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tv   George Washington and the First Congress  CSPAN  August 21, 2016 6:48pm-8:01pm EDT

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the national park service's most visited historical home, arlington house, the robert e. lee memorial at arlington national cemetery. join us with your phone calls as we talk with robert stanton, national park service director and the former arlington house site manager who will oversee the upcoming year-long restoration of the mansion, headquarters and grounds. thursday, the 100th anniversary of the national park service, live from arlington house at 7:00 p.m. eastern on american history tv on c-span3. > american history tv, author fergus bordewich talks about how the first congress. have james madison, george washington and a group of extraordinary man invented the government. he will read passages from his book and look at the leading men who developed the congress and the presidency in the early days
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of the republic from 1789 until 1791. george washington's mount vernon posted this and 20 minute event. this is new york in 1789. we are standing in front of federal hall looking towards these river of new york. and the city even then, although the buildings were four or five stories high has some of the bustle and teaming qualities that it's had for the last 200 years. federal hall, even though the appearance i will show you look very classical, it is here. this is another image of new york and it may be somebody in this audience -- i would bet a who knows this house is standing at the manhattan end of the hall and tom.
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-- holland tunnel. it is not there anymore. this is where vice president john adams rented for the two sessions when the congress met in new york. this is to convey some sense of how rural and be collect manhattan was in 1789. the city ended about where new york city hall is today. if you went beyond city hall you are going out of town. and this stood -- this building stood approximately 1.5 miles maybe two miles from new york city. when members of the first congress needed a break, and that was often, because it was very exhausting, and these fellows were working six and seven days a week, they went for walks or horseback rides in the countryside, and that
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countryside is often below houston street in today's new york. greenwich village was at there somewhere. that is the new york that we are in, and this is federal hall, where just about all of the action is taking place. it is on wall street, the coffeehouse. the scene i showed you first is behind us. we are now looking in the direction of the hudson river. ok. so the first congress. despite its significance, the first congress has generally been treated as something like and asterisk after the constitutional convention. it is the government that the constitution outlined, and that it what, that is what it was, an -- it spring fully grown from the head of zeus. which it didn't. it took two years of highly created and sometimes two-fisted down and dirty politics to
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accomplish the job, and that job was creating the institutions of government, of creating what patrick henry, who i am going to refer to once or twice later on, referred to as the crazy machine of government. what we like that is what these men are doing in federal hall here. when the first congress gathered in new york in march and april 1789, why was two months? because it took them more than a month to get a quorum. everybody who showed up on time, including james madison, was in a blind panic that not enough people would turn up to make a congress. and in their letters to others they spread the fear that they fail before they even had gotten started. so the challenges facing the country are terrific. the country is a very shaky collection of 11 sovereign states.
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and rhode island, governed by north carolina and rhode island, -- north carolina and rhode island, governed by anti-federalists, those who do not like it, have not yet joined the union. opponents are demanding more than 200 amendments or even a new constitutional convention. the government has no reliable source of revenue. there are more than 50 different currencies in circulation. there is no permanency of -- permanent seat of government. government had been nomadic in the 70's 80's. southerners are suspicious of northerners, southerners, and westerners of easterners, and new englanders of just about everyone. there are very well-founded fears that the west -- when we speak of the west, we're not talking about montana and idaho and south dakota. we are about west of the appellations. -- appellations. alachians.
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we are talking about what soon becomes kentucky and tennessee and ohio and indiana and illinois. that is about as far west as anyone can imagine at this point. there are fears that the west will break off into another country or maybe several countries. quakers and others are demanding an end to slavery while , southerners threaten secession, and they did so in the course of the first congress threatened secession if congress bears to tamper with slavery. and as i said, and i will repeat it probably a few more times, even many members of congress doubt the government would survive its birth. has james madison said a number of times we are in a wilderness , without a single footstep for -- to guide us. yes come the first congress , achieved prodigious output. it established the fact -- executive department, the federal court system, the first revenue streams for the national government, the first and
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amendments approved to the constitution, adopted a program for paying the countries debts, and embrace the principles of capitalism as the underpinning of financial policy. it founded the first national bank. it established the first national capital on the banks of the potomac. it enacted the first patent and copyright laws, founded the coast guard and i could go on. the members of the first congress didn't regard themselves as demagogues. they never expected anyone else to consider them is that either. a great majority of them were professional politicians. most of them were, gasp, lawyers. [laughter] this was not a congress of amateurs. nobody, nobody threw down his plow, jumped on his mule, and
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rode to new york and legislated for a while and then went back to the farm to finish plowing. nobody. nobody tore off his cobblers. these men are professionals. they were overwhelmingly pragmatists. there were no ideological zealots. one or two were a little bit crazy, and a few others were famously a bit lazy, and a number of others, it seems, from time to time had to be pulled out of the taverns and brothels of the east side. some of those names do not occur very often in the record, but among these men -- we will come back to him in a minute. you know who that is. james madison. james madison stands out as the leading figure, particularly in the first crucial session of
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congress. there were three sessions two in , new york, the third in philadelphia. he served in effect as floor leader in the house. there were, i should remind you, there was no structure as we know the congress has today. there were no majority/minority leaders, whips, and no structure of seniority at all. madison was recognized by almost everyone as the foremost interpreter to the constitution, to which he contributed arguably more than anyone else. he was a brilliant parliamentarian, and i will tell you a story about that if there's time. a truly stunning maneuver that borders on sleight of hand that buffalod the rest of the house and was fundamental to bringing the capital here as opposed to being elsewhere where congress had already voted to put it. a brilliant parliamentarian, and
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had the complete confidence of the single most charismatic man in the united states, george washington. with go back. this is george in a very presidential sort of pose, and this is a conjectural rendering of washington arriving for his inauguration. i'm going to take the liberty of reading a short bit from the book here. i hate to slash my own words, but i am. i'm just going to read an cerpt. when i again, this is mount vernon. this is george washington here at mount vernon. washington consider the sluggishness in getting the government up and running to be a national embarrassment. he was determined not to add to it. as this delay must be very irksome to the attending members, i am resolved no
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interruption shall proceed from me that can well be avoided. he assured james madison by mail. madison is in new york. the house of representatives was still debating codfish and molasses, when on april 22, congress learned that george washington had reached the jersey shore. washington left mount vernet accompanied by his aid david , humphreys, his secretary, tobias, his enslaved servant, billy lee and charles thompson. , a man who might have headed an executive department but did not. they crossed the potomac at georgetown, headed north through -- towards baltimore, across the rolling hills that some potomac valley promoters, washington among them hoped it , might become the site of the nation's permanent capital. he had hoped to travel in has quiet and peaceful a manner as possible to conserve his energy,
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but that was not to be. the entire route was with cheering, shouting, flag-waving well-wishers throwing flowers at him, holding up their babies and demanding speeches. towns that had cannons fired them. veterans marched alongside them for miles. men wept. ben is for claimed a new era and behold the rising empire, so he slipped the crowds when he could. he agreed when pressed to deliver addresses in baltimore, wilmington, and philadelphia, where 20,000 people half of the , population thronged the call pulled the streets, long live the father of his people. and a laurel wreath was placed on his head. more crowds awaited him on the new jersey bank of the delaware river where he famously crossed , during the war. uniformed calvary and infantry escorted him between ranks of
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girls crowned with garlands foods strewed flowers before his feet and saying code to glory. they proclaimed washington had become virtually divine, or and they upon a skill of eminence that haven't had never before assigned to a mortal. expectations were high. [laughter] finally, on april 23, at elizabeth, new jersey, he was met by a committee of both houses of congress jon jay, and , numerous city officials and rotundityime -- figure of his wartime colleague henry knox. libra needs an awning with red curtains, washington was wrote across the river in a 47 foot barge manned by 13 pilots dressed in white garments and black caps. flag-festooned ships fired
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candidates across the harbor. as if inspired by the jubilation, porpoises leaped and dove around the barge. [laughter] eyewitness account. in the future site of the statue of liberty a boatload of illed aen and ladies tr welcoming ode of "god save the king. as the pastor of the battery in my north of the east river to the booming of artillery, ofaa's came from multitudes men impact like years of corn before the harvest. recalled the success of motion to murray's wharf like the rolling of the sea. the panorama washington later withm, filled my mind sensations as painful considering the reverse of this
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scene, which may be the case after all of my labors to do good as they are pleasing. , in other words, he was pretty uptight. it was washington's first trip back to new york since the end of the war. if any new yorkers held him personally responsible for losing their city to be british, and the catastrophic battle of long island, it was clearly forgiven. he was filled with trepidation all of the sacrifices, the years , of war and political struggle, the great experiment on which the nation was about to embark. it might yet collapsed in fiasco and come to nothing. an assembly of war veterans met ms. inventories wharf. murray's wharf. at the top of the steps, carpeted in his honor, they declared a guard was ready to take his orders. at this, washington, turning to the crowd, and with a democratic inspiration declared he would accept the honor guard but, in truth, the affections of his fellow citizens was all the guard he wanted. he rejected the use of a
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carriage, and preceded by a group of calvary and artillery and officers, the new york's governor and mayor and clergyman and an amazing concourse of ordinary citizens went slowly through the streets, with silk banners, flowers, and branches of evergreens to the mansion on cherry street near the present , day brooklyn bridge, which had been rented for him. later, the skies burst in a downpour. downfall, but no one seemed to care. not that there were not dissenters. to at least some republicans washington's entire journey seemed like a royal progress that smacked of text -- monarchical excess and hinted at the elevation of the new president in a sort of american king. a satirical and sacrilegious caricature that spread around new york labeled the entry,
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showed washington arriving in the guise of jesus in the american jerusalem of new york, sitting in billy lee's lap, and mounted on a donkey that by david humphreys wearing doubles once enchanting, "the glorious time has come to pass when david should conduct an ass. " less nastily, but in its own way no less significant in its ambivalence about washington's intentions, and member of congress promoted that a prominent quaker who had led a hand to the struggle when told , that washington was approaching his house, replied with quaker lead disdain for ceremony that he was perfectly indifferent to the general commotion at the door and declined to rise from the dinner table as the president-elect recession marched by.
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i don't believe you on that can have negative note there, and you will realize that i think washington's role in the course of the first congress is really quite fascinating. i'm going to give you just one short snapshot here. this actually describes the day of his inauguration shortly afterward. but it is a different note. as the inauguration approach, visitors poured into the city, filling taverns, boarding houses and private homes. every one of them was desperate for a glance of washington. "i have seen him," a young woman breathlessly wrote home. i never saw a human being to look so great and noble as he does. i could fall down on my knees before him and bless them. a landlady was so overwrought that she experienced a virtually orgasmic collapse. her mind was so overcome by the
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expectations of seeing the president that it affected her whole frame in a very uncommon manner. it was so painful that though she promised herself much gratification, she wished it over. [laughter] so people responded to george in different ways. [laughter] so washington's charisma and his wholehearted commitment to the republican experiment, and that is what it was, and experiment, or powerful assets for the fragile government. but congress, you have to remember, was the most powerful branch of that government. it was there not in washington's mansion that the real decisions were made, the plans for the country were proposed, and fundamental conflicts hashed out. washington was a republican in his bones. in his bones.
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despite the adulation -- americans had no idea what a chief executive might be like except king george iii. it is not perhaps not as startling that people responded in the ways that i was describing here, as they do not know what the president is. there has never been a president. george washington is going to invent it. washington, of course, had no agenda of his own to advance. he had no program for his first hundred days, which is a millstone that has hung around the neck of every president since fdr, generally by the media pundits and the opposition in order to be able to say, if the president has not accomplished what we expected him to do in the first 100 days, he is a failure. and i do not think any president benefits from that. i think we should retire the phrase. it certainly did not exist back in 1789.
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and when i said washington was a republican in his bones, he looked to congress for leadership, not the other way around. and his hands trembled at his inauguration, and that was for good reason because he knew everything he said or did would set a precedent for better or worse. well, i should quote you at least a phrase or two up of what washington was thinking. before he set out for new york, he confided to a neighbor here where we are right now, he said, from the moment when the necessity of accessing, accepting the office of chief executive had become apparent and, as it were, inevitable, a, i anticipated, and my heart was sick with distress, the 10,000 embarrassments complexities, and , troubles to which i must yet again be exposed in the evening of a life already near consumed
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in public cares. one of the first challenges very first the very, week of congress. it hinged on a seemingly innocuous question. just what was the chief executive to be called? it might not have been president, and this is where john adams steps in and basically ruins the vice presidency for all eternity. [laughter] the first congress spent weeks, weeks debating what to call the chief executive. adams, who repeatedly with a nixonian charisma, excerpted -- inserted himself in the senate debate, essentially aggravating everyone. and diminishing the office of
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vice president nearly with his every utterance. i do not hate john adams, but these were not his best years. adams considered "his most benign highness" or at least "his highness" as the barest acceptable forms of address. although he preferred "his high mightiness," and he dismissed "president" as fit for nothing more than the leader of fire companies for a cricket club. others proposed the name washington should itself become the title, like caesar or augustus in ancient rome, to be bestowed on future presidents. fortunately, george washington would have none of it. he rejected all these grandiose titles. it was offensive to the leveling american spirit. although he was obviously a patrician, a slave owner, a military man accustomed to
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command and obedience, he was a republican and he regarded congress as the core of the nation's government. but underpinning his republicanism was an unreachable -- unreachable quality of self-restraint, modesty, and respect for the dignity of his fellow men, including those he disagreed with. as far as he was concerned, the humble title of president was just fine. thank you, george. i think we are all grateful for that. we have certainly had some presidents, more than a few, i daresay, who we would have had a difficult time addressing as his high mightiness. depending on where you are on the spectrum, pick your choices. [laughter] so, the first congress did not accomplish anything with a group hug.
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they did not sing a 1789 version of "kumbaya." they did it through pragmatic and sometimes shameless deal making of the sort ritually this there is a modern ideologues and idealist alike. it often evolved the suspension of personal principles in order to get things done. the french ambassador, who was a very acute observer of the first congress, observed that he intrigues the cabals, the underhanded and insidious dealings of the factions and turbulent spirits are even much more frequent in this republic than in the most absolute monarchy. the turbulence he is describing is the republican government at work. i want to give you one good
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example, a serious example. there are so many, so many, but i'm going to talk about the battle over amendments. if we are going to do that, let's find madison again. there are some surprising aspects to this. today, we think of the bill of rights as one of the most majestic components of the constitutional system, rightly so. many of the men who created the constitution did not want amendments at all. the amendments as we know them were the product of a political sausage machine. state ratifying conventions had called for more than 200 amendments, many of which demanded the rebalancing of power to favor the state government. in other words, to push the system back in the direction of the failed confederation, or one might say if one really wanted to go out on a limb, forward in the direction of the confederacy of 1861.
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i am not saying that as loosely as you might imagine. state ratifying conventions called for a list of amendments. many of them were overlapping. but they tended to focus also on limiting the jurisdiction of federal courts, banning federal taxes of any kind, the creation of commissions that could override unpopular supreme court decisions, restraints on the power of congress to oversee even federal elections, and many other drastic changes that would have gutted the constitution. we can thank james madison that they did not succeed. most federalists, and madison comes into the first congress as a leading federalists, a leading nationalist, and he diverges from that in the course of the first congress. as far as the amendments were concerned, he was carrying a nationalist banner. most federalists strongly opposed any amendments.
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some of them were peeved by madison for countenancing any. madison would today undoubtably be rather unkindly smeared as a consummate flip flopper. he had opposed amendments very vigorously, objected to amendments of any kind until running as a candidate for congress in what was a largely anti-federalist district of virginia against james monroe, by the way. he suddenly claimed to have been a supporter of amendments for quite a while, and now in congress he declared that actually he pretty much opposed them. he certainly opposed any that were of a doubtful nature, very precise term. [laughter] so, in short, he was against them before he was for them before he was against them
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again. but seriously, he was behaving like the clever, not to say brilliant, somewhat inconsistent, patriotic politician that he was by putting aside often stated principles for what he considered the greater national interest, which at this point was appeasing strident antifederalists who demand a bit more than he intended to give them. having promised amendments, madison had to deliver. working feverishly he was , nothing if not a compulsive worker. he compressed the 200 amendments and to 19. committees into which madison participated would reduce them down to and then eventually 12. 17, he threw away everything he considered trivial, which was quite a bit, not in asserting what others considered trivial. he rewrote others and simply ignored ones that he felt would undercut the powers of the presidency or damage the
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national revenue stream and a few other things. the real struggle wasn't so much over the content of the amendments or whether there would be any. federalists complained that tampering with the constitution so new, so fragile would obstruct the wheels of government and throw everything into confusion, or even would in effect repeal the constitution as it existed. why? there was much debate over this point, which may sound odd or modest -- obscure except the original concept, madison, was to weave amendments for alterations into the text of the constitution. only later did he concede that they could be tacked on at the end. that was not quite an afterthought but pretty nearly. i think i want to say also, parenthetically here, that nobody, not one member of the
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first congress, considered the constitution as a sacred, divine document. these terms do not occur in the first congress. the constitution is brand-new. it was just ratified 15 minutes ago, figuratively speaking. and the constitution itself is built of compromises that left a lot of people unsatisfied, and there are quite a few holes in it which the first congress struggled to fill. madison's defense of the constitution's integrity was totally pragmatic. he said at one point is it not the glory of the american people that they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for customs, or for names to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense? the
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knowledge of their own situation and the lessons of their own experiences? this is a superb expression of pragmatic politics. and i think, to put it a different way, there were no originalists at the origin. [laughter] james madison certainly was not one. along with some other southerners, william smith of south carolina, who is here somewhere. he is right there. william smith, a strong federalists, nationalists of south carolina worried that some of the amendments might eventually lead to federal interference with slavery. on the other side the outspoken anti-federalist eldridge gerry of massachusetts who bestowed to , posterity the term "gerrymandering," complained that all amendments should be considered, not the ones that madison had cherry picked.
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the numbering of the amendments was completely arbitrary and it changed many times before the final arrangement that we know now. the two amendments first focused on the size of congressional districts and on congressional pay raises. guess why those two were not ratified? [laughter] in other words, the original third amendment became the first and so on and so on, so you were -- you will hear today from figures home a anywhere on the political spectrum that they put the first amendment first for a reason. well, they didn't. it was the third. it doesn't ring quite so well, but there it is. [laughter] civil rights and gun rights that loomed so large for americans today received remarkably little attention from anyone. as far as gun rights are
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concerned, today's second amendment, really the fourth amendment to them, nobody spoke of it in terms of gun rights. that term does not occur. it does not occur in the first congress, and nobody was thinking of it that way. the nra did not exist. to make my point a little more comprehensively, what is going on at the same time here? another debate in first congress. a major debate comparable to the debate over alexander hamilton's marvelous, brilliant financial plan. this is a debate over militia, over the creation of a militia, and they are not talking about six guys down the block in the tavern with submachine guns. they weren't. even though we may sort of wish it, it is not so. the debate focused on the
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following, henry knox, secretary of war, was charged with figuring out a plan for the nation's defense. there was no standing army. americans did not want a standing army. a standing army meant redcoats in big muddy boot stomping around your house, eating your food, messing with your daughter or your wife, and generally bullying you. that is what a standing army was. americans would not tolerate it, even though it was a fragile country that needed defense. nobody imagined they didn't need defense. what were they going to do? this was going to be the national militia. if you go back and read henry knox's militia plan, you will find it. it is highly detailed, it is national, it is structured it accounts for all men between and 60.
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a very complex plan. that was going to be the nation's army. so when the second amendment is referring to an organized militia, it is referring to what henry knox is talking about in his plan, and i suggest take a look at it. this is happening at the same time. that is why it did not need to be debated. the militia plan is being debated. it's not a debate over who will belong to it. everybody will belong to it. again, it's not six guys down the block with submachine guns. ok, how about civil rights? theodore sedgwick of massachusetts, who in most respects is a very forward-looking liberal minded man, brushes off the right of public assembly, asserting that it was beneath the dignity of congress to insert such minutia into the constitution.
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others objected to the suggested prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. samuel livermore from new hampshire said, "because it may be thought cruel, will we therefore never hang anybody?" he went on to say, "villains often deserve whipping and having their ears cut off." fortunately, he did not win that argument. [laughter] anyway, madison's strategy succeeded brilliantly. when it went down neither side , was happy with the result. james burke, firebreathing south carolinians complaining that the the nimitz for little more than meringue formed only to please the palate. while an anti-federalist essays -- essayist declared that madison had rendered
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machiavellian piddling by comparison. this is how the first amendments were created. this is what people thought of them at the time, which was not very much. meanwhile, president washington -- i knew you were waiting for me to come back to him monitored , debates long-distance from his mansion on cherry street. madison visited him almost daily to report what was going on at federal hall. washington very rarely ventured to federal hall, and when he did it was precedent-setting. there he is in full presidential dignity. in the interest of time, i am going to compress a story that i had to tell you here. i have said several times, washington is crafting the presidency. this is congress finding its own way through its wilderness.
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just how much power did the presidency have? not clear. madison very much wanted a strong presidency, and he clearly urged washington to use power. he was much more afraid of a congressional tyranny, particularly on the part of the senate, than he was anything resembling a presidential monarchy. washington, as we all know, there certainly were monarchical sentiments in both branches. today we would probably say authoritarian and certainly shared by john adams, who was -- the accusations are not a point. he believed the presidency would soon become hereditary.
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john adams is the vice president, and everybody knows he will become the next president. john adams is the only one of the founders with sons. who do you think he was thinking of? [laughter] at any rate, so, i am going to to you just for a moment's about these presidents. it is been said often and quite wrongly i think that washington really was not much more than a figurehead at this point, that he was driven by james madison at the beginning of the first congress, then later on by hamilton. i see no evidence to that at all. i think washington was a much more acute political man and acute political thinker and a subtle, nuanced political thinker than he is sometimes
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given credit for. he is able, remarkably, to listen to everyone. you hear him again and again when he is writing, whether it is letters or cited by others in the course of the first congress, he is listening to everyone's advice. he knows exactly who to ask, he takes it in, he thinks about it, and the last thing he is is a man with authoritarian instinct. and then he decides. the decision he makes are decisions taken congruently with others. this is part of his greatness, in setting a pattern for the presidency. not all presidents have been like that, but i think we were extraordinarily lucky that he was the man who was not only available, but the unarguable only candidate for the presidency.
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ok, what presidential precedents did he set? appointments. it is not a sexy issue, i grant you, but the president has the authority to appoint the first cadre of federal officers. these were primarily customs these were primarily customs officials. the revenue stream having been established, first article of business in the first congress. the government had no income. duties and tariffs were enacted. customs officers needed to be appointed to oversee these imports all over the eastern seaboard. washington appoints a gentleman , a savannahsh born man, quite capable, well recommended. the senate turns him down. why? nobody tells washington. washington goes to the senate and says, "excuse me, fellas,
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, "mr. fishborn is my appointee." it turns out that one of george's senators has a pretty trivial grudge against mr. fishborn and decides to basically nail him to the wall. sorry, mr. fishborn. and washington is furious at this, but the precedent it set courtesy up to the present day. a senator has the right to bar the appointment of a federal appointee in his own state. washington was very unhappy, and apparently, he smoldered in a way that was quite terrifying when he was angry. but he bowed to congress, because he believed in republican government.
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and in another instance, having to do with the first treaty signed by the united states, -- there had been treaties under federation government -- these were southern indians, the creek indians was significantly who , then lived mainly in the state of georgia -- and by the way, one of the most colorful, wonderful episodes of the first congress was the delegation of creek indians, who eventually come to new york in full regalia to sign the treaty. it is a wonderful, wonderful moment. but, at any rate, before the arrival of the creeks, another a preliminary form of this treaty goes to the senate. and again, president washington is thwarted. he personally appears. the treaty is red. traffic noise -- we are not
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talking about semis and trucks on the street on wall street outside. we are talking about metal wagon wheels on cobblestones, which are very noisy if you have ever heard them. the noise is so great that senators can't actually hear much of the treaty. washington doesn't actually care, because the senate's job is to just advise, thank you much, two or three words, now consent to it. clayad, a senator, william of pennsylvania rises and says ,, i think we should think about it. it is our job. no, i think we should think about it. washington regards this as a personal affront, stocks out, -- stalks out and says something to the effect, "i will never go back to that damn place again." [laughter] fergus bordewich: and presidents
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do not go to the senate to advocate for their treaties anymore. we are kind of coming to the end here. i know i promised you a really great story about james madison 's arguable sleight-of-hand that resulted in the capital being here on the potomac, and i am going to in adequately try to compress it into just a couple of sentences. there were 32 different proposed locations for the united states ' seat of government ranging from new york to norfolk, virginia. congress voted twice, twice to put the capital in pennsylvania, somewhere on the susquehanna river. the pennsylvanians, divided. robert morris, a very influential senator and one of the wealthiest men in america, who essentially bought speculative property anywhere where there was a possibility of putting the capital, including
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here. [laughter] fergus bordewich: this is a story i tell in my earlier book about the creation of washington. morris decided, who needs a capital on the susquehanna? it is going to be here, where i live, near philadelphia. so he divided the pennsylvania delegation, and congress voted to put the capital in germantown, pennsylvania. just outside philadelphia. james madison who, with washington where the two leading advocates of the potomac capital, was by no means anybody's leading choice. madison said, i have a small suggestion to make. we know the capital is going to be in germantown, but i think we need to assure that it is properly policed. that it has law and order. so i would just like to amend
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this act so that to ensure that the constables of philadelphia will be in charge. it sounds pretty trivial. and the house votes to do that. nobody noticing that by amending it on the very last day of the session, after the senate has already adjourned, the bill has essentially been killed. [laughter] fergus bordewich: it comes back in 1790. you many of you, i hope, already , know about the famous backroom deal in thomas jefferson's dining room in new york in 1790, where the first great horse trade in the united states history takes place. james madison very unhappily musters a small group of potomac valley members to vote for hamilton's extremely radical, controversial treasury plan.
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in return, alexander hamilton, a very strong antislavery man and an advocate of a northern capital, surrenders that and agrees to provide enough northern, mostly new york and new england, votes, to bring the capital to the potomac. that is why we are here. because two of the most illustrious founders, hamilton and madison with jefferson, more or less presiding at the dinner table, agreed to yield on matters of deeply held principle, in order to come to the decision that they felt would benefit the country as a whole. ok, so in the course of these two years, congress got its footing. washington created the presidency, more or less as we know it. members of congress differed on
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all kinds of issues, on slavery, centralized government, regional interests, taxation, but why did they succeed? they were all determined to make the government work. they knew that failure meant catastrophe. they believed in politics as a tool for national survival. and i want to underscore this, after all, the right to be political was what they fought the revolutionary war for. they fought to put politics into government, not to take it out of government. they fought bitterly sometimes, they understood the need to compromise. even on matters of principle. and they had the experience to do it. they were professional, experienced politicians. i think, those of us in 21st century america who think that what is wrong with government is politics, are betraying the intent of the founders.
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they fought the revolution to give us politics. politics is messy. it's very unsatisfying at times. it's full of compromises that people making them often don't like to make. idealists and ideologues don't like it. but today, women and men who are pragmatic and know what government is, and know how to make it work are the people, the kind of people whom the founders foresaw. i am going to say one last thing. and then i note you want to get to questions. even the staunchest antifederalists, the staunchest enemies of the constitution, eventually resigned themselves before the end of the first congress. eventually it was before the end of the congress. they resigned themselves without comment that they fearfully resisted. patrick henry, the leading antifederalists, the godfather, so to speak, of anti-federalism,
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said the following in 1791. "although the form of government into which my countrymen determine to place themselves has my enmity, it is natural to care for the crazy machine so long as we are out of sight of a port to resist. " i think it is a principle worth remembering that in government we are always out of sight of report. -- port. [applause] fergus bordewich: happy to take questions, and please wait until you get a microphone so that not only i, but everyone else, can hear you. >> when did the word compromise become the great sin? [laughter] fergus bordewich: well, pretty
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recently. [laughter] fergus bordewich: pretty recently. we have people in government today who think that government is the problem. i think you have probably heard that phrase somewhere. i think those tend to be people who have not read their history, who have not read their history and have not really listened very closely to the founders. james madison, who many people today like to think of as one of the fathers of states' rights, as in the first congress he said what we need here is the , fostering hand of government. anyway, i'm getting a little off the point, but we have people in congress today who, for the first time in american history, actually regard the institutions and the machinery of government as the enemy and the problem.
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we've never had that before. that is new in america. the caliber of individuals in government i do not think is lower than we had in the first congress or any other congress. i think the people, the types of people you get -- you don't get a madison every time and so on, but i think the caliber of people and their basic capacities are not different. but i think we do not know how to deal with people who have lost faith in the structure and the government that the founders gave us. >> in the first congress, did they think of the two chambers as equal, or was it upper and lower chamber? fergus bordewich: yeah, well, they argued a lot about that. that issue was in the air at the first congress. the senate clearly thought it was somewhat superior.
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members of the house certainly did not think so. and i would say that, on balance, that the house was regarded as the paramount body, but it is worth remembering that the term really came into use because in federal hall in new york, the senate chamber was upstairs. it was the upper, upstairs chamber, and rather famously, -- this is off the point, but it is a great anecdote -- there was some extremely loud members of the house downstairs. a fellow named james jackson of loud thatho was so senators upstairs now and again, it you could hear them saying shut the window. , it is jackson again. [laughter]
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>> jefferson and madison gave up a lot when they allowed hamilton to have this national bank, which they thought would favor merchants and so on, but they got the capital near here, but who do you think got the better deal out of that? [laughter] fergus bordewich: well, you know, yeah i don't think i'm , able of answering that type of question simply. i know it cries for it. i think it was not a good thing for the country that the capital was established here securely among the slave states. because as you well know at the beginning a slice of virginia , was part of the federal district. that was one of the aims of those who advocated for southern capital was in order to help ensure the continuity of slavery. there was well articulated fear
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that a northern capital would values in thery's direction of emancipation. so i think that is a big thing. i think that is a big thing. to the advocates of the southern capital, getting it, snagging it, was a very important thing. on the other side of things, the potomac valley members, as well as george washington, had what i'm sure many of you have heard of, potomac fever, which was to say this obsession with developing the potomac as the great national highway into the interior of the continent. which the eerie canal eventually became. the potomac, you will notice, never did became that. so in that sense, they felt that getting the capital would help make that a reality. it didn't. it did not. so on balance, i would have to say the hamiltonians got the
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better deal, because it is still the underpinnings of our governmental financial system. >> i may be revealing a lack of an education on the subject, but when you were talking about the amendment process, and i had always believed that the biggest argument some people raised against the bill of rights was the constitution limits the federal government's power, which it does, and they felt that the bill of rights was not necessary because the government would not have the power to muck around with freedom of speech or right to bear arms. and my misinformed, or did you not mention that fergus bordewich: that is absolutely one of the whole take -- tangle of debates taking place simultaneously. i think that has become increasingly emphasized in our time, in modern times, looking back at what mattered during
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that debate. ok? it was part and parcel of many, many, many arguments that were made between states rightists and nationalists. >> the second question i have -- and i just don't have an education on this, but as i understand it, prior to the revolutionary war, everyone was -- there was no restriction. you did not have to go get a background check to buy a gun. i don't think there was any expectation by congress that they had the power to impose such regulations, but when you are describing it, you made it sound as if your argument was contrary to the supreme court's opinion that it did not, that it was a personal right not restricted only to a militia. fergus bordewich: well, you are
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quite right that individuals did not have to buy by permit. totally correct. nobody even thought of the question, that's true. 99.5%, nobody thought about it. i did find some interesting traces and letters, but that is getting a little too deep in the weeds, i think, for this particular conversation. there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that they were thinking strictly of an organized national militia, and not individuals, not individuals. >> the idea that they would not be looking at restricting those rights. fergus bordewich: it was not necessary to restrict it at the time. it was never thought of. it was just never thought of. the debate on the amendment, per
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se, barely covers a couple of pages because it wasn't necessary. i had expected to write a great deal about a debate on the second amendment, and i was astonished at how little , how little conversation there was about it. and nobody considered it either , either particularly liberal or particularly restrictive. it was ancillary to the military -- militia plan. we interpret things differently. as i said, there were no originalists at the origin, but , you know we have now more than , 200 years of looking at this document and precedent. we make of them what we will today, but i think we ignore what the men of the time were
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actually saying and actually doing at our intellectual peril. >> when the first congress adopted the bill of rights, they debated and voted against applying it to the states. i was wondering if you could explain what their rationale was? fergus bordewich: yeah, madison was, madison was a -- well, there were 10 amendments and we almost always mean the first couple. not all of them kind of have the same heft as the first 10. madison strongly, very strongly advocated for language that would have applied the amendments to the states. in other words, it would have added a great deal more national power to the federal government. he did not have the support for it. this isn't -- in the first congress, this isn't a simple break down of north versus south.
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the most leading, the leading antifederalists is elbridge gerry from massachusetts, and there are other new englanders who leaned that way. they are not interesting right at the moment. new yorkers anticipate a little bit in this whole debate. some of the staunchest federalists were in the deep south, smith of south carolina, whom i mentioned earlier, but it was a bridge too far. it was essentially a bridge too far. and madison, to his credit, and it's one reason he was a great parliamentarian, madison could take a defeat and move on. he was defeated not infrequently. he was defeated on this. he cared a lot about it. cared a lot about it. but he let it go because he knew he was not going to get it. the just weren't the votes. >> [indiscernible] part of the
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reason that some states wanted to maintain a state imposed religion, and they felt the first amendment applied, it could prevent it. is that it? indeedbordewich: that is in the debate, but that is not a majority view. in fact, those were primarily new englanders. new englanders new england, at , the time, was regarded as the most religious part of the country. the most orthodox and the narrowest from that point of view. and it has to do with the way the congregational church was established in new england communities and so on. but there were many other, many other anxieties besides that. >> you talk about the debates that, of course, went on right after the constitution was
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established and the bill of rights was then established in this first congress. there are some people who are calling now for a constitutional convention. based on your scholarship, your insight into what to place over 200 years ago, do you have any insights or lessons learned that you would be willing to share with us on a 2016 constitutional convention? fergus bordewich: ok. in 25 words or less, yeah. [laughter] fergus bordewich: i am not such an advocate. i see no reason whatsoever for a new constitutional convention. i think it has worked pretty damn well. i think, i think the founders, including those who were fairly ordinary men, became extraordinary through what they accomplished, through this tremendous commitment, pragmatic
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commitment, i can't say that word too often. pragmatic commitment to problem-solving and to making compromises -- it is a tough one. it is easy to make compromises when nobody feels like he loses anything. it is very hard to make the ones when somebody feels like they're going to lose something. everybody goes away feeling unhappy, and that's what a lot of compromises are. they are not love fests. shift -- it is a metaphor the use constantly, the ship of state, the ship having left port. i think the ship has sailed pretty damn well for 200 years. and i cannot see any logical reason to try and reinvent the wheel here, because the wheel is round. it rolls. [laughter] [applause]
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>> since the constitution is silent on the number of supreme court justices, how many supreme court justices existed for the first congress, and how did they determine that? fergus bordewich: they flipped a coin basically. [laughter] fergus bordewich: the supreme court never met during the first congress. well, technically they met, but they had nothing to do, so they went home. and the supreme court at the beginning was by no means regarded as the third great pillar of the national government at the time. as i said, it did not really even exist. questions of constitutionality actually were decided in
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congress in the course of the first congress, and indeed for most of the 1790's, until the marshall court 10 years later. and it was kind of hard to get people to serve also because the to ride circuits, which was an appalling prospect of the time because there were no roads to speak of. and it was a brutal ordeal. the most interesting debate over the courts in the first congress really has to do with the establishment of the federal court system. and really, courts, federal courts that will fit in states and whether or not residents of states could tolerate federal courts behaving superior to, reviewing state court decisions.
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that is a very, very hot debate. nobody is really thinking much about what the supreme court is going to do, because there is very little that is prescribed for it at this point. one more. this lady in the back had her hand up for quite a while. >> you got through your whole lecture without mentioning george mason, who has been called the father of the bill of rights. so, would you like to do some honor to that gentleman? and also -- [laughter] >> you didn't mention the ninth and 10th amendments, so to some people, that shows that the founding fathers meant to be originalists, because they did not want the federal government to become stronger than the powers specifically delegated to them. the rest are reserved to the states and to the people. thank you. [laughter] fergus bordewich: ok quickly,
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, why no george mason? he was not a member of the first congress. he also, he was one of three men who refused to sign the constitution. he was not in the game. i'm interested in the first congress and what the political men of the time did to create the government. i mean rather than going back to , philosophical influences, which are not to be diminished at all. you are quite right in mentioning mason in that context, but he is not there. he is not there. and 10th amendment, i would read that more carefully. there is a great deal of argument at the first congress over the wording of that amendment, absolutely true, but the word expressly is left out. that is to say, it was a victory and for federalists and nationalists rather than state states' rightists, even though many people today don't want to read it that way, and clearly
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there are passions on the subject in the united states. i felt i should have to be square with you and let you know where i stood on this rather than be mealymouthed on the subject. the 10th amendment is a federalist victory, not a state rights victory. thanks everybody. , [applause] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2016] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit] announcer: american history tv airs on c-span3 every weekend. this month, american history tv is in prime time to introduce you to programs you could not see every weekend. these include lectures in
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