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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Richard Norton Smith
Presidential Historian
March 25, 2004

Richard Norton Smith
Good morning everyone. And thanks so much for your interest in Presidential and other history. In case you wondered, I am in Springfield, Ill. working on the new Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. I hope you come and visit us early next year. Let's take some questions.

Willima "Big Bill" Jackson, from Pasadena, Texas writes:
How was George Washington's early life shaped and influenced by the Brittish way of life and how did that conflict with his leadership of first the Cont. Army and then later as the 1st amer president?
Thanks you.

Richard Norton Smith
Its an excellent question. Try to imagine yourself in Washington's shoes, a fairly conventional product of colonial America, whose initial ambitions centered around service in and leadership of British military forces. In fact, young Washington almost desperately wanted to be rich and famous -- how American! Ironically, he got both of his wishes, and neither of them made him particularly happen.

What makes Washington's life special, it seems to me, is that over time he came to outgrow his youthful ambitions, to see that there were Interests larger than personal interests, and that there was in fact a compelling justification for British America to become America -- with all the personal and financial risks that that entailed to himself and the revolutionary generation.

You know, Ronald Reagan was not our first actor-President. That honor belongs to Washington. He understood the theatrics of public leadership, but he never confused stage management with the abandonment of principle. He never stopped growing. He never lost his curiosity. One reason he traveled so extensively as President was to learn more about this young, raw Republic over which he had somewhat reluctantly agreed in his old age to preside. In the end, his life should be measured not by conventional rules of personal success , but by his willingness to sacrifice -- not least of all his reputation and peace of mind.

In the 1920s there was a period of "debunking" Washington, when it became fashionable to cut him down to size as it were. Somewhat asked President Coolidge about this trend, and Coolidge went to the White House window, pulled back the drape, looked down toward the mall, and said, "I see his monuments still standing." Nuf said.

Dave, from Illinois writes:
Do you have favorite books that discuss the early presidencies ?

Richard Norton Smith
There is a book by - I think - Ralph Ketchum that deals with the first six Presidents. Check on Amazon. Beyond this, there are marvelous biographies, including Paul Nagle's recent portrait of J Q Adams; the marvelous McCullough on John Adams; Ketchum - again - on James Madison; Merrill Peterson on Thomas Jefferson; and - forgive my immodesty - you could do worse than look at my Washington book "Patriarch" which focuses on his Presidency and introduces the cast of characters we've been discussing. Sorry for the advertisement.

Lauren, from Illinois writes:
Do each of the first Presidents have homes you can visit ?

Richard Norton Smith
Of course there is Mt. Vernon just outside of Washington which is a marvelous way to evoke the character as well as the era of Washington. I never fail to be moved standing outside the tomb overlooking the Potomac.

In Quincy Mass, you can visit the birthplaces - right next to each other - of both President Adams along with their retirement home and nearby under the church in a crypt carved from granite you can pay respects to both presidents and first ladies.

Jefferson's Monticello is widely regarded as one of the great architectural achievements in American history and full of the gadgets and inventions that poured from his fertile mind.

Not far away, in Orange Virginia is James Madison's Montpelier which is even now undergoing extensive restoration and closer still - about two miles from Monticello - you can visit James Monroe.s modest estate Ash Lawn. In fact if you want a real Presidential experience, next time you are in Charlottesville, stop at Michie Tavern on the side of Jefferson's little mountain. Three Presidents - Jefferson, Madison and Monroe - are said to have dined there. You can too.

Matt, from Iowa writes:
Who was the Karl Rove of the George Washington Administration?

Richard Norton Smith
Believe it or not, there was no Karl Rove because there was no political party system as we know it. In other words, Presidents had the luxury of establishing policy without looking over their shoulder a Gallop poll.

That doesn't mean there weren't gifted idea/policy people. Certainly, Washington surrounded himself with remarkable brains -- Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison -- it is just that the brains were focused on things other than re-election.

Rafael, from Queens writes:
What do you think of James Madison as a leader? You don't hear much about him.

Richard Norton Smith
You are right, Rafael, Madison does tend to be overshadowed by his larger than life contemporaries -- and not just because at 5/4 and 100 pounds he was easy to overlook.

I think the main reason for this is because Madison's pre-Presidential career, especially his leading role in crafting and selling the constitution, is regarded as a greater contribution than his later Presidency.

If you want a parallel, look at someone like Herbert Hoover, who succeeded in everything he did except the Presidency.

Gus, from Philly writes:
Were there reporters who covered the Presidency daily like there is now? Were any of them women?

As an aside, ABC's Kate Snow is gorgeous.


Richard Norton Smith
No, there was not a White House press corps as we understand the term. For that matter, there wasn't a White House for the first ten years of the Presidency.

George Washington lived in two separate residences in New York, and a third in Philadelphia.

There certainly was considerable press coverage of early presidents, but it tended to be highly partisan, more editorializing than pure reporting. (I know, I know -- some things never change).

Really, you didn't see on premises reporters assigned full-time to the President and his activities until the beginning of the 20th century when Theodore Roosevelt -- who loved reading about himself -- set aside quarters for journalists, suitably close to his own office. In a sense, that's the forerunner of today's White House press room.

Cra, from NY writes:
What do you think was the most important contribution made by our third president, Thomas Jefferson?

Richard Norton Smith
Certainly, Jefferson's purchase of Louisiana -- 828,000 square miles at 3 cents an acre -- doubled the size of the young republic and all but ensured that one day it would stretch to the Pacific.

As great as an accomplishment as the Louisiana Purchase was, it required Jefferson to modify -- radically -- his own strict construction of the constitution.

In fact, to get Louisiana Jefferson readily dismissed his views about limited government as so many "metaphysical subtleties." In other words, his nationalist ambitions overcame his ideological scruples.

Michael, from Bridgewater, Massachusetts writes:
Dear Mr.Smith, Can you explain why the early framers of the Constitution gave very little guidance as to the formal role of the Vice President, other than as the successor should the President be unable to fulfill hisher role?

Thank you for answering my question.

Richard Norton Smith
Good question, Michael.

And one that most Vice Presidents have asked themselves. Beginning with John Adams, who in moments of frustration referred to the majestic George Washington as "old muttonhead."

But then, imagine living in the shadow of George Washington.

Adams established a record as Vice President. He cast 29 tie-breaking votes in the Senate. And, of course, he succeeded to the Presidency in 1797, which meant one more slightly humiliating experience in Washington's shadow.

On the morning of his inauguration he donned a pearl colored suit of Yankee broadcloth, along with a dress sword cockaded hat. Unfortunately, he appeared anything but a commanding figure, especially next to George Washington.

Everywhere the President-elect looked that day, he saw people weeping -- at one point, he himself was forced to cover his face to disguise his tears. As he put it later, his inaugural day was illuminated by the setting not the rising sun.

Ryan, from Chicago writes:
Hi Mr. Smith In your view which of the early Presidents made the largest impact on the American people and will continue to make the largest impact?

Richard Norton Smith
This is a very big question, and one that obviously different people would interpret differently.

To me, you cannot exagerate the impact, then or since, of George Washington. Without him, there probably wouldn't be a Presidency. Without him, there wouldn't be a Cabinet -- remember, the constitution says nothing about a Cabinet.

Every action Washington took established a precedent to guide or limit his successors. There is a wonderful story about his literal interpretation about the constitution, and his obligation to seek the Senate's advice and consent on a diplomatic treaty involving southern Native American tribes.

200 years ago, lawmakers were as jealous of their prerogatives as their descedants are today. Washington showed up in the Senate chamber to personally deliver the text of the treaty, believing that it would be decided then and there.

He did not reckon with Senatorial courtesy, or verbosity. A senator moved to consider the treaty at some length, first referring it to the appropriate committee. Washington briefly lost his temper, before yielding to the Senate's wishes.

Afterwards, in private, he said that he would be "damned" rather than face such public humiliation a second time. He proved a man of his word, and ever since Presidents have sought advice and consent other than in person.

That is one small example of how Washington through trial and error defined the Presidency.

One other thing comes to mind. Even then, long before today's mass media, Washington understood by instinct that leadership required public theatre. Before sound bites, before rose garden ceremonies, before the rose garden, he traveled the nation extensively in tours that were as carefully choreographed as any modern White House road show.

He would ride in a carriage for 40 or 50 miles per day, until coming to the outskirts of a town or city. Then he would mount a majestic white charger named Prescott and with suitable ceremony ride to town past cheering crowds. He would be formally greeted, the text of the greeting having been previously submitted for his approval -- Washington did not care for impromptu speechmaking.

In other words, there were 18th century advance-men.

Katherine, from Phoenix writes:
The first two Presidents were "Federalists" and the next three were "Democratic-Republican." What happened to these parties?

Richard Norton Smith
John Adams was the last Federalist President, the party withering away during the first decade of the 19th century. In time, it would be replaced by the followers of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster who called themselves, first National Republicans and later Whigs.

As for the Democratic-Republicans, they were the original opposition to Federalism, believing in a smaller more decentralized government favoring agricultural over commercial interests and being sympathetic to revolutionary France rather than loyalist England.

By the time of James Monroe's Presidency (1817-1825), America experienced a brief hiatus from formal party politics -- the so-called "Era of Good Feeling" which wasn't nearly as good as you've heard it was.

By 1824, there was a four-way scramble for the Presidency, as factions within the Democratic-Republican coalition each rallied around a different candidate. The controversy over that year's election, and John Quincy Adams one term Presidency helped redefine the parties.

By 1828, Andrew Jackson had rallied a new coalition of democrats.

Elizabeth, from Silicon Valley, California writes:
Is it true that many of the early presidents were some variety of atheist?

Richard Norton Smith
It is an important question, Elizabeth and let me try to be as precise as I can in answering you.

Many of the early Presidents called into question some aspects of traditional Christianity. They were deists, children of the Enlightenment who acknowledged a supreme being, who had set the universe in motion.

Interestingly, Washington, who was often cited as a free-thinker of sorts, in office proposed the nation's first Thanksgiving -- not as an exercise in gluttony and football games, but as an essentially religious occasion.

I think under the enormous pressures of the Revolution, and later, the Presidency that Washington became steadily more religious, however, you care to define the term. He became the first great champion of religious tolerance as well, visiting a synagogue in Newport Rhode Island and worshipping in a number of religious settings during his extensive travels.

rick, from indianapolis writes:
Of the Early Presidencies, who do you feel deserves more credit - or is frequently overlooked because of the greatness of Washingto and Jefferson?

Richard Norton Smith
Great question, Rick. There is no doubt that Washington and Jefferson stand out. After all they form half of Mt. Rushmore.

For a long time, they certainly overshadowed John Adams, for example. At least until David McCullough set the record straight with his majestic biography.

I have a weakness for the second Adams, John Quincy. Probably no more qualified man has ever occupied the Presidency. His diplomatic career began at the age of 14 when he served as Secretary to this country's Minister to Russia.

He was a state legislator, a US Senator, and Chairman of the American delegation that negotiated an end to the war of 1812. He spoke six languages, and used to get up every morning with the sun to read a chapter of the Bible along with Cicero and Tacitus.

It is even purported that he could write Greek with his right hand and Latin with his left.

On the other hand, sheer intellectual power did not make Adams a successful President. He made the mistake of keeping on most of his predecessors' cabinet, including some who were disloyal (by the way, his father had made the same error).

He was in many ways a man above party, which meant in practical terms a man without a party. And by the 1820s, the old Washington formula for governing no longer worked.

Finally, he made the political error of being far ahead of his time. In his first message to Congress, he called for a breathtaking program of federally funded roads and canals, a national University, a Naval Academy, even an astronomical observatory -- what he called "a lighthouse of the sky" -- for which his political enemies lampooned him mercilessly.

Al, from Saratoga, NY writes:
Of the early presidents, are there any who could "fit in" in today's society?

Richard Norton Smith
In some ways, it is not a fair question. Try reversing the order and asking yourself if you could "fit in" in an era so drastically different from our own.

Nevertheless, Washington demonstrated qualities of leadership that are timeless. The poet Robert Frost said of Washington that he was "one of the few in the whole history of the world who was not carried away by power."

In fact, his voluntary renunciation of a third term put definite limits on the executive, and established a tradition that would last until FDR until 1940.

Jefferson, with his extraordinary range of scientific and intellectual interests, would be at home anywhere there were books and learned companions; on the other hand his reliance upon slavery made him very much a man of his own time and culture.

In a larger sense, it is unfair to apply modern conventions to distant cultures. We are perfectly free to judge them -- and certainly I would hope we would judge them harshly for the hypocrisy of professing a love of liberty while keeping human beings in chains. But it is much easier to judge someone than to understand them.

Ultimately, the historians task -- and privilege -- is to try to immerse himself in a remote, foreign, even distasteful time and place, to understand its leaders on their terms and in their times, and then hopefully, make both accessible to our time.

Richard Norton Smith
Thanks again for your interest and challenging questions. I look forward to doing this again soon -- perhaps looking at the next half dozen or so American Presidents.

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