Saturday, January 05, 2013

Presidential Character: Week One, Guess Who

I threatened you all with pursuing a weekly write-up on Presidents regarding their Character traits as defined by David James Barber: the Active-Positive, the Active-Negative, the Passive-Positive, the Passive-Negative.

When one works a list of U.S. Presidents, one has to start (depending on the topic) with the first: George Washington.
Note: Okay, there were Presidents of the Congress before the Constitution was ratified, but dude they don't really count.  Sorry, John Hansen...

Washington's character has been classified as Passive-Negative: basically, the defining trait is Withdrawn, an oddly unambitious leader in an ambitious office who answers to a sense of duty/obligation, does not seek conflict or political gaming, and has an open aversion to politics.  This type only becomes President because it was expected of them, either from their friends or from the nation at large.  And it Washington's case, it was expected of him by practically everyone: the entire model of the Presidency as designed by the Constitution's founders was based entirely on his role as both military commander and as presiding officer of the Constitutional Convention.  If he had said "no" to being the first federal President, the whole deal would have collapsed, the young nation would have died on the vine, and he knew it.

It's not to say that P-Ns don't want to be leaders: Washington for example pursued a military career for both good and ill.  But that was about the limits of his ambition.  He loathed political deal-making, had to be pushed into making certain decisions.  His primary aide, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, had to talk Washington into a second term convincing his former general that the United States needed four more years of his leadership to stabilize.

Why did Washington succeed (he's routinely listed in the Top Three Ever) as a Passive-Negative?  Two reasons: he was above all a patriot who did what he thought best for the nation; and because oddly enough the nation needed him to be unambitious and self-limiting.

Washington is unique among Presidents because he came to power before partisan party formation.  The original intent of the founders was to create a party-free political environment (which they saw as hindering their electoral model, the British Parliament), but parties still formed around key issues - finance vs. farming, foreign intrigue especially France vs. England - and key political figures such as Hamilton (Federalist) and Thomas Jefferson (Republican Democrat, which evolved to just Democrat).  Washington's advantage was that - being above party - he thought first and foremost of the nation as a whole, and as such worked towards a recognized consensus between the growing factions and an awareness of how the nation was truly doing.

The best example of that was how Washington handled the European continental crisis of the French Revolution.  Due to France's bankrupting itself to finance the American Revolution, and due to the example of the American colonies rebelling against the British king, France devolved into its own revolution and an overthrow of their king Louis XVI.  Passions on the issue ran high.  When Republic France fell into war against Britain and Spain, France sent a minister (ambassador) Genet to the United States to drum up support.

Passions on the issue were running high in America: half the nation openly supported another republican uprising especially with it being our recent French allies.  But Washington took a good long review of the situation and noted the United States was still too young and unbalanced as a nation to get involved with an overseas conflict. The nation's finances were still a mess from the revolutionary era, the logistics of an overseas fight overwhelming, and the nation's best course at that moment was to get on good terms with as many European powers as possible, which actually meant getting on good terms with our recent opponents the Brits.  Despite the pressures to come to the side of the nation that backed us in independence, Washington had to think of his nation's needs first.  Washington issued a neutrality order, claiming the United States would not get involved in the war between Britain/Spain and France.

Genet ignored Washington's neutrality order and organized militias to attack Spanish-held Florida and privateer ships to raid British ships and Caribbean ports.  Washington didn't faze Genet in the least: after all, he found thousands of Americans eagerly signing up to help his cause.  But then Genet made the mistake of lying to Washington about the privateering when he met the President about getting the neutrality order revoked.  When caught in that lie, even Genet's ally Jefferson abandoned him, Washington openly issued a letter reprimanding Genet, and the French government was publicly embarrassed. It didn't help Genet much when the French republican leaders fell to the more radical Jacobians and the Reign of Terror started: when the Jacobians recalled Genet, he begged Washington for asylum... and received it.

The second thing that Washington did - being unambitious and self-limiting - is easier to see because a lot of what the Presidency is all about today is still based on the precedents Washington set.  The Constitution may spell out the specific things a President may do (Article II), but in practice no one really knew what a President COULD do... until Washington himself did them.

Article II may have a provision for "principal officers in executive departments" but no one knew what such a person could be.  Washington named his advisors as Secretary of particular offices - State, Treasury, War, and Attorney General - and defined the scope of each position's duties and authorities under the Executive office.  He made sure to make the appointments go through the Senate as established by the Advice and Consent clause in Article II.

One thing Washington did not do was impose himself much on the Congress: he fervently believed in the separation of powers between the Legislature and Executive.  He rarely exercised his veto power although he was still the first to use it, and used it in a way to get Congress to revise that bill to a more bipartisan form, setting that precedent of veto power.  He reportedly only tried once to impose himself on Congress when trying to get a treaty with a Native tribe passed, by showing up in person.  The Senators present felt intimidated, insisted on more time with the treaty, and Washington stormed out, his hatred of politicking fully confirmed.

This was where the benefits of being a Passive president by nature helped the nation.  A more Active president in office - say, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, or even Alexander Hamilton (yes, he could have served if not for his scandalous behavior) - may have ignored many of the checks and separations of power in the Constitution, could have weakened the Legislature and/or Judiciary branches, and could have turned the Presidency into a Dictatorship.  Adams' and Jefferson's own Presidencies showed hints of that, if not for Washington's setting of precedence limiting their future roles.

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