Kevin Gutzman – A Comparison of Presidents on Presidents’ Day

todayFebruary 19, 2013

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Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – You said Tyler is your favorite president.  He’s another one of these guys that if you ask Joseph Ellis or the woman that wrote the book that ultimately became the movie Lincoln, one of these presidential historians, Tyler will probably rank somewhere between 38 and 43, yet you and McClanahan ranked him up there as number one and two.  Why?  Check out today’s transcript for the rest…


Begin Mike Church Show Transcript

james-madison-gutzman-ad-signMike:  Professor DeRosa was on last hour and we talked just a little bit about Jefferson.  I think Jefferson may have been your favorite president, but you certainly have just completed one of the greatest bios of president number four, President Madison.  What would you say was the big difference between the administrations of Madison and Jefferson?

Kevin Gutzman:  Oh, boy.  Well, first, John Tyler is my favorite.  You’re right, Jefferson is certainly up toward the top of my list. The major difference between the two of them, Jefferson’s presidency ended in a foreign policy debacle when he decided that the policy of economic coercion that he and Madison had tried had really been a flop.  Madison came into office as the embargo was being abandoned and had to try to figure out what to do instead of economic coercion.  Of course, the ultimate result was the War of 1812, which was launched by Congress without really making any preparations in terms of the financial system of the government or expanding the military to fight the British, doing anything at all to fight the war.

Ultimately you had the British burning down the capital, burning down the White House, taking away from the United States a lot of territory in northern New England.  Madison was lucky to negotiate a treaty that said we’ll just give you back what you had and you give us back what we had and we’ll let bygones be bygones.  I think the way to understand the Madison administration is as just a continuation of Jefferson’s presidency.  Madison had been the number two man in Jefferson’s administration and now he’s the number one guy trying to figure out what to do about the fact that Jefferson’s foreign policy had turned out to be a flop.  I think I wouldn’t make much of a distinction between the two of them.

Mike:  Just for our listeners who may not know, what was Jefferson’s foreign policy that ultimately flopped?

Gutzman:  Ever since Washington’s administration, the background of American federal politics had been the wars of the French Revolution.  Washington was sworn into office in 1789.  1789 is also the year the French Revolution is usually said to have begun with Bastilles Day on July 14, 1789.  Within a couple years, you’re going to have essentially a world war with France on one side and Britain and its fancy French Revolutionary allies on the other side.  The U.S. would ultimately get sucked into this.  Jefferson and Madison hoped they could use America’s economic clout, that they could use European countries’ reliance on American food stuffs as a way to avoid building up a big military, jacking up taxes, and fighting the British or French or both.  They thought if you had war, you ended up with not only dead soldiers and a lot of wasted money, but you ended up also with more centralization of authority, more power in the executive, and distortion of the constitution in a way they didn’t want.

In Jefferson’s administration, they actually tried this policy as using economic coercion with the policy known as the Embargo of 1807.  It didn’t work.  Neither France nor Britain responded because France and Britain were in a death struggle all over the world.  They weren’t going to answer some pipsqueak third-rate country like the U.S. by changing their policy toward each other, by dropping their war measures toward each other.  As I said, the Jefferson-Madison plan to coerce the British and French by denying them wheat or tobacco or rice, denying them fish, was a flop.

Mike:  What else was it that would distinguish Jefferson, as we go through early presidents, from the end of Washington and Adams?  When Jefferson came in, he did right some of the other ships, though, right?

Gutzman:  Actually, Jefferson’s administration marked a huge change from the Adams administration.  He took several steps that made him extremely popular.  One was to essentially eliminate all internal taxes.  Down in the Civil War, the U.S. federal government would have no internal taxes.  It would rely for its revenue solely on the tariff and revenue from sale of land.  Jefferson also pardoned everybody who had been convicted under the Sedition Act, let them out of prison and gave them their money back.  He substantially reduced the size of the military and promised that his emphasis was going to be on, as he put it, letting labor keep the money they earned.

The Adams administration and federalists in Congress who were substantially to the right of President Adams had jacked up taxes and launched a Hamiltonian state-building enterprise that was intended to make the United States a power rival of European countries.  As far as Jefferson was concerned, that was the opposite of what the French Revolution had been about.  He said in his first inaugural address that America was a strong country, not because it had a great big army and a very impressive state but because it didn’t.  This policy of this program the Jeffersonians had was implemented within a very few months of their taking office.  It wasn’t like the Republicans in 2001 who came to office having said for decades that what really needs to happen is we need to have substantial reduction in the size of the federal government; we need to eliminate unconstitutional federal departments.  Once they finally had control of both Congress and the executive, they did none of that.  The Jeffersonians actually implemented their program.  They did what they promised.

Finally, the most important achievement of the Jefferson administration, of course, was purchasing the Louisiana Territory, which came to Jefferson in kind of an accident.  He had sent James Monroe to France to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and the area around New Orleans.  To Monroe’s surprise, and ultimately to the surprise of Secretary of State Madison and President Jefferson, the response Monroe got from the French foreign minister when he asked to buy New Orleans was: How about if I sell you all of Louisiana?  In those days, it included everything from what we think of as that State of Louisiana up into Canada.  It was this gigantic area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. America bought it for a song.  It was the biggest land deal in history.  Nowadays you wouldn’t be able to buy two blocks of New Orleans for the money they paid for that whole, huge territory.

Mike:  You wouldn’t want to buy two blocks of New Orleans, let me tell you.  There might be two blocks that I could identify.  Professor Kevin Gutzman, whose latest book is James Madison and the Making of America, now out in paperback.  We have autographed copies of that book in the Founders Tradin’ Post.  I wonder if you would, we tend to be serious and very contemplative in our discussions of the presidents of yesteryear, Madison, Jefferson, what have you, and not often enough embracive of some of their private lives and achievements.  You told me a story when I saw you in Texas — I don’t know if you’re willing to tell it publicly but it was quite funny — about a government ledger entry you found that Madison had entered into the federal record.  I’m still laughing about that, if you care to tell the story.

Gutzman:  If you want.

Mike:  It’s funny.  It’s hysterical.

Gutzman:  One day when Madison was secretary of state, the president received a couple kinds of visitors.  One was a group from one of the North African Barbary States, one of the Arab Muslim states in North Africa, and the other was a group of American Indian chieftains.  Madison noted in ledger for the State Department that day that he had made an expenditure.  If you were a North African Arab diplomat, apparently in those days you were expected to be greeted by the people whom you were visiting by being provided with prostitutes, with concubines.  Madison noted in the ledger for the State Department that he had made an expenditure for “foreign intercourse.”  He had hired for this purpose one “Georgia, a Greek.”  Apparently Minister Suleiman had an evening of entertainment on the State Department.  Years later Madison and Jefferson were still laughing with each other about this little expenditure.

Mike:  There’s a letter where they reference “foreign intercourse.”  That’s funny.  Brion McClanahan mentioned, when he was on in the first hour of the program, President Tyler.  He had made reference to Tyler.  You said Tyler is your favorite president.  He’s another one of these guys that if you ask Joseph Ellis or the woman that wrote the book that ultimately became the movie Lincoln, one of these presidential historians, Tyler will probably rank somewhere between 38 and 43, yet you and McClanahan ranked him up there as number one and two.  Why?

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Gutzman:  Actually, there was a cover story in TIME magazine a couple years ago where they had a consideration of the people they considered to have been the worst presidents.  They said Tyler was the worst president.  I just thought this was amazing.  This past week, I saw an editorial column by the supposed conservative columnist Michael Medved, in which he too said Tyler was the worst president.  What was it that Tyler did that these people didn’t like?

Well, he was the first vice president who became president when the president died.  What he did was veto the entire Whig program.  In other words, what happened was, when he became president, the Whig party in Congress passed a whole Hamiltonian suite of laws creating a new national bank, nowadays we’d say creating a new Federal Reserve, providing for all kinds of expenditures on internal improvements like roads and bridges, raising the tariff rate.  Tyler vetoed the whole thing.  Besides that, he also annexed Texas and made it part of the United States.  As far as I’m concerned, the Hamiltonian program, as Madison explained in the last veto message, was unconstitutional.  The bank bill was unconstitutional.  The roads and canals expenditures were unconstitutional.  If it hadn’t been for Tyler, they all would have been implemented despite that.  Texas likely would not have become part of the union if William Henry Harrison had not died and Tyler had not become president.

As far as I’m concerned, this was a smashing success.  Everything about it was perfectly Jeffersonian.  In fact, it’s not surprising since John Tyler’s father, John Tyler, Sr., was also governor of Virginia and later judge of Virginia’s top court.  Tyler remembered, when he was a boy, that former Governor Jefferson used to come over to their house.  He and Tyler’s father would talk politics.  He said: I remember Thomas Jefferson at my dinner table.  He was a perfectly Jeffersonian president, killed off this big government program and annexed Texas, all of it without making any wars or attacking anybody or having the TSA grope you at the airport or any of these other wonderful things that people won’t admit they’d like for presidents to do.  As far as I’m concerned, Tyler was the single best president ever.

Actually, all Medved said in his column last week lambasting Tyler was: Well, you know he vetoed his party’s whole program.  Yeah, good.  It was a bad program and he vetoed it.  I guess Medved must think George W. Bush was fabulous because he never vetoed anything.  He let tons of unconstitutional bills go into effect.  That must have made him a wonderful fellow.  We know that Goodwin thinks Lincoln was fabulous because he launched this gigantic war that killed 750,000 Americans.  What could have been better than that?  A great big war, all kinds of amendments, besides the dead people, all kinds of physical destruction and distortion of the Constitution.  That’s great.  He was right up there with Franklin Roosevelt.  I think John Tyler was a fabulous fellow and I’m glad I was able to go to the University of Texas, which is in the United States.

Mike:  There you have it, folks.  What was going on at the time with Texas, there was an effort — I’ve just recently been reading about this.  Who was it that was trying to wage war in Mexico at the time or prior to the annexation of Texas that made Tyler say: No, we don’t need to have a war with them in order to accomplish that?

Gutzman:  There was various what were called filibustering efforts in the 1840s and 50s.  People would go down into Nicaragua or propose going down into Texas and grabbing land there and declaring it independent, then having it join the United States.  The U.S. government never supported these efforts.  There actually was a guy named Walker who for a while ruled Nicaragua.  When he asked the United States to annex Nicaragua, the federal government said: Yeah, no, we don’t think we’ll do that.  There were these kinds of efforts from time to time.  Tyler’s annexation of Texas was completely in keeping with what the Texans wanted.  They asked to join the United States.

Again, I think these people like Medved and George Kearns, Goodwin, they tend to like presidents who pass unconstitutional, left-wing laws, who amend the Constitution without actually going through the Article V process, who make the biggest possible wars and have the most dead people.  To me it’s ghastly.  I think it’s unchristian for people to be so enamored with these fellows who I’d say failed.  Even if you end up in a successful war, you’ve failed, in some sense, if the result of it is tens or hundreds of thousands of dead people.  On the other hand, as I said, Tyler’s administration was perfectly peaceful.  He defended the Constitution.  When he left office after less than one term, the formerly independent country of Texas had been brought peacefully into the United States.

Mike:  Sounds like a winning recipe to me.  If only we had a John Tyler today.  Professor Gutzman, that’s all the time we have today.  His book, James Madison and the Making of America is now out in paperback.  You can get it at  If you want an autographed copy with the professor’s signature on the appropriate title page, which is where you shall find it, it’s at the Founders Tradin’ Post at  Kevin, as always, thanks for your insight, my friend.  I appreciate it.

Gutzman:  I was happy to be here, Mike.

End Mike Church Show Transcript

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