Last time: After America won her independence and signed a treaty with England by 1783, the Articles of Confederation (1777) proved inadequate, so a new federal law, the U.S. Constitution, was written and ratified.
Chapter 15: The American Presidency, Reporting to “We The People” - 1789-1800
The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows: Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: ….. The Congress may determine the Time of chusing (sic: Noah Webster had work to do) the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States. …. No Person except a natural born Citizen (author’s underline) or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States. – From the U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1.
The new government of the United States of America began formal operations in March of 1789. One of the main issues hashed out by the delegates in the mid ‘80s was how the nation’s top office should take shape. Would it be a single executive or perhaps, as proposed, even two? A mere figurehead, an administrative clerk of Congress, or would he (she need not apply those days) have the authority to rule the land with an iron fist, like the king whose shackles the nation had just cast off? How would the office be filled: appointed or elected? How long a term, two years, four, seven, for life? Alexander Hamilton is recognized as the author of eleven of the 85 anonymous Federalist Papers, essays #67-77, that argued deftly in March and April 1788 for an Executive branch as described above, still in draft form. The Federalist, printed in NYC newspapers, was specifically addressed to the people of New York since this populous state was deemed critical for the approval of the new national law. A couple of ironies: While Hamilton wrote more persuasively than most framers for this new position, he’d be ineligible, not native born. The founders, of course, were thinking only of the 13 States and six NW Territories, never remotely considering Alaska (Sarah Palin), the Canal Zone (John McCain), or Hawaii (Barack Obama), later land acquisitions each with interesting twists of their own. And while the Federalist essays were written to NY State residents, this was rendered moot with NH’s ratification, the ninth state, stamping the Constitution legal before the New York legislature did so.
The Anti-Federalist was another thing, a like number of essays attacking the proposed Constitution. Wrote Hamilton about the authors’ view of their envisioned American presidency: Calculating upon the aversion of the people to monarchy, they have endeavored to enlist all their jealousies and apprehensions in opposition to the intended President of the United States; not merely as the embryo, but as the full-grown progeny, of that detested parent….The authorities of a magistrate … have been magnified into more than royal prerogatives. He has been decorated with attributes superior in dignity and splendor to those of a king of Great Britain. He has been shown to us with the diadem sparkling on his brow and the imperial purple flowing in his train. He has been seated on a throne surrounded with minions and mistresses, giving audience to the envoys of foreign potentates, in all the supercilious pomp of majesty. The images of Asiatic despotism and voluptuousness have scarcely been wanting to crown the exaggerated scene. We have been taught to tremble at the terrific visages of murdering janizaries, and to blush at the unveiled mysteries of a future seraglio. Whew, and that’s what’s called great American literature. Whatever works, and it did!
While we hear of Hamilton (New York delegate), Thomas Jefferson (Virginia) and James Madison (also Virginia) as the key movers and shakers of the Constitution, another, less-heralded advocate was New York born-and-raised, but later a Pennsylvania delegate, one Gouverneur Morris, Esq. On the floor and behind the scenes at the Constitutional Convention, he more than others shaped the talk and the wordsmithing for a robust Executive branch independent of Congress but, by design, without royal pretentions. (Yet over the decades, over the terms of the 43 men who’ve held the office, we’ve observed one or more stretches of a so-called “Imperial Presidency.” We hoped that had faded with Richard Nixon’s exit in the early ‘70s, but today are we sure it hasn’t returned? Witness: “Pass the bill first and then you can read it.”)
In the meantime, less than a decade since freedom from the King, the residents of the Owlkill of 1789 carried on, farming and dairying, trapping and hunting, forging horseshoes and fashioning wagons and milling grain, erecting houses, barns, churches, stores. By early May word made its way into Cambridge from Manhattan that George Washington was sworn in as our first President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in April 30th. Per Constitutional requirement, the initial U.S. Census was tallied the next year, 1790. Not sure how many outhouses or honey pots were chalked up but almost 4 million citizens were recorded, including 800,000 blacks (90% in the South). Native Americans were not included but estimated at about 150,000 in 80 some tribes. The nation’s capital was moved from NYC to Philly in ’90 as construction of DC began on land straddling the Potomac, and would take the better part of the decade. Cornerstones were soon laid for the Capitol building and the Executive Mansion. Benjamin Franklin, age 84, passed away on April 17, 1790, the first of our Founding Fathers to be laid to rest.
In 1791, Washington County was formed from Albany and Charlotte counties, one of 31 nationwide named for our beloved George, the most common of more than 3100 counties, parishes (LA), and boroughs (AK). VT satisfied Congress’ requirements—a population of 60,000 and a newly ratified State Constitution—to become the 14th State with the same rights as the original 13, the model for future U.S. expansion. The next year, 1792, the Commonwealth of KY entered the Union, the 15th State, spun from Virginia’s Kentucky County. With the 14th and 15th stars stitched to Old Glory, Congress also included two more stripes, a total of 15. The U.S. Post Office Dept. became an official Cabinet post in ’92, honoring the late Franklin, as it became evident that “the mail moves the country”. The cotton gin (“engine”) was perfected this year, increasing national yields from 10,000 bales to 400,000 a year by 1820, driving King Cotton, especially in the South, to demand more slaves, along with tobacco and sugar crops. The first Fugitive Slave Act became law in 1792 setting a tone that would ring the nation’s alarm bells in 1861. The Cambridge of 1792 witnessed the construction of the First United Presbyterian Church at the NE corner of today’s Main and Park streets, across from the green where local Revolutionary War soldiers had drilled. The Old White Meeting House was completed the next year, and in 1793 the Old Yellow Meeting House, begun in 1777 just south of Cambridge, was open for prayer. Also that year, the Checkered House was the site of the first Masonic lodge in the Cambridge region.
After two terms in office, President Washington delivered his farewell address in 1796, a public letter only, no prattling speech before Congress. Despite the Constitution’s careful wording, many longed for him to stay on as “King of America”, but he fully understood the words and the consequences of doing otherwise. After this successful two-term presidency, the USA was fully recognized by the world community as an independent and sovereign nation. American pioneers continued to flock into the Ohio-Mississippi River watershed and TN became the 16th State. John Adams became the second U.S. President (Federalist Party) on March 4, 1797. He and his wife Abigail were the first to occupy the Executive Mansion (not called the White House until 1901 by Teddy Roosevelt.) Adams re-commissioned Washington as a lieutenant general, who again served as the Army’s senior officer from 8 July to 14 Dec 1797 and participated in planning a Provisional Army. War with France loomed in the late ‘90s.
In September 1797, Benjamin Colvin became the first Cambridge postmaster, setting up business in his tavern on the SE corner of Main and Park. News of the day was printed in Cambridge by 1798 when the weekly paper, the Northern Centinel, began publication on January 1, the direct forbear of the Washington County Post, run off local presses for 190 years, through 1988. The next year, 1799, the Great Northern Turnpike Co. was incorporated and construction began in Lansingburgh, with the original route chartered through the Cambridge Valley to Granville. The first schoolhouse in the Village of Cambridge was also opened on Academy Street in 1799.
On December 14, 1799, George Washington died at his Mount Vernon, VA estate from severe pneumonia at age 68, basically closing Volume I of America’s story. Book II commenced with the presidential election of 1800 in which the Democratic-Republicans of Thomas Jefferson wrestled the office away from the Federalists. Political power was transferred peacefully from one party to another for the first time, a national milestone with Europe still eyeing the hemisphere. The Adams Federalists could have insisted on retaining control until the tempest passed. But this heralded the real beauty of the American democracy: We follow our law across calm seas and blue skies, but also through dark and deadly perfect storms. This is a lesson embraced by much of the world in 200 years, but shrugged off by the corruption, ineptness and religious fanaticism of others.
Serious scholars and historians, media analysts and editors, standup comics and water-cooler wannabes have for over 200 years made a living by praising and parsing and panning our presidents. A decent summary of the American presidency was published a few years ago by C-SPAN detailing what it takes to make a great leader. It ranked the 43 men (through George W. Bush’s first term) according to two polls, one by academia (left leaning) and the other the American populace (center-right). Washington’s life and legend, as soldier and citizen, as the first U.S. President, endures as one of the most reflective and powerful, vibrant and commanding in history. The consensus of We the People is that, while Washington set the gold standard, when the office and nation appeared tarnished Abraham Lincoln provided a new luster that ranks him tops by most accounts, if for no other reason that he genuinely invoked the credo “All men are created equal”, while keeping America from fracturing, with firm resolve while not caving in to partisan politics.
Attributes for a successful Chief Executive include public persuasion, crisis management, economic leadership, moral authority, and international relations. Also filling the bill are administrative skills, relations with congress, vision and agenda setting, pursued justice for all, and performance within the context of the times. Both Washington (1789-1796) and Lincoln (1861-1865) stepped to the plate for each of these, probably the most vital being public persuasion. Other top Chiefs on anybody’s list include Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, with Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan perhaps rounding out a “Magnificent Seven.” A list of bottom feeders serves no purpose other than cite what not to do: sit on one’s hands with a looming national catastrophe (Buchanan); exhort racism (A. Johnson); tab cronies for office (Grant); entertain an intern on our time and dime (Clinton; quipped one pundit: “Maybe not everything written about him was true, but everything written about him was possible!”) While “time wounds all heels” it can also heel all wounds so the fortunes of some have risen as the decades have passed: Truman and Richard Nixon were pilloried after retirement but today history lauds them as doing the right thing for the time: the former ended WWII with two “sun bombs” while the latter was an architect in the fall of the Wall, both men helping to free hundreds of millions. Dwight Eisenhower has also bubbled up the chart, and signs point to Bush the Younger likewise, perhaps in the lifetimes of our grandchildren who should enjoy the fruits of the victory of the War on Terror against enemies foreign and domestic (whose lofty moral vanity in fact only encourages harm to America.)
What’s become the most powerful office in the world in the past century has seen some real characters, but the office needs a person OF character. The Founding Fathers would likely wince at where the office drifted by 1999, precisely 200 years after George Washington entered eternity. Today we experience another of the economic lulls that cyclically come and go with long-term national health and growth. However, the current cycle appears to be exacerbated by one who’d point America down a path the founders wouldn’t recognize. So-called “income redistribution” is a tool to face an invented enemy, borne of an alien manifesto, whether classic socialism or some curious progressivism. American patriots can only hope that this, not too soon, gets dumped on history’s landfill along with Edsels and 8-track stereos. Because the real enemy we face sees us as the great Satan. When England came knocking in 1812, we pushed back, as we did time and again through the following decades, “over there” through the mid-20th century. We let our guard down in Vietnam and lost Saigon for our troubles, but held the line at Manila, Seoul, Berlin and others, and continue to do so in far off deserts. We’ve done this for the same reasons of social justice fought for at Lexington and Bunker Hill, because human nature’s hunger for liberty is unchanged in 200 years, as it has been for 2000, and will for another 10,000 centuries. The American President must understand this … and usually does.
Next time: Chapter 15, The Post-Civil War Golden Age, 1866-1899
Sources: A History of the Cambridge Area (R. Raymond, T. Raymond 2010); Cambridge Then and Now (Ken Gottry, 2011); American History magazine (April 2012); public domain.
(The author may be contacted at email@example.com.
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