Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ron Chernow on Washington as organizational genius

Well, I've been reading Ron Chernow's new biography of Washington, too, but I had to go plunk down my own money at Costco to buy a copy!  (But who's bitter?)  Chernow's book is a delightful and detailed overview of Washington's life and several careers, a worthy follow-up to Chernow's excellent biography of the under-appreciated Alexander Hamilton.  Taking a page from Jon's approach, I'm not going to review the whole book here.  Instead, I want to focus my attention on a single chapter that I think displays some of Chernow's real insights into Washington's leadership, namely, chapter 49, dealing with Washington's organization of the executive branch just after the first presidental election under the current Constitution.

As Chernow points out, Washington's task in organizing the executive branch was daunting.  In 1789 he had to hire nearly a 1000 people to fill the variety of posts that the new federal government necessitated.  Washington, always concerned about appearances and public morality, made a strong stand against nepotism and favoritism in assigning most of the jobs.  For the top jobs in his administration -- the cabinet -- Washington did rely on people that he knew well, but they were all people that he was convinced were competent and qualified for their jobs.  His judgment wasn't always correct -- his secretary of war, Henry Knox, while held in close regard by Washington, was not, as Chernow puts it, "an original policy thinker."  He was overshadowed the other members of the cabinet -- Hamilton, Jefferson and Edmund Randolph. 

Two appointments at the beginning of Washington's administration stand out as the ultimate oil and water match:  Alexander Hamilton as treasury secretary and Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state.  Hamilton was Washington's second choice for the job, but as Chernow details, he was the perfect lieutenant for Washington, executing his office with an attention to detail and a vision that he had honed over years of studying finance.  Hamilton, as Chernow notes, acted as Washington's "unofficial prime minister," developing the administration's legislative agenda to take advantage of Washington's honeymoon period with Congress.

Jefferson, like Hamilton, was a second choice for the position at secretary of state.  Washington's first choice, John Jay, turned down the job, preferring to be appointed the first chief justice of the new federal Supreme Court.  Chernow details how Washington chose Jefferson and how Jefferson's ambivalent approach to the new constitutional government, along with his tendency towards passive-aggressive communication (what Chernow characterizes as "indirect, sometimes devious methods of dealing with disagreements") caused tensions to build in their relationship.  "Jefferson started out venerating Washington," as Chernow writes, but he would eventually become "far more critical."  Jefferson, born a Virginia aristocrat, an owner of slaves, and a politician himself, "was dismayed by the political atmosphere in New York," the nation's temporary capital city.  Smelling aristocracy everywhere, Jefferson resented the royal aura that surrounded Washington, and he was increasing concerned over Hamilton's growing power throughout the government.  Thus the seeds for the break up of the cabinet later in Washington's administration were set early.

Chernow does an especially good job highlighting Washington's attention to the federal judiciary.  As a lawyer, I found this part of Chernow's discussion in this chapter particularly interesting.  Washington took his responsibility to appoint judges quite seriously, and he staffed the federal judiciary with a great deal of care.  Washington went so far as to insist that the judiciary, as Chernow quotes him, "must be considered as the keystone of our political fabric."  While the Court was not nearly as august an institution at its beginning as it would later become under Chief Justice Marshall, Washington took pains to see that the Court was properly staffed and lead under the able hand of his colleague John Jay.

As befits someone who has written about business history as well as political history, Chernow spends time detailing Washington's strengths as the executive in charge of administering the government under the then-new Constitution.  His leadership of the cabinet was characterized by open discussion with the department heads.  He was insistent on the maintenance of records, even going so far as to require that all letters be recorded in triplicate.  He was critical of others, but also critical of himself, demanding high standards for those who worked in his administration.  Slow to come to decisions, he was perceptive and resolute once a decision was made.  In the view of Jefferson, nobody else had better judgment.  While not one to be either warm or effusive, Washington also never fell into the trap of adulation that would have trapped any other politician, as Chernow observes, in "idolatry."  While Washington could be "cunning," he possess "no low scheming."  He kept his promises, didn't scheme, and he respected the public that had placed him in office.  Chernow recounts how, when asked how to function well in politics, Washington replied with the old saying that honesty was "the best policy."

To wrap up my review, I'll note that Chernow tells two stories that give the reader some particular insight about Washington as a leader.  First, it turns out that Washington had a critical role in the ratification of the Bill of Rights.  During his first term Washington was initially hostile to the idea of a Bill of Rights, he came around to supporting Madison's idea of amending the Constitution.  Eventually, Washington's support for Madison's amendments won the day for the Bill of Rights, eventually leading not only to their incorporation in the Constitution, but for North Carolina and Rhode Island to be incorporated into the Union. Washington was flexible enough to revisit issues and change his approach when prudence dictated a different course for the good of the country. 

Second, that Washington, prior to meeting Jefferson in the latter's role as secretary of state, spent the morning in prayer at St. Paul's Chapel in New York.  While this is a minor point in Chernow's narrative, it is a telling point about Washington's religiosity.  While Washington may well have been an unconventional believer as far as Anglicans at the time went, there is little question that he was a pious man.  While it may be that, like Lincoln after him, Washington's sense of religious faith deepened as he assumed the difficult burden of being the nation's chief magistrate, it is nonetheless true that on key moments, like prior to his meeting with Jefferson, Washington evidenced himself to be a man of prayer.


Anonymous said...

Pragmatist with guts and scruples.

Mark D. said...

Indeed. Although I wouldn't call him a pragmatist. I'd call him a prudential statesman.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Honesty is the best policy is a good start...and the humility to re-visit issues is another good attribute.

I also like the fact he was against nepotism, took time to deliberate, and was perceptive.

As to his religion, it seems he was humble enough to know what he didn't know and was willing to present himself to "the powers that be". Was this his understanding of Providence?

Brian Tubbs said...

Great comments on Chernow's book, Mark. I agree with your assessment of Washington's organizational genius.

I think Chernow (and you) are a little too critical of Henry Knox, though. It's not exactly fair to be compared with Jefferson and Hamilton. :-) Most people compared to those guys is going to come off looking "small."

But Knox was a dependable, effective Cabinet officer. Not brilliant (though his bringing the guns down from Ticonderoga could qualify as "brilliant"), but more than competent. He was a good general and a good Cabinet officer.