LESSONS LEARNED #33: “The Founding Fathers weren’t perfect but they were closer than most.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 30th, 2010

Anarchy Averted

Washington men didn’t live long.  And George Washington thought about that.  A lot.  He loved his Mount Vernon.  His garden.  And he longed to retire there to spend out his years in peace under his vine and fig tree.  But he gave up that dream when he accepted command of the Continental Army.  He was already at that age when a lot of Washington men died.  So when he left, no doubt he thought he may not return.

The Revolutionary War lasted 8 long years.  And Washington spent those years with the army.  In the field.  He was at Valley Forge.  He didn’t leave to go home to see Martha.  No.  His wife came to Valley Forge to see him.

Washington was a wealthy man.  He didn’t need to make these sacrifices.  A lot of wealthy men didn’t.  But he did.  And he sacrificed a lot.  Even his eyesight.  When the army officer’s wanted to mutiny over a long list of failed promises (pay, pensions, etc.), Washington pleaded with them.  To not throw away the thing they’ve fought so long and hard for.  As poorly as the Continental Army was treated, those words did not move them much.  Then Washington pulled out a letter from a congressman to read to them.  But couldn’t.  After stumbling over a couple of words, he stopped.  He then pulled out a pair of spectacles.  No one had ever seen the great George Washington in such a public display of weakness.

“Gentlemen, you must pardon me,” he said.  “I have grown gray in the service of my country, and now find myself growing blind.”

Some cried for the old man who had given so much.  When he no doubt had so few years left to live.  If their commanding general could make such sacrifices, so could they.  So there would be no Caesar.  No Cromwell.  No armies would march to the seat of power.  This republic would not collapse into anarchy as history often scripted her republics.

The Most Powerful Man in America Surrenders His Power         

But would he be king?  He could have.  Easily.  He had the power.  And the love and adoration of the people.  In fact, some were begging him to become king.  Others, though, questioned his intentions.  They looked at the army with a nervous unease.  They were, after all, a nation built primarily from English stock.  And they knew their English history.  Of Oliver Cromwell.  The New Model Army.  Just what were his intentions?

He still stayed in touch with his officers (and later would go on to be the first president of the Society of the Cincinnati).  This seemed a bit ominous to some.  This is why once the war was over, people tried to forget about and disband the army as quickly as possible.  To renege on the promises they made to these veterans.  They just wanted these soldiers to go away.  There were too many bad memories of standing armies in their midst.  Whether they wore a red coat or a rag, they just wanted them gone.

Even King George questioned his intentions.  Few give up power.  If he did, it would place him in the pantheon of greats.  But would he?  Yes.  He would.  And did.  Washington would be a Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who walked away from his plow to assume dictatorial powers to help save his nation.  When the threat was past, he returned power to the Senate and returned to his plow.  And so did Washington.

Answering the Call of Duty.  Again.

Then the nation called for their Cincinnatus once again.  There were problems with the Confederate Congress.  It was having difficulty governing the peace.  There were state rivalries.  Their finances were in a mess.  And there was no national identity.  There used to be.  British.  And the European nations treated with that singular entity.  Great Britain.  Now that the mother country was gone, there was no singular entity.  No unity.  Everyone was for themselves.  And the European powers had to make multiple treaties with the multiple states.  If they wanted to go through that headache.  And many did not.

Some called for a revision to the Articles of Confederation.  But it was difficult to get the states on board.  A weak confederacy favored the individual states.  And the individual states liked that.  But it also limited their potential as a nation.  Some feared the inter-state rivalries would balkanize the nation.  Make the New World a repeat of the Old World.  To bring the nation together would take an extraordinary effort.  Or an extraordinary man.  George Washington.  Who agreed to attend the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. 

After a long and hot summer, the Philadelphia delegates produced a constitution.  With James Madison being the primary architect.  They then sent it to the states for ratification.  At which time James Madison and Alexander Hamilton began a writing campaign to urge its ratification.  (John Jay contributed to this campaign, too, but not as much as Madison and Hamilton).  Once ratified, it came time to populate the new government.  Some competed with each other for some positions.  But for one of the positions there was unanimity.    There was but one man the people would trust with the most powerful office in the land.  Their Cincinnatus.  George Washington.  But would he do it?  Would he leave his blissful retirement beneath his vine and fig tree?

Yes.  Not because he wanted to.  More than 10 years had passed since this old man had agreed to command the Continental Army.  He had outlived many Washington men.  The way he saw it, he was living on borrowed time as it was.  And there was another consideration.  Against the greatest of odds, he did NOT lose the Revolutionary War.  He had made mistakes in his life, but his name was safe for posterity.  But if he took a risk now he could lose the good name he built.  And if there was anything soldiers (and politicians) worry about, it’s their legacy.  (That’s why they write memoirs.)

Another Long 8 Years

When it was clear that he was, in fact, the indispensable one, he sacrificed his personal want for the public need.  Again.  And again, serving a second term as president.  He was ready (and looking forward to) retirement after one term.  But the party politics were threatening to tear apart the new nation.  The rift between Jefferson and Hamilton had grown.  It was splitting the government into two camps.  The Federalists (led by Hamilton) and the anti-Federalists (led by Jefferson).  They pleaded for Washington to serve a second term as he was the only one who could hold them together.  He consented.

That second term was particularly unpleasant for Washington.  Party attacks turned into personal attacks.  Even against Washington.  And the ugliness got really ugly over the Jay Treaty.  Many wanted war with Great Britain.  But having actually fought a war with Great Britain, Washington favored peace.  Yes, the treaty favored Great Britain.  And, yes, it tied American interests to Great Britain, not her war time ally.  France.  The Jeffersonians unleashed an unfettered vitriol on the Federalists.  Including Washington.  But Washington bet on the right horse.  Great Britain proved to be the dominant European power.  And her Royal Navy came in handy protecting U.S. trade with her.  Over a decade of peace and prosperity followed. 

After 8 years, though, there was no persuading Washington for another 4-year term.  He had grown ever older in the continued service of his country.  Now he felt it more than ever that his days were few.  Rarely did he know happiness like he felt at the inauguration of the 2nd president, his vice president, John Adams.  Adams wrote that after he took the oath of office, Washington said, “Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in!  See which of us will be happiest!”  He may not have actually said this but he no doubt felt the sentiment.  And with that, he returned to his plow.  Cincinnatus had come home.  Where he would happily live out his remaining years.  All two of them.

Where is Our Cincinnatus?

Today it’s about money and power.  Not duty.  Today, people want to be full-time politicians.  For the money and power.  And the elitist status.  People get into Congress and they just don’t want to leave.  Should we vote them out of office, they have a tantrum.  They call their constituents stupid for not knowing who the better candidate was.  And they won’t go quietly.  Some will change parties.  Or run as an independent.  Or as a write-in candidate.  Anything to stay in Washington.  To hold on to their power.  To stay among the elite.

The nation has deviated far from the path of disinterested public service of the Founding Fathers.  The anti-Federalists would be shocked to see what became of the government they helped create.  Even the Federalists.  Even Hamilton.  Not even he, the champion of a strong federal government, would approve of the federal government today.  His mercantilist polices had the goal of making the nation rich and powerful.  Not to suck the wealth out from the private sector.  Which began in earnest with Wilson.  Then picked with FDR.  Then ramped up further with LBJ/Nixon/Ford/Carter.  Had Hamilton lived in the 20th century, he would have earnestly campaigned for Ronald Reagan.  To put an end to the public sector’s pillage of the private sector.

And now we find our nation adrift again.  But who will step in and stop it today?  Who is out there?  Willing to put down their plow for disinterested public service.  And by ‘plow’ I mean any real job.  Worked by someone who is not part of the Washington establishment.  Where is our George Washington?

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #33: “The founding fathers weren’t perfect but they were closer than most.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 28th, 2010

George Washington

George Washington owned slaves.  We all know this.  Whenever we try to revere our Founding Fathers, someone on the Left will speak up and remind us of this fact.  Of course, the context of the times means nothing to them.  We’ll forgive Robert Byrd’s racist and KKK past because of the context of his times.  But not the father of our country. 

Washington inherited his slaves.  With the property he inherited.  He wasn’t a huge fan of slavery.  In fact, he wanted to replace his slaves with paid laborers.  Because he wasn’t making a lot of money with his slaves.  There were large families.  Many old who could no longer work.  And lots of children.  This large slave holding consumed a good percentage of his crops for their subsistence.  While a smaller percentage of them contributed labor to produce those crops.  He tried to sell them.  But others were only interested in the workers.  Not the old and the young.  But he didn’t want to break up the families.  So he didn’t sell.  He continued to use slave labor.  Made less money than he could.  Because it was the decent thing to do.

His will freed his slaves after his wife’s death.  It also provided for them.  His heirs were to provide sufficient training to help these former slaves get a job.  To help them integrate into the community.  But you don’t hear that part from the Left.  Just that he owned slaves.

In the context of his times, he was a great man.  And he still is.  Despite what the Left will remind us of.  He was the father of our country.  The indispensable one.  Without him, there would have been no nation.  For he truly was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Ben Franklin

Ben Franklin lived a long life.  So long you could say he lived a couple of lives.  Printer and entrepreneur.  Writer and publisher.  Inventor and scientist.  Diplomat, peacemaker and Founding Father.  A great man.  And, yes, with a few flaws.  He saw a prostitute or two in his youth.  Sired an illegitimate child.  William (who would go on and father his own illegitimate child).  He wasn’t the greatest husband.  He could have been a better father.  But he did a lot for this country.  Few did more.  So we can forgive him these few trespasses.  Most did.  Even John Adams would speak kindly of him.

Franklin and Adams were very different people.  Yes, Franklin wrote, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a young man healthy, wealthy and wise.”  But as an elder diplomat in Paris, he came to see the pleasures in staying up late.  Enjoying the company of the ladies in the Paris salons.   And drinking Madeira.  He was a social butterfly.  And the people of France loved him.  The great American scientist and inventor.

When Adams joined Franklin in Paris, their personalities clashed.  Adams went to bed early.  Got up early.  And didn’t enjoy the company of the very forward (for the time) salon women of Paris.  Only one woman interested him.  His beloved Abigail.

Adams resented Franklin’s celebrity.  And had difficulty working with him.  Especially with the hours he kept.  But Franklin’s style worked.  Paris preferred him over Adams.  And they made it known to the Continental Congress.  This strained their relationship.  Adams was concerned the French were playing Franklin, for the French were very adept at diplomacy.  But in the end Franklin proved to be no slouch himself.  He maintained French funding, arms and supplies for the American cause throughout the Revolutionary War, promising all along there would be no separate peace with Great Britain (France was, after all, in it for the spoils a British defeat would provide).  But we made a separate peace.  France got little for all her efforts (other than her own revolution).  And Franklin minimized the damage to the Franco-American friendship.  Not bad for a naughty old drunk.

John Adams

John Adams is the most unappreciated of the Founding Fathers.  There’s no memorial for him in our nation’s capitol.  And yet there probably wouldn’t have been a nation without him.  So why is he the Rodney Dangerfield of our Founding Fathers?

Adams was a flawed man who knew his flaws.  He didn’t try to hide them, though.  He tried to fix them.  But he wasn’t very successful.  He was a very religious man.  And he was oh so pious.  But irascible.  And vain.  It always bothered him that others got so much credit.  For doing far less than he did.  Especially Jefferson.  These were his flaws.  Which could make him hard to like at times.  And bitter.  The story that Adams often told about the writing of the Declaration of Independence went like this.  He said Jefferson should write the Declaration of Independence, not him.  First of all, Jefferson was a Virginian.  With all the trouble in the North, it was important to show a united front.  All the colonies.  Even those not facing the wrath of the British army and navy.  Second, no one liked him (Adams).  So no one would like anything he wrote.  (Which was not true as he did help some colonies write their state constitutions.)

And sometimes he could come across as kind of an elitist.  Because he was so well learned and so well disciplined.  He was part of that old school who thought that the best and brightest should serve in government.  And some thought he was too British.  Yes, he represented the British soldiers implicated in the Boston Massacre and supported the Jay Treaty, but he was no British toady.  At a last attempt at peace and reconciliation, King George was willing to forgive many who rebelled against the crown.  But not Adams.  He was ‘too’ responsible for all that independence trouble.  He would hang.

Anyway, that’s about the extent of Adams’ flaws.  A bad personality trait or two.  Nothing scandalous.  He had a loving marriage.  He was a good father.  Highly principled.  Honest.  And just.  One of the best of the best.

James Madison                                                        

James Madison was the most erudite of the Founding Fathers.  Jefferson may have thought big thoughts.  But Madison could, too.  As well as master the details.  When it came to constitutionality in the inaugural administration, Washington didn’t turn to his Secretary of State (Jefferson).  He went to the Speaker of the House.  James Madison.

Washington had no children.  But he admired and loved Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison like sons.  And then the fighting started between his ‘children’.  Especially between Hamilton and Jefferson.  Who saw two different Americas.  This animosity would extend to the president.  And the entire Federalist ‘party’.  Jefferson and Madison saw Washington as a senile old man manipulated by a puppet master.  Hamilton.  So Jefferson and Madison led an opposition party against the Washington administration.  While Jefferson was still a member of the administration.  The Jefferson-Hamilton feud got so bad that Jefferson would eventually leave and ‘retire’ to Monticello.  Madison would carry on the opposition, taking his orders from Monticello.  Sort of a Jefferson toady.

The Jefferson-Madison hatred of the Federalists bordered on the ridiculous.  They saw everything through a prism of conspiracy.  That the Federalists were trying to reunite America with Great Britain.  Thus making them, the Republicans, fiercely pro-France.  Even during the height of the Terror of the French Revolution.  Jefferson once advised the French ambassador not to worry about Washington.  He was old and senile.  Those of right mind were clearly on France’s side.  When Washington learned of this, he never would talk to Jefferson again.

Madison kept up the hysteria.  Even during the Adams administration.  He was sure Adams wanted war with France.  And when the French insulted the Americans in the XYZ Affair (you want to talk to us French?  First you give us French a lot of money), Madison said Adams fabricated the whole thing.  So he could declare war on France.  Well, he didn’t make it up.  It happened.  And while war fever gripped the nation, Adams tried one last time.  And got peace.

Despite this Hamilton/Federalist paranoia, Madison was one of our best.  He was the father of our constitution.  He (and strangely enough Alexander Hamilton) led the ratification process.  And Madison led the fight to add the Bill of Rights.  Few men have been so instrumental in the founding of a nation.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson may have had an intimate relationship with a slave.  Some may call it rape.  But, in the context of the times, it was no big deal.  Others were doing it.  Just like we forgive the Aztec for their human sacrifices.  In the context of their times, it was no big deal.  A lot of less-advanced people were doing it. 

Jefferson was a complex man.  Some would call him a sphinx.  He could tell lies that even he believed.  Quiet and shy, he was not the ladies man.  He looked like one, but he wasn’t.  Rejected once while in college and he was ready to live a life of celibacy.   But he did meet another woman.  Who he loved and married.  She was a frail thing, though.  And a couple of babies later, she died.  This just devastated Jefferson.  Shook him to his core.  It took months before he emerged from that deep depression.  He would never marry again.  And the female company he kept after that was often with married women.  His daughters.  Or, perhaps, a slave.  He no doubt yearned for female companionship.  But he would never open his heart again to another woman.

Perhaps he did, though.  With Sally Hemings.  His slave.  His concubine.  If the allegations are true (DNA evidence cannot conclusively prove but indicates a high probability).  She looked after his daughters.  Sort of a mother role.  Perhaps she was a surrogate wife.  If so, perhaps it was less than rape.  Maybe there were mutual feelings.  Anything is possible.  But we’ll never know.  What we do know is that if anything did happen, they hid it.  Out of shame on one part.  Perhaps fear on the other.  She was, after all, only a concubine.  Property.  And being a concubine is not being a wife, wedded or common-law.  No doubt it was a complicated ‘relationship’.  If there was a ‘relationship’.

That said, he did do a lot of good.  He was one of the greatest champions of limited government.  He was one of the gentlemen of the Enlightenment.  And there was little to fear from them.  But some of these gentlemen wanted to give the new central government great power.  Because it was the dawn of a new era.  Where like-minded gentlemen would follow them and continue to govern with disinterest.  But Jefferson had his doubts.  He didn’t trust men with power.  He didn’t trust government.  And because of him, they’d keep the beast of Big Government at bay.  For a little while.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton had illusions of grandeur.  And this from a man who had done some fantastic things.  Still, he always wanted more.  He was a driven man.  Probably goes back to his illegitimate birth and abandonment.  He always had something to prove.  To himself.

Some feared him.  First Jefferson.  Then Madison.  They thought he was pulling the strings in the Washington administration.  When he proposed his funding, assumption and banking plans as Treasury Secretary, Jefferson & Madison were frightened by what they saw.  A way too powerful central government.  So they formed the opposition.  Thus American party politics was born.  But neither side was as bad as the other side thought. Still, it didn’t stop Jefferson from trying to destroy Hamilton. 

Hamilton had money from a successful law practice.  And he ran the treasury department.  Someone took notice.  A guy named James Reynolds.  A con man that was in Philadelphia preying on veterans.  His wife, Maria, was beautiful.  And quite the actress.  One sob story of an indebted husband who abandoned her with his debts later, she lured Hamilton into her home.  He brought money to help her settle her debts.  But they soon ended up in her bedroom.  Once they consummated their affair, Mr. Reynolds stormed in on cue and began the extortion of Alexander Hamilton.

Well, when Jefferson learned of this juicy little morsel, he leaked it to the press.  The newspapers attacked him.  Said he was stealing money from the treasury to pay his blackmailer.  He wasn’t.  They did look, though.  And how they looked.  When they couldn’t find the evidence they wanted to find, Jefferson said that was proof positive of what a good thief Hamilton was.

But Hamilton was no thief.  Say what you will about him, but he was a man of integrity.  And the father of American capitalism.  The American dream took root and grew largely because of him.  And his financial acumen.  You know what they say.  Money talks and bull [excrement] walks.  Jefferson could write and he wrote some good stuff.  But words don’t build a nation.  Money does.  Foreign credit.  And Hamilton delivered.

Flawed but Great

Flawed men, yes.  But compare them to our contemporary politicians.  To their flaws.  To their accomplishments.  Who were/are better?  And who were/are more flawed?  More corrupt?  The comparison is ridiculous.  For there is no comparison.  Our Founding Fathers, with all of their flaws, are THE greatest generation.

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