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The Constitution's First Test—Washington's First Term: The Story of America [Ep. 14]

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 15, 2023 3:04 am

The Constitution's First Test—Washington's First Term: The Story of America [Ep. 14]

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 15, 2023 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the new Constitution was an experiment—a unplayed sheet of music— and we wouldn't know what it would look like in actuality until people picked up their instruments. Here to tell the story of the first real test is Bill McClay, author of Land of Hope.

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Take it away, Bill. George Washington was our first president and the logical man, the inevitable man, the indispensable man. But the funny thing about this man is that he wasn't a politician. He was a military man. So Washington had a different set of criteria, more like what a general might have perhaps than a typical politician.

Of course, nobody had been president of the United States before. He chose his cabinet on the basis of who were the most competent people in his view, who were the most skillful, most intelligent, most experienced, most farseeing. He didn't play favorites according to politics or party.

There were no parties. So he chose his cabinet from all over. He did not show any loyalty to region. Well, you know, he was a loyal Virginian, but he didn't appoint all Virginians. His top cabinet picks were Alexander Hamilton of New York, who we didn't know very well as his former aide, to the Treasury Department. He was secretary of the Treasury. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, secretary of state, and Henry Knox of Massachusetts, who would be the secretary of war.

That's a pretty nice distribution. This was a very unique approach because he wasn't look at, for example, did Hamilton have a different view of the Constitution than Jefferson, which it actually turns out they were fiercely opposed. But that didn't matter to Washington. He was interested in what they brought to the table in terms of fulfilling the particular function that he had in mind for them.

It would be a very, very long time before we'd have another leader that thought quite in those terms. It was unique. It was important because at this stage of the national enterprise, when things were brand new and very fragile, the Constitution was like that unplayed piece of music.

We didn't know what it was going to sound like until actual musicians picked up their instruments and started to make sounds. So Washington's approach was quite appropriate to that tentative, exploratory, experimental character of the Constitution once it was put into action. He was not a fan of political parties. He thought partisanship was one of the worst things that could befall a nation.

He saw the effects of it in Great Britain, so he didn't want to encourage political parties. Some kind of some kind of partisanship, however, was going to be hard to avoid. People are going to have loyalties to their region no matter what. They're going to have loyalties to their local institutions no matter what.

They're going to have loyalty to the economy that fuels the life of the region in which they inhabit no matter what. This was not going to be something he could completely avoid, but to mitigate the effects of partisanship was one of his goals. So he took no notice of partisanship in making his appointments. Hamilton was a very inspired choice for Treasury. Hamilton had thought a lot about the American economy, the American future. Remember, he called America the Hercules in the cradle, meaning they could be a big, big economy. It had all the advantages of natural resources, ports, all of the things you needed to become a commercial power in the world. Hamilton had a vision of an American economy that would be not merely agricultural but would also be commercial and industrial.

It would involve the production so that we would not be importing those things from Europe and thereby placing ourselves at risk from Europe cutting us off or charging exorbitant rates. So Hamilton had a very shrewd, well-informed, economically literate understanding of the American economy and big plans for it. He did not think small, Alexander Hamilton, but he had some obstacles to overcome, perhaps as severe obstacles as any secretary of the Treasury would face for another 130 years or so. The biggest problem under the new Constitution was the dire financial situation of the country. The war had been fought by borrowing money, printing money. The account books of the country were a mess. It was not the kind of economy that foreign nations with whom we would be trading could have much confidence in, just as you wouldn't have much confidence in doing business with somebody who owes more money by three or four or five times than the value of their property.

You would think twice and three times about doing business with such a person. So Hamilton realized we had to clean up our act, we had to clean up our books, we had to get ourselves out of debt or at least show ourselves to be credit worthy. And this is something that others like him, like Jefferson, were not really thinking much about. Well, Hamilton had a plan. A three-part plan. The first part meant paying off the national debt in full and the state debts that were incurred in fighting the Revolution.

Brilliant idea for all sorts of reasons. It would make the nation as a whole seem more credit worthy to pay off the national debt, but also paying off state debts. What this did was it lifted off of the states. A great burden, in some cases an enormous burden, particularly in some of the northern states where a lot of the Revolutionary battles were fought. Like Massachusetts, those debts would be paid by the federal government. So this was an ingenious plan for welding the state's loyalty to the country, which had bailed them out. It was not equally well received in all the states.

The southern states had far less debt to pay than their northern counterparts. But the disagreement was settled by the location of America's permanent capital, what's now Washington, D.C., in, as it so happens, a swamp on the Potomac River, but in the south. Hamilton also hoped to use tariffs to develop an industrialized America.

This was not quite as controversial as you might think. The notion of using taxes, taxation of imports, that's what we mean by tariffs, to protect nascent American industries from being swamped by foreign goods that were much cheaper and therefore much more attractive to hard-pressed consumers. So tariffs were part of the plan. It was not seriously challenged.

Now, what was seriously challenged was the third part of this three-part approach. That was the idea of a national bank. Madison, James Madison, with whom Hamilton had written the Federalist Papers in New York, disagreed on this. So did Thomas Jefferson. For them, the idea of a national bank would be a way that the financial elites, which were so worrisomely powerful in Great Britain, could grasp hold of the national economy by controlling banking from a central source.

They didn't like that. They saw this as an aggrandizement of national power, of power in the national government. So it was a bit of a constitutional crisis. This not only produced a crisis over the policy, but it produced the first great debate over the nature of the Constitution. And it was simply a debate between the strict interpretation of the Constitution. That was Jefferson's point of view.

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Let's pick up where we last left off. We have the gulf between these two visions. The gulf between Jefferson and Hamilton, their visions of America, was a dramatic gulf. These were competing visions of America for the kind of nation that America was going to become. They were competing blueprints and they were reflected in the difference between the two men. Jefferson, of course, was a very sophisticated man of the world.

He spent a lot of time in Paris and was involved in the international discourse of the Enlightenment as a scientist. But when you boil it all down, he was a rural advocate. He was an advocate for rural agricultural Virginia. Remember he said that those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if he had a chosen people. Farmers are the source of national virtue. They live virtuous lives.

Their virtue is communicated to the larger populace. His idea of the way America would expand is simply as a farming nation going westward, further and further. Hamilton wasn't that guy. Hamilton actually was not born in the United States. He was born in the Caribbean and he found his way to New York, which was the place where he was able to realize his dreams of being a greater man than would ever have been possible on the island of Nevis or in the places where he grew up.

He was the opposite of Jefferson. He was a big city boy. Hamilton was a guy who liked stock exchanges. He liked the flexibility that paper money provides. He was very interested in developing trade, interested in commerce. He was interested in making America into one of the world's powers. And not only economically, but in other respects, he saw the possibilities as being limitless for America, the United States of America, to take its place among the great nations of the world. He was frankly not much of a Republican. He often said privately that he might have thought a monarchy would be better for America. That was fighting words for people like Jefferson. Jefferson had no such aspiration. Jefferson wanted to see America beat the odds and be a republic that would last and last and last and not founder on the rocks of factionalism and partisanship and loss of civic virtue. You know, we were not going back to the idea of monarchy.

Republicanism forever would have been their motto. So Washington had a conflict, a fundamental conflict, right up close and personal in his own cabinet between his two leading cabinet officials. He had to take sides.

He couldn't create a somewhat national bank, a regional bank. It was all or nothing. And so he sided with Hamilton.

And so it was decided. OK, so one of the other problems that Washington faced is that he was not starting off this country in this constitution in a geopolitical vacuum. You know, it wasn't as if he could say to the rest of the world, OK, hold off for a while while we get ourselves started. Maybe 30, 40 years don't bother us. No, we couldn't do that.

We couldn't do anything like that. The French Revolution began in the same year that George Washington was inaugurated as president. The French Revolution had been influenced by our revolution. It was a very tumultuous affair and our own government became divided between those who favored the reforms of the French and those who did not favor them and in some cases, abominated. Hamilton was one of those who were opposed to the French Revolution, frightened by the French Revolution, because it was going around, not just deposing and beheading the king, but also deposing elite classes at all levels. It was rattling the entire social structure of the French nation. Hamilton was not a fan of that kind of social revolution. Jefferson, on the other hand, he was a philosopher himself, a man of the Enlightenment.

He corresponded with French authors, French thinkers, some of the great influences on on the revolution itself. Jefferson thought a revolution every 20 years or so was a good thing. Countries got stale. They got ossified. They got our hardening of the arteries.

They needed to be shaken up. So he thought fully for the French Revolution and, you know, added to that as the time he had spent in Paris, his great liking for the French people and particularly their wines, led him to side with them. But it's a serious debate.

It's not just debate over who likes wine. It's a serious debate over whether the sympathies of the of the American government would be drawn more to the French, who, after all, had not only been our allies, that understates the extent of it, the French had helped us incalculably, crucially, to win our revolution. To win our independence. So it was a choice between siding with them or siding with England, which of course had been the mother country against which we had rebelled.

But the English were the source of so many of our institutions, of our cultures, of our taste, our language. So you had figures like Jefferson who were drawn to the French Revolution out of out of ideology and personal sympathies, and then Hamilton, who, for similar reasons, was drawn to the England. Hamilton and Jefferson were on different sides.

Once again, Washington sort of split the difference and decided to pursue a course of neutrality. And in fact, he issued a statement on April 22, 1793, as follows. The duty and interest of the United States require that they should, with sincerity and good faith, adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers.

I want you to notice something very small in that statement. The duty and interest of the United States require that they should, with sincerity, doesn't say it. We would today say it. The United States required that it should, sincerity and good faith, adopt.

It says the they. The significance of that is that Washington is using language that emphasizes the degree to which the United States is still best understood as a confederation of more or less independent states. Washington warned Americans the federal government would prosecute any violations of this policy by its citizens and would not protect them should they be tried by a belligerent nation.

Well, now that's a serious infringement on the ability of Americans to express their sympathies for one or the other of the belligerent parties and be found to be in violation of this presidential edict. But it was representative of how important Washington thought it was to keep the America from getting entangled in foreign affairs. This was a constant theme for him, that we do not want foreign entanglements. To the degree we can avoid them, we must avoid them.

To the degree we cannot avoid them, let's keep them as attenuated, as minimal, as small, and as temporary as possible. He really understood war. He understood the costs of war, the unpredictable nature of the war.

He did not want to see the United States undermined by being dragged into a war that it could avoid. Washington showed his prudential wisdom, the aspect of his character that we come back to again and again. He's a great statesman because he's prudent. He's able to wisely, and not by using abstract reasoning, but by looking at the facts of the case and comparing them to abstract principles, working out the best possible combination of the two. That was Washington, and that's one of the primary qualities that a statesman in any time of history needs to show.

You've got to know what to do, and when to do it, and how to do it, and when to stop doing. He risked unpopularity, which is something he was not accustomed to, but he did it for the sake of the country. And a terrific job on the production, editing, and storytelling by our own Monty Montgomery, himself a Hillsdale College graduate, especially with the help of his wife, himself a Hillsdale College graduate, a special thanks to Hillsdale College professor Bill Maclay, author of Land of Hope, and the terrific young readers edition go to Amazon, where the usual suspects to pick up the book. And my goodness, what Washington faced, what the Constitution faced immediately, two competing visions for the country in his own cabinet, Jefferson's, the rural vision, Hamilton, the big city, big economic power, world power vision. And my goodness, there are competing visions that sound familiar today. The story of us, the story of America series on Our American Stories. Holiday highs.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-15 04:48:45 / 2023-11-15 04:57:07 / 8

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