Presidential review: George Washington, John Adams
|July 23, 2011||Posted by Oliver Nott under presidential reviews, reviews|
George Washington, 1789 – 1797
VP: John Adams, First Lady: Martha Dandridge Custis
George Washington is often cited as one of the greatest men to ever grace the presidency of the United States of America and despite an absence of complete domestic or international victory, this remains absolutely true. Washington’s presidency was a minor part of the farmer-turned-soldier’s life, with his military and revolutionary career somewhat overshadowing his achievements in office, demonstrating the sheer volume of his life.
When the United States needed a leader in its democratic experiment, although Washington was not the most talented politician, he was the obvious choice. His résumé was impressive and his patriotism was undeniable. He was the Commander-in-chief of the American armies, he helped construct the peace treaty with the British and French in 1783, and he presided over the conventions that drew up the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. He was a decorated soldier and was viewed as a modern-day Cincinnatus; the British referred to him as ‘the old fox’ (although Washington actually lost more battles than he won and is now criticised as simply an architect of surrender).
Washington was a born leader who brought gravitas to the office of the presidency. He set precedent after precedent and endowed the presidency with a particular dignity, regal enough to command respect, but not so regal as to remind Americans of the European aristocracy they had left behind. His commanding presence and relentless attitude towards serving his new and proud nation has put him in the history books whether his politics was successful or not.
Washington was born in 1732 in Virginia to a large family with deep American roots. When Washington’s older brother Lawrence died, he inherited lots of land on Mount Vernon. After his work in farming, Washington went into the army and fought in the French and Indian wars, which established his experience for both his military and political future. He was elected in 1789 at the age of 57 and immediately espoused his belief in the separation of powers and opposition to partisan politics. He also established the first cabinet, which consisted of either a naive selection of politicians or a wise choice of statesmen: Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were infamous for their contradicting opinions and personalities, however were both excellent politicians and true American statesmen. Washington also faced problems abroad, as he was forced to pay ransom (more than once) to a number of pirate states in North Africa that had captured American citizens travelling in the region. Combine this with the Pennsylvania Whiskey Rebellion, which damaged Washington’s reputation, especially with his 15,000-soldier response, and Washington was bushed after two terms, turning down the open opportunity of a third.
Washington was not just a father of his nation but the sole mother too, as he succeeded in both producing the United States and rearing it through its infancy. He left the politics to others and guided his child forward; still wildly popular he left office with the respect of his nation and his held high.
John Adams, 1797 – 1801
VP: Thomas Jefferson, First Lady: Abigail Smith Adams
Unlike the obvious military merits of his predecessor, John Adams was the more recognised diplomat and politician. His success with the 1783 treaty, which he, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay drafted, and his time in the office of the Vice President of the United States made him Washington’s likely (although by no means definite) successor.
John Adams was a volatile and demanding character; however he yielded great respect for his idealism and family-man persona. Many suggest he was much brighter than Washington; however his patriotism was often questioned after he defended the British soldiers who killed five civilians and were put under trial after the Boston massacre. Adams was also not the easiest man to get along with, as he is often cited having shouting matches with his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson. However, it is the famous correspondence of letters between Adams and his wife, Abigail, which gives a real insight into how the man felt while he held the highest office in the land.
Adams was considered a moderate federalist and believed in a strong national government, however, like Washington, he resented partisan politics and usually ignored the bitching sessions between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. When Adams took office in 1797, popular opinion was divided between him and Jefferson, and although his popularity only dropped throughout his time in office, Adams should be attributed with avoiding full-scale war with France and the establishment of the first US Navy. One of the main reasons Adams’ popularity dropped so severely was because of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which, leaving the constitutional question aside for now, was highly unpopular and considered ‘un-American’. These Acts gave the president a number of new powers, which breached the idea of the separation of powers, and also arbitrarily challenged the foundation from which the United States was established, immigration. Adams suffered for these Acts and even appointing the still very popular Washington as Commander-in-chief was not enough to regain the favour of the American people; maybe because Hamilton still wielded more military control than Washington even after this move. Adams’ popularity was in such deficit that not even the aversion of war with the French could keep him in office, as Adams was defeated by his own Vice President in the 1800 election. On Jefferson’s inauguration day, embittered by the reality of his defeat to a political nemesis, Adams left Washington D.C. for good.
Adams was not the natural statesman that Washington was, but even for a founding father, successful litigator and championing diplomat, Washington was no easy act to follow. Adams was successful in transferring the honeymoon of Washington’s presidency to the reality of his successors. He stabilised an ever polarising nation and ensured its survival through diplomacy with the French. This combined with the poignancy of his death – he died on the 50th anniversary of the United States and on the same day as his political rival Thomas Jefferson, and his last words are believed to be “Jefferson lives” – highlights the core of his presidency and also of his life.