Friday, 23 October 2015 15:40

George Washington and the Press

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George Washington and the Press

David J. Bean

David J. Bean is a freelance writer living in California.

Several articles have appeared about the rough time George W. Bush has had with the current media. There can be no doubt that the mainstream press has trumpeted much of the trouble the president has encountered. Perhaps that goes with the territory as even American icons like Lincoln and Washington had to contend with a hostile press. O.K., most people know about the hard time Lincoln had with the "Peace Democrats" but who ever heard that the Father of our Country, the man who was twice elected to the presidency by a unanimous electoral vote had to contend with the same thing?

Yes, though Alexander Hamilton was the chief villain in the press, the moratorium on Washington himself ended as both Freneau's National Gazette and Benjamin Franklin Bache's Aurora, two of the largest newspapers at the time, began targeting Washington as either a senile accomplice or a willing co-conspirator in a Hamiltonian plot to establish an American monarchy. Joseph J. Ellis reports in his outstanding book on Washington His Excellency that Washington found the personal attacks "outrages on common decency." But usually Washington suffered silently, telling friends:

The arrows of malevolence, however barbed and well pointed, never can reach the most vulnerable part of me; though, while I am up as a mark, they will be continually aimed.

The trouble probably began during Washington's first term when Alexander Hamilton completed his study of the financial mess left over from the war. Hamilton proposed a three-part solution: funding the war debt at par; assuming all state war debts; and creating a national bank. All three of these were viewed by Jefferson and Madison as too much "consolidation" which they identified as being too close to "monarchy." The Virginians viewed this as a hostile takeover of the Revolution by northern bankers and speculators. The sectional strife that eventually led to the Civil War was gaining a permanent hold on the politics of the United States. In spite of the heated opposition of Jefferson, Madison, and Randolph the controversial plan was finally adopted.

Though Colin Powell has been pictured as being opposed to some of the Bush doctrines, Bush never had the internal problems that Washington experienced. Madison, Jefferson, and Randolph remained in the cabinet while actively pursuing an agenda contrary to that of their leader. Washington embraced republican ideals but believed that interests, not ideals, drove nations. Jefferson was outspoken in the belief that American ideals were American interests. He was greatly influenced by his experiences in France during that country's revolution and thought that America should actively support their effort. Washington disagreed even though he appreciated what France had done for America during the war, and also, he had a personal liking for Lafayette and for Rohambeau's soldiers at Yorktown. Washington believed that the most important thing for America to do was to consolidate the country. Hamilton and Adams viewed the French Revolution as just an eruption in the conflict between European stability and anarchy. Supporters of the French labeled their opponents "Anglomen" and "monarchists" but in the end, Hamilton's strategic assessments, not Jefferson's, were accepted by Washington.

The question of federal or state sovereignty carried into Washington's second term. Hamilton had willingly deflected most of the criticism to himself on most issues except in the one instance of control of the Indians by the states-the failure fell on Washington's shoulders. Washington really didn't want a second term but the widening gap between Jefferson and Hamilton persuaded him that he had to stay. Behind the scenes Jefferson accused Hamilton of plotting to commandeer the government when Washington left, establishing his banker friends as a new American aristocracy and himself as King. Hamilton charged Jefferson with working behind the scenes to undermine the administration's fiscal program and subvert Washington's policy of neutrality. The hatred between the two men had become fierce, mutual, and personal. This was the beginning of political parties even in an embryonic form. What is now seen as a great contribution to political life was regarded by its creators as a curse. Madison wrote several anonymous essays for the National Gazette and other newspapers, which gave a distinct shape to the core arguments of their "party."

Madison was one of the key players in this whole drama. He led the fight in Congress against both federal jurisdiction over slavery and the entire Hamiltonian fiscal program. Jefferson joined him in mobilizing the opposition, claiming he had been "duped by Hamilton" to support the Bill that assumed the States war debts. Together, Madison and Jefferson toured the Connecticut River Valley drumming up support for their opposition to Hamilton's program. Though both were trusted members of the cabinet, they launched an orchestrated attack on the administration they were officially serving. England and France were at war, and Jefferson, who sided with France, secretly hired Philip Freneau, a prominent essayist, to write articles in the National Gazette castigating Washington's policy of neutrality as a repudiation of America's obligation to France.

Madison's newspaper articles described the aggregation of power by the federal government as a second coming of the British that the Revolution should have banished forever. They charged that the executive branch had become a royal court; that northern bankers were "monocrats" and "stockjobbers" who enjoyed privileged access to power at court. Hamilton's program was a homegrown version of the Stamp Act and the federal government was an imperial power that treated the states as mere colonies.

Washington refused to believe the rumors that named the originators of these attacks but the attacks did bother him. For one thing he felt the situation was vastly different from that of America's previous relationship with England: he had been duly elected, as had all the members of Congress, unlike the situation with George III and Parliament. Washington also felt that the opposition was confusing a strong executive with monarchy when all he wanted to do was complete his job and go home. Besides, he knew first-hand how ineffective a weak central government could be from his experience with a starving army at Valley Forge under the Continental Congress.

Whenever Washington mentioned his physical fatigue and his declining energy in private conversations with Jefferson or Madison they took these as evidence of his growing mental deterioration and so reported to their newspaper friends. A few friends tried to warn Washington. One wrote him to:

Beware, be on your guard. You have cherished in your Bosom a Serpent and he is now endeavoring to sting you to death.

But Washington underestimated the extent of the treachery and chose to regard Jefferson as a prodigal son who would soon recognize the error of his ways. He continued to meet with Jefferson over breakfast and to keep him in his confidence. Jefferson and Madison rationalized that they were not betraying him personally; they felt that he simply did not know what was going on. With the signing of the treaty negotiated by John Jay with England over disputes about the great northwest, the Republican press increased their criticism of Washington. But in reality the treaty only codified what was already a fact: trade with England was the lifeblood of the United States. But newspapers like the Aurora that held Jefferson's sympathy for France sparked the protesters to burn Jay in effigy and caused huge crowds to gather around the presidential mansion in Philadelphia demanding war against England and cursing Washington.

Edmund Randolph, who succeeded Jefferson as secretary of state in the second term, felt the same as Jefferson: that Washington was a dazed, over-the-hill patriarch and the dupe of northern bankers. Like current thinking in many quarters about president Bush, this was an overheated and melodramatic depiction of the purported evil lurking in Washington's administration. As today, the conspiratorial mentality was so widespread that the believers lost all perspective as to its effect. Jefferson and Madison actually tried to sabotage the Jay treaty in the House despite the constitutional conflict. But the treaty was passed and Madison was humiliated. However, Washington was stung by the personal attacks and confessed to Jay that the willful misrepresentations were ominous signs of a new kind of party politics for which he had no stomach.

It wasn't until after he was retired when incontrovertible proof was brought to him about the disloyalty of Jefferson, Madison, and Randolph that Washington finally realized what he had been up against. His extensive correspondence with Jefferson terminated and for a long time he refused to discuss it at all. President Bush does not seem to have "leakers" among his cabinet leaders but he sure has had his problems with some in the various government departments. At least he knows where the problems are even if he can't do much about it. *

"The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world is to be in reality what we would appear to be." --Socrates

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