Channelling George Washington: America's Forgotten Blessing





2-20-12

Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians and a member of HNN's board of directors. This is the latest in a series of occasional articles, "Channelling George Washington."

 “I bet you can’t tell me one of the most important—and totally forgotten—blessings that enabled our American experiment to survive its first perilous decades.”

An electorate who could read and write?”

“Important, but not in the way I’ve been thinking. I’ll give you a hint. I’ve got a birthday coming up—my 280th. Birthdays induce thoughts of births, of children, wouldn’t you say?”

“Undoubtedlybut I can’t connect children to politics.”

“They’ve always been powerfully connected, and never more so than in the eighteenth century. It was still the era of kings. We were the world’s first republic, trying to survive without a royal family to create loyalty and affection in the minds and hearts of the people.”

“All true enough. But we were lucky enough to emerge from our revolution with a leader who created a lot of those feelings. It was no accident that your friend Henry Knox started calling you the Father of the Country. That was what the British called George III, right?”

“Nothing made me more uneasy than that political baptism. I was sure that that a lot of people were going to see me as another Oliver Cromwell. When Knox sent the artillery corps’ band over to my residence at Valley Forge to serenade me on my birthday, I didn’t even acknowledge it. I sent Martha out to tip the musicians and tell them I’d gone to bed early.”

“I don’t think many people realize you had that reaction, Mr. President.”

“I was sure Sam Adams would hear about it within the next forty-eight hours and tell his followers: ‘See what happens when we rely on a standing army?’ Sam was convinced we could have and should have won the war with militia. The mere words, standing army, brought visions of Cromwell dancing through his head. Now here was the monster and its general, about to devour our new republic!”

“I’m afraid we’re getting a long way from answering your original question, Mr. President.”

“On the contrary, our conversation so far is extremely relevant. It’s a very good explanation of why I call this forgotten piece of good luck a blessing. Imagine how Sam Adams would have reacted if General Knox starting calling me the father of his country and back home at Mount Vernon I had a son—or two or three sons. He would have been absolutely certain that Oliver the Lord Protector was about to be reincarnated. Or maybe a new version of a king—George I.”

“I’m  getting a glimpse of what you’re driving at, Mr. President. You didn’t have a son.”

“It was the secret sorrow of my life. Martha’s sorrow too. She’d had four children by her first husband. We expected to have a family. But in the mysterious way that Providence arranges things, it was not to be. Very very gradually, I began to wonder if it was a blessing. When I became president, I soon became convinced it definitely was the most fortunate thing in my life—and quite possibly the nation’s life.”

“Why was that?”

“Because I had gone to a great deal of trouble to persuade my good friend Jemmy Madison to create the office of the president. It was a unique—and uniquely daring—experiment to give one man the power to deal with Congress as a coequal, in the name of all the people, for the sake of the nation’s stability and survival.”

“Why did you feel so strongly about this?”

“If there was one thing I learned from the American Revolution it was the impossibility—even the utter hopelessness—of  Congress as the nation’s leader. By the time the war ended, Congress was so despised, no one wanted to serve in it. Often members would be so disgusted by the internal feuds and follies of various delegates that they walked out without even saying goodbye. One time, a joker ran an ad in the newspapers, advertising three runaway congressmen as if they were escaped slaves or indentured servants!”

“The presidency was a necessity?”

“Absolutely. But I could never convince Mr. Jefferson of this. He was in France when the Constitution was created. He never felt much enthusiasm for it—and the presidency was one of his strongest dislikes. He saw an incipient dictator in the office. He took up where Sam Adams had left off—Sam was too old to play much of a part in politics after 1783. There were a lot of people who agreed with Tom  about the presidency—and the whole federal government. Pretty soon they had a  political party feeling that way.”

“And in Europe there were a lot of people in France with similar sentiments?”      

“That worsened matters and then some. The brawl that erupted when I declared America neutral in the war between England and Revolutionary France was spectacular. It makes the acrimony of 2012 about the so-called Tea Party and Obamacare etc. seem like kid stuff. I deliberately waited until Congress was no longer in session to make that proclamation of neutrality. It was one of  my first steps in demonstrating the independent powers of the presidency—distinct from Congress. Establishing the presidency was the central purpose of my two terms.”

“I’m beginning to see where you’re going with your original question.”

“Can you imagine what Tom J. and his friends would have been saying if  back in Mount Vernon I had a son waiting—they would claim—to take power after President George created a dictatorship—in our day it would have been called a protectorate. They would have used that poor fellow (my son) as a club to beat Old George to a political pulp. But without a son, I could and did maintain I was acting only out of a profound desire to give America the kind of workable republican government it needed and deserved!”

“And that’s our secret blessing?”

“It’s part of it. But the whole thing is even more remabkable. Not only did our first president lack a son. So did four out of the first five presidents. Only John Adams had a son (who, of course, later became president himself), but as Sam’s cousin—and a Yankee in the bargain—there was no possibility of him turning into a Cromwellian protector. After him, Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe had no sons. That’s America’s secret blessing. It gave the presidency  time to acquire roots and respect in the minds and hearts of the people without fear of it becoming a threat to their freedoms!”

“ An amazing thought! By the way, did Cromwell have a son?”

“He had one named Richard, who took over when Oliver died. But after thirty years of Cromwellian rule, the British were so disgusted they dumped him in nine months and restored their kings!”

“This should inspire a lot of people to drink a birthday toast to the greatest office ever created!”

“The presidency deserves a full bumper!”


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