Archive for the ‘ Early American ’ Category

The Inventor of the Presidency

NY Review

This is an upbeat biography. Other biographers have noticed the George was acting a part – which made it difficult for them to determine who he really was.

These writers consider this an advantage. The role he was acting out became the American presidency.


Since Article II of the Constitution is very brief and vague on the duties of the president, Washington faced the awesome task of fashioning the character and responsibilities of the office. In effect, he created the presidency and in the process, as Breen says, invented “a republican theater of politics” for the new nation. Washington loved the theater and often attended it for entertainment and relaxation. He commonly saw himself as an actor on stage and was always concerned with maintaining appearances. As John Adams later lamented, Washington had all the political talents that he, Adams, lacked. Washington had the gift of silence and had mastered “the theatrical exhibitions of politics.” He may not have been the greatest president, said Adams, but certainly “he was the best actor of presidency we have ever had.”

Washington used theatrical imagery everywhere in his writings. He described the creation of the Constitution, for example, as a great “Drama,” greater “than has heretofore been brought on the American Stage, or any other in the World.” As president he was obsessed by what he should wear, how he should meet the public, what kind of coach he should appear in. He was keenly aware that as the first chief executive he was entering “untrodden ground” and that he was setting precedents for future presidents. These precedents, he told James Madison, therefore had to be “fixed on true principles.” Since the United States was the largest republic since the fall of Rome, the government’s fate might actually determine the future of popular government for all time. “The eyes of America—perhaps of the world—,” said Washington, “are turned to this Government; and many are watching the movements of all those who are concerned with its Administration.”


Washington decided he had to travel in the newly formed States to strengthen their attachment to the Union – and to himself. A man who had no interest in political power – but had strong moral principles.

America was extremely fortunate to have such a leader.

America and the Americans

This distinction appeared early in the 19th Century, when America become urban and industrialized. Before, there had been only one type of American – farmer, although, in the South there were slave-owning Planters that produced tobacco for, and bought manufactured goods from, an overseas market – mainly English.

This distinction was personified by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. George Washington tried to moderate between them – but eventually presided over the American Constitutional Convention that made the United States happen.

Thomas Jefferson, who was in France at the time – came back, became involved in American politics – thereby making himself powerful, and fathered children by one of his slaves, at the same time.

The new kind of American was typified by Andrew Jackson, very much a self-made man – who, without knowing it – made possible the formation of many new kinds of Americans. He made them respectable by his own example.

And this new respectability was celebrated by Walt Whitman. Who made the Common Man not only respectable – but almost divine.

This was a new idea – but one Americans (all kinds of Americans) took as their own. I might as well state it here:

No matter how incompetent you are, you are basically perfect!

To this day, Americans believe this – and believe this completely. When I was working in Silicon Valley, in the Nineties – I saw all kinds of destructive craziness going on. But everyone was saying “Nothing bad is going on!”

Nothing bad could happen, because they were so good!

Why is Everyone Nothing?

Why is no one anything?

This question has been bugging me for some time. But it does not seem to be bothering anyone else.

Perhaps I have inherited some Aristocratic blood somehow – but I cannot imagine from where.

I dabbled in Early American History for awhile – and I noticed there that some of the Founding Fathers (Alexander Hamilton, for example) were extremely capable – but had modest origins.

That gave me the clue I needed. The success of a country depends on the quality of its leaders – and on whether those leaders will encourage other leaders to rise from the common stock.

Everyone can see this. But they cannot see what happens when the upper layers of society decide the lower layers must have no power – and indeed, must not exist!

I’m sure this has happened, and I now must ask when and how it happened.

The when question is easy – sometime in the 19th Century, and continuing into the 20th Century.

The how question is also easy – the pernicious effects of Industrialization, that produced the very rich and the very poor – the rule of the rich – and their determination to keep things that way.

This is common sense. But it  was hard to notice. because it happened so gradually, over such a long time.

And because it was a one-way process. Once it started, it could not be stopped. Until recently, when a collapse of everything appears imminent.


Allow me to summarize. People (nearly everyone) were told not to be – and that is what they became – nothing! The rulers who gave these orders, so confidently, were then overcome by forces they could not control, either.

We have come to the end of a historical period – and considerable chaos is bound to happen as a result.

To Think is To Be

We are the only species on earth for which this is true. Other species can do a little thinking – but for us, it is life itself. This is what makes us human – but also inhuman (when our thinking goes wrong).

We should be giving a lot of thought to this – but we are not. We have decided that not thinking is the proper way to be. And especially – not thinking about thinking.

You may demure, and properly so. And point to the many fine examples of thinking that line my bookshelf. And perhaps even to some of my own.

At which point, I will be forced to clarify my position – and explain that I am referring to most people, certainly not all of them. But in our time, these non-thinkers rule the world. And they know that their ability to not think is crucial to their success. And they are hostile to those that do – because they are a threat to their dominance.

Here is where I have to part company with my esteemed peers. For all their brilliance, they seem to have overlooked the hostility to thinking that marks our time. This problem could not be more serious – because people who cannot think cannot be.

At this point, you probably have given up – Being is too abstract a idea for you to think about.

I hardly know what to say at this point. I see people all around me who will not think – with an obstinacy that amazes me. “What are they afraid of?” I keep asking myself. And the answer seems to be “They are afraid of being clobbered.”

Perhaps I am being too hard on them – after all, there are plenty of times when I do not think. But I later regret this – where they do not. They are proud of these decisions (to not think) – and consider them their finer moments. For them, failure is a form of success. Something they are proud of. I know this is hard to believe – it’s a hard pill to swallow – but swallow it we must.

I must distinguish here between superficial behavior and fundamental behavior. People may proclaim (quite loudly) that they are rational beings – in stark contrast to the opposition. Lenin was good at this – mainly because the Czarist state was rotten to the core. But what were the Bolsheviks, fundamentally? As history has shown, they were not interested in deep thinking – only in superficial thinking that was useful in advancing their cause. Once they were in power, they could dispense with that.

And, as the Sophists said long ago “Why bother with thinking at all?” Tell stories instead, that will mislead the people.

For Americans the founding story, or myth, was that they were an exalted people. And as they got rich – this proved it. Now that this wealth is fading away – they still believe in it – and are using their military superiority to force other people to believe in it. Without thinking about this at all.

As result, they think they are wonderful people – when, in fact, they are awful people.

Naturally, they don’t want to think about this.

Equality

This idea was once critical to American independence (as well as many other Independence movements) – as the American Declaration of Independence clearly shows. This was part of something bigger – as this quote – from page 640 of the reference below states:
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In the eighteenth century, the increasing circulation of goods, people, and ideas created new pressures for reform around the Atlantic world.

But gradually, over a period of two hundred years, as Business became more and more powerful – and Business was based on hierarchies which are by their nature unequal – Americans became used to this inequality – instead of equality. Without having the slightest awareness that this huge shift in values was happening.

In that two hundred years they had regressed nearly five hundred years – back to the beginning of the Modern Era. And they couldn’t see anything remarkable going on!

If you want a reference, some kind of authority to back me up, I refer you to Chapter 15  Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World from the Beginnings of Humankind to the Present (Second Edition) (Vol. 2: The Mongol Empire to the Present). This is the text for a history class taught at Princeton – which is also taught online.

I enjoy studying and learning – that’s how strange I am. Taking courses like this has allowed me to take a more nuanced view of ideas such as Equality. I’m not quite a ignorant as I was.

The Financial Ignorance of the Founding Fathers

This subject might be expanded to include the financial ignorance of the American people – which continues to this day – with our ongoing financial crises. We seem determined to not control our finances, as a nation – but let them control us.

We seem to think that money is an awesome force in itself that cannot be controlled by mere mortals. The rich and powerful know better – and set about controlling it for themselves. While the vast majority look on helplessly.

But let me return to Early American history –  one of my favorite subjects. The American independence movement was dominated by Virginians – since Virginia was the most powerful state at the time – with Planters like Washington and Jefferson. What was most painfully obvious about them (as we look back at that time) was their financial dependency on British financiers.

Who loaned them easy money (since they could always foreclose on their land) – which the Planters immediately used to buy luxury goods – and then later sold their agricultural products (especially Tobacco) to them at low prices – which they controlled. The Planters (especially Jefferson) were always heavily in debt. No doubt this was behind their desire for political Independence.

The Planters never had the slightest understanding of how the Financial system (mainly the British system) worked. The only exception was Alexander Hamilton, who grew up in the British-controlled West Indies – and was determined to model the American financial system on the British one. This included a National bank – to which Jefferson was adamantly opposed. Hamilton could see the future was in Industry – while Jefferson believed in Agriculture – and the purity of the Rural life. 

Washington was willing to compromise – and presided over the Constitutional Convention – which recognized the commercial necessity of strong central government – and a strong central economy.

John Adams was from the North, and close to the Yankee trading and commercial interests – but ignored his wife Abigail’s good business sense – and was a failure as the second President.

Jefferson took over from him – and formed a political party – which evolved into our unsuccessful two-party system. He was sympathetic to the French Revolution – which, in the long run, was a losing proposition. The British, which dominated the oceans, shot them down in flames.

But Jefferson did make the Louisiana Purchase from France – an incredible bargain! America would vent its love for war in a Westward expansion. And in a bloody Civil War.

Having never developed a consistent financial system.

Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War

I have listened to this book, and I can recommend it. It illuminates a period of American history often neglected. The period between its founding in idealistic principles, and its subsequent reorganization into a stronger Federal government (where Madison played a strong role) – and then its gradual absorption into Industrialization.

It thought of itself, early in the 19th Century, as a strong new power – when in fact it was only a minor player. The result was a war with Great Britain – when it was becoming the strongest power in the world – and was building the British Empire.

America was lucky to win a draw – which left it bankrupt – but, in its own eyes – a nation of destiny.

The War sharpened some distinctions that would become more prominent in the Civil War – the differences between the North and the South.

The North was never in favor of the war – and Yankee farmers continued to sell their produce to the enemy – because they could pay for them with hard money. The war in the North was one disaster after another. Americans never understood their Canadian brethren – and their policy of gradual independence. Americans were always in favor of war – no matter what.

The American navy, although hugely outnumbered, gave a good account of itself.

The British attack on Washington was an outstanding success for them – entirely due to the poor military defensive planning in that area. The account of how this happened (despite Madison and Monroe’s strenuous efforts) is one of the best parts of the book.

The attack on Baltimore (by contrast) was a failure – because it was well-defended.

The Battle of New Orleans was one of the few American successes – and paved the way for Andrew Jackson’s eventual presidency.