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Lecture Notes: George and Martha Washington
George Washington is known as the "father of our country." In 1789, most Americans would have agreed. When the Constitution was ratified, there was little doubt who the first President would be. He was the unanimous choice of the Electoral College and was re-elected in 1792. His Vice President was John Adams. So, let's examine why Americans trusted George Washington so much.
But, first the bad news. I hope you take this as adults, but George Washington did not cut down a cherry tree and confess it to his father saying "I cannot tell a lie." The myth was the product of an author, Mason Locke Weems, who wrote a book about Washington published in 1809. This is a familiar story to most students in U.S. schools although not be familiar to you if you went somewhere else. Well, if you can take that, I guess you can handle the next debunking. George Washington never had wooden teeth. Is everyone okay? Sorry, to break the news to you. The good news is that the reality of George Washington is more interesting that the myths.
Washington was born in 1732 in Virginia into a family described as living in "modest comfort." They were not wealthy, but his father did own 20 slaves. The Washingtons had an interesting view on slavery. They said they did not like slavery but feared African-Americans would be mistreated if freed. So, they emphasized the treatment of slaves. They did not believe in breaking-up families. Even when too old to work, the Washingtons took care of them. As a result, they had a good reputation among slaves and many will take the Washington name when freed.
When George was 11, his father died and George had to leave school to take care of the farm with the help of his older step-brother and very possessive mother. At the same time, George did not give up on education. He continued to study throughout his life. Read some of the quotes in the links above and judge his knowledge for yourselves.
A major influence in his life were his neighbors, the Fairfax family. They were very wealthy and Washington wanted to be like them. Mr. Fairfax gave Washington his first break, a job as a surveyor in the wilderness that Washington loved. He was 17.
As Washington grew up, two sides emerged. On one hand, he became a sensitive man who wrote poetry, loved to dance, had impeccable taste in fashion, and was an Enlightenment Man. At the same time the very manly Washington developed. He was strong, virile, and had such an aura that women seemed in awe. He was a man's man. He was very large for his era at 6'2" with red hair that turned gray, blue eyes, large feet, and large hands. He also had the scars from smallpox that few survived but Washington did.
He first became famous as result of the French and Indian War. At 21 (1753) he was appointed by the Governor of Virginia (Dinwiddie) to locate the French outposts in the Ohio Valley that Virginia claimed and the Governor had speculative interests. Washington was ordered to tell the French to get out. So, Washington and six others headed out and met with French officers who rejected Washington's orders. Washington returned to Virginia and almost froze to death on the way.
The Governor responded my sending 350 men to build Ft. Necessity to make his claim clear to the French. In 1754 the Governor sent Washington with 159 more men to check the progress on the fort. On the way, he met an Iroquois Indian who told Washington that the French were preparing to attack him. Washington decided to make a preemptive strike or attack the French before they could attack him. Washington and his men won the battle only to discover they had attacked a group of diplomats. Nonetheless, he continued to Ft. Necessity where the French and their American Indian allies retaliated. Washington was forced to surrender and sent home. This attack angered the English and Americans. The French and Indian War had begun.
Washington returned to the war and emerged with heroic status. Americans came to see him as "invincible" or unconquerable. He was fearless in battle. He had hats shot off, horses shot, and was caught in "friendly fire" in which several of his men were killed but he ran between the lines to stop the firing and emerged unharmed. He also got dysentery so bad he rode his saddle with a pillow on it. He survived "bleedings," the most common medical care of the era. (The belief was disease was a result of "bad blood" so get rid of the blood. So, the blood was drained and hopefully, the patient survived. Washington did this time although it may have contributed to his eventual death.) A one point Washington had to crawl on his hands and knees to reach reinforcements. He was 22 years old and the Commander of Virginia troops.
It was as a leader of men that Washington excelled. Something made his men passionately loyal despite being a stern leader and had a quick temper. He also "hung out" with his men, drinking, gambling, and telling his famous dirty jokes. Although it sounds corny and high school, it is really hard to find any documentation (letters, articles, etc.) that indicate that anyone who knew Washington disliked him.
After the French and Indian War, Washington rented and later bought Mt. Vernon and its 18 slaves. He turned to running the farm and self-improvement as he was always insecure about his lack of formal education. For 16 years he lived as a private citizen and his estate grew. This was mainly because he married well.
Martha Dandridge Custis was a widow with two small children when she met Washington. When her first husband had died, she had inherited a fortune. But this was nothing new for Martha who had been born wealthy and known as a socialite and excellent horsewoman. When she met George in 1758, they married a year later and George got all her property as was the custom of the day. Washington became one of the wealthiest men in Virginia.
They were something of an odd couple physically. She was only five foot tall, plump with small hands and feet and looked something like Barbara Bush. They seemed to have a happy marriage, though. He became the legal guardian of her children but they had none of their own. Smallpox has been known to cause fertility problems. They agreed on and shared almost everything including military life. She often traveled with him. Those who knew Martha described her as an example of "republican motherhood" representing the values of democracy. She preferred a simple lifestyle. Her peers described her as east to be with, dignified, lacking any arrogance, and somewhat obsessed with knitting.
After their marriage, Mt. Vernon became the focus of Virginia society and government when he was elected to House of Burgesses and had a constant open house. It was said they rarely ate without companions. They both avoided controversy.
When the American Revolution erupted, Washington was back in his element as the leader of men. He took no salary as a symbol of his dedication (although he did not really need it anyway). His charm and discipline brought some order to disorganized troops. He emerged with heroic status again. Some of his officers even advised him to take over the government as a dictator. He refused. When the Constitution was written, again he was called to participate as President of the Convention where he took on the role of negotiator. In 1789, he answered the call to be President. To most Americans it was a necessity. Their faith in him was unshakable. Most Americans knew that if he failed, the whole government would collapse.
Everything George and Martha did was a precedent. For Martha, the role of President's wife was an unknown since the Constitution does not address her duties. She chose to be a symbol of "republican motherhood" and domestic role model. She also advised her husband but did not make waves. She found being First Lady (not called that at this point), difficult. She complained about the loss of privacy and said she felt like a "state prisoner." At the same time, Martha established one way to view her role. Other First Ladies will take other paths.
Most First Ladies emphasize one role while trying to combine their roles. The vast majority of First Ladies have followed Martha's lead as domestically-oriented and in the background. Others will choose activism as their main role which usually means causing controversy as we will see with Abigail Adams. Other First Ladies will emphasize fashion and style as introduced by Dolley Madison. If you think of the First Ladies you remember, most of them emphasize one role or another. What do you think Mrs. Obama's emphasis is?
George seemed more comfortable with his new role. Several major actions were taken during his presidency. One of the most significant was the approval of the Bill of Rights written mostly by James Madison. In 1791, the first ten Amendments to the Constitution were ratified. What rights are protected in the Bill of Rights?
Another important action was the creation of the cabinet although that was not specified in the Constitution. In the cabinet, he made two very important appointments. As Secretary of State, he chose Thomas Jefferson. For Secretary of the Treasury, he selected Alexander Hamilton. From day one, these two men disagreed on almost everything and had different visions of what the U.S. would become. They especially disagreed about what the Constitution meant.
Jefferson was pro-agriculture and equated "the people" with farmers and saw the U.S. as an agrarian democracy. He was suspicious of cities, business and industry, and emphasized personal freedom. He also supported states' rights, feared tyranny and the loss of liberty. Hamilton was pro-business and saw industrial prosperity as the secret to success. He feared too much democracy and freedom and wanted a strong federal government with weak states.
Hamilton designed the economic system and policies based on his views so he wanted to encourage business and insure loyalty to the federal government. One of his major theories that still has a following today was the "trickle-down theory." If business was good, the benefits would trickle down to all Americans. The President shared this vision. There were several components to Hamilton's plan. One thing that worried his was the credit rating of the U.S. Many of the states had debts due to the American Revolution. To keep the nation's credit strong and protect confidence, Hamilton established the "assumption" plan. The federal government would assume the debts. This led to opposition from the southern states who had struggled to pay their debts. Hamilton introduced a compromise. The North would get their debts paid and the South would get the nation's capital city. Everyone agreed and the plan proceeded. Who got the best deal in this compromise?
The problem was that now the federal government had debt. Before assumption, the federal government had a $50 million debt. Assumption added and $25 million leaving the U.S. with a $75 million deficit. So Hamilton came up with a plan through sales of government bonds and urged the passage of "sin taxes" or excise taxes. The burden of the taxes was on whiskey producers and consumers. This hit the poor and frontiersmen particularly hard since they made the whiskey and used it for everything from celebrations to medicine. A system of enforcement with tax collectors was set up with them having the power to search anywhere with trials in Philadelphia, the current U.S. capital, which would be very expensive for defendants. This was very unpopular. Hamilton also supported increases in tariffs, taxes on imports, which was very unpopular in the South where more goods were imported. Nonetheless, assumption and the funding plan went into effect in 1790. In 1791, this was followed by the creation of the Bank of the United States as a depository for federal fund, to make money, and make loans to stimulate business and the economy. It was set up as a private/public endeavor for profit with 80% private and 20% public funding. Jefferson opposed the bank vehemently. He said it was unconstitutional and created a monopoly. He argued states' rights in the financial industry.
The economy did improve but unevenly. It was not trickling down. The poorer sorts were resentful. By 1791, protests began with assaults on tax collectors, petitions to the government, and chants of "liberty and no excise tax" could be heard in western Pennsylvania and Virginia. So in 1792, the whiskey tax was lowered but the protests continued. Then, in 1794, the tax was extended to snuff and sugar. Violence increased. By August, 1794, some 7,000 backwoodsmen from Pennsylvania and Virginia were known as the "Whiskey Rebel." Some went so far as to advocate independence from the U.S. and had their own flag with six stripes representing the six rebellious counties. This rebellion was known as the "Whiskey Rebellion."
The rebels continued their rampage but did little damage or caused little bloodshed. Some cities like Pittsburgh greeted the rebels and convinced them they were on the same side. The rebellion was fizzling out. At the same time, President Washington feared disorder especially with regional and class overtones. To him, this was a constitutional crisis. He failed to realize the important of whiskey in the frontier or that the rebellion symbolized many frustrations. Life in the frontier was hard, dangerous, and impoverished with the threat of attacks by hostile American Indians.
Nonetheless, in October, 1794, Washington decided the federal government was being threatened despite the fact that most violence had stopped. He organized 13,000 troops, more than he had at any one time during the Revolution, from state militias. The troops were not particularly motivated to fight fellow Americans but the rebels harassed them calling them the "watermelon army." Some said it would be a better fight with crabs and oysters. Commanded by General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, Alexander Hamilton really took over. He had a bigger tent and tended to give orders despite being a civilian. In October, they marched west, plundering on their way. Suspects were dragged from their homes and incarcerated without food, but most of the rebels escaped although three were killed. By late November, it was over costing the U.S 1/2 million dollars, 1/3 of the revenues created by the whiskey tax. Washington said it was the principle that mattered. Americans had to know the government could and would put down uprisings. The incident did not seem to hurt his popularity. Only Jefferson complained that it was an example of overkill by a too powerful government.
Meanwhile, Washington had problems with American Indians in the Northwest Territory or Ohio River Valley. The U.S. had suffered several embarrassing defeats by the Indians and there was growing criticism against the government by settlers. In 1794, at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the U.S. pulled off a decisive victory that led to the Treaty of Greenville of 1795. Most tribes in the Ohio Valley ceded their land for %9500 per year payments. Ohio was then safe for settlement.
President Washington also had foreign policy problems. The main problems involved France and Spain. In return for French assistance in the American Revolution, Americans had promised to help France if they were in a war with England. By the 1790s, the French and English were at it again in war. The French reminded Washington of our debt to that country. Washington did not want to get involved since he saw nothing to gain and the U.S. economy was still fragile. So he broke the agreement with the Neutrality Proclamation and avoided war.
Meanwhile, he had better results with England and Spain with the signing of two new treaties. Jay's Treaty with the British was not popular, though. The U.S. agreed not to trade with France while giving England "most favored nation status" in trade. The U.S. also agreed to pay pre-Revolutionary War debts owed England. England agreed to compensate for ships seized and abandon forts on U.S. soil. The other treaty, Pinckney's Treaty with Spain, was more popular. Spain had taken control of the Mississippi River after the French and Indian War and refused the U.S. access to the river despite it being the western boundary. In this treaty, Spain agreed to allow the U.S. access to the river which was a great deal for U.S. trade.
Those were the major events of the Washington presidency. As he prepared to retire in 1796, he had only one regret that he could not prevent the development of political parties. Like most Americans, he feared political parties would factionalize and divide the nation as they had throughout history. The Constitution had been written assuming parties would not form. But, they began forming the day Washington took office over the dispute over what to call the President. The leaders of the division were in his cabinet, too. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton led the way.
One of the first political parties was the Federalists led by Hamilton, John Adams, and Washington. They were pro-business, pro-strong federal government, and feared too much democracy. They were also "loose constructionists" in interpreting the Constitution. They believed that if the Constitution did not specifically deny a power or right, the government had that power.
On the other side was the Democratic-Republicans (who referred to themselves as Republicans but were today's Democrats). They were led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. They were pro-agriculture, pro-states' rights, and feared too little freedom. They were "strict constructionists" and believed if a power or right is not specifically given in the Constitution, that power does not exist.
The political parties made their first appearance in the Presidential election in 1896, the first contested election. The Federalists nominated John Adams and the Democratic-Republicans nominated Thomas Jefferson. Adams won narrowly and Jefferson came in second. But the way the Constitution had been written, whoever came in second became the Vice President because the belief everyone would be in the same political party. Jefferson will sty home most of his Vice Presidential term. And that takes us the the era of John and Abigail Adams.
John Adams will be an unpopular one term President. This was not because of lack of qualifications. He was born in 1735 in Massachusetts. He was a Puritan but heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. A Harvard educated lawyer, he served as a delegate to the Massachusetts legislature and Continental Congress during the Revolutionary Era. He had been criticized for defending successfully the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre but defended his action by stating everyone had a right to defense.
Adams also worked on the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation. He also served as an envoy to France and the Netherlands and became the first Ambassador to England after the Revolution. He was in England during the writing of the U.S. Constitution so did not participate in that. He also served as Washington's Vice President and agreed with the principles of the Federalist party.
One of his problems as President was that he was always compared to Washington. He lacked Washington's physical presence since he was heavy-set and 5'7" tall. Some referred to his "His Rotundity." He also lacked Washington's ability to avoid making enemies. Jefferson described him as "obstinate, distrustful, and vain" and said he would not take advice. Others described him as stiff, aloof, too intellectual, lacking warmth, and did not know when to keep his mouth shut. He did have one great asset, his wife, Abigail Smith Adams.
Abigail was always more popular than her husband, but as one of the most influential women of her time, she could be controversial. Her husband described her as "saucy" and as his intellectual equal at a time when most Americans agreed women were intellectually inferior due to having smaller brains. She was born in 1744 to a Massachusetts Puritan minister who encouraged her to be involved in the events of the era. She was ambitious, a perfectionist, and goal-oriented. She mourned the lack of education opportunities for women so was self-taught with the help of her family.
John and Abigail met in 1762 and it will be one of America's great love stories. They married in 1764 and had four children. During the Revolutionary Era, they were separated a lot so she developed her abilities as an independent woman. Meanwhile, she and John wrote passionate letters and she is considered the better writer of the two. She also became well-known for her skill in barter (trade) that kept her family comfortable in times of shortages.
She was intensely involved in the issues of the day and served as her husband's adviser and unquestioning supporter. In 1776, she launched the woman's rights debate when she asked John to "remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors" when he worked on the Articles of Confederation. Apparently, he didn't pay any attention to her on that. Abigail also urged John to work to end slavery. She could not justify the fight for freedom of the Revolution while slavery existed. Both will become active in the anti-slavery movement after his presidency. She also became the first ambassador's wife to travel with her husband in Europe.
As First Lady, she will be an activist which led to controversy. She was outspoken about the issues that concerned her. And, she was concerned about women's rights. Her main issues included property rights for women when they married, education, and abusive spouses that was way ahead of her time. She was criticized, however. She enjoyed fashion more than Martha Washington, but her parties were less fun and elaborate than Martha's. The Adamses, however, were not so wealthy. She was referred to sarcastically as "Mrs. President" because of her public presence and accused of losing votes for her husband.
She had mixed feelings about her role as First Lady. It was a love-hate relationship. She loved the excitement but hated the criticism and the new capital in Washington DC. They were the first to take up residence in the new capital. But, Abigail paved the way for other activist First Ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalyn Carter, and Hillary Clinton. Most First Ladies chose easier roles.
As for President Adams, his term was one controversy after another. One problem was he kept Washington's cabinet and they were loyal to Hamilton more than Adams. Foreign powers also saw him as weak and the French believed he was under British influence.
This led to the XYZ Affair. When pro-France Jefferson lost the 1896 election, the "Directory" that controlled revolutionary era France was hostile to the U.S. They annulled trade agreements, ordered seizures of American ships carrying British goods, and any American sailors found on British ship were executed. After three months in office, the U.S. had lost 300 ships. So, in 1797, Adams sent three diplomats to France to try to avoid war with France. Three French intermediaries met the Americans and demanded a large bribe to begin talks plus a loan of $12 million. The U.S. diplomats left and the Senate published the report and called it the XYZ Affair after the three French intermediaries. The public became indignant and war fever swept the nations. The popularity of the anti-French Federalists soared.
Congress reacted by passing funding for a military build-up and vastly expanded the army and navy. Fighting erupted in the Caribbean known as the Quasi-War. To pay for all this, Federalists pushed the Direct Tax of 1798 through Congress which was a tax on the value of land, slaves, and dwellings. Democratic-Republicans believed Hamilton was actually planning a coup to take over the government and even Adams feared this. But, the Federalists sensed they could put a stop to the opposition with public support since the idea of war was so popular.
To counter the criticism, a series of laws generally referred to as the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) passed. Three of the laws were aimed at immigration especially the French and Irish who voted Democratic-Republican. The laws made it harder to become a citizen and easier to deport. The Sedition Act part made it illegal to criticize the government. 25 were indicted and 10 convicted. One Congressman, Matthew Lyon (VT), was reelected while in jail. These laws were basically an effort to destroy the opposition, the Democratic-Republican party.
Jefferson and Madison faced with a Federalist Supreme Court went to state legislatures controlled by Democratic-Republicans in Kentucky and Virginia. They drafted resolutions anonymously and challenged the entire Federalist approach of centralizing government and promoted states' rights. They argued that states had the right to rule a federal law unconstitutional and intervene to protect citizens. Kentucky added the doctrine of nullification, the right of a state to rule null and void a national law if unconstitutional. It was hoped that this would get voters angry with the Federalists.
Voters were angrier about the Direct Tax, though. This led to another small uprising, Fries Rebellion in S. E. Pennsylvania. Men freed tax evaders from prisons and Adams, like Washington, responded with force. Three, including Fries, were arrested, convicted of treason and sent to be executed but Adams pardoned them. Federalist popularity declined especially in Pennsylvania. Southerners talked of secession or leaving the Union. Hamilton saw conspiracies to overthrow the government in Virginia and Kentucky. Still, the impending war with France gave Federalists impressive victories in the 1798 Congressional election.
Still, Adams was reluctant to ask for a declaration of war from Congress. Americans had forced the French out of coastal waters and France was being defeated in a war with England. Adams believed the French were ready to negotiate and they were. Despite his own party's objections, the Franco-American Accord of 1800 was completed and signed (also called the Convention of 1800). The prospect of peace defused the Federalists as the 1800 election approached. Hamilton wrote letters attacking Adams that were obtained by Aaron Burr, the Democratic-Republican Vice Presidential nominee. He had them published which revealed the disunity in the Federalist party. Federalists responded by calling Jefferson, the presidential nominee for the Democratic-Republicans, a dangerous radical who would cause the end of religion and morality. The election of 1800 was a strange one.
It was a repeat with Adams versus Jefferson. But, again the way the Constitution was written caused a problem. Adams came in third so lost, but Jefferson and Burr tied in the Electoral College since they were not specifically labeled by position on the ticket. In a tie, the election had to be decided by the House where Federalists had control. This would have been easy to resolve had Burr just withdrawn from the possibility of being President. But, he knew many in Congress thought he was a better candidate that Jefferson who many saw as wild and crazy. Ironically, it was Alexander Hamilton who stepped in and saved the election and possibly our system of government. He convinced enough of his fellow Federalists to vote for Jefferson. Hamilton said it was the will of the people which was correct. But, Aaron Burr would never forget who deprived him of the presidency. That takes us to our next topic: Jeffersonian Democracy.