The two remaining installments of Richard Norton Smith's 2013 Presidential Lecture Series at the Dole Institute of Politics, "In the Beginning: Three Men Who Made America":
• John Adams, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
• Thomas Jefferson, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18
George Washington didn’t have Thomas Jefferson’s ability to turn an iconic phrase or James Madison’s penchant for coming up with profound concepts, Richard Norton Smith said Sunday.
All Washington gave us, he said, is our country as we know it today.
Smith, a presidential historian and former director of the Kansas University Dole Institute of Politics, kicked off his 2013 lecture series at the Dole Institute on Sunday with a look at Washington, whose every move defined what the American president, and in turn the nation itself, would be.
“Nobody knew what a president was,” Smith told a near-capacity crowd of several hundred, before Washington took the office at the behest of the populace that adored him.
The nation’s first president did his best to adhere to the guidelines laid out by the young U.S. Constitution, Smith said, but his actions did as much to define how the presidency and the government would operate for centuries to come as that document did.
For instance, Washington took the constitution’s call for the U.S. Senate to “advise and consent” on his nominations and treaties to mean that he should ride over to ask senators for their thoughts before signing a treaty. And in 1789, he did just that with a proposed treaty, but the Senate would not stop what it was doing to accommodate him.
So he stormed out, saying, “I’ll be damned if I ever go there again,” Smith said. He never did — and neither did any future president for that purpose.
Rather than giving a lengthy lecture, Smith answered questions from current Dole Institute director Bill Lacy, pondering highlights of Washington’s presidency and his legacy.
Those highlights included Washington’s attempts to mediate between the opposing philosophies of cabinet members Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (who’ll be the subject of another Smith talk next week), his climbing on horseback in military regalia to tamp down a rebellion by farmers angry about a tax on whiskey and his establishment of what we know now as “executive privilege” when he refused to give the House of Representatives documents related to a trip by Chief Justice John Jay to produce a treaty with England.
But perhaps the most significant and remarkable thing he did, Smith said, was to leave office. Washington very well could have fashioned a new monarchy by grasping for more power and refusing to leave, Smith said, but he chose not to.
“The fact that he walked away at the end of his second term is an achievement that certainly nowhere else on the globe was being emulated,” Smith said.
He even went out of his way to make the switch smooth for his successor, John Adams, who will be another subject of Smith’s talks this month. Smith will speak about Adams at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and about Jefferson at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18, both at the Dole Institute, 2350 Petefish Drive.
Smith served as the institute’s first permanent director from 2001 to 2003, and he has returned several times for lectures on U.S. presidents.
He lives now in Arlington, Va., where he teaches at George Mason University and contributes to C-SPAN. Before his talk Sunday, he said he’s nearing completion of a 1,200-page biography of former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, in the works now for 13 years, that will be published in 2014 — the 50th anniversary of Rockefeller’s battle with Barry Goldwater for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination that split the party into conservative and moderate wings.
Smith said his visit reminded him that a decade ago, he and other leaders were scrambling to ensure that the building would open by Sen. Bob Dole’s 80th birthday, July 22, 2003. (It did.)
“Exactly 10 years ago right now, we were collectively tearing our hair out,” Smith said.
He said that since his departure, the institute has flourished under the leadership of Lacy and others, though he hopes that it can continue to develop and grow.
“I don’t think we could have imagined 10 or 11 years ago just what a niche this place could fill, or how much public involvement it could generate,” Smith said.