First in war, first in peace, first in pol­i­tics

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion - By James Srodes

Ial­ways have to sup­press a horse laugh when con­ser­va­tive friends pi­ously as­sure me they are “strict con­struc­tion­ists” when it comes to in­ter­pret­ing our revered U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. The Mo­saic myth that our found­ing doc­u­ment was set in stone by vi­sion­ary states­men who stud­ded it with in­her­ent virtues that can be tam­pered with only at our peril, is just that — a myth.

The painfully re­served Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton would have laughed, too, to hear such non­sense. As this thor­oughly re­searched and de­light­fully writ­ten book makes clear, it was Wash­ing­ton, more than James Madi­son or any other Found­ing Fa­ther, who was the driv­ing po­lit­i­cal force that caused the Con­sti­tu­tion to be drafted, then rat­i­fied. And it was Wash­ing­ton who used that same vaguely worded and in­com­plete doc­u­ment to cre­ate the mod­ern U.S. pres­i­dency and the frame­work of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment we have to­day.

It is easy to see how schoolbook his­tory tends to glide over the decade from 1787 (when he presided over the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion) through the eight years (1789-1797) when he was pres­i­dent. The feuds and ma­neu­ver­ings of other, more col­or­ful Found­ing Fa­thers (pious, slave-breed­ing Thomas Jef­fer­son; grasp­ing, envy-rid­den John Adams; of­ten friv­o­lous Ben Franklin; dem­a­gogic Pa­trick Henry; and petu­lant Ge­orge Ma­son) catch the eye more eas­ily.

Au­thor Har­low Giles Unger adds a much-needed new di­men­sion to the Wash­ing­ton por­trait, that of the skilled, in­deed un­ri­valed po­lit­i­cal strate­gist who cre­ated or­der and struc­ture out of the chaos — both eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal — that threat­ened the very sur­vival of the new repub­lic. Mr. Unger’s long ca­reer as a his­to­rian clearly ben­e­fited from a tour as the vis­it­ing scholar at the fine Mount Ver­non Li­brary.

Mr. Unger’s story of Wash­ing­ton’s evo­lu­tion as Amer­ica’s pre­mier po­lit­i­cal strate­gist be­gins three years af­ter the of­ten painted mo­ment on Dec. 7, 1783, when the gen­eral in­formed his cadre of of­fi­cers that he was re­sign­ing his com­mis­sion and re­turn­ing to a home he had vis­ited only spo­rad­i­cally since 1775.

I also have an added chuckle for those who de­cry the cur­rent “grid­lock” in Wash­ing­ton as a symp­tom of na­tional de­cay. As Mr. Unger shows, in the two years that fol­lowed Wash­ing­ton’s os­ten­si­ble re­turn to pri­vate life, the grand ex­per­i­ment of the Amer­i­can Repub­lic was on the verge of col­lapse.

A weak na­tional gov­ern­ment had no power to pay off its war debts. The 13 new states were equally bank­rupt; vet­er­ans of the War for In­de­pen­dence (a large num­ber of whom had served through its en­tirety) had been given vouch­ers for fu­ture pay­ment that al­most im­me­di­ately be­came the spec­u­la­tive fod­der of such ve­nal spec­u­la­tors as Abi­gail Adams, who bought them at a dis­count and then lob­bied the gov­ern­ment for full pay­ment. Within a year of his re­tire­ment, se­ces­sion move­ments were sparked — first in New Eng­land and there­after through­out the coun­ties on the western bor­ders all the way to Ge­or­gia.

Wash­ing­ton was not alone dur­ing this time in re­al­iz­ing that the flawed Ar­ti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion were a recipe for in­evitable col­lapse. He also knew bet­ter than to step out pub­licly to urge such a rad­i­cal idea as draft­ing a brand new Con­sti­tu­tion that would strengthen a na­tional gov­ern­ment. The pub­lic’s mem­ory of the ou­trages of the Bri­tish monar­chy were still too raw. Equally frayed was the pub­lic’s im­pa­tience at the im­po­tence and in­com­pe­tence of both state and na­tional gov­ern­ments to ad­dress the fi­nan­cial wreck­age that re­mained af­ter the war — then, as now, it was “the econ­omy, stupid.”

With a lit­tle ju­di­cious prompt­ing, old com­rades such as James Madi­son, Henry Knox and “Light Horse Harry” Lee, be­gan to pub­licly ad­vo­cate a con­ven­tion to “re­form” the old Ar­ti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion with Wash­ing­ton be­ing ad­vanced as the pre­sid­ing of­fi­cer to guar­an­tee no funny busi­ness. Even sus­pi­cious stir-plots like Pa­trick Henry fell for it.

That Wash­ing­ton would be in con­trol of the agenda when the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion gath­ered in Philadel­phia on May 25, 1787, was never in ques­tion. Of the 55 del­e­gates, 36 had served with him in the Con­ti­nen­tal Army, four had been his per­sonal aides and seven oth­ers had served with him in the first Congress back in 1775.

Nev­er­the­less, there was an im­me­di­ate uproar of protest from those who feared a di­lu­tion of their state-based priv­i­leges, and the ac­tual Con­sti­tu­tion that emerged was an un­sat­is­fac­tory com­pro­mise that took con­sid­er­able lob­by­ing to achieve rat­i­fi­ca­tion. Even then it would take al­most im­me­di­ate amend­ment (hence the Bill of Rights) and still pro­duced a na­tional gov­ern­ment that was pretty much a struc­ture in the­ory rather than re­al­ity.

Nowhere was the du­bi­ous na­ture of the Con­sti­tu­tion more painfully ap­par­ent than in the pres­i­dency that Wash­ing­ton achieved by lit­eral ac­cli­ma­tion. The vice pres­i­dent at least had a stated func­tion — pres­i­dent of the Se­nate and a vote in case of ties. But what was the pres­i­dent to pre­side over?

Wield­ing a daz­zling dis­play of del­i­cate po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus­build­ing and brazen chutz­pah, Wash­ing­ton ma­neu­vered the still-in­fant Congress to as­sert his as­cen­dency over for­eign pol­icy, ex­ec­u­tive ap­point­ments, (most im­por­tantly) gov­ern­ment fi­nances, the use of mil­i­tary power to en­force laws, and the power to make laws on his own by ex­ec­u­tive procla­ma­tion and or­ders.

How he ac­com­plished all this in the face of po­lit­i­cal and pub­lic op­po­si­tion even more fierce than what our more re­cent chief ex­ec­u­tives have faced is a real thriller of a tale that Mr. Unger has told with skill and au­thor­ity. Read this book, then pay a visit to Mount Ver­non.

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