The Constitution and Executive Power
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The Constitution and Executive Power

September 21, 2019


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>>The following program is a production of the Fairfax Network, Fairfax County Public
Schools.>>This program was made possible through generous support of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation
to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens and by the generous support
of Verizon Communications to the Constitutional Sources Project. Additional funding for the
Constitutional Sources Project provided by Davis Polk & Wardwell, LLP. The Constitution
and Executive Power is a coproduction of the Fairfax Network, George Washington’s Mount
Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens, and the Constitutional Sources Project.>>>Good morning. My name is Stewart McLaurin
and I’m the Vice President of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington
here at Mount Vernon and I’d like to welcome you to Mount Vernon as we celebrate for the
very first time here at George Washington’s Estate, Constitution Day. We have students
gathered from all over Fairfax County, we have a distinguished panel that’s going
to discuss the Constitution, George Washington’s role with the Constitution, and I’ve a very
special announcement for those of you who are here today and those of you who are watching
by television. This summer Mount Vernon was very fortunate to acquire George Washington’s
copy of the United States Constitution. It was passed by the First Congress of the United
States. He took this document and in his own hand underlined every specific role and responsibility
of the President of the United States. He didn’t have a predecessor in that role,
he didn’t have someone that he could talk with about what being president was like,
so he took the Constitution and he went through it line by line and marked in the margins
his role and his responsibilities. That document will go on exhibit on Constitution Day, September
17, here at Mount Vernon and will stay on exhibit through next February on his birthday,
February 22. I’d like to invite you and your families back and those of you who are
watching by television to make plans to come to Mount Vernon for this very special exhibit.
After we close this exhibit in February, it’s going to go on a tour of other presidential
libraries around the nation so we can share this wonderful document in partnership with
the presidential libraries representing Presidents of the United States from Boston to Los Angeles.
When it returns to Mount Vernon next summer it will be the cornerstone of our special
collection at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. Now what
is that? Over decades, since the 1850s when the Mount Vernon Ladies Association acquired
Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon has been a destination to study and to visit his estate. This library
will be the first time ever we will have resources here at Mount Vernon for in-depth study by
scholars and researchers to prepare to teach and educate the next generation of young Americans
and people from around the world on our President. I’d like to welcome you again here today,
you’re very fortunate to hear from this distinguished group we have with us. Julie
Silverbrook is the Executive Director of the Constitutional Sources Project, Joseph Ellis
and Carol Berkin will also be with us and you’ll be hearing more about them by introduction
in just a few moments; but I hope you enjoy your time here at Mount Vernon today and come
into a deeper and better understanding about our first President, the man who presided
over the Constitutional Convention, and the man who’s copy of the Constitution I hope
you’ll come back and see here in our museum very soon. One last note of thanks to Nancy
Hayward who is the Director of our education leadership program, or education programs,
here at Mount Vernon, who does an extraordinary job with this program as well as teacher institutes
and other programs we have for teachers from across the country, so if you’re watching
today and you’re a teacher and you’ve not been to one of these programs I hope you’ll
contact Nancy and come yourself or bring your class to Mount Vernon soon. Thank you very
much and look forward to today’s program.>>Thank you Stewart. Welcome and good morning.
Thank you for joining us for an appropriately timed and located program on The Constitution
and Executive Powers. As Stewart mentioned, my name is Julie Silverbrook and I am the
Executive Director of the Constitutional Sources Project, better known as ConSource. For those
of you who may not be familiar with our Project, we are an online resource for individuals
who are interested in learning about the documentary history of the Constitution including its
creation, ratification, and amendment. As we begin there are a number of people who
I would like to thank for making today’s Constitution Day program a success. First
and foremost I want to thank our speakers, Joseph Ellis and Carol Berkin, for joining
us for this terrific program. I also want to thank our sponsors, Verizon Communications;
Davis Polk & Wardwell; and the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. I would also like to thank our
partners at Mount Vernon, the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and a special thank you again to
Nancy Hayward who is fantastic and without whom this program absolutely could not have
been a success. With that I want to introduce our distinguished panelists. Joseph Ellis
is the Ford Foundation Professor of History Emeritus at Mount Holyoke College. He has
published ten books on American history. His previous book, His Excellency, George Washington,
was published in 2004 and became an immediate best seller. Founding Brothers, focusing on
six crucial moments in the American Revolution, won the Pulitzer Prize; while American Sphinx,
received a National Book Award. Both were also best sellers. Carol Berkin is the Presidential
Professor of History Emeritus at Baruch College and the Graduate Center at the City University
of New York. She is also an author of many books on American history including A Brilliant
Solution: Inventing the American Constitution; Civil War Wives; and Revolutionary Mothers:
Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. With that I’m going to turn it over to Carol
to talk a little bit about the Constitutional Convention and the development of the presidency.
>>Thank you Julie. I’m delighted to be here and I’m always so happy to see students
in the audience as well as teachers. If you read the Constitution, it’s so beautifully
written that it looks like they just sat down and it came flowing out like some magical
set of ideas. But the truth is that it was a long, hard road. Things were debated; they
were decided, they were undecided, they were re-decided, and sometimes it seemed a little
bit like organized chaos. And this was certainly true when you think about defining the Executive
Branch. One of the things you feel when you read the record of the Constitutional Convention
is how fearful and anxious these men were that they couldn’t save the country and
how worried they were that whatever power they gave any branch of the government would
turn into tyranny and nowhere was this more true than the idea of creating an executive.
They brought all these fears to the discussion of the presidency; they began with that discussion
because they thought it would be the easiest part of the Constitution. They discovered
it wasn’t and they ended their session four months later with finally deciding what to
do about the Executive Branch. They sent a lot of the information to my favorite committee,
the Committee on Postponed Matters,>
which meant we didn’t know what to do with this. The issues were incredible. First of
all, should there by an Executive Branch at all? Several people there said no, we don’t
need one, it’s a bad idea, he’ll become a tyrant, or they’ll become a tyrant; because
they also didn’t know whether the Executive Branch should be three men, one man, two men,
some people wanted a representative from every region, that would provide anybody’s bias
in case he came from New England or he came from the South. Oh no, someone else said,
two people could gang up on the third and so they would have bias for their two regions.
And this is how the discussion went endlessly. They were a group of lawyers after all, so
they saw loopholes everywhere. They couldn’t decide how long a President should serve;
should he serve for life, should he serve for a seven year term, should he serve for
one year, should he be entitled to be reelected, if he’s reelected would he owe his reelection
to some small cabal or conspiracy who might influence him and then he would again become
a tyrant. The biggest question oddly turned out to be mechanical, how on earth could he
be chosen. Should the Senate choose him? The nationalists said absolutely not, that would
give the states too much power. Should the state legislatures choose him? This practically
made James Madison’s head explode, the idea of giving that power to state legislatures.
Should he be chosen by popular vote? Well how could they do that, this was a world before
transportation and communication revolutions, most people didn’t know anyone from another
state. My students all think that everyone in the country knew John Adams and Thomas
Jefferson; not true, much to John Adam’s dismay, he was not a household word. So if
they elected a President by popular vote there would be 500, 600 candidates because people
would vote for someone in their state or their county or their town who they knew. How could
they elect a President? And this is one of the things that wound up at the Committee
on Postponed Matters and they created this really complicated, strange thing called the
Electoral College, or as I called it when I was a kid, the Electrical College; not so.
The Electoral College to deal with this very practical problem that the only two people
who were actually known by everyone, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. So, then
the discussed what kinds of powers should the President have. Some people said no powers
at all; his job was to administer the laws the Congress passed, that’s all he was to
do. Other people said that’s not really a very good idea; how are we going to balance
the power of Congress if we don’t have an Executive that has independent powers of his
own. And so they went round and round on what powers he should have. That final Article
that looks so polished and so perfect in many ways, though a little vague, was the result
of hours and days of going round and round in circles over these very complicated issues.
One of the things that made it a little easier, and it was the unspoken understanding of the
Convention, was that the person who would be the first President of the United States
was the person presiding over the Convention, George Washington. And this eased everybody’s
mind that a tyrant wouldn’t emerge immediately, they remained fearful that ultimately a tyrant
would emerge, they were not optimistic about human nature, they thought all republics declined
into tyranny; but they thought at least with George Washington at the helm this could be
delayed as long as he was running the country. And so I think you should think about the
presidency not as some certitude, oh we know exactly what we want to do, but as something
that was argued about, discussed, puzzled over, and when they were done really they
left a lot of it, as I think Joe will point out, to the man who took the office to really
define it.>>With that, Joe, do you want to
>>That’s a nice segue. That’s what I’m supposed to do, talk about. I’ll try to
be really brief and set the framework for the rest of the program when we’ll depend
on questions from Julie and from you. I think the most important thing about executive power
as defined in the Constitution is nobody knew what it was. Nobody knew what a President
was supposed to do and implicit in what Carol just said the ghost at the banquet is monarchy,
the fear of monarchy. That, if you look at all the state constitutions that were set
up in the 1770s and 80s, the Governors in most of those states had very little power
with a couple of exceptions, Massachusetts because John Adams wrote that one; but they’re
really terrified, think about the Declaration of Independence, what good thing does that
have to say about monarchy? It’s all the evils that kings do, that George III did.
So that in some sense, in retrospect, the Revolutionary generation over-learned the
lessons of 1776 and the lessons of 1787 became very unclear in terms of any exercise of executive
power. The major achievement of George Washington was to define what those vague words in the
actual document meant in reality. There is a poll every four years; I think it’s by
the Chicago Sun Times, of scholars, that is political scientists and historians, as to
who is the greatest President in American History. They have like 28 categories, Carol’s
on this list, I’m on this list, for the last 37 years the same three people have always
been the top three. Tell me who you think they are. Right there, sir.
>>FDR, Lincoln, and George Washington?>>You got it. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Abraham
Lincoln, George Washington, not necessarily in that order, they switch around. That’s
the American trinity, if you will, in terms of Presidents. And each new President thinks
he might make it in at some point in time down the line. The lists shifts, Truman has
gone up in stature, JFK has gone down a little bit. By the way, if you take a poll not of
scholars but of ordinary citizens as to who the greatest Presidents in American history
are guess who they are. Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy; that’s because most people
don’t know anything about any of the other ones. At any rate, we know why Lincoln’s
on this list. Lincoln ended slavery and saved the Union. And we know why FDR is on this
list; FDR saved capitalism and defeated the totalitarian powers of Japan and Germany.
Why is Washington on the list? What did he do? Well, I’m not going to get into specifics
here, they can come up in the response to requests, but if you, when I was writing the
biography of him, His Excellency, I said, I wonder what he thought about his own presidency
just as he was leaving it. On March 6, 1797, there was going to be an inauguration of the
next President who was John Adams and he kept a diary, you know, Washington did. And so
what was he thinking. You know, he was finishing a really a whole public career, a career of
public service, eight years in the presidency, what did he think he had done? And you turn
to his diary and it says, “March 6, 1797, temperature 38 degrees, a day like all days”.
>He doesn’t tell you what he’s thinking.
And, have you ever gone to the Mall? You go to the Lincoln Memorial and there are words;
“four score and seven years ago”. You go to the Jefferson Memorial and there are
words; “we hold these truths to be self-evident”. You go to the new Martin Luther King Memorial
and there are words; you know, “I’ve been to the mountain” or the I Have a Dream
speech. When you go to the Washington Monument there are no words except the graffiti scrawled
on the staircase on the inside; they’ve gotten rid of most of that. Washington is
silent. There’s a famous scene in the Constitutional Convention, it’s probably apocryphal, and
they’re taking a break and Gouverneur Morris, who is a real eccentric character and has
a peg leg, who is also the model, the torso, that is used for the statue of Washington
later on, he’s standing with Alexander Hamilton and Hamilton says, “I’ll bet you a dinner
that you won’t go up to George Washington, put your hand on his shoulder, and say ‘How
you doing George?'” And Morris does that and Washington lifts his hand off of his shoulder
and looks him in the eye with the most steely-eyed glare and that’s the last time anybody ever
tried to get into that internal, that space around him. What he did was define the presidency.
So one of the reasons that he’s in the top three is he comes first and that gives him
an enormous advantage to establish the precedents. The precedents which become a two term precedent;
the precedent that you’re going to have a Cabinet; the precedent, what does “advise
and consent” mean with regard to the Senate; and will the federal government play an active
role in making domestic policy, will that be a state thing, yes they will, they’re
going to run the economy; will the President of the United States have a major role in
making foreign policy, the major role in making policy. He has a proclamation in 1793 of neutrality,
we’re not going to go to war with anybody in Europe, I mean, what’s proclamation,
that sounds pretty monarchical. That’s what kings do. So, he becomes a President, if you
think about the word President it means preside, it’s a weak term. He transforms it into
something different than that when we hear it now. He is both the symbolic figure who
holds the country together as they said in the toast, “The man who unites all hearts”.
He visited every state which was hard to do then. He would get in his carriage and ride
from one town, then get out, mount his white stallion, Prescott, polish up Prescott’s
hooves, ride in with his military uniform, and Americans couldn’t agree whether they’re
South Carolinians or Massachusetts folks, or Virginians, but when Washington was in
town they were Americans. He was the symbol; but he was more than a symbol, so he’s like
a British monarch in one sense but he’s also like a British prime minister; he manages
the legislative and the foreign policy agenda. And so at the end what he actually achieves
is to make what in the document itself, the Executive Branch looks murky and clearly the
central power in the document, in the Constitution, rests with the Congress of the United States.
By the time you finish Washington’s second term the presidency is a coequal member of
that, coequal branch of that government, which is not what anybody sort of thought it was
going to be when they wrote it but he’s made it into that. And then, finally, for
me and for him, he makes the symbolic gesture of leaving office voluntarily, he did this
once before as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Washington is an aficionado of exits.
>He wanted to make a point. Even though everyone
regarded him as indispensable and he’s the closest thing to an indispensable leader in
American history, that is to say would history have happened the same way without him; but
even though he’s indispensable, he’s disposable. No American president will die in office as
a king, okay. That’s a rather important point; it’s enshrined in the Constitution
in 1951with a Constitutional Amendment. The only president in American history not to
do two terms, or not to go more than two terms, is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But, he defined
the presidency in a way that made it a coequal branch and that’s why he is listed by historians
and scholars who know something as one of the most, I put him first, beating out Lincoln
is to say, is saying a heck of a lot, but I’ll stop.
>>Alright, I have a couple of questions before we open it up to the audience. This one is
for both of you because both of you have sort of touched on this. Why were the other framers
so sure of George Washington’s character? You touched on it a little bit that he knew
how to make an exit and relinquish power and that’s certainly part of that narrative;
but for those of us that might be unfamiliar with George Washington’s history perhaps
as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, either one of
you can tell us about that.>>I would say that they were not sure. My
sense of them as I read the records of the Constitutional Convention is they had a deep,
deep belief that every man lusted after power and that their job was to create a government
in which maybe you might eventually become a tyrant but were going to make it really
hard for you. And what is so striking to me is that at one point Benjamin Franklin gets
up, actually James Wilson got up and read a speech for him because Benjamin Franklin
was suffering from kidney stones and gout and he was in no condition to get up. He looks
directly at Washington and he says, in effect, the president should never receive a salary,
that this should be a voluntary position, and he says, in effect, even though he doesn’t
name Washington, he says even George Washington might be subject to the lust for power. And
so I would not say>>Washington never accepted a salary when
he was Commander in Chief, that was the precedent they were setting, yeah.
>>But I think that it goes too far to say they all had a blanket confidence. What I
would say is if they were betting men they thought they had a better chance with Washington
because he voluntarily gave up command of the army because he was a man of character.
But I do think one of the reasons that they thought he should be President, especially
as the Convention moved on, was they were looking for a person, as Joe so eloquently
put it, who would be a national symbol of unity and Washington and Franklin were the
only two men who everyone knew, and so for them it was critically important that someone
symbolize patriotism, that is a willingness to sacrifice your life, your fortune, and
your sacred honor, right, for the cause; strength of character, that is decisiveness; and so
he was the likely figure for that. But I would not, we’re glossing over too much when we
say, oh everybody was confident this would be a perfect choice.
>>Would you not agree though Carol that if Washington had not attended and chaired the
Convention its likelihood of success was much less.
>>Oh, absolutely.>>He made it legitimate.
>>When, he didnt want to go.>>Right, oh, he didn’t.
>>He said, I am, he was a nationalist and he did think the country was in danger but
he says I do not think the genius of the people, meaning the sentiment of the people, is ready
for a strong central government. And so he came up with all kinds of excuses; he said,
oh, my brother died, I’m in mourning, oh I had a terrible case of rheumatism, oh, you
know, a thousand excuses not to attend this Convention.
>>Well, there’s another reason he has reservations and that is his legacy’s at stake here.
>>Exactly. He did not>>And he had said that I’m stepping away
from power when he left the army in 1783 and became the American Cincinnatus so Cincinnatus
can’t go back.>>And he was worried that if the people rejected
what this Convention did it would be a stain on him. He gets letters from friends everywhere,
you have to attend, if you don’t attend it will not be legitimate.
>>There’s actually a conspiracy; Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay to get together and
say we’ve got to convince this guy and give him kind of an education, a political education
of what’s at stake.>>Exactly.
>>It’s almost like a coup de’tat, but one thing that you should keep in mind that
when he steps away from power the first time this is a really big deal and he becomes a
nationally, internationally significant person because, in fact, when George III is having
his portrait painted by Benjamin West and West says, “the word is that Washington
was offered the crown and refused it and stepped away from power and surrendered his sword”
and George III said, “if it is true he will be the greatest man in the world”. Think
about it. Julius Caesar didn’t do it, Napoleon’s not going to do it, Cromwell didn’t do it,
Lenin’s not going to do it, Mao’s not gonna do it, Castro’s not gonna do it. Step
away from power after you’ve led a successful revolution, they never do, one person did,
Nelson Mandela. So then it’s an extremely rare occasion and it is the ultimate expression
of virtue; the victory over your own ambitions for larger public purposes. So, even though
I understand what Carol’s saying that he’s not a sure thing, nobody’s a sure thing,
he’s the closest thing to a sure thing that America has to offer.
>>Exactly. The wonderful thing is he actually gets a letter from a friend who says if you
attend the Convention and it succeeds you will be known as the father of your country.
I mean, for years I thought that was just one of those phrases school teachers and professors
made up; right there in print, you will be the father of your country, and it is absolutely
true. If he had not attended it would not have had legitimacy with the average American
voter.>>But he himself is not the father of anybody.
>>Right.>>That’s the interesting thing. And he says
this at one point; he says if you worry about me becoming a monarch and passing along the
presidency to my progeny, I don’t have any progeny. The only person that had male heirs
in the first six presidents was John Adams and guess what; his son did get elected president,
too. But they were so terrified of this monarchical principle that he wanted to say, remember
when I die I leave no heirs.>>That’s it. Right.
>>So, Joe, you’ve touched on this, actually both of you have, why do you think that George
Washington was close to immune to the criticism of becoming an uncrowned monarch, and this
would be during his two terms as President?>>That’s a good question. You know, like
he was, like he was immune to smallpox because he had been exposed to smallpox in the West
Indies early in his life, and so, it’s like at some point in time, I guess to call it
an immunity is a metaphor but as a young man, reading his correspondence as a young man
when he’s just inheriting this estate, he’s not immune. He’s very ambitious and he marries
the wealthiest widow in Virginia to get, and then inherits this estate. Something happens
to him in the War, it’s during the War. Remember, he’s fighting for eight year,
eight years in the field, never comes back, and I think that he became psychologically
certain of his own significance and didn’t need any additional confirmation of that.
He knew we would be sitting in Mount Vernon in 2012
>Listening to historians blather on about his
significance. He knew that. And he wasn’t sure that there was life after death in a
traditional Christian sense of the term. When, in the death scene at Mount Vernon there’s
no minister in the room, I think he thought he wasn’t going to heaven he was going into
the ground. But there was another form of immortality; he knew he was going to have
it. Being remembered in the history books and by posterity. And that’s what he cared
a lot about. But he knew, so he could afford not to be conspicuously ambitious and to be
under complete control.>>But Joe, he was finally criticized and it
upset him tremendously. He was really, I think, accustomed to being seen as a near perfect
fellow and after the Jay Treaty, when the democratic republicans began to really attack,
and they attacked him personally. We think today newspapers are scandalous and scurrilous
but in the 18th Century it was no holds barred because the newspapers were financed by the
political parties very openly and when you got attacked you got attacked.
>>It’s hard to believe but even though it’s highly partisan now it was worse then.
>>It was much worse.>>It’s almost impossible for you to believe
that, but it’s true.>
>>And he was attacked and he did not respond philosophically to that. He was really enraged
that they would attack his motives.>>But somebody attacks, you know, again, some
of the attacks were ridiculous. I mean, during the war the British in an attempt to undermine
General Washington’s power had created some forged documents that allegedly showed that
he was trying to sell out the American cause. You know, it would be the American Benedict
Arnold before there was Benedict Arnold. So, they were forgeries and they were shown to
be forgeries, nobody worried about that. The Republican Party, it’s not the same Republican
Party, in their journal called the Aurora they published these and say, look, Washington
is really a traitor, okay. You know, it’s like Barack Obama is really a Muslim, and
as he was getting ready to retire Tom Paine, the author of significant American publications,
most especially Common Sense, says we all devoutly pray for his imminent death. We hate
him because he’s exercised too much power. Anyway, he is the great; he is the greatest
political leader in American history>>[Laugh]
>>He levitates above the pack in that regard and part of it is the level of self-control
he has over his own emotions and his own ambitions.>>Let me ask one more follow-up question
before we open it up to audience Q&A. We’re talking about sort of monarchical power and
today the President is accused of being sort of an imperial presidency and he is, the President
today is critically important to the policy making process. Can you tell us a little bit
about sort of how the founders originally conceived of the presidency and how that differs
from the modern role.>>Well I think one thing is clear, it’s
Schlesinger who wrote this wonderful article, The Rise of the Imperial President, and his
point is and this is a really important point I think for all teachers and students because
we tend to be presentists, we think the past is just like today except that the wore different
hairdos, and the truth is that post-World War II we have a country that is now the dominant
country in the world except of course for the Soviet Union, President with enormous
powers because he controls embassies and he controls ambassadors and he controls a lot
of foreign policy, and then what the New Deal produced which is the notion that the federal
government really is responsible for the general welfare of the people which means an enormous
expansion of government agencies under the President. Washington, that is the government,
for really many, many years if it had vanished a lot of people in America would not have
even noticed. I always joke because I grew up in Alabama that when you said “the guvment”,
which is how we said it, nobody thought of Washington, DC, it was Montgomery, and so
I think the expansion of the power of the national government creates this imperial
presidency. My own sense from what I know of the Convention is that people thought that
the heart and soul of a republic was the legislature, it was to be supreme, it was to make the laws,
it was to determine policy, and really the President was kind of a gopher. You know,
we make the laws and then you make sure that they get administered, you go out and you
take, you know, and also you make the coffee. I mean it was really a kind of level of you
do our bidding and what is remarkable, I think, is not only that Washington transformed it
as you said into an equal branch with the Congress but events occurred such as this
war between France and England, between Napoleon, that required a kind of foreign policy that
gave Washington an avenue by which he could become a coequal branch of the government.
But it was nothing like what we have today. And the last thing to remember is they did
not envision political parties. Hard as it is for us to believe, they thought “factions”,
which is what they called parties, were one of the great threats to a republic and so
you didn’t have a man in office who controlled the Senate, his party controlled the Senate,
his party controlled the House, who could appoint Supreme Court Justices from your party,
and so Washington is operating in a completely different historical context than a president
today. You would not see a headline that says, “Important to determine whether one party
controls both the House and the Senate”, that would be inconceivable in Washington’s
day.>>I’ll be really brief here because I think
we need to hear from you guys. But, if you look at the three Presidents that are at the
top, the trinity, they’re all really strong Presidents. If you want to make it, and the
further down, Theodore Roosevelt, same kind of thing, Andrew Jackson, same kind of thing,
that the Presidents that earn the highest marks with historians are people who do most
actively use the power of the Executive Branch and the federal government to achieve particular
results. And I think it’s true that even as early as the Jefferson administration in
the early 19th Century it becomes pretty clear that if you don’t have a strong Executive
things don’t work. Like, if you have an opportunity to purchase the Midwest of the
United States and officially you don’t have the power to do so, you just do it, which
is what he did. Okay? And similarly with Jackson later on, so that I would call it an imperial
presidency, and that is only possible once we become an empire and that’s after 1945
in some sense. But a strong presidency with a strong federal government, Washington sets
that, he’s the one who does that.>>Alright. Now we’re going to open it up
to all of you. There are microphones on both sides. When you get up there please remind
us of your name and where you’re from. Don’t be shy.
>>Ah, good deal.>>Hi, my name is Alicia Tucker and I’m here
from the Society of the Cincinnati and I’m mostly curious of how Washington’s experience
as the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army influenced how he shaped and defined
the President.>>I’ll start.
>>Okay.>>The Cabinet system is such a movement from
the Continental Army to the presidency of his, what in the war was his, general staff.
They would meet to discuss do we or do we not attack New York. And it wasn’t just
a discussion, you had to submit a written brief and you didn’t know what Washington’s
opinion was. He wouldn’t say, “I think we should attack New York, what do you think?”
He would say, “We have the following choices, we can attack New York, we can not attack
New York, we can move in this direction.” And then they had to, and he does the same
thing with the Cabinet. Specific example, the most important example, the national bank
1791. Very controversial. Hamilton’s baby, okay? The beginning of the Federal Reserve
System. Very dangerous in the eyes of a lot of people. And he says to the Cabinet and
he asks Adams to throw in his opinion, too, even though he’s not in the Cabinet as Vice
President, what is your verdict, is this or is this not constitutional. Jefferson says
no, Edmund Randolph says no, Henry Knox says no, Alexander Hamilton says yes, and he agrees
with Hamilton. But it’s a process of decision making that is a direct consequence of his
experience during the War as Commander in Chief and General, and in some cases it’s
some of the, you know, Knox was his artillery officer and Hamilton was his Aide de Camp
through much of the War, so that his transference of that group. And they really were a band
of brothers. The, Cincinnati comes in for enormous criticism when its created because
it passes membership to the male heir>>Right.
>>and therefore is regarded as an aristocratic institution. And Jefferson and everybody dumps
all over it but for them it was genuinely an attempt to sustain a level of friendship
and patriotism that was not being rewarded by the American people otherwise, they never
got their pensions.>>And Washington calls his aides de camp,
his most trusted advisors,>>His family
>>his family. But I think one of the things, much more general, is that that experience
made Washington a nationalist. You know here he was, a Virginia planter, so many of them
were reluctant to join the Revolution in the first place, they had to be sort of shoved,
they are going to be the heart and soul of the anti-federalist movement. Washington understood,
first of all he traveled the length and breadth of the country and so he had, in Hamilton’s
great phrase, he thought continentally. He understood what was shared by all of these
disparate communities and states that other people who were more provincial, like Patrick
Henry who till the day he died said Virginia is my country and who only left Virginia in
his entire life twice. Washington had had this experience of really understanding that
it was, had the potential to be a country, to be a nation, and I think that that is something
he carries over to why he eventually said yes, I’ll go to the Convention, why he supported
so many of the things that Hamilton wanted to do, which was contraindicated for a Virginia
planter. And I think that that experience in the War is what really made him and many
people, if you look at the little bios of the people who attended the Convention, they
share three interesting things in common; many of them were not born in the United States
and so they didn’t have these deep roots in one state that made them provincial, many
of them had been educated abroad, but many of them had been officers in the Continental
Army and shared that sense of thinking continentally with Hamilton and with Washington and I think
that’s critically important in the role that he comes to play as President.
>>We have a question from the gentleman over here.
>>Yeah.>>Hi, I’m Alex Warren from George Mason
High School.>>We haven’t mentioned him have we?
>>>No, and if you would after, you know, you
answer my question that would be cool. But, what beyond legitimacy did George Washington
really add to the Constitutional Convention?>>He didn’t say, he said not a word until
the very last week when he made one request that they amend a decision they made and everybody
said sure George. He took very seriously that role as Presiding Officer but you think about
how, it’s like herding cats, he had a group of men not shy about speaking, not un-opinionated,
discussing critically important issues and Washington said we will be civil. One of the
first things that decide to do is have a set of rules of etiquette for the Convention;
that you will not interrupt anyone speaking, you can’t speak more than twice on the same
issue, and Washington enforced this, and I guarantee you if he hadn’t it would have
been total chaos. My friend Joanne Freeman has written a book called Affairs of Honor
about how many duels men in government had with one another or near duels and she’s
now, I mean we think people misbehave today. These guys were fighting on the floor of Congress,
punching each other out, hitting each other, and she’s doing one now on the government
before the Civil War. There were fistfights everywhere and all I could think as she was
talking about all these episodes of people beating each other up, if George Washington
had been presiding none of this would have ever happened. So, I think his role in keeping
civility, which mattered a lot to Washington, keeping civility was critically important.
They never would have finished what they were doing if he had not been there to preside
over them.>>Carol, I want to ask you, there’s a story
that I love to tell as a teacher but I’m not sure it’s true. In the Convention when
they’re going to have this this debate about how representation should be, whether it should
be by state or by population, and it’s going to be a big compromise, you know this.
>>Right.>>But this is the central debate in the Convention.
>>Yes.>>And it’s going to be acrimonious and Franklin,
allegedly, this is what I’m not sure about, says that “given the importance of the occasion
perhaps we should call in a minister to say a prayer” and Hamilton says, “I see no
reason to call in foreign aid.”>
And if that’s not true, it ought to be true.>>What is really funniest about this is, of
course, Franklin was being as tongue-in-cheek as you possibly could be. But people have
used that statement to prove that the Convention was a godly convention so you have to, when
you just read the words, when you just read the words you don’t, you can’t understand
it. I’m sure there was a little twinkle in Franklin’s eye and he was being as sarcastic
as possible. This is a problem that Gouverneur Morris had all the time because he was really
a wag and a wit and he would make these outrageous statements. Someone was worried that the Senate
would become a cabal, an oligarchy of the wealthiest men in America, and Gouverneur
Morris says, “I think we should require that the wealthiest men in America all be
in the Senate because that way we can keep an eye on them easily”. And you read these
words 150 years later and you think what an elitist and you don’t realize he’s being
as sarcastic as possible. So, I don’t know if Hamilton, there’s no record that Hamilton
made that reply but there is a record that Benjamin Franklin did say, you know, we are
going to have so many fights let’s bring in a minister to call down peace on us from
God.>>We have a question from a young lady over
here.>>Hi, my name is Bess [inaudible], I’m from
Parkview Middle School, and I was just wondering why did George Washington not serve as President
for the third term?>>Why he didn’t serve a third term? The
answer is he really didn’t want to serve at all.
>>Right.>
>>That when he went to New York, which was the first capital, he left this place to go
to New York, his last words were, “I feel as if I’m a prisoner going to the gallows”.
He didn’t think of the presidency as the capstone of his political career. You know,
in the 20th and 21st Century, you know all these presidential historians, the presidency,
but for Washington the presidency was not at any way the most important thing that he
did. That was also true for John Adams, it was also true for James Madison and Thomas
Jefferson. Their major contributions to American history were made earlier in the 1770s and
in Madison’s case>>Jefferson doesn’t put it on his tombstone.
>>He didn’t put, yeah, he didn’t put any, and he doesn’t want to have any exercise
of power on his tombstone. But he also knew, Washington did, that male members of the Washington
line died in their 50s. Not a single one had made it to 60 and he was 58, and he wanted
to get back here and spend the golden years with Martha at Mount Vernon in a bucolic,
under his vine and fig tree as he said. He really, really did want to do that. But he
had attempted not to be elected, once he finished his first term he attempted to resign after
his first term, so it’s no surprise that he’s not ever going to even think about
a third term. And in the process he sets almost accidently the two term president.
>>The young man who asked about George Mason, the reason we haven’t talked him is, of
course, he opposed ratification of the Constitution.>
Virulently and powerfully.>>Hello, my name is Martha Levi and I’m
visiting from Buena Vista. I’m here with my children. You know, we kind of live in
a hero-less time period in American history where we don’t have that leader that can
unite the American people as Washington did. What can you say to the leaders of our country
today, or more importantly to the people, the characteristics that Washington had that
made him that hero worthy of following and looking to.
>>Well, I don’t mean to fudge the answer but we just live in a completely different
world than Washington lived in; powerful political parties, powerful lobbying groups.
>>Washington would never run for office in this country.
>>Yeah, none of them, I think, would really be interested in the complexity of being the
president today. They were not hounded by 50 different interest groups. One of the reasons
Franklin Roosevelt, I think, is so admired by people, historians and political scientists,
is he was a brilliant juggler of all the different voices in his coalition. I don’t think that’s
the kind of problem Washington faced. I, for one, think Derrick Jeter makes a wonderful
hero for our times.>
That’s what I’ve been reduced to. But I think the kinds of integrity that a man
like Washington was able to have in office is really quite, quite difficult today.
>>It is and it’s one of the reasons why we look back and over the last 20 years there’s
been this enormous surge of interest in the Founders. I’ve been a major beneficiary
of this so I don’t want to investigate it too closely and to have it go out of existence
and then they not buy my books anymore, but they are the gold standard for the political
leadership in American history. They are. Washington is on Mount Olympus and the rest
of them, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, slightly further down the slope. And then our modern
guys are way down there in the valley someplace. The thing they did that’s probably impossible
to do now is they really said there is such a thing as the public interest. That’s what
a republic is, res publica, things of the public interest. The public is not the same
thing as the people. The public is the long term interest of the people which at any given
time most people don’t know. Your job, therefore, is to act in the long term interest of the
people and if they vote you out of office that’s okay.
>>Yeah.>>Adams doesn’t go to war, knows if he doesn’t
go to war with France he’s not going to be reelected, he says, great, I knew I did
the right thing.>>Yeah.
>>So that, and they embody a definition of the publica, res publica, that is difficult
to sustain in a democratic world and in a modern world with all the technology and all
the blogs, the things are coming. But no member of the Revolutionary generation would agree
to run for President of the United States in this political culture. It would be demeaning.
They wouldn’t do it.>>We have one
>>One more question and somewhat brief answers from both of you if possible.
>>[Laugh]>>I’m Austin [inaudible] and I go to George
Mason High School, Falls Church, and I was wondering if you thought that the appointment
of Thomas Jefferson to Washington’s cabinet was a good choice by him seeing as he was
of a different party and if you thought that affected the political parties that formed
afterwards.>>He wasn’t of a different political party
at the time that he was appointed. That is, there were no really functioning political
parties at the time and I think certainly bringing in people of, Virginians, very influential
state, bringing in people who were a little lukewarm about the Constitution. Jefferson
wrote a 20 page attack on the Constitution, wanted Virginia not to ratify it. I think
it’s typical of Washington’s effort to bring in all the voices and to listen to the
points of view of everyone.>>And it was, if you think about it, he’s
got a great eye for talent. Washington really picks, you know, like he picks Hamilton out
of the ranks and picks Nathaniel Greene who becomes a great general. And you’ve got
Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison’s in the unofficial cabinet and he’s the major liaison with
the House of Representatives, and not only that, when Washington arrives the House of
Representatives welcomes him to New York and to the government and Madison writes that
and the response is, Washington’s response, Madison writes that, too. Okay? He’s actually
answering himself.>
But you’ve got incredible, I would say, in the history of the Cabinet of the United
States there’s more brain power in the first Cabinet then there is in any other Cabinet
after that. So, but I’ve written a book on Jefferson and this, and he ends up being
traitorous. He ends up while Secretary of State hiring people, Scott Freneau, Philip
Freneau, to undermine the very presidency that he’s supposedly serving. Anybody that
would do that in a modern context would be, would not only be fired, but probably taken
to court and charged with treason.>>He would be a pariah, absolutely.
>>Yeah, so he is in this moment of his political life, his great biographer said, “I don’t
quite understand him in the 1790s.”>>[Laugh]
>>Joe, I’m going to interrupt you. I want you guys to join me in thanking Carol and
Joe for spending the morning with us and thank all of you for coming with us today.>>

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