On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Join us as we take a look back at the challenges our Founding Fathers confronted, as well as the decisions they made and their long-term consequences.
To discuss, we’re turning to an American history expert: professor, author and historian Robert Watson. His most recent book, George Washington’s Final Battle, focuses on Washington’s continued efforts to establish our nation’s capital. The book goes beyond the image of a heroic Washington — also addressing crude realities about our first president, including the fact he was a slave owner.
“What would our Founding Fathers say?” is a phrase all too often heard, especially amid current political divisiveness in the U.S. But the more realistic question might be: What can we learn from their mistakes and successes? And, how might the decisions our leaders make today, be looked upon by future generations? We’ll discuss this and more as we commemorate Presidents Day.
Produced by Inés Rénique
- Robert Watson Historian; Distinguished Professor of American History, Lynn University; Author of George Washington's Final Battle
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast it's Kojo For Kids. We'll be joined by Civil Rights Icon Ruby Bridges. Remember, adults can listen, but only kids can call. But first, it's President's Day today and this year it's taking on a new meaning. Just this weekend, the Senate concluded former-President Trump's second impeachment trial with a vote to acquit him. And throughout this trial we heard repeated references to history and to our Founding Fathers.
KOJO NNAMDISo to better understand this moment on this day meant for commemorating our presidents we're taking a look back with a historian. Joining us is Robert Watson. He, as I said, is a Historian and Professor of American History at Lynn University. His most recent books is called "George Washington's Final Battle." It focuses on President Washington's efforts to establish our nation's capital. Robert Watson, thank you very much for joining us.
ROBERT WATSONIt's my pleasure and thanks for this wonderful program you've been hosting. And I guess, say, good luck on the pending retirement. We'll be sad to see you go.
NNAMDIThe pending semi-retirement.
WATSONSemi-retirement being the key.
NNAMDIRobert Watson, how did you end up focusing most recently on George Washington in your work?
WATSONThank you. So I mean entire forests have been felled to fill all the pages of books on George Washington. I mean, every school kids knows all about Washington. He's still taught. He still remains very relevant, but I'm always trying to think of what we may have missed. So it was basically two things. One is I love our capital city and I think most Americans do as well, you know, the tree lined mall and the Smithsonians and the remarkable monuments and memorials and government buildings. But few people know the story of how the capital city came to be and how unlikely it was as a location.
WATSONAnd secondly, despite historians focusing on Washington, it seemed to me that we have largely missed two important traits of Washington. We know he's heroic, stoic. We know he was courageous and had integrity. But Washington could be a visionary, number one. And number two, Washington could get down in the weeds and the mud and be a politician like everyone else. And you see no better example of Washington playing politics, but also being a visionary than his view of having a great capital city that he called a grand city for the ages. So that's where I decided to write this book.
NNAMDIAnd it was in that capital city, at the U.S. capital that we saw the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol. Could you help us make sense of that? This country has seen dramatic and dangerous situations before including uprisings intended to overthrow the government. Can you talk about the Founding Fathers and what they faced?
WATSONYeah, well, this is certainly -- I mean, it was absolutely disturbing what happened in early January and beyond disturbing. It was appalling. It was unconscionable. And people need to be held accountable for it from, I believe the president all the way down to the people in the building. But this is not the first time. August 24 of 1814, the British during the War of 1812 marched into the Capitol City and set it ablaze. So the Capitol itself and the building now known as the White House were burned. And much of the city was burned during that war.
WATSONThere have been, of course, a number of alarming incidents. You know, we've had a long history with the KKK, with the No Nothing Party, with various insurrectionist groups. And then during the civil war in a sort of a last ditch effort the confederacy in 1864 tried to strike at the Capitol and maybe capture or kill Lincoln and seize the Capitol City. And they got within, you know, sight of the buildings of the city. So it's now new, but it is appalling.
WATSONAnd I think to understand it in context of the framers and founders, when they gathered in Philadelphia both in '76 and again in 1787 for the Constitutional Convention, it's crystal clear that they were really worried about two things. One mobs, you know, this idea that democracy would be mobocracy. That people would take up, you know, arms or pitchforks and march on government buildings. That was one. The second one was they were concerned about a president, a leader, who would be a dictator and how could they possibly control that. And to that what they did in Article 2 of the Constitution was for every power that they gave the president they limited it, checked it, divided it. You know, think about it.
WATSONThe president can initiate a treaty, but the Senate needs to ratify it. A president can suggest someone for the courts, but the Senate needs to confirm it. The president can be overridden, reviewed by the high court and so forth and so on. As to the mobs, you know, the framers gathered in Philadelphia less than one year after Shays' Rebellion and you had farmers literally grabbing arms and taking to the roads, to the streets. So the framers were very, very concerned about this. I think, you know, it's hard to say what the framers would do. And as a historian, everybody says you can't do this, but I think it's compelling and interesting.
WATSONSo I'm one of those historians who violates our code by saying, you know, What would the framers do? And I think they would be absolutely appalled, shocked, angered at both the president's behavior and the failure to hold him directly accountable. And secondly, the fact that people stormed this magnificent building, the, you know, temple of liberty and democracy, the people's building. And did what they did.
NNAMDIOf course, we've all been following the impeachment trial of former-President Trump. I'd like to talk specifically, though, about how the framers saw the role, the separation of power, the three branches of the government, all were meant as you mentioned earlier, check, divide and limit powers, but a lot of rules on executive power seem to have been implied rather than specified. Why was that?
WATSONYeah. There's no case about that. So you're spot on. So the framers were visionaries. They were not infallible. You know, we had the three-fifths clause. We kept slavery and the Electoral College, which seem to be somewhat indefensible, but the framers were visionaries in that they wanted the Constitution to be a living, enduring document. If they tried to answer every question about governance, about how a republic should function, of course, it would have been 10 times the size and it would have been relevant for about 20 years.
WATSONSo the key to the Constitution is for it to be a living, eternal, timeless and relevant document. It needed to be vague. The framers fully intended for us to debate and discuss vigorously each issue in the Constitution before making a decision. Now the difference between a lot of the debate today is they wanted it to be civil and fact based. And that's where they were back during the Constitutional Convention. Therefore, a lot of the presidential powers are implied, and this comes from the very beginning.
WATSONShortly into his first term as president, George Washington realized when looking at treaties and other issues that the Constitution was vague. It's not like he could thumb through it and find a specific answer. So he asked Alexander Hamilton, his trusted aide and Treasury Secretary to take a look at it and let him know what to do. And basically in one night, Hamilton produced this massive report, a legal brief in one night with a quill on parchment, which really came up with the idea of implied powers.
WATSONSo that's been a view of the Constitution ever since that we need to not only look, of course, at the Constitution, but as Lincoln suggested also look at the Declaration. And as Hamilton suggested, look at the federalist papers, look at the intention of the framers to try to figure out the extent of presidential powers and roles and responsibilities.
NNAMDIYou implied this, but I'm going to ask it anyway. What are potential risks of having very little specifics in the Constitution about the powers and limits on the executive branch?
WATSONYeah, great question. Well, it's been said often that one of the greatest threats to the Constitution and to the office of the presidency is to have a very good president. Why, because everyone kind of exhales and allows that particular president to expand his or her powers. And then once they're expanded you're liable to get the opposite kind of president coming in. So that is a problem. And clearly since at least Franklin Roosevelt up in this struggle between the presidents and the Congress, which the framers envisioned -- and they rather envisioned the Congress to be the more powerful of the two branches. That's why the Congress is discussed in Article 1 and the presidents in Article 2.
WATSONAnd there's meaning behind that chronology. In this constant check and struggle and head-butting between the Congress and the president, what we've seen is with the advent of mass media and then in recent years with social media and 24-7 coverage and an explosion of the number of outlets covering everything a president says or doesn't say, everything a president does or doesn't do, the president has become significantly more influential or powerful than the Congress.
WATSONAnd with that comes the concern that you could see, you know, a threat to the rule of law. You could see a Congress that is compliant to a president or a Congress that is not fulfilling its responsibility to be a check on presidential power or the key component of congressional oversite on what the administration is doing. And I think here we are today or at least the last four years. And that question has certainly come to the fore.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Robert Watson. He's a Historian and Professor of American History at Lynn University. His most recent book is called "George Washington's Final Battle" and focuses on President Washington's efforts to establish our nation's capital. Many of those who spoke during the impeachment proceedings referenced history and the important of leaving a legacy. I want to play a clip from Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, One of the House leaders in the impeachment. So let's take a listen.
JAMIE RASKINWhatever you came to Washington to do, to work on from defense to agriculture to energy to aerospace to healthcare, this is almost certainly how you will be remembered by history. That might not be fair. It really might not be fair, but none of us can escape the demands of history and destiny right now. Our reputations and our legacy will be inexplicably intertwined with what we do here and with how you exercise your oath to do impartial justice.
NNAMDIRobert Watson, we only have about 40 seconds left in this segment, but what were your thoughts as you watched this second impeachment trial?
WATSONI thought that Congressman Raskin's closing remarks were among the most powerful of the trail, because indeed history is watching. And if we don't weigh in now, it will greenlight future presidents for this kind of behavior and in future years we will be looking back saying, what did we do? And on that note, Franklin Roosevelt would refer to the presidency as first and foremost a place of moral leadership. And Abraham Lincoln said of it that the president's main responsibility is to appeal to our better angels to rise up not to appeal to our worst demons and this kind of conduct.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Robert Watson. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. On this President's Day, we're talking about what lessons we have learned from the Founding Fathers especially given what we have witnessed during the last month or so at the U.S. Capitol. We're talking with Robert Watson. He's a Historian and Professor of American History at Lynn University. He's most recent book is called "George Washington's Final Battle" and focuses on President Washington's efforts to establish our nation's capital. As a historian, Robert Watson, I'm pretty sure you get asked this cringe worthy question fairly frequently. What would the Founding Fathers think about this? What would they have done?
WATSONYeah. So, you know, what would the Founders do, WWFD, right?
WATSONSo everyone asks that. Unfortunately a lot of people pontificate on that and it's clear that they haven't read the Founders, but it's an inescapable question. And leading historians often ask, you know, What would Washington do? What would Lincoln do? And I think we simply need to go back and read their words, which are still relevant for today. As I alluded to earlier, they were very concerned about the notions of mob and a complete breakdown of society and to what would be mobocracy, not democracy.
WATSONWe need to remember that the kind of government they created that Lincoln would later call of, by and for the people was brand new. It was unprecedented and they weren't sure exactly how it was going to work. And there had been as I alluded to, a number of instances of mobs. In June of 1783, just as the revolutionary war was ending, a group of several hundred veterans and unpaid soldiers marched on Philadelphia. Drunks poured out of the bars and taverns in the city and they surrounded the building now known as Independence Hall. Holding legislative leaders basically hostage inside, and that was a lesson not lost on the Founders. They were worried about that.
WATSONGeorge Washington was asked to bring the Army down to deal with it and hang those responsible. But Washington wisely pardoned people and literally told them, go home and we need to move beyond this. So the framers were worried about the kind of things that we see today. And democracy is a fragile and difficult form of government.
WATSONAnd despite all the checks and balances and efforts put into the Constitution in the very end analysis several of the framers including John Adams and George Washington and Hamilton wrote and discussed that one of their main concerns was this. Despite all the checks and balances, what if our leaders are more loyal to a faction or party than they are to the Constitution or the country? And I think that question has been brought to the fore and it remains as difficult and as problematic today, unfortunately as it was back then.
NNAMDIIn your most recent book, "George Washington's Final Battle," you focus on George Washington establishing the Capital City, ultimately named after him and the city in which I'm sitting today. The hope was that establishing a permanent capital would help unite the nation, but deciding where to situate the capital was in itself incredibly divisive. How come?
WATSONAbsolutely. So we went from 1775 when the revolutionary war started until November 1st 1800 without a permanent capital, a permanent seat of government. Trying to start a brand new nation is problematic enough. Doing so without a capital city is even more difficult. One of the concerns was that a capital city would increase governmental power. So a lot of southerners and the Jeffersonian anti-federalists wing of the faction back then were worried that any kind of capital would bring with it power.
WATSONAnother concern was parochialism. There were at least 30 different cities mentioned, you know, from Albany to New York City to Annapolis to Philadelphia to Lancaster. There were a number of cities proposed to be the capital. And it boiled down into a parochial argument where everybody wanted their own city or at least their own state to host the government. They realized it would bring an economic boost. They realized it would bring influence and power. So Southerners didn't want it in the North. The Northerners didn't want it in the South. And that was the kind of debate that we had.
WATSONGeorge Washington on several occasions said that it was of all the debates during the Constitutional Convention and there were many, he said this was the one that was the most heated and the most likely to tear the country apart.
WATSONOne example. Philadelphia would be an obvious choice. I mean, it had hosted the government several times. It was the largest city. It had the most infrastructure, most buildings. It had access to water. So it made a lot of sense that Philadelphia would be the capital. But Philadelphia had rules against slavery. And, of course, a lot of the framers, a lot of the founders, at least 25 of the delegates to the convention at one point or another owned slaves. So one of the concerns was if they brought their slaves with them, according to Philadelphia law the slaves would be freed.
WATSONAnd this was even, sad to say, a concern of George Washington's that as he was -- presided as president for seven of eight years in Philadelphia while Washington D.C. was being built, he would have his slaves return home every few months to get around, to skirt the city's law. And other framers from the South did the same thing. So even the issue of slavery factored in to this contentious debate and parochial debate about where the capital city should be.
NNAMDIIndeed, we tend to hold some historical figures on a pedestal including the Founding Fathers. But as you mentioned, amid ongoing racial reckoning that we're experiencing now, we're viewing these figures through a different lens. How can we come to terms with the fact that many of these leaders were on the one hand developing a new democracy, on the other enslaving other human beings and committing horrific acts against native peoples?
WATSONYeah. It's long overdue that we come to a reckoning and we begin to reevaluate. On one hand, there's no question that leaders like George Washington were instrumental to the forming of the nation. On the other hand, he owned slaves. Now he freed many of his slaves that he had, but does that make amends?
WATSONYou know, one of the cardinal rules of history is you don't take a 2021 perspective and bring it back to 1776. However, there are notable exceptions to that in the case of war, genocide or something like human bondage and slavery. It's wrong morally in any way you look at it no matter when it happened. So we do need this reckoning. And of course, most ironically enough Thomas Jefferson owned a lot of slaves and did not free them, and it was Jefferson, who wrote the words that all men are created equal.
WATSONSo the father of the declaration was a slave owner. And our capital city was built by slaves, as Michelle Obama noted a few years ago. And slavery factored in to the location of the capital city. One of the factors, one of the key pieces of the puzzle is why it wasn't located -- the capital city was located in the South. So the Black Lives Matter movement has just brought this to the fore, but this is something we have had to be reckoning with for quite some time. And I'm not saying on one hand that statues come down. But what I am saying on the other hand is we must do a better job of not just celebrating, but educating about the framers. And clearly the issue of who was a slave owner and why needs to be a central part of our conversation.
NNAMDIIndeed, Thomas Jefferson and the Benjamin Banneker, the Black astronomer had an interesting exchange about that. That people should look up on the issue of race. Here, though, is Christina in Annapolis, Maryland. Christina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISTINAHi. I'm trying to figure out how to phrase this. But basically the constitutionality of the decision by Mitch McConnell to acquit and then to give that really disparaging remarks about Trump afterwards and deciding the fact that he was no longer in power.
CHRISTINAAnd then reasoned for him not to ...
NNAMDIDon't have a lot of time. We only have about a minute left. But, Robert Watson, Mitch McConnell's argument was that Trump was a former president.
WATSONOkay. Well, Christina, that's a good question. So the Constitution is not clear one way or the other. Those that say the Constitution would allow Trump to be tried now, those who would say it would not can both point to the fact that the document is vague. So we're left to go with the implied notion of the framers and also precedence. There have been a handful of precedents over time were ex officials have been tried, and a lot of the legal argument would suggest the fact that was constitutional.
WATSONMcConnell is politically trying to have his cake and eat it by on one had saying he voted to acquit, because he doesn't believe ex-presidents can be tried. But then he turned right around and was very critical of Trump's immoral behavior. So yeah, he's trying to have it both ways.
WATSONAnd, Kojo, the idea of looking at Benjamin Banneker, let me echo your words. Banneker was a former slave who wrote to Thomas Jefferson quite eloquently. And really called Jefferson out on his hypocrisy about liberty yet his views on Blacks and he also called Jefferson out who said that he didn't feel that Blacks were as capable or as innately as gifted.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Robert Watson, thank you so much for joining us.
WATSONIt's my pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIWhen we come back, it's Kojo For Kids with Civil Rights Icon Ruby Bridges. Remember, adults can listen, but only kids can call. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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