Saturday, April 3, 2010

The First Presidency

A review of Richard Norton Smith’s Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation (1993)

(Rating:5 of 5)

Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation is a book about George Washington that follows a unique formula. For this book is about President George Washington as opposed to General George Washington. The purpose is to give readers and understanding in early constitutional government and George Washington’s role in it.

Americans today take for our constitutional government for granted. We hold elections every two years for Congress and every four years for the presidency, and to us this is normal procedure and part of the natural order of things. However, this democratic republican nature was not always guaranteed to be our fate. The fact that since the current form of our Republic was established in 1789, we have enjoyed over two centuries of peaceful transition from administration to the other*. As grown older it has also grown much stronger, with each year it existed it established more legitimacy and historical memory of the American people, and as it continued it became more inclusive going from a republic with only white men who owned land voting to suffrage being extended to all citizens upon entering adulthood.

In the beginning of this new form of government, the Constitution, everything was new and those who were in it were learning how to make this bi-cameral Congress, presidency and Supreme Court work. There were many ups and downs, experiments that would ultimately become precedent, and experiments that would fall apart almost immediately.

“On August 22, 1789, taking literally his constitutional charge to advise and consent with lawmakers over a proposed treaty involving southern Indian tribes, Washington had appeared in Federal Hall. Senator Maclay moved to refer the whole business to an appropriate committee of Congress. For a moment, Washington lost his legendary poise. ‘This defeats every purpose of my coming here,’ he exploded. Soon after he withdrew vowing he would be damned rather than face such public humiliation again. In a single exchange Maclay and his colleagues had asserted their independence, undone the executive’s plan to treat them as a kind of privy council, and laid the groundwork for a very different set of presidential advisers, the Cabinet.” p.37

The book covers not only the major events of the Washington presidency, such as Hamilton’s economic plans, the Bill of Rights, Citizen Genet, and the Jay treaty, but it also discuss a great deal of what life was like in our first two capitals of New York and Philadelphia. How Washington dealt with people’s expectations of him is one of the books reoccurring themes. One of Smith’s great accomplishments in this book is the way he shows President Washington as a smooth political operator.

“Politics is theater, and George Washington was America’s first actor-president. The Constitution made Washington head of state as well as head of government, and no man had a better grasp of ceremonial leadership then George III’s American usurper. The Washington presidency was nothing if not theatrical. Why else the elaborate rituals of levee and drawing room, of triumphal progress to occasions of state and deferential responses from lawmakers for whom the president was both symbol of continuity and the instrument of change? As the embodiment of revolutionary virtue, Washington knew that wherever he appeared, partisan murmurs would be lost in a chorus of hero worship. This alone was enough to make him the young republic’s greatest asset and only glue.” p. 87

Smith’s work covers Washington’s presidency and his post presidency in such detail that those who choose to read this book are opening a window into one of the most interesting decades in our history: the 1790s. I trust those who give this book time will not be disappointed.

* There is the 1860 exception of course, but I view the U.S. Civil War as something that the Republic was able to get though in one piece (we did have elections in 1862 and 1864 after all) by holding the nation together in ‘one piece’.

{Video from the now classic HBO John Adams series}

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