Saturday, March 22, 2014

Edmund Burke: Speech on Conciliation with America

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), was an Irish statesman, author, and political philosopher. After moving to England he served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. “Lord North's long administration (1770-1782) was marked by the unsuccessful coercion of the American colonies, by corruption, extravagance, and reaction. Against this policy Burke and his Whig friends could only raise a strong protest. The best of Burke's writings and speeches belong to this period, and may be described as a defense of sound constitutional statesmanship against prevailing abuse and misgovernment.”[1]  His speech on March 22, 1775 before Parliament on the subject of “Conciliation with America” is to be remembered for its wise and insightful counsel to his nation to pursue peace, magnanimity, and uphold British rights & privileges:

“To restore order and repose to an empire so great and so distracted as ours is, merely in the attempt, an undertaking that would ennoble the flights of the highest genius, and obtain pardon for the efforts of the meanest understanding. Struggling a good while with these thoughts, by degrees I felt myself more firm. I derived, at length, some confidence from what in other circumstances usually produces timidity. I grew less anxious, even from the idea of my own insignificance. For, judging of what you are by what you ought to be, I persuaded myself that you would not reject a reasonable proposition because it had nothing but its reason to recommend it.

The proposition is peace. Not peace through the medium of war; not peace to be hunted through the labyrinth of intricate and endless negotiations; not peace to arise out of universal discord, fomented from principle, in all parts of the empire; not peace to depend on the juridical determination of perplexing questions, or the precise marking the shadowy boundaries of a complex government. It is simple peace, sought in its natural course and in its ordinary haunts.

Let the colonies always keep the idea of their civil rights associated with your government-they will cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance. But let it be once understood that your government may be one thing and their privileges another, that these two things may exist without any mutual relation - the cement is gone, the cohesion is loosened, and everything hastens to decay and dissolution. As long as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith, wherever the chosen race and sons of England worship freedom, they will turn their faces towards you. The more they multiply, the more friends you will have, the more ardently they love liberty, the more perfect will be their obedience. Slavery they can have anywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil. They may have it from Spain, they may have it from Prussia. But until you become lost to all feeling of your true interest and your natural dignity, freedom they can have from none but you. This is the commodity of price, of which you have the monopoly. This is the true Act of Navigation, which binds to you the commerce of the -colonies, and through them secures to you the wealth of the world. Deny them this participation of freedom, and you break that sole bond which originally made, and must still preserve, the unity of the empire. Do not entertain so weak an imagination as that your registers and your bonds, your affidavits and your sufferances, your cockets and your clearances, are what form the great securities of your commerce. Do not dream that your Letters of office, and your instructions, and your suspending clauses are the things that hold together the great contexture of this mysterious whole. These things do not make your government. Dead instruments, passive tools as they are, it is the spirit of the English communion that gives all their life and efficacy to them. It is the spirit of the English constitution which, infused through the mighty mass, pervades, feeds, unites, invigorates, vivffles every part of the empire, even down to the minutest member.

Is it not the same virtue which does every thing for us here in England? Do you imagine, then, that-it is the Land-Tax Act which raises your revenue? that it is the annual vote in the Committee of Supply, which gives you your army? or that it is the Mutiny Bill which inspires it with bravery and discipline? No! surely, no! It is the love of the people; it is their attachment to their government, from the sense of the deep stake they have in such a glorious institution, which gives you your army and your navy, and infuses into both that liberal obedience without which your army would be a base rabble and your navy nothing but rotten timber.

All this, I know well enough, will sound wild and chimerical to the profane herd of those vulgar and mechanical politicians who have no place among us: a sort of people who think that nothing exists but what is gross and material, and who, therefore, far from being qualified to be directors of the great movement of empire, are not fit to turn a wheel in the machine. But to men truly initiated and rightly taught, these ruling and master principles, which in the opinion of such men as I have mentioned have no substantial existence, are in truth everything, and all in all. Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together. If we are conscious of our situation, and glow with zeal to fill our places as becomes our station and ourselves, we ought to auspicate all our public proceedings on America with the old warning of the Church, Sursum corda! We ought to elevate our minds to the greatness of that trust to which the order of Providence has called us. By adverting to the dignity of this high calling, our ancestors have turned a savage wilderness into a glorious empire, and have made the most extensive and the only honorable conquests, not by destroying, but by promoting the wealth, the number, the happiness of the human race. Let us get an American revenue as we have got an American empire. English privileges have made it all that it is; English privileges alone will make it all it can be.”


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Favorite Quotes from James Madison

James Madison, Jr. (March 16, 1751 – June 28, 1836) was an American statesman, political theorist, the fourth President of the United States, and is generally regarded as the "Father of the Constitution." His lovely wife Dolley was his gracious and charming political partner (see: "Mrs. Madison's Wednesday Nights").

In honor of his birthday, here are a few favorite quotes.

“[W]e may define a republic to be…a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior…”
Federalist No. 39

“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Federalist No. 47

“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Federalist No. 51

“The "Federalist" may fairly enough be regarded as the most authentic exposition of the text of the federal Constitution as understood by the Body [Constitutional Convention] which prepared & and the Authorities [state ratifying conventions] which accepted it.” Letter to Thomas Jefferson, February 8, 1825 (Peterson, 1974, 2. page 383)

“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.” Letter to Edmund Pendleton, January 21, 1792 (Madison, I, page 546)

“The government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like the state governments, whose powers are more general. Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.” Speech, House of Representatives (January 10, 1794)

“To provide employment for the poor, and support for the indigent, is among the primary, and, at the same time, not least difficult cares of the public authority.” Letter to Reverend F.C. Schaeffer, January 8, 1820 (Madison, III, page 162)

“The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” Federalist No. 57

“I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations …” Speech at the Virginia Convention to ratify the Federal Constitution (June 6, 1788)

“[T]he right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon…has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right.” Virginia Resolutions, 1798

“[T]o the press alone; checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.” Madison's Report on the Virginia Resolutions (in the American Memory Collection of the Library of Congress)

“[T]he advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” Federalist No. 46

“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822 (Madison, III, page 276

“Liberty and Learning; both best supported when leaning each on the other.” Letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822 (Madison, III, page 279)

“[W]e hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, "that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence." Memorial and Remonstrance, 1785

“Among the features peculiar to the political system of the United States, is the perfect equality of rights which it secures to every religious sect…Equal laws, protecting equal rights, are found, as they ought to be presumed, the best guarantee of loyalty and love of country; as well as best calculated to cherish that mutual respect and good will among citizens of every religious denomination which are necessary to social harmony, and most favorable to the advancement of truth.” Letter to Dr. De La Motta, August 1820 (Madison, 1865, III, pages 178-179)

“Conscience is the most sacred of all property …” "Property," March 27, 1792 (Madison, IV, page 478)

“The belief in a God All Powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the world and to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources nor adapted with too much solicitude to the different characters and capacities to be impressed with it.”  Letter to Rev. Frederick Beasley (November 20, 1825)

Madison refers to “Madison, James, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, Published by order of Congress. 4 volumes. Compiled by William Cabell Rives. Edited by Philip R. Fendall (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1865).”

Monday, March 10, 2014

Frederick Douglass on the Constitution and Slavery

By Tony Williams

In 1860, ex-slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, delivered a powerful speech “The Constitution: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?”  Douglass used the speech to criticize his fellow abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison who called the Constitution a “Covenant with Death” and publicly burned the Constitution because he believed it a pro-slavery document.  This view is very common among many modern academics who discredit the Founders for creating a fundamentally flawed constitutional system rooted upon slavery and extinguished through the efforts of uncompromising abolitionists.  Douglass thought differently.

Douglass was a former slave who had escaped the horrors of slavery.  He was raised on a plantation that was many miles from a mother that he rarely saw.  From a young age, he witnessed the brutal whippings of slavery.  His spirit was nearly ruined by a “slavebreaker,” but Douglass recovered his manhood when he fought back and refused to be whipped again.  He eventually learned to read and learned the power of rhetoric by reading The Columbian Orator.  He finally escaped from slavery through the Underground Railroad and recovered his human dignity.  He became such a powerful speaker that his listeners did not believe he was a former slave. 

In 1860, Douglass systematically goes through the supposedly pro-slavery clauses of the Constitution and demolishes the argument that the Constitution is pro-slavery.  Douglass begins with a strong statement that the Constitution is a Newtonian document with immutable principles rather than a “Living Constitution” that can mean whatever the interpreter wants it to mean. 

What, then, is the Constitution?  I will tell you.  It is no vague, indefinite, floating, unsubstantial, ideal something, coloured according to one’s fancy, now a weasel, now a whale, and now nothing.  On the contrary, it is a plainly written document, not in Hebrew or Greek, but in English . . . . The American Constitution is a written instrument full and complete in itself.  No Court in America, no Congress, no President, can add a single word thereto, or take a single word therefrom.  It is a great national enactment done by the people, and can be altered, amended, or added to by the people.

Many people today believe that Thomas Jefferson did not really mean all people when he wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence and think that they know who Jefferson really meant.  Douglass takes on the same kind of reasoning regarding slavery and the Constitution when he argues that, “The text, and only the text, and not any commentaries or creeds written by those who wished to give the text a meaning apart from its plain meaning . . . . instead of looking to the written paper itself, for its meaning, it were attempted to make us search it out, in the secret motives, and dishonest intentions, of some of the men who took part in writing it.”  For Douglass, the Constitution must “stand or fall, flourish or fade, on its own individual and self-declared character and objects.”

Douglass starts by asserting that the framers purposefully avoided the mention of slavery in the Constitution.  “It so happens that no such words as ‘African slave trade,’ no such words as ‘slave representation,’ no such words as ‘fugitive slaves,” no such words as ‘slave insurrections,’ are anywhere used in that instrument.  These are . . . not the words of the Constitution of the United States.”

As Abraham Lincoln said the same year at his Cooper Union address, paraphrasing James Madison at the Constitutional Convention: “Neither the word ‘slave’ nor ‘slavery’ is to be found in the Constitution . . . and that wherever in that instrument the slave is alluded to, he is called a ‘person.’”
The purpose, Lincoln told his audience was to prevent slavery from being a blot on the American founding and Constitution after slavery had inevitably been extinguished.  The founders did this “on purpose to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man.”
Douglass first addresses the Three-Fifths clause of Article I, section 2 and examines the idea of a slaveholding power.  He indirectly demolishes our modern view that it literally meant that the slaves were considered three-fifths of a person.  Do not forget that the South wanted to count the slave as a full person for the purposes of representation.  Douglass also attacks the idea that this did not create a slave power in the Congress nor did it represent anything less than a compromise over representation and taxation.

“A black man in a free State is worth just two-fifths more than a black man in a slave State, as a basis of political power under the Constitution.  Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of ‘two-fifths’ of political power to free over slave States . . . taking it at its worst, it still leans to freedom, not to slavery,” Douglass avers.

Douglass next addresses the slave trade in Article I, section 9, in which the Congress could not ban the slave trade for 20 years.  The founders, Douglass argues, were not protecting the slave trade and thus slavery with this clause but were “providing for the abolition of the slave trade.”  And, indeed on January 1, 1808, that is exactly what happened when the 1807 bill that President Thomas Jefferson signed, went into effect.  Douglass says that the clause “looked to the abolition of slavery rather than to its perpetuity,” and that the founders intentions “were good, not bad.”

Douglass tackles the “slave insurrection” clause in Article I, section 8.  He states that “there is no such clause” because it is a general statement that the chief executive has the power and duty to suppress all “riots or insurrections” in the interests of maintaining law and order.  Even if Douglass concedes for the sake of argument that it is aimed at slave insurrections, he turns it on its head and states that, “If it should turn out that slavery is a source of insurrection . . . why, the Constitution would be best obeyed by putting an end to slavery, and an anti-slavery Congress would do that very thing.” 

Finally, Douglass discusses the “Fugitive Slave clause” of Article IV, section 9, and believes that it could only be applied to indentured servants and apprentices because slaves were not “bound to service” in the sense that they were contractually obligated to perform “service and labour,” because they could not legally make contracts.

Douglass then examines the larger natural rights principles of the Constitution and argues that they do not support slavery.  The purposes of the new constitutional government as stated in the Preamble – union, defense, welfare, tranquility, justice, and liberty – Douglass tells us, “are all good objects, and slavery, so far from being among them, is a foe to them all.”  He continues, “Its language is ‘we the people;’ not we the white people.” 

Finally, Douglass argues that “there is no word, no syllable in the Constitution to forbid [abolishing slavery].”  The North banned slavery in the wake of the American Revolution, the Northwest Ordinance banned it in that territory, and the Missouri Compromise banned it in the northern part of the Louisiana Territory.  Douglass states that, “The Constitution will afford slavery no protection.” 

Douglass’ speech was aimed as much at the radical abolitionists as slave owners as he thought it remarkably imprudent to say “No union with slaveholders.”  If the North were to let the South secede, then there would be no moral pressure to end slavery in the new confederacy.  Slavery, Douglass tells us, “dreads the presence of an advanced civilization.  It flourishes best where it meets no reproving frowns, and hears no condemning voices.  While in the Union it will meet with both . . . . I am, therefore, for drawing the bond of Union more closely.” 

Tony Williams is the Program Director of the WJMI and the author of four books, including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Daniel Webster’s “Liberty & Union” Speech

Daniel Webster (January 18, 1782 – October 24, 1852) was a leading American senator from Massachusetts during the period leading up to the Civil WarWebster’s “Liberty & Union” Speech (or “The Second Reply to Hayne,” delivered in the U. S. Senate on January 26-27, 1830) argues against the proposed doctrine of nullification (the alleged right of a state to defy or refuse to obey a federal law). It is considered one of the greatest speeches on the Constitution during the first half of the 19th century. Following are excerpts:

“THERE YET REMAINS to be performed, Mr. President, by far the most grave and important duty which I feel to be devolved on me by this occasion. It is to state, and to defend, what I conceive to be the true principles of the Constitution under which we are here assembled…
The inherent right in the people to reform their government I do not deny; and they have another right, and that is to resist unconstitutional laws without overturning the government. It is no doctrine of mine that unconstitutional laws bind the people. The great question is-Whose prerogative is it to decide on the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of the laws? On that, the main debate hinges…

I say, the right of a state to annul a law of Congress cannot be maintained but on the ground of the inalienable right of man to resist oppression; that is to say, upon the ground of revolution. I admit that there is an ultimate violent remedy, above the Constitution and in defiance of the Constitution, which may be resorted to when a revolution is to be justified. But I do not admit that, under the Constitution and in conformity with it, there is any mode in which a state government, as a member of the Union, can interfere and stop the progress of the general government, by force of her own laws, under any circumstance whatever.

This leads us to inquire into the origin of this government and the source of its power. Whose agent is it? Is it the creature of the state legislatures, or the creature of the people? If the government of the United States be the agent of the state governments, then they may control it, provided they can agree in the manner of controlling it; if it be the agent of the people, then the people alone can control it, restrain it, modify, or reform it…

It is, sir, the people's Constitution, the people's government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people. The people of the United States have declared that this Constitution shall be the supreme law. We must either admit the proposition or dispute their authority. The states are, unquestionably, sovereign, so far as their sovereignty is not affected by this supreme law. But the state legislatures, as political bodies, however sovereign, are yet not sovereign over the people. So far as the people have given power to the general government, so far the grant is unquestionably good, and the government holds of the people and not of the state governments. We are all agents of the same supreme power, the people…

This government, sir, is the independent offspring of the popular will. It is not the creature of state legislatures; nay, more, if the whole truth must be told, the people brought it into existence, established it, and have hitherto supported it for the very purpose, among others, of imposing certain salutary restraints on state sovereignties…

The people, then, sir, erected this government. They gave it a Constitution, and in that Constitution they have enumerated the powers which they bestow on it. They have made it a limited government. They have defined its authority. They have restrained it to the exercise of such powers as are granted; and all others, they declare, are reserved to the states or the people…

But while the people choose to maintain it as it is, while they are satisfied with it and refuse to change it, who has given, or who can give, to the state legislatures a right to alter it, either by interference, construction, or otherwise? Gentlemen do not seem to recollect that the people have any power to do anything for themselves. They imagine there is no safety for them, any longer than they are under the close guardianship of the state legislatures. Sir, the people have not trusted their safety, in regard to the general Constitution, to these hands. They have required other security, and taken other bonds.

They have chosen to trust themselves, first, to the plain words of the instrument, and to such construction as the government themselves, in doubtful cases, should put on their own powers, under their oaths of office, and subject to their responsibility to them; just as the people of a state trust their own state governments with a similar power.

Second, they have reposed their trust in the efficacy of frequent elections, and in their own power to remove their own servants and agents whenever they see cause,

Third, they have reposed trust in the judicial power, which, in order that it might he trustworthy, they have made as respectable, as disinterested, and as independent as was practicable.

Fourth, they have seen fit to rely, in case of necessity, or high expediency, on their known and admitted power to after or amend the Constitution, peaceably and quietly, whenever experience shall point out defects or imperfections.

And, finally, the people of the United States have at no time, in no way, directly or indirectly authorized any state legislature to construe or interpret their high instrument of government, much less to interfere, by their own power, to arrest its course and operation…

I profess, sir, in my career hitherto, to have kept steadily in view the prosperity and honor of the whole country, and the preservation of our federal Union. It is to that Union we owe our safety at home, and our consideration and dignity abroad. It is to that Union that we are chiefly indebted for whatever makes us most proud of our country… It has been to us all a copious fountain of national, social, and personal happiness.

I have not allowed myself, sir, to look beyond the Union, to see what might he hidden in the dark recess behind. I have not coolly weighed the chances of preserving liberty when the bonds that unite us together shall be broken asunder. I have not accustomed myself to hang over the precipice of disunion, to see whether, with my short sight, I can fathom the depth of the abyss below; nor could I regard him as a safe counselor in the affairs in this government whose thoughts should be mainly bent on considering, not how the Union may be best preserved but how tolerable might be the condition of the people when it should be broken up and destroyed. While the Union lasts, we have high, exciting, gratifying prospects spread out before us, for us and our children. Beyond that I seek not to penetrate the veil.

God grant that in my day, at least, that curtain may not rise! God grant that on my vision never may be opened what lies behind! When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on states dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured, bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as "What is all this worth?" nor those other words of delusion and folly, "Liberty first and Union afterwards"; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart -- Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”
Source: The Writings and Speeches of Daniel Webster, Boston, 1903, Vol. VI, pp. 3-75, as published in The Annals of America, Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 5, 1968, pp. 347-355.

Photo: Statue of Daniel Webster in Central Park, New York City, New York

Friday, February 28, 2014

John & Abigail Adams' Peacefield

Two hundred and forty years ago, on February 28, 1774, John Adams purchased his father’s homestead near Braintee (now Quincy), Massachusetts which he and Abigail later named “Peacefield.”  Here is the entry in John’s journal from that day:
 1774. FEBY. 28.

I purchased of my Brother, my fathers Homestead, and House where I was born. The House, Barn and thirty five acres of Land of which the Homestead consists, and Eighteen acres of Pasture in the North Common, cost me 440. This is a fine addition, to what I had there before, of arable, and Meadow. The Buildings and the Water, I wanted, very much.

That beautifull, winding, meandering Brook, which runs thro this farm, always delighted me.

How shall I improve it? Shall I try to introduce fowl Meadow And Herds Grass, into the Meadows? or still better Clover and Herdsgrass?

I must ramble over it, and take a View. The Meadow is a great Object -- I suppose near 10 Acres of [it] -- perhaps more -- and may be made very good, if the Mill below, by overflowing it, dont prevent. Flowing is profitable, if not continued too late in the Spring.

This Farm is well fenced with Stone Wall against the Road, against Vesey, against Betty Adams's Children, vs. Ebenezer Adams, against Moses Adams, and against me.

The North Common Pasture has a numerous Growth of Red Cedars upon it, perhaps 1000, which in 20 years if properly pruned may be worth a Shilling each. It is well walled in all round. The Prunings of those Cedars will make good Browse for my Cattle in Winter, and good fuel when the Cattle have picked off all they will eat. There is a Quantity of good Stone in it too.

“The John Adams and John Quincy Adams Birthplaces are the oldest presidential birthplaces in the United States. In 1735, John Adams was born in the "salt box" house located only 75 feet away from the birthplace of his son John Quincy Adams. In the John Quincy Adams Birthplace, young John and his bride Abigail started their family and the future President launched his career in politics and law. John Adams maintained his law office in the house and it was here that he, Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin wrote the Massachusetts Constitution. This document, still in use today, greatly influenced development of the United States Constitution.

The Old House, built in 1731, became the residence of the Adams family for four generations from 1788 to 1927. It was home to Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams; First Ladies Abigail and Louisa Catherine Adams; Civil War Minister to Great Britain Charles Francis Adams; and literary historians Henry and Brooks Adams. …Adjacent to the house is the Stone Library, built in 1873, it contains more than 14,000 books that belonged to the Adamses. …the Old House grounds which include a historic orchard and an 18th-century style formal garden, [contain] thousands of annual and perennial flowers.” (

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Remembering George Washington as Father of our Nation

By: J. David Gowdy

Americans remembered and honored Washington on his Birthday long before Congress declared it a federal holiday.[1] Each February 22nd, in numerous towns and cities, citizens gathered, bands marched and played and patriotic speeches were given in tribute to our first President.[2]  His adopted hometown of Alexandria, Virginia continues this tradition.[3]

The centennial of Washington’s birth in 1832 prompted festivities nationally and Congress established a Joint Committee to arrange for the occasion.[4] The House of Representatives and the Senate commemorated the 130th Anniversary of Washington's birth in 1862 by reading aloud his Farewell Address (this became a tradition that is still observed to this day).  Also, in that same year of 1862, on February 19th, President Abraham Lincoln issued this Presidential Proclamation to all Americans:

It is recommended to the people of the United States that they assemble in their customary places of meeting for public solemnities on the twenty-second day of February instant, and celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the Father of His Country by causing to be read to them his immortal Farewell address.[5]

More than a passing thought, how many of us as citizens, and how many of our nation’s students, will take time to read and ponder Washington’s Farewell Address? 

It is not always easy for us to remember our own immediate ancestors, let alone a man who lived and died over 200 years ago. Yet, there is a power in remaining connected to our past …to our fathers. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “A people which no longer remembers has lost its history and its soul.”  Let us ask, can a nation forget their father?  Can we divorce the Father of our Nation, or his memory, from the harsh social and economic realities we face in this country as children whose hearts have ostensibly turned from him, ignored his counsel, and even abandoned his legacy?  In the halls of Congress, in our schools, and in our homes … have we forgotten George Washington?

Today, many historians continue to debate whether he was a Christian or a deist  – but no one who earnestly studies his life can doubt that he was a truly virtuous and religious man, by any standard. As Thomas Jefferson said of him, Washington “was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man.”[6] 

The story of young Washington chopping down the Cherry tree was discredited decades ago, and yet if there ever was an honest statesman and President – he is that man. In spite of that, many self-anointed “experts” have continued to “chop down” Washington himself, while some prominent leaders and politicians embrace equivocations and shades of dishonesty as an “art of governance.”

His portrait used to hang in the halls of our schools,  and his “Immortal” Farewell Address was once required reading for American Civics in high schools and universities.[7]  Now the most students seem to learn of him is that he owned slaves and had “wooden teeth” (his dentures were actually made of ivory).

Finally, some of our generation have dismissed Washington as “racist” – blindly ignoring his life and sacrifices devoted to human liberty, and the foundation of the principles of the Declaration of Independence that he and others laid for us upon which to labor to complete the difficult work of racial equality that they first undertook. Unfortunately, we have come to expect that all great changes must be achieved in a single lifetime, or in the equivalent of a movie trilogy…

Two hundred twenty five years ago this April 30th, 1789, George Washington sworn in as the first President of the United States. Washington took his Constitutional oath of office with his right hand resting on the Bible, which had been opened to Genesis, chapter 49.  His head bowed in a reverential manner, he added in a clear and distinct voice, "I swear, so help me God!"*(see comment) then bowing over the Bible, he reverently kissed it, whereupon Mr. Livingston exclaimed in a ringing voice, "Long live George Wash­ington, President of the United States!" To preserve the memory of that event, a page was inserted in that Bible with the date and an inscription that included this poetic verse:

            Fame stretched her wings and with her trumpet blew.
            Great Washington is near. What praise is due?
            What title shall he have? She paused, and said
            ‘Not one - his name alone strikes every title dead.[7]

George Washington passed from this life on December 14th, 1799.  In the Official Eulogy delivered by Henry Lee of Virginia, he declared that Washington was "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen."   Is it still so, or can it be so?  It is our sincere hope at the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute that our nation’s teachers and parents will faithfully continue, or choose to commence, the study and teaching of Washington’s life and character, and his Farewell Address, thus turning our hearts and our children’s hearts to him, that our generation and generations to come will not fail to remember and honor America’s Founding Father.

J. David Gowdy is the Founder and President of the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute.

[1] Washington’s birthday was first celebrated at Valley Forge on February 11, 1778 (Washington was 46 years old) with a serenade by the band of the Fourth Continental Artillery.
[2]  See, e.g., February 22, 1860 Celebration in New York City,; and "George Washington Birthday Celebrations,"
[3] The city celebrates the General's birthday throughout the month of February with more than a dozen festivities, including the George Washington Birthday Parade. See
[5] Abraham Lincoln, Executive Letter dated February 19, 1862, James D. Richardson, ed., "Messages and Papers of the Presidents," (Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.,1902), 5:3289-90.
[6]  Jefferson to Dr. Walter Jones, January 2, 1814, ME 14:48-52.
[7]  See Minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, March 4, 1825, ME 19:460-61 ( In contrast to our modern Civics textbooks, during the 19th Century prominent Constitutional textbooks written for use in public schools included the entire text of the Farewell Address, such as Furman Sheppard’s The Constitutional Text-Book: A Practical and Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States, (Childs & Peterson, Philadelphia, 1855), and Harvard law professor Joseph Story’s A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1884).
[8]  Bible owned by Ancient York Masons, St. John’s Lodge No. 1, See:

Thursday, February 20, 2014

George Washington: The Indispensable President

By Stephen F. Knott 

With all due respect to Tom Brokaw and our World War II veterans, the founding generation was the greatest American generation. The American founders defeated the superpower of their time and overcame parochial interests and powerful passions to prove that “societies of men are really capable … of establishing good government from reflection and choice.”

What was true of the founding as a whole was true of the American presidency – George Washington was the “indispensable man.” Washington’s reputation for integrity legitimated an office that was viewed with suspicion by many of his fellow citizens. Washington was the only national figure who was known to his fellow citizens (other than Benjamin Franklin, who was 83 when Washington was elected) and trusted by them to safely wield the powers the president was granted in article two of the new Constitution. Suffice it to say that these powers were unlikely to have been granted without the assumption by the delegates at the Constitutional Convention that George Washington would be the first president.

George Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, taking the helm of an executive branch with a mandate to execute, and more importantly, define, the nebulous powers of article two.  His great collaborator and author of the Federalist essays explaining the powers of the presidency was Alexander Hamilton who had a significant influence on President Washington.

In his Federalist essays Hamilton argued that an “energetic executive” was a crucial ingredient for the preservation of the nation and the protection of liberty. Hamilton contended that the President needed to be equipped with “competent powers” and be given incentives to resist congressional incursions on his power through a fixed salary and a lengthy term of office that would allow him to implement his plans. Hamilton also argued that “unity” in the executive, meaning one person, not a committee, was a vital element for presidential success. He noted in Federalist # 74 that “of all the cares or concerns of government, the direction of war most peculiarly demands those qualities which distinguish the exercise of power by a single hand.” The president brings to the conduct of war and foreign policy the essential qualities of “decision, activity, secrecy and dispatch.” Again, for Washington and Hamilton the ability of the nation to coherently conduct war and foreign affairs was deeply felt by both men, for they had seen, up close and personal, the near-disastrous results of conducting war by committee.

George Washington wasted no time in attempting to flesh out the details of the President’s article two powers (and he wasted no time appointing his first cabinet member, Alexander Hamilton). Washington’s First Annual Message to Congress (commonly referred to today as “The State of the Union Address”) included a request for a “secret service fund.” This fund would be controlled by the president and would allow the chief executive to conduct secret operations free from congressional oversight. The “Contingency Fund” passed in 1790 and granted the President the authority to avoid the usual reporting procedures mandated by Congress – the President was essentially given a blank check in order to conduct clandestine operations he deemed to be in the national interest. Those who claim today that the founders were champions of transparency and deference to Congress in the conduct of foreign relations, especially regarding secret operations, are simply wrong.

George Washington set a number of other precedents that would be cited by his successors to justify presidential leadership in matters of war and national security. In the early days of his presidency, Washington believed that his power to negotiate treaties was shared with the Senate, but after a dismal experience where he genuinely sought the advice of the upper chamber, he quickly abandoned the practice. Washington also refused in 1795 to hand over to the House of Representatives correspondence related to the Jay Treaty with Great Britain by invoking for the first time the doctrine of what would become known as executive privilege. And most importantly, by issuing his Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, announcing that the United States would remain neutral in the war between Britain and France, Washington made it clear that while Congress had the power to declare war the president had the authority to declare American neutrality in the absence of such a declaration.

Washington shaped many other aspects of the presidency that we take for granted today. He created the president’s cabinet (and what a cabinet it was); he fulfilled his constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” by suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794; he established (in concert with James Madison) the precedent that the president alone possessed the power to remove executive branch appointees; and perhaps most importantly, he left a legacy of respect for the new office through his deft blend of accessibility and detachment – Washington’s frequent presidential tours of the nation allowed the people to see their president, although always at a distance. This was not a glad handing president who pandered to the people and tried to win their affection by presenting himself as a “regular guy.” Washington believed that the people wanted to look up to their president, and that a certain amount of awe toward the office, even in a republic, was an attribute that contributed to a respectable government.

George Washington and Alexander Hamilton understood something many modern political scientists do not: that the more you democratize the office of the presidency, the more you diminish it. It is important to note that the constitutional presidency provides both a floor and a ceiling that protects but also energizes the office; without this, the office is trapped in a cycle of raised expectations followed by public disappointment and cynicism.

A century of disregard for the Constitution has damaged our nation’s polity, possibly beyond repair. Too much is expected of the federal government, especially the presidency. Even strong nationalists like Hamilton acknowledged limits to what the presidency should do: it should concentrate on administering the government, conduct foreign negotiations, oversee military preparations, and if need be, direct a war. It should not attempt to democratize the world, comfort the sad, or heal the planet. The prospects are remote that we can roll back some of the more egregious elements of the personalized presidency, since any such effort would be portrayed as an attempt to neuter the presidency. Yet the founder’s “energetic” presidency possessed formidable powers, including the ability to respond to emergencies through the vesting clause; the veto power; the Commander-in-Chief power; the pardon power; the power to receive ambassadors (making him the nation’s chief diplomat); and the shared power over treaties and appointments. A restoration of the constitutional presidency might even force Congress to begin to conduct itself in a manner intended by the framers.  While the prospects for such a restoration may be remote, the hope remains that the American experiment will be restored to full health.


Presidential historian Stephen F. Knott is a member of the WJMI Board of Visitors and a Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College. He served as co-chair of the University of Virginia's Presidential Oral History Program and is the author of several books, including Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth and Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics.