Meet a President on President’s Day

It’s that time of year again – President’s Day! This is one of my favorite holidays because I get to ask random people about their most beloved President. I usually get an odd look, and some people even feel offended as if I’m probing into their political ideology. Usually, I get the following answers: Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. Almost like a game of Pokemon, I try to find people with rare favorites like James Buchannon or Andrew Jackson. My favorite President is by far Theodore Roosevelt and if you like to learn more about his extraordinary life click here, here, and here. These past few weeks have been heavy with posts on Presidents, and it is partially because of today’s holiday commemorating George Washington’s birthday. This is a special post because it marks my last Founding Father to report on – John Adams. I read John Adams by David McCullough and highly recommend it to understand this peculiar second President of the United States. Who knows, maybe after reading this, you’ll have a new favorite.

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John Adams was born in Quincy, Massachusettes on October 30, 1735, to a pious farming family. As a direct descendant of the original Puritans, Adams began his life steeped in a culture of morality and tradition. Adams did not care for his early schooling and at one point wanted to be a farmer – this was vetoed by his father, and he was sent to Harvard College in 1751. While in school, Adams excelled in his studies and eventually became a lawyer with a promising career in Boston. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Abigail Smith, and they would go on to have six children – two dying early in life. While in Boston, Adams became an active opponent of the Stamp Act and unfair taxation by the British Government. He would actually go on to represent the British Soldiers who were responsible for the Boston Massacre – believing in the justice of the court and eventually receiving massive publicity from the trial. His reputation as a sharp lawyer and proponent of liberty led to his election in the First and Second Continental Congress. He was responsible for pushing the government into a bicameral legislator and the final passing of the Declaration of Independence – Jefferson said that Adams was the “pillar of the Declaration’s support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered.”

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With his success in the Continental Congress, Adams was elected Ambassador to Britain where he negotiated the final treaty ending the Revolutionary War in 1783. He became Vice President under Washington and took the Presidency himself as a Federalist in 1797. Adams’ Presidency could be best summarized as a placeholder for Washington’s policies. Adams was pro-British and supported Atlantic trade between the two countries; he prevented war with France and balanced a tightrope of European powers trying to take advantage of the young republic. In the end, Adams’ presidency was nothing to do backflips over. His personality while in office was prickly and somewhat aloof – preferring the opinion of his wife over his cabinet members. Adam loved to argue, and he was not one to sway with public opinion. He had a strong moral foundation, but an excessive paranoia of opponents which led to the Alien and Sedition Acts – limiting the inalienable rights of the citizenry.

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He was viewed by Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans as a tyrant. Adams lost his reelection and eventually went into retirement near his birthplace in Quincy. He would stay active in political opinion and eventually mend his friendship with Jefferson in later life. John Adams did not excel in the public eye and was always best suited for the intellectual backrooms of government. Although he had difficulties appeasing the masses, he became a role model in respects to morality which surpassed most Founding Fathers. Unlike the Virginian leaders, Adams was an abolitionist from birth and never owned a single slave. He corresponded with his wife with a love that was genuine and uncompromising. Adams was a modest and shrewd businessman – living without the suffocating debt ubiquitous for southern leaders. Adams and Thomas Jefferson would end up dying on the same day – the 50th Anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Adams is one of my “honorable mention” Presidents because what he lacked for social skills he made up for in reading and writing. He had a library of over 3,000 books and believed these words full heartedly…

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“Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”

Happy Presidents Day everyone! 

The Last Founding Father vs. Donald Trump

It seems to be another hectic week for our President – Donald Trump. A government shut down never looks good for the leader of the government. I heard this news from my Dad who was quite upset – not at Donald Trump – but at Democrats. See, my Dad is not an anomaly. Whenever our views are attacked, our elephant instincts kick in. We “react” first and “rationalize” later – usually, that rationalization is far from sensical. My Dad and I like to bump chests politically, but in the end, we always just sit on the couch and watch sports. However, our discussions about politics are not zero-sum gains. Trying to understand another person’s views takes time, patience, and empathy. My Dad and I have learned a lot from each other and our conversations keep getting more civil – our tandem elephants are becoming more docile.

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As an extension of last week’s post about James Madison, I am going to further question what it means to be “presidential.” Time will tell how Trump does over the next years but how can we truly judge his performance? We need to know how other Presidents have done in the past so we can have rationale conversations into the future. To achieve this goal, I am reading every US President’s biography and writing about them for your enjoyment – here is a list of all the previous posts: George Washington, John Adams (coming next week), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover. This week I read about America’s fifth president – James Monroe – The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger.

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James Monroe was the last founding father to be President and was actually born shortly before the American Revolution in 1758. Monroe was raised in Virginia, but unlike Washington, Jefferson, or Madison he did not own substantial plantation property. He fought in the Revolutionary War and was actually with Washington in the Battle of Trenton when the famous crossing of the Deleware River occurred; he was wounded in the battle but eventually recovered. The military at the time had a glut of officers, so Monroe was never able to receive a position of command. Upon National Independence, he took up law to begin supporting himself and his wife, Elizabeth Monroe.

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Throughout this time, Monroe was mentored by a fellow Virginian – Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson pushed Monroe to join him in politics and Monroe initially split his time between law and the Virginian House of Delegates. He would go on to serve in the Congress of the Confederation and help ratify Virginia’s Constitution. His political career took off when he became Ambassador to France during the French Revolution, Ambassador to Britain and Minister to Spain – negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, land treaties, and peace negotiations while overseas. He would go on to be the Governor of Virgina for four terms, US Secretary of State, and US Secretary of War. While Secretary of War, he virtually ran the government because Madison was inept during that period of conflict. He would go on to be the most popular President since George Washington.

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Monroe committed over 40 years of his life to public service and served in more public posts than any American in history. While President, he pushed for Western expansion and acquired more land from the Spanish in modern-day Florida. He protected American interests at a time in history when European powers could quickly take advantage of the young country. The Monroe Doctrine was a masterpiece of diplomacy for the Western Hemisphere and allowed independence for myriad nations in Central and South America. Monroe was described by friends and foes alike as having plain and gentle manners. He was a bold and robust leader in times of war and peace and fought for the Bill of Rights and against secrecy rules in Congress – opening the halls of Government for the first time in history.

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Monroe established the first state-supported public schools and pushed the development of public roads and canals to further commerce. Monroe was secretly an excellent President who accomplished more than I had ever thought. He transformed a fragile nation into a glorious empire – by making the United States impregnable to attack and rich in natural resources. He allowed Americans to expand westward and gain a democratic vote through the ownership of land; his Presidency saw the largest redistribution of wealth in the annals of history. Monroe was so popular that there were no political parties during his presidency; he was able to bring people together and put his country first. James Monroe indeed achieved “presidential” status during his Presidency – unfortunately, Trump is nowhere close to his level at this point…but I’m hoping he will pull through.

The Greatest Founding Father – Alexander Hamilton

Every 4th of July I get excited about cookouts, patriotic swimwear, and most importantly, Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers were the men who helped found the United States of America and are remembered mostly by their white wigs and stern portraits. Many of these influential members have been in the limelight recently via the popular Broadway play Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. This play motivated me to read about its main character, Alexander Hamilton; I thought it appropriate to use the same biography that inspired Miranda – Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

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Hamilton is most well known for his portrait adorning the 10 dollar bill and dying in a duel against the former Vice President Aaron Burr. Unfortunately, it was this duel that cost Hamilton his rightful place in high school textbooks – unexpectedly dying at the age of 49 allowed his enemies to perpetually smear his name and downsize his accomplishments. In opposition to history’s unfair treatment, I feel confident in declaring Alexander Hamilton the greatest Founding Father of all time. I’ve read the biographies of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson – none of those great men matched Hamilton’s political accomplishments and moral fortitude.

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Hamilton was born as an illegitimate child on the island of St. Croix in 1757. His family life was far from ideal and he had to work extremely hard to rise up from the poverty that consumed his future prospects. He was a precocious child and by the time he was a teenager, merchants were noticing his work ethic and his magnificent writing style. Some wealthy families desired to sponsor Hamilton’s education – allowing him to move to the mainland and later enroll in what is now Columbia University in New York City.

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While studying at Columbia in 1774, Hamilton was taken under the wing of many revolutionary mentors who shaped his eventual desire to fight for American independence. Once the fighting did commence, Hamilton helped form local militias and was actually an artillery captain in several engagements: The Battle of White Plains, the Battle of Trenton, and the Battle of Princeton. Although he desired to be on the frontline, higher up officials later employed him as an aide-de-camp because of his writing skills.  His incessant work ethic caught the attention of George Washington who made Hamilton his Chief Staff Aide. As Chief Staff Aide to George Washington, Hamilton ran the Continental Army with his behind the scenes paperwork – Washington was the figurehead but Hamilton was the orchestrator.

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After the war, Hamilton took up a law practice and pushed more than any other Founding Father for the ratification of the Constitution. His famous Federalist Papers argued for a stronger central government and the states to be a united body. Once the Constitution was adopted, George Washington was elected President and he quickly nominated Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury. As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton changed the United States forever by forming the first National Bank which took responsibility for state debts. This genius move forced the states to unify under the central government and showed foreign countries that America was a stable investment.

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It was Hamilton’s push for a stronger central government that drove his political opponents mad. Thomas Jefferson hated Hamilton and paid people to publish false reports that the Treasury Secretary was a monarchist and wanted to anoint a British King. This rift between Hamilton and Jefferson formed the first underpinnings for political parties in America. Hamilton was seen as a Federalist and Jefferson a Republican (no connection to the modern day party) – Federalists were stereotyped as the aristocratic class who were pro-British while Republicans were stereotyped as the agrarian class who were pro-French. Hamilton was accused of pocketing money from the Treasury Department and his reputation was constantly being smeared – all accusations were pursued by Congress but Hamilton was found completely innocent.

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The Federalists would be pushed aside by the Republicans when Thomas Jefferson was elected President; Hamilton at that time was seen as an evil adulterer, monarchist, and money monger. His political decline culminated with a duel with Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President – Aaron Burr. Hamilton purposely did not aim at Burr because he believed Burr did not wish to kill. Unfortunately, he was completely wrong. Hamilton died the day after -leaving his wife and seven children behind. A parade commemorating his death in New York City was said to be bigger than the funeral parade for George Washington.

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Alexander Hamilton is the Greatest Founding Father because in the words of Chernow, “No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.” Hamilton not only got his hands dirty with nation building but also kept his hands clean from owning slaves – he actually was a practicing abolitionist. I think this passage sums up his place as #1…

We have left behind the rosy agrarian rhetoric and slaveholding reality of Jeffersonian democracy and reside in the bustling world of trade, industry, stock markets, and banks that Hamilton envisioned. (Hamilton’s staunch abolitionism formed an integral feature of this economic vision.) He has also emerged as the uncontested visionary in anticipating the shape and powers of the federal government. At a time when Jefferson and Madison celebrated legislative power as the purest expression of the popular will, Hamilton argued for a dynamic executive branch and an independent judiciary, along with a professional military, a central bank, and an advanced financial system. Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.
-Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton

America’s Jello War

Have you ever made Jello? The process is pretty simple: mix jello packet with water, place in molds, let set. The setting process is critical – if you jump for the treat too soon it will lack any firmness and wiggle; you’ll basically bite into thick fruit punch. Jello is an excellent metaphor for America during the first years of its nationhood. After the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, America was far from the firm consistency of Jello; there were many forces which wanted to prevent the setting process.

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Domestic and international threats were constantly trying to undermine the Constitution and the office of the presidency. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, was a famous advocate for a hybrid-monarchy and wanted America to mirror components of British government. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson was constantly paranoid that a King would take over the states or that the New England colonies would secede to the Brits. We look back at those years with 20/20 hindsight but people were freaking out about the state of their “Jello-Nation.” So when did the Jello finally set?

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The United States really didn’t become a unified nation until the War of 1812 – America’s Jello War; the War of 1812 is always skimmed over in History Class but it was the war that gave America its familiar consistency. To learn more about this important-congealing period, I read 1812: The War That Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman.

In the years that led up to 1812, America was in a constant struggle with Britain over their policy of “Impressment.” Impressment was the policy of British ships stopping vessels at sea in order to search them for British citizens – the captured Brits would be forced into military service. America didn’t like being pushed around on the seas and especially didn’t like when American citizens were unjustly impressed to serve the Royal Navy – more than 10,000 by 1812. Added to these grievances, the British restricted international trade as a way to counter Napoleonic France – this was ruinous for American exports.

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The seas were foaming with anger between the two countries but the problems also extended to the terra firma. America was trying to expand westward but the British were slow to exit forts which were lost during the American Revolution and were quick to help Native Americans fight for contested territory. These territory disputes were constant and many westerners were salivating for more land – Canada looked like a low hanging fruit. Everything came to a head in 1812 after impressment searches led to American vessels being militarily attacked – James Madison reluctantly declared war on Great Britain.

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The war was fought on land and sea. Battles took place along Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Saint Lawrence River, the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the western frontier. Many battles were small skirmishes that pitted a weak American militia against a veteran British regiment; Native Americans many times joined the British or fought on their own. By the end of the war America had 35,000 troops compared to nearly 50,000 British troops with casualties of 2,200 and 1,100 respectively.  At the beginning of the war, many thought it would be simple to annex Canada, but after several failed attempts the American forces realized it would be much more difficult. The Americans and British kept swapping victories and the war seemed to be at a permanent stand still – the Americans were unorganized and the British were under resourced due to concurrent wars in Europe.

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James Madison had in theory the power of a united nation but in reality was a bystander to a conglomerate of individual states. Men were hard to recruit and funds were no where to be found – hence, the fighting kept puttering along with each nation only putting a toe into the cold water of  war. It all came to a head with the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 which saw for the first time support for the War by the New England states. This victory ended any thought of the British increasing their fleets in the Atlantic and became a rallying cry for the entire nation – Francis Scott Key would write the Star-Spangled Banner during the battle.

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A peace treaty was soon signed and America was reborn in the eyes of the world as a “real” nation that could hold its own. The War of 1812 birthed the national careers of two future presidents: William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. It stopped any talk of New England succession, led the way for the Monroe Doctrine, expedited westward expansion, increased federal power, and was the catalyst for the future sale of Alaska from Russia. After the War of 1812, the Jello Nation was set and molded. Or in the words of the then Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, to Thomas Jefferson…

“The people now have more general objects of attachment with which their pride and political opinions are connected. They are more American; they feel and act more as a nation and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby secured.”

 

Thomas Jefferson – Donald Trump Please Read

Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.
-Thomas Jefferson

Who is your favorite president? I always ask this to random people on President’s Day and usually get responses like Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, or George Washington. My favorite president by far is Theodore Roosevelt but I think Thomas Jefferson might make my All-Star Team.

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Jefferson is a complicated man and the only thing I knew about him was that he authored the Declaration of Independence. I wanted to learn more about this formidable founding father so I read his biography – Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham. Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia on April 13, 1743 and was the son of a popular local leader. Jefferson, from birth was raised to be a leader of men and to control the world he lived in. As a youth he was educated in the manners of the South: well learned with a cool, calm, and collected demeanor.

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He quickly took to all the sciences and was able to absorb Enlightenment philosophy during his first year at college. He was an insatiable learner who believed knowledge was a valuable possession which raised man from his “self-imposed immaturity.” By his 20’s he was the epitome of the renaissance man – farmer, violinist, scientist, philosopher, politician.

He was elected to the House of Burgesses at the age of 25 and lived a paradox as a politician – drawn to the spotlight but distraught by criticism. He was not a vocal man like John Adams but rather expressed himself best through writing. In 1774 he published the Summary View which argued for colony rights and became a rallying cry for the rumbling revolutionaries. The Summary View brought Jefferson to the Continental Congress and he quickly became the prime candidate to author the Declaration of Independence at the age of 33.

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The revolution quickly unfolded and Jefferson was elected as Governor of Virginia. As Governor, he trumpeted religious freedoms but fell short as a military hero – fleeing from the British when they came knocking. Nevertheless, with the end of the Revolutionary War, he was still esteemed and was sent to France as a delegate to promote the interests of America. While in France, he furthered his Enlightenment beliefs and helped Lafayette write “The Rights of Man.”

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Upon his return to America, he became the first Secretary of State and almost won the second presidency – ending up as the Vice President under John Adams. It was during his Vice Presidency that party politics first took a stronghold among the American public. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton (Federalist) were open to a stronger “monarchical” government while Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Democratic-Republicans) were against anything that mirrored the old structure of hereditary power. With rising distrust of Federalist power, the people elected Thomas Jefferson as President.

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As President, Jefferson was a pragmatic philosopher who understood the need to compromise. He wanted a limited government except when the nation was best served by a more expansive one. In 1803, Napoleon sold Jefferson the Louisiana Purchase which more than doubled the size of the United States. Jefferson was extremely popular for this and was reelected to a second term. During his final four years in office, there was the high potential for war with Britain but Jefferson pushed for peace at all costs. By the time he had left office in 1809, Jefferson had put in place a heavy embargo which began to cripple the American economy and eventually the United States would go to war with Britain in 1812.

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Jefferson, throughout his career, fused Federalist and a Democratic-Republican ideologies – realizing that different tools were required for different jobs. In retirement, he would go on to found the University of Virginia and build his estate at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams,would end up dying on July 4th, 1826 – 50 years after signing the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was a man with flaws but he was a man who left America and the world a better place. I especially like him as a President because he saw the merits of knowledge and was always on an eternal quest for wisdom. Jefferson for sure made bad decisions – he owned 600 slaves in his life and did little to fight for their freedom; siring many children with his mulatto slave – Sally Hemings.

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He was a man of his time in many ways but in other ways he was far ahead of the field – pushing for education, religious freedom, and  democracy when many wanted a King to rule. The United States would not be the same without Jefferson and I respect his beliefs of compromise that helped a country move through it’s precarious infancy.