Richard's Blog

George Washington and the press, the constitution; and his decision making methods 

For my final installment on Ron Chernow's George Washington: A Life ... 

The Press

However trying he often found the press, Washington understood its importance in a democracy and voraciously devoured gazettes. Before becoming president, he had lauded newspapers and magazines as “easy vehicles of knowledge, more happily calculated than any other to preserve the liberty . . . and meliorate the morals of an enlightened and free people.” (p. 685)

he regretted that newspapers exaggerated political discontent in the country, but added that “this kind of representation is an evil w[hi]ch must be placed in opposition to the infinite benefits resulting from a free press.” (p. 685)

Washington never sought to suppress debate or clamp down on his shrill opponents in the press who had hounded him mercilessly. (p. 771)

The Constitution

For Washington, the beauty of the document was that it charted a path for its own evolution. Its very brevity and generality—it contained fewer than eight thousand words—meant it would be a constantly changing document, susceptible to shifting interpretations. It would be left to Washington and other founders to convert this succinct, deliberately vague statement into a working reality. (p. 539)

According to Adams and Jefferson

... John Adams said, if Washington “was not the greatest president, he was the best actor of the presidency we have ever had.” (p. 578)

By delaying decisions, he (Washington) made sure that his better judgement prevailed over his temper. At the same time, once decisions were made they "were seldom, if ever, to be shaken," wrote John Marshall. Jefferson agreed saytng that ... Washington’s mind was “slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion.” (p. 604)

In Summary

He brought maturity, sobriety, judgment, and integrity to a political experiment that could easily have grown giddy with its own vaunted success, and he avoided the backbiting, envy, and intrigue that detracted from the achievements of other founders. (p. 812)

George Washington and Slavery 

From Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life: 

The idea that abolition could be deferred to some future date when it would be carried out by cleanly incremental legislative steps was a common fantasy among the founders, since it shifted the burden onto later generations. It was especially attractive to Washington, the country’s foremost apostle of unity, who knew that slavery was potentially the country’s most divisive issue. (p 490)

Regarding the Constitutional Convention:

The delegates agreed that slavery wouldn’t be mentioned by name in the Constitution, giving way to transparent euphemisms, such as “persons held to service or labor.”  (p 536)

For the purposes of representation in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, (slaveholders) would be able to count three-fifths of their slave population. This was no mean feat: slaves made up 40 percent of the population of Virginia, for instance, and 60 percent in South Carolina … masters would be able to reclaim runaway slaves in free states – a provision George Washington would liberally employ in future years. (p 536)

… the abolitionist William Loyd Garrision would later castigate the Constituiton as “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell." (p 537)

After Washington left office:

THE MOST FLAGRANT OMISSION in Washington’s farewell statement was the subject most likely to subvert its unifying spirit: slavery. Whatever his private reservations about slavery, President Washington had acted in accordance with the wishes of southern slaveholders. In February 1793 he signed the Fugitive Slave Act, enabling masters to cross state lines to recapture runaway slaves. He remained zealous in tracking down his own fugitive slaves ... (p 758)

His most flagrant failings remained those of the country as a whole—the inability to deal forthrightly with the injustice of slavery or to figure out an equitable solution in the ongoing clashes with Native Americans. (p 771)

He saw, with some clairvoyance, that slavery threatened the American union to which he had so nobly consecrated his life. “I can clearly foresee,” he predicted to an English visitor, “that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.” Beyond moral objections to slavery, he had wearied of its immense practical difficulties. (p 800)

Regarding freeing his slaves when he and his wife died:

By freeing his slaves, Washington accomplished something more glorious than any battlefield victory as a general or legislative act as a president. He did what no other founding father dared to do, although all proclaimed a theoretical revulsion at slavery. (p 802)

If he had hoped that other slave masters would emulate his example in liberating his slaves, he was cruelly mistaken. (p 811)

Richard ... 

I did not know until I began reading these presidential biographies how much slavery was an issue in the United States from it's founding.

George Washington and Religious fanaticism 

Washington loathed religious fanaticism, and on that subject he sounded like a true student of the Enlightenment. 'We have abundant reason to rejoice that, in this land, the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition,' President Washington wrote to one Baltimore church. ... Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow, pg. 132

A couple of years ago I was speaking with a friend and noted that our current president was, let's say, unique, among all the U.S. presidents. I think many would agree with this assessment. In any case, my friend asked if I had studied all the presidents and I admitted, I had not. So, being the nerd that I am, I set about reading a biography of each president, in order. (I just finished James Buchanan by Jean H. Baker, and just started Lincoln by David Herbert Donald). I get most of my ideas from this excellent web site called My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies by Stephen Floyd, whose even nerdier than me, in that he's read multiple bio biographies for each president and writes reviews of each.

As for my original purpose for studying the presidents; our current president still stands unique, especially in his style of communication, especially compared to the "founding fathers"; but the stark divisions in the opinions of the American people is not so unique.

I thought it would be cool to post stuff I'm learning, as I read; especially in the form of quotes from the books, starting with the one above.