Even George Washington Had His Critics
President Biden and his conscientious political leadership would be attacked but would it be vindicated?
President Biden and His Cabinet
Previously, I highlighted instances of bipartisan courage and conscientious politics. I have even challenged President Biden to courageously apply these ideologies by appointing someone from an opposing party. Such an appointment would not need to be on his Cabinet, it could be a lesser appointment. Baby steps, as the saying goes.
If he was courageous enough to do so, he would indeed be questioned, berated, criticized, and attacked, and that is before such an appointment was approved by Congress and long before the appointment has had time to succeed or fail in its application.
A thick skin is a requirement for officeholders in today’s world of party politics, 24-hour news cycles, and social media. But this requirement is not new. This has always been the case.
President George Washington is the only president to be unanimously elected by the Electoral College. That being said, even he had his critics, some of them quite harsh in their criticism.
Washington was not immune to attack and the criticisms hurt. He called these criticisms “outrages on common decency.” But he was determined to rise above, and stay above, such malice. Washington said,
“The arrows of malevolence, however barbed and well pointed, never can reach the most vulnerable part of me; though, while I am up as a mark, they will be continually aimed.”
Early in his presidency, criticism was rare as many apparently felt it would be improper to criticize the great general and president. He was often called, “His Excellency.” But as time passed, this reticence wore off and he became a frequent “mark.” His critics included:
- William Maclay, United States Senator from Pennsylvania from 1791 to 1791. Maclay felt that there was too much pomp surrounding the president and his manner of receiving people. He wrote in his journal that the president appeared a proponent of generous salaries. He also felt that the president had too much power and that “the Executive … is setting aside our modern and much-boasted distribution of power.”
- Thomas Paine, colonial political activist and author of Common Sense and The American Crisis. He criticized Washington for ignoring him. He described Washington as an incompetent leader and a treacherous man. He wrote in an open letter to Washington, “the world will be puzzled to decide whether you … have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.”
- Benjamin Franklin Bache, named for his famous grandfather, founded the anti-Federalist newspaper, the Philadelphia Aurora, in 1794. The Aurora was published six days a week with Bache published many scathing articles attacking the Washington administration.
All critics of Washington and his administration had one complaint in common: that his followers, primarily Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, had monarchical tendencies. No one really believed this of Washington, but Thomas Jefferson believed that the president had been deceived or tricked by the intelligent and smooth-talking Hamilton.
Jefferson, Madison, and Philip Freneau
The three critics of Washington that will be discussed in this article are Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Philip Freneau. These three collaborated to bring disrepute upon the presidency of George Washington.
The first two of these are well known. Jefferson, although a critic of Washington, was Washington’s Secretary of State, and Madison is known as the Father of the Constitution and was a current member of the US House of Representatives. Washington frequently turned to these for advice and guidance.
While Jefferson was always an opponent of Federalist ideals, Madison adhered to the Federalist ideology throughout the Constitutional Convention and in the early days of the new government.
Madison became a principal opponent after Washington's presidency began. He was adamantly against Hamilton’s economic programs and fiscal policies, which Washington tended to agree with and sign into law.
Together, Jefferson and Madison formed the Democratic-Republican party in response to the policies of Washington and Hamilton and the burgeoning Federalist platform.
Jefferson and Madison were against the powerful central government being strengthened under the leadership of Washington and Hamilton. Jefferson had a front-row seat in the Federalist spectacle as a member of the Cabinet and was particularly frustrated that Washington seemed to listen to anything Hamilton said and do anything he asked.
Jefferson and Hamilton, the two most vocal members of the Cabinet, were constantly at odds with one another and Washington was growing increasingly irritated as the two argued continually. The Cabinet discussions often turned vitriolic as the two fought. Secretary of War Henry Knox typically sided with Hamilton and Attorney General Edmund Randolph at times sided with Jefferson but often simply tried to play peacemaker.
Attacks in the Press
In the spring of 1789 just after the new government was taking office, a new newspaper began publication in New York City, the Gazette of the United States. The newspaper was complimentary of the new Constitution and hyped the Federalist agenda and policies.
As time passed, this newspaper became increasingly complimentary of the Federalist agenda and Hamilton’s fiscal policies. Federalists John Adams and Hamilton became frequent contributors. Despite this, the newspaper struggled financially but received funding from the federal government and grants from Hamilton in 1790 and 1791.
In 1791, Jefferson and Madison turned to an old friend and classmate of Madison’s, Philip Freneau, for help. Freneau was a prominent poet and essayist. Jefferson hired Freneau as a translator in the State Department, even though Freneau only knew one other language, French, which Jefferson already spoke fluently.
After Freneau accepted the state department job, they hired him to start a newspaper that would counter the Gazette’s pro-Federalist rhetoric. In October 1791, the National Gazette began publishing with Madison and Freneau as frequent contributors and Jefferson as a primary funder of the publication.
The inaugural issue of the National Gazette accused Hamilton of having monarchical aspirations for himself and Washington and lauded Jefferson as the “colossus of liberty.” In subsequent issues, the paper continued criticizing, calling Hamilton’s fiscal policies “numerous evils … pregnant with every mischief.” It described Washington’s birthday celebration as “a forerunner of other monarchical vices.”
Freneau called Hamilton’s policies
“scenes of speculation calculated to aggrandize the few and the wealthy, while oppressing the great body of the people.”
Washington loathed the National Gazette and Freneau for the scathing attacks, but remain unaware that many of the attacks in print were authored by Madison. Beginning in late 1791 and continuing for over a year, Madison wrote eighteen spiteful essays in the National Gazette. The Democratic-Republicans were able to keep the authorship hidden. Washington apparently thought Freneau was the author of them all.
A Second Term?
Throughout the spring and summer of 1792, Washington evaluated whether to run for a second term in office. He longed to return to Mount Vernon. He confided in his Cabinet members and asked each for their opinions. He met with Madison, still a trusted advisor, in early May.
According to journal entries, the discussion went on for a time with many items of discussion. Washington confided in Madison about his hatred for the press and their attacks, apparently unaware that one of the attacking authors was right in front of him. Madison’s duplicity is shocking but that is a story for another day.
Knowing Madison’s dislike for the administration, his reply regarding a second term for Washington is surprising. He described how perilous Washington’s retirement would be at the time. A second term in office would
give such a tone and firmness to the government as would secure it against danger.
A few weeks later, Washington met with Jefferson to ascertain his feelings on retirement versus a second term. Jefferson felt that the North was full of creditors and the south was full of debtors. He feared that without a unifying voice of reason the country split along sectional lines and become separate nations. Jefferson stated,
North and south will hang together if they have you to hang on.
I have written in the past about John F. Kennedy’s three points about exhibiting courage in politics.
- Politicians and others in power are no different than anyone else in that they want to be liked. They “prefer praise to abuse, popularity to contempt.” This was true for Washington and it is certainly true for President Biden.
- “I am persuaded after long study … that the national interest, rather than private or political gain, furnished the basic motivation for the actions of those whose deeds are therein described.” This also was true for Washington and I believe it is true for President Biden.
- In exhibiting courage, politicians endure “risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters … but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles.”
President Washington experienced a level of vindication when two of his staunchest opponents encouraged him to seek a second term in office.
In Part One of this series, I explored Biden’s courageous willingness to get outside the norm for his appointments. And I highlighted the necessity of helping the nation heal from the partisan debacle which currently exists in our nation. He should take his courage another step and include someone from outside his party in an effort to unify the nation.
A decision such as this would invite anger and scorn.
It would require courage and fortitude. It remains to be seen whether such a decision would be vindicated after putting it into practice. The “national interest” is of the utmost concern given the current state of our nation. The personal risk to President Biden of unpopularity within his party and whatever defamation might result is worth the risk in light of the potential benefit of unity and growth.
President Biden, our nation needs your leadership and example.