I have been making some pretty good progress lately on my quest to read one book on each president. Currently on #22 and #24, Grover Cleveland.
Welcome to the fourth installation of my journey through the presidency via presidential biographies. Today, we discuss James Madison, the fourth president and more importantly the primary author of the Constitution. Madison was the first wartime president and was another president of the early period of the United States that could never, ever, ever be elected president in the 21st Century. (I think of the first four presidents, only Jefferson would likely be able to obtain the White House today.)
I am writing these essays primarily for myself to kind of solidify my thoughts about these men, the times in which they lived, and how they impacted the United States. The fact that I’m publishing them, though should indicate that I want to share my thoughts with you, too. Even if none of you read these articles I will write them. But, if you do read them, I’d appreciate a comment or a question as it does provide some additional incentive to keep going. 😊
James Madison was born on March 16, 1751 in Belle Grove, Virginia and he died on June 28, 1836 at his home Montpelier, in Virginia. He was president from March 4, 1809 to March 4, 1817, having won the 1808 and 1812 elections. Madison is best known as the primary author of the United States Constitution and Thomas Jefferson’s chief ally and, I would argue, the substantial intellectual force behind the republican movement. George Clinton, Jefferson’s second vice president remained in that role at the beginning of Madison’s presidency, but he died on April 20, 1812. The vice presidency remained vacant until the beginning of Madison’s second term (note that it wasn’t until the 25th Amendment – adopted in 1967 – that a vice president could be replaced by nomination of the president and confirmation by the both (!) houses of congress). Eldridge Gerry was the fifth vice president, serving from March 4, 1813 until he died on November 23, 1814. Both of Madison’s vice presidents died in office! Interesting aside: the practice of gerrymandering is named after our fifth vice president. Also, they had virtually no role in the Madison presidency and will not be mentioned by name again in this piece.
We had an exceptional run of presidents in terms of their experiences prior to being president. Those of us who are old enough to remember George H.W. Bush remember that his resume was a selling feature of his campaign. Likewise, Hillary Clinton touted her resume. Oh yeah? Did you folks write the Constitution of the United States? Were you a member of the First Congress of the United States? Did you hold the office of Secretary of State when the United States completed the Louisiana Purchase? No? Well, sit down then.
What I knew About Madison before Reading this Book
I knew that Madison was president during the War of 1812, that he was the primary author of the Constitution, that he was really short, and that his wife was highly regarded as a first lady who still hawks Zingers cakes to this day. As I have mentioned before, I visited both Mount Vernon and Monticello, but I did not visit Montpelier. I had only two days reserved for visiting presidential mansions. I did see signs advertising Montpelier, but we did not go. I now regret that.
The Experience of Reading James Madison: A Biography
The book that I selected to read about Madison was James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham, which was first published in 1971. The book is 671 very dense pages, exclusive of the end notes and is fairly small print and it may be longer than the 818 page Chernow book on Washington. I finished the book on February 28, 2021. This book is not at all like the first three books that I read. I think that part of this is because Chernow, McCullough, and Meacham wrote books that are intended to be read by a wide audience. Ketcham, a professor, probably wanted to have his book read by a wide audience, too, but I think he was more focused on a more scholarly account of Madison (although it is only 671 pages, so…). Make no mistake, though, Madison, unlike the first three characters of this book, was not a larger than life figure. He was studious, reserved, not as… interesting. While this book is not as accessible, it is still a very well written book. Madison, as Jefferson’s right hand man, comes off as underhanded in the Chernow book especially. This book, written 40 years before Chernow’s provides what I think is a pretty fair assessment of the fourth president. I should note that this is the last book that I read where I didn’t take any notes, and honestly, I’ve forgotten a lot of the details of the book now. I simply don’t have enough time to go back and do research or re-read the book. In the interest of keeping this series going, I will simply acknowledge that and move on.
Madison’s Life Before Presidency
Madison was born into a wealthy family in Virginia and he was a distant relative of the twelfth president of the United States, Zachary Taylor. Madison attended what is now Princeton University and was an excellent student. He was a member of the House of delegates and of the Continental Congress during the war. Madison was seen as frail and of poor health (he lived to be 85 in early America!) and he never served in the war.
Madison was a member of the first House of Representatives of the United States, and he won his seat in Congress by beating some dude named James Monroe (yes, that James Monroe). Monroe is seen generally as an ally of Jefferson and Madison and, as the fifth president of the United States, he generally carried on the Jeffersonian tradition. But, in 1788, he was an opponent of Madison’s (and a favorite of some sectors in Virginia politicians including Patrick Henry who were anti-federalists, that is, opposed to the new Constitution – that seat was gerrymandered to help Monroe), but not a successful one. Some people in the Democratic-Republican party wanted Monroe to challenge Madison for the presidency. That did not happen, of course. Madison teamed with Jefferson to challenge the Washington administration’s policies and Madison shamefully wrote the so-called Virginia Resolutions, a companion to Jefferson’s Kentucky resolutions, advocating for the poisonous idea of nullification of federal laws by the individual states, a virus that remains in circulation until this very day.
Madison was also Jefferson’s Secretary of State and he, along with Jefferson, disapproved of Monroe’s negotiations with the British in a treaty that Monroe signed but was never presented by the Jefferson administration for ratification by Congress. The Jefferson administration felt that the treaty was a failure because it did not end the British practice of impressment. The British would board US ships and try to recapture British sailors that had abandoned the British navy to join US merchant ships. In the process, the British would nab Americans and force them into the British navy. Eventually, as president, Madison would initiate a war over this issue, the War of 1812. Madison, in his capacity as Secretary of State was a party in the most consequential Supreme Court decision of all time. There was one other thing: he was Secretary of State when the US purchased Louisiana from France, although Madison didn’t really have much to do with that. He sent Monroe to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and he went off and bought the whole damned thing. It’s kind of like going to Target for paper towels and coming home with a car full of stuff.
Of course, Madison’s key contribution to the United States before he became president was his role in authoring the United States Constitution. Madison understood that the early American government was weak and ineffectual and recognized the need for a strong federal government, or at least a stronger one than existed. Madison was a primary author of a so-called Virginia Plan, which was the framework upon which the United States Constitution was drafted. Alexander Hamilton convinced Madison to help author the Federalist Papers after Madison had urged members of Congress (he was one) to remain neutral in the ratification process. There was a surprising amount of resistance to the new Constitution (you may remember that Washington was president for over a year before all of the states ratified it). The whole Constitutional debate is very interesting … some were opposed to the new Constitution because the Constitution as originally ratified was focused on the powers of the Government and not the liberties of the people (i.e., there was no Bill of Rights). Others felt that a strong central government would not be good for the individual states. Madison himself wrote the Bill of Rights, which further cements his legacy as one of the most important founding father.
Madison ended up being an effective advocate for the ratification in his home state of Virginia, where significant resistance existed. I am not going to write about the Constitutional debate in detail here, because I would have to go back to the book and reread it a fair amount. But, one of the key touchstones of the original Constitutions was the 3/5ths Compromise. In the 21st Century, this concept has become shorthand for how black people were considered less than fully human. And indeed, it looks pretty awful 200 years after the fact. But I would submit that this is much less odious than, you know, allowing slavery in the first place. Northern states did not want enslaved people counted at all for the purposes of taxation and, more importantly, representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. The southern states, of course, wanted their slaves to be counted for representation purposes. The 3/5ths Compromise, first proposed by Madison, to count 60% of the slave population for taxation and representation purposes. It sounds very bad. In practice, it was very bad in those days, because it granted more power to the slave states to perpetuate policy to maintaining slavery, both in the House of Representatives and, of course, in the White House because of the electoral college. Bad as a symbol and bad as policy. Some historians have said that if slaves had not counted at all in the matters of taxation and representation, Adams would have won the 1800 presidential election, there would have been no slavery in Missouri, Jackson’s Indian removal policy would have failed and various other pro-slavery acts would have failed. In other words, counting slaves as 3/5ths of a person – instead of not at all – actually perpetuated slavery in the United States. I realize that this is a complex issue and slavers were not going down without a fight. But, man.
I’ve heard the notion in some quarters that the Constitution was divinely inspired. Not seeing that.
Key Challenges/Features of Madison’s Presidency
Madison started with an ineffective cabinet, especially in the Secretary of State role and Madison basically distrusted his cabinet. He made a key move early on, though, and installed his frenemy, James Monroe as his 2nd Secretary of State. I’ve come away from this period believing that Monroe was vastly underrated relative to Jefferson and Madison – he may not have had the same intellectual prowess as these guys, but he was a doer and he saved Madison’s hide. Monroe was not shorted in the old ambition department, but we will get to that next time.
The key challenge of the Madison presidency was handling the ongoing conflict with England. As Jefferson’s right hand man, he had supported Jefferson’s disastrous embargo law, which forbid any foreign trade and the subsequent policy of only forbidding trade with France and England. The United States’ position in the ongoing warring between France and England was to be neutral. Madison then attempted to pit England and France against each other by trying to establish trade with one party or the other if they agreed to stop attacking American ships. Napoleon agreed to a contingent deal with the US and Madison thought that the British would follow along, but they didn’t and Napoleon reneged (huh). As an aside, the British navy was the undisputed power in the Atlantic. Napoleon had ground force superiority, but the idea that they were somehow equals in the water was absurd.
With conditions not improving, Madison decided that war was the answer. He figured (heh) that with England off fighting Napoleon, the US could just march in and take Canada as a bargaining chip (or as just an expansion of the United States). Congress was behind Madison, so they started a military buildup and eventually, at Madison’s request, declared war on the most powerful country on earth.
I want to stop right here and editorialize. Madison was a pretty smart guy – I think he was the intellectual equal of any president of the first five presidents – but he was completely deluded. The United States did not have a standing army. The United States did not have military leadership capable of matching up with the British. Hell, they could barely handle small Indian tribes. And James Madison thought that they could just kick England’s ass. Unbelievable. Washington probably started spinning in his grave.
Madison’s idea was that the US would attack the British at Detroit, knock them out there and that the northern states’ militias would just push into Canada. He apparently forgot to check in with the northern states who, under the 2nd Amendment, had guns for their well(?)-regulated militias. Turns out that the northern states didn’t want to participate in this war. Detroit fell to the British without a shot fired. No invasion of Canada happened. Madison’s Canada campaign was a complete failure. In addition, Madison didn’t have any funds to mount a fight. So, again, he declared war without an Army, any sort of real plan and no money to pay for it. I mentioned above that his cabinet was ineffective and that was especially true of his War Department. Madison replaced his War Secretary with another incompetent (a fellow named John Armstrong) and eventually turned to Monroe to run both State and War and Monroe proved to be his most effective War Secretary. Armstrong failed to defend Washington, D.C., despite the presence of the British fleet in Chesapeake Bay, thinking that they would head to Baltimore instead of, you know, the nation’s capital. Washington was sacked, the White House and the Capitol were burned and Dolley Madison saved Washington’s portrait. Madison himself had to escape capture on horseback.
Shortly after the war started, Russia offered to broker an agreement with England and Madison sent John Quincy Adams to negotiate. Turns out, though, that the British weren’t so eager to meet. As the war went on, the US did win some battles, and a young general named William Henry Harrison scored victories in what was then the Northwest and Andrew Jackson was victorious in the West. But the British were still pounding the US pretty effectively (see the paragraph immediately preceding this one, where I discuss the sacking of Washington). However, the British were held off at Baltimore (hey, maybe the strategy worked!) and turns out that the British public was not in favor of blowing cash and their young men in foreign misadventures. Eventually, a peace deal was hammered out in Europe the terms of which were similar to those in the treaty that Monroe had negotiated in 1806.
After that treaty was signed, but before anyone knew that in the US, Andrew Jackson scored his huge victory in New Orleans, and the public eventually believed that the British were forced to negotiate because of the glorious victory in New Orleans. Not true, but Madison’s popularity improved post war. So, was the war worth it? On the one hand, the US entered a war with grand designs, no real war plan, and without any sort of army that could actually fight directly even against a British army that was distracted by the French in Europe. The terms of the treaty could have been achieved a decade earlier, had Madison and Jefferson backed the treaty that Monroe negotiated. On the other hand, I think the British realized that they didn’t want to be fighting wars in the US every 25 years. War is expensive and the British realized that they couldn’t actually control the American continent anymore (I think this point is made in the book I read on Monroe, actually). So that was a benefit. Add in a misunderstanding of the real import of the Battle of New Orleans, and you had an American people who believe the war was a great success.
But ultimately, the threat on the seas ended when Napoleon met his Waterloo. France was defeated and the primary threat to England – France – was removed. That would have happened without the War of 1812. In retrospect, this looks like a war that could have been easily avoided. Would the British eventually mounted another campaign in the US? Hard to say. But, 200 years after the fact, it’s hard to say that Madison did a good job conducting this war or preparing for it. Nevertheless, he reaped benefit for it.
Madison weathered the war amazingly well, he would not have done so in more modern times, I would think (then again, the US military of the 21st century is a little more organized than what Madison had in 1812). Madison, unlike Jefferson, was much more of an adherent of limited government principles. Reading about Jefferson 200+ years after his presidency, I could both point to his willingness to set aside his principles for the sake of expediency and applaud him for recognizing that the definition of the federal governmental power was going to need revisiting as the country grew. It is also true that relying on Constitutional Amendments was not going to be an effective way to grow the federal government as it needed (I think) to grow. Damn it, the Louisiana Purchase was a good idea and waiting around for Constitutional Amendment might have prevented it from happening.
Madison was not so pragmatic. He was in favor of spend federal government money on so-called internal improvements (infrastructure!). At the end of his presidency, the Congress had an Infrastructure Week and passed a bill for internal improvements, including projects that Madison favored. With four days left in his presidency, Madison vetoed it. He felt that the bill was unconstitutional – he thought that the Congress needed an Amendment to the Constitution before it could make such improvements. Note that this was post Marbury v. Madison when the Courts had asserted their power to make such determinations. No president after say, 1829, would ever veto a bill on such grounds. One wonders, then, if Madison’s objection to the Alien and Sedition Acts were because of the policy or the Constitutionality? No president would veto a bill because they simply didn’t like the law until Andrew Jackson. Would Madison have objected to an Adams veto here if he felt the Acts were Constitutional? I think he may have.
This kind of thinking, while perhaps noble I suppose, did the US no favors. I would argue that having the federal government finance the building of roads and bridges to make travel a little less formidable might have impacted Commerce between the States. Having the author of the Constitution weigh in on the side of such laws being consistent with the powers of the federal government might have pushed the United States into a different direction. I haven’t read about presidents beyond 1841, so I don’t know if such ideas have come up after that. 😉 But, supposing they did, I would imagine that they would have been contentious – just how far could Congress go in regulating Commerce between the several States? Stay tuned, we will find out if that ever happened!
After he retired, Madison moved back to Montpelier and lived out his life (he would live 19 more years). He largely stayed out of presidential politics, including the contentious election of 1824, but he was available for advice to presidents. The Ketcham book discusses some about Madison’s effort to burnish his legacy by altering some of his earlier papers. Other sources suggest that his “efforts” here were somewhat of an obsession. It is… unfortunate that he would do such a thing. Madison was also a part of the rewriting of the Virginia constitution in the late 1820s.
Like Washington and Jefferson before him (and Monroe after him), he left the presidency a much poorer man than when he entered it. On the one hand, I see this as a shame. I’m not in favor of making presidents fabulously wealthy on the taxpayer’s dime, but I do think a reasonable pension is good policy. Madison was not a spendthrift like Jefferson, he suffered a lot because of his step-son’s financial irresponsibility. On the other hand, Madison was wealthy in the first place because of his inheritance of a slave plantation (so hard to feel sorry because of the ownership of humans) and the decline of Virginia plantations due to the impact that tobacco had on their farmland and falling tobacco prices affected that entire region, not just the former presidents.
Madison’s Family Life
Like Washington, Madison married a young widow and did not have children of his own. Unlike Martha Washington, though, she did not bring Madison wealth and indeed, her son was a tremendous financial strain on Madison.
Madison was not, unlike any of his predecessors, much of a ladies’ man and he did not marry until he was 43 years old. Ketcham writes about a romance that Madison had with a young woman when he was in his mid 30s with a 15 year old girl. Madison was apparently an awkward suitor and unable to convince this child to marry him. The idea that a 35 year old man would be courting a pubescent girl is pretty gross to contemplate in modern times. However, I’m not sure it was all that unheard of back then, and it further highlights the ways in which our society has evolved. I’m not saying that Madison was some sort of Matt Gaetz, but what I am saying is that Gaetz would have significantly fewer problems had he lived 200 years ago.
The story is that Aaron Burr was the person who introduced Dolley Madison (and there is some confusion as to the spelling of her first name, but Dolley is what Ketcham uses) to Madison and the general feeling is that Madison was quite happy with his mate. Dolley was a very popular first lady and a great asset to the president. While Madison was seen as somewhat of a dour figure, his wife was a great entertainer. There were some rumors of Dolley being unfaithful, but those rumors were mainly forwarded by Madison’s political opponent.
Madison cared for her son even when he was an adult and a financial burden. It is interesting that Washington, Adams, and Madison all had children or step-children that were huge financial burdens. These guys were probably not great fathers – they put their careers ahead of their families. The picture painted of Madison the retiree was more flattering in that regard. Once retired, family becomes more important, I guess.
An interesting side note not covered in the book: in his will, Madison left a fair amount of money to various causes, leaving only $30,000 for his wife (I think he thought he had more than that left). She lived another 13 years after he did and would up pretty much destitute. Daniel Webster, in an effort to help the former first lady, bought her personal slave and freed him. There she was, basically destitute, but she still owned another human being. Truth be told, after a lifetime of involuntary servitude, her slave likely had nowhere else to go.
James Madison: The Man
Madison appears to have been the classic high minded intellectual: aloof, awkward around members of the opposite sex, and wrestling with complex ideas without an instinct towards pragmatism. And yet, he was enormously influential in early America. He provided a framework for the Constitution that, despite its limitations, was a profound improvement over the government that preceded it. He was like a one-man think tank for Thomas Jefferson and his ideas impacted how America operated for a very long time. As president, he struggled in his role as commander-in-chief, the exact type of role that an intellectual is going to struggle in. Given the lack of a real military leadership, more responsibility fell on him than might otherwise and I think he was not particularly good at it.
As I mentioned above with regard to his Infrastructure Week moment, I think Madison could have benefitted the country with a little of Jefferson’s pragmatism. I don’t want to dismiss Madison’s (I think, incorrect) decision to veto that bill out of hand. Madison was wrestling with a profound concept: just how powerful should the federal government be? He certainly, as an architect of the Constitution, was a proponent of a stronger federal government than we had, but he also recognized that the power of the federal government could grow to far. He wrestled with that in real time, without the benefit of 200 years of hindsight, and he wrestled with it in a principled, good faith way. I do not have the impression that he was deceptive or underhanded in the way that Jefferson was. Madison was at one time contemplating the clergy as a vocation and I think he was earnest in his convictions. Today, Madison would probably not have a role in today’s political environment. He would be an intellectual pillar for some political movement (although, I’m not really sure which one).
We cannot discuss these people without mentioning that they owned other human beings. Madison was in favor of ending slave trade at the time of the Constitution, but of course, there was a twenty year moratorium for limiting slave trade in the Constitution (not sure how Jesus came down on that one). He was, in later life, against the restriction of additional slave states and his 3/5ths Compromise extended power to the slave states. Further, while he wasn’t as hawkish on Indian removal as Andrew Jackson, he did believe that Native Americans were savages who couldn’t assimilate into the American agrarian culture.
The United States of 1809-17 was both on an expansionist course to dominate the continent and a poorly run collection of small states that were often in active competition with each other. On the one hand, the United States (kind of) extended past the Mississippi River (it was going be Monroe – there’s that guy again – that got a more definitive answer as to what, exactly, the Louisiana Purchase included). William Henry Harrison was pushing the natives out of the old Northwest (Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana). Meanwhile, the New England states were off on their own agenda, trying to perhaps reconnect with England and certainly not interested in participating in a national effort to win a war on American soil against the British. This action in New England was more of a death rattle of the old Federalist party than anything, though. By the end of Madison’s presidency, there was the forming of a national consensus on a lot of issues (not slavery). Madison supported the establishment of a Second National Bank (a Federalist concept that Hamilton at one time opposed) and financing of the Cumberland Road. In other words, Madison helped to kill the Federalist Party by supporting its most popular ideas and opposing the whole let’s get back in bed with England part. He could have gone the final mile in signing the internal improvements bill at the end of his term, but he didn’t. (Monroe was much more supportive of internal improvements.)
What Really Surprised Me
It was very surprising to me that northern states were not supportive of the War of 1812 and they would not provide military support to that effort. It is also really surprising that this support was not ensured before declaring war. It really reinforces to me that even almost 40 years after the founding of the Country, America was still a backwater country with a weak federal government.
What one person (not a president) would I want to read about from Madison's era as President?
I’m not sure I know who this would be, as Madison’s life was dominated by his interactions with Jefferson and the sometimes partnership with Monroe. The Madison cabinet, other than Monroe was full of incompetents. He did not appoint a landmark chief justice. Jackson and Harrison were his most effective generals in the war. His vice presidents are almost not a part of the story. Perhaps Dolley Madison herself would be the most interesting character in the Madison story that didn’t also reach the presidency.
The latest Sienna poll rates James Madison as the 7th best president overall. He is most highly rated for his intelligence (3rd), his background (4th), his imagination (6th) and ability to compromise (6th), and his court appointments (6th). His biggest weaknesses were identified to be his foreign policy accomplishments (19th), leadership ability (17th), his luck (16th), and his willingness to take risks (15th). Executive ability was ranked 13th.
I would agree that these first two attributes are descriptive of Madison. Insofar as his intelligence ranking is concerned, I think the only debate is whether he was the most intelligent man to hold the White House. I cannot but believe that as a political philosopher, he was every bit Jefferson’s equal and probably then some. Jefferson may have Madison overall in Jefferson’s broad range of intellectual interests and pursuits, but as a political thinker, Madison may have been unparalleled. He is highly rated in his background, with designing the US Constitution, being a congressman, and eight years as Secretary of State filling out a pretty impressive resume.
I’m not so sure about his imagination or ability to compromise, though. He was certainly bound in this thinking to his conception of what the federal government’s power was, as I’ve discussed above. Perhaps he gets points for imagining he could win a war with no practical plan? He did appoint Joseph Story to the court, but his other court appointments were few in number and unremarkable, so I’m not seeing that as a strength, either. I mean, he didn’t appoint Roger Taney, so there’s that.
As for his weaknesses, yeah, initiating the War of 1812, not a great accomplishment. Appointing a completely incompetent cabinet (except for Monroe!) and then not even listening to the cabinet, not great. It seems to me that he was pretty much a disaster from an administrative standpoint and so I would mark him even lower in his leadership ability and executive ability. I think he was extremely lucky that he didn’t have the whole war blow up in his face, actually.
I kind of reject the idea that he was a top 10 president. I think his real accomplishments came outside of his presidency and I would point there first. Without going into the dreadful presidencies that start in about 1841, I’m going to say that Madison wasn’t a tremendous president.
What I Was Looking Forward to after Reading this Book
This is pretty easy. I was becoming more and more impressed with James Monroe (can you tell?) and I really wanted to read about the fifth president of the United States.
How My Understanding Lines Up (or doesn’t) with the Presidential Podcast
I am referring of course to the Washington Post’s Presidential podcast. If you are interested in these posts, but aren’t listening to that podcast, let me suggest that you should. You can find it where you get your podcasts. A youtube link to the Madison episode is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6zud62MXng. I like to listen to podcasts at a faster pace and at 1.5 times speed is easy to hear and understand.
Interestingly, the James Madison scholar that is interviewed in this episode points to the difficulties in today’s political climate and asserts that it is the Constitution, with all of its checks and balances that Madison put in that has led us to the point where we are today: a political system where it is very difficult to get things done. He makes the point that the Constitution was written to make a more effective government, not as some libertarian document. The founding fathers wanted a government that actually worked, even as they feared too much federal power. He also makes the point that Madison, unlike Hamilton, didn’t really understand the nature of executive power.
The podcast kind of concedes that his presidency was kind of a bust and that he was a lousy wartime president. The scholar makes the argument, though, that a president need not trample on personal liberties during wartime. Even then, though, there was little support for Madison being a great president and the podcast aligns with my thinking that he wasn’t a very good president.
Another interesting tidbit in the podcast directly contradicts a story in the book that I have related above. In the podcast, the slave who was purportedly purchased by Daniel Webster wrote a memoir and he asserts in that book that he had bought his freedom from Dolley himself and late in her life he gave her funds when she was destitute. Which is correct? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
What We Can Learn from Madison’s Presidency
Madison possessed certain characteristics that don’t really play well in the modern presidency. He was an intellectual, he saw issues as complex and he wasn’t a real decisive president. The podcast makes a lot of comparisons between Madison and Obama. As someone who is generally supportive of the Obama presidency, I was frustrated with his sometimes less than certainty that Obama would have in public. I get that he was considering complex issues, I just wished that he would contain those contemplations outside of his public pronouncements. I’m not saying that discussing complex issues in public is, in a vacuum, a bad thing to do. I’m saying that Americans don’t have the appetite for it. Put it in your memoirs.
Welcome to the third installation of my journey through the presidency via presidential biographies. Today, we discuss Thomas Jefferson, historically one of the most highly regarded presidents in U.S. History and the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s presidency has come under scrutiny in the 21st Century and at various times throughout the nation's history. In some quarters, he is held up as a bastion of freedom, whereas in other quarters, he’s seen much less positively, as a slaver who was an underhanded dealer in the political arena. As far as I’m concerned, it is hard to doubt that Jefferson was highly influential in his time and for maybe 50 years beyond, but I'm not so sure that his influence extends into the present day. To state it bluntly: Jefferson was an 18th Century man and 18th Century thinking doesn’t really hold up in modern day America. More specifically, if his idea of what the federal government should be prevailed to this day, the United States would be a collection of weak individual states, unable to capitalize on its vast collective potential. As president, though, Jefferson acted with a philosophy more in line with Federalist conceptions of what the president should be. To the extent, then that his influence does hold up, it is more in what he did, rather than what he said.
Before I go on, I am coming to the realization that reading one book on each president is, as a project, an interesting way to dip one’s toe into U.S. History. However, I’m finding that it causes me to ask more questions than it answers. In addition, I believe that I have erred by not writing down all of my thoughts before I plowed through eight books. I was reading that fast to accomplish the goal in one year. That’s like taking a road trip through every one of the 48 states in 100 hours. Sure, it can be done, but at the end, what have you accomplished? You’ve sat in a car for 100 hours. For me to expend all this effort and not document my thoughts seems like a waste. What I need to do is to get three or four of these writeups in the can and then plow forward. But here I am on Sunday morning (as I write this), not having done that. Ugh. This next couple of weeks I’m going to try and get all the rest of my completed books written up and then continue the project. I may not get done in one year, but so be it.
Of the eight presidents that I have read about to date, Jefferson is the one that I have revised my opinion downward the most. There are good things about Jefferson, but his actions during the Washington and Adams presidencies were unbelievable in modern light. I think he had middling success as president and his largest accomplishment (admittedly a huge accomplishment) was basically a gift handed to him on a silver platter.
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 and he died on July 4, 1826, the same day as John Adams. He served as the third president of the United States from March 4, 1801 to March 4, 1809, having won the 1800 and 1804 presidential elections. Jefferson, along with James Madison, were instrumental in founding the Democratic-Republican party and the D-R’s controlled the White House from 1801 though 1829, an astounding run of seven terms (although John Quincy Adams was not too much of a partisan and he was basically a man of No Party). Jefferson’s Vice President during his first term was the infamous Aaron Burr. Burr was replaced in the 1804 election by George Clinton, who served as the fourth Vice President.
Like Adams and Washington before him, Jefferson had an unbelievable career outside of his presidency. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress and was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. He served as a diplomat in France, replacing Benjamin Franklin as the Minister to France. He was the first Secretary of State and second Vice President. He is also credited with founding the University of Virginia. Unlike his immediate predecessor Adams, Jefferson’s presidency is considered to be a successful one and he launched a political movement that held power for almost three decades. Part of why Jefferson was successful, in my view, was that he was incredibly lucky to have had the Louisiana Purchase essentially fall into his lap and because as president, he was much more practical (i.e., he abandoned his high falutin’ principles once he held the office) than he was prior to his presidency. To put a finer point on it, Jefferson and his two successors consolidated power by implementing some of their political opponent’s policies and philosophies.
What I knew About Jefferson before Reading this Book
I went to grade school, so I knew that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and that he was president when the Louisiana Purchase was consummated. I have been to Monticello and learned facts about Jefferson while at the site, including that he sold his books to the Library of Congress. I was aware of the Sally Hemmings situation, his time in France, and a variety of other facts about him. Before I started this project, I would say that that I knew as much about Jefferson as any president who served before my lifetime, save Washington.
I toured Monticello on the day after I toured Mount Vernon. I would have stayed there for hours longer than I did, but it was kind of rainy that day and my wife and then much younger daughter were not so keen to wander around in the rain. What jumps out when you are there is how much different it is from Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon was of a much larger scale, but the house, while much bigger than Monticello evokes a lifestyle that is much simpler and an owner that is much less sophisticated than Jefferson. The Washington kitchen was simple, food was cooked over an open hearth. Jefferson, by contrast, had a kitchen that was much more sophisticated. He (or rather, his slaves) used charcoal in his kitchen with individual masonry stoves (seen on the left) and a beautiful space.
He had a wine cellar directly below his dining room. This youtube video shows a little bit about that.
Like Mount Vernon, the kitchen was not part of the main house, but Jefferson had tucked it into the side of the hill and beneath the house, with a dumb waiter that would food to be lifted into the dining room. The entire house is one of sophistication. The grounds were magnificent and I would have loved to seen more of it. You can take a virtual tour of Monticello here.
This youtube video shows what a tour is like. It’s not the greatest video ever, but it does show how beautiful the house is. At about 4:10, you can see how he had outbuildings built into the hill. At about 6:30, you can see the wine cellar and the delivery mechanism to deliver wine up to the dining room. The kitchen is at 10:20 (briefly). The gravesite is at 11:45.
If you are interested, there is a long video here about the kitchen that was built in 1809.
The tour is well worth it if you are in the area. You can get an appreciation for how interesting Jefferson was and also, how much work his slaves did for him. I also include this information because I want it to be clear that even though, like Washington, he exploited slaves to achieve his ends, his vision about what his plantation should look like and function was pretty remarkable compared to Washington. The man was brilliant, he had great ideas and if you set aside (which you can't) the idea that he was exploiting human beings to achieve these ends, you can marvel at his thinking.
The Experience of Reading Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
For my book on Jefferson, I selected Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham. I’ve mentioned at the site that this book, which is highly regarded (and I will say that the author is generally aligned with my political point of view), is really dissonant having read Chernow and McCullough and their perspectives on Jefferson. And, indeed, I have come to realize that Meacham himself admits that he had their books in mind when he wrote his. Here’s Meacham, discussing his book with Hugh Hewitt:
You know, Jefferson’s had a rough about 50 years, 40 years, as Hamiltonianism sort of became more respectable after Eisenhower ratified the New Deal in many ways. You know, we have arguments about big government and small government, but it’s really a matter of degree not of kind, as you know. And so Jefferson has had a rough time. Part of it, also, is that there have been so many wonderful books where Jefferson comes off badly. So whether it’s David McCullough or Ron Chernow, and I just thought that someone needs to step in and make at least a modest brief for the old boy.
I find this to be an amazing admission. Basically, he’s saying that as the New Deal gained broad acceptance in the United States, thereby discrediting Jefferson’s archaic views, it was necessary for him to rehabilitate Jefferson. Oh boy. I also find it very interesting that FDR himself claimed Jefferson as an ideological forefather of the New Deal. Really? Jefferson would have supported a payroll tax to fund a pension fund for the general population? I find that... hard to believe. In addition, I've read enough to know that save for JQA, the presidents of the Jefferson era were adamantly opposed to the federal government spending on "internal improvements" such as roads. I am perplexed by the whole connection of Jefferson to the New Deal.
Indeed, we see Meacham paint Jefferson as some sort of defender of republicanism against the tyrannical George Washington(?). As Secretary of State, he urged the tired Washington to run for a second term even as he was secretly undermining Washington by supplying stories to the press and employing, as a translator in the State Department, the publisher of one of the anti-Washington publications, an act that would have Jefferson run out of the cabinet, had it occurred in pre-Trumpian modern times. He and his boy Madison howled at Washington for the decisions that he made as the very first president of a country living under the threat of its former colonizer, the most powerful country in the world. Meanwhile, Jefferson was an uncritical supporter of the eventually failed French Revolution, not at all worried about the Reign of Terror. Meacham makes Jefferson out to be a hero – it seems to me that Jefferson’s performance as Secretary of State was pretty scandalous.
If I had not read two fantastic books about Washington and Adams before I read this book and an encyclopedic book about Madison and a perfectly good book about Monroe after, I might have been a lot more satisfied with this book. But I did read those two books and Meacham’s book seems like exactly what it was: an argument to these books. In the old marketplace of ideas, I suppose that’s great. But, I’m buying what Chernow and McCullough have to say.
Meacham also misses opportunities to humanize Jefferson that other authors have taken. McCullough (who started writing a book about both Adams and Jefferson, but settled on a book about Adams when he realized what an interesting story he had to tell) spends a good deal of time talking about the relationship between Adams and Jefferson, especially in their post presidential life. Meacham largely ignores this. In McCullough’s book you can see old Adams reinvigorated by this communication (over 150 letters exchanged) and I smiled when he mentions Adams trying to argue his case with Jefferson. Meacham gives little mention of this. I wanted to get a perspective on what Jefferson wrote. I’ll have to look elsewhere (and incidentally, you can find a complete copy of these letters collected into a book at Amazon).
As another example, there was an incident where students at the newly founded University of Virginia rioted as a protest against European instructors (which Jefferson and Madison had selected). Meacham gives us about one sentence on Jefferson’s reaction, basically, that he was disappointed. In the book I read on Madison, Ralph Ketcham (and damn, this an exhaustive book) gives us ten pages. Included in that story is a meeting where three former presidents go to Charlottesville to meet with the students (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe). Ketcham writes that Jefferson was so distraught about the situation that he was in tears. In fact, Ketcham clearly outpaces Meacham in his discussion of the founding, including how the site of the university was chosen, the curriculum, etc. Part of that was in service to Madison’s contribution, but he clearly indicates that Jefferson’s contribution was far greater (even though Madison, who was younger than Jefferson and lived for ten years after Jefferson died and was involved with the university for a longer period of time).
I get it, the man lived 83 years and did a ton. There’s only so much you can stick in one book. But, Meacham, I feel, is writing pop culture history with an agenda of responding to what he perceives as an attack on the president. It’s not like this book was loooong. It certainly could have been another 100-200 pages and would have been completely readable. You want to exclude details about the University of Virginia? Fine. It wasn’t like that was important to Jefferson. It only made it onto his tombstone, whereas the fact that he was president of the United States did not.
One thing that Meacham did do, though, was accept as fact that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings and fathered her children. I found that interesting and, of course, this is an enormous black mark on Jefferson. Hemmings was likely his dead wife’s half sister because her father likely raped Sally’s mother. By extension, then, Jefferson was raping his wife’s sister, who was his slave, and he was enslaving his own children. Oof.
Jill Abramson writing in a book review in The New York Times states that Meacham's books are "well researched, drawing on new anecdotal material and up-to-date historiographical interpretations" and presents his "subjects as figures of heroic grandeur despite all-too-human shortcomings". I’m not too sure about the first part, but I’m definitely sure about that last part and I don’t think it’s a compliment. Of the books that I read about the first six presidents, I enjoyed this one the least.
Jefferson’s Life Before Presidency
Jefferson attended William and Mary college and then studied for the law and became a lawyer. He was a member of the House of Burgesses, the colonial legislature of Virginia from 1769-75. He was a member of the Continental Congress and, at John Adams’ urging, authored the Declaration. Jefferson was the governor of Virginia form 1779-80. When Benedict Arnold invaded Virginia, he fled the capital and was pursued unsuccessfully by Cornwallis’s men. There was some controversy about his actions in fleeing, but he was exonerated in a subsequent investigation.
After the war, Jefferson was named minister to France, where he joined Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, who were already there. John Quincy Adams was a frequent guest of Jefferson while he was in Paris and Jefferson was somewhat of a mentor for JQ. JQ would subsequently become a backer of Jefferson and one of President Jefferson’s diplomats. It was in France when Jefferson, then in his mid-30s, apparently began his sexual relationship with the 16 year old Hemmings.
Returning from France, he was confirmed as the first Secretary of State under Washington. It was in this role that Jefferson began to make his mark on the United States and the political scene. The president’s cabinet in those days was small – there were only Treasury, State, War, and Attorney General positions. Washington had Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson in his cabinet, and they laid out competing philosophies as to how the United Stats should operate. Hamilton was the proponent of a strong federal government that held debt and had significant power. Jefferson was a states’ rights guy and he felt that the states should handle their own debt. If you are struggling to manage your debts, take the help of reliable lawyers like the New Bern bankruptcy lawyers who can help you file bankruptcy and protect your assets. First of all, I think Hamilton was right when it came to monetary policy generally. Second, Washington agreed with Hamilton. Jefferson, though, was opposed and worked to sway public opinion through the press by, as mentioned above and in the Adams book, employing an employee in the State department in a bogus job as an incentive to draw him to Philadelphia and publish a newspaper critical of the administration for which Jefferson worked.
Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State in late 1793 and returned home. He opposed the Jay Treaty, which Washington signed, feeling that the treaty undermined the government. In fact, the Jay Treaty was controversial, and Washington was not pleased with it, but he signed it nevertheless. Jefferson would find out later that as president that is not so easy to make certain decisions. Jefferson ran for president in 1796 and came in second to Adams, meaning that he was now the second Vice President of the United States due to a weakness in the Constitution. This weakness would rise up again in 1800, leading to the adoption of the 12th Amendment.
To say that Jefferson was disloyal to Adams as vice president is an understatement. As we discussed in the Adams post, Jefferson actively undermined the president during the XYZ affair, telling the French counsel in secret talks not stall out negotiations between France and the US because Adams would be a one term president. In response to the Alien and Sedition Acts – not Adams’s best move by a long shot – Jefferson – as vice president !!!! – authored (anonymously of course, because he was a chicken shit) the Kentucky Resolution, which advocated for nullification, a noxious notion that Chernow believes led in part to the Civil War. Washington felt that if these policies were pursued, it could lead to disunion. For my part, I think of Jefferson (and Madison assisted in this effort by writing a similar Virginia Resolution) advocating for this as the epitome of his complete lack of understanding as to what was important for American as a country to thrive and grow as a united country. The remnants of this bullshit continue to this day in some quarters, so here lies some influence from Jefferson: he inspired some of the nullification nonsense still pervading from some quarters.
Jefferson ran against Adams in 1800 and he beat Adams, largely because his mortal enemy, Hamilton broke with Adams prior to the election. Adams came in third behind Jefferson and Burr, who tied, throwing the election into the Federalist controlled House of Representatives. Burr, whose own underhandedness made Jefferson a paragon of virtue by comparison, was unwilling to step aside and let Jefferson win the election in the House of Representatives. After 36 votes, Jefferson prevailed by a single vote, due in part to Hamilton’s lobbying for Jefferson and maybe a little quid pro quo on Jefferson’s part (did he promise some appointments in exchange for that vote? Was this a foreshadowing of the 1824 election? The world may never now). Jefferson nominated James Madison as his secretary of state. Madison, his closest ally during his days before the presidency would retain that role for another eight years.
Key Challenges/Features of Jefferson’s Presidency
There were two big issues that I want to discuss about Jefferson’s presidency: his acquisition of Louisiana and his dealing with the ongoing threat from England. Before I get there, though, I want to discuss a couple of other things: how Jefferson viewed accessibility to the White House itself and his treatment of some of Adams’s initiatives.
Jefferson very much bought into a simple, republican ideal in terms of how the president should present himself. He did not want to project himself as some sort of king and he didn’t dress formally on a day-to-day basis. In that regard, he had a very 2020 work from home ethic. He was not above working in slippers or even greeting people in the White House in that type of attire, even when meeting representatives from other countries. Whereas Adams was concerned with making a good impression to the world via the presentation of the presidential mansion, Jefferson did not seem to care (or he was making a very deliberate departure from that of Adams and Washington). Frankly, I don’t get where he was going with that, but whatever. (Note: the podcast indicates that he did this on purpose to send a message to representatives of other countries. I'm still not sure I understand what he was trying to accomplish.)
The other thing was that Jefferson very consciously made a clean break with Adams policy wise in some key areas. I mentioned in the Adams post how the president had enacted a law to expand the courts and pack them with Federalists. Jefferson, having congressional majorities behind him, repealed the so-called Midnight Judges act. He also reduced the size of the navy that Adams built up. (Note that Adams kept Washington’s cabinet, a pretty big mistake.) I am pretty sure that I agree with the idea of being able to undo what your predecessor did if you don’t agree (and boy howdy, do we see that in the US these days). However, Jefferson’s reduction of the naval ships was a flat out boneheaded move. Hey, I’m not a guy that loves an endless build up of military force. But, understand that the US economy relied on the ability to protect its shipping. England, in those days, would accost U.S. ships and search for British sailors that had left the British navy and went to work on US ships (because being in the British navy sucked). They called this “impressment” and if some US citizens were kidnapped off of the ships and forced to serve in the British navy, well so what. Weakening the navy in view of such aggression served no good purpose for the United States.
It seems impossible to me that any middle schooler in the United States does not know (unless they flat out aren’t paying attention at all) that Jefferson was president when the U.S. completed the Louisiana Purchase from France. From what I understood, the US bought Louisiana as it was understood to be from France for $15 million an absolute bargain. I knew so very little about this monumental event prior to starting my starting this process that it’s almost embarrassing. First of all, I just had this vague notion of what France was in 1803, never really understanding that the U.S. bought Louisiana from Napoleon Bonaparte. Thus, I further did not understand that Napoleon had designs on establishing a large presence in North America via Louisiana but was diverted from that plan when his troops were unable to put down an insurrection in what is now Haiti. (I mentioned in my post about Adams how Yellow Fever ravaged the city of Philadelphia and how Yellow Fever was brought to the United States via slave trading ships.) It turns out that the French Army was devastated in Haiti because of Yellow Fever (the locals were not as devastated because a lot of them had already had it, and survival ensured lifetime immunity) and lost all but 5,000 of 20,000 troops in that campaign. That, coupled with Napoleon’s (mis)adventures in Europe, caused Napoleon to decide to cut bait. I’m sure that getting $15 million to finance his European wars was really the ultimate incentive.
Jefferson sent James Monroe to France to try and purchase New Orleans (this was very important because the United States wanted control of the Mississippi River). It became quickly apparent that France wanted to sell their entire interest in North America and for a pittance, really. To their credit, Monroe and later, Jefferson, did not look a gift horse in the mouth. Jefferson’s position, though, was that under the Constitution, the federal government did not have the power to purchase land without an amendment. Of course, Jefferson, in the interest of expediency, authorized this purchase and expanded the power of the presidency through this precedent. One wonders, though, if Jefferson was willing to buy New Orleans, was of the mind that this would require an Amendment? If so, why wasn’t he pushing for an Amendment as part of his plan? Was he going to wait until the sale was agreed to? Seems like a not well thought out plan. Here’s another really interesting tidbit: the exact parameters of what the US actually bought was not defined in the sale. There was some sort of agreement that the parties would figure that out later (!!!!!!). Andrew Jackson asserted that the sale included Florida. That’s, I think, ridiculous, but as we will find out later, this wasn’t the only ridiculous position that Jackson took on such matters. What we really bought in this sale was France out of NA. That was a huge deal for the westward expansion of the United States and it would set up enormous issues for the country in terms of slavery expansion and the removal of native peoples from areas east of the Mississippi.
What’s truly delicious about this entire episode is that the Louisiana Purchase is that in retrospect it is the thing that defines Jefferson’s presidency but to accomplish it, he had to abandon his small government principles. I would imagine that if Washington or Adams had pulled off this deal, he would. Have. Been. OUTRAGED! Turns out that when you sit in the big chair, things look different. I think he did the right thing… eliminating France as a threat was a good thing. But, again, and I do want to put a very fine point on this: Jefferson’s whole philosophy of what the federal government should be was incompatible with the best interests of the country.
As I mentioned above, the accosting of U.S. ships was a problem, so much so that the threat of war with England loomed over part of the Jefferson presidency. In response, Jefferson sent James Monroe over to England to try and get a treaty to stop this practice (along with a myriad of other issues). Monroe was able to deliver a treaty signed by England, but that treaty did not deal with the impressment issue. As an aside, I should note here that I think Monroe deserves a lot more credit than he receives for his role as a founding father. This treaty, had it been approved by the senate, may not have averted the War of 1812, but the treaty to end that war basically set the terms that were drawn up in this treaty. So, huh. But the treaty wasn’t agreed to because Jefferson refused to send it to the senate for ratification.
In 1807, there were some hostilities with British ships firing on some American ships. Jefferson prepared for war, ordering the purchase of wartime supplies (arms and ammunition) and he wrote that the “laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation” than observing the laws. Again, huh. Here is Jefferson, in violation of his principles, acting to prepare the country in a time of trouble. I think he’s partly to blame for the increased hostilities (he prevented the treaty from being ratified), but it is also possible that England would have continued their impressment regardless. Given the position that he was in, he was probably correct to prepare for increased hostilities. But again, we see how Jefferson’s concepts of what the federal government should be colliding with the reality on the ground and losing. On the one hand, good, he adapted. On the other hand, he was a huge shithead during his time as Secretary of State and Vice President.
His response also included the passage of the Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited trade with foreign nations. Jefferson understood, correctly, that the United States did not want to get drawn into the Napoleonic Wars and that as country, we should remain neutral if for no other reason that we were not strong enough to get involved on one side or the other. However, the embargo was a total failure and only hurt the US economy. There was significant resistance to the embargo in the Eastern states (i.e., New England), who were the most affected by the law. In addition, there is no evidence that it reduced any tensions with England, in fact, it probably hastened the onset of war, which would happen three years after Jefferson left office. Plus, there’s this: as Meacham said, the act was a projection of power that surpassed the Alien and Sedition Acts and others have said it was the type of power that Jefferson himself used as justification in the Declaration of Independence.
After his presidency, he retired to Monticello and pursued various interests. He founded the University of Virginia (this included designing the buildings on the campus, planning the curriculum, and serving as the first rector for a year). Jefferson was a believer in public education, free from religious influences.
When Washington was sacked in 1814 by the British (in a war he helped precipitate, I think), he sold his library of about 6000 books to the library of Congress for about 25,000 (used that to pay off debts). He began amassing another library, which he eventually donated to UVa.
He attempted to write an autobiography but did not finish (if he knew how much one of those fetches these days, he might have finished).
In a sad commentary on his life, Jefferson proposed what amounted to a raffle for his Monticello property. Meacham only notes that it failed. Apparently, Monticello was valued at $71,000 and he wanted to sell over 11,000 tickets at $10 apiece. Sales of the tickets were good at first, but after Jefferson died, people apparently did not want to support Jefferson’s heirs, and the sales stalled out at just over 1,000 tickets. A couple of years after the raffle was proposed, it was canceled (I’m assuming the money was returned). His sole remaining daughter sold Monticello and his 100+ slaves. Sally Hemmings and her children were not sold, but Hemmings was allowed to live as a free woman in Charlottesville. (It is assumed that Hemmings was 3/4 white – her mother also being the product of a slave master raping his slave – and her children then were 7/8 white and they were apparently able to pass as white.)
Jefferson’s Family Life
Jefferson was born the son of an uneducated planter who wanted his son to have an education. He attended the College of William and Mary, where he apparently partied too much as a freshman (surprise!) and buckled down after that. He later became a lawyer and shortly thereafter, he was a legislator in the House of Burgesses (from 1769-75) and as a lawyer represented slaves in some cases. He married his 3rd cousin, Martha (who like Martha Washington, was a young widow) on New Year’s Day 1772, she bore him six children, only two of whom survived to adulthood and only one of whom outlived him. Her father died in 1773 and Jefferson and his wife were bequeathed 135 slaves (including Sally Hemmings). Martha died in 1782 and asked him never to remarry because she couldn’t bear the thought of another mother raising her children (she herself had a stepmother). He honored that request, although…. Dolley Madison acted as hostess during most of his presidency before being first lady for eight years immediately after Jefferson’s presidency.
His one daughter who lived past her twenties, Martha, lived at Monticello with Jefferson after his retirement along with her husband and 11 children. She cared for him for the rest of his life. She and Jefferson were very close.
Thomas Jefferson: The Man
As a politician, Jefferson appears to have been underhanded, a back stabber, and someone who cast aside his principles in favor of expediency. Unlike Adams, who was fearless in his advocacy for his positions, right or wrong, Jefferson often stood back and advanced his positions through secretive measures. These are… not great characteristics.
On a personal level, he was completely incapable of managing his own finances, showing a remarkable lack of restraint that would eventually leave his personal estate in ruins. He was given latitude by his bill collectors – he was Thomas Jefferson, after all, but he would have been well advised not to buy every godamned thing that tickled his fancy. In all of the first three books that I read, Jefferson’s spending was highlighted. It was bad enough that his personal fortune was acquired off of the backs of the slaves that he owned, he further compounded the situation by pissing all of it away, an enormous personal weakness.
He was certainly shameful in his behavior regarding his wife's likely half-sister Hemmings. Jefferson was a young widower to be sure and it seems only fair that a man of his young age, left alone by the untimely early death of his beloved wife, could and probably should have found another mate. It’s not like Jefferson couldn’t have found another woman to marry, he was probably the most eligible bachelor in the country. He chose, however, to make a slave his concubine, to impregnate her repeatedly, and to enslave his own children. The best thing one can say about this is that Jefferson’s despicable behavior wasn’t that far out of the norm in those days.
Jefferson was, however, an intelligent man, a curious man, and a man who cared about education and the freedom of religion. His founding of the University of Virginia was of great credit to him. His brilliant authorship of the Declaration of Independence showed his ability to express his thoughts brilliantly. I think it is fair to say that he was a remarkable man and a great influence in his age. But his negative traits land him as the least admirable man of the first six men who held the presidency, by far.
By the time that Jefferson took office, the Democratic-Republican party was becoming the very dominant party in the United States and would become that in a way that no other party has ever had control before or since. The Federalist party was doomed to a regional party in the northeast, and was a mostly reactionary party. The United States of the early 19th Century was beginning a period of one party rule for about 25 years. The country was already beginning to flex its muscles westward and Jefferson was beginning the policy of Indian removal into areas west of the Mississippi River. In the northwest, William Henry Harrison, Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer, the first governor of the Indiana Territory, was aggressively acquiring Indian land through a series of treaties and various military actions.
Factions were beginning to form between the north and the south, but slavery was not quite yet the dominant issue between these regions. Politicians would eventually evolve into the assertion that slavery was a positive good, but this wasn’t quite evident in Jefferson’s time.
What Really Surprised Me
Although not covered in the Meacham book extensively, I cannot believe that I did not know the circumstances that led to the Louisiana Purchase. It is true that Jefferson sent James Monroe to France to purchase the city of New Orleans, but it turned out that France was willing to just hand it over was stunning. I was also surprised to learn that Jefferson had commissioned Lewis and Clark to do their exploration before the Louisiana Purchase.
What one person (not a president) would I want to read about from Jefferson’s era as President?
I’m not sure that I can point to that person. The key players in this story, at least as far as I’m concerned, were Madison and, to a lesser extent, Monroe. Perhaps, I might say Lafayette or even the French Revolution (which is not a person), but really the answer here is no one person. Actually, the person I want to read more about is Jefferson himself.
The latest Sienna poll rates Jefferson as the 5th best president of all time. The poll rates him as the most intelligent president and a top ten president in all of its categories, except for integrity, ability to compromise (both 14th) and handling of the US Economy (20th). I’m going to say this: my impression is that his Secretary of State, James Madison, was more intelligent than he was and that Madison was a tremendous driving force behind a lot of what Jefferson did, from his early opposition to Washington, to many of his policies in the White House, and even after his time in the White House, Madison was there to support Jefferson. Not that that is a bad thing – a good president needs good people around him that he can trust and upon which he can rely. I think that Jefferson’s handling of the tensions with England and his resulting economic policies look pretty bad in retrospect (and were highly criticized at the time). I also think that he gets more credit for accepting the gift of the Louisiana Purchase than he should have. In addition, I think that Jefferson’s integrity is rated too high. He was a rapist who enslaved his own children, he spent like a drunken fool, and he surreptitiously undermined the president that he served as Secretary of State. None of those things were done in his capacity as president, though, so maybe 14th is okay (just ignore how he dealt with the Louisiana Purchase) ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Frankly, I don’t see this ranking. This has to be a direct result of his successful Louisiana Purchase, which was a monumental benefit to the nation. But what president would not have accepted this gift? When I read about his bungling of the English situation – and maybe I’m being too tough here, there weren’t real good options, does his record scream top five presidents? I would suggest that avoiding a war with Britain should have been job one of his second term and his attempts to do so failed.
What I Was Looking Forward to after Reading this Book
Clearly, given the close association between Jefferson and Madison and given some of my disappointment with this book as to the depth of this book (i.e., the cursory treatment of certain topics in the book), I was looking to get more insight about Jefferson vis-à-vis the Madison book. As superficial as this book was, the Madison book was a deep dive into Madison and I did in fact find more about Jefferson in that book.
But it must be said that what I really want to know about more than anything is more about Jefferson and his presidency. The picture I have is a guy who avoided direct conflict and worked behind the scenes through others to advocate for his positions. However, when in the actual seat of power, he found that his ideals weren’t as workable as he might have thought.
How My Understanding Lines Up (or doesn’t) with the Presidential Podcast
I am referring of course to the Washington Post’s Presidential podcast.
Jon Meacham was a guest on this episode and, surprisingly, he wasn’t projecting as positive a view as he did in his book and that was consistent with all of the guests (there were several) in the podcast. This particular episode of the podcast was excellent and really left you the inescapable conclusion that I’ve drawn here: namely that Jefferson was a man of great talent and intellect who made great contributions (the Declaration and the Purchase), but that his personal weaknesses and his behavior during the Washington presidency was troubling indeed. Plus, there is the matter of slavery and Hemmings.
One of the guests on the podcasts goes so far as to suggest that if Jefferson had taken a stronger position against slavery that he might have been able to prevent slavery from becoming the overwhelming problem that it eventually became. The inference here was that Jefferson, with his monumental influence in the first third of the century, could have grabbed this moment to change the trajectory of slavery in the US, but he did not do so. They also pointed out that he had over 600 slaves in his lifetime and freed none of them. By contrast, Washington freed all his slaves (in his will) and gave them land. The difference is stark. They also indicated that he would punish slaves by selling them off and splitting up families. He believed that enslaved people could not feel love like white people could, according to the podcast. That is an amazingly awful revelation. They also pointed out that the population of freed black people rose dramatically at the end of Jefferson's life because other Virginians were willing to free their slaves. Jefferson did not participate in this activity, partly because he had frittered away so much money that he could not afford to do so. There is also kind of a parallel drawn between Jefferson and America as a whole. The confounding contradictions in a man who could proclaim all men are created equal and believe what he believed about his slaves kind of mirrors America as a whole.
What Can We Learn from Jefferson’s Presidency
I would argue that the true lesson of the Jefferson presidency is the overriding importance of the presidency in American government. Ever since the founding, the power of the presidency has increased steadily, for good or for bad. It is understandable that the founding fathers wanted a limited executive branch given that they broke free from a monarchy. I think its also true that checks on that power have been, are now, and always will be necessary. My thinking right now is that Jefferson proved the need/danger of great executive power. It’s almost a Nixon goes to China moment. Jefferson, the great republican and believer in limited federal power, Jefferson himself expanded the presidential role in a way that he would have forcefully objected to just a few years before he did it.
Welcome to my discussion of the second president of the United States, John Adams. I’m still on the ninth book in this series (I didn’t read much this week). I think that I want to remain several books ahead of the story that I’m publishing in a given week, because I’ve found that knowing what’s coming helps add perspective to the story of the week. This is conflicting with the idea that I want to write these stories as soon as possible after I’ve read the book. My plan is to put down my thoughts as I’m reading now. Books three through eight will suffer a little because I’m just going to forget a lot about what I’ve read by the time I get to the write up.
Adams was a one-term president and his role as his presidency, among the first five presidencies, seems like the least successful and it is not surprising that he is lightly regarded relative to the others. But, John Adams cannot and should not be defined solely by his presidency (this is also true for the other four, but relative to all presidents, Adams' contribution outside of the presidency is very impressive, I think). Prior to becoming president, he was a diplomat serving in France, England, and the Netherlands in two separate periods. He took his son John Quincy Adams with him on the first tour (but not his wife or other children) and the young JQ absorbed life in Europe, becoming fluent in multiple languages and setting himself up as perhaps the greatest Secretary of State in the nation’s history along with being the President of the United States. But that’s a story for another day.
Adams, unlike the other of the first five presidents (all Virginian planters) was a Northern lawyer and he, along with his son, were the only of the first twelve U.S. presidents who did not own slaves. He was a hard-working, driven politician who believed strongly in the United States and favored a strong federal government. He was the only president elected as a member of the Federalist party, which was completely eliminated as a party by 1820.
Adams was born on October 30, 1735 and he died on July 4, 1826 during his son John Quincy Adams’s presidency. Of course, July 4, 1826 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. His final words were purported to be “Thomas Jefferson survives”, but that was, in fact, not true, as the third president of the United States and author of that Declaration had died hours before on the same day. John Adams as the second president of the United States from March 4, 1797 to March 4, 1801, serving just a single term and losing his re-election bid to his sitting vice president, Mr. Jefferson.
John Adams would have had an amazing career without the presidency. He was a lawyer in the Boston area before the Revolution, and as a member of the Continental Congress, he signed the Declaration of Independence. He was commissioner to France, a minister to the Dutch Republic, and a minister to England, spending a decade abroad in service to his country. (In those days, only certain countries had ambassadors, the US only had ministers.) He also served as the first vice president of the United States. Serving between two giants of American history, Adams is often overlooked, and his presidency was not an unqualified triumph. But, his contributions to the United States were important and his sacrifice for the country was remarkable. Unlike the reserved Washington, he was fiery and passionate and sometimes, well, he was wrong.
What I knew About Adams before Reading a Book About Him
I knew little about Adams before reading this book. The episode of Presidential dedicated to Adams drives home the point that most people know little about Adams – I’m hardly alone. I knew that he was a lawyer who defended British soldiers who were accused of the so-called Boston Massacre. I knew that he was Washington’s vice president, that he was a member of the Federalist party, that he had a reputation as a prickly character, and that he was the first president to lose a re-election bid. I also knew that he was from Massachusetts and that he was a punchline in the Hamilton musical. But, beyond that, I didn’t really know that much about him.
The Experience of Reading John Adams
For the second book in the series, I selected the Pulitzer Prize winning John Adams by David McCullough. I purchased this book on Kindle and read it on my iPad. The Kindle book is fully featured, allowing scrolling and all other features. It is 654 pages in length (exclusive of the end notes) and I read it in five days, ending on February 6, 2021. Compared to the Washington book that I read, this book is much easier to read. McCullough wrote an accessible book that is entertaining as well as informative. He was greatly aided by the large number of letters between John and Abagail Adams as well as John’s writing in his own diary. The Adams family preserved these documents and McCullough (and James Traub, who wrote JQA book I read) put them to good use.
Adams was not an easy man; his impatience and prickly personality got him into tough situations. In his career as a diplomat, he had a tough job trying to advocate for a fledgling country with no real power engaged in a battle against the most powerful country in the world. The job was tough enough, but it appears that he made it tougher because he wasn't blessed with a diplomatic disposition. But what emerges in the book is a picture of a man who is duty bound, who loves his new country, who is a brilliant thinker (although sometimes misguided) and who will do what is asked of him in service to his country.
As an old man, Adams was a man who threw off the cares of his political life. He was blessed (especially in those days!) to live a very long life and mend some proverbial fences with his frenemy, Thomas Jefferson. The letters that Adams sent to Jefferson were interesting, touching, and sometimes amusing (he just couldn't let some things be). Adams as a political being and a father was tough and unyielding. Adams as an old man and as a husband was loving and kind-hearted. The post presidency portion of the book was my favorite.
It is undoubtedly true that McCullough is sympathetic to Adams, and a more critical biographer would probably have not painted such a rosy picture of him. In his review of John Adams, Stephen Floyd (the proprietor of the site bestpresidentialbios.com), points out that Adams himself couldn’t have been more delighted in the treatment that McCullough affords him, especially in fights with Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson.
Adams’s Life Before Presidency
Adams grew up very poor (in the Presidential podcast, McCullough says his family was about as poor as Lincoln’s), but he was a bright and hardworking student. He was educated at Harvard University and became a lawyer in the Boston area. His most famous case was defending British soldiers in the so-called Boston Massacre of 1770 winning acquittal for six of his eight clients. He did this despite his role in what would become the American Revolution, an admirable decision in supporting the idea that all people deserve competent representation.
McCullough points out that the Boston Massacre showed Adams’ bravery and this same bravery was evident in various episodes throughout his life. During the trial, he said the following, which is (or should be) a fundamental underpinning of criminal justice: “It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished without the help of drug crime law firm. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, 'whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection.” If there are drink and drive cases, DWI law firm serving in New Jersey can be checked out and their attorneys can be hired to solve the cases. During this period, he moved his family back to the family home in Braintree (now Quincy), MA while he stayed in Boston with his law practice. This would become a theme in his life: separated from his family in service of his work.
Adams was also a member of the First Continental Congress of 1774 in Philadelphia, again leaving his family behind in Massachusetts. He also was a member of the Second Continental Congress and he nominated George Washington to head the Continental Army. He also organized a committee to draft a Declaration of Independence and persuaded Jefferson to write the document, convincing Jefferson that he should do it in part because he, Adams, was obnoxious and unpopular and that Jefferson was a better writer. The rest, as they say, is history. This was the first, but not the last time that he and Jefferson would work together as a team. Once again, Adams was brave, knowing that an unsuccessful effort here would end with him swinging from a tree. This is confirmed later in the book when he was in Europe – the English were prepared to spare some of the Revolutionaries had things gone differently. Adams was going to have a rope around his neck, though.
Adams was sent to France in 1777 as a commissioner to assist Benjamin Franklin among with negotiating an alliance to help with the Revolutionary War, which was going… not great. He sailed to France, taking John Quincy with him. The trip was a difficult one, with the main mast breaking and the ship getting several hundred miles off course. Despite having never sailed across the ocean before, Adams observed the sailing and by the end of the trip he was instructing the captain how to sail. It is not true that this captain invented the eyeroll emoji in response, but one can imagine that he was, in fact, perfecting that maneuver in real life. After six long weeks aboard the ship, Adams arrived in France only to learn that an alliance had been agreed to before he had even left the United States. After about one year, Adams returned to the US and six months later, he returned to France, this time charged with negotiating a treaty with the British to end the war.
Abigail would eventually join him in Paris and they would eventually move to London when John was named the first US minister to England. There is a lot of detail about Adams’s adventures in Europe (including his work with Jefferson), his time in Amsterdam, and his various, pretty much fruitless efforts to get aid for America during the war. Although later political adversaries, while in France, Jefferson and Adams were friends who worked together, and JQ spent a lot of time with the 3rd president. Adams tried hard, yes, he did, but his natural role was not as that of a diplomat. Nevertheless, Adams did work on getting the Treaty of Paris signed to end the war. Adams was not part of the drafting of the Constitution, he was over in England, trying (unsuccessfully) to get the parties to the Paris Treaty to honor it.
One of the key insights in this time in France for me was that Adams, in working with Franklin found him to be much less than he originally thought. By this time in his life, Franklin was old. Adams saw him as lazy, unorganized, not careful with money, and content to live a good life in France. Adams worked to learn the French language and he discovered that Franklin could barely speak it. It is probably true, though, that Franklin had a certain je ne sais quoi that made him more effective than Adams in dealing with the French. Adams was a typical Northeasterner, industrious, impatient, looking for results. Franklin, was a lot more subtle I think (perhaps too subtle). I would like to learn more about Franklin’s time in France, to be sure.
Coming back to the United States in 1788, he almost immediately was elected to the vice presidency. One imagines that Adams had a Selina Meyer level of frustration with the office. While supportive of the Administration, he was largely ignored by Washington and not a part of the Administration power structure. He did attend the Senate and presided over it religiously (something almost unheard of in modern times). He got involved in a naming controversy related to the president. He was advocating a fancy title for the president (His Majesty), but lost that argument, thankfully. Adams felt that this title would put the president on equal footing with the Kings of Europe, but that was precisely out of step with the American idea.
Someone like Adams would never, ever rise to the presidency today, he had poor political instincts, and he was already out of step by 1800. Nevertheless, he was elected in 1796 with Jefferson coming in second in the election. Thus, Jefferson, by now Adams’s political rival, was his vice president. Jefferson would run, as a sitting vice president, against the incumbent Adams in 1800 and defeat him. Prior to the 12th Amendment, each elector would cast two votes for president and the winner would be the person with the most votes, with the runner-up being named vice president. This obviously was a weakness in the Constitution, and it would rear its head in the 1800 election more dramatically. But, having a vice president actively opposed to the president, especially someone as influential as Jefferson, well, that’s not exactly going to be good for your presidency.
Key Challenges/Features of Adams’s Presidency
Probably the biggest challenge of the Adams presidency was the relationship between the US and its erstwhile friend, France. Adams found himself in somewhat of a cold war with France. Adams had soured on France during his time over Europe and he saw the French Revolution as not being a great positive, while his VP was more enthusiastic about the Revolution and was relatively unbothered by the Reign of Terror in France (which occurred during the Washington presidency). Adams called for an increase of defense spending. He was an advocate for an increase in naval power for the US and pushed to have ships built and a navy raised. Considering the relative importance of shipping in the late 18th Century and the dangers that the US ships faced in the Atlantic, Adams’s priorities here hardly seemed to be misplaced. (His vice president would eventually undo some of Adams’s efforts here and that was a boneheaded move.)
Adams sent a peace commission to France, while Jefferson met with the French minister in Philadelphia, Joseph Letombe. Letombe’s report back to France painted Jefferson in an extremely unfavorable light, appearing to actively undermine the president of the United States. Meanwhile, French agents demanded bribes from the peace commissioners in came to be known as the XYZ affair. Adams decided to not make this information public, but rather said that the peace commission failed. Republicans (i.e., Jefferson’s allies) demanded that the information be made public, assuming that Adams was withholding information favorable to the French. Playing the part of the rake to the Republicans’ Sideshow Bob, Adams released the papers, showing the bribe demands. Imagine a party being more supportive of a foreign power than to the President of the United States. The mere thought of it today would drink one to drink (vodka).
Adams, though, frittered away his advantage by signing a series of laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These Acts gave the president the authority to deport people more freely and increased citizenship requirements. Adams deported a total of zero people under these laws and few convictions under the Sedition Act were realized. These acts were unpopular and fueled the opposition to Adams. An own goal, to be sure. The state of Kentucky wrote a resolution that states had the natural right to nullify acts they deemed unconstitutional, a stunning assertion and a notion that reverberates in some fevered swamps until this day. The Kentucky resolution was authored anonymously by none other than the vice president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.
I mentioned in the comments of the Washington post that Yellow Fever was a real problem in Philadelphia during the summers in the Washington (and Adams) presidency. As a result, the Federal Government largely abandoned Philadelphia during the summer months. The VP Jefferson was away during one period for 10 months(!). The Yellow Fever was a bad assed disease and in one summer, 5,000 Philadelphians died (of a population of 50,000). The people of the 1800s did not understand how the virus was being transmitted (it was via mosquitoes and you can read this content to know more about it). It turns out that there now is a vaccine now for yellow fever that is one of the most effective vaccines ever produced. I have also found out that Yellow Fever was brought to the United States in the first place from Africa. Now, what was it that the United States was importing from Africa again?
With his vice president actively working against him (and running against him!), the campaign for re-election (such as it was, Adams didn’t believe in directly campaigning for office), was going to be a heavy lift. Adams chances for re-election were dashed, though, by Hamilton, a Federalist, who wanted to wage a war with France. Adams had continued with the peace effort with France was able to avoid a war with France. I mentioned in the Washington write up that Adams had asked Washington to raise an Army in preparation of a war with France. Washington wanted to have control of his staff and wanted Hamilton to be his number two. Adams was not in favor of that – his trusted Hamilton about as much as Jefferson did, which is to say not at all – and he demanded that he have the final say as to rank, not Washington. Adams capitulated. But he also sent a second peace commission to France, which was successful. Hamilton was outraged. For all of the hand wringing that the Republicans had about Hamilton, it was Adams who curbed him and he paid the price for it.
It is interesting how enthusiastic the Americans were for war with France, considering how badly the Revolutionary War had gone before the French helped. Even a decade plus later, the War of 1812 was hardly a smashing military success and resulted in Washington getting sacked. Lots of fighting spirit these Americans had, kind of a speak loudly and carry a little stick energy.
Adams's peace with France ripped apart the Federalists -- Hamilton was against him -- and ended his chance for re-election. He finished third in the election to Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who tied (we will talk about that next time). His presidency and public life were over. In my view, avoiding a war with France was much more important than his re-election, he chose wisely for the country. If you apply the Woodward test to the Adams presidency, it appears that dealing with the French threat was the next greater good that Adams saw as his priority. That he kept the United States out of war suggests a successful presidency. But, that he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, laws that foreshadow issues that exist until this day, one could also say that Adams ventured or allowed himself to be pulled too far toward the politics of fear in that effort.
In the waning moments of his presidency, Adams signed a bill to expand the judiciary (known as the Midnight Justices Act, Jefferson would undo a lot of it) and add judges that were sympathetic to his positions (that NEVER happens anymore, heh). He also appointed a guy named John Marshall to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which may just have been his most consequential presidential act.
Adams retired to his family farm (still in existence, I hope to tour it some day) and lived a relatively simple life in his post-presidency. The key feature was that after several years of acrimony, he re-established communications with his old friend Thomas Jefferson. These letters between Jefferson and Adams were fascinating to me. Adams had a real personal connection with Jefferson dating back to their time together in Europe and he was willing to overlook the absolute disloyalty that Jefferson showed him during his presidency and communicate with him as a friend and as a fellow framer of this new country. He wasn’t above raising old issues to rehash with Jefferson, but the Virginian did not appear to take the bait. He outlived his beloved wife and saw his own beloved son ascend to the presidency.
Adams’s Family Life
Adams married Abigail Smith in 1764 and they had six children, including the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams. While I had reason to doubt that George and Martha Washington were participants in an especially loving union, there is little doubt about John and Abigail’s abiding love for each other. Abigail was also a strong political ally of her husband and a source of counsel during his life, which was highly unusual in that time.
Adams was not born from wealth, but he did acquire some amount of money during his life. Unlike the planters that were president around him, he did not live a life of luxury, but he clung to relatively simple tastes. He died with an estate worth about $100,000 according to McCullough, which made him a fairly wealthy man for his times. You can hire probate attorney Tomes Law Firm, PC, here for the best estate attorneys. If you want to know how to avoid probate on these estates, you can check it out from here! Attorneys from Business Planning Law Firm in Bloomfield Hills expressed that it was untold in the book that how I read about Adams (but recounted in the book about his son), he lost a large share of his fortune when a bank that held his money failed. His son, JQA bailed him out by buying the family farm from him and allowing him to live on it for the rest of his life. It is unclear to me, then, how Adams had an estate worth $100,000. Nevertheless, he did not have the financial problems of his three successors. If you wish to know why start a will early, and their advantages, you can check it out here!
Adams was not an easy man to have as a father. He was demanding and exacting, especially with regards to JQA. Unlike his brothers, JQA rose to the demands from his father. His brothers, though, were not capable of living up to such a standard and were generally disappointments to their father. He was an ally to JQA’s wife, Louisa when she had few others and he was welcoming toward other daughters-in-law and his grandchildren.
John Adams: The Man
When I think about Adams, I think about a man of high integrity, of high honor, and a man with high intelligence, but limited in his ability to see things from others’ perspectives. In other words, he was arrogant and that was to his detriment. He was simultaneously well-impressed with his own intellect, but full of self-doubt (well-founded!) in his ability to be a leader of men. The impression one gets of Washington is that he was maybe not the most gifted intellectual to ever walk on the face of the earth, but he was a leader. Adams was not a leader of men; he had few allies. There’s no denying, though that he was a great thinker and writer – he drafted the Massachusetts constitution, which predates the US Constitution and is the world’s oldest functioning constitution. When we get to JQA, we will see a man more suited to the Congress than the White House and I think that John Adams, senator from Massachusetts, would have been a good role for him.
When it came to the idea of “all men being created equal”, he had a nuanced view of that assertion. He concluded that all men were not, in fact, created equal. Some men were smarter, more industrious, etc. than others and to believe otherwise was preposterous to him. I would say, though, that he was clearly an advocate of equal protection under the law and the notion of due process – he exhibited that early on in his defense of British soldiers in the Boston Massacre.
John Adams’s America
I mentioned that the second term of Washington’s presidency that differences were arising and that continued during the Adams presidency. The Democratic-Republicans, led by Jefferson and his intellectual equal (if not superior), James Madison, actively opposed Adams’s presidency. The Federalists as a whole were relatively sympathetic to the idea of a monarchy and close association with England. The D-Rs on the other hand, were committed to the idea of a Republic and sympathetic to France and especially the French Revolution. The end of the Adams presidency was extremely damaging to the Federalist party and it was virtually completely eliminated as a functioning party as I mentioned above by 1820. The whys of that will be explored in the Monroe story in more detail.
Of course, slavery remained an issue in the US, although most political leaders “abhorred” it. By kicking the can down the road, they were able to wash their hands of it and remained complicit in the furtherance of slavery. I’ve read about the presidency to the year 1840 so far, and by that time, politicians were arguing that slavery was actually a good thing. I haven’t gotten beyond 1840 and we don’t have slaves now, so I’m sure that was solved in an amicable way, agreeable to all.
It is hard to pin any of the slavery issues on Adams, though. He never owned slaves and he and Abigail were astonished to see slaves as part of the building of the White House. Adams moved into a partially finished White House in 1800 and the capital city of 1800 was basically a couple of buildings (the White House and the Capitol, and some boarding houses) in a swamp.
What Really Surprised Me
Part of what I found surprising in the Washington book carried over into this one. The effort to establish this country did not result in a large scale effort by the new American citizens to rise up against the British. One of the things that Adams laments was that during the Second Continental Congress was that actual attendance during the Congress was low – and Adams was exasperated that Jefferson begged off of attendance, citing personal matters.
I was also surprised by the length of Adams’ time in Europe. I suppose I must have known about this at one time, but really, I had no idea that he spent basically a decade in Europe, from shortly after the start of the Revolution to the completion of the Constitution (with only a small break in between). He had an interesting mission separate from the foundational moments of the country.
What one person (not a president) would I want to read about from John Adams’s era as President?
One thing that I've learned during this process is that there is more than one side to a story. Events recounted in one book can be handled much differently in another. The discussion of Benjamin Franklin in this book was very interesting. Adams clearly thought that Franklin wasn’t really doing what he should be doing in France. It would be interesting to get a different perspective.
However, the person that I want to read more about from Adams’ era is John Marshall. I attended the first week of Constitutional Law class when I was in law school, so I know about Marshall’s (and the United States’) most important decision, Marbury v. Madison. I will admit that I did not know that Marshall was appointed by Adams (looking back at my Con Law book, it mentions that, apparently, I forgot that), that he was secretary of state under Adams, and the circumstances around his appointment. He may not have been the best legal mind to ever sit on the Court, but he was arguably the most influential. As an attorney myself, I have an interest in knowing more about his life.
The latest Sienna poll rates John Adams as the 14th best president in their latest poll (conducted in 2018). Adams rated highest in background (family, education, experience) (3rd), integrity, intelligence, and court appointments (all 4th). His lowest rankings were in leadership ability (21st), executive ability (21st), luck (24th), party leadership (28th), and ability to compromise (31st).
These assessments feel right in terms of rating his overall strengths and weaknesses. Adams was a brilliant man, well educated and he brought a wealth of experience to the job. His 11th hour appointment of John Marshall as chief justice was maybe the most consequential act of his presidency. Marshall solidified the role of the Supreme Court and authored some key decisions that clarified and strengthen the federal government’s role vis-à-vis the states in way that I believe was very beneficial to the country. That one appointment makes Adams’s presidency very consequential.
Adams was also an arrogant man who often made rash judgments. He was an elitist and he did not play well with others. He was willing to sacrifice liberties and create or perpetuate an environment of xenophobia in a time of what he considered a national security threat. But, he did not enforce those laws with any sort of impunity and he had the good judgment not to lead the country into a disastrous war.
The overall rankings have him as a second quartile president, the worst of the five founding fathers, but safely above average. His overall contribution to the country, though, rivals almost anyone of this age.
What I Was Looking Forward to after Reading this Book (in this journey through the presidents)
After reading this book, I was looking forward to reading about how Jefferson saw the rekindling of the relationship between he and Adams. Obviously, there was a lot to read about with Jefferson, but I was curious to see if Jefferson felt the same (unfortunately, this isn’t discussed much in the Jefferson book I selected). Of course, I also wanted to read about John Quincy Adams, who was prominent in parts of this book (and that book was my favorite so far).
How My Understanding Lines Up (or doesn’t) with the Washington Post's Presidential Podcast
One of the problems that I have writing these summaries is that it has been a relatively long time since I’ve read the McCullough book and I have read six more books. I did do some combing through the book, but I forgot some of the facts. The podcast interviews David McCullough, the author of the book that I wrote and he focuses a lot on the relationship between Adams and Jefferson. He points out, and I had forgotten this, that Jefferson had hired someone to write about Adams critically.
Looking at the book, however, I think McCullough misspoke as I believe he is talking about Jefferson’s actions during the Washington administration when he was Secretary of State. Jefferson hired a man named Philip Freneau as a translator in the State Department, which enticed him to come to Philadelphia to establish a newspaper critical of the Washington administration. Jefferson and Madison also contributed articles anonymously to the newspaper. I seem to remember that Freneau wasn’t actually able to translate anything and that his position was nothing more than a front to finance the paper. I am not aware of Jefferson doing this as vice president. It should be noted that Hamilton was doing basically the same thing in support of Washington (writing in a paper), but I don’t know that he was doing what Jefferson was doing in terms of giving Freneau a government job to support the newspaper. (Hamilton didn’t become president either.) When I have discussed at the site about how reading these books about the presidents has taken a lot of the shine off of Jefferson, this is the type of thing I’m talking about. The podcast talks about the letters between Adams and Jefferson and focuses on the debates between them, but it talks about Adams debating, and not that Jefferson responded.
The second half of the podcast talks about how there is no monument in Washington about Adams. Back in 2016, there was a movement (kind of) to get a monument to Adams, suggesting that it should focus on his opposition to slavery. They talked about a deadline of 2020 to get certain plans done and since we are now passed that year, I’m assuming that’s not going to happen. One of the people in the podcast, in response to a question about whether it is even worth it, gives a very interesting response. He says that people forget what they read in history books, but that a monument (especially in Washington) identifies what people and values we think are important and which ones we think aren’t. The use of monuments, he says, shape history. You don’t say. They go onto say that the people of the 18th Century (Washington et al.) though that monuments were outdated (in the 18th century!) and even dangerous because they elevate the cult of one person, that they elevate the accomplishments of the individuals over the masses and that they elevate authoritarian rule. That monuments are a way to contest a legacy. Just an unbelievable commentary from 2016 that was amazingly prescient. The speaker then makes the point that in today’s popular culture there are ways to advance a legacy that are far more effective than a stone monument, citing the HBO series on Adams and appearances by presidents in various forums. Those of us who are of a certain age will remember Clinton playing the saxophone on Arsenio or Obama on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis. Then, there was a president who had a reality series on TV. The last ten to fifteen minutes of this podcast, listened to again in 2021 are amazingly powerful.
The podcast, while mentioning the Alien and Sedition Acts, etc. focused on two things: his relationship with Washington and the lack of recognition overall and in the form of a monument for Adams. There is no doubt that McCullough believes that the Jefferson relationship is a key feature of Adams's life and since he was the guest of this podcast, it makes sense that my ability to comprehend the clear themes of his book put me in alignment of his brief assessment of Adams here. The more interesting discussion in the podcast is the monument talk, especially in view of the controversy relating to monuments over the past four years.
What We Can Learn from the Adams Presidency
When I think about the Adams presidency, I think about how he really did not fit all that well into this job. He was a brilliant man with a resume as long as his arm, but he really didn’t have leadership ability necessary for the job. Effective presidents are going to be those who can see the long term and can bend the public will in that direction.
As of this morning, my yard is completely free of snow and ice.
George Washington, 1st President of the United States
Welcome to my discussion of the first president of the United States on my journey through presidential biographies. In this series of posts, I want to record my thoughts about the book that I have chosen to read, the president himself, and what America was like during the time of his presidency. I wish that I had come up with the idea to create these posts when I started the project, but unfortunately, I have already read eight books before I thought, hey maybe I should write some of my thoughts down. One advantage of reading eight books first, though, is that I understand a lot more how subsequent books will color my thinking on the presidents that I’ve already read about. This is probably uniquely true for the 3rd through 5th presidents because of how close they were in their political lives. Another advantage of reading eight books before starting these posts is that I have a pretty good idea of the type of things that I might want to write about for each president. Thus, I intend to discuss about a dozen topics in each post. Most of what I have in these posts will come from the books that I have read, although some of the information is provided through other sources. This is a pretty long post, but Washington was very consequential -- I doubt that every post will be this long.
Washington was born on February 22, 1732 and he died on December 14, 1799 during John Adams’ presidency. He served as the first president from April 30, 1789 to March 4, 1797. John Adams was his vice president for the entirety of his presidency. Washington was not a member of any political party, but he was generally seen as being more in line with the Federalist party than the Democratic-Republican party, which sprang up around Thomas Jefferson and other like minded Virginians. Note that Washington’s first term was not a full four years, as the government didn’t really get started until then end of April. The Constitution was not ratified by all thirteen states when Washington took office In fact, Rhode Island didn’t ratify the Constitution until May 29, 1790, more than a year after Washington was inaugurated. To say that the U.S. Government in 1789 was a fledgling operation is not an exaggeration at all.
Washington is almost universally regarded as not only one of the best presidents in US History but one of the most influential Americans, period. It is not an understatement to say that this country would not exist but for George Washington. Starting a project reading about all of the US presidents with Washington is almost unfair in that few, if any of the men who follow him will not measure up. As I mentioned above, I’m through eight of the books as I write this, and I think that while Washington is a colossally towering figure, his story isn’t maybe as interesting as some of the others because of his naturally reserved manner and also because of the lack of primary sources for information about Washington as compared to say, the Adamses.
What I knew About Washington before Reading this Book
I had read a book about Washington in the American President Series edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., I was a sentient being in US History class in high school, and I toured Mount Vernon about six years ago, so, I knew a fair amount about Washington: his role in the French/Indian Wars and the Constitutional Convention, that he was the owner of a fair amount of land, that he was childless, that he was against the forming of political parties, that he had bad teeth, etc. I probably knew as much about Washington as I did any president who served before my lifetime. I should also say that the Washington Post had a really good podcast series with about one hour on each of the presidents in the run up to the 2016 election. The host invites historians to discuss each of the presidents and they give the listener an impression of what each president was like. I listened to all of those podcasts back in 2016 and I’m going to re-listen to each episode after writing these summaries to see how my impression might measure up to that provided by the historians on the podcast. In an attempt to humanize the presidents, the hosts asks the historian what it would be like for her to go on a date with the president. That’s a little bit, um, silly, but I’m here to tell you that there are much worse things in some of these books that I’ve read to date.
The Experience of Reading Washington: A Life
For my first book in the series, I selected Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow. Published in 2010 and weighing in at 818 pages, this Pulitzer Prize winning book is quite long and very detailed. I read this book on my iPad via the Kindle app. The Kindle copy was fully functional and allowed for all of the features available on the Kindle (this includes the ability to scroll through the text as opposed to flipping pages. I include this because some Kindle books are not as functional).
I finished this book on February 1, 2021 having started it almost 40 days earlier. I read the last 400 pages in about two days, so even though there was a large gap between the time I started it and when I finished it, I read most of the book as a whole, which is the way I like to attack books. If I don’t finish a book in a week, that’s a sign that I won’t finish it.
Writing about a person who has been dead for over 200 years and who lived in a time where there were no photographs, no videos, and scant newspapers would be rather daunting and his wife Martha Washington did the world no favors by burning their correspondence after the president died. That being said, there were his presidential papers and various records that he kept and from these, we can see some sense of what kind of person he was and what was important to him. Chernow's very detailed books shows us a man who is reserved, careful, self-conscious about his (lack of) education, and resolute in his convictions. Chernow makes some assumptions about Washington in an effort to paint a picture of what Washington’s life might have been like as a young man. Overall, though, he doesn’t vary far from his research.
I think Chernow is pretty fair with his characterization of Washington. The temptation to write a hagiography about Washington is pretty great. After all, this guy won the War for Independence, presided over the drafting of the Constitution, and was the first president of the United States. He might be the most consequential human in the history of the country. Add to that the fact that he lived in what is now the distant past and the inaccessibility of Washington himself and you could just paint a two-dimensional portrait of an idealized hero. Chernow doesn’t do that. We see a man who is concerned about money, who has a temper, and who can be somewhat cruel to slaves. He is also someone who is quite sociable, popular with the ladies, and almost universally well-regarded. Chernow is aiming for a broad audience with this book -- it's not an academic treatment of his life -- and he largely succeeds. To be sure, this is not a summer afternoon read. It's detailed, long, and covers a lot about Washington. For example, you find out about his concerns relative to Martha's children and various relatives that find their way into his care. You also find out quite a bit about his relationship with his mother, who might be the least impressed person in the country with her son. Maybe there's too much detail -- I mean, when Chernow speculates about his relationship with the wife of one of his friends, once would have been enough, but Chernow goes back to that storyline several times.
There are many things to say about Washington and his life, but even with 800 plus pages he remains somewhat of an enigma. Over all, I would rate this as an excellent book and would recommend it to anyone who really wants to know about this seminal figure in American history.
Washington’s Life Before Presidency
Washington was a surveyor as a young man and fought in the French/Indian War of the late 1750s/early 1760s. My reading of his performance in the French and Indian War was that he was not exactly wildly successful, but he was well admired by his troops and was courageous in battle.
He was a plantation owner (the famous Mount Vernon), located on the banks of the Potomac River in Virginia. Having been there, I can tell you that the house is nice and everything (and was probably even more impressive in 18th Century America), but what is really spectacular is the location, as you can see in this picture. When Chernow talks about Washington's desire to get back to Mount Vernon, you don't have to have a vivid imagination to understand why.
As a young man, he was primarily interested in agriculture and making his farms (he had four in the area) prosper. He got largely out of the tobacco business because it was a tough crop on the soil. He instead moved into grains and he even had a distillery. He was a local office holder as well and kind of a BMOC in the area. Washington was a land speculator of sorts and owned about 50,000 acres of land in various locations in what is now Pennsylvania and Kentucky.
Once the American Revolution began, Washington led the Continental Army. The army was not well disciplined or trained – troops didn’t go to boot camp or a military academy, they went straight to the field. Troops signed up for one year hitches, but desertion was high because the troops were facing the best army in the world while they were poorly clothed, barely fed, unpaid, and barely sheltered. Because of the one year hitches in a war that stretched from 1775-1781, Washington was constantly dealing with an Army that was green and unfamiliar with what war was actually like.
My impression of Washington’s performance in the Revolutionary War, like in his earlier war, was that he was mainly hailed for his personal heroism in the face of battle and his ability to stem losses so that his troops could literally live to fight another day. But it wasn’t like he won a lot of battles or showed any tactical or strategic brilliance. Often, it seemed that the British knew more about the terrain and how to use that terrain to their advantage than the home team did. He won the famous battle of Trenton after crossing the Delaware and he won at Yorktown with a major assist from the French. Almost every other battle that he engaged in, though, was a loss of some sort and usually what happened was his army fled once the battle was engaged. Washington, to his credit, realized that he couldn’t take the British on in a series of battles. He needed to just not lose, not surrender his army, so he spent a lot of time just avoiding the British Army. His true accomplishment was to keep the army together and not have it disband. I think that was no mean feat. As we have learned in modern times, it's one thing to invade a country. It's another to completely subdue it and keep it subdued.
After the war, Washington retired to Mount Vernon and tried to get his plantation back in order. He sacrificed much financially during his service to the country and that was a recurring theme during the first five decades or so of American life. Presidents had to be wealthy because being president was a money losing proposition and there was no post presidency pension to help out. He had to be persuaded to preside over the Constitutional Convention and he did so as president (of the Convention), but he had relatively little to say about the actual framing of the Constitution. He was not a well-educated man (he did not go to college) and he was somewhat intimidated by the likes of Madison and others, who were well versed in the theories of republican government. Washington’s presiding over the Convention was important, though, because he leant his credibility to the effort.
Key Challenges/Features of Washington’s Presidency
The key challenge to Washington’s presidency was that before him there was no federal government. No one had been president and showed him how it was done. He blazed a path for all others to follow. There was no city of Washington, he began his presidency in New York and after two years, moved to Philadelphia, where the capital would stay for 10 years. In New York, the president lived in a rented house that wasn’t particularly grand. Washington twice in his first term was seriously ill and apparently near death.
Washington was able to assemble a brilliant cabinet with Alexander Hamilton as Treasury Secretary, Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Henry Knox as Secretary of War, and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General. Interestingly, the AG’s job was considered kind of a part time gig and Randolph had a private practice on the side. Washington appointed 11 Justices to the Supreme Court (the most in history), including the original six, and three separate Chief Justices. In the beginning of the Court, there wasn’t a huge load of cases and the Justices also served in circuit courts, meaning that they had to travel away from the Capital city. A lot of justices didn’t want to do that, so there was a lot of turnover.
In his second term, there was a substantial amount of in-fighting within his cabinet. Jefferson and Hamilton feuded over the powers of the federal government and of the treasury in particular. Jefferson was a Francophile and supportive of the French Revolution. He and his followers believed that the Federalists were monarchists who wanted to re-establish ties with England. Jefferson (and Madison in the House of Representatives) actively undermined presidential policy, but both he and Hamilton urged Washington to run for a second term, something that Washington apparently did not want. One point that I thought was interesting was that Washington not having any children was considered to be a plus because he couldn’t pass the presidency to his son.
Chernow makes it seem like Washington’s second term was marred by this in-fighting, a changeover in his cabinet to less accomplished men, and a fall in popularity. I think a lot of it is true. Both Jefferson and Hamilton resigned their positions in the second term. It is hard to tell, though, if Washington’s favorability was negatively impacted in the general public. Public polling didn’t exist and it’s hard to believe that people would be more in tune with politics than they are today, especially without any party apparatuses in place to drive controversy. I tend to believe that Washington's personal popularity remained strong, even as he presided over a divided government, which was absolutely not what he wanted to be doing.
Washington retired to Mount Vernon and tried to resume a life interrupted by his calling to the country. As with many of the early presidents, money was a problem, but he was not destitute like, say Monroe. During the Adams presidency, tensions arose with France and it appeared the US might go to war. Adams asked Washington to lead an army in preparation for a war, but that effort fizzled out. Despite several illnesses over his life, he was relatively healthy in retirement. However, in December 1799, Washington fell ill after working outside in some harsh weather and he developed a throat infection. Doctors came and sucked the life out of him by bleeding him into a state of extreme weakness until he died a horrible death. With modern medicine, Washington almost certainly would have survived this illness. On the one hand, it seems rather unfortunate that Washington didn’t live long enough to see the country he helped create grow and expand. On the other hand, his death really ended the Federalist era and provided a clean break from the Revolution. A year later, Jefferson was elected president and he took the country in a different direction and within a few short years, the Washington era seemed almost foreign to the new country.
Washington’s Family Life
Little is known about Washington growing up or at least little is revealed in Chernow’s book. He married Martha Dandridge Custis, who was a wealthy widow when he was 26 (she was 27). Very little correspondence exists between the two despite George being away for a six year war because Martha burned their correspondence when he died. She had two children, but together, they had none, leading to the belief that the father of our country was sterile.
George had a difficult relationship with his mother. She seemed extremely self-centered and repeatedly burdened George with her financial needs despite being fairly well-to-do herself. She rarely complimented her supremely successful son and often embarrassed him publicly. Nevertheless, he was a dutiful son.
He was apparently a loving stepfather, but his stepson Jacky Custis was a ne’er-do-well who failed to apply himself in college and was a wastrel. He died young, as did his stepdaughter. Martha and George raised her grandchildren. There were various male relatives in the picture and none of them seemed to be anyone of consequence and actually more of a burden to George. This is a theme that was recurring in presidents of that age. Many had children who were unremarkable and often downright problematic.
I’m not sure how much George and Martha loved each other, there wasn’t a whole lot of evidence of that because no letters. It was clear that Martha represented wealth to Washington and his marriage to her improved his social and financial standing. She (or rather, her first husband’s estate) owned a number of slaves and if the sole reason that George married her was for her money, I wouldn’t be surprised and that probably wouldn’t have been that scandalous in the 1750s. This leads me to a second thing that stands out in the book: George was a serious flirt. He wrote many letters to married women that, if written today, might be somewhat scandalous. It may be the case (subsequent biographies of other presidents lend some credence to that theory) that these letters were kind of a fashion of the day. But George took a particular liking to one particular woman – the wife of a friend of his – suggesting that they may have had an affair. This took up a not insignificant part of the book and the whole discussion was speculation based. A lot of this probably could have been edited out of the book perhaps, because I'm not sure how important that really is.
Martha did come and spend time with George during the winters in the Revolutionary War, even at Valley Forge. I did not see any evidence that theirs was a difficult marriage, but neither was there much evidence that the marriage was particularly loving or passionate. She was not particularly excited about being the wife of the president and was especially not thrilled about a second term.
Washington: The Man
It was hard to really understand what kind of man that Washington was. He didn’t speak his mind a lot and Chernow suspects there were several reasons for this. He was self-conscious about his education, so he kept quiet around a lot of his peers. Unlike Jefferson or Adams, he never traveled to Europe – his one trip outside of the US was to the Caribbean to help his sick brother convalesce (he caught small pox down there, which might explain his apparent sterility). He also did not actively campaign for any role that he had. Chernow suggests that Washington was very deliberate in this – he wanted people to want him – and in doing so, he let power come to him.
There are a lot of warts on Washington, like anyone, and chief among these was his role as a slave holder. To his credit, he did free his slaves upon his death, something no other slave holding president did (as far as I’ve read to this point) and he didn’t split up families by selling them. Chernow also asserted that Washington “abhorred” slavery, but talk is pretty cheap. He was a man of his times, yes, but some of the men of his times did not approve of slavery.
He was obsessed with money. He complained often about money and could seem rather petty about some matters. There were times in the book when Chernow would relate some story about money and my reaction was FFS, George, give it a rest. The overall picture that Chernow paints is of a man who is dutiful, strong, loyal, and willing to sacrifice for his country.
I will admit that I came away from this book with a slightly less favorable view of Washington than I had coming in. Setting aside the moral issues with slavery (I already knew about that), he wasn't that great of a general and he had a much less harmonious presidency than I had envisioned. He seemed petty in certain matters. I'm not sure if that was just me interpreting what Chernow was writing or what because his record of accomplishment is outstanding.
The America of the 1790s was a primitive place as compared to today. Travel anywhere was difficult, communications were extremely slow. Transatlantic voyages could take well over a month, or longer and were fairly dangerous.
It has become apparent to me that the United States as a whole in the late 1770s was not exactly supporting the war effort. Farmers were more than willing to sell their crops to the British (there may have been a few bayonets waved in their faces to be sure) while American troops starved to death. There were no taxes to speak of to support the war effort. The entire burden was being carried by a few thousand men who suffered tremendously. They were held together by Washington, who had better accommodations only slightly better. It was Washington’s character and leadership more than anything that won that war. (And yet, see above, I somehow got this slightly less positive feeling about him.)
Philadelphia, at about 50,000 people, was the largest city in the United States and the second largest English speaking city in the world. Virginia was the largest and most prosperous state in the country. The population of the United States was about 4 million, less than that of the state of Minnesota today. The American economy was almost completely agrarian. Washington purchased stylish clothes and various fineries in Europe because they were simply not available in the US.
Healthcare was virtually non-existent. Doctors bled their patients often resulting in their deaths, as was the case with Washington (and this practice continued for *at least another 50 years*. Diseases were rampant and not understood. Childhood mortality was common, women died in childbirth at an alarming rate. Life expectancy at birth for men from 1791-1815 was 35.35 years for men and 38.44 years for women.
The federal government was new, its powers were limited and undefined. A surprising number of people favored a monarchy over a republican government. Voting was limited to white male property owners. The senate and some governors were elected by state legislatures, voting for president varied widely from state to state with a lot of the states leaving the selection of electors to the electoral college up to the state legislators.
The federal government did not have an army, each state had its militias. This would become a real problem during the War of 1812, but that's a story for another day.
What Really Surprised Me
I think one of the biggest surprises for me was how little fighting there actually was over the six years that the Revolutionary War dragged on. For several years, Washington had almost no engagement with the enemy. New York was taken with very little resistance and Washington never actually recaptured it. The British simply abandoned it when the war was over. The British were, for the most part, allowed to roam wherever they wanted and engaged in a brutal and dispiriting Southern campaign late in the war. But then Yorktown happened. Yorktown in 1781 was a huge victory, but it wasn’t like that’s it, the war is over. No. The British basically realized that this war was draining their coffers and they were engaged with the French in a lot of places, not just in the US and they decided they didn’t want to continue. They weren’t defeated and driven out. They quit. The treaty to end the war (the treaty of Paris) wasn't signed until September 1783.
The French weren’t exactly fighting side-by-side with the Americans. Yes, they helped, but it wasn’t like they sent 20,000 troops and said, here we are, let’s beat these bloody redcoats. No. They certainly were key at Yorktown and they convinced Washington that Yorktown was where the British needed to be engaged. Washington wanted to go up and attack New York, not realizing what the French did. That fit a theme. Many was the time that the British seemed to know more about the landscape at a particular battlefield and where to press the advantage than the Americans did. Amazing. Congress contemplated replacing Washington as CIC and Washington constantly grumbled about the lack of funding that he got.
I had no idea that his cabinet was as fractious as it was and that there was a fair amount of criticism in his second term. I had no idea that he was seriously ill twice in his first term. I did not know the extent to which he was critical of Thomas Jefferson. Martha Washington said that Jefferson’s visit to Mount Vernon was the second worst day of her life, the worst being when Washington died. And this is a woman who buried a husband and her children. She would probably be mortified that her husband is carved in stone in a mountain with Jefferson right next to him.
What one person (not a president) would I want to read about from Washington’s era as President?
Without a doubt, that person is Alexander Hamilton. I will definitely want to read Chernow’s account. I’ve seen the play a couple of times on Disney+ and I think I’d like to watch it again after having read books on the first five presidents. But also, it’s really good. As for Hamilton, he was reviled by the 3rd-5th presidents, but Washington was a fan, so that’s good enough for me.
The latest Sienna poll rates George Washington as the greatest overall president in the history of the United States (as of 2018). He was listed as first overall in terms of Integrity, Leadership ability, and Relationship with Congress (among others). His presidency was crucial in establishing norms and defining the office. I’m not sure if I agree yet with him being #1, but it is pretty clear that his presidency and his time as Commander in Chief were huge successes and without his performance in these roles, there might not even be a United States of America today.
What I Was Looking Forward to after Reading this Book
One of the key things that I was looking forward to after reading this book was how the Continental Congress saw the Revolutionary War. There was obviously a lot of tension between Washington and the Congress. Washington complained vociferously about a lack of funds for his troops and I was looking forward to see how Adams responded (hint: this was not something that I was able to find out).
How My Understanding Lines Up (or doesn’t) with the Presidential Podcast
Having gone back and listened to the first episode of the Presidential podcast, I now remember what the format was and am also reminded why I enjoyed the podcast so much. The host, Lilian Cunningham talks with journalists from the Washington Post, historians, and also to Julie (not Judith!!!) Miller of the Library of Congress, who dishes on what it would be like to date the president along with a lot of other things. In this episode, Cunningham talks with Bob Woodward, Joel Achenbach, and Ms. Miller.
There's a lot not to like about Woodward, but one thing that you can glean from him is that we should assess what the president thought was the next great good for the country and whether the president succeeded in attaining that next great good. He also points out that our assessments of presidents change over time (he also calls the pardon of Nixon “courageous” ::eyeroll:: and proclaims the GWB was “right” when he said that when the final assessment of the War in Iraq is made, we will all be dead). I mean, he’s right in that my perspective is from the early 21st Century, and presidential assessments do in fact change over time – and probably more to the negative than the positive, I would guess, but not always.
Achenbach and Miller discuss Washington in the context of the 18th Century. In their view, Washington was a man of his time (i.e., slave owner, although he felt that slavery was wrong and did free his slaves in his will, which was not something other slave holding presidents did). He was also willing to listen to counsel and because he had never been to Europe, he looked to Adams and Jefferson for advice as to how to present the country to Europeans. He was also concerned about ensuring that he established presidential norms properly so that there was a healthy precedent for presidents to come. He did not want to be a king, he wanted to be accessible, but not too accessible. To this end, I think he was enormously successful. I think this episode the podcast confirmed for me a lot of how Washington was as a person and how he was as a president. While I do highly recommend the podcast, it is no substitute for Chernow's book to be sure.
What We Can Learn from the Washington Presidency
What I hope to do here is point to one or two things that we can learn from a presidency and (maybe) apply to 21st Century America. I don’t know if every president will provide unique lessons, but where I think there are some pretty good lessons for 21st Century presidents, I will note them.
Honestly, Washington’s presidency is so unique because it was first, that there are many things that he did that are almost eternal lessons for the American presidency. But I think there are two lessons in particular that stand out. The first of these are the norms that he established for the presidency. The power of the presidency is one of the most interesting (and scary) aspects of the United States Government. The Constitution was not exactly clear in how the government should function. It is a relatively thin document that sets out basic principles. Actually governing the country, though, was a lot more complex, even in the days where the presidency was a much more limited office than it is today. Washington took great care in determining what it meant to faithfully execute the office. Things like how the president should be addressed (“your highness?”, no “Mr. President”) to how long a president should serve – two terms seems like a good maximum – originated in this time. Also, realize that the early Americans were wary of one person holding too much power. Their vision was that Congress would be the first among equals (note that Article I of the Constitution is directed toward Congress and not the president). How much power the president held was (and is) a contentious issue. Washington was faithful to what the original intent was.
The other thing I think that Washington did was bring a real sense of humility to the office. Publicly, he would state, as he did when taking the role as head of the Continental Army, that he wasn’t qualified. He did the same when he became president. One might believe that he was doing that for a political reason. Well maybe, but he echoed that in his private writings as well, so it is highly likely that he believed that, too. His sense of humility caused him to seek counsel from those who were the experts. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but we’ve seen subsequent presidents not enter the office with that sense of humility and without relying on experts for their advice and that’s gone not too great, as we have all seen and we will see again in this series.
Well, that's a lot on Washington. I hope you enjoyed this and will follow along as I continue.
I’ve decided to break out my discussion of my presidential biography project into its own series instead of writing long comments in the monthly book post. I’ll still update briefly what I’ve read each month in that post and this particular post isn’t going to be about any one of the books. Rather, I wanted to talk about the project itself, my motivations for undertaking it, what I’ve learned to date, and where I see it going.
For pretty much everyone, 2020 was a terrible year. After 10 years of relentless traveling to North Dakota for work, I was suddenly home bound, fearful of even keeping my job, and anxious about the disease and how it would impact our country. And, let’s be clear, I was mortified by the actions of the White House and I despaired that the Orange One would be re-elected. By Christmas, the election was over (well, for the reality based world, it was), but the pandemic was raging out of control. My company shuts down between Christmas and New Year’s Day every year, so that's a time that I usually sit back and take stock of things or do projects like painting, or both. Usually, it also provides me with a respite from traveling, but in 2020, it was just more of the same.
Even though I was continuing to stay home and go nowhere, I had about 11 days off to reflect on the state of things. I had been thinking all year, retire, retire, I need to retire. Of course, I’m too young to retire (or more accurately, my daughter is too young for me to retire). I reconciled myself to eight more years of work (maybe not, but I’m willing to keep going) and I came to peace with that. I also thought that I needed to quit thinking about the outrages of the day and try to develop some perspective about things. In other words, I wanted to know, were things always this crazy? I didn’t think so, but there’s been periods of unrest in the US in my lifetime and some fairly, from my point of view, disheartening things that have happened politically. At the same time, there have been some real areas where there’s been progress.
It was over Christmas that I first heard the idea that we shouldn’t teach our children to love America or hate America, but rather to understand America. I’ve always had an interest in knowing more about the US Presidency, so I decided to use that lens to learn about American history. I decided to read one book about each American president. How to start such a project? Well, I did what 21st Century Americans do. I grabbed my computer and searched for “best presidential biographies”. Lo and behold, there was a website out there, https://bestpresidentialbios.com/, dedicated to just this topic! Who would have guessed? (Actually, I would have guessed. I know that there’s a website dedicated to different ways to tie your shoes, so this had to be there.)
A few days after Christmas, I bought my first book, Washington, A Life, by Ron Chernow on Kindle and I started to read it. On New Year’s Eve, I made my list of books, totaling some 30,000 pages and I was off. And then, January 6th happened. I was torn away from this project due to the horror I felt when the Capitol was overrun by thugs who were intent on disrupting what was a simple formality in service of a Big Lie. My anxiety and disgust went up and the project languished. But, toward the end of the month, I picked it back up and started again. By February 1, I had the Washington book finished. I had read only 818 pages in January and that’s not a pace that you can keep if you want to read 30,000 pages.
I had hoped that some of the books could be obtained from the library, and I did check out the Th. Jefferson book from the Dakota Public Library, but I learned, much to my chagrin, that a lot of these books (most of them) were not available here or via the Hennepin Country Library, which I can access through my Dakota Country Library pass. So, I started to acquire the books. And, some of them were quite expensive. My thinking is that I want to spend a little as possible, so if there’s a kindle version available that’s probably the cheapest (but not always!) and I’m not adverse to buying used books. One thing I found was that buying used books is fine, but you need to allow about a month for them to be delivered. As I picked up my pace, I started ordering ahead.
Along the way, I’ve made some changes in the list. I’ve decided that one book per president is a rule that I’m going to follow. In two different cases, there were selections of trilogies that I replaced with one book each. Plus, I’ve found that a lot of these books will have 100 or even 200 pages in some cases of end notes. Therefore, a book with 800 pages might only be 650 pages of reading. With the change in books in some instances (I changed my Rutherford B. Hayes book because I wasn’t going to pay $120 to read about him), my page total is now around 25,000 pages. As of today, I’m about 300 pages behind schedule, but I’m on pace to read about 3,200 pages in March, which will put me well above pace. Currently, I need to average 71 pages a day to finish by December 31. I think that’s totally doable.
So far, this has been a really fun project for me. I’m learning a lot about these presidents, the first 65 years of the United States (so far) and the variation between the authors in how they treat events. A book about James Madison is going to plow a lot of the same territory as a book about Jefferson. So is a book about John Quincy Adams, but seeing those events play out through, say, JQA’s eyes (and his biographer) provides texture that you wouldn’t get by reading just one book. Clearly, my decision to read them in order is a good one, as the subsequent books just add understanding to what I’ve already read. For example, one day I posed the question in the Cup of Coffee about what five things would you tell Thomas Jefferson. Having read a few more books since then, my questions would be different now.
I’m no history major, so I feel like when I talk about some of this stuff, some of you are probably saying, I can’t believe you didn’t know that. I’m also quite aware of the Dunning-Krueger Effect. (I watched Jared Kushner for four very long years.) I’m far from an expert on the first 65 years of US History! I’ve just read 8 books on it. It’s prompted me to think about what next after this project – who should I read next? It turns out that the guy at the best presidential bios site has a whole list of people that he was inspired to read about during his journey (he did this over like seven or eight year and read several books about each president… wow). So, I already have access to a list of people who I might want to read about to fill in the blanks.
Anyway, for those of you who have read this far, my plan is to start summarizing these books in individual posts. I hope you will be interested enough to read what I have to say and comment. If not, this posting is a way to preserve for my own memory what I’ve been through on this journey.
They moved up. They had good luck? Are they now gonna be well run? Will have to see whether Papa Glen sells the club and to whom. Counterpoint: the last time they drafted right before the Warriors, it did not end well.
I haven't posted here in a long time. What's on your mind?
The Twins had three four-game winning streaks and two three-game winning streaks last year. That's it. Three games is three games, but this start is better than a sharp stick in the eye.