Greatness of Founders: An Objective Examination, Part 1
Gordon S. Wood: The United States was founded on a set of beliefs and not, as were other nations, on a common ethnicity, language, or religion. … By the time Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day, July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years following the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, an aura of divinity had come to surround the founding generation. In an essay, written by John Back McMaster, 1896, entitled The Political Depravity of the Founding Fathers, he wrote: ...in all the frauds and tricks that go to make up the worst form of practical politics, the men who founded our State and national governments were always our equals, and often our masters. [p. 71] By the time the 1900s arrived, it became popular to write about the Founders in a derogatory manner; and while even today on the Internet, myths and legends formed that included misquotes. Some attacked their character, attacking traditional stories even about
George Washington. This came about when historians and writers began to believe that the socialism of Karl Marx had more value than that which the Founders had created and implemented. Yet any nation that assumed the ideology of Marx eventually ended up desolate and bankrupt. It is because Marx based his manifesto under the realm of a fantasy world of Utopia, where everyone was economically equal and happy in the community collectivism. Marx wrote his volumes during a time when aristocracy was running the show in Europe, and to a lesser degree even in the United States as those who ushered in the Industrial Age had become rich and powerful – financiers, tradesmen, and the new oil fields that sprouted in the United States and elsewhere to supply the machinery that produced progress. In 1913, Charles Beard wrote An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States and became influential in writing about the Founders. Despite exposing beyond the myths and legends that had come to be surrounded by the Founders, Beard respected the men who created the Constitution, a remarkable document, then and now. He wrote in 1912: Never in the history of assemblies has there been a convention of men richer in political experience and in practical knowledge, or endowed with a profounder insight into the springs of human action and the intimate essence of government. Recent historians who have set upon a crusade to denounce the Founders do not hold the same respect. As we moved into the 21st century, society has lost its appeal to what occurred in the founding of our nation and how/why they had come upon the ideas that fashioned the US Constitution and its amendments. Indeed, they were just men, having their personal faults, not saints; but they most definitely belong to the group of an age called Enlightenment. [Also: Age of Reason] Historians and political science “scholars” have come to the conclusion and are trying to convey that the revolutionaries that became the founders of the United States did not succeed because they … ...failed to free the slaves, failed to offer full political equality to women, ...failed to grant citizenship to Indians, and failed to create an economic world in which all could compete on equal terms. [Valley of Opportunity, Peter C. Mancall, Cornell University Press, 1991; p. 232] The Founders were learned men of classic history and politics, who had been personally involved with a Monarchy, the Parliament; and yet saw that pure democracy cannot withstand the mark of time just as was found that Socialism does not last economically as seen in the 20th century. George Washington George Washington is still the greatest president we ever had, but even he has been the target of character assassination. He was a hero even in his own lifetime and respected highly by his fellow Founders. Washington was aware of how his fame had been cultivated and that heroic persona was crucial to him, which he tried not to stain. Physically he stood out at 6 foot, three inches in height and heavily built. But he was a man of few words. Jefferson and Adams did not like the idea that he was not an intellectual; Adams judgment too often being harsh – but he was an outspoken and passionate man. Among the Founders, Adams was not that popular, say like Jefferson and Franklin. In education, he did not meet the qualifications of Jefferson or even Franklin, where the latter was self-educated. Washington was a successful planter businessman and his thoughts and passion was running his plantation-farm. This was true even when he became president. Mount Vernon was the heart of his passion. Washington's success that led him to become the first President of the United States was his military career; although nothing compared to great generals like Alexander, Caesar, Cromwell, or Napoleon. His greatness was held within his character, integrity and honesty was important to him – a man of virtue. It was cultivated as he was growing up, but he was also the youth of the age of Enlightenment; but not at the same level as Jefferson, Adams or Franklin. At the age of sixteen he had shown interest in etiquette, copying the English translation of a 1595 Jesuit etiquette book and later in life he wrote his own set of etiquette standards. He did not just espouse the list of etiquette, but live them, much to the amazement of his colleagues. Washington was a creature of fashion and was meticulous in his appearance. After the Revolutionary War, he worked on his penmanship, spelling, and grammar because he knew that would be essential in his new world beyond being a general. In regards to slavery, like too many Americans, especially Virginians, it was taken for granted as part of society. It was a custom that had survived for thousands of years, but when the American Revolution was over, the words of equality did not seem consistent with the world of society. People began to question the moral and civic aspect of slavery. It did not fit in the scheme of a constitutional republic and it actually took labor employment away from the general populace. It confounds some historians as to why the southerner who owned no slaves were so adamant when the southern states seceded from the Union of states that made the United States. Indeed, even those who wanted to see slavery end when the Constitution was ratified realized that the states whose economic backbone was agriculture, and whose wealth depended upon slavery. It can be compared to the cheap labor provided by Mexican nationals who were willing to work cheaply, by US standards, and yet did so to make their lives better from whence they came. That progressed into the problems today that has cultivated into a major problem not just in employment and culturally, but a threat to national security and sovereignty – a complex problem caused by politicians running the government without enforcing immigration laws set for a common-sense reason and seeing illegal immigrants as new voters. The richest colony was Virginia, which had the most slaves – so the economic benefit was a reality. The first anti-slavery group was formed in Philadelphia in 1775 and the leaders of the revolution began to question the hypocrisy of a republic having slaves; although when Rome was a “republic” it had slaves, a condition that was a matter of fact. George Washington was one of the Founders who questioned the continuance of slavery in the new republic. Washington was an agriculturalist, a planter and increased the productivity of Mount Vernon by purchasing more slaves. In 1774, he had over one hundred slaves on his plantation. He did not seem to have guilt in using human beings in bondage, although he was concerned with the health and welfare of his slaves, never known to be abusive or allow others to abuse them. When Washington became commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he was forced to change his views about blacks when he found some within the ranks of his army and began to advocate recruitment of free blacks. In 1778, Rhode Island raised an all-black regiment of soldiers and in 1779, Washington approved a plan to grant slaves their freedom in return for military service. The plan failed because southerners balked at the idea; however before the end of the war there were five thousand African-American soldiers in the ranks. When he returned to Mount Vernon, he had made up his mind to push to abolish slavery because it violated what the revolution represented. Yet, he was reluctant to state so publicly, but committed himself to be an example by no more purchases of slaves after 1786. He had hoped that in this way, slavery would be eliminated “by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees”. [Letter, George Washington to John Francis Mercer, September 9, 1786 from Washington Writings, p. 607] In the summer of 1799, he made a new will, composed secretly, he provided not only freedom, but ensured they would not be cast out without being able to support themselves. He also ensured that married families were not separated. His will, after his death, was printed into a pamphlet and circulated throughout the states. But the country, at least the southern states, was not ready for such a concept. Probably the most symbolic act of Washington or any American was after the peace treaty was signed between the British and the new United States, he surrendered his sword to Congress on December 23, 1783 and retired to Mount Vernon. He could have easily declared himself the leader of the United States if he were any other type of person. It was a unique historical experience and elevated the respect of many. Jefferson wrote in 1784 that … ...the moderation and virtue of a single character … probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish. Thanks to George Washington, one tyrant was not replaced by another. This was contradictory to King George's prediction of what Washington would do. When Washington was presented as a gift of appreciation of 150 shares of the canal project, he wrote to his friends in desperation as to what to do about it. It would be an embarrassment to the gift givers if he refused and an act of conflicting interest if he accepted, despite not holding public office. At the advice of Jefferson and others, he accepted it, but gave it to the foundation of a college that was named after him. Soon after the Philadelphia Convention took place in 1787, where Washington was immediately elected as president and his presence increased the prestige of the proposed Constitution. Once accepted, he became anxious to get it ratified. As Gordon S. Woods stated in What Made the Founders Different… Historians might not understand his behavior, but his contemporaries certainly did. They rarely doubted that Washington was trying to always to act in a disinterested way. His anxious queries about how would this or that look to the world, his hesitations about serving or not serving, his expressions of scruples and qualms – all were part of his strenuous effort to live up to the classical idea of a virtuous leader. He never accepted a salary as commander in chief of the Continental army, and although the Congress made him accept a salary as president, he wanted it understood that he had tried to refuse it. All of this was new to the former American colonists who had been governed by a monarchy. Washington himself had no former persons as a guide as to what to do or how to act upon issues, except the articles and amendments of the US Constitution. Yet, he also strengthened the revolutionary idea that self-government was feasible and strong enough to last. Many people expected and assumed that Washington would be president for life, a sort of elected monarch. People were not yet educated in the workings of republicanism so it was a new adventure into government. Still others were thinking that Washington would become an elected monarch, some even stating that it was good he had no heirs; thinking that even as an elected monarch the office would be passed on to the next generation. Of course, Washington was aware of charges and thoughts that he had monarchical ambitions; especially since he did not know exactly what role to play out as president. He certainly was aware that whatever he did would become tradition, despite articles of the Constitution concerning power and explicit workings of the office of the President of the United States. He constantly sought advice of the more educated men surrounding him, like Alexander Hamilton which he chose to be the first Secretary of the Treasury. There were also matters of protocol that required to be established, which once again Washington was aware that he was the model that others would follow. John Adams was his vice president and insisted that Washington should be showing the splendor of his office. The president required an entourage of chamberlains, aides-de-camp, and officiators of ceremonies to conduct the formal aspects of his office. Washington was not comfortable with ceremony, but he also saw what happens when an executive office gets too close to the people, as what happened in the Continental Congress. Out of his annual salary of $25,000, he spent nearly $2,000 for liquor and wine for entertaining feeling that it should not come from the treasury of the People. When he made public appearances, his coach was elaborately ornamented and drawn by four or six horses, attended with four servants and his family followed in other coaches. A British observer commented that he traveled in kingly style. [The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History, Leonard D. White, Macmillan, NY, 1948; p. 108] In matters of religion, Washington attended church services of several denominations, which included Roman Catholic, to display that the government did not mandate one particular religion. Washington was a religious man, who constantly prayed for his troops and the revolution, especially at Valley Forge; and it was he who voluntarily included the word “God” into the oath he swore in as the first President of the United States. He was also aware that the unified states must have strong cement, so he promoted roads, canals and the post office. He spent a great deal of deliberation in choosing appointments to offices of the executive branch in order to get the best qualified to perform the job. Washington backed up the dream of Pierre L'Enfant and his design of the federal city that would take his name, hoping for a great nation that would rival the old powerful states of Europe. Jefferson has wanted to keep the national capital to 1500 acres. Washington was also concerned about division between northern and southern states on the issue of slavery; and he commented to his Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph, that is the unified states dissolved and split, he would have to take the side of the North – against slavery. [From notes of a conversation with Edmund Randolph: Papers of Jefferson, 28:568] Federalists wanted the majesty and ceremony of monarchy to be established, making Washington's birthday as important as Independence Day. The Senate tried to have all American coins with the head of the president, as monarchs had done for centuries. This idea was abandoned, but eventually the silver quarter and the dollar bill would depict the head of Washington, our first president. They tried to provide a royal title, which Washington initially favored, like “His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties” - but was relieved when the House of Representatives, under the leadership of James Madison, simply provided the title of Mr. President. While the first political parties to be established in the 1790s were the Federalists and the Republicans, it bore no resemblance to the traditional two-party system we have today. Not many thought it was a good idea building a party system in the 1790s and leadership tried to prevent its formation. The Federalists were led by Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. The Republicans were led by Jefferson and Madison. Both parties thought it would be a temporary venture. Neither party accepted the legitimacy of the other and the bitter arguments between Hamilton and Jefferson became more than just personal. Washington knew he had to ensure that division did not occur, and most folks who are not aware of the details of this period of history do not realize that the Civil War that broke out in 1861 almost did so in the 1790s. Hamilton and Jefferson were both in the Cabinet; thus Washington was able to use his prestige (and good judgment) to restrain an out-of-control political blowout. George Washington is the only president that led an army while in office. It was over the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 concerning an uprising of Pennsylvania farmers. His presence prevented bloodshed despite leading an army out of the capital. An interesting and well known event involving the Senate, who ratified treaties, was in August of 1789 when Washington was seeking consent to a treaty with the Creek natives. Instead of the advice and consent he expected, the Senators began to debate each section of the treaty as the president sat silently glaring at them impatiently. When one of the senators moved that the treaty be submitted to a committee for study, Washington jumped to his feet and yelled: This defeats every purpose of my coming here. He calmed down before leaving the Senate, but was overheard saying he would: ...be damned if he ever went there again. Two days later he did return, but the attendance was mired by uneasiness between president and senate. In 1793, when Washington proclaimed his Proclamation of Neutrality, he did not bother to get consent from the Senate, thus establishing that the executive office require nearly sold authority when handling foreign affairs. Treaties today must be ratified by two-thirds vote from the Senate. Despite some minor setbacks, the executive office did well in setting precedence of how a president acts and his stature while in office. On the personal side, George and Martha acted as matchmakers bringing together couples from different parts of the United States; both having the age-old tradition of marriage as a bridge to alliances and consolidating aristocratic legacies. In 1796, Washington was determined to retire from public office and no one could change his mind, while several tried. Only Franklin D. Roosevelt would break the tradition of a two-term president; which culminated into the two-term limit of the 22nd Amendment ratified in 1951. In 1789, there was a fear that the French would try to overthrow the new Republic; so Washington was duped into being the commander-in-chief and when it was all over and their fears were did not become reality, Washington returned to Mount Vernon thoroughly disgusted with the life of politics. Washington's fear of the rising power of political parties became a reality by 1800 and political parties, not great men, soon became the focus of the public. As Gordon Woods wrote: He was an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule. There has been no president quite like him, as we can be sure that we shall not see his like again.
Part Two of this essay will examine Benjamin Franklin, another founder of remarkable abilities and wisdom.