The United States turns 242 this week, which is pretty impressive given her cruddy diet. Doesn’t look a day over 240, either, though her lipstick is a little crooked.
I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so prepared for an Independence Day, and I don’t mean booze, barbecue, and fireworks. Over the last 2 1/2 months I’ve read 11 presidential biographies, 4,500 pages of American history spanning 1732, the year George Washington was born, to 1849, the year that James Polk died. Well, actually those 11 books span more time than that, as their authors often reach into our Colonial past to establish important facts or move forward in time to briefly discuss this person or that incident. You can’t expect a writer to introduce a soldier named Jefferson Davis during the Mexican-American war of the 1840s without mentioning the Civil War of the 1860s, for example.
The bulk of those 4,500 pages focus on the period beginning with the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and ending with the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Historians love to write about war, which makes sense: Wars are big events with lots of documentation, and everybody loves an action story. As I’ve plodded through the lives of our first 11 presidents I’ve wondered whether our penchant for action heroes results in a sort of storytelling bias, or if those guys are just more interesting. The combative presidents (Washington, Monroe, Jackson) jump off the page while the intellectuals and bureaucrats (Madison, both Adamses, Van Buren) sit there like milquetoasts.
Eleven presidents and I’m only up to the year 1849. I have 33 presidents and a lot of American history to go, but here’s a few observations you can take with you to this year’s Fourth Of July party:
1. The whole thing was the result of debt. The British spent a huge amount of money fighting the French during the Seven Years War, which Americans know as the French and Indian War. As a result the Brits needed cash, so in 1765 they passed the Stamp Act. You probably remember that from junior high history but I don’t because I was too busy drawing Van Halen logos on my Pee Chee folder.
The Stamp Act, which was basically just a tax on anything paper, was the first tax that Great Britain levied against her American colonies. Considering that England began colonizing America in 1607, that’s a pretty good tax free run. Still, it irritated the colonists–Boston Tea Party and all that stuff.
But it wasn’t just the UK’s war debt that led to the American Revolution. Back then the planter class–meaning the rich sumbitches–bought pretty much everything from London merchants: pianos, carriages, fireplace hearths, wallpaper, clothes, toothbrushes. George Washington even ordered Spanish Fly, an aphrodisiac, from his London merchant.
Of course, just like future generations these guys piled up more debt than they could ever pay. Living well beyond your means is a longstanding tradition in this country, and so a combination of “don’t make us pay your debts” and “we don’t want to pay our debts” led a bunch of wealthy white guys to feel really oppressed.
Also: George Washington served in the French and Indian War and hoped to leverage that into a British army career. He was basically told, “You’re not too shabby for a Colonial, kid, but the British Army is for real soldiers.” George was a little salty about that, too.
2. This was not founded as a Christian nation. The founders through Polk, president #11, were serious about that religious freedom stuff. Washington genuinely didn’t care what a person’s beliefs were. Once when hiring a carpenter and a bricklayer to do some work around Mount Vernon, Washington noted they could be “Mahometans, Jews, or Christian of any sect, or they may be atheists…if they are good workmen.” Roughly 60 years later, Polk said of the Mormons: “I could not interfere with them on the ground of their religious faith, however absurd it might be considered to be; that if I could interfere with the Mormons, I could with the Baptists, or any other religious sect; and by the constitution any citizen had a right to adopt his own religious faith.”
While all of those first 11 presidents with exception to Madison and Jefferson attended church regularly, only John Quincy Adams, who was considered an asshole by pretty much everybody, seems to have been really devoted to a spiritual life. (That’s not a correlation, by the way, just an observation.)
3. And speaking of assholes, Alexander Hamilton seems to have been a huge one. Hamilton is the creepy little shit stirrer haunting the early presidencies, the guy whispering in ears and pulling strings to get his way. Reading presidential biographies teaches you nothing about his prowess in rap battles, though.
4. Campaigning for the presidency was considered tacky. Even announcing one’s candidacy was in poor taste. That didn’t mean that the early presidents didn’t run for office, mind you, but rather that the old way was a sort of elaborate mating ritual that began with “I’ve never considered such a thing but if called to serve my country I would do my duty,” and then others would campaign on your behalf.
5. And it really was a duty. Not one of those first 11 presidents left the office wealthier than when they entered; in fact, Washington and Jefferson were pretty much financially ruined by their presidencies. Monroe died penniless, living with his daughter.
The president was expected to pay not only for his staff and both his personal and entertainment expenses out of his salary, but also the household expenses–furniture, food, the whole bit. In modern terms, this would mean that the president paid the White House staff, utilities, groceries, gardening, state dinners, etc. out of his annual salary of $400,000. The cost to run the White House is estimated at $1.4 billion dollars per year. In adjusted terms, our early presidents were paying that 1.396 billion deficit out of their own pockets. As a result, they were a bit more attentive to the costs associated with White House operations. Close that door, Pence! Were you born in a barn?!
6. The Constitution was everything. So much so that Jefferson was afraid that he didn’t have the Constitutional authority to agree to the Louisiana Purchase, the greatest real estate deal in American history. Those early presidents respected that it was Congress’s job to make the laws. Veto power was reserved for bills that the president deemed unconstitutional. That all changed with Andrew Jackson, president number 7, a fierce nationalist who thought of himself as the voice of the people, had no time for all of those career politicians in Congress, and wanted all of the Native American people to get to the other side of the Mississippi. Andy liked to veto.
7. Well, not everything. The union was everything. “The union” doesn’t mean “The North,” but rather “the collection of states.” From the very beginning–literally from the Constitutional Convention in 1787–states were threatening to secede. Meanwhile, Great Britain, France, and Spain surrounded the young nation and eyeballed it like a hunk of prime rib. Losing even one state to secession could have meant an end to the United States, and so even a staunch southerner like Andrew Jackson sided with preserving the union when dealing with states rights issues.
8. And that’s how slavery and freedom became so intertwined. It’s the question that baffles anyone who thinks about the USA for more than a moment: How the hell did a nation founded on personal freedom also justify slavery for the first 75 years of its existence? It’s a complex and shameful question, but we shouldn’t forget that abolitionists were banging their righteous drum from the beginning. And while of those first 11 presidents only the two Adamses never owned slaves, all of them grappled with the problem of preserving the union while abolishing slavery, as it was a given that the southern states would secede if abolition became law.
The Civil War began at the Constitutional Convention, just not in name. That it didn’t erupt into full blown combat until 75 years later doesn’t diminish the fact that anti-slavery forces were fighting for abolition literally from the day the nation was formed.
9. Party wasn’t always a thing. Just like running for president was considered tacky, allegiance to a party was also frowned upon. One’s allegiance was to the union, not to a party. What we think of as the first parties–the Federalists (Washington, Adams) and the Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson through Quincy Adams)–weren’t parties so much as people who shared visions of how government should operate.
What we think of today as parties began with Jackson but really heated up with his successor, Martin Van Buren (president #8). Van Buren was to Jackson as Hamilton was to Washington–the creep whispering in the president’s ear–but before that he was a creep building a political machine in New York. This was known as “the Albany Regency,” and it functioned very much the same way that modern parties do. When Van Buren took the Regency national, the Democratic party was the result. The Whigs formed as an opposition party to the Democrats, and there you go–loyalty to party and opposition to anything the other party wanted was now more important than the union.
10. Nobody really cared about guns. They just weren’t that big of a deal. Guns were things you used for hunting and self defense–not much different than how the overwhelming majority of people perceive them today.
What those early presidents were concerned about was a large standing army. They didn’t want the cost, and they didn’t want the risk of a power mad elected leader turning the power of a huge army against his own people. So instead of maintaining a giant standing army, local militias handled many of the duties that we associate with the military including tamping down much feared slave rebellions, thus that “well regulated militia” all the cool kids are talking about.
That’s it: There was no near-religious ecstasy surrounding guns, just concern about how a small nation with a tiny standing army could defend itself from the European powers that surrounded it on all sides. And slaves. Always slaves.
11. They were all accused of being power mad elected leaders. Or monarchists. Or idiots. Or incompetents, traitors, dullards, deists, adulterers, liars, on and on. Criticism of the president is nothing new, not from the Congress, the people, or the media. It’s as old as the nation itself.
12. Mexico should have built a wall. Mexico allowed American settlers in their Texas territory. Eventually those settlers said, “Hey, we don’t want this to be Mexico. We want this to be America.” Andrew Jackson said, “Cool, but work it out with Mexico first.” So the Alamo and yada yada and by the time we get to Polk we’d cooked up a bullshit reason to go to war with Mexico, the “American blood was spilled on American soil” argument. A young congressman took Polk to task on this, demanding that he “establish whether the particular spot on which the blood of our citizens was so shed was or was not at that time our own soil.” That young congressman [pause for effect] was Abraham Lincoln.
13. We have George Washington to thank for the term “Mr. President.” John Adams suggested “His highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” Thank goodness George was a little more low key.
14-15. John Tyler was the first president not elected to the office. And William Henry Harrison was the first president to die in office, only a month into his term. No, the two firsts are not a coincidence: Tyler was Harrison’s vice president. Incidentally, it wasn’t really clear to anybody whether the veep was supposed to permanently become the next president or what, so that was fun.
16. John Tyler was also the first ex-president to betray the union. He sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, and as a result barely earned so much as a head nod from the (Union) government when he died in 1862.
17. First Lady Sarah Polk started the tradition of playing “Hail to the Chief” when the president enters a room.
18. Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson (in office 1837-41) considered his former slave his common law wife. Julia Chinn was only 1/8 black, but that was enough to cause a lot of controversy and make her the first spouse of color in the executive branch.
19. James Monroe was the first president to ride on a steamboat.
20. Andrew Jackson was the first president to take a ride on a choo-choo train.
So there you have it: 20 things to talk about while you’re blowing shit up and drinking beer. Happy 4th of July, and please don’t blow off your thumbs.