Steve Haycox: Washington put the young republic first

Steve Haycox

Today, Feb. 22, is George Washington's birthday. As important as his leadership of continental troops in the Revolutionary War and service as our first president was Washington's example of integrity. Rather than capitalize on his war victory, the commander in chief of the army stepped down at the end of the war and went back to his farm. King George III, when he heard of it, said it made Washington the greatest man in history. Then, after two terms as president, he stepped down again when he could easily have been made president for life. If a democratic republic were to succeed, he believed, its rulers would have to follow the rules, an example for Alaska today.

Like Washington, the five presidents who succeeded him were Virginia or Massachusetts aristocrats. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams all believed that while the people's wishes were the core of the nation's character, these needed to be implemented by those with the experience and talent to better understand their implications. In the first generation after the Revolution, people were generally content to defer to this meritocracy.

But Andrew Jackson upset all that and turned the country in a different direction. In 1824, with four candidates on the ballot, Jackson won a plurality (more than any other candidate) of both the popular and electoral vote but a majority of neither. As a result, the election went to the House of Representatives, as provided by the Constitution. There, one of the four, Henry Clay, threw his support to John Quincy Adams, who won the presidency on the first ballot cast. Jackson, from Tennessee and widely regarded as the champion of the common man, was shocked, expecting his pluralities to have secured him the election. Moreover, Adams soon appointed Clay his secretary of state. Jackson immediately set about campaigning for the presidency in 1828 to undo the "corrupt bargain" that denied him the office. He won easily.

As the "people's president," Jackson might have been expected to champion what the people perceived to be their interests, rather than the aristocracy, and sometimes he followed form. He opened the White House to any and all common folk on inauguration day. He promised to reward his supporters across the country with federal jobs. And he refused to re-charter the nation's central bank, which he regarded as a tool the aristocracy used to enrich themselves.

But in 1832, Jackson had to make his own judgment against the people's wishes. In that year, South Carolinians decided they did not like a tariff Congress passed on goods coming into the country; it was designed to protect U.S. producers. So the South Carolina legislature authorized the election of a convention to declare the tariff, a federal law, null and void within their state, which the convention did. Jackson's response was to push through Congress a bill authorizing the use of the Army to enforce compliance with federal law in South Carolina, or in any other state, and he alerted the Army to be ready. The South Carolinians backed down.

In 1861, however, the South Carolinians led the South in seceding from the country rather than accept the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, who they imagined would coerce the slave states into giving up their slaves. Nearly 650,000 deaths later, in 1865, the president had made the point that federal rules will be implemented regardless of what states claim to be their sovereign rights.

From time to time, various states have attempted to assert states' rights over federal law, as when Alabama, Mississippi and others sought to prevent integration of their schools during the 1960s.

Alaska's record in challenging the application of federal rules here is not good. In 1994, former Gov. Walter Hickel lost a doomed case seeking $29 billion in damages for the Congress having given 44 million acres of land to Alaska Natives and put 104 million acres of Alaska into new federal conservation units without getting permission from the state.

House Speaker Mike Chenault's proposed bill to nullify certain federal gun laws in Alaska falls into the same category. If it weren't such an embarrassment, it would be funny. The Speaker might consider that President Washington would not be amused.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Steve Haycox