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Interview With Kevin Gutzman On George Washington

todayMay 1, 2013 1

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Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – I mentioned earlier that today is the anniversary of George Washington’s first inauguration in New York City.  It was a very festive occasion.  According to some that witnessed the event, it was also an event that was met with an awful lot of trepidation and dis-certitude.  People didn’t know what was going to become of this new government they created.  Here to fill us in a little bit about the greatness is Professor Dr. Kevin Gutzman.  Check out today’s transcript for the rest…


Begin Mike Church Show Transcript

Mike:  I mentioned earlier that today is the anniversary of George Washington’s first inauguration in New York City.  It was a very festive occasion.  According to some that witnessed the event, it was also an event that was met with an awful lot of trepidation and dis-certitude.  People didn’t know what was going to become of this new government they created.  Here to fill us in a little bit about the greatness that was — the founders did get one thing right.  They did choose the first president correctly.  Even though he’s known for cataloguing the adventures of James Madison, Professor Dr. Kevin Gutzman, author of James Madison and the Making of America, which, as you know, is available in the Founders Tradin’ Post and at, is on the Dude Maker Hotline with us.  Kevin, Happy Inauguration Day!


Kevin Gutzman:  And to you, Mike.  How are you?

Mike:  I am well, thank you very much.  The framers of the Constitution got that part of it right in choosing Washington.  Many theorize that they actually wrote the office of the presidency or conceived of it with Washington in the room thinking he or someone like him would hold the office.  What would you say to that?

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Kevin:  They certainly did write Article II of the Constitution with Washington in mind.  During the debate in Philadelphia, people took for granted that he would be the first president.  Often comments were made: Well, we can’t count on somebody like this forever.  What are we going to do after the first president?  The idea that Washington would come first, that his behavior would establish precedence that his successors would have to follow certainly was the key factor in leading people to make Article II pretty vague.  Essentially all it says is the executive authority will be in the President of the United States.  Then it names a couple other things he can do.  In general, it’s extremely terse and makes quite a contrast to Article I, which makes about 40 percent of the Constitution.  Article II is very brief.

james-madison-gutzman-ad-signMike:  Article III is very brief as well.  You want to talk about things that aren’t very well thought out, I think Article III gets the heavyweight championship belt of the world for that one, don’t you?

Kevin:  That’s because, as Hamilton said, they anticipated the judiciary being the least dangerous branch.  They didn’t think it really required a lot of thought.  It was up to Congress to decide even whether there would be inferior federal courts.  One interesting thing about Washington as president is that several of the things he did actually did establish precedence for his successors that followed.  There are a lot of things that are done in the federal government that are done because Washington did them.

For example, in the 18th century when the Constitution was written and when the federal government was established, the Austrian army wore yellow uniforms.  The British army wore red uniforms.  The French army wore white uniforms.  The Prussians famously wore Prussian blue.  George Washington showed up to the Second Continental Congress right before Lexington and Concord wearing a navy blue jacket because Mrs. Washington had made it for him.  That’s why when you see those ads for the few, the proud, the Marines on TV, they’re wearing navy blue coats.  I like to say to my students: What if Mrs. Washington’s favorite color had been fuchsia?  How would the Marines look in that?  There are several other things that go on, more substantial things, in the federal government that are done because Washington did them.  Do you want me to give you an example?

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Mike:  Absolutely.

Kevin:  The first time that the executive branch had concluded a preliminary treaty, what happened was they had negotiated an agreement with the Ojibwa, what used to be called the Chippewa Indians in what was then the West.  One day the Senate was in session, John Adams presiding as vice president.  There came a knock at the door and the sergeant at arms announced: Mr. President, the President of the United States and the Secretary of War.  In strode George Washington and Henry Knox.  They went up to the front of the room.  John Adams had no idea what they wanted.

magnificent samKnox, the secretary of war, handed him a draft treaty.  Then the vice president really didn’t know where to go from there.  He suggested that the clerk read the treaty.  The other senators are sitting there just listening.  Apparently there’s a lot of news outside.  When they finished, Gouverneur Morris from Pennsylvania, who was of course the penman of the Constitution, said: I couldn’t really hear.  How about if the clerk reads it again?  This was many pages of stuff to read.  Apparently Washington standing there was at first pretty placid looking but then his face began to flush.  I guess he got a deeper and deeper shade of pink.  Thomas Jefferson said that in public, Washington was always steely and reserved, but in private he had quite a temper.  His temper shown through at this point.

Then the senators began to talk about the question whether we should appoint a committee to report back to us what our position ought to be on this treaty.  They talked a bit about who the members of the committee ought to be.  After a while, Washington turned to Knox and said: Get the treaty.  Secretary Knox said to Vice President Adams that he wanted him to hand the treaty back and he did.  Knox and Washington headed for the door.  Senator Maclay from Pennsylvania, who kept an extensive diary wrote, “At that point I heard the President say, ‘I’ll be damned if I ever come here again.’”  He never did and that’s why, although Article II says that the president can make treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate, they never seek the Senate’s advice.  George Washington tried to get the Senate’s advice one time, it didn’t work, and they’ve never gone back.

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Mike:  I never heard that story.

Kevin:  Now what happens is the presidents negotiate treaties and just go ask the Senate for its consent.  They never ask for any advice because George Washington decided not to.

Mike:  I’ll be damned if I ever come back here again [laughing].  That is quite a priceless gem.  Is there any truth to the — I believe it was McCullough who wrote this, though I’m sure he wasn’t the first, in his book about John Adams.  Is there any truth or what is your understanding of the first administration of the oath of office?  In the miniseries John Adams, Adams sends somebody scrambling down the street in New York to go get a Bible for Washington to be sworn in on.  There’s John Jay, I believe, who was there to administer the oath of office.  What’s your understanding of how the first oath was administered?

road-to-independence-BH-RTIDE2-detailKevin:  Well, it wasn’t John Jay because, of course, John Jay had not yet been appointed chief justice.  It was the Chancellor of New York Livingston.  The chancellor is the head of the equity court system that formerly existed in New York State.  Pennsylvania still has separate courts for law and equity, so lawyers know what I’m talking about.  Everybody else, their eyes are glazing over, I understand.  It was Livingston who administered the oath.  Apparently at the last minute they did go fetch a Bible.  Here are several examples of things that Washington did and all his successors have done.

One thing is that Washington, contemplating this event, decided: I ought to say a little something after I take the oath.  He asked Madison to draft him an inaugural address.  I say in my Madison book, if brevity is the soul of wit, then Washington and Madison outwitted all of their successors.  He gave the shortest inaugural address ever.  Not only that, but apparently when he got to the end of the constitutional oath of office, he said, “So help me God,” which is not part of the constitutional oath.  Virtually all of his successors have said that, too.  This is another thing that presidents have done because Washington did it.  Actually there was a kind of kabuki after this inaugural address.  The House of Representatives decided they should issue a response, so the speaker asked Madison to write a response to the inaugural address, which he did.  The Senate drafted a response.  Then Washington thought he ought to answer the responses, so he had Madison draft that, too.  Madison had written the inaugural, the House response, and the president’s response to the House response.

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Mike:  So it was Madison talking to himself.  You and I have talked about this before.  Dr. Kevin Gutzman, author of James Madison and the Making of America is on the Dude Maker Hotline.  I’ve asked you before: Kevin, do you think Madison might have been bipolar?  Was he like the Sally Fields character in the movie Sybil?  Did he have multiple personalities?  I can see Madison actually arguing with himself saying: I’m going to play legislator; now I’m going to play executive.

Kevin:  One thing that actually was different back then was that they did not have the same ideas we have about the separation of powers.  For example, when John Jay was chief justice, he wrote to President Washington that, “My chief aim has been the success of your administration.”  Congressman Madison didn’t think there was any problem in him writing speeches for the president.  This, of course, would all be seen as somewhat impermissible now.  Actually Jay ended up taking an appointment as ambassador to Britain to negotiate what came to be called the Jay Treaty while he was chief justice.  That’s another thing that wouldn’t happen today.  Some things have changed, but there’s a lot of what went on in the Washington administration that’s just been done ever since because that’s the way we do things.

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Mike:  Talk for a moment if you will about Washington the man.  Once upon a time, I believe, on one of his birthday observations here on this show, you had observed that he was certainly the greatest American that had ever lived, and may actually have been, depending on whose take on this you want to accept as gospel, may have been one of the greatest men of the last two millennia, right?

Kevin:  Well, I think there’s no doubt that George Washington was the most important American to this time.  In fact, I think 500 years from now, the two Americans so far who will be remembered are George Washington and Neil Armstrong, who, amazingly hasn’t been paid very much attention.

Mike:  Wait a minute, you’re not going to remember basketball player Jason Collins for his announcement yesterday?   I’m kidding.

Kevin:  I have a feeling that they won’t.  Alas, they probably won’t remember you or me either, but that’s a different issue.  The thing about Washington is that it was freakish that he, at the end of the war, resigned his office and gave his sword and commission back to Congress.  Actually, when they were first conducting the war, there was a long delay between Lexington and Concord in April 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.  The chief reason was people didn’t know what would come after.  Nowadays we think they declared independence and then they eventually set up the federal constitution and here we are.  At the time, if you had a war you were liable to lose.  Then if you won, you had what?  You had a conquering general.  In Europe, a conquering general was called a duke or tsar or saltan or a king.  What good would it be to fight a war with the British and end up with your own king?  Nobody had any idea that George Washington would be George Washington.

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Actually, when he got to the end of his tenure as commander in chief of the army at the end of the revolution he, as I said, resigned his office.  When George III heard that that had happened, he is supposed to have said: My God, he really is the greatest man in the world.  Nobody could believe it.  In fact, my favorite vignette of somebody’s response to Washington came with the Emperor Napoleon sitting on St. Helena after Waterloo.  He was exiled in the South Atlantic on a little speck called St. Helena.  There was another French-speaking fellow there who interviewed the emperor over several days.  At one point he said to Napoleon: Your Majesty, you know when the revolution started we were setting up a republic in France.  How can you justify that you decided to make yourself emperor?  Supposedly a very angry expression came over Napoleon’s face and he looked at the guy for a minute.  Then he smiled and said: Well, you know, we can’t all be George Washington.

Fortunately for us, instead of having Napoleon, we had George Washington.  Still today it’s the case that the army is the power behind the throne.  In Turkey, in China, in various countries in the world, it may have the outward appearance of a particular kind of government, but ultimately it’s the army that makes the call.  It’s never been the case in America, however much the military might be disaffected with the president that we thought if they get angry enough at Obama they’ll overthrow the government. Nobody ever thinks of that.  Why?  Because that’s not what the American Army does.  That’s just totally contrary to the ethic of the American officer corps.

america-secede-or-die-t-shirtThere actually came a point at the end of the revolution where people in the officer corps were talking about overthrowing Congress.  They were unhappy they hadn’t been paid for months and months.  There was talk among some of the officers of setting up Washington as king.  Washington heard that a particular colonel had talked about this so he wrote the guy a letter.  He said: Dear Sir, If you have any respect for me, the cause we’ve been fighting for, or yourself, you’ll never mention this idea again.  That was the end of it.

Mike:  This is the very famous speech in which Washington pulls the spectacles out of his pocket and says: We’ve all lost a lot in the long fight that this revolution has been.  In service of my country, I have now lost my sight.  I’m paraphrasing.

Kevin:  That’s the way he headed off what’s called the Newburgh Conspiracy.  That was a different discussion among some of the officers.  What they had in mind there was not setting up a monarchy.  It was intimidating the Congress into paying them.  Washington was against that, too.  In fact, during the revolution, there had been a couple of occasions when the British commanders had sent negotiators to talk to Washington about concluding a peace.  In Europe this was the way things worked.  If you got to the end of a war, the generals would work out a treaty.  Washington told them on every occasion that he had to do so: You’ve come to the wrong guy; you need to talk to Congress.  Washington had the idea that he was going to be a republican general.  This was not going to be a monarchy.  This was not going to be a military dictatorship.  As I said, that’s what we’ve had.  So successful was he that we don’t even think of this.  We don’t even recognize.  This shows you how important he’s been in our history.

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Mike:  He was known to some as the American Cincinnatus.  Of course, Cincinnatus, the famous Roman general did something very similar.  He said: No, I don’t want to be your Caesar.  I’m going back to my farm.  I’m going to take this sword, melt it down, and turn it back into a plow.  Andrew Gruss is here, my producer.  Andrew, pipe up for a moment.  I think you were with us one time when we discussed this.  It’s your first cousin that’s a member of the Society of the Cincinnati?

AG:  It’s my uncle, but it’ll be passed down to my cousin since he’s the eldest male of the first son.  It goes through the male family hierarchy.  My mom couldn’t get the Society of the Cincinnati passed onto her.  It goes to her younger brother, which then goes to his eldest son.

Mike:  This was the society that Washington was the first president of after the revolution, right?

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Kevin:  Well, what happened at the end of the revolution was that a lot of people who had been officers in the revolution wanted to create a kind of fraternal organization, a kind of VFW for American Revolution officers.  They asked Washington to be the president and he said sure.  They made the decision at the national organization that they would have this primogeniture and hereditary succession through membership.  Washington then received a lot of complaints from people that this looked a lot like trying to set up an order of nobility.  He said that he was opposed to this.  He thought they should repeal this.  Several of the state organizations and the national organization got rid of this primogeniture and hereditary membership.  What you ended up with were some states in which they kept it but for the most part they got rid of it.  I know that Kentucky, for example, today still has a chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati where membership is hereditary like this.  Washington was opposed to that.  He didn’t want to be involved with a society like that.

Mike:  I wonder what Washington would think about the Office of the First Lady and of George W. Bush saying: My wife Laura served eight years as your First Lady.  No, she didn’t.  She served as your wife.  There’s no such thing as the Office of the First Lady.  Anyway, Kevin, we are out of time, old friend.  One quick question before you go: How is the Hamilton versus Jefferson book going?

Kevin:  It’s going very well.  I’m really excited about it.  I can’t wait for it to come out.

Mike:  Of course, this will follow The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution and James Madison and the Making of America and Virginia’s American Revolution, which is a great book if you really want to learn about the origins of how the Virginians got into the fight for independence and what they thought the spirit of ’76 meant.  Kevin, as always, thank you very much.  Very entertaining and informative today.  I appreciate it.

Kevin:  Happy to be here, Mike.

End Mike Church Show Transcript

George Washington as seen in Mike Church's "Spirit of '76" Film available on DVD
George Washington as seen in Mike Church’s “Spirit of ’76” Film available on DVD
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