December 14, 2009

presidential fact #9

The Liberian city, Monrovia, is the only non-American capital city named after a U.S. President

Good Feelings

Bipartisanship in our era is a joke. Everyone promises it and nobody can deliver. Our most recent two Presidents (and their challengers) campaigned on a platform of being political gap-bridgers---uniters, not dividers. But then it always blows up instantly. Obama tried for bipartisanship for about a week before he passed his stimulus package with a strictly partisan vote. Bush got a little more leeway before becoming "the most divisive President in history."

But the thing about that is that every President was considered the most divisive President in history. Clinton was so despised by the Right that he was impeached on sex charges, to the Right's own political detriment. Ford kept getting shot at by women. LBJ could barely go outside his house the protests were so bad. Lincoln caused a civil war. And so on. Not that this is a bad thing- Josh Lyman, among others, teaches us that partisanship is a necessary evil that leads to enhanced debate. Sharper elbows produce sharper ideas.

However, in our trip through divisive presidents, the buck stops with Monroe (to paraphrase another divisive president). Monroe went way out of his way to appoint politically opposed and geographically diverse men to his cabinet and government posts. His unprecedented effort at reconciliation led to his Presidency being dubbed the "Era of Good Feelings." He paid a price for it at first- a friend to all is a friend to none, and Henry Clay led the charge of people who were offended by Monroe's choices.

But it paid dividends later on when, despite a string of failures, Monroe preceded Ronald Reagan as America's first Teflon President. There was a terrible depression in 1819, and Monroe mishandled Missouri's application for statehood, which eventually led to Missouri being admitted as a slave state (until it wasn't---we will get to that during Buchanan). But people stuck with Monroe and he retired as one of our most popular Presidents ever.

December 09, 2009

it's about time we got some real men in here

the nice thing about james monroe is that he's a dude. really tall, bulky, soldier, war hero. he and madison were jefferson's two closest friends, but while jefferson and madison corresponded about philosophy, science, and classic literature, they only wrote to monroe about politics.

monroe was our first non-genius president (that washington was a genius at leadership will do for our purposes). ketcham's biography of madison serves pretty well as a seminar in revolutionary politics, because madison shaped so much of revolutionary politics. monroe wasn't an original thinker - as ammon puts it he "had no talent for abstract thought" - but he worked hard, and he was influential because reportedly he was the nicest guy in virginia. monroe would pick sides and then "dedicate himself" to the debate.

he a talented politician, while his 4 predecessors were men of talent who got involved in politics. it's a fascinating transition to watch, because it seems to have been a permanent one. after all, when's the last time we had a president you would call a genius?

December 02, 2009

It's Not What You Know

In this life, connections are everything, and it was no different in Revolutionary America. And I feel very safe saying that no person, now or then, has ever possessed references better than James Monroe's. As a 21 year old war veteran, he traversed the country looking for a regiment of troops he could command, and later sought a placement at University in France. He had with him three letters of recommendation.

Alexander Hamilton said this: "You know him to be a man of honour and a sensible man and a soldier. This makes it unnecessary to me to say anything to interest your friendship for him. You love your country too and he has the zeal and capacity to serve it."

George Washington: "[T]he esteem I have for him, and a regard for his merit, conspire to make me earnestly wish to see him provided for in some handsome way."

Thomas Jefferson called Monroe a man of "abilities, merit, and fortune" and a "particular friend."

Jefferson later became Monroe's legal mentor (after Monroe FAILED to get a job or place in school!) and pretty much invented the case method for teaching law, just for Monroe. That's what they now teach at every law school in the country, including Notre Dame, where I just left with three letters of recommendation from non-Founding Fathers.

December 01, 2009

presidential fact #8

George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe were all born within miles of each other in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

the cressman conundrum; or, freaks & geeks explains the war of 1812

It was 1979 in suburban Michigan and Allen wouldn't stop bullying Sam Weir.  Sam goes to Harris, their mentor geek, to ask for advice.

"I would recommend the Cressman Conundrum. Tom Cressman. My freshman tormentor. The ideas was, if you fight your bully, afterwards, whether you win or lose, they'll tend to leave you alone."

"Did it work?"

"He broke my tailbone.  But the results were effective."


So the British have spent a few decades being grumpy about the colonies going all independent. They took it out on America by making trading really difficult. The details are at times dull. During the Adams presidency, John Jay went to England and made a treaty with them, essentially agreeing to keep letting them oppress American shipping, bullying that was swallowed because of how unprepared America was to go to war with England 10 years into nationhood.

But it just got worse and worse. A lot of people in parliament still viewed America as a rebellious colony that would eventually collapse back into the fold, and they continually refused fair trading policies with them. Madison enacted an embargo on British trade, hoping that this would so cripple the British economy that they'd come to appreciate and respect their American trading partners. It did not, they did not. England just started trading with other people, and Federalists opponents of Madison in New England continued to smuggle goods in and out regardless of the embargo.

The embargo was kind of a disaster. It had about the effect of a 7-year-old who decides to run away from home, and therefore spends a few hours in the treehouse in the backyard. When he repents and comes back inside, his rebellion is mistaken for a normal amount of time spent outside. James Madison was made for debate, not for broad strokes on the world stage.

So the time came to face the bully. America was outmatched, unprepared, and not unified in its decision to go to war, but it seemed that Britain would never stop punishing America unless it defended itself.

Madison and Congress declared war, appointed an astounding number of incompetent weenies to run the army, and got stomped on. Stomped on for years. They basically didn't win a battle for the first two years of the war, and then Madison sat on a horse on a ridge overlooking Washington while the British flooded in and burned down the White House and the Capitol. Only after they spent some time inside the White House eating Madison's dinner.

At about this time the American commissioners in London sent home the King's offer of peace, which essentially assumed that America had been reconquered. It was a bad year for Madison.

This turn of events, although disastrous, at least accomplished what Madison had not been able to accomplish thus far - it united public opinion. After some reshuffling in the chain of command the the swift promotion of Andrew Jackson, the American army successfully expelled the British forces from Baltimore (cue the Star Spangle Banner. literally.) and New Orleans.

Having fought the bully, and gotten stomped on several times, the results, as Harris promised, were effective. The next offer of peace from Britain was that of an equal, and America had finally proven her place in what Ketcham always calls "the family of nations." Madison's reputation did a 180 from that of a indecisive cerebral to a triumphant wartime president, and he retired joyfully to Virginia while Washington was rebuilt for the incoming Monroe.

Fight the power.