Saturday, May 13, 2006

CNN’s “Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer and Political Analyst Bill Schneider Commenting as the George Washington Administration Winds Up, March 3, 1797

George Washington portrait
[Nothing is historically inaccurate in this report but I’ve applied the same technique of pessimism that pervades analyses of happenings in the Bush administration, which indicates “it’s just how you look at events” to make a report pro or con.]

Wolf Blitzer. As we’re coming up to March 3rd 1797 let’s review the important events of the Washington administration and take a look at where we go from here. With us is our political analyst Bill Schneider. Bill, as you look back over the past eight years which began in 1789 what were the highpoints?

Bill Schneider. Certainly we started off with a president who was and is regarded as an American hero which led to his being elected unanimously as the first president. But no sooner did George Washington take office than there was division in his administration, emblematic of his rather sitting back as the country squire rather than taking a decisive hand in affairs.

Wolf Blitzer. How so, Bill?

Bill Schneider. There’s some reason to criticize the leadership of Washington as president. It carried through from his rather spotty performance as general in the Revolution—a performance that turned out well but was disappointing for many years.

Wolf Blitzer. And you feel that has relevance to his job as president.

Bill Schneider. Very much so. While Washington won the war against the British ultimately, he suffered humiliating defeats due to his learning on the job. As a leader of men, he was never validated completely. He had never commanded an army on his own before—and those defeats chastened him as president: defeats at Brandywine and Germantown, the loss of the entire city of Philadelphia to the extent that as we know Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Rush and others pressed to have Washington removed and replaced with General Horatio Gates who defeated Burgoyne at Saratoga. In fact, Washington was saved by the arrival of Baron Friederich von Steuben who took the debilitated Valley Forge force into a crack army.

Wolf Blitzer. But the Baron did it under Washington’s direction, didn’t he, Bill?

Bill Schneider. Sure you could say that—but until von Steuben did it, Washington had ragged survivors. Before the Baron, with the roads clogged by snow the supplies were held up and Washington’s men had to stay alive on pepper pot soup, a thin broth flavored with a handful of peppercorns. Somebody failed to understand the effect bad weather would have on the supply train. In fact, many men died at Valley Forge that winter—responsibility for which has been not ascertained in so many words, but Washington was calling the shots. But von Steuben did a great job and when Washington broke camp in 1778 he had a much stronger army. Then came assistance from France—so with this assistance he took the war to the British and in October 1781 boxed in General Cornwallis at Yorktown and forced his surrender which for all practical purposes ended the war.

Wolf Blitzer. The point being…?

Bill Schneider. …that while he was an inspiring figure of great character it could be argued that he was not a stunning success as a military leader or a leader of men. And this weakness carried through in his presidency.

Wolf Blitzer. How so?

Bill Schneider. First, he was unable to manage a united administration. His secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, quarreled continually with his secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson’s view was decidedly pro-France while Hamilton’s was decidedly pro-British. Washington stayed aloof from many of these battles with the result that there was a kind of chaos that didn’t help the administration. Washington privately sided with Hamilton so often that Jefferson ultimately quit.

Wolf Blitzer. Hamilton became in effect the prime minister, didn’t he?

Bill Schneider. You bet. While it can be said that Hamilton put the government on a sound footing by levying taxes to retire the national debt and creating a national bank, the president rather passively accepted Hamilton’s ideas—ideas which while sound in many ways, supported the wealthy classes with tariffs set up to do nothing less than protect industry from foreign competition, a move Jefferson who was an agrarian didn’t agree with. Hamilton was a big government guy with a vision that junked Jefferson’s rural sense and pointed to us as an industrial giant with a national transportation program to help business , a big, some say top-heavy, national defense and a conservative monetary system.

Wolf Blitzer. What role did the president play in all this, Bill?

Bill Schneider. Not much. He just sat there and let Hamilton run things economically, rather passive and, if I may say so, weak.

Wolf Blitzer. But the economy worked out thanks to Hamilton?

Bill Schneider. I guess you can say so, yes. The Congress was passive, too, letting Washington pretty much do what he wanted—or what Hamilton wanted. Washington set up his appointees at a table and asked them repeatedly what he should do—he called it a “cabinet.” Washington decided he would serve two terms and no more, decided that on his own which became a precedent. Then the Chief Justice of the United States resigned, John Jay. Instead of looking to the Court to find a successor, Washington went outside the Court which caused a lot of eyebrows to be raised—outside the Court!

Wolf Blitzer. But wasn’t that good in that he enlarged the judicial pool and disregarded seniority for this first appointment? Meaning he could draw on a more diverse and younger talent pool than the aging incumbent Justices?

Bill Schneider. I guess you can say that, yes. But it caused a great deal of friction on the Court.

Wolf Blitzer. How did Washington do dealing with the Indians?

Bill Schneider. Very tough and quite callous in regard to U. S. –Native American relationships. He sent one general to subdue them in the Northwest territory and when he failed, he fired him and picked General Anthony Wayne. About him it’s sufficient to know that Wayne’s nickname is “Mad Anthony.” He got that name by being unruly and unsteady in war, vowing to win at all costs no matter how many lives it took.

Wolf Blitzer. And how did that turn out?

Bill Schneider. Well, Mad Anthony subdued the Indians at a terrible cost of human lives for the Indians. He devastated them at the Battle of Fallen Timbers near Toledo, Ohio. The result was a massive dislocation of Indian men, women and children as the tribes were forced to cede portions of the Northwest Territory to this country.

Wolf Blitzer. But was the president so callous that he wouldn’t negotiate? Didn’t he convene the tribal leaders of the Six Nations confederation including Red Jacket who fought Washington during the Revolution to whom he gave a silver medal which Red Jacket said he would treasure for the remainder of his life? Sounds compassionate to me.

Bill Schneider. Pretty good spin and many people took it that way. Except the Indians, of course but to Washington and his administration, they didn’t seem to count much.

Wolf Blitzer. I see. We’ve covered the economy for which you give credit to Hamilton and dealing with the Indians where you say Mad Anthony subdued them at a terrible human cost to them. What about foreign policy under Washington?

Bill Schneider. There were some real blunders, I’m afraid, Wolf. John Jay concluded a peace treaty with Great Britain which led England to withdraw its forces from the Northwest Territory…

Wolf Blitzer. …which would be good, right?

Bill Schneider. Yes but to get this done, Washington cut a deal that allowed England to raid and search our ships if she felt they were carrying contraband which England interpreted even foodstuffs as contraband. It meant that time and again England would raid our shipping and—listen to this—if they spotted a British immigrant among the American crew they would drag him off and force him to join the British navy!

Wolf Blitzer. Why didn’t Washington object to this?

Bill Schneider. Even some administration sources privately saw it as a gesture of weakness. He concluded that this country was not strong enough to push its will on Britain, hoping to wait until a time when we were better prepared militarily. He did normalize relations with Spain.

Wolf Blitzer. Was he right to conclude that?

Bill Schneider. We don’t know at this point. On another issue which was domestic, he brought down the awesome power of the federal government on a handful of simple farmers and ordered the army to go after American citizens which was widely criticized, particularly in Pennsylvania.

Wolf Blitzer. You’re talking about the Whiskey Rebellion?

Bill Schneider. Washington’s people called it that. Others call it a simple rejection of federal power by a group of farmers. To help pay off the national debt, Washington o.k.’d an excise tax on liquor. Farmers in Pennsylvania regularly converted their corn crop to liquor to avoid the high cost of transporting the grain for long distances. They refused to pay the whiskey tax. Instead of reconciliation, Washington over-reacted and sent 15,000—fifteen thousand—troops to Pennsylvania and he personally got on a horse and inspected them, riding up and down the line in uniform even though he was president. He said he would not stand for what he called the first challenge to federal authority.

Wolf Blitzer. Did the farmers cave in?

Bill Schneider. Yes they paid the tax but people are still very upset in western Pennsylvania.

Wolf Blitzer. So on balance, what mark would you give George Washington as president?

Bill Schneider. C minus. A distinguished gentleman, an aristocrat who meant well, relied too much on strong advisers like Hamilton, didn’t have respect for seniority on the Judiciary and because he came from an older lineage wasn’t sensitive to native Americans.

Wolf Blitzer. Thank you, Bill. Perhaps we will do better in succeeding years. That was Bill Schneider with his analysis of the Washington administration. Now stay tuned for these important messages.


Note: Historians generally credit George Washington as either the best president (which I think he was) or second-best as he molded this country’s traditions. Incidentally, Washington was right in forestalling a confrontation with Britain believing it would come but only when our military forces were strengthened in future years. Red Jacket, by the way, ended up fighting on our side against the British in the War of 1812.

No comments:

Post a Comment