferson’s presidency lasted two terms, a pattern repeated by his two successors, also fellow Virginians.

Jeffersonianism stretched through the 16 years of Madison and Monroe, and inched through the four years of John Quincy Adams until the party he founded gained a new champion in Andrew Jackson.Jefferson’s presidency made a lasting impact in four areas. I’ve already talked about one: his republicanism and belief in democracy. The other areas are the use of executive authority as it relates to the Louisiana Purchase, the Barbary Pirates and the disastrous 15-month embargo; the purging of the Federalists, which led to the unintended creation of judicial review; and the end of the slave trade.

A strong executive when it suited him

The events that most people immediately associate with the presidency of Thomas Jefferson are 1) the purchase of the Louisiana territory from Napoleon, and 2) the Corps of Discovery, otherwise known as the Lewis and Clark expedition. Initially, Jefferson was only interested in the port city of New Orleans, seeking to buy it from the ailing Spanish empire. Without getting into the long, winding history of the purchase, suffice it to say in the final deal, Jefferson had instructed his ministers to purchase New Orleans and some of the surrounding land. They were prepared to pay $10 million. Napoleon surprised the American ministers by offering the entire Louisiana territory for $15 million.

The purchase brought Jefferson some grief. Jefferson’s aversion to Adams’ version of the strong executive seems to have been overlooked here. The Federalists pointed out truthfully—and smarmily—that the purchase violated his stated beliefs on executive power. Now, the Constitution does give the president the authority to negotiate treaties—but not purchase land, and certainly not annex a huge swath of territory. Jefferson, aware of the Constitutional pickle he was in, even drafted several versions of a Constitutional amendment to address the issue. But Secretary of State Madison, the author of the Constitution, said little. Congress and the country accepted the purchase regardless of its seemingly questionable constitutionality.

Nevertheless, the purchase doubled the size of the United States; however, it brought hundreds of thousands of new people unwillingly into the new nation: Indians. The President’s policy on the tribes, those both east and west of the Mississippi, was to turn the “savage” nomads into farmers, push them out of U.S. territory or exterminate them. Remember, Jefferson’s rights of man extended only to white men, not Africans or Indians, who he—and to be fair, most everyone else—considered inferior. (When Lewis and Clark set up relations between tribes and the “Great White Father” Jefferson, they thought they were setting up a superior/inferior relationship. The tribes, naturally, believed they were being received as equals.)

Regardless, the purchase was eventually seen as a proper use of executive authority, and Jefferson deserves praise for his foresight. He also deserves praise for another first-term foreign policy venture, taking on the Muslim Barbary pirates.

Relations with Congress and the Barbary Pirates

Jefferson sought a good working relationship between the executive and legislative branches to get things done, particularly because he was better with the personal appeal than with a speech. Of course, it helped greatly that his party enjoyed strong majorities in both Houses, so I can’t help but wonder what he would have done had the Federalists retained the majority.For instance, would a Federalist majority have howled in outrage at Jefferson’s actions against the Barbary Pirates? The Republican majority didn’t, even though Jefferson sent in the Navy and the Marines without a declaration of war. (The Federalists probably wouldn’t have.)

In the 21st century we tend to make more of Jefferson’s fight with the Barbary Pirates than was made at that time. I don’t mean to say that it wasn’t a major affair; I’m just more concerned with how Jefferson did it. First off, he used the Navy that Adams had built up during the Quasi-War, regardless of the fact that he sought to cut that Navy’s funding. Second, he never asked Congress for a declaration of war. He simply did it, and informed Congress. Both actions, while not unconstitutional, nevertheless appear to have once again violated the spirit of Thomas Jefferson the radical revolutionist, the man who fought so hard against Adams’ idea of the strong executive.

But they actually didn’t, because Jefferson had argued for fighting the pirates back during Washington’s administration. And like his predecessor acting to protect American ships at sea from French corsairs during the Quasi-War, Jefferson believed quite correctly that he was within his authority to send a fleet and Marines to the Africa coast to deal with the Muslim pirates—without seeking Congressional authority to declare war. It’s probably the nature of the attacks by self-proclaimed pirates and not a major nation-state that negated Jefferson’s need to declare war—unlike the continuing troubles with the Royal Navy, which produced the disastrous Embargo.

Troubles with the British and the cursed “O-grab-me”

The American economy was quite good during the first half of Jefferson’s term. It’s due in part to Hamilton’s vision, but also to the Republican ideal of opening America up to “everyone.” But America had yet to create a solid manufacturing base of its own, and relied largely upon overseas trade with England and France and other European nations. President Jefferson had no intention of involving American in the Napoleonic wars, which teetered on the edge and finally resumed midway through Jefferson’s administration. (The concept of “no entangling alliances” is sometimes credited to Washington, but it is a firm Jeffersonian statement.)

Britain’s Royal Navy didn’t take too kindly to its sailors deserting to America, and England didn’t much like America trading with Napoleon, either; so, RN ships stopped U.S. Navy and civilian ships to catch the deserters. In one bad incident, a British ship fired on the USS Chesapeake, killing her captain and wounding several sailors. One deserter was found. The incident, though, outraged America and anger against England and war fever became similar to the fever of the XYZ Affair during Adams’ administration.

But Jefferson didn’t want war with England, despite the repeated outrages against American ships—which may seem surprising, considering how much he favored France over England. Jefferson, rather than risk an all-out shooting war with England, ran with Madison’s idea of an embargo of shipping to all European powers; Congress agreed and voted the embargo into law in 1807. But by agreeing with Madison’s proposal, he made a critical mistake in judgment. He believed he could use American shipping and commerce as a diplomatic weapon rather than engage in a shooting war—declared or otherwise—and that European, especially English, markets would be so hurt by the loss of American goods that the impressments of American sailors would end and America’s status as neutral shipper to the belligerents in Europe would be preserved. He was wrong, especially because the policy, which lasted 15 months, hurt the wrong economy—the American economy.

The “O-grab-me,” as one political cartoon lampooned the embargo, hit the Federalist and manufacturing stronghold of New England hard, and also every port on the northern Atlantic coast. Many shippers turned to smuggling, and many industrious people turned to manufacturing on their own—a mini-industry that collapsed when the embargo lifted. Jefferson even declared a portion of New York in a state of insurrection in late 1808 due to smuggling and violations of the embargo.

Jefferson brings no glory to himself in how he handled the demise of the embargo; he removed himself entirely from the matter and left its repeal up to Congress, which did so three days before he left office. Jefferson figured that his hand-picked successor, James Madison, would deal with the matter, as Madison created the embargo (and even sought to use it again when he was president!). But that doesn’t score Jefferson well in the leadership department.In the end, it was a terribly failed policy that also dinged Jefferson’s reputation badly. But it showed the power of the federal government, even in those early years, to control trade. (And using American commerce as a diplomatic weapon was a sound policy, albeit about a century before its time.) And problems with England didn’t dissipate, but simmered throughout his successor’s first term.

A vengeful president leads to a strong Supreme Court

Jefferson used the federal government in another way; while the embargo was a proper exercise of executive and legislative authority (regardless of the failure of the policy) his and his party’s treatment of Federalist office-holders and bureaucrats left much to be desired.
When he first took office, Jefferson’s immediate concern was to purge the government—there’s no kinder word for it—of Federalist influences. He spoke magnanimously that “we are all Federalists, we are all Republicans.” But he didn’t mean it in a conciliatory manner. He sought to bury Federalism.

As I wrote earlier, Jefferson comes off badly when writing about Washington and Adams; even though the Federalists could be just as petty. Jefferson immediately attacked Federalist policies, as would be expected; nothing unusual or outrageous in that, no matter how much Federalists screamed and howled. We take it as a matter of course today that presidents of opposing parties attempt to undo previous administrations’ policies. For example, Jefferson reduced the size of the federal government, eliminated taxes, cut the size of the army to two regiments, and made similar reductions in the Navy.

But regardless of Jefferson’s lofty rhetoric about the rights of man and democracy, he began a practice that still exists today that, frankly, stinks. While it could be argued that the politics of revenge had its genesis in Adam’s administration with the Sedition Act, it really began with Jefferson’s administration and the Jeffersonian congress. Pursuing the opposite party’s office-holders and bureaucrats just because they are of the opposite party has got to be one of the greatest failings not only of Jefferson’s presidency but also of American republic-democracy. And it hurts Jefferson’s legacy; but without Jefferson’s attempted purge—specifically, his and the Republicans’ attempted purge of the courts—the judicial system in this country might not be anywhere near as strong or independent as it is today.

One of John Adams’ “midnight” judicial appointments was a man named William Marbury. Before he donned his robes as chief justice, John Marshall, as secretary of state, had literally left a pile of Federalist judicial appointments on the secretary of state’s desk. Incoming secretary of state James Madison, after conferring with Jefferson, refused to physically deliver the commissions, meaning Marbury and the rest could not take their seats as judges and justices of the peace. Jefferson argued that because the commissions were not delivered, they were void. Marbury sued directly to the Supreme Court. In 1803, John Marshall delivered a brilliant ruling, of which the end result was the establishment of judicial review—the power of the court to strike unconstitutional laws. You can read about the case here.

Long story short, in trying to be petty, Jefferson let a critical change happen to the government: the elevation of the Supreme Court to equal footing with the other two branches.

Elsewhere in the judiciary, Republicans tried to remove Federalist judges through impeachment. Again, the “crime” was being a Federalist. In one case, against a judge named Pickering, the case was actually more on solid ground because of the judge’s seeming incompetence and drinking. But another one, against Judge Chase, was purely partisan. Not that Chase himself wasn’t a partisan either; he had been one of the most outspoken of the Sedition Act judges. The case went to the Senate, but the charges were dismissed. Jefferson was not at all happy with how these cases were resolved, but there was little he could do about it.

A noble act

Regardless of his tortured personal odyssey with slavery—and the Sally Hemmings allegations—Jefferson’s only action regarding slavery nevertheless was quite significant. One of Jefferson’s final acts as president had lasting implications: He signed the order outlawing the international slave trade from America in 1807, which took effect in 1808. The Constitution had prevented the banning of the importation of slaves before 1808; Jefferson could just have easily have vetoed this bill when it came out of Congress in 1807. But never again would the United States accept slaves from Africa. Though slaves would come in from the Caribbean, the international slave trade was effectively dead in America (although the Royal Navy would end the slave trade on the high seas). It had the effect of making slavery turn inward for new slaves (e.g. from the slaves themselves).

Jefferson was really in a tight spot with slavery. Giving him the benefit of the doubt—that he really did want to rid America of slavery—we still must recognize that this self-styled champion of democracy would see democracy as a whites-only establishment. As president, he would not—could not—embrace the slave revolt in Haiti that led to the establishment of a second republic in the western hemisphere. Jefferson gave lofty rhetoric against slavery, but he embraced it fully in practice. Slave owners, Jefferson said, had the “wolf by the tail” with slavery. It was a wretched system to keep, but in his view too dangerous to let go because of Haiti and the possibility of a similar revolt in America. The end of slavery in America would await another president. But at least the international slave trade was ended in America.

Church and state: Separate?

Questions about constitutionality in Jefferson’s terms bring up another point. Long an aspect in the argument on the intent of the founders, Thomas Jefferson really did believe that a wall of separation existed in the Constitution between church and state, even though no such wording can be found there. Jefferson actually voiced the principal in a letter; the Supreme Court codified this in the 20th century, though that body’s reasoning is, putting it charitably, curious.

Without rehashing the arguments, Jefferson violated his principles concerning church and state with his Indian policy when he deemed that Christian missionaries should be sent to the tribes by the federal government with the express purpose of Christianizing them. (Note: both Jefferson and Madison worked on separation of church and state opinions, though the concept is identified more with Jefferson; Madison, however, wrote a portion of it into Virginia law before he even met Jefferson.)

Walking away from the presidency

During the final four months of his last year in office, Jefferson essentially walked away from the presidency—figuratively and literally. The failure of the embargo, and his near-dictatorial tactics used in enforcing it, had soured the presidency for him—and soured him with the public.
There is precedence for this in Jefferson’s past. When he was governor of Virginia during the Revolution, British soldiers attacked Richmond. Jefferson vacated the capital and retreated to Monticello. All well and good, but he essentially abdicated any further responsibility for defending the state. And while serving as Adam’s vice president, he left his duties in the Senate (e.g., president of the Senate) to campaign behind the scenes to undermine the very administration he served.

So, in 1808, we find Jefferson once again retreating to Monticello, leaving the whole mess of the hugely unpopular embargo to the hands of its architect, Madison, and its authorizers, Congress. Jefferson argued that since Madison would soon be president, it was proper for him to deal with it anyway.

What piffle. Jefferson was president of the United States until the moment James Madison was sworn in. He walked away from his presidency four months before it officially ended. It’s the equivalent of a boy taking his toys and going home because he doesn’t want to play anymore.

Final Assessment

Thomas Jefferson is honored throughout the nation: He’s one of the four men on Mount Rushmore; his memorial anchors a corner of the Mall in D.C.; and Missouri’s capital is named in his honor, as is the museum and park attached to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. His beloved Monticello remains a favored attraction in Virginia. He appears on the nickel, and if you happen to find one, the 2 dollar bill. And there’s still that small obelisk that students unwittingly pass by everyday at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

So, why did he want us to “forget”—or at least not focus on—his presidency, which was truly one of the most consequential presidencies of them all? It’s part of the mystery of the man. Certainly his first term was more pleasant than the second; even though he won re-election in a landslide, his first term ended with the literal bang of scoundrel Vice President Burr’s duel-induced death of Hamilton and Burr’s mechanizations out west. The second term was actually somewhat bitter; despite the triumph of Lewis and Clark’s return in 1806, Jefferson’s second term was marred by more shenanigans from Burr, defections from the Republican party because Jefferson wasn’t a pure enough Republican (!) due to his executive actions, and the 15 months of the unpopular and harmful embargo. During that failed policy, Jefferson ironically used the same type of power against American ship owners that he had decried against King George III—again, displaying that his lofty spoken and written ideals sometimes took a back seat to presidential necessity.

Perhaps that is ultimately the reason why Jefferson didn’t want his presidency remembered as a crowning achievement.

But overall, Jefferson moved the presidency and the nation forward in many positive ways. The idea that the United States government was one for the common man is certainly his most endearing contribution: Lincoln drew upon it in the nation’s darkest hour, FDR used it to contrast liberty with fascism, and many a politician today claims to speak “for the people.” The idea that local government should have more control of affairs than a central government still resonates as well—especially among modern-day conservatives—despite the seeming discredit of states’ rights in 1865. No other president added so much land to the nation in one stroke than did Jefferson. (Polk is right up there with him, though.) And no one can deny the power of judicial review, for good or ill, even though it was most certainly not a Jeffersonian intention!

In the final assessment, President Thomas Jefferson was a mostly successful president—even unintentionally so, as relates to the judiciary—and also largely popular until the final year, when his second term ended badly. The apparent contradictions between his stated ideals and actual workings of executive power can be explained in that he stayed within the bounds of the Constitution.


Jefferson is such a study in contradictions—and such a Sphinx, as one biographer labeled him—that biographers are often left frustrated with their subject. You can read Joyce Appleby’s entry on Thomas Jefferson in the American Presidents series (2003) but the effort is a less satisfying than R.B. Bernstein’s Thomas Jefferson (2003), which is an excellent and balanced examination of Jefferson’s entire life. Bernstein finds Jefferson less confusing than previous biographers because he looks at every aspect of Jefferson in context and does not compartmentalize anything—as Jefferson himself was wont to do.

Appleby sometimes seems too much of a cheerleader for Jefferson. She takes Jefferson’s own criticisms of the Federalists at face value, even using his and his allies’ own language, and rarely examines whether they had merit; her biography suffers for it, but it's otherwise worthwhile. The real value of Appleby’s volume is that it is not organized chronologically, but thematically around Jefferson’s philosophy, politics and goals.


Rembrandt Peale painted this wonderful picture of Jefferson in 1805.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Number 2 : John Adams

(Written February 2007, updated January 2009)

Years in office: 1797-1801

Pre-service occupations: delegate to the first and second Continental Congresses, minister plenipotentiary, vice president

Key events during his administration: Quasi-war with France (1798-1800), Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), John Marshall appointed to the Supreme Court (1800)

Nicknames: The Duke of Braintree, the Colossus of Debate (bestowed by Jefferson), Old Sink or Swim

Presidential rating: Mildly successful, and somewhat unpopular


“Sit down, John!” are the first words that come to mind when I hear the name “John Adams.” The words aren’t spoken, either. They’re sung.

If you have seen the quirky musical, “1776,” you’ll recall a line-dancing Benjamin Franklin and the rest of the Continental Congress demanding that William Daniels’ outspoken Adams “sit down!” once more.

Fortunately, popular historian David McCullough has given us a less silly popular portrait of America’s second president for the modern era. (2008 note: HBO made an outstanding and Emmy-winning miniseries from McCullogh’s book, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, which fortunately now supplants William Daniels’ singing and dancing Adams.)

John Adams was a founding father, one of the key players of the Revolution and the formation of the country. He was a brilliant man—and had an even more brilliant wife, Abigail, who was his love, friend and sounding board. As Washington’s vice president, he, along with Hamilton, was a founder of the Federalists and an often bitter rival of Thomas Jefferson. His ideas still resonate today, though people—unfortunately, in some ways—tend to reach back more to Jefferson than to Adams. His family proved to be a dynasty: his cousin was fellow Patriot Samuel Adams, his son became the sixth president, his grandson played a key role in keeping England out of the Civil War, and his great-grandson, Henry Adams, became one of America’s most celebrated men of letters (The Education of Henry Adams).

He also bears the distinction of being the only one-term president and only non-Virginian amid the “Virginia dynasty” of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe—which was ended, fittingly enough, by his own son, also a one-term president.

A philosopher, but no monarchist

It’s difficult two write about Adams without including Jefferson and vice-versa, because the two men represented such polar opposites—but neither could convince the other of his sincerity. Adams’ biographer in The America Presidents series, John Patrick Diggins, describes the second president as being one of the three leading thinkers of the age:

“Hamilton was a mercantilist who believed in the fusion of state and economy, Jefferson an individualist who believed in the sovereignty of the people, Adams a constitutionalist who believed in the efficacy of government. Hamilton looked to the oligarchial few who would be motivated by responsibility, Jefferson to the democratic many who would guard freedom with jealousy, Adams to the single executive who would preserve liberty by relying on the government and its ‘machinery.’”

This vision in triplicate was difficult to reconcile, though somehow we’ve been managing to do so for more than 225 years. Of course, Hamilton and Adams found more common ground, though the two split after Adams became president because he felt Hamilton too closely tied to money while Hamilton believed himself to be the heir-apparent to Washington. Adams believed strongly in “the machinery of government” to keep people virtuous and was suspicious of Jefferson’s equally strong belief that common people (e.g., white, propertied men) could be virtuous if left “unmolested” by government. Adams believed strongly in the republican form of government, and was suspicious of the masses—of “democracy,” which he believed Jefferson was all for. Neither had a complete vision, however.

John Adams was the closest man to a philosopher we’ve ever had in the presidency. He was a political philosopher, the only man besides Woodrow Wilson to pen a political treatise before he became president (not counting Madison, who co-wrote The Federalist). In a couple of ponderous and dense works—probably never even read by his political enemies—Adams laid out his understanding of constitutional/republican government and defended America against European monarchy and later the French Revolution. He viewed the state as the arbiter of justice between conflicting factions and the preserver of human liberty. But Adam’s enemies, mainly his one-time friend Jefferson, used them and Adams’ actions as fodder that he was a closet monarchist seeking to set up an American version of royalty. Jefferson’s fears—many of them stated privately or whispered to hurt Adams publicly—of Adams’ supposed love of monarchy and European aristocracy wound up dinging Adams’ presidency badly. But Jefferson was chasing a phantom menace—a “reverse red scare,” as Diggins put it—that would nevertheless help destroy the Federalists as a party in 1800.

However, Adams was no monarchist. Instead, he thought that the central government should have some measure of decorum and strength. More to the point, Adams believed in a strong executive providing balance between democracy and aristocracy, between the “credulous many” and the “artful few,” writes Diggins. While the framers of the Constitution saw the legislative branch as the base of power uniting the scattered and disconnected country, Adams (in Europe during the constitutional debates) viewed the chief executive as fulfilling that role. The executive, he argued, could alone unite the fragmented country, but it was his focus on the executive that fueled his enemies’ fears/fantasies of monarchy. His own party didn’t help matters by propagating the idea of a governing elite, which smacked too much of the old ways for the radical Jefferson and his followers.

In addition, Adams was abhorred by the excesses of the French Revolution, of which Jefferson and his compatriots believed should have been treated as a companion piece to the American Revolution. Opposition to the French Revolution was no small thing, because for the Francophiles, it seemed to make no sense to be all for the spirit of ’76 but against the spirit of 1789 in France. To the Jeffersonians, if you opposed the French Revolution, you ultimately opposed the American Revolution. (Though to be fair to Jefferson, by 1800 he did back off from his whole-hearted embrace of France’s revolution.) This division played a role in the election of 1796 and all throughout Adam’s presidency and only furthered the division between the Republicans (the Jeffersonians) and the Federalists led by Adams and Hamilton, who would soon split themselves.

So that’s the set-up. With that in mind, what kind of president did Adams make? Has history treated this man kindly? There’s obviously much interest surrounding him, otherwise McCullough’s biography—which largely omitted Adams’ denser political theories in favor of narrative excitement—would have bombed faster than most movies about the Revolution.

Out from Washington’s long shadow

Unlike many seekers of the presidency today, John Adams didn’t look upon the executive position as the culmination of his life’s ambition. Instead, he viewed it as one part of the journey. (The climax had been the Revolution, and nothing would ever top that.)

Under the now-anachronistic election rules, the election of 1796 made Adams president and Jefferson vice president. Talk about having a snake in the house. (Imagine if Bill Clinton’s vice president had been Newt Gingrich, or Ronald Reagan’s had been Ted Kennedy.) But while Adams couldn’t control who his vice president was, he could control his cabinet. The Massachusetts thinker kept Washington’s cabinet members at state, war and the treasury—three men who really weren’t all that good at their jobs, but they were the replacements for the final years of Washington’s second term. Adams retained them supposedly to help establish some continuity in civil service, but they proved to be a burden to him—and he really only used them as sounding boards anyway. And there is some belief that his cabinet, while not quite treasonous, was working against him. It seems that while Adams was quite prescient it talking about government, he was sometimes rather poor at recognizing when he was the object of opposition.

Adams as president liked to keep his own counsel, in holding with his idea of the strong executive, but this often worked to his detriment as it created an air of indecisiveness—quite different from Washington. He didn’t help himself when he often retreated to his home in Quincy, Mass.

While Washington’s presidency was, for all intents and purposes the “honeymoon” period for America, Adams’ was the one where things truly got nasty. And unfortunately for him, almost every major action in his entire term in office had something to do with France.

Francophiles versus Anglophiles

Presidents are supposed to get a honeymoon period, according to modern politics, but Adams got socked in the face right from the start. France, embroiled in its own revolution, was none too happy with Washington’s Jay Treaty, which France’s Directorate viewed as an alliance with England, though it was nothing of the sort. The French had begun preying on American shipping in 1796, before Washington left office. French ships were hitting American shipping, taking crews, ships and cargo bound for England ostensibly as “payment” for services rendered during the Revolution. Then, they refused to receive America’s diplomats.

On his inauguration night, Adams wanted a bipartisan commission to go to France—meaning, both Federalists and Republicans (Jeffersonians)—but Jefferson declined and he assured Adams that Madison would too. This marked the final rift between Adams and Jefferson.

Events exploded with France in 1798 when President Adams revealed the infamous “XYZ Affair.” France’s Talleyrand and his agents demanded large bribes from America’s ministers; in return, they’d be happy to restore normal relations with the United States. When Adams made the attempted bribery public, outrage grew and his popularity reached its zenith. War was called for—even as the Republicans were vehemently opposed because they saw such a war playing right into British hands. Adams called for the establishment of a standing U.S. Navy and a standing U.S. Army—both of which Jefferson despised, because of course, to him, they smacked of monarchy and elitist control. But Congress, controlled by the Federalists, agreed, and established both. New ships were laid down and an army of 10,000 men was inaugurated. (The army was ostensibly created to fight the French, and although it was never used for this purpose, it outlasted the stated reason for its creation.)

The “Quasi-War” with France was never declared, but it lasted two years, from 1798-1800. The U.S. Navy captured 85 French ships and privateers. The United States was technically fighting alongside England, but neither navy cooperated in any significant way. In the end, Napoleon, now ruler of France, agreed to a settlement because the conflict with America was doing him no good. But the undeclared war sharpened the divisions between the two dominant factions in America.

Truly bad law?

But perhaps the one thing that did Adams in as president was the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams had less to do with them than the Federalist congress, but they did bear his signature. And there is some evidence that Abigail was one of the drivers behind them. Regardless, they are forever associated with John Adams. There were four laws:

  1. The Naturalization Act extended the duration of residence required for aliens to become citizens, from five years to 14, repealed in 1802.

  2. The Alien Friends Act authorized the president to deport any resident alien considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States,” expired in 1800.

  3. The Alien Enemies Act authorized the president to apprehend and deport resident aliens if their home countries were at war with the United States. Enacted July 6, 1798. This act remains in effect today as 50 USC Sections 21-24.

  4. The Sedition Act made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or its officials; expired March 3, 1801.

The Sedition Act was the one that caused the most consternation, and with good reason. Biographer Diggins writes that:

“In American history, almost every important presidency has had its one moment of deep regret, an action taken that might have been avoided, one that backfired and played into the hands of the opposition.”

This was Adams’ moment, for it definitely played into Jefferson’s and his allies’ hands, and it likely lead directly to the end of the Federalists as a party and the end of Adams’ political career. Most certainly it was an assault on free speech, an attempt to silence criticism of the government, as Republicans rightfully charged. (Jefferson, as an aside, greatly overreached in his rebuttal, using his stealth support to create resolutions to nullify the laws in Kentucky and Virginia, and failing that, leaving the union. There was little support outside of those states, but it is fair to say that Jefferson is the originator of nullification and secession, which would bedevil the United States 60 years later!)

Some Jefferson fans have gone so far to paint this as a mini “reign of terror,” which is a ludicrous stretch. Because while the acts were rarely enforced—some Francophiles did flee the country—and Adams never signed a deportation order, the damage was done, and Adams’ reputation suffered, along with his party.

Adams relations with his own party were not good, either. Adams had reluctantly agreed to Hamilton as commander of the new army. But in a sign of bipartisan support, he sought Democrat-Republican Aaron Burr as second-in-command, but short-sighted Federalists refused—which deepened the already terrible suspicions of the Jeffersonians and would help to seal the fate of the Federalists.

Courageous acts

When the Federalist-controlled Congress passed a tax on property (the first-ever) to help support the Quasi-War, there was a mini-rebellion in western Pennsylvania. Federal property surveyors were harassed, and in response, several men were arrested. A man by the name of Fries organized a small mob to free the men. Having done so, they disbursed.

This was nothing more than a tax revolt—as American as apple pie and hot fudge sundaes, Diggins writes—but outraged super-Federalists acted as if it were treason against the government. The Federalists greatly over-reacted; Fries and 60 others were brought to Philadelphia to be tried on treason or other charges, and Fries himself was sentenced to be hanged. But Adams shocked his party by pardoning Fries, saying that he and his cohorts had engaged in a rebellion, not an insurrection against the government. Despite the pardon, the whole sorry affair turned stalwart Federalist western Pennsylvania solidly against Adams and his party.

Adams’ pardon was a courageous act—going against his entire cabinet and party—and it cost him their support.

The final nail in the political coffin for the Federalists as far as Adams was concerned was how he ended the Qausi-War: by assigning a diplomat to France to re-open relations with that country, now that the Directorate was gone (replaced by Napoleon) and ending the whole affair. (McCullough calls this Adams’ most courageous act as president.) Federalists wanted war! with France, not peace. But Adams, never one to believe in war for war’s sake, wanted the matter ended. And so it was.

So, by the end of his presidency, Adams was something of a man alone. He was distrusted by his own party—mainly because he wasn’t “pure” enough—but he nevertheless still managed to narrowly lose to Jefferson in a several-man race for the electoral vote.

A brilliant jurist

In one of his last acts as president, John Adams appointed John Marshall to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He would prove to be one of the greatest jurists to ever serve the country. It was a smart choice, and one not made blindly. A Federalist ally—and Adams’ last secretary of state—Marshall was the longest-serving chief justice who also established the principle of judicial review and fashioned the judiciary as independent of the executive and legislative branches. He was a foe of Jeffersonianism throughout his tenure, which lasted until 1835.

The charge persists, especially among Jefferson fans, that Adams made a slew of “midnight,” or last-minute, appointments to bedevil Jefferson after Adams left office. Whether true or not, it’s hard to dispute the power of the Marshall appointment.

Final Assessment

I’ve often heard that Woodrow Wilson was the smartest man who has ever been president. I’m not so sure. It might have been Adams. Jefferson was brilliant and learned in many ways, but I don’t quite think he was as smart as he thinks he was.

Adams came to the presidency less qualified—in the modern understanding—for the office than any other man, yet he was more prepared for the office than any other, because he understood the office better than any of them and also believed wholeheartedly in the necessary power of the office. Yet understanding the presidency from a politically philosophical point of view did not necessarily translate into his being able to wield it as well as he needed to. He proved less deft at the political game than Jefferson (or perhaps less devious).

In his call for a strong executive, Adams anticipated the “imperial presidency” of modern America. His actions also ensured that when America finally fought a second war with England, we actually had an army and navy. If Jefferson and the Republicans had had their way, the War of 1812 could have been much more of a disaster—and possibly even the end of America. Is it a stretch to say that? Perhaps.

But Adams looked ahead—far ahead. His mind was often not on the immediate, but on the future. He wanted to make sure what he built endured, so he was often the victim of men like Jefferson and Madison—and even Hamilton. (But Abigail was watchful.) Adams would demand proof of his political enemies’ charges, instead of counter-attacking; but politics doesn’t wait for proof to emerge, because lies can take hold far faster than truth, especially when truth is not vigorously defended.

In the final assessment, Adams the president deserves a place almost equal to Adams the founding father. His political theories, which he put into practice as president, helped assure that the United States would be a democratic-republic, and not just the “for the people” democracy that the Jeffersonians thought that they wanted. And Jefferson unwittingly owed the success of his presidency to the very political philosophy that he repeatedly attacked in Adams!

Adams lost in the tough and disputed election of 1800, and his defeat can be seen as a rebuke of his policies—mainly the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Fries affair and the simple fact that he was unable to defend himself against scurrilous charges of monarchy. But his legacy endured with republicanism (small “r”), the Marshall appointment, a more permanent army (though Jefferson would meddle with that) and beefed up navy, and refusing to bow to other nations just because they were allies. Jefferson and his allies succeeded in undoing much of Federalism, but they couldn’t touch Adams’ true successes; therefore, Adams should rate as a mildly successful president—albeit one who was not popular.

One final note: Adams’ presidential reputation has been enjoying something of a renaissance, thanks to McCullough, an earlier work by Joseph Ellis, and Diggins’ biography, all of which challenge the conventional academic wisdom of President Adams and his era. After all, the election of 1800 was not quite the “second American Revolution” as Jefferson hailed it as being, but rather a different type of glorious event: the affirmation that the American experiment could and would succeed. Power had been peacefully transferred between two antagonistic parties without a shot being fired.

That, ultimately, is President John Adams’ legacy.

Final assessment: Mildly successful and somewhat unpopular.


Two recent books are definitely worth your time. To understand Adams’ political theories, read John Patrick Diggins, John Adams, (2003) part of the American Presidents series. To get the full flavor of the man, read David McCullough’s superb John Adams (2001). You could also get an excellent illustration through the HBO miniseries of the same name.


The picture is from the official White House portrait.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Number 1: President George Washington

Years in office: 1789-1797
Pre-service occupations: general in chief, delegate to the constitutional convention, planter, colonial officer, surveyor
Key events during his administrations: Establishment of the judiciary (1789); North Carolina and Rhode Island ratified Constitution (1789 and 1790); new states: Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792) and Tennessee (1796); Whiskey rebellion (1794); Jay Treaty (1794)

Presidential rating: Highly successful and revered


He’s known as the “father of his country,” but more people seem to know him as an immobile face on Mount Rushmore and the one dollar bill, or as a silly cartoon character hawking cars, furniture and bargains galore on Presidents Day every February. Two recent books attempt to close the personal distance between us and this enigmatic man (see Resources below) and they have done a fine job—as long as people read them, of course.

So who is this man, this icon, honored with an obelisk in the capital city named after him? Is the original G. W. still “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen?” Is this man, whose every image depicts him with tightly clenched teeth, still even taught in schools today? Or is he a mere passing reference, dismissed—even reviled—by some because he owned slaves?

Surveys of presidents generally put Washington at or near the top of the presidential pile for one overriding reason—and it is a huge one. At the end of his second term, Washington turned his back on power—the second time in his life he had done so—and refused to run for a third term. (The first occasion came at the end of the war when he declined some of his officers’ counsel to seize power.) How many men would have had the fortitude of character to turn their backs on such power? Many of his admirers and friends were actually willing to make him king for life, though his enemies—he did have them—abhorred the idea. Washington would have none of it. Instead, he went home to his beloved Mount Vernon estate. And in his will, he freed his slaves.

But what of the entirety of his presidency? His final act set the model for succession. But how did the rest of it go? Since this was brand-new territory, we must gauge Washington against himself, not any other person.

“Mr. President”

The most important points to keep in mind while gauging George Washington as president are these:

1) he really didn’t want to be there;
2) he played the expected yet much needed role of figurehead; and
3) while acting as figurehead, he governed as a strong chief executive ever mindful of the specter of monarchy.

Washington was sometimes likened to “Cincinnatus,” the successful Roman general who eschewed political power but was nevertheless called out of retirement to become dictator. (Biographer Joseph Ellis sometimes calls him this as well.) He reluctantly assumed the presidency (assumed is the correct word, for his election was unanimous), but he, ever mindful of his prestige and reputation, made sure that the office was treated with respect and dignity. Although it’s believed he didn’t mind the accolades given him, and even though he hailed from aristocratic stock, outwardly he endeavored to quash any hints of monarchy. It’s no small point; in 1789, the man from Virginia was revered. He was the closest thing to a king that America had, and had he sought to make himself king, it wouldn’t have been much of a stretch. He made sure the executive would be addressed with the simple “Mr. President.” He also acceded to drawing a salary for the same reason; declining the $25,000 pay could have set a bad precedent that only men of great wealth, who could afford to not be paid, could be president.

Figurehead and executive
Washington was indeed a figurehead, being the one person to whom everyone could look to as the hero of the nation. He took the role quite seriously, because it was tied in with his reputation and prestige, and a figurehead was precisely what the young nation needed at that time: a rallying point. Washington saw himself—and was seen—as the man holding the fragile new republic together. Ultimately, it was the reason he acceded to become the first president.

And it was fragile; Washington was keenly aware that certain things just could not be done lest they rend the young nation apart. Washington himself is the answer to the question of why the founding generation did not deal with slavery. The prickly problem had to be punted. No moral coward, Washington knew that even his reputation would not be enough to keep the nation together if slavery were dealt with during his time. He believed—undoubtedly correctly—that the United States of America would shatter and die over slavery if the issue came to a head then. The nation needed first and foremost to come together. (The Virginian believed that the issue would be tackled in the early 1810s, but the solutions were compromises that eventually led to war.)

But Washington wasn’t merely a symbol, as critical as that need was to the early nation. He was also a leader. Washington the chief executive was little different than Washington the general, colonial officer and land speculator. Biographers James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn describe the first president as both a transactional and a transformational leader, meaning he was simultaneously a smart CEO and an intelligent precedent-setter. When organizing his cabinet, Washington didn’t merely assemble cronies and toadies, like a king might do. He delegated to smart and able men. But he also made the final decisions, just like he did on the battlefield. Often he was content to delegate many matters to his official family, and others he took directly on himself. One such matter was a failure: He sought autonomous status for Indian nations to the west of America in hopes that they would remain safe/autonomous as America pushed west. But the effort failed. How often do you associate failure with President Washington, by the way?

Probably the greatest disappointment personally to Washington was that his official family proved to be the genesis of American political parties—something the great Virginian abhorred. The split was of course between Jefferson and Hamilton, the former searching for the democratic agrarian paradise that was the genesis of the Democratic-Republican party, and later because the Democratic Party (after Jackson); and the latter, first the Federalists, and eventually, a half century later, the Republicans.

It’s interesting that Washington kept the tension within his official family going for so long—and even approved of it. He appears to have enjoyed it to some extent because it gave him more than just one opinion. Like a good field commander, Washington didn’t care to be surrounded by “yes” men. However, he mistakenly believed that Jefferson—and his unofficial cabinet member, Rep. Madison—who spoke behind his back were prodigal sons who would eventually see the error of their ways. Jefferson even attributed some of Washington’s actions, such as the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, to senility that Washington did not have. Washington finally understood in 1796 that Jefferson was no prodigal, but a two-face who thought him senile and controlled by others.

Reputation on the line
Near the end of his term, Washington decided that he needed to run for a second term. He had had designs of serving as the figurehead until the country got going, but the divisions in his official family convinced him that he needed to stick around a little while longer.

Good thing, too. The president proved adept in foreign affairs, rejecting Madison’s proposal for trade war with England over claims left over from the Revolution. Instead, the president sent Justice John Jay to England to work out a peace. In short, Washington put his tremendous reputation on the line and got the Jay Treaty ratified by the Senate (1794). The treaty succeeded in averting a needless war, expanded trade with England and opened the west—but it also sharpened the political divisions between the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. The treaty was wildly hated at the time, because the Jefferson/Madison Republicans wanted a showdown with England, not a compromise. Washington’s reputation took damage. But Washington, displaying exceptional wisdom and forward-thinking, looked past the passion of the moment and knew a new war with England would be ruinous. So he did the unpopular thing, and signed the treaty. It turned out to be a very good thing. The second war with England was averted for 20 years—and we know how well that one went.

By the end of the second term, Washington had had enough. His enemies were speaking brazenly about him now, raising phantom specters of King George and even spreading phony charges that he had been a British spy. (Note that Washington, as revered as he was, was no more free from vicious partisanship than most any other president.) Also, his normally robust body was failing, and he believed he could finally retire in good stead, having shepherded the young nation through its earliest years.

He always remained popular, but the grumbling about the “new King George” weighed on him. If there had been any question about a third term, the yearning for Mount Vernon and the wish to avoid monarchy settled the matter.

Final assessment

This should really come as no surprise, but Washington truly does deserve his reputation. In presidential rankings, he’s usually first or second, ahead or just behind Lincoln. And it’s usually his final act—declining to seek a third term and being made “president for life”—that clinches it for the rankers. But I found Washington to be an engaging president and commander in chief. He took the position seriously and treated it as a humbling honor, not a right to which he was due. He carefully weighed his options, and kept the Constitution, for which he had just labored, close at hand—and even vetoed two pieces of legislation because he believed that they violated that Constitution.

Make no mistake: Washington succeeded admirably in striking the perfect balance between being “Cincinnatus” and an engaged chief executive who set the proper tone, expectations and precedents for the office. In short, he was a figurehead when needed, a master of delegation when needed and an active executive when needed. He set the proper tone for his successors, and showed them the way. MacGregor and Burns have something fascinating to say on the model that Washington set. The nebulous force “conventional wisdom” says that presidential second terms are usually disasters. With that in mind,

“It has been said that during his first term Washington taught his successors how to be president and during his second term how not to be president. This is a half-truth at best. Better to record that during his first term in office, he set up the executive branch of government, transformed the economic landscape with modern, forward-looking policies, [Big Mo editor’s note: this was through his “son” Hamilton’s brilliant fiscal ideas], successfully presided over the quarreling members of his cabinet, united diverse states and populations behind a new unified government and his own administrative and symbolic leadership…

And better to grant that during his second term, though he established the executive branch as the sole formulator of the nation’s foreign policy, his own foreign policy, no less than some of his domestic policies, polarized citizens and spurred the development of political parties. Despite his unrivaled grasp of the interplay between ambitions and interests, Washington never fully understood the vital need for parties and partisanship as the only way, in the long run, to organize safely and creatively the grand conflicts inevitable in a healthy, dynamic democracy.” (MacGregor and Burns, p. 97)

Washington lamented the partisanship. But if every president would follow his model for leadership, he would do well in office, at least in how he conducts his affairs. And when looking at President Washington compared to many of those who seek the office today, or who have sought it in the last four presidential election cycles, almost all of them fall far short of the Virginian.

This isn’t hero worship. In the final assessment, Washington was a hugely successful president, both in how he conducted his affairs in office, and how he left that office. Washington provided an excellent role model for chief executives: reluctant service, smart selection of officials, judicious delegation, careful active leadership and prescience of his constitutional duties. He knew when to be a figurehead and when to lead. He knew when his reputation could get something done that was not popular (today we call this “spending political capital”) for the good of the country. He did not take advantage of the reverence the American people afforded him by turning the new presidency into a royal office or a dictatorship. He acted with admirable restraint, and strove to conduct his affairs within the constraints of the new Constitution.

It’s a shame, though, that his name is not celebrated in schoolhouses across the land like it once was, and that he has been relegated to the mundane “Presidents Day” holiday.


Two 2004 biographies are definitely worth your time: Joseph P. Ellis’ His Excellency: George Washington and James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn’s George Washington (The American Presidents series).

You can also spend a career perusing Washington’s papers. I have a reprint of Washington Irving’s (Legend of Sleepy Hollow) somewhat fawning and very flowery multi-volume biography of Washington, but its value is found more in entertainment.


1. Gilbert Stuart's full-length painting of President George Washington. (White House Historical Association.)

2. A Currier & Ives print published sometime between 1835 and 1856. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

3. Gilbert Stuart’s famous unfinished portrait of Washington, which appears on the $1 bill. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)