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Four Years at the Mount

As President’s Day approaches, we asked our writers to reflect on the Founding Fathers, their lives, presidencies, and fun facts. We hope to inspire you to dust off some history books, or reignite your interest in politics!

Remembering our first four Presidents

February 2016

A first time for everything

Michael Kenney Jr.
MSN Class of 2019

Before I get into this month’s topic, I wanted to give you a quick introduction to myself. Unfortunately, you will never find me chiseled besides George Washington on Mount Rushmore nor will I ever be depicted on American currency. You will, however, find me as the new Class of 2019 writer for the Four Years At the Mount section. Like Washington’s impeccable first go at the presidency, I find that the Mount community has made my first semester at college a rewarding experience.

Growing up in a close knit, Catholic family has made leaving my Michigan roots rather challenging, but my family’s fast pace versatility has enabled me to thrive on my East Coast adventure. I love sports and gain a rush in learning new things. I am extremely competitive but never pass up an opportunity joke around. As an aspiring screenwriter, I love analyzing interpersonal dynamics both in real life and in fiction.

As a first time voter, the dynamics of the 2016 presidential election fascinate me. I want nothing more than for our 44th president to uphold our nation’s founding principles and to do justice to Washington’s vision for the future of our nation.

The first time around often gives us a sharp learning curve. The first pancake never turns out as well as the subsequent ones. The first date is unfailingly more awkward than those that follow. And the first draft of this article was much less refined than the one you are currently reading. However, the pejorative "first try" excuse is not applicable to our nation’s first president, George Washington. Even though all of America’s founding fathers were men of exceptional merit, charisma, and esteem, Washington’s impressionable character made him stand out amongst his colleagues-- so much so that he was unanimously elected president. To this day, Washington remains the only president in U.S. history to earn all of the Electoral College’s votes. Even though Washington remains one of history’s most lauded and studied political leaders, popular misunderstandings about Washington still prevail today.

Tales about Washington’s childhood attempt to explain his irreproachable character and leadership. Washington’s mischievous encounter with a cherry tree is perhaps the most famous of these allegories. Legend has it that Washington received a small hatchet for his sixth birthday and used it to chop down his father’s prize-winning cherry tree. When George’s father, Augustus, inquired about the damage, young George mustered up the courage to admit to the crime. Augustus, so moved by his son’s integrity, endearingly embraced his son and acclaimed his son’s honesty. The story suggests that George’s honesty emboldened him with a moral compass that guided him straight through his presidency.

Though entertaining, there are reasons to doubt the authenticity of this cheeky anecdote. Namely, evidence suggests that the peripatetic minister who first published the story, Mason Locke Weems, likely invented it to encourage morality and make money. As he articulated to a publisher just a few months after Washington’s passing, "Washington you know is gone! Millions are gaping to read something about him… My plan! I give his history, sufficiently minute…I then go on to show that his unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his Great Virtues."

Evidently, Weems penned a bestselling novel, The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington-- a biography chock full of never-before-heard accounts about the beloved first president. The "cherry tree anecdote" did not emerge until Weems’ fifth edition. If the story were just as accurate and as impactful as it was described, wouldn’t Weems have originally put it in the first edition rather than a later one?

In addition to the cherry tree story, many people entertain the false notion that George Washington had wooden dentures. While it is true that artificial teeth replaced Washington’s rotting ones, his dentures were made out of a variety of materials including ivory, gold, and lead, but not wood. In fact, wooden dentures were rarely even produced during Washington’s lifetime. Nevertheless, historians up until the twentieth century have promoted this falsehood.

While the exact origins of this misunderstanding are unclear, many historians and dental scientists reach the same conclusion. Experts reason that the ivory dentures became so severely stained over time that the teeth became brown and grainy. In a letter to the president, Washington’s dentist commented on the dentures’ discoloration. He wrote: "the set you sent me from Philadelphia...was very black...Port wine being sower takes of[f] all the polish." To the general public, Washington’s false teeth may have easily appeared to be wooden dentures.

In addition to these lighthearted myths, a somber topic continues to spark debate among educators and historians: Washington’s position on slavery. While Washington was born into a family of slaveholders, grew up in a racist society, and eventually inherited and purchased slaves himself, people question his ultimate stance on slavery. Many experts claim that Washington considered slavery a "necessary evil" but treated his slaves with respect—even occasionally joining in the manual labor himself. One foreign visitor reported that Washington treated his slaves "far more humanely than do his fellow citizens of Virginia."

Conversely, a fewer number of scathing accounts also hold credibility. One Englishman who lived near Washington’s plantation reported "it was the sense of all his [Washington's] neighbors that he treated [his slaves] with more severity than any other man." Some slaves ran away from Washington’s plantation and were pursued by slave catchers.

This dichotomous understanding of Washington as a "nice slaveholder" is continuously debated, but at some point in his life, Washington undoubtedly became an abolitionist. Of all the nine founding fathers who had slaves, Washington was the only one to advocate for abolition. Shortly before he died, Washington said that "… No man desires more heartily than I do [the end of slavery]. Not only do I pray for it on the score of human dignity, but I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union." He also described his ownership of slaves and his inability to abolish slavery as "the only unavoidable subject of regret" in his life. Upon his death, he emancipated 318 of his slaves, and clung tightly to the then unpopular notion that "all men are created equal" regardless their race.

John Adams, too, survives

Sarah Muir
MSM Class of 2018

In anticipation for President’s Day, I found myself ruminating on the first few Presidents of these United States of America. I remember learning about Washington and Lincoln in school and a few other mentioned here and there, but to be entirely honest, I know very little about a vast majority of the leaders who have made this country great. With this in mind, I plunged into the history of, not the first, but the second President, John Adams.

On October 30, 1735, John Adams was born in Quincy, Massachusetts to John Adams Sr. and Susanna Boylston. At age 16, he was accepted into Harvard University with a scholarship and graduated in 1755 at, age 20. Three years later, after studying law extensively, he received his masters from Harvard and was welcomed into the bar. On October 25, 1764 he married his third cousin, Abigail Smith, who he would have six children with; Abigail, John Quincy (who would become the sixth President), Susanna, Charles, Thomas Boylston, and Elizabeth.

John Adams rapidly became involved with the patriot cause, starting with an essay entitled "Essay on the Canon and Feudal Law," in which he voiced his displeasure at the Stamp Act of 1765. In 1770, he stood as the representative of the British soldiers who killed five civilians, during the Boston Massacre. He believed that all peoples deserved the right to be defended in the Court of Law, no matter the passionate opinions of the peoples.

Later that same year, he was elected into the office of the Massachusetts Assembly. This would mean that in the year 1774 he would be one of the five men that would represent the colony at the First Continental Congress. Adams would also be the one to nominate George Washington as commander-and-chief when Continental Army was created in 1775.

While Thomas Jefferson would write the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams was one of the five people selected by the Congress to draft the declaration; the other five being Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Adams served on as many as ninety committees after the signing, and would serve at the head of the Board of Ordinances in 1777. During the Revolutionary War he served in France and Holland, playing a diplomatic role. Adams was one of the American envoys sent to negotiate the Treaty of Paris; a treaty that would bring about the end to the Revolutionary War. After the war, he remained in Europe for several years, eventually becoming the first United States minister to England.

On his return in 1788, he was placed on the ballot for the presidential election. He lost to George Washington and again in 1792, but Adams became the first Vice President of the United States. Eventually, in 1796, at age 61, he became the second president of the United States of America. During his presidency, war between Britain and France was causing tensions to run high in the newly formed country. The ruling faction in France, the Directory, cut off trade relations with America. Attempting to repair these tenuous relations, Adams sent three envoys to France. He received word that the Directory refused to take part in any negotiations until a bribe was paid. After Congress was informed of the slight, they managed to complete three new frigates and build additional ships, authorized the raising of a provisional army, and created and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts.

While a declaration of war was never issued, conflicts began arising on the high seas. Before 1800 traders were defenseless against attacks from French vessels, however the turn of the century brought with it armed American merchants and United States warships that protected American waters.

Word came that France was ready for negotiations and Adams was ready to end this semi-war. The talk of peaceful discussions brought a significant amount of displeasure from the Hamiltonians and this, along with the divisions occurring among the Federalist, caused Adams to lose re-election to Thomas Jefferson in 1800.

After his presidency, Adams lived with his wife in Quincy, where he would spend the rest of his life. He kept in correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, who had become a dear friend of his. Both Adams and Jefferson would die on July 4, 1826, 50 years after the first American Independence Day. John Adams last words were, "Thomas Jefferson survives."

John Adams has taken his place in history as one of the Founding Fathers of this great nation. The ideals and freedoms expressed so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence live on; Thomas Jefferson is not the only one who survives in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, but John Adams too, and every man and woman who have risked (and risk) their lives and livelihood to protect those fundamental ideals on which America stands. So, if I could tell John Adams anything, I would tell him that through the battles fought and hardships endured, America lives on; America survives.

Read other articles by Sarah Muir

On the nature of Thomas Jefferson

Leeanne Leary
Class of 2017

Our third president was Thomas Jefferson – the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, an American Founding Father, a supporter of individual rights and republicanism, and a Virginia native. He was a father, a husband, a student of language and philosophy, a violinist, the second Vice President of the United States, and eventually the third president.

He fought a reported eight cases in defense of slaves seeking freedom, lowered the national debt by nearly $30 million during his presidency, and played key roles in the Louisiana Purchase, the Indian Removal Act, and more. All of these things are part of our fundamental history. He helped to shape early America in monumental ways and lived as an example to the American man.

In the weeks before Presidents Day and in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s natural to reflect on our past presidents and in doing so it is also natural to remember a few key moments or details about each president. For Thomas Jefferson, he showed the country and its future generations how he wanted to be remembered by requesting the printing of three things on his tombstone when he died: Author of the Declaration, Passing the Statute of Religious Freedom in Virginia, and Founding the University of Virginia.

The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence was, and still is, the epitome of the morals, goals, and ideals that formed our country as we know it today. As the primary author, Thomas Jefferson was a member of a five person committee selected by the Continental Congress also including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. At the time he was selected, Jefferson actually didn’t want the role, he instead wanted to return to his home in Virginia to help write the Virginia State Constitution. He used this desire in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence by taking ideas and information from several Virginian documents including their Declaration of Rights and his first draft of the Virginia Constitution.

The Declaration, in summation, was a statement from the people of the colonies explaining their right and prerogative to rebel against Great Britain and further create their own government.

Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration, defended his writing through the editing process, chaired the Declaration committee, and was ultimately most proud at the end of his life of this work, choosing it to go first on his tombstone.

Jefferson has been referred to as " the best spokesman we have had for the American ideals of liberty, equality, faith in education, and in the wisdom of the common man." From the Declaration, we get words, ideals, and goals still incorporated in today’s debates and functioning government. We get the famous mantra that fuels many arguments and positions today– "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Statute of Religious Freedom

In three short paragraphs, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom discusses and addresses both religious freedom for individuals on a mental level and the establishment of the separation of church and state doctrine. It was passed on January 16, 1786 and set the precedent for the First Amendment dealings with freedom of religion. The statute is fully representative of Jefferson’s personal philosophy and ideals, making it both a political and personal achievement. When Jefferson wrote this statute, there were already groups petitioning for the separation of church and state and for religious freedom. These petitioning groups set the groundwork and opened up the platform for Jefferson to take his stance and pass a statute that he would personally be proud of until the day he died.

The Statute goes paragraph by paragraph and discusses the natural right of freedom of thought in the first section, sets the act in the second paragraph claiming that no person should be compelled to attend or support any church, and the third paragraph reminds the people that no law is set in stone and the people have the right to change them at any given time.

When we consider the context of this statute- it being the first of its kind and a bold move by Jefferson- it is a true example of Jefferson’s moral leadership and his character. The statute was of course met with opposition and some saw it as a real attack on the church, but it was successful and became the precedent for the religious freedom we hold so dearly today.

The University of Virginia

The final act on Jefferson’s tombstone was the founding of the University of Virginia. Throughout his life and presidency, Jefferson was a firm believer and supporter of education for all men. He believed that education and freedom were closely linked and in order for our nation to succeed, all men should receive an education. He spent his final 17 years of life working with, designing, and founding the University of Virginia, another testament to his personal beliefs and values.

Jefferson’s vision was to create a state University that offered an education to any man. This vision started to become a reality in February of 1816 when the Virginia General Assembly granted a charter for a Central College and the work began. Jefferson’s hard fight was rewarded, land was purchased and buildings began to go up. In 1817, in preparation for the school’s final touches and opening, Jefferson was asked to draft a bill for a system of public education. He did and called it "revolutionary," proposing a three-tier system – free elementary education, tuition based secondary education, and a public state university for those who make it to that point. The original bill failed, but after a long legislative fight the General Assembly finally approved a state funded university to be called the University of Virginia.

Jefferson’s life was indeed revolutionary. He redefined much of what was known at the time in terms of freedom, religion, and education – three things that I regard so dearly in my life today and I know others do as well. His life and presidency were marked by bills, political fights, and new laws, and in the end he is remembered as one of America’s favorite presidents for good reason.

Read other articles by Leeanne Leary

Meet the Madisons

Katie Powell
MSM Class of 2015

"Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it;" ah, yes—the famed quote used by many a history teacher to threaten their students to pay attention to their lessons on the Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia, Athens, and Sparta in ninth grade social studies. I am certain you all remember the eye-rolls and groaning that followed, save for that one pupil nodding in agreement, front-and-center. I am sorry to say, you all, that pupil was me. I truly do believe that statement to be true! That is why I am thrilled that this month I get to time travel a bit and talk about the great James Madison, the fourth President of the United States.

While it is why he is best remembered, Madison’s eight years as President from 1809-1817 were not his greatest contribution to our nation. I will also argue here that his presidency is not what we ought to remember most about Madison. Some of my reasons involve his policies, others his passion, and some his wife, Dolley, whom describes as "the toast of Washington."

First, I must mention that Madison attended college at Princeton, which was then called the College of New Jersey (I guess great people gravitate toward great places). He then returned to Virginia to serve his home state’s government. Although Madison is widely regarded as the Father of the Constitution of the United States, that was not his first Constitution. In 1776, at 25 years old, Madison helped to frame the Virginia Constitution while serving on the Virginia Assembly as well as the Continental Congress.

During the Revolutionary war, Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, published the Federalist essays, a publication aimed at communicating the ideals of the fledgling nation. Despite this success, Madison’s career was far from over.

Madison was instrumental in the formation of the Bill of Rights, and in fact, he helped create the Jefferson (also called Republican) Party due to his opposing view of Alexander Hamilton’s ideas.

After helping found the nation, Madison served as Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State. During this time, Madison made the biggest mistake of his political career. Because of unfair seizure of American ships by Britain and France, who were at war, Madison enacted the Embargo Act of 1807. The Embargo made exports from the United States illegal, in an effort to punish Britain and France, and regain respect for American people and goods. Although the aim was to end the capture of American ships, the only success it really had was causing a depression in the United States because of the severe decrease in income. After his presidency, Madison returned to his home state and lived the remainder of his life in Virginia.

It would be unfair for me to write my article about James Madison without mentioning some of the quirkier facts surrounding Madison and his presidency.

To start off, I want to talk about his darling wife, the iconic and classy Dolley Payne Todd Madison. They say that behind every great man is a great woman, and Dolley may have well have been the inspiration for that saying. She is one of the most famous First Ladies in history; in fact, according to Dolley is the only first lady to be "given an honorary seat on the floor of Congress." She was a natural beauty with dark hair and bright blue eyes, and she loved fashion—she was Jackie Kennedy, 120 years before Jackie Kennedy was born. She is a huge reason that James Madison was so popular. Dolley was incredibly socially active, and made her home the "center of society" from the time Madison became Jefferson’s Secretary of State until the end of the presidency in 1817.

I used the term "quirky" to describe the president with good reason: for all of the Madison's popularity, they caused quite a stir. Here are some "fun facts" about the Madisons.

  • Samuel Morse (inventor of Morse code) chose Dolley to be the first American to receive a telegram.
  • Madison served as a colonel during the Revolutionary War.
  • Dolley increased the popularity of ice cream through the United States—her favorite flavor being oyster ice cream, which she made herself with oysters from the Potomac.
  • James Madison and Thomas Jefferson met at the Virginia Convention in 1776, and became best friends.
  • During the War of 1812, a British army forced the Madisons to flee the White House. When they returned, it was in ruins.
  • Madison opposed George Washington’s financial decisions, in part because Alexander Hamilton served as Washington’s Secretary of Treasury.
  • The "Republican" or Jeffersonian party that Madison helped to create is actually the direct ancestor of our current Democratic party.
  • James Madison was the smallest of all of the presidents, weighing only 100 pounds and standing at a mere 5’4.

I wanted to take some time to conclude this month’s FYATM theme. As I mentioned, I love history. However, I must admit, regrettably that although I am almost 22 years old, I have not yet voted in an election. I am not proud of it, but to my defense there has only been one presidential election I have been eligible for, and living in a different state than that of my home has made it trickier.

According to, in the last presidential election 58.2% of eligible adults voted, about a three percent drop from 2008. Midterm elections dropped from 41% in 2008 to 35.9% in 2012. Upon reading that, I was embarrassed to add to the statistic. My new years resolution is to register to vote, follow the debates this year, and make an informed vote this coming November, and I challenge you to do the same! Nearly all of the Founding Fathers, in their final years, begged for the continuation of the United States, and for the prosperity of Democracy.

James Madison’s final political comment in his letter, "Advice to my Country," was this: "The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated."

Every single one of us plays a key role in the success of our nation—whether your candidate ends up winning or losing, your vote plays a part, and your opinion matters. Our rights to freedom of speech in the United States are unprecedented and almost unparalleled, and it is our duty to exercise it on behalf of those who cannot.

Read other articles by Katie Powell

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