April 30, 1789: George Washington’s first inauguration as President of the U.S.

April 30, 2014

Mural by Allyn Cox in the U.S. Capitol depicts George Washington taking the oath of office in 1789 on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. Architect of the Capitol photograph

Mural by Allyn Cox in the U.S. Capitol depicts George Washington taking the oath of office in 1789 on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. Architect of the Capitol photograph

Not on March 4, as the Constitution specified, because Congress had not been able to organize itself to count the ballots of the electoral college, but on April 30, 1789, George Washington met with the U.S. Senate on the second floor of a building now called Federal Hall; then to the balcony, where Robert Livingston, Chancellor of the State of New York, administered the oath of office to Washington.  Washington put his left hand on a Bible borrowed from St. John’s Masonic Hall — there were no Bibles to be found in Federal hall where the First Congress was meeting.

That’s how it started.

The Library of Congress Today in History feature links to a wealth of resources for scholars and teachers:

Father of Our Country

George Washington

Detail from Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished portrait of George Washington, from the collections of the Library of Congress.

George Washington [detail],
Gilbert Stuart, artist.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

On April 30, 1789, George Washington delivered his first inaugural address to a joint session of Congress, assembled in Federal Hall in the nation’s new capital, New York City. The newly-elected president delivered the speech in a deep, low voice that betrayed what one observer called “manifest embarrassment.” Washington had not sought the office of president and was humbled by the request to serve.

Aside from recommending constitutional amendments to satisfy citizens demanding a Bill of Rights, Washington confined his address to generalities. He closed by asking for a “divine blessing” on the American people and their elected representatives. In delivering his address, Washington went beyond the constitutional requirement to take an oath of office and thus established a precedent that has been followed since by every elected president.

Two weeks before his inauguration, Washington had made an emotional speech to the citizens of his hometown, Alexandria, Virginia. He expressed regret at leaving his Mount Vernon estate where he had retired, and stated: “no earthly consideration, short of a conviction of duty, could have prevailed upon me to depart from my resolution,’never more to take any share in transactions of a public nature.'” The reluctant leader served two terms in office.

To learn more about George Washington, explore the following American Memory resources:

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Presidents Day 2014: Fly your flag today

February 17, 2014

Come on, you didn’t really need me to remind you, did you? It’s Presidents’ Day on most calendars, though the official U.S. holiday is Washington’s Birthday.

You’re already flying your flag today, right?  Let’s recapitulate from last year

Dr. Bumsted reminds us we need to emphasize that the federal holiday is Washington’s Birthday, not a day to honor presidents generically.  See the explanation from the U.S. National Archives.

Presidents Day is February 17, 2014 — fly your U.S. flag today.

National Park Service photo, Lincoln Memorial through flags at Washington Monument

The Lincoln Memorial, seen through flags posted at the Washington Monument, Washington, D.C.; National Park Service Photo via About.com

Oddly enough, some controversy arises from time to time over how to honor President Washington and President Lincoln, and other presidents.  Sometimes the controversy simmers over how to honor great Americans — if Lincoln deserves a day, why not FDR?  Why not Jefferson? — and sometimes the controversy covers more mundane ground — should the federal government give workers a day off?  Should it be on a Monday or Friday to create a three-day weekend to boost tourism?  About.com explains the history of the controversy:

Presidents’ Day is intended (for some) to honor all the American presidents, but most significantly George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. According to the Gregorian or “New Style” calendar that is most commonly used today, George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. But according to the Julian or “Old Style” calendar that was used in England until 1752, his birth date was February 11th. Back in the 1790s, Americans were split – some celebrated his birthday on February 11th and some on February 22nd.

When Abraham Lincoln became president and helped reshape our country, it was believed he, too, should have a special day of recognition. Tricky thing was that Lincoln’s birthday fell on February 12th. Prior to 1968, having two presidential birthdays so close together didn’t seem to bother anyone. February 22nd was observed as a federal public holiday to honor the birthday of George Washington and February 12th was observed as a public holiday to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

In 1968, things changed when the 90th Congress was determined to create a uniform system of federal Monday holidays. They voted to shift three existing holidays (including Washington’s Birthday) to Mondays. The law took effect in 1971, and as a result, Washington’s Birthday holiday was changed to the third Monday in February. But not all Americans were happy with the new law. There was some concern that Washington’s identity would be lost since the third Monday in February would never fall on his actual birthday. There was also an attempt to rename the public holiday “Presidents’ Day”, but the idea didn’t go anywhere since some believed not all presidents deserved a special recognition. [Take THAT you Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore fans!]

Even though Congress had created a uniform federal holiday law, there was not a uniform holiday title agreement among the individual states. Some states, like California, Idaho, Tennessee and Texas chose not to retain the federal holiday title and renamed their state holiday “President’s Day.” From that point forward, the term “Presidents’ Day” became a marketing phenomenon, as advertisers sought to capitalize on the opportunity for three-day or week-long sales.

In 1999, bills were introduced in both the U.S. House (HR-1363) and Senate (S-978) to specify that the legal public holiday once referred to as Washington’s Birthday be “officially” called by that name once again. Both bills died in committees.

Today, President’s Day is well accepted and celebrated. Some communities still observe the original holidays of Washington and Lincoln, and many parks actually stage reenactments and pageants in their honor. The National Park Service also features a number of historic sites and memorials to honor the lives of these two presidents, as well as other important leaders.

Fly your flag, read some history, enjoy the day.

More, Resources, and Related Articles:

English: Air Force One, the typical air transp...

President’s airplane, Air Force 1, flying over Mount Rushmore National Monument, in South Dakota – Image via Wikipedia; notice, contrary to Tea Party fears, the bust of Obama is not yet up on Rushmore (and also note there remains no room for another bust).

Yes, this is mostly an encore post.  This event occurs every year.


January 21: Odd conjunction of history with Louis XVI and Vladimir I. Lenin

January 21, 2014

This is mostly an encore post.

The Dallas Morning News and the Associated Press inform us that France’s King Louis XVI died on January 21, 1793.  In 1924, Russian revolutionary Vladimir I. Lenin died on January 21.

Portrait of Louis XVI

France’s King Louis XVI died on January 21, 1793.  He is seen here in his most famous portrait, in happier times. Image via Wikipedia

Both died of strokes, but of different kinds of strokes.  Lenin’s was a cerebral stroke; Louis’s was the stroke of the blade of a guillotine.

Painting of Lenin in front of the Smolny Institute, circa 1925,  by Isaak Brodsky - Wikipedia

Lenin died on January 21, 1924.  Painting of Lenin in front of the Smolny Institute, circa 1925, by Isaak Brodsky

Ruminations on the date, and the men:  How much of current history can be understood by studying those two events, and those two men?  How much if we add in George Washington, and Napoleon, other men affected by revolution?

A few years ago I had a sophomore student spell out the importance of people in history.  Israel Pena observed that  Americans got rid of their king through revolution, and ended up with George Washington as leader, and then president.  Washington’s modeling of his life after the Roman patriot Cincinattus led Washington to resign as commander of the Continental Army when the warring was done, instead of declaring himself king, and then later to step down from the presidency after two terms, to promote peaceful retirement of presidents.

The French got rid of their king through revolution in 1789, but in the chaos that followed, they got Napoleon who took over the government after battlefield victories against France’s enemies.  Then Napoleon declared himself emperor, and took off on a reign of conquest and war across Europe.

France’s revolution produced Napoleon; America’s revolution produced Washington, and that has made most of the difference.

Mr. Pena’s commentary compared only those two nations.  What if we add in a third nation and revolution:  Russia?  Russia got rid of its king (czar) through revolution in 1917.  In the chaos that followed it got a government led by Lenin, and upon Lenin’s early death, taken over by Joseph Stalin.

George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart - Wikipedia

George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart – Wikipedia

Is the future of a nation written by the character of the men who run the government?  One might make a good case that the deaths of these men paint most of the picture we really need to have. Louis XVI died at the age of 39, on the guillotine; Vladimir I. Lenin, died at the age of 53, of stroke.  Both still worked to cling to the strings of power; Compare the deaths of Washington and Napoleon. George Washington. died in 1799 at the age of 67, of complications from a strep throat, but in retirement and in his bed at Mount Vernon, Virginia; while Napoleon Bonaparte died at 52, probably from stomach cancer, while he suffered in humiliating exile on the far distant South Atlantic isle of St. Helena, in 1821.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812 - Wikipedia

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812 – Wikipedia

Revolution marked these men. Three of them led revolutions, and the fourth was put out of power by one.  Whose life would you have preferred to follow?  Which of these lives is most meritorious of modeling?

Which one lived the life that put his nation on the more secure footing so that its citizens might live good lives, and die of old age in their beds, rather than at war?

Can one person really push the history of a nation so much?  Or are these four lives simply emblematic of the nations they ruled?

Something to ponder on a January 21.


Taxes are “stolen?” Those who don’t know history, shouldn’t pretend to complain about taxes

August 24, 2013

No, taxes are not “stealing.”  Here’s the offending poster I found on Facebook:

Who are the history-illiterates who make these offensive posters?  Taxes are not

Who are the history-illiterates who make these offensive posters? Taxes are not “stolen,” at least, not according to patriots like George Washington.

I told one guy who posted it that I thought it was a crude misrepresentation of George Washington, there on the left — but that I had always suspected he didn’t like the “founders,” and was grateful to have any doubts I may have had, removed.

He said, “Huh?”

This Prominent Americans series stamp of the U...

Pay your taxes, maybe they’ll put you on a stamp. This Prominent Americans series stamp of the United States from 1968 features Oliver Wendell Holmes. Wikipedia image

One could always refer to that wonderful line from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., about how he liked to pay taxes because “with them I buy civilization.”  But I suspect most tax revolters in the U.S. don’t much like civilization (and they have the guns to prove it).

Instead I simply told the story of George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion, the first, and mostly-forgotten, case of U.S. tax rebels.  You know the story.

I wrote:

Yeah, in 1794, a bunch of farmers out in western Pennsylvania got ticked off at taxes. They said paying taxes was like the government stealing from them. And, they had their representatives explain to President George Washington, didn’t they fight a war against paying taxes?

Washington, you may recall, was the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in the great American Revolution against Great Britain. “No taxes without representation” was one of the original war cries.

Washington said, ‘It takes money to run the government, and that money is collected from the people in taxes fairly levied by their elected representatives.’

The farmers weren’t having any of that. They were way out in western Pennsylvania, near the wilderness Fort Pittsburgh. The federal government, what little bit of it there was, was in Philadelphia. ‘How are they going to make us pay taxes?’ the rebel leaders shouted to crowds.

George Washington

A more friendly portrayal of George “Pay Your Taxes or Swing” Washington – Wikipedia image (which bust is this? Library of Congress?)

Washington got a dozen nooses, and a volunteer army of 13,000 Americans, and marched to western Pennsylvania to hang anyone who wouldn’t pay the tax. Oddly, by the time Washington got there with the nooses, the rebels decided maybe it was a good idea to be patriotic about it after all.

So I assumed you just updated the pictures a little. [In the poster] There’s George Washington on the left, with his Smith and Wesson “noose,” telling the big corporate farmer to pay his taxes.I think your portrayal of Washington is a bit crude, but it’s historically accurate, with regard to taxes.

I always suspected you didn’t like George Washington. Now I know for sure you don’t.

You could have looked it up: The Whiskey Rebellion – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/peopleevents/pande22.html

I don’t much like crude political dysfunction and disinformation from people who don’t know U.S. history, and won’t defend American principles.  Am I being unreasonable?

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Gen. Washington, astride his favorite white horse, reviewing his troops at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, before the march to the western part of the state to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.  Image from the Department of the Treasury, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Gen. Washington, astride his favorite white horse, reviewing his troops at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, before the march to the western part of the state to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. Image from the Department of the Treasury, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. (Just try to find who painted it!)

” . . . to execute the laws . . .” a painting by Donna Neary for the National Guard, on the Whiskey Rebellion. National Guard Caption: In September 1791 the western counties of Pennsylvania broke out in rebellion against a federal excise tax on the distillation of whiskey. After local and federal officials were attacked, President Washington and his advisors decided to send troops to pacify the region. It was further decided that militia troops, rather than regulars, would be sent. On August 7, 1794, under the provisions of the newly-enacted militia law, Secretary of War Henry Knox called upon the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania for 12,950 troops as a test of the President’s power to enforce the law. Numerous problems, both political and logistical, had to be overcome and by October, 1794 the militiamen were on the march. The New Jersey units marched from Trenton to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. There they were reviewed by their Commander-in Chief, President George Washington, accompanied by Secretary of the Treasury and Revolutionary war veteran Alexander Hamilton. By the time troops reached Pittsburgh, the rebellion had subsided, and western Pennsylvania was quickly pacified. This first use of the Militia Law of 1792 set a precedence for the use of the militia to “execute the laws of the union, (and) suppress insurrections”. New Jersey was the only state to immediately fulfill their levy of troops to the exact number required by the President. This proud tradition of service to state and nation is carried on today by the New Jersey Army and Air National Guard.


Encore quote for August 17: George Washington, “to bigotry, no sanction”

August 17, 2013

Maybe we should designate August 17 as “No Bigotry Day.”

August 17, 1790, found U.S. President George Washington traveling the country, in Newport, Rhode Island.

Washington met with “the Hebrew Congregation” (Jewish group), and congregation leader (Rabbi?) Moses Seixas presented Washington with an address extolling Washington’s virtues, and the virtues of the new nation. Seixas noted past persecutions of Jews, and signalled a hopeful note:

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a government erected by the Majesty of the People–a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generously affording to All liberty of conscience and immunities of Citizenship, deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine.

George Washingtons reply to the Newport, RI, Hebrew congregation, August 17, 1790 - Library of Congress image

George Washingtons reply to the Newport, RI, Hebrew congregation, August 17, 1790 – Library of Congress image,

President Washington responded with what may be regarded as his most powerful statement in support of religious freedom in the U.S. — and this was prior to the ratification of the First Amendment:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Below the fold, more history of the events and religious freedom, from the Library of Congress.

Read the rest of this entry »


George Washington in the cherry blossoms

June 4, 2013

Interesting to me that a guy who didn’t go to college, made a fortune, left money to establish a college (and other schools), and has a great university named after him, today.

George Washington (by Avard Fairbanks) among the cherry blossoms at George Washington University

Bust of George Washington by Avard Fairbanks, at George Washington University, among the cherry blossoms. GWU photo

Full disclosure:  My law degree comes from George Washington University, which was for many years Utah’s second law school, after the University of Utah.

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Nope, Patrick Henry didn’t say that

April 8, 2013

More misquoting of “the Founders”:

For America misquotes Patrick Henry

For America’s poster featuring a quote falsely claimed to be from Patrick Henry.  The racial right wingers won’t tell you, but the painting is a portrait by George Bagby Matthews c. 1891, after an original by Thomas Sully.

It’s baseball season.  I love a pitch into the wheelhouse.

The radical right-wing political group For America — a sort of latter-day Redneck Panther group — invented this one, and pasted it up on their Facebook site this morning.

You know where this is going, of course.  Patrick Henry didn’t say that.  The poster is a hoax.

Your Hemingway [Excrement] Detector probably clanged as soon as you pulled the poster up.  Patrick Henry was a powerful opponent to the Constitution.

Opposed to the Constitution?  Oh, yes.  It helps to know a bit of history.

Henry was at best suspicious of the drive to get a working, central government after the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution. While George Washington needed an interstate authority, at least to resolve disputes between the states, in order to create a commercial entity to build a path into the Ohio Valley, Henry was opposed.  To be sure, Washington was scheming a bit, with his dreaming:  Washington held title to more than 15,000 acres of land in the Ohio Valley, his fee for having surveyed the land for Lord Fairfax many years earlier.  Washington stood to get wealthy from the sale of the land — if a path into and out of the Ohio could be devised.  Washington struggled for years to get a canal through — seen today in the remains of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from Washington, D.C., up along the Potomac River.

Henry was so opposed to the states’ working together that he refused to notify Virginia’s commissioners appointed to a commission to settle the fishing and title dispute to the Chesapeake Bay, between Maryland and Virginia especially, and including Delaware.  When Maryland’s commissioners showed up in Fairfax for the first round of negotiations, they could not find the Virginia commissioners at all.  So they called on Gen. Washington at his Mt. Vernon estate (as about a thousand people a year did in those years).  Washington recognized immediately how this collaboration could aid getting a path through Maryland to the Ohio.

Perplexed at the abject failure of Virginia’s government, Washington dispatched messages to the Virginia commissioners, including a young man Washington did not know, James Madison.  Washington was shocked and disappointed to learn the Virginians did not know they had been appointed.  He suggested the Marylanders return home, and immediately began working with Madison to make the commission work.  When this group settled the Chesapeake Bay boundaries and fishing issues, and Washington’s war aide Alexander Hamilton was entangled in a separate but similar dispute between New York and New Jersey over New York Harbor, Washington introduced Hamilton and Madison to each other, and suggested they broaden their work.  Ultimately this effort produced the Annapolis Convention among five colonies, which called for a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation.  The Second Continental Congress agreed to the proposal.

When the delegates met at Philadelphia, they determined the Articles of Confederation irreparably flawed.  Instead, they wrote what we now know as the Constitution.

Patrick Henry opposed each step.  Appointed delegate to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, he refused to serve.  Instead, he was elected Governor of Virginia, and proceeded to organize opposition to ratification of the Constitution.  Madison’s unique ratification process, sending the Constitution to conventions of the people in each state, instead of to the state legislatures, was designed to get around Henry’s having locked up opposition to ratification in the Virginia Assembly.

Henry led opposition to ratification at the Virginia convention.  Outflanked by Madison, Henry was enraged by Virginia’s ratification.  Virginia had called for the addition of a bill of rights to the document, and the ratification campaign was carried partly on Madison’s promise that he would propose a bill of rights as amendments, as soon as the new federal government got up and running.  Henry sought to thwart Madison, blocking Madison’s appointment as U.S. senator, in the state legislature.  When Madison fell back to run for the House of Representatives, Henry found the best candidate to oppose Madison in the Tidewater area and threw all his support behind that candidate. (James Monroe was that candidate; in one of the more fitting ironies of history, during the campaign Monroe was persuaded to Madison’s side; Madison won the election, and the lifelong friendship and help of Monroe.)

When the new federal government organized, Henry refused George Washington’s invitation to join it in any capacity.  Henry continued to oppose the Constitution and its government to his death.

Consequently, it is extremely unlikely Henry would have ever suggested that the Constitution was a useful tool in any way, especially as a defense of freedom; Henry saw the Constitution as a threat to freedom.

There are good records of some of the things Henry really did say about the Constitution.  Henry regarded the Constitution as tyranny, and said exactly that in his speech against the Constitution on June 5, 1788:

It is said eight states have adopted this plan. I declare that if twelve states and a half had adopted it, I would, with manly firmness, and in spite of an erring world, reject it. You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.

In the same speech, Henry challenged the right of the people even to consider creating  a Constitution:

The assent of the people, in their collective capacity, is not necessary to the formation of a federal government. The people have no right to enter into leagues, alliances, or confederations; they are not the proper agents for this purpose. States and foreign powers are the only proper agents for this kind of government.

Probably diving into hyperbole, Henry portrayed the Constitution itself as a threat to liberty, not a protection from government:

When I thus profess myself an advocate for the liberty of the people, I shall be told I am a designing man, that I am to be a great man, that I am to be a demagogue; and many similar illiberal insinuations will be thrown out: but, sir, conscious rectitude outweighs those things with me.

I see great jeopardy in this new government. I see none from our present one. I hope some gentleman or other will bring forth, in full array, those dangers, if there be any, that we may see and touch them.

Anyone familiar with the history, with the story of Patrick Henry and the conflicting, often perpendicular story of the creation of the Constitution, would be alarmed at a quote in which Henry appears to claim the Constitution a protector of rights of citizens — it’s absolutely contrary to almost everything he ever said.

Perhaps most ironic, for our right-wing friends:  The quote on the poster above was invented as a defense against abuses of the Constitution by the right.  Wikiquote tracked it back to its invention:

The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government — lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.

  • As quoted in The Best Liberal Quotes Ever : Why the Left is Right (2004) by William P. Martin. Though widely attributed to Henry, this statement has not been sourced to any document before the 1990s and appears to be at odds with his beliefs as a strong opponent of the adoption of the US Constitution.

“History?” For America might say. “We don’t got no history. We don’t NEED NO STINKIN’ HISTORY!”

And so they trip merrily down the path to authoritarian dictatorship, denying their direction every step of the way to their ultimate end.

The rest of us can study history, and discover the truth.

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