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Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today

Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today

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Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today

716 pages
13 heures
Jul 2, 2019


Named a best book of the year by The Economist and Foreign Affairs

"A whole book devoted exclusively to the misconduct of American presidents and their responses to charges of misconduct is without precedent." —from the introduction to the 1974 edition by C. Vann Woodward, Pulitzer Prize–winning Yale historian

The historic 1974 report for the House Committee on the Judiciary, updated for today by leading presidential historians

In May 1974, as President Richard Nixon faced impeachment following the Watergate scandal, the House Judiciary Committee commissioned a historical account of the misdeeds of past presidents. The account, compiled by leading presidential historians of the day, reached back to George Washington's administration and was designed to provide a benchmark against which Nixon's misdeeds could be measured.

What the report found was that, with the exception of William Henry Harrison (who served less than a month), every American president has been accused of misconduct: James Buchanan was charged with rigging the election of 1856; Ulysses S. Grant was reprimanded for not firing his corrupt staffer, Orville Babcock, in the "Whiskey Ring" bribery scandal; and Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration faced repeated charges of malfeasance in the Works Progress Administration.

Now, as another president and his subordinates face an array of charges on a wide range of legal and constitutional offenses, a group of presidential historians has come together under the leadership of James M. Banner, Jr.—one of the historians who contributed to the original report—to bring the 1974 account up to date through Barack Obama's presidency. Based on current scholarship, this new material covers such well-known episodes as Nixon's Watergate crisis, Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal, Clinton's impeachment, and George W. Bush's connection to the exposure of intelligence secrets. But oft-forgotten events also take the stage: Carter's troubles with advisor Bert Lance, Reagan's savings and loan crisis, George H.W. Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and Obama's Solyndra loan controversy.

The only comprehensive study of American presidents' misconduct and the ways in which chief executives and members of their official families have responded to the charges brought against them, this new edition is designed to serve the same purpose as the original 1974 report: to provide the historical context and metric against which the actions of the current administration may be assessed.

Jul 2, 2019

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Presidential Misconduct - The New Press



Lance Banning


Historians have reached no consensus in their interpretations of the administrations of George Washington and John Adams, but two statements can be made with little fear of contradiction. At the senior levels of the executive department during the first decade of the national government, there was no behavior that can unequivocally be described as misconduct in office. Yet there has never been a time in the American past when allegations of misuse of executive power and suspicions of administration motives have assumed a tone more extreme.

These paradoxical statements can be understood only by reference to the context of a distinctive age. The Federal Period was a stage in the American Revolution, the time when the Founders sought to put their political principles into effect on the national level. To them, this was a project for the ages, one that would determine the future of liberty in the world. Every important action had to be taken in light of revolutionary principle and with a view toward the many generations who would live with the results. The nature of the age thus shaped its leaders’ conduct. It also made certain that their actions would be judged in the harshest light.

Washington and the men around him came to their national offices as heroes of a great revolution, their places in history already secure. Valuing so highly their reputations with the people and posterity, Presidents Washington and Adams and their advisers seldom slipped from a rigid standard of personal integrity and scrupulous regard for the laws. As much, perhaps, as men can be, they were simply above the kinds of conduct that later generations have come to associate with the abuse of power.¹

But this did not shield them from accusations such as few American leaders have ever had to hear. In 1789, when the federal government went into effect, Americans shared no agreement about what a federal republic should be like. The new constitution was a piece of parchment which a majority of the people may well have opposed. It provided, at best, only an outline of a working government, and the outline meant different things to different men. There was one point on which most Americans did agree: it would be extremely difficult—perhaps impossible—to provide a single, republican government over so vast and varied a country. Certainly, each step at this beginning would have to be watched with the most conscientious suspicion, so that a hard-won liberty would not be lost. Such was the atmosphere of the Federal years, 1789–1801, and in this atmosphere it proved impossible for leaders to avoid the charge that their conduct was not only corrupt but deliberately inimical to the liberty they were sworn to preserve.²

Corruption is a hateful word in any age, but the word had larger meaning in the time of the Founders than it does today. To them, any uses of public trust for private ends were indications of a deeper malaise. Corruption referred not just to these practices, but also to a larger process of which they were commonly a part. The word suggested a progressive degeneration of the body politic, a process often compared with growth of cancer in organic bodies. There was nothing the Founders feared so much as corruption in their special sense. Once started, corruption was all but impossible to reverse. The state so infected ran its course to political death. And the revolutionary heritage assured the Founders that corruption was the normal direction of political change, the fate of every previous state.³

In one of its aspects, the American Revolution was the last great expression of a current in political thought that came down to the Founders from classical times. Transmitted to America by way of the English inheritance, this neoclassical politics sought a way to combine liberty with stability in a state.⁴ Following its precepts, the Founders believed that no simple form of government could achieve this end. Because men will pursue their selfish interests at other men’s expense, no single man or single group of men—not even a majority—can be wholly trusted with the welfare of a state. Absolute control by a majority will prove oppressive to minorities just as surely as control by a single individual will prove oppressive to all the rest. History will be an endless cycle of governmental degeneration, oppression, and revolt. Escape from instability and liberty for all depends on a form of government in which the powers of different branches and different principles are balanced against one another in a system of complicated checks. In this form only can the strength of a single executive be combined with wisdom and concern for the common good into a just and stable government where the law is supreme.

Even a balanced government must be constantly guarded against corruption or decay. It is hard to strike the proper balance between the parts, harder still to see that the original equilibrium is maintained. The very independence and self-interest which assure that each branch will check the others make it certain that each will also seek a larger share of power for itself. Success by any branch in the inevitable quest for larger power means constitutional decay. The government will increasingly approximate a simpler form. The rule of law will tend increasingly to become a rule of men, and liberty will be lost.

Thirteen years before the First Federal Congress assembled in New York, America had severed its ties with England. In no small part, independence had come because Americans had concluded that the supposedly balanced constitution of England had become an executive tyranny in disguise. By corrupting the members of Parliament, Americans believed, the men around the King had achieved complete control. That done, the tyrants of Britain planned to destroy American liberty as well. The American Revolution was an effort to defeat this plot and to secure the lasting happiness of an independent people by once more returning to a government of laws—this time, a republican government, with equal rights and equal laws, which might be more secure against the ravages of conspiracy and decay.

The Federal Constitution was the last in a series of efforts to achieve a balanced government that would fulfill the republican ideal.⁶ To the classic defense of checks and balances, its framers had added a further protection for liberty in the division between state and federal power. But no one could be certain that the experiment would succeed. The new government must become a fact. It must do so under the steady stare of a generation who could not yet define what republicanism would mean, but who had been reared and blooded in the belief that the balance between liberty and stability is a very fragile thing. These men had grown up in the conviction that governments are prone to decay. All their thought and experience taught them that power is subject to conspiratorial abuse. The administrations of Washington and John Adams, and to a lesser extent of the Jeffersonians which followed, are incomprehensible without an awareness of this heritage of thought.

Pater Patriae

George Washington came to the presidency by unanimous vote of the Electoral College. In 1789 his presence at the head of the government was sufficient by itself to assure the new constitution a period of trial. He was the savior of his people’s liberty, pater patriae in the classical phrase so full of meaning in his time. He was a modern Cincinnatus, who had left his farm to save his country and had retired when the struggle was over, though he might conceivably have made himself a dictator or king. But then he had to place his reputation at risk by trying to make himself a model for republican heads of state.⁷ The result was as he feared. The old hero left office in a storm of vituperative abuse.

Washington would appear to have been almost immune. His reputation with the people made opponents wary of direct attacks. Circumstances further strengthened his position. In the first years of the federal government, no one knew for certain what a president was supposed to be. It was not clear whether governmental policy should be attributed to the president or, as in England, to the cabinet ministers who served the head of state.⁸ Washington himself was modest about his talents and about the chief executive’s constitutional role. He made it a consistent policy never to comment on matters pending in Congress. He surrounded himself with a brilliant cabinet and listened to them carefully, reserving his own opinion until all the advice was in. Decisions were ultimately the President’s, but the planning or policy and its management through Congress usually were not.⁹

In these circumstances, Washington maintained for several years a position largely above the political battles which rose with mounting fury in the country. It was small satisfaction. The President necessarily saw attacks on administration policies as criticisms of himself, and he was sorely stung by the infrequent reflections on his own conduct. Soon, moreover, the members of his cabinet were forming rival parties, accusing one another of evil designs. He struggled hard for unity, without success. Then, gradually, events required decisions that were undeniably his own. In the end, the first president was subjected almost daily to charges that he was bent on betraying the country he loved.

Alexander Hamilton and the Financial Program (1790–1792)

Apart from the organization of its own agencies and provision of an adequate revenue for the country, the most important task before the new federal government was the establishment of public credit by the funding of the revolutionary debt. Congress gave the task to Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury.

Hamilton’s solution to the problem was a brilliant one. The federal debt was re-funded at full value with permanent provision for regular payment; state debts were assumed by the federal government; a national bank was erected partly on the solid securities thus obtained by private investors. The bank’s notes and the federal securities gave the country an adequate currency at last, and the fiscal program restored the power to borrow to a bankrupt state. The Secretary of the Treasury had reason for his hope that the new financial structure might encourage economic power that would eventually rival Britain’s own.¹⁰

But Hamilton met fierce opposition from areas and interests that might be adversely affected by his plan. Assumption of state debts was almost defeated in Congress, where the opposition was led by James Madison, the most respected member of the House. The national bank became a fact only after Hamilton convinced the President that Madison and Thomas Jefferson, Madison’s friend in the cabinet, were mistaken in their argument that the Constitution gave Congress no power to charter an institution of this sort. By the summer of 1791, these two famous Virginians had concluded that Hamilton’s plans and constitutional constructions threatened a dangerous augmentation of federal power, which must ultimately prove oppressive. Offering Philip Freneau a part-time position as translator in Jefferson’s Department of State, they encouraged the revolutionary poet to come to the capital to start a newspaper which would counteract the pro-Hamiltonian press. During the fall and winter, as Freneau’s National Gazette added its voice to those of other critics of the fiscal program, the emerging opposition concluded that the threat from the Treasury was even more serious than Jefferson and Madison had originally believed.¹¹

Many Americans entered into the new government fully expecting that it might quickly suffer corruption and decay. Among the signs anticipated were a financial system resting on a funded debt and a privileged bank. It was a matter of general belief that the British financial system was one of the contrivances that wicked ministers had used to destroy the balanced constitution of England. In essentials, Hamilton’s financial program was a duplicate of Britain’s. Critics decided that it was intended to have the same effect.¹²

During the first half of 1792, led by the National Gazette, the opposition press began to advance a grave indictment of administration policy. The newspapers charged that Alexander Hamilton, acting virtually as a prime minister, was engaged in nothing less than a conspiracy to subvert the liberty of his country. Hamilton’s program, the accusation ran, enriched a few public creditors and holders of bank stock at the public’s expense. Dependent for their fortunes on the favor of the Treasury, these powerful men were committed to follow the Secretary’s every whim. There were enough of them in Congress to assure that the legislature would invariably follow the executive’s command. In the country at large, it was said, their corrupt example subverted habits of honesty and honest work, while their tax-supported riches opened a chasm between rich and poor which could only be disastrous for a republican state. The intentions behind developments were as plain as their results. Hamilton’s constitutional opinions, his critics held, tended to transform a federal government into a national state. His economic program, they charged, subverted the will of the people by creating in the legislature a corrupt squadron that tended to deliver the whole power of the central government to the feared executive branch. In this way, Hamilton had found an underhanded means to secure a change of government. He had often expressed his suspicion of the people and his admiration of the British system. Now he was directing a workable conspiracy to return to the rule of aristocrats and kings.¹³

This was the burden of charges in newspapers which spoke for an opposition that called itself Republican, because it feared a conspiracy to destroy a government of the popular sort. It was the same accusation which, in letters and private conversations, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was repeating to the President himself.¹⁴

Washington did not yet act. He could not take seriously the accusations that there was a design to create an American monarchy, though he did ask Hamilton to respond to the criticism of his program. Washington was irritated by newspapers which tended to incite opposition to the infant government and necessarily implied an indirect criticism of the man who signed the laws, but he made it a policy not to reply to the press. He was worried by the growing evidence of political division, for he hoped above all to hold together both the cabinet and the country. Perhaps he would have to abandon his hope of retiring at the end of his first term.¹⁵

Hamilton, Jefferson, and the Newspaper War (1792)

The political storm that had been forming burst upon Washington and the country in the summer of 1792. Having concluded that Jefferson and Madison were at the head of a faction decidedly hostile to me and my administration and actuated by views … subversive of the principles of good government, Hamilton felt he must reply to the opposition’s mounting attacks.¹⁶ On July 25, 1792, writing under a pseudonym for the Gazette of the United States, he hit squarely at the connection between Jefferson and the Republican press. "The editor of the National Gazette receives a salary from government, he charged, asking whether this salary is paid him for translations or for publications the design of which is to vilify those to whom the voice of the people has committed the administration of public affairs."¹⁷

Over the next weeks, Hamilton pushed forward his counterattack, calling on the Secretary of State to resign his office if he could not support the administration. Jefferson’s friends came immediately to his defense, while Freneau began a bitter feud with the Gazette of the United States over the relative independence of the rival editors.¹⁸ The fact was that both Hamilton and Jefferson habitually supported, if they did not exactly control or manage, a partisan press.¹⁹

In the newspaper battles that summer, the identity of the various writers was poorly disguised, and citizens everywhere felt a growing pressure to take sides in the spectacular warfare between the officers of government. In August, increasingly alarmed, Washington appealed to both principals for tolerance and an end to the public dispute.²⁰ Though both men were chastened by the presidential appeal, neither was willing to withdraw. Hamilton explained that his quarrel was not simply personal. It was with a formed party in Congress and in the country which meant to destroy the federal government by overturning the fiscal program.²¹ In much the same spirit, Jefferson denied that he controlled Freneau and once again insisted that Hamilton’s system was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic.²²

Despite Washington’s appeal, the public dispute continued to widen, as Hamilton and others questioned Jefferson’s attitude toward the Constitution while the Republicans developed their theme of a Hamiltonian conspiracy against the republic. The President watched in resigned concern, reluctantly giving up his hope for retirement. No other man, both sides told him, could hold the country together in the face of sectional disagreements and party strife.²³ The newspaper war went on unabated until the end of the year, when Hamilton was confronted with Republican knowledge of the Reynolds Affair and decided to desist.²⁴

The Investigation of Hamilton (1793)

For some time Republican attacks on the Hamiltonian system had occasionally been repeated on the floor of Congress. But the second session of the Second Congress was a party battleground. In January, 1793, Republicans in the House began to flood the Treasury with demands for reports on its activities, probing for a weakness they could hit. Understandably annoyed, Hamilton exhausted himself to meet the demands, but not without a biting reference to the harassment. Legislative sensibilities were provoked by his reply, and the Republicans pressed forward their inquiry into his conduct.

The results were disappointing. Had the investigative arm of Congress been better developed—it was, in fact, virtually nonexistent—the outcome might have been different. Hamilton was not above reproach. Years later he would publicly confess to sexual misconduct while he was Secretary of the Treasury—the Reynolds Affair—and this involved possible ramifications of an official nature.²⁵ He could be blamed for giving the second position in the Treasury to William Duer, a bosom friend as well as a notorious speculator who might have been expected to use his office for private gain. After Duer voluntarily resigned, Hamilton and the Treasury failed to press him for $200,000 owed to the government, thereby enabling Duer to engage in gigantic speculations and frauds that caused in 1792 the first financial panic in the nation’s history.²⁶ But when the comptroller of the Treasury finally brought suit against Duer, hastening his collapse, Hamilton did nothing to protect him and, of course, never profited from his schemes.

As part of his campaign to promote manufacturing enterprise in the United States, Hamilton, with Duer and others, established the Society for Useful Manufactures—a gigantic industrial corporation—under a privileged New Jersey charter in 1791. In this connection Hamilton prevailed upon the Bank of New York, a favored depository of federal funds, to extend low interest loans to the Society with explicit assurances that Treasury generosity to the bank would continue. The evidence was sufficiently incriminating on the relations between the Treasury and banks and corporations, in the judgment of Hamilton’s recent biographer, that had it become known the Republicans perhaps could have driven him from the administration.²⁷ But the evidence was not known to Congress or to the President, whose confidence in Hamilton was never shaken. It was part of Hamilton’s wisdom in statecraft to associate private gains with public benefits, but he was above profiting for himself from such arrangements. He sought fame, not lucre, and he lived by a code which placed too high a value on public service and personal honor to engage in self-serving misconduct.²⁸

The Republicans’ quarrel with Hamilton was fundamentally ideological, but they needed some specific incident of misconduct if they were to secure the congressional censure that might force him to resign. For lack of any evidence that the Secretary was involved in speculation or in improper relationships with corporations and banks, they settled for a technical charge of illegality in the administration of certain loans authorized by Congress. In 1790 Hamilton had mixed together two loans which Congress had meant to keep separate, applying monies intended for payment of the foreign debt to domestic operations and domestic monies to the foreign debt. This exercise of discretion was hardly more culpable than his impolite response to congressional harassment, but it was all the Republicans had. So, on February 27, 1793, working from a draft supplied by Jefferson, William Branch Giles of Virginia introduced a series of nine resolutions which asked the House to condemn Hamilton’s handling of the loans and his disrespect for Congress.²⁹ The Secretary was comfortably vindicated on all charges, their weakness having combined with a dread of implying some criticism of the Chief Executive to shatter Republican ranks.³⁰

Washington himself had remained aloof, confident that the Secretary would vindicate himself but unwilling to hazard his own prestige. He may have wounded Hamilton’s feelings by refusing to provide a statement that he approved the Secretary’s handling of the loans, but he was pleased by Hamilton’s triumph.³¹ Of course, the defeat of Giles’s Resolutions brought no peace. The Republicans simply concluded that the phalanx of congressional stockholders had protected their chief.³²

The French Revolution and the Fear of Foreign Influence

Near the end of March, 1793, news arrived that the revolutionary French Republic had declared war on Great Britain. This marked the beginning of the most difficult period of Washington’s administration. The President was determined to maintain the strictest neutrality, but to do so would necessitate a battle against long odds. Locked in a struggle for survival, both France and Britain interfered with American neutral trade. Moreover, few Americans could be impartial about the war. The two political parties were involved in a struggle between liberty and order at home, and both saw a similar struggle in the conflict abroad. Republicans were certain that domestic conspirators desired a connection with Great Britain in order to advance their plot and to bring the United States into the war against liberty in Europe. Similarly, Federalists suspected a connection between the Republicans and the French which might involve America in the war and bring about a second and more violent revolution in the United States.³³ Public opinion was inflamed by the contest between French and British factions, and political division assumed a ferocity seldom equaled. Washington found it impossible to maintain the national harmony he desired and increasingly difficult to stay above the fray.³⁴

During the course of 1793, the President issued a Neutrality Proclamation and the administration pulled together to defeat the attempts of the inept French minister Edmond Genêt to compromise the country’s neutral course.³⁵ Each political party became more and more convinced that its opponents were unduly influenced by affection for a foreign power if not by foreign money. Accusations of foreign bribery have never been substantiated, at least as to high executive officers; and although historians would later turn up evidence of questionable conduct on the part of Jefferson and more especially Hamilton, none of this evidence was known in the 1790s. The Secretary of State, for example, allowed himself to be used by Genêt in the minister’s project to employ western Americans in an expedition against Spanish Louisiana. Hamilton was more or less constantly involved in confidential, even clandestine, communications with British agents or ministers from 1789. Jefferson came to suspect that Hamilton was secretly sabotaging his negotiations with foreign powers, particularly Britain, and this contributed to the frustrations that led him to resign his post at the end of 1793. Most historians have found Hamilton’s actions improper, perhaps even damaging to the country’s foreign relations, but have acquitted him of culpable misconduct.³⁶ In the ideology of the new republic, no danger was greater than the corruption of foreign intrigue and influence. Washington in the Farewell Address solemnly adjured his countrymen to be constantly awake against the insidious wiles of foreign influence … since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.

Britain’s attempt to deny the French the benefits of American trade resulted in a war crisis of serious proportions in 1794. To frustrate Republican demands for economic retaliation, Hamilton and other Federalists persuaded the President to combine preparations for defense with appointment of a special envoy to negotiate the differences with Britain. Chief Justice John Jay, one of the great diplomats of the Revolution, was commissioned minister plenipotentiary in March, 1794. His negotiations extended through the summer and fall. The terms of the completed treaty remained secret until June 1795, when a copy was leaked to the press on the eve of the Senate’s ratification.³⁷

Jay’s Treaty and Edmund Randolph’s Treason (1795)

When the terms of Jay’s Treaty were finally revealed, the worst fears of Republicans seemed to be confirmed. Most, though not all, modern students think that Jay could not have obtained better terms, but contemporary reaction was decidedly adverse. The Senate ratified the treaty without a vote to spare, and the country flooded Philadelphia with petitions beseeching the President to refuse to put it into effect. Washington had swallowed his own original doubts, deciding to accept the judgment of the Senate. But now he hesitated to sign the treaty into law, worried by the public reaction and deeply angered by new British seizures of provisions bound for France. Federalists urged him to seek redress after the treaty became law, but the President was strengthened in his inclination to refuse his consent by Edmund Randolph, an old Virginia friend and Jefferson’s successor as secretary of state.³⁸

With the Federalists all suspecting that only Randolph’s influence impeded efforts to put the treaty into effect, the British minister delivered to Timothy Pickering and Oliver Wolcott, successors to Henry Knox and Hamilton, respectively, in the War and Treasury Departments, captured French documents which gave rise to the most serious accusation any of Washington’s advisers ever faced. In one of French minister Fauchet’s reports to his government, the Federalist cabinet members saw evidence that at the time of the Whiskey Rebellion, in 1794, Randolph had offered to foment civil strife in exchange for a French bribe.

Eager to believe that any Antifederalist might be in French pay, Pickering and Wolcott showed the captured report to the President, accusing their colleague of corruption and treason. Knowing that Randolph’s personal finances had long been precarious, and feeling his own integrity offended, Washington deferred to the Federalists’ opinion that he should not ask the French for additional documents that might have clarified the vague references in the captured dispatch. Apparently, no one even paused to refresh his own memory of Randolph’s actions during the time in dispute. Instead, Washington at once signed the British treaty, meanwhile concealing his suspicions of Randolph in order to use him to put the treaty into effect, then arranged a summary hearing. The President, with Pickering and Wolcott to help him judge the reaction, summoned Randolph, confronted him with the captured document, and asked for an explanation. The Secretary did his best, though he could not recall with precision the circumstances to which Fauchet seemed to have referred. Then Randolph was asked to leave the room while the others discussed his response. When called back, he was visibly shaken. Protesting the humiliating treatment, he summarily resigned. The explosion served only to convince the others of his guilt, and Randolph left to prepare a public vindication, which would prove a turgid and confusing combination of his own defense with an attack on Washington’s dissembling conduct. It convinced Republicans of his innocence, but confirmed Federalist suspicions of his guilt.³⁹

Though Edmund Randolph was never convicted in a court of law, he was destroyed as a public figure and ruined financially by a voluntary effort to make up shortages which Pickering and Wolcott managed to discover in State Department accounts. For many years, accusations of bribery, defalcation, and treason continued to blacken his name. He was, historians are now generally agreed, the victim of injustice, condemned too quickly by a president whose own fierce integrity was used by malevolent partisans to remove a barrier to their desires. Shortages in accounts were Randolph’s responsibility only as a technical matter of contemporary law. He solicited no bribe: examined in the light of other evidence, the damning phrases in the captured dispatch made reference to a suggestion on his part that Fauchet might uncover evidence of British complicity in the Whiskey Rebellion if he could protect some flour merchants from their British creditors by advancing them money on their contracts. Randolph did not deliver, or promise to deliver, government secrets to the French. Ironically, he was probably more correct in his dealings with foreign envoys than others, like Jefferson and Hamilton, who were never accused.

The Assault on the President (1796–1797)

Jay’s Treaty put an end to serious danger of war with Great Britain. But as 1795 became 1796, French retaliation for the British treaty posed a growing danger of war with the other great power of the world. In direct proportion, the President found himself the target for Republican attack.

In the early years of his presidency, Washington had not been subjected to direct assault. Critics began to close on the President himself only very gradually and with considerable caution, since Federalists had always found it useful to defend governmental policies by invoking the hero’s prestige. In time, however, it became increasingly difficult to deny that some decisions came from Washington, and a minority of Republicans concluded that they could destroy the policies only by damaging the President’s prestige.

The first target was the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, which many Americans considered a betrayal of revolutionary France. Few critics, as yet, impugned the President’s motives. From the first days of the new government, however, one form of criticism had particularly angered the head of state. Some writers had periodically worried about the tone of the new government, denouncing a kind of pageantry that seemed better suited to a monarchy than a republican state. Robes for judicial officers, honorary forms of address for public officials, high government salaries, extravagant private entertainments, and celebration of the President’s birthday had all been attacked. So had the President’s official dinners and formal receptions, which too much resembled courtly levees. At the end of 1792, Mirabeau, Cornelia, and other anonymous writers in the National Gazette mounted a campaign against these practices. Such criticisms provoked Washington’s impassioned outburst against that rascal Freneau in a cabinet meeting in August, 1793.⁴⁰ The President was infuriated by hints that he displayed monarchical leanings, although, to this point, most critics of the high tone of government would have agreed with Senator William Maclay: the creatures that surround him would place a crown on his head that they may have the handling of its jewels.⁴¹

Another long stride toward involvement of the President in opposition charges came in the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion, when Washington included in his annual address to Congress a criticism of certain self-created societies. Reluctant though they were to challenge the President, even congressional Republicans saw this rebuke of the democratic-republican societies as a party act and a dangerous interference with the right to censure the government.⁴² Still, most critics avoided a direct confrontation. It was only when he signed Jay’s Treaty that Washington wrote an end to his immunity to the sharpest barbs of critical assault.

To Republicans, Jay’s Treaty was the penultimate confirmation of their fears that a British interest was involved in a Federalist conspiracy to destroy republican government in the United States. It was impossible to deny the President’s agency in putting the treaty into effect, particularly after he refused on constitutional grounds to deliver papers relating to the negotiations to the House. Thus a minority of Republican writers deliberately set out to destroy the President’s reputation with the people.⁴³ Belisarius, Valerius, Pittachus, and others filled the Philadelphia Aurora with direct attacks on the President, sometimes going so far as to advocate his impeachment. The New York Argus and Boston’s Independent Chronicle joined the campaign, along with a few pamphleteers.⁴⁴ From France, Thomas Paine took a hand in the assault.⁴⁵ Even Jefferson was involved, when a Federalist newspaper published his famous accusation that men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council … have had their heads shorn by the harlot England.⁴⁶

Jay’s Treaty occasioned the assault, but the Republicans reexamined Washington’s conduct as a whole. They rewrote their history of the Federalist conspiracy in such a manner as to impugn the President himself. Belisarius, for example, addressed the President directly, charging that his administration had entailed upon the country deep and incurable public evils. The administration had created a distinction between the people and the executive through monarchical pageantry, sanctioned the plunder of revolutionary veterans by avaricious speculators, mortgaged the revenue to an irredeemable public debt, formed a monied aristocracy by chartering a national bank, created a dangerous standing army, and incited the people to rebellion with excise laws. Now it had approved an unconstitutional treaty deeply subversive of republicanism and destructive to every principle of free representative government.⁴⁷ Would Washington, asked one of the most important pamphleteers, end his term the tyrant instead of the savior of his country?⁴⁸

Washington’s last years in office were made an agony by such abuse. He was charged with exceeding his expense account. Old revolutionary forgeries were revived to impugn his patriotism. For a man whose sole remaining ambition was to retire, who felt he had sacrificed a lifetime to his country, the assault was absolutely insufferable. It was no consolation that his enemies probably damaged their own cause more than himself. It required considerable restraint, when he prepared his Farewell Address, to confine himself to warnings against the evils of faction, the threat of sectional confrontation, and the dangers of undue affection for a foreign state.⁴⁹ But this was Washington’s only public response to the opposition attacks.


¹Douglas Adair, Fame and the Founding Fathers (New York, 1974).

²This understanding of the atmosphere of the Federal years has been most influenced by: John R. Howe, Jr., Republican Thought and the Political Violence of the 1790’s, American Quarterly, XIX (1967), 147–165; James M. Banner, Jr., To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789–1915 (New York, 1970); Linda K. Kerber, Federalists in Dissent: Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America (Ithaca, N.Y., 1970); Richard Buel, Jr., Securing the Revolution: Ideology in American Politics, 1789–1815 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1972).

³Lance Banning, Republican Ideology and the Triumph of the Constitution, 1789 to 1793, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., XXXI (1974), 167–188.

⁴The most important sources for an understanding of the heritage of neoclassical politics include: J. G. A. Pocock, Machiavelli, Harrington, and English Political Ideologies in the Eighteenth Century, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., XXII (1965), 549–583; Isaac Kramnick, Bolingbroke and His Circle: The Politics of Nostalgia in the Age of Walpole (Cambridge, Mass., 1968); and Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman (Cambridge, Mass., 1959).

⁵Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1967); Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776 (New York, 1972).

⁶Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1969).

⁷Washington compared himself to a culprit who is going to the place of execution in a letter to Henry Knox, April 1, 1789. John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (39 vols., Washington, D.C., 1931–1944), XXX, 268.

⁸For an overview, see Edward S. Corwin, The President: Office and Powers, 1787–1948 (3rd ed., New York, 1948), chap. i; Leonard D. White, The Federalists (New York, 1948).

⁹Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography (6 vols., New York, 1948–1954), VI: Patriot and President.

¹⁰For Hamilton’s motives and the nature of his plans, see Gerald Stourzh, Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Republican Government (Stanford, 1970); John C. Miller, Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox (New York, 1959), pt. 3; E. James Ferguson, The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776–1790 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1961).

¹¹The emergence of political parties may be followed in John C. Miller, The Federalist Era, 1789–1801 (New York, 1960); Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., The Jeffersonian Republicans: The Formation of Party Organization, 1789–1801 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1957); William Nesbit Chambers, Political Parties in a New Nation (New York, 1963).

¹²The best source for the inherited critique of the British financial system is Kramnick, Bolingbroke and His Circle.

¹³The emergence of this theme in contemporary newspapers can be followed in Lance Banning, The Quarrel with Federalism: A Study in the Origins and Character of Republican Thought (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Washington University, 1971), 243–272.

¹⁴See Jefferson’s record of conversations with the President in Paul L. Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (10 vols. New York, 1892–1899), I, 192–198, 227–231, 233–237; Jefferson to Washington, May 23, 1792, ibid., VI, 309–312.

¹⁵Freeman, Washington, VI, chap. xvi.

¹⁶Hamilton to Edward Carrington, May 26, 1792, in Harold C. Syrett and Jacob Cooke, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (13 vols. to date, New York, 1961—), XI, 426–445.

¹⁷This and subsequent pseudonymous pieces are available ibid., XII.

¹⁸Philip M. Marsh, ed., Monroe’s Defense of Jefferson and Freneau against Hamilton (Oxford, Ohio, 1948).

¹⁹Hamilton’s support of Federalist newspapers is examined in Miller, Hamilton, passim. Jefferson’s relationship with the press is discussed in Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, (5 vols. to date, Boston, 1948–1974), II and III.

²⁰Washington to Jefferson, August 23, 1792, Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington, XXXII, 130–131; Washington to Hamilton, August 26, 1792, ibid., 132–134.

²¹Hamilton to Washington, September 9, 1792, Syrett and Cooke, Papers, XII, 347–349.

²²Jefferson to Washington, September 9, 1792, Ford, Writings of Jefferson, VII, 101–109.

²³Freeman, Washington, VI, chap. xvi.

²⁴In December, 1792, Congressman Frederick Muhlenburg received a message from a pair of confidence men, James Reynolds and Jacob Clingman, who were lodged on a federal warrant in the Philadelphia jail. The pair claimed to have information that would hang Alexander Hamilton, implicating him in speculation in the public funds. With Senator James Monroe and fellow congressman Abraham Venable, Muhlenburg met with Reynolds and also with his wife, emerging with letters and other information which seemed to confirm the charge. On the morning of December 15, this trio confronted Hamilton at his office and agreed to an evening meeting at his home, where Hamilton promised to present evidence that would refute the charge. That evening the Secretary displayed his own bundle of correspondence and convinced the congressmen that he had been the victim of blackmail that had nothing to do with speculation in the funds. He said he had been the mark in a confidence game, having been drawn into an adulterous relationship with Maria Reynolds and then confronted by her husband with demands for compensation and loans. Reynolds had used this money for speculation and fraud, but Hamilton had refused Reynolds’ demands for a position in the Treasury and ignored his threats to expose the Secretary unless he used his position to end the federal

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