Historian Harlow Giles Unger pays homage to the presidency of George Washington in his newest book
People may not realize that New York City was the original capital of our nation.
Yes, indeed. It was the original temporary capital until Congress could decide on a permanent site. And, of course, people in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress met during the Revolutionary War, wanted their city to be the capital. Most agreed it was too far north, and the idea was to unify the nation. Eventually, Maryland and Virginia decided to give land to the federal government, what is now the District of Columbia. Philadelphia became the temporary capital for the 10 years leading up to the transfer in 1800 to the District of Columbia.
When Washington first became president, he lived here in the city.
He was living in New York City in a house that was loaned to him by the Postmaster General, Samuel Osgood. Then he moved to Philadelphia, when the capital moved there.
One of the points you make in your book is that when Washington got his title, there was no real power behind it.
Well there was no title, actually. There’s a funny story about how he got his title because no one knew what to call him. During the Revolutionary War, he was “General.” People called him “Your Excellency.” Finally, James Madison, who was a congressman then, pointed out that the Constitution prohibited titles. So they realized that they’d have to call him, “Mr.,” and that’s how he got his title, “Mr. President.” But after he became Mr. President, he realized that the Constitution had prescribed him to be a figurehead. It says that the executive power shall be vested in the President of the United States. But it fails to define “executive power.” People expected him to sit at his desk and nod off to sleep like a nice old man and let Congress have all the power. But his name was George Washington, he wasn’t going to sit by and do nothing. Little by little, he assumed powers that were not given to him by the Constitution.
What’s one example of Washington asserting power?
Sending troops to war against the Indians. The Indians were considered foreign nations then. Without authorization by Congress, he raised a small army and sent them to war against the Indians in the Ohio territory to prevent their attacks on American settlers. Since then, in all the wars in our history, Congress has only declared war five times. Washington set the precedent. Presidents have taken us to war in violation of the Constitution. To his credit, President Obama publicly recognized this when he was tempted to send troops into Syria. He wasn’t going to do it without a Congressional declaration of war. That was the first time anyone has publicly recognized the Constitutional prerogative of Congress to declare war.
You also stress that Washington did not want permanent alliances with the foreign world. Why do you think he was so adamant about this?
He wasn’t going to let foreigners dictate our policies. Once you enter into a treaty, pact, or any other arrangement with a foreign country, they have the right to dictate our actions. We had lived under foreign tyranny for more than a century prior to that and he wasn’t going to cede our sovereignty to any foreign power. We are now trapped in a war in Afghanistan and have been trapped in wars in Vietnam and Iraq. We’re not masters of our own fate. And this is what Washington warned against.
What do you think he’d say today about our foreign entanglements?
Oh, he’d be absolutely appalled to see the nation’s infrastructure deteriorating while we spend our national treasure in places like Afghanistan.
The year he was elected, he took a 29-day tour around the country so people could get to know him.
He felt it was necessary. After all, they had no real dissemination of news or pictures. All you had were painted portraits in those days – so people didn’t even know what the president looked like. In the interest of national unity, he wanted all the people to get to know him and know that he truly represented them.
During that journey, he refused to stay in people’s homes, and instead chose to stay in taverns and inns.
Exactly. He refused to stay in private homes and indirectly insulted Governor John Hancock when he reached Boston, by refusing to stay at his lavish mansion on Beacon Hill. He felt that by staying in someone’s private home, he would insult those whose homes he didn’t stay at, and it would be a show of favoritism. He wanted to have allegiance to all of the people and not any single interest group.
Although Washington was a two-term president, you explain that he did not want to be elected to a second term.
He didn’t want to run for president in the first place. Actually, he never ran for anything; he was elected unanimously. John Adams realized at the Continental Congress that they would have to pick a Commander-in-Chief who would be acceptable to the North and the South. And he picked Washington and it was a brilliant choice. Not only was Washington a brilliant military commander, but he had the support of both Southerners and Northerners. Washington wanted to quit after the first term, and Jefferson went to him, saying, the North and South will only hang together if they have you to hang on.
How do you research your books?
I’ve accumulated a huge library of original books, biographies, and collections of manuscripts. Of course, I use the Library of Congress extensively. And go to the sites that have collected the papers of each of these presidents that I’ve written about. The papers of Washington are at the University of Virginia. Gradually they are being put on the internet. The papers of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, which are at the Massachusetts Historical Society, much of that now is on the internet page by page on your screen. But you have to be able to read his handwriting, and that becomes difficult.
Where are your favorite historical places in Manhattan?
The New-York Historical Society is a great place to go in terms of American history. Federal Hall, where Washington took his oath of office. There’s still a building there – it’s a newer building. Federal Hall at that time was a different building. It had just been refurbished with the House of Representatives to meet on the ground floor and the Senate on the second floor.
For more information on Harlow’s event, visit: www.nypl.org
Trackback from your site.