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Inventing The Presidency
As America goes into its fifty-fifth presidential election, we should remember that there might have been only one—if we hadn’t had the only candidate on earth who could do the job
October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Washington shared Franklin’s view of slavery as a moral and political anachronism. On three occasions during the 1780s he let it be known that he favored adopting some kind of gradual emancipation scheme and would give his personal support to such a scheme whenever it materialized. Warner Mifflin, one of the Quaker petitioners who knew of Washington’s previous statements, obtained a private interview in order to plead that the President step forward in the manner of Franklin. As the only American with more prestige than Franklin, Washington could make the decisive difference in removing this one massive stain on the Revolutionary legacy, as well as on his own.
We can never know what might have happened if Washington had taken this advice. He listened politely to Mifflin’s request but refused to commit himself, on the grounds that the matter was properly the province of Congress and “might come before me for official decision.” He struck a more cynical tone in letters to friends back in Virginia: ”. . . the introduction of the Quaker Memorial, rejecting slavery, was to be sure, not only an ill-judged piece of business, but occasioned a great waste of time.” He endorsed Madison’s deft management of the debate and behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the House, which voted to prohibit any further consideration of ending the slave trade until 1808, as the Constitution specified; more significantly, Madison managed to take slavery off the national agenda by making any legislation seeking to end it a state rather than federal prerogative. Washington expressed his satisfaction that the threatening subject “has at last been put to sleep, and will scarcely awake before the year 1808.”
What strikes us as a poignant failure of moral leadership appeared to Washington as a prudent exercise of political judgment. There is no evidence that he struggled over the decision. Whatever his personal views on slavery may have been, his highest public priority was the creation of a unified American nation. The debates in the House only dramatized the intractable sectional differences he had witnessed from the chair at the Constitutional Convention. They reinforced his conviction that slavery was the one issue with the political potential to destroy the republican experiment in its infancy.
Finally, in the most dramatic delegation of all, Washington gave total responsibility for rescuing the debt-burdened American economy to his charismatic Secretary of the Treasury. Before Hamilton was appointed, in September of 1789, Washington requested financial records from the old confederation government and quickly discovered that he had inherited a messy mass of state, domestic, and foreign debt. The records were bedeviled by floating bond rates, complicated currency conversion tables, and guesswork revenue projections that, taken together, were an accountant’s worst nightmare. After making a heroic effort of his own that merely confirmed his sense of futility, Washington handed the records and fiscal policy of the new nation to his former aide-de-camp, who turned out to be, among other things, a financial genius.
Hamilton buried himself in the numbers for three months, then emerged with a 40,000-word document titled Report on Public Credit. His calculations revealed that the total debt of the United States had reached the daunting (for then) size of $77.1 million, which he divided into three separate ledgers: foreign debt ($11.7 million), federal debt ($40.4 million), and state debt ($25 million). Several generations of historians and economists have analyzed the intricacies of Hamilton’s Report and created a formidable body of scholarship on its technical complexities, but for our purposes it is sufficient to know that Hamilton’s calculations were accurate and his strategy simple: Consolidate the messy columns of foreign and domestic debt into one central pile. He proposed funding the federal debt at par, assuming all the state debts, then creating a national bank to manage all the investments and payments at the federal level.
This made excellent economic sense, as the resultant improved credit rating of the United States in foreign banks and surging productivity in the commercial sector demonstrated. But it also proved to be a political bombshell that shook Congress for more than a year. For Hamilton had managed to create, almost single-handedly, an unambiguously national economic policy that presumed the sovereign power of the federal government. He had pursued a bolder course than the more cautious framers of the Judiciary Act had followed in designing the court system, leaving no doubt that control over fiscal policy would not be brokered to accommodate the states. All three ingredients in his plan—funding, assumption, and the bank—were vigorously contested in Congress, with Madison leading the opposition. The watchword of the critics was consolidation, an ideological cousin to monarchy.