Channeling George: Some Questions About Donald TrumpHistorians/History
tags: election 2016, Trump
Thomas Fleming has been publishing reports on his midnight conversations with George Washington in HNN since 2011. It is one of our most popular features.
Did you see me and several other presidents on the New Yorker magazine’s latest cover?
Mr. President! I haven’t heard from you for more than a year!
I decided to take a vacation from politics.
What did you think of the New Yorker cover?
Very amusing. But not very historical. They have me with my hand in front of my astonished face, as if it had never occurred to me before that the American people might elect the wrong man as president. I was barely settled here in Elysium when that happened. Tom Jefferson became the third president. I did a lot more than put my hand in front of my face. I all but shredded my celestial garments.
Aside from your disagreements when he was your secretary of state, why did you think Mr. Jefferson was the wrong man for the job?
Because he hated the Constitution! And especially hated the office that made it the most original political document of its era—the presidency.
Did his conduct of the office make this apparent?
Perhaps the best example of his negative view was his decision to abandon the president’s annual speech to Congress. Instead, Jefferson wrote out a message and it was read by a droning clerk. Nothing did more to diminish the presidency’s importance. It would be more than a century before another president, Woodrow Wilson, restored this vital tradition.
Yet the country survived.
The country has survived a great many mediocre presidents and some really inferior ones. Survival is hardly the test we should be making about an ignoramus like Mr. Trump in the White House. We should be thinking about degrees of happiness. And the potential for considerable unhappiness. A president is not a magician. It takes a long time to make his talents – – or lack of them – – felt by the people.
What were some of Mr. Jefferson’s after effects?
He was scarcely in office when Napoleon Bonaparte, that noble product of Mr. Jefferson’s polar star, the French Revolution, sent a diplomat to ask his approval of invading St. Domingue – – now called Haiti. This French half of the island had been semi-independent, with a black president, for almost a decade. Jefferson gave his instant agreement for a Napoleonic invasion. He said he could not wait to get rid of that “black dictator” who was running the country.
Wasn’t that dangerous, to let a French army get so close to America’s shores?
It was extremely dangerous. We now know this was to be the first step in a Napoleonic plan to ship another French army to New Orleans, which Bonaparte had browbeat the Spanish into ceding to France, along with the rest of the vast Louisiana Territory. The ultimate goal was French troops in the Mississippi River Valley with orders to turn America into a French satellite.
Scary stuff. How did Mr. Jefferson stop him?
“He didn’t. Soon there was a French army in Santo Domingo slaughtering blacks by the thousands -- until its ranks were decimated by yellow fever. A disgusted Bonaparte sold the Louisiana Territory to Mr. Jefferson to finance an invasion of England. Meanwhile, an enraged black general marched his army across Haiti and killed every white man woman and child.
That catastrophe had a terrible impact on the South.
Sad but true. Among other things, it trivialized my decision to free all my slaves after my death. The fear of a race war henceforth made gradual emancipation virtually impossible in the South, where blacks outnumbered whites in almost half the counties.
Did Mr. Jefferson try to do anything about this paranoia?
He made it worse. He ordered his son in law, Congressman John Eppes, to introduce a resolution barring all American contact with Haiti and its citizens. They were left to drift down the decades. The next president to send an envoy to Haiti was Abe Lincoln in 1862. By that time it was much too late to prevent Haiti from becoming a permanent political and economic basket case.
Did things get better when James Madison succeeded Mr. Jefferson?
Hardly. That led to the spasm of disasters we call the War of 1812. Jemmy Madison was a brilliant political thinker. There would have been no Constitution without him. But Jemmy’s shyness, his fragile physique, made him the antithesis of a leader. He experienced the all but fatal falsity of Mr. Jefferson’s deepest conviction – – Congress not the president should run the country. By the time Madison took office, the legislators were more than ready to accept this judgment as the equivalent of divine truth. Poor Jemmy sat helplessly while they voted for war with Britain on the premise that Canada would be an even easier acquisition then Mr. Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase.
We lost battle after battle in the War of 1812. With an army of 4500 men the British burned Washington DC. Nobody even fired a shot at them! How –why -- did everything go so wrong?
It was a Jeffersonian war. According to Tom and his followers, America did not need a regular army. Militia – – troops with minimal training – – were sufficient if they were inspired by patriotic phrases. I had proved this idea was fatally wrong in 1776. But Mr. Jefferson and many others such as Samuel and John Adams and their Massachusetts friends never let facts get in the way of their prejudices. They still saw standing armies as menaces to our liberty.
Is there any previous president who resembles Mr. Trump?
Only one comes to mind—Abe Lincoln’s vice president and successor, Andy Johnson. He too had a short fuse and a rare ability to put his foot in his mouth. His sense of history was zero minus. At one point Andy said this was a white man’s country and he planned to keep it that way! After we’d killed a million young men to get rid of slavery! Thanks to Andy, Lincoln’s hope of a peace of reconciliation, of mutual forgiveness between North and South, went glimmering.
I shudder to think what his legacy has been.
We should all shudder. Thanks to Andy, revenges seekers like Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania announced that Congress was the true ruler of the country and the president was their servant – – not their leader. It was the beginning of 40 years of Congressional government. President after president were ciphers. Sectional and racial hatred were the order of the day. Electing Trump might have a similar effect.
Why do you say that? He’s not a racist, as far as I know.
He talks of building a gigantic wall between us and Mexico and ordering the US Army to arrest and expel 11 million illegal immigrants, most of them Latinos.
Do you have a favorite candidate?
Of course I do. But there’s no way you’ll ever persuade me to tell you who it is.