August 21, 2019


The Towering Statesmanship of George Washington (MATTHEW J. FRANCK, 7/30/19, Law & Liberty)

[P]erhaps Marshall's relative neglect of the writing and ratification of the Constitution can be chalked up to his evident belief that it was the use of those new federal powers, not the theoretical debates over their creation, that really mattered for righting the listing ship of state in the new nation. Hence his description of Washington's eight years as President is granular in detail, a rich account of executive-legislative relations, of fiscal policy, of conflicts with Indians on the frontiers, and of foreign affairs in the era of the French Revolution. It was one thing to establish a Constitution that gave a new government the capacity to tackle the young country's many problems. It was quite another to employ that new capacity, to solve those problems, keeping the country united, solvent, and safe. These achievements Marshall credits chiefly to Washington's statesmanship. Even the best constitution will fail to launch and stay afloat if its maiden voyage is not captained by someone in fundamental sympathy with its principles and its potencies.

Thomas Jefferson, who had served as Washington's secretary of state--but at the same time fostered the emergence of the Republican Party opposed to the administration's policies--always considered Marshall's history of the period to be a strictly partisan project, calling it a "five volumed libel" of his party. But as Faulkner writes in his foreword, "Even if the Life were partisan history, it helps us understand a great party, perhaps the indispensable party in American history. We are given an authentic account of the party that made enduring popular government possible."

This judgment is fundamentally sound. Each of our first political parties was prone to exaggerate the threat to constitutional republicanism of its opposite number. The Federalists saw a "mobocratic spirit" in the Republican Party of Jefferson and Madison, bestowing the nickname "Democratic" that eventually stuck as the name of the reconstituted party in Andrew Jackson's day. The Republicans for their part were convinced that the new government would be (in Jefferson's words years later) "administered into a monarchy" by the Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton.

At the extremes in their perceptions, each party was wrong about the other, but each one's conviction was nevertheless grounded in something real. The Federalists did advocate a more vigorous national government, fiscal policies that appealed to business and financial interests, a restoration of commercial relations with Britain, and an arm's-length approach to revolutionary France. The Republicans--in many respects heirs of the hesitant party that had opposed the Constitution itself--were suspicious of financial elites, advocates of "state sovereignty" and of agrarian interests, and passionately attached to France, even as that nation descended into a bloodbath.

Marshall's assessment--seconded by Faulkner in the quotation above--was that Washington's presidency, consciously "above" partisanship but inclining to the policies of Hamilton and the Federalists, had made good on the promises of the Constitution. Inviting his reader to contrast the United States of 1797 with that of 1788, Marshall tallies up "sound credit," a system for paying the nation's debts, refreshed prosperity in both agriculture and commerce, real progress in Indian relations, access to both the Mississippi and the Mediterranean, and the evacuation of the British military from posts on American soil. "This bright prospect was indeed shaded by the discontents of France," Marshall concedes; but Washington's pursuit of neutrality between France and Britain had been essential to the "real independence of the nation" and to "the right of self-government."

It is difficult to imagine such an auspicious beginning to the life of the new constitutional republic if, say, Thomas Jefferson had been the first chief executive. Even the continuity that John Adams provided to Washington's policies--notwithstanding the ghastly blunder of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which converted a political strength into a weakness--may be said to have contributed to the long-run stability of the constitutional order (not least in Adams's final gift to the nation, the chief justiceship of Marshall himself). The precedents set by the Federalists in fiscal policy, foreign policy, and administration were invaluable for the future of effective government in the United States, and for years to come represented a polestar for navigating clear of a return to the doldrums of political imbecility.

Posted by at August 21, 2019 12:44 AM