Critical Intel

Critical Intel
King Washington the Wicked

Robert Rath | 25 Oct 2012 16:00
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However, Washington's retirement wouldn't last long. In 1787 he found himself reluctantly dragged out of retirement to serve as part of the Constitutional Convention, followed by a unanimous election to the Presidency (remembering Newburgh, he wore a simple suit rather than a uniform to his inauguration, to head off rumors the election was a military coup). Largely, this was because the American experiment was threatening to fall prey to factionalism, and Washington was a unifying figure. Though we often imagine the Founders as a brotherhood, in reality they could be a supremely dysfunctional family. By 1792, two factions had formed: the Federalists, who believed that sovereignty should be shared between the states and a strong federal government, and the Democratic-Republicans, who saw the nation as a confederation of individual states with strong state governments and a weak federal government. The split tended to be geographic and economic as well as ideological. Federalists tended to be New Englanders, more urban, and involved in banking, manufacturing, and shipping. Democratic-Republicans largely hailed from the southern and western states, were farmers, plantation owners, and frequently slaveholders.

Washington fell strictly in line with the Federalist faction, an ideology shaped by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The accomplishments of the first term were largely economic -- the formation of a National Bank, development of manufacturing, a tax on whiskey to pay down debt, and assumption of state debts by the federal government -- all measures that increasingly alarmed the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The Republicans saw these Federalist plans as selling out the Revolution to moneyed interests, the "stockjobbers" and "monocrats" as Madison called them, who commanded inordinate influence in Hamilton's marriage of money and government. Jefferson, for his part, worried about the waning influence of Virginia farmers and thought that the wave of investment and financial speculation had turned the country into "a gaming table." According to Jefferson and Madison, the administration was shape-shifting into the same corrupt, British-style government they'd thrown off. The problem was that Madison was the head of the House of Representatives and Jefferson was the Secretary of State, meaning their deep links to the administration made it difficult to criticize policies. To remedy this, they took to the press.

Jefferson founded his own newspaper, the National Gazette, and hired an editor to churn out attacks against Federalist policies in return for a highly-paid do-nothing job at the State Department. The scheme had multiple layers of corruption, as Jefferson secretly bankrolled an opposition press to assault his own administration, while simultaneously paying the editor out of the government's coffers. The National Gazette got to work immediately. In its first issue, it stated that though "the American Aristocrats have failed in their attempt to establish titles by distinction of law ... the destructive principles of aristocracy are too prevalent among us." (The line was probably in response to a suggestion by Vice President John Adams that the President be referred to as "His Majesty the President.") In the same issue, the Gazette railed against Hamilton and his financial policies, stating that the "accumulation of that power which is conferred by wealth in the hands of a few is the perpetual source of oppression and neglect to the rest of mankind." The paper would fold in 1793, and when Washington later discovered Jefferson's duplicity, the two never spoke again.

The National Gazette wasn't alone in its attacks; it was supplanted by the Aurora, written and printed by Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin. Early on, the papers chose to attack Washington's cabinet and Vice President Adams, while generally holding back criticism of Washington himself. However, events half a world away would end this moratorium and put Washington on the firing line.

Just before Washington's second inauguration, French revolutionaries guillotined Louis XVI, kicking off a major crisis for the administration. In response, Britain reignited its war with France, hoping to return the country to an absolute monarchy, and the Democratic-Republican faction -- and a large section of the public -- supported the U.S. joining the war on France's side. Washington, knowing that the nation could ill-afford a war with Britain militarily or economically (Britain was America's largest trading partner), declared the country neutral, angering the largely pro-French Democratic-Republicans. The attacks on Washington intensified, with opposition papers suggesting that the President favored monarchist England over republican France, excoriated his "royalist" tendencies, like hosting levees, where he granted audiences with common people, speaking only to a close-knit group of advisors rather than seeing the advice of Congress, and riding to his inauguration in an ornate carriage. The France question only got more difficult as small grassroots groups called "Democratic-Republican Societies" sprang up around the country, dedicated to opposing Hamiltonian finance and "Federalist monarchism" as well as supporting France. Their cries grew louder as the British began to poach American shipping.

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