Channelling George Washington: The Imperial Congress

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Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the fifth in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

"To see this country happy is so much the wish of my soul, nothing on this side of Elysium can be placed in competition with it."

"President Washington?  Are we going to discuss the imperial Congress?"

"I thought we had a date."

"We did, but when I didn’t hear from you –"

"I had to bone up on a few things.  It isn’t easy to keep two or three hundred years of history in your head.  It’s why I’ve made sure Alex Hamilton and his pal John Jay—another reader-thinker type – live just down the street."

"I’m listening, Mr. President."

"The story of the imperial congress is about two Revolutions that took place in Washington DC almost exactly a century apart.  The first of these Bastille Days was April 9, 1866.  On that day, for the first time in American history, the House of Representatives, by a margin of one vote, overrode a presidential veto of a piece of major legislation.  The new law put Congress in charge of protecting the civil rights of the freed slaves in the defeated southern states – undoubtedly a noble goal.  President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, had vetoed the bill because he thought dealing with slavery and its aftermath was the president’s responsibility."

"That may have been true.  But Johnson made an awful mess of it.  He tolerated the creation of so-called 'black codes' that invaded the civil rights of blacks and denied them the right to vote.  He even went so far as to tell one correspondent he was determined to keep America a 'white man’s country.'"

"All lamentably true.  But there were many ways Congress could have opposed these measures without making an all out attack on the presidency.  Thad Stevens, the leader of the House Republicans, sounded their battle cry:  'Though the President is Commander in chief, Congress is his commander, and God willing, he shall obey...He and his minions shall learn that this is a Government of the people, and that Congress is the people.'"

"What did you think when you heard those words?"

"I thought:  Here we go again.  The Continental Congress is being reborn!  This can’t be happening!  But it happened.  Stevens and his Senate ally, Ben Wade of Ohio, set up the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, composed of six senators and nine congressmen.  They operated like a British cabinet, making regular reports to Congress and drafting legislation.  They rammed through a series of punitive laws that made Reconstruction a loathsome word in the South."

"All that is familiar."

"But no one sees it as a congressional usurpation of the powers delegated to the president in the Constitution.  Other actions by this runaway Congress make that reality all too clear.  The Radical Republicans passed laws that kept Congress in continuous session if it was so inclined and added the power to call itself into special session.  Previously, that was something only the president had the power to do.  They attacked President Johnson’s powers as commander in chief by ordering him to issue all military orders through General Ulysses S. Grant.  They forbade Johnson to remove Grant or transfer him to another post without the Senate's consent.  Then they passed a Tenure of Office Act which made it a 'high misdemeanor' for the president to fire any federal official without their approval.  Johnson – and the presidency—were NEUTERED."

"Did Johnson fight back?"

"Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to challenge the Tenure of Office Act.  Stanton deserved more than firing.  He should have been exiled to the Dry Tortugas with the conspirators who shot Lincoln.  He had been stabbing Johnson in the back from the day Andy took office.  Congress impeached Johnson.  Fortunately for the future of the country, some Republican senators began to have second thoughts about what their party was doing.  In the final vote, seven senators destroyed their careers and voted not guilty.  The vote for conviction fell one short of the needed two thirds majority."

"You must have been horrified."

"I can only compare it to the day in 1778 when I demanded that the Continental Congress vote pensions for my officers.  The hot air specialists like Sam Adams and his Virginia clone, Richard Henry Lee, went berserk.  Pensions!  We were supposed to win the war with pure unsullied patriotism!  They were living in Never Never Land, as usual.  Over 300 officers had resigned in our six months at Valley Forge.  The pensions passed by one vote."

"Did President Johnson try to restore the presidency?"

"Poor Andy did nothing.  He was a shattered man.  Some say he took to the bottle.  One thing is certain:  he barely came out of the White House for the rest of his term."

"President Grant succeeded Johnson.  Didn’t he try to fight back?"

"Sam Grant was a good general.  But he was no politician.  When he tried to appoint people he wanted in his cabinet, a delegation of senators visited the White House to tell him how unpleasant congressional opposition could become.   Sam declared himself for 'harmony.'  Thad Stevens' dictum that Congress and the people were identical became the law of the land.  Pretty soon a prominent senator was remarking:  'The executive department of a republic like ours should be subordinate to the legislative department.'"

"How long did this last?"

"Forty years.  Forty years of weak presidents.  Of thirteen major pieces of legislation passed between 1873 and 1897, a president was responsible for only one.  A Massachusetts senator said that he and his fellow solons would have considered a message from the White House, asking their vote on a bill a 'personal affront.'  If a senator visited the White House, it was to give, not to receive advice."

"Did anybody fight back?"

"Woody Wilson got things going with his 1884 book, Congressional Government.  But Woody was still a professor in those days.  That made him a denizen of Ivory Tower Land.  No working politician paid the slightest attention to him.  Some presidents tried to fight back.  Grover Cleveland demanded that Congress repeal the Tenure of Office Act and browbeat them into doing it.  It was a remarkable feat for a Democratic president."

"The Dems had become the minority party?"

"Their Jefferson-Jackson majority evaporated with the Civil War.  Then came Teddy Roosevelt, who knew how to talk back to Congress and make them jump through a hoop now and then.  He got away with it because he knew how to reach the people.  You recall him saying the presidency was 'a bully pulpit.'"

"His cousin Franklin made it more than a pulpit."

"You can say a lot of bad things about Frank – he never really solved the Great Depression.  But he put the presidency back onto center stage.  He got away with it because there was a national crisis – the Great Depression – that demanded action.  Harry Truman succeeded him and was determined from Day One to keep the White House in charge of the country.  Ike Eisenhower and Jack Kennedy had the same idea, and Lyndon Johnson had it in spades.  Then came the sad, bungled presidency of Dick Nixon and the rebirth of the imperial congress."

"Is there a specific date for this dolorous event?"

"June 29, 1973.  On that day, angry members of the House of Representatives and the Senate defied the President of the United States and voted to end American involvement in the war in Indochina."

"I live in New York.  Most of my friends still consider this a day to celebrate."

"Whether you believe this was a day of ignominy or triumph, the cowardly abandonment of a small ally or the disposal of an albatross around the neck of the republic, is not the point here.  The vote was the Bastille Day of a revolution.  On its heels came a series of laws giving Congress unprecedented power, climaxed by the humiliating resignation of Dick Nixon one step ahead of impeachment.  Since that day, Americans have been enduring another era of congressional government."

"Now I’m supposed to get some sleep?"

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More Comments:

Michael Green - 2/21/2010

To speculate on what George Washington would have thought about future events is fun, if ultimately unknowable. To slant history to fit what the author wanted Washington to say, and to put words in Washington's mouth that he would not have said, is unconscionable.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/21/2010

This series gets worse and worse as it progresses. In addition to undignified, Mr. Fleming is now portraying Pres. Washington as constitutionally and historically ignorant. It's absurd to think that Washington would consider a congressional override -- a constitutionally mandated process -- the equivalent of the mob storming the bastions, much less the application of Congressional authority over matters of war and budget.

And in the absence of vital Presidential leadership, what's Congress supposed to do? Wait?