In honor of President’s Day, this month’s episode features Ken Owen, Michael Hattem, and Roy Rogers discussing issues related to the development of the Presidency in the early republic, including the initial defining of the office by Federalists and John Adams’ and Thomas Jefferson’s challenges in navigating that office, as well as the role of the Presidency in public memory.
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The concept of of a public memory or perhaps a civic religion has tremendous power as even this podcast shows. I applaud your inclusion of the role of gender in the “Federalist court,” but I was in fact quite disappointed in your treatment of race. The traditional construction of narratives depends upon the Federalists being hierarchical monarchists who were swept away by the Jeffersonians with their more democratic style of politics. An opportunity was missed by not mentioning what happened to the rights of women after the Jeffersonians controlled the presidency after 1800. There was also no mention of how reactionary the policies of the executive on race were such as Jefferson’s Postmaster, Gideon Granger who fired all of the free blacks working for the postal service.
Adams’ failures can all be attributed to his personality. No mention of Jefferson’s failures of his second term with regards to commercial policy. Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion are highlighted, but no mention of Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison using federal troops to enforce the embargo or their lack of concern for civil liberties. It is not like Jefferson and Madison didn’t have decades long paper trail questioning the patriotism and citizenship of “merchants” who traded in British goods.
The crux of the matter is how do historians accurately assess the success or failure of early American presidencies? What defines success? Are the Federalists’ and their policy toward native peoples a success because they tried to protect their legitimate claims and concerns when western settler desired the federal government to clear away impediments to westward expansion. Did the capitol have the power to affect events, or was it impotent on the fringes of the territories?
Do we celebrate Jefferson for his statements concerning the universal rights of man in supporting the events of the French Revolution, or is Adams a better apostle of liberty because of his more enlightened policy toward the revolution in Haiti compared with that of his successor? To channel Stephen Skoronek in his Politics Presidents Make, how does one compare the creator of a new political culture, with one that comes to power to affirm the current paradigm, or one who is elected in the last days of that cycle of dominance?
I offer these points not to criticize, but to hopefully begin a wider discussion. I enjoy these podcast and hope to hear more in the future.
Brian, thanks a lot for your comment and for your kind words about the podcast. As far as your points go – one of the issues that we have to deal with in making the podcast is that there’s a finite amount of time, and we can’t fit in everything into one discussion. A lot of your points deal with the Jefferson presidency – and though we cover it briefly, the thrust of our discussion lay elsewhere. I’m certainly interested in discussing Jefferson’s Presidency at greater length, and I’m sure we’ll turn to it at some point in the future. Discussion of Haiti would, clearly, be an important component of that discussion.
As far as your questions of success go – I think the public (and, to some extent, academic historians too) have a tendency to allow historical Presidents to set the terms by which they are judged. If they set out a clear policy agenda, they’re judged by how well they follow it, rather than thinking of what alternative paths might have occurred, and thus we don’t consider potential consequences enough. Critiquing that, I hope, was one of the things that people can take away from our discussion – that there were multiple paths available and that we need to consider the variety of undertakings of a Presidency, as well as a variety of critiques, to properly assess what it achieved.