Thursday, February 01, 2007

Those wacky forefathers

Our ever lovin’ forefathers really were impressive. Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison were among the most knowledgeable persons of the day and each capable of great creativity and staggering output. Undistracted by tv, movies and the internet, they read and wrote more in a year about serious topics than most people today do in a lifetime. Washington, although not as well read or philosophical as the above group, had his own sense of decency and practical philosophy which led to his being the one person almost everyone trusted to be the first president. As was said at one of his many eulogies, he was “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen”. When his nemesis, King George III of England, heard that Washington was not trying to hold onto his power, he reportedly said “If true, he will be the greatest man in the world”.

Recently, a friend of mine told me about a documentary he had seen on the Adams-Jefferson relationship which had surprised him concerning their long standing antagonism. Not surprising, as most people who do not delve into their history probably assume that these great men who formed our country probably were in concert and got along well. We learned nothing in high school that would tell us differently. But it is not so. Although there were great friendships among them, at least temporarily, there was also great rivalry. When you contemplate the animosity between the conservatives and liberals of our times, it will not seem much different than that which existed in the first “Greatest Generation”. Like now, the reasons then were mostly political.

When Washington took office, there were no parties. In fact, the idea of parties was looked down upon. But during Washington’s governance two parties developed, the Federalists and the Republicans (to make things more confusing, the Republican party was also called at different points in history Democrat-Republicans, federalists, anti-federalists, and Democrats, but I will just call them Republicans here; but that party has no connection with the present day Republicans, whose first elected nominee was Lincoln). The Federalists were for a strong central government and were usually more pro-British. The Republicans were for a weak central government, strong State governments and were usually more pro-French. For the most part the Federalists controlled the federal government until 1800 when the Republicans took the presidency (Jefferson) and Congress. The Federalist party, which would die out within twenty years, still controlled the Judiciary. The Republicans saw it as a “second revolution” as they believed the Washington-Adams-Hamilton party had strayed from the revolution’s principles. The forefathers I am talking about here broke down like this.

George Washington - Federalist
John Adams - Federalist
Alexander Hamilton - Federalist
Thomas Jefferson - Republican
James Madison - Republican
Aaron Burr - Republican

Here is how they got along, at least in a summary fashion:

George Washington versus John Adams . Well, almost everyone loved or at least respected Washington. But at one time or another, Washington had a falling out or problems with all of the other forefathers above. Just as Washington was the first president, Adams was the first vice president. Adams had been a supporter of General Washington during the revolution and thereafter, and did nothing to work against him while vice president, unlike Thomas Jefferson, who was the secretary of state. However, Washington’s presidency was an experiment, as they were all trying to figure out how the president should act in a republic. Adams, who knew he would likely be the next president, thought that the president should be called “his majesty the president”. This seemed ridiculous to most, and one suggested Adams should be called “his rotundity,” mocking his pomposity and his weight. Unfortunately for Adams, it stuck. Adams continued to fight for the more exalted title, even lecturing the Senate during their debate on it. In doing so, combined with his arrogant posturing, he became “odious” to Washington, who thereafter simply cut Adams off from active participation. Adams’ eight years as VP under Washington was a misery. He wrote “My country has contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived”.

George Washington versus Alexander Hamilton. Most of the time, these two were extremely close, Hamilton being almost like an adopted son. Yet while the war raged on, Hamilton, a very young man but key Washington aid, and the General had a terrible falling out. The fight was generated by Washington blowing his famous stack when he thought that Hamilton had slighted him by keeping him waiting two minutes while he finished a conversation. Although Washington soon apologized, Hamilton refused to accept it, and resigned. The real reason was that Hamilton wanted to get into the action instead of being a staff officer. Leading troops into combat was where the glory was, and Hamilton was incredibly desirous of glory. He got his wish at the last great battle of the war, Washington seeing to it that he lead the charge at Yorktown. This mended all fences. Hamilton ended up Washington’s secretary of state, and many even thought of Washington as Hamilton’s puppet.

George Washington versus Thomas Jefferson. The principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence and our third president, Jefferson was one of the greatest backroom plotters of all times. Unfailing polite and mild in debate, he used every deceptive move he could through political operatives and journalists to fight against the Washington administration despite the fact that he was his secretary of state. Hamilton, the Secretary of Treasury, and Jefferson went at each other so hard through their journalistic mouthpieces that Washington had to beg them each to cut it out, which they refused to do. But Washington, not Hamilton, was president, and Jefferson did everything he could to undermine the administration he served, and whose policies he deplored. Jefferson himself wrote in what amounted to a diary, that one day Washington had a temper tantrum about the writings of Jefferson’s mouthpiece in the press, who had insinuated that Washington wanted to be King. Jefferson lost most of his battles while serving as secretary of state, and resigned after a few years.

George Washington versus James Madison. Only Hamilton was probably tighter with Washington among the forefathers. Madison, much later the fourth president, had a natural connection with Washington as brother Virginians, although Washington was much older than he was. Working in unison since the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, their friendship was key in getting the constitutional convention held and the constitution adopted. However, Federalist and Republican politics again got in the way. While Washington was president, Madison was a leader in the House of Representative and usually in opposition to the administration. He was essentially Jefferson’s second in command. After fighting a series of proposals made by Hamilton on behalf of the administration, Madison pushed it one too far for Washington, by opposing a treaty with Great Britain (the controversial Jay Treaty). Madison would never again be a guest of Washington at Mt. Vernon. Although Madison still respected the older man, their great collaboration was at end due to their political differences.

George Washington versus Aaron Burr. Because Burr has been vilified throughout our history for killing Hamilton in a duel and for a military expedition many saw as treason a few years later (he was unsuccessfully tried for it), it is often forgotten that Burr was a great military hero during the war, rising to Colonel as a very young man, and thereafter one of the most influential lawyers and politicians of his day. He was also ahead of his time in his manner of educating his daughter and his beneficent treatment of his slaves (like many forefathers, he was against slavery, but had slaves). Burr had served on Washington’s staff even before Hamilton. It did not last long. Burr longed for military action and, unlike Hamilton, got it. Washington had little use for Burr, refusing him a commission when the war broke out and later passing over him for a commendation, even though Burr was a bona fide war hero at the time. Washington would later speak disapprovingly of Burr’s morals.

John Adams versus Thomas Jefferson. You cannot do this interrupted friendship justice in a paragraph or two. They started out like gangbusters, serving on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence together (which Adams later said was mere theatrics for which Jefferson got all the glory). They thereafter served in France together as diplomats and became the closest of friends. After the war, both served under Washington. Adams became a Federalist and Jefferson, the head of the Republican party. After Washington’s two terms, they ran against each other in 1796 election. Adams defeated Jefferson. However, because Jefferson received the second highest vote total, he was Adams’ vice president (that is how they did it at the time) and severely undermined Adams in many ways. He secretly drafted the Kentucky resolutions, which, if made law, would have given the states the right to disobey federal law, and, by using newspaper writers to criticize the president and his administration. Jefferson referred to the Adams Administration as the “reign of witches”. The 1800 election was particularly vicious. Adams had a miserable presidency, partially thanks to Jefferson. He probably never would have forgiven Jefferson, if not for the intercession of a mutual friend, the famous physician and politician, Benjamin Rush, who persuaded Adams to write his former friend. Their voluminous correspondence, occasionally boring, but most often fascinating, lasted from 1812 until 1826, when they both died within hours of each other on the very same day – which also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams versus Alexander Hamilton. Adams was certainly the more respected of the two as far as the nation was concerned, being deemed the “Atlas of Independence”. He was not only elected the first vice president, but the second president. However, within politics, the wily and less principled Hamilton was far more influential than Adams, who was often described as prickly, acerbic and arrogant. While Adams was left out as vice president for eight years under Washington, Hamilton, in the less glamorous role of secretary of state, ran a huge operation that set the tone for the nations economy, and really became the head of the federalist party. When Adams ran for president in 1796, Hamilton, although in the same party, circulated a tract against him. It was supposed to have remained a secret but was published. If that wasn’t bad enough, Hamilton openly slammed Adams’ character in another publication during the 1800 election. When Adams became president, he nobly but foolishly kept on Washington’s cabinet, all of whom secretly reported to Hamilton. Adams famously referred to Hamilton as "the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler," and it is somewhat hard to blame him. Hamilton frustrated him at every turn.

Thomas Jefferson versus Alexander Hamilton. This was a heavyweight fight. Both led their parties. Both were devious and underhanded in playing politics. They battled fiercely through surrogates, with Hamilton sometimes writing under pseudonyms, while both served in Washington’s cabinet. During these years Hamilton usually came out on top. Both of them had a strong flirtation with Hamilton’s sister in-law, Angelica Schuyler Church, and some suspect Hamilton of having had an affair with her. Jefferson undoubtedly would have liked to have done so. It is not too much to say that the policies they battled about are to a degree the same fights Republicans and Democrats have today. Late in the 1790s, a Jefferson partisan, who made his living writing scurrilous things about Jefferson’s enemies, hinted strongly that Hamilton had had an illicit affair and behaved improperly when in office. The first part was true, the second false. To stave off the attack, Hamilton published his own pamphlet admitting the sexual affair but defending his conduct as secretary of the treasury. Hamilton also threatened to publish an article on Jefferson’s attempt to steal his best friend’s wife. Ironically, because of his dislike for Adams and Burr, Hamilton helped Jefferson, whom he at least respected, get elected president in 1800.

Thomas Jefferson versus Aaron Burr. Another great rivalry for which there is just not enough ink. Burr started out on Jefferson’s side helping the Republicans sweep to power. Everyone, including Burr, understood that Jefferson would be president and Burr vice president. But when they surprisingly tied in electoral votes, and it went to the House of Representatives for a decision, Burr would not give in. Eventually, Jefferson, through devious machinations, broke the stalemate, making Burr VP. During the first term (near the end of which Burr would kill Hamilton in a duel) Burr, as President of the Senate conducted the trial of a Federalist judge who Jefferson wanted thrown off the bench. Burr, one of the most experienced trial lawyers in the country, handled the trial firmly but fairly, and the judge was acquitted, to Jefferson’s great chagrin. After Burr left office, he organized a military operation to conquer Mexico and possibly slice off Western states and territories. Jefferson had Burr tried for treason. The judge was another Jefferson nemesis, John Marshall, who was also Jefferson’s own cousin, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Burr was acquitted on all charges, but it essentially ended his entire career.

Alexander Hamilton versus James Madison. They were buddies during the run up to the Constitution, both working to get the convention started. Hamilton was for an elected and inheritable monarchy, which everyone else was against. He did not think much of the constitution when it was drafted. Still, once it was proposed by the convention, the two worked together on what are now known as The Federalist Papers, a lengthy series of newspaper articles aimed at convincing New Yorkers to ratify. It is still the most quoted political writing by the Supreme Court. Once the government was formed, with Hamilton as Secretary of State and Madison as a leader in the house, their enmity was almost a certainty, and just as Washington and Madison could no longer be friends, neither could Madison and Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton versus Aaron Burr. The most complicated of all the relationships and also the most well known, as it ended in a death. Both were young men who rose to prominence during the war. Both were on Washington’s staff, though at different times. Both were brilliant lawyers’ who soon dominated the New York bar, trying case after case together, including the famous Manhattan Well murder trial which has been written about in an earlier posting on this blog. Their lives were intertwined in many ways, Burr even acting as an honest broker when Hamilton was first accused of dishonesty in office. Burr actually interceded to stave off a duel between Hamilton and James Monroe (the fifth president). Then Burr had a duel with Hamilton’s brother-in-law, John Church over the very same Manhattan Well, during which duel Church shot off Burr’s belt buckle. Burr was furious that Hamilton threw his weight behind Jefferson during his and Burr’s standoff for the presidency. Hamilton felt that Jefferson was wrong in his vision for a rural America dominated by individual states, but at least he believed in something, whereas he found Burr completely unprincipled and guided only by self-interest. When it was clear that Burr would not be vice president the second term, he ran for New York’s governor. Hamilton thought he would win. But, when Burr lost, he believed that it was due to Hamilton’s behind the scenes machinations. When Hamilton was reported to have said something exceedingly disparaging to Burr’s character during a dinner party, Burr demanded an apology. Hamilton would not back down, and after the requisite back and forth attempts to forgo the duel with honor, they fought with pistols at Weehawken, NJ, across the Hudson River from NYC. Burr killed Hamilton with one shot, and then fled south for a while, before resuming his office as Vice President.

Nothing above is meant to argue that these founders were not amazing and brilliant men, about whom we can’t read, write or talk about enough. But, as with all heroic figures, we can't humanize them enough either.

As a bonus I offer the following top ten presidents list, which I hope will cause disagreeable comment from you and name calling that would make the forefathers proud.

10. John Adams (navigated away from war with France, and despite over long vacations, he managed to stave off crisises while fending off Jefferson on one side and Hamilton on the other; the two most formidable oponents of the day)
9 Lyndon Johnson (for the civil rights, not the war)
8 Harry S. Truman (tough time to step in as President, but he did an
excellent job and took the heat)
7 James Polk (you might not like the way he did it, but he greatly
expanded this country to its modern continental borders)
6 Ulysses Grant (a recent spate of biographies convinced me he was a far better president than he is given credit for)
5 FDR (even if he screwed everything else up as his critics claim, what do you rate for WWII alone – most polls rank him just below Lincoln and Washington)
4 James Monroe (Although not one of the Olympian like forefathers, he is highly underrated as a president)
3 Theodore Roosevelt (Perhaps the most unique president, he helped establish America as a world power, while working to stave off the worst aspects of our corporate powers)
2 Abraham Lincoln (If nothing else, for his writing, although you might like him for his success in making certain the Union still stood)
1 George Washington (Made the mold)

I used to have Woodrow Wilson in my list (I believe in place of Adams) and he might pop back in one day. But more research left me unsure whether he was a great president or a horrible one. I have never been an Andrew Jackson fan, and although I admire some aspects of Ronald Reagan, I cannot help but believe his presidency was a seed and a catalyst for the current hostility and paralysis in government today. Feel free to disagree.


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  2. You can't leave Jefferson off the list you moron. The Louisiana Purchase... He stole 75% of our country from the frogs, you dufus. I grant you that Adams/Hamilton had the future nailed, in the context of his times, Jefferson was on about state's right and most importantly, about the separation of church and state.Polk!?! Clearly you hit the hard cider before you wrote this.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .