26 August 2010

George Washington and the Early Republic

George Washington, the individual, had a profound influence on the shape of the American political system. This is to be expected from the first top executive in any organization, but I hadn't realized until lately just how exceptional he was and how important that may have been to preventing the United States from becoming a monarchy.

He was closer to being a life long dictator than may people realize. He was Commander-in-Chief, the highest ranking official in the United States government, from June 1775, when he was appointed to that post before the Declaration of Independence was even adopted, while he was a delegate at the first Continental Congress, until December 1783 when he resigned his office when the Revolutionary War was over, but then returned to preside over the Constitutional Convention and lead the nation again in 1787.

He then served out the first two terms as President of the United States, from 1789 until March 1797, and after a year a half out of Government service, he was the U.S. Army Senior Officer, a respectable senior public office (subordinate to the President and Secretary of War, but superior to all other military officers) until his death in December of 1799 at age 67. This post left George Washington in the position to easily carry out a military coup if the civilian leadership had not conducted itself with some semblance of propriety.

He started his military service as a general in the Virginia state militia, and remained a senior military officer for the rest of his pre-revolutionary military career. He married into money and spent much of his pre-revolutionary adulthood in Virginia politics, in addition to being a plantation owner. His independent wealth that he didn't have to earn gave him a pseudo-aristocratic status.

A Man Of Few Heirs

Most remarkably, he was survived by few close relatives. He never had children of his own. He had no stepchildren who survived him. His stepdaughter died before having children. His stepson had three daughters (the oldest of whom was twenty-three at George Washington's death, and another of whom who was twenty years old when George Washington died married George Washington's nephew, Lawrence Lewis (April 4, 1767 – November 20, 1839), who was thirty-two years old at George Washington's death and was George Washington's personal secretary after he retired from the Presidency and the executor of George Washington's estate), and one son, George Washington Parke Custis (who was eighteen at George Washington's death). George Washington has two older half-siblings who predeceased him and had no living descendants at the time George Washington died. George Washington's all five of George Washington's full siblings predeceased him, as did many of his nieces and nephews.

By the standards of royal succession familiar to Americans in the Revolutionary War era, at his death, George Washington's successor might have been George Steptoe Washington (1773–1808), the fourth son (by the third wife) of his oldest younger brother to have a son (George Steptoe's three older brothers predeceased George Washington), although there would have been room for dispute about which descendant was next in line. George Steptoe Washington was twenty-six years old when George Washington died, and had there been a monarchy, he would in turn have been succeeded by his son Samuel Walter Washington (1799-1831) who was just nine years old when his father died.

Lawrence Lewis, George Washington's nephew, would have also been a likely successor had there been a monarchy, particularly in light of the fact that he and his wife received the largest part of George Washington's estate. He had eight children, but only four lived past infancy, and one daughter died at age fifteen. Lawrence Lewis was survived by two daughters and a son, Lorenzo Lewis (1803-1847), who was eight years old when his father died. The son of Lorenzo Lewis, in turn, Edward Parke Custis Lewis (February 7, 1837 – September 3, 1892), who was ten years old at the time of his father's death went on to become a Confederate Army colonel, lawyer, New Jersey legislator, and U.S. diplomat.

Thus, either of the most plausible lines of succession from George Washington, had he been an monarch, would have swiftly led to an extended regency early in the history of the United States at a time when its government was quite fragile.

Given how little time George Washington spent as anything other than the most senior official in the United States government, and how remotely related and young his successor would have been had he become a monarch, George Washington's altruism in stepping down voluntarily from the Presidency is easier to understand.

American Politics Under the Articles of Confederation

The United States had no chief executive officer at all under the Articles of Confederation from then until 1787 when George Washington was appointed to preside over the Constitutional Convention, making him a de facto leader of the nation's then meager national government.

There were ten Presidents in the seven years that the Articles of Confederation was the governing document of the United States (it was proposed in 1777, but was not ratified by the required thirteen states until 1781), but this person was merely the presiding officer of the part-time Congress of the Confederation in which each of the thirteen states had a single vote and was represented by a state legislature appointed delegation of between two and seven members, none of whom were permitted to serve more than three out of any six years. The Congress struggled to achieve a quorum. The President was also the chair of the Committee of the States, with had one representative from each state that presided over the federal government such as it was between Congresses, but in practice was ineffectual. There was no judiciary and the President was a chief parliamentarian, rather than a true executive branch official. Five men served six terms as Presidents of the Continental Congress prior to ratification of the Articles of Confederation era, as did the first President under the Articles of Confederation. Neither of the first two men to hold the office (during the first three terms) served more than two months at a time. No one served in either post longer than John Hancock who served for 29 months as President for much of the Second Continental Congress.

Two men served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation (Robert Livingston from October 20, 1781 – June 4, 1783 and John Jay from May 7, 1784 – March 4, 1789). John Jay would go on to become the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Several of the Founding Fathers serves as diplomats at this time.

Benjamin Lincoln (1781-1785) and later Henry Knox (1785-1789) served as Secretary of War under the Articles of Confederation, although during George Washington's term of service as Commander-in-Chief this didn't amount to much. The top military officer who seceded George Washington (Henry Knox) served for just six months during which he presided over the decommissioning of the Army, but in 1785 became Secretary of War, the civilian to whom the top military officer reported. His successor, John Doughty, led the Army for two months at a time when it has just 80 soldiers. Brigadier General Josiah Harmar served as the most senior officer in the Army from August 1784 until after George Washington become President and Commander-in-Chief. The United States did not have a naval force at all from the time George Washington stepped down from his post as Commander in Chief until after he was appointed to preside over the Constitutional Convention. No subordinate of the chief military officer would have had more subordinates than a modern Army Captain, and some state militia officers in almost every state would have had more soldiers under their command than any federal military officer during the period when George Washington was not Commander-in-Chief.

The Congress of the Confederation, in addition to handling military affairs and ratifying treaties (negotiated with a handful of ambassadors under the Secretary for Foreign Affairs), set standards for weights and measures, issued currency and mediated interstate disputes sitting in a quasi-judicial role, although there was no separate judiciary.

Charles Thomson was the sole Secretary of the Continental Congress before and after the Articles of Confederation, in which capacity he served as a minute taking secretary for the Congress from 1774 to 1789, the only official to hold his post for the entire period, and carried out some executive branch type duties. He apparently had a role in the conduct of the early Republic's foreign affairs in addition to his more mundane duties.

Small Fish

The notion of someone as a Founding Father conjures up images of grandeur, but really, the jobs that many of these men carried out, while historically important, weren't as grand as we recall them to be.

Many of these men would have no clue how to run a modern election campaign with appeals to tens of thousands, or even millions, of voters from all walks of life. They were appointed by members of state governments with populations closer to that of large counties today. The electorate was limited to white male property owners over the age of twenty-one. The secret ballot had not yet been invented. Not many people were interested in running for these offices in the first place.

The governmental institutions they presided over were tiny. The Congress was small and its proceedings were rather irregular. The titles involved were frequently more grand than the actual responsibilities and authority involved. There were few functioning committees.

The bulk of governmental activity and the central of political life in the Revolutionary War era, even in the sphere of military affairs, was in state government, not in the federal government. Outside the realm of military affairs, government would remain largely at the state level, and federal offices would be unimportant, until the Civil War.

Their political structure was a dismal failure for a long time before a plan that finally worked was devised. The Continental Congress defaulted on its pension debt to its soldiers. Twenty years had passed after the Declaration of Independence before it was really clear that the United States would become a country, rather than a second rate international organization and temporary military alliance.

The federal government was a decidedly amateur operation for much of its early history.

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