It was George H.W. Bush who made the expression famous, mainly because his critics said he lacked it. His predecessor Ronald Reagan had it and it got him elected president. We’re talking about “the vision thing.” Bush’s lack of “the vision thing,” especially in terms of domestic policies, was seen as a factor in his defeat by Democrat Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential race. “He does not say why he wants to be there,” complained columnist George Will, “so the public does not know why it should care if he gets his way.”
“The vision thing” dates back long before George H.W. Bush, indeed all the way back to another George—George Washington. Washington had a vision for America. Thomas Jefferson tried to supplant it with his vision and succeeded for a time. But from that time to ours, it’s Washington’s vision that has prevailed. Below is an account of our first five presidents and how their vision steered the course of our nation for the first 35 years.
GEORGE WASHINGTON (1789-1796) — Of all the presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Washington had the greatest obstacles to overcome. When he entered office the nation was weighted down with an overwhelming public debt, was buffeted by numerous opposition groups that feared the nation was sliding toward monarchy, had two states yet to ratify the Constitution, and a Congress of aristocrats that many feared would add to their pocketbooks by taxing the poor. And Washington? Plagued with self-doubt, how could he be expected to get the nation out of debt when his very own Virginia plantation was bleeding red ink? Yet, for most Americans, anyone else as president was unthinkable.
Washington took office knowing full well he could not do it alone. During the first six months of his presidency, James Madison directed national policy and steered several important legislative bills through Congress, including the federal taxation bill, the Bill of Rights amendments, creation of the federal judiciary system including the Supreme Court, and creation of the executive departments of state, treasury, and war. During Washington’s second six months in office—indeed, for the duration of his first term—Alexander Hamilton directed policy with his funding-and-assumption bills (an ingenious bit of paper shuffling that made provision for paying the public debt), and the creation of the Bank of the United States (forerunner of today’s Federal Reserve) that freed up credit thereby reviving the nation’s stalled economy and jump-started American capitalism. From these policies emerged Washington’s vision for America: a strong central government, a central bank, liquid capital, business and industry, a national army and navy, and neutrality in the brewing conflict between England and revolutionary France.
JOHN ADAMS (1797-1800) — Adams embraced Washington’s vision but lacked the General’s shrewd management of the cabinet, Congress, and national opinion. Unlike Washington, Adams was not a consensus builder. He preferred working in isolation and rarely asked his cabinet for advice. On occasion he would take off for his home in Braintree, Massachusetts and not be seen for weeks and months at a time, leaving his cabinet in charge of the government. Adams bore grudges instead of trying to shed them. He held one of his biggest grudges against Alexander Hamilton. Ironically, Adams had a great deal in common with Hamilton both politically and philosophically (both were great admirers of Scottish philosopher David Hume, and understood the necessity for a central bank). One can’t help but think that had Adams buried his pride and made Hamilton a confidant—as Washington had—his presidency would have operated more smoothly and he would have been reelected. As it was, nothing seemed to go well: the XYZ Affair, the “Quasi War” with France, the Alien and Sedition Acts—all hurt Adams politically. Even so, he would have been re-elected had he not underestimated Thomas Jefferson’s fierce desire to be president.
THOMAS JEFFERSON (1801-1808) — Jefferson’s vision for America conflicted greatly with the Washington/Adams’ vision. Jefferson favored small government, agriculture, states’ rights, no taxes other than import/export duties, and state militias. Also, he opposed the central bank and paper money in all its forms. World events put the brakes on his vision. War broke out in Europe and rather than remain neutral Jefferson sided with France. This enabled his administration to purchase the Louisiana territory on the cheap, but caused considerable headaches with England.
With England unwilling to acquiesce to Jefferson’s various demands, Jefferson retaliated by blocking American ports, hoping to damage England’s economy. Instead, it badly damaged America’s economy, particularly in New England, and in Jefferson’s home state where overnight the price of tobacco dropped to virtually nothing. Jefferson spent his last eight months as president in his bedroom deeply embittered and wracked with migraines. According to one historian, Jefferson’s lasting legacy as president (besides the Louisiana Purchase) was that he completed the people’s transition from thinking of themselves as subjects of a monarch to thinking of themselves as citizens of a republic.
JAMES MADISON (1809-1816) — Madison continued Jefferson’s policies by keeping up the blockade and by dismantling the Bank of the United States. The blockade led to the War of 1812 for which the nation was woefully ill-prepared. The federal capital, including the White House, was burned to the ground by the invading British army. To reverse a series of military blunders and to bring the British to the negotiating table, Madison was forced to resurrect several of Washington's policies, including raising taxes, rechartering the central bank and, with the help of ex-military man James Monroe, creating a national army and rebuilding the navy. In the end Madison managed to right the ship of state, negotiate a peace treaty with England and end the war. With the blockade lifted, the economy recovered quickly and Madison ended his term in office on a high note.
JAMES MONROE (1817-1824) — While James Monroe was mentored by Jefferson and a confidant of Madison, he was not bound by their political ideology. Like George Washington, he was his own man and a pragmatist. As a diplomat, he was sent to France to purchase the city of New Orleans, and returned home with a far greater prize—the Louisiana Territory, that would double the size of the United States. As secretary of state under Madison, he recognized the need for a central bank to draw upon in times of national emergencies, such as the War of 1812, and urged Madison to re-establish a national army and navy. As President, he completed the restoration of Washington’s policies by fortifying inland and coastal defenses. Also like Washington, he had little trouble dealing with superior intellects, such as his brilliant Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams (who penned the Monroe Doctrine and struck the deal that brought Florida into the Union). Monroe followed Washington’s advice by steering clear of foreign entanglements. It was during his watch that Congress negotiated the Missouri Compromise that stopped the South from seceding. One of our most popular presidents while in office, he traveled to every state in the union and was re-elected unanimously. Monroe’s presidency was known as “The Era of Good Feelings.”
The next 35 years—up to the beginning of the Civil War—would give rise to the abolition movement and a decided lack of leadership from the White House. With the exception of Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), national leadership would reside with Congress—with “The Great Triumvirate” of Henry Clay of Kentucky, John Calhoun of South Carolina, and Daniel Webster of New England. They would provide the vision for America, a vision that would hold the nation together through very trying times (particularly with negotiating the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850), and see the national borders extended as far as the Pacific Ocean. It was after these three died in the early 1850s that the nation began to unravel. The next president to articulate a vision was Abraham Lincoln, which was to preserve the Union. In his Inaugural Address he urged Americans to listen to their better angels. Four years later, as the Civil War was drawing to a close, his policy toward the South did not include retribution but rather forgiveness.