America’s First Presidents

By Elise Cooper for American Thinker, February 15, 2016 •

President’s Day should take on special meaning this year. Looking at the Democratic and Republican choices most appear to pale in comparison to the early presidents. American Thinker reflects on the greatness of a few of the Founding Fathers who became America’s first presidents, putting country ahead of their own agenda.

This holiday is now popularly seen as a day to recognize the lives and achievements of all of America’s chief executives. But it was first established, in 1885, after President George Washington’s death in 1799. His February 22nd birthday became a perennial day of remembrance.

George Washington is still number one in many people’s minds considering the undiminished and unmatched greatness he displayed. For today’s presidential candidates there can be no higher standard than America’s first, since he shaped the executive office into what it is today. He believed and supported the idea of a “citizen solider,” noting that “the sword as the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first thing laid aside when those liberties are firmly established… When we assumed the solider, we did not lay aside the citizen.” Washington was a historic figure whose greatest political feat was holding the country and army together.

America’s first president always wanted to focus on strategy and the ability to understand what needed to be done. He had an extraordinary sense of values combined with unimpeachable integrity. Washington desired to govern by consensus, leading him to seek cooperation with the other branches of government. He saw the presidency on equal footing with Congress. While Congress would take the lead concerning domestic issues, the president would take charge concerning foreign affairs. The president’s main duties were checking Congress to prevent it from going too far, making sure the Constitution was regarded as the law of the land, and preventing pandering to special interests.

But one of the main points Washington tried to emphasize was that presidents should be unifiers, not dividers. Any future president should take a lesson from Washington’s Farewell Address, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”

Thomas Jefferson, another of America’s Founding Fathers, was a commander-in-chief that did not bow down to other powers, and refused to apologize for America’s actions. He understood the exceptionalism of America. This can be seen with his presidential decision to pit the newly formed Unites States Navy against Muslim pirates from Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli — the provinces of the Ottoman Empire. During the Barbary Wars, these Muslim nations preyed on American shipping and enslaved American sailors. Jefferson had tried to work with the Barbary States, but unfortunately found it impossible to negotiate with people who believed their religion jus­tified the plunder and enslavement of non-Muslims. He sent the U.S. Navy’s new warships and a detachment of Marines to blockade Tripoli. Lessons to be learned included the realization that America had to show strength. He stood up to the pirates knowing that military strength leads to victory and world respect. He emphasized this when he wrote, “It will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them.”

Jefferson set many precedents regarding the defense of American interests abroad as well as within the American government. This action by Jefferson is an overwhelming reminder that military strength and courage are required for America to both achieve and maintain peace in a world of hostile nations which seek to destroy democratic ideals. By having the courage to respond, Jefferson showed that for evil not to triumph it is necessary for leaders to take action.

James Madison appears to be the Founding Father who lived in the shadows of the others. Known as the “Father of the Constitution” he advocated for limited government and intellectual freedom. In addition, he believed strongly that the government must stay accountable to the people. He emphasized that Americans need to take pride in themselves and their country, including the potential for the U.S. to be a great sea power with a strong army.

Having witnessed Alexander Hamilton’s attempt to ignore the Constitution, Madison sought to limit the intrusion of the Federal government, choosing state’s rights over Federal rights. He stated, “Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.” He realized that organized opposition is effective in keeping Democratic values, and believed government was supposed to protect American’s rights and ideals.

The Founding Fathers laid the framework for the characteristics most respected in a president, shaping America’s values and beliefs. They showed resilience, fortitude, and honesty. They were and still are extraordinary men with extraordinary ability and insight. America’s current president as well as those running for the office today should take a lesson from these historic figures. They believed America was a great nation and initiated policies that would continue to make the U.S. stronger and greater.

Elise Cooper writes for American Thinker. She has done book reviews, author interviews, and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.

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