Comic History of the United States - Bill Nye

The First President

It now became the duty of the new republic to seek out the man to preside over it, and George Washington seems to have had no rivals. He rather reluctantly left his home at Mount Vernon, where he was engaged in trying the rotation of crops, and solemnly took the oath to support the Constitution of the United States, which had been adopted September 17, 1787. His trip in April, 1789, from Mount Vernon to the seat of government in New York was a simple but beautiful ovation.

Everybody tried to make it pleasant for him. He was asked at all the towns to build there, and 'most everybody wanted him "to come and make their house his home." When he got to the ferry he was not pushed off into the water by commuters, but lived to reach the Old Federal Hall, where he was sworn in.

In 1791 the seat of government was removed to Philadelphia, where it remained for ten years, after which the United States took advantage of the Homestead Act and located on a tract of land ten miles square, known as the District of Columbia. In 1846 that part of the District lying on the Virginia side of the Potomac was ceded back to the State.

President Washington did not have to escape from the capital to avoid office-seekers. He could get on a horse at his door and in five minutes be out of sight. He could remain in the forest back of his house until Martha blew the horn signifying that the man who wanted the post-office at Pigback had gone, and then he could return.

[Illustration] from Comic History of the U.S.A. by Bill Nye


How times have changed with the growth of the republic! Now Pigback has grown so that the name has been changed to Hogback, and the President avails himself of every funeral that he can possibly feel an interest in, to leave the swarm of jobless applicants who come to pester him to death for appointments.

The historian begs leave to say here that the usefulness of the President for the good of his country and the consideration of greater questions will some day be reduced to very little unless he may be able to avoid this effort to please voters who overestimate their greatness.

It is said that Washington had no library, which accounted for his originality. He was a vestryman in the Episcopal Church; and to see his tall and graceful form as he moved about from pew to pew collecting pence for Home Missions, was a lovely sight.

As a boy he was well behaved and a careful student.

At one time he was given a hatchet by his father, which——

But what has the historian to do with this morbid wandering in search of truth?

Things were very much unsettled. England had not sent a minister to this country, and had arranged no commercial treaty with us.

Washington's Cabinet consisted of three portfolios and a rack in which he kept his flute-music.

The three ministers were the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Secretary of the Treasury. There was no Attorney-General, or Postmaster-General, or Secretary of the Interior, or of the Navy, or Seed Catalogue Secretary.

Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, advised that Congress at the earliest moment provide itself with a national debt, which was done, the war debt being assumed by the Congressional representatives of the thirteen Colonies.

A tax was levied on spirits, and a mint started, combining the two, and making the mint encourage the consumption of spirits, and thus the increase of the tax, very likely.

A Whiskey Rebellion broke out in 1794. Pennsylvania especially rebelled at the tax on this grocery, but it was put down. (Those wishing to know which was put down will find out by consulting the Appendix, which will be issued a year from this winter.)

A few Indian wars now kept the people interested, and a large number of the red brothers, under Little Turtle, soon found themselves in the soup, as Washington put it so tersely in his message the following year. Twenty-five thousand square miles north of the Ohio were obtained by treaty from the Indians.

England claimed that traffic with America was not desirable, as the Americans did not pay their debts. Possibly that was true, for muskrat pelts were low at that time, and England refused to take cord-wood and saw-logs piled on the New York landing as cash.

Chief-Justice Jay was sent to London to confer with the king, which he did. He was not invited, however, to come to the house during his stay, and the queen did not call on Mrs. Jay. The Jays have never recovered from this snub, and are still gently guyed by the comic papers.

But the treaty was negotiated, and now the Americans are said to pay their debts as well as the nobility who marry our American girls instead of going into bankruptcy, as some would do.

The Mississippi and the Mediterranean Sea were opened for navigation to American vessels now, and things looked better, for we could by this means exchange our cranberries for sugar and barter our Indian relics for camel's-hair shawls, of which the pioneers were very much in need during the rigorous winters in the North.

The French now had a difficulty with England, and Washington, who still remembered La Fayette and the generous aid of the French, wished that he was back at Mount Vernon, working out his poll-tax on the Virginia roads, for he was in a tight place.

It was now thought best to have two political parties, in order to enliven editorial thought and expression. So the Republican party, headed by Jefferson, Madison, and Randolph, and the Federalist party, led by Hamilton and Adams, were organized, and public speakers were engaged from a distance.

The latter party supported the administration,—which was not so much of a job as it has been several times since.

Washington declined to accept a third term, and wrote a first-rate farewell address. A lady, whose name is withheld, writing of those times, closes by saying that President Washington was one of the sweetest men she ever knew.

[Illustration] from Comic History of the U.S.A. by Bill Nye


John Adams succeeded Washington as President, and did not change his politics to amount to much.

He made a good record as Congressman, but lost it as President largely because of his egotism. He seemed to think that if he neglected to oil the gearing of the solar system about so often, it would stop running. We should learn from this to be humble even when we are in authority. Adams and Jefferson were good friends during the Revolution, but afterwards political differences estranged them till they returned to private life. Adams was a poor judge of men, and offended several members of the press who called on him to get his message in advance.

Our country was on the eve of a war with France, when Napoleon I. was made Consul, and peace followed.

Adams's administration made the Federalists unpopular, owing to the Alien and Sedition laws, and Jefferson was elected the successor of Adams, Burr running as Vice-President with him. The election was so close that it went to the House, however.

Jefferson, or the Sage of Monticello, was a good President, noted for his simplicity. He married and brought his bride home to Monticello prior to this. She had to come on horseback about one hundred miles, and, as the house was unfinished and no servants there, they had to sleep on the work-bench and eat what was left of the carpenter's lunch.

Jeffersonian simplicity was his strong point, and people who called at the White House often found him sprinkling the floor of his office, or trying to start a fire with kerosene.

Burr was Vice-President, and, noticing at once that the office did not attract any attention to speak of, decided to challenge Mr. Alexander Hamilton to fight a duel with him.

[Illustration] from Comic History of the U.S.A. by Bill Nye


The affair took place at Weehawken, July 11, 1804. Hamilton fell at the first fire, on the same spot where his eldest son had been killed in the same way.

The artist has shown us how Burr and Hamilton should have fought, but, alas! they were not progressive men and did not realize this till too late. Another method would have been to use the bloodless method of the French duel, or the newspaper customs adopted by the pugilists of 1893. The time is approaching when mortal combat in America will be confined to belligerent people under the influence of liquor. A newspaper assault instead of a duel might have made Burr President and Hamilton Vice-President.

[Illustration] from Comic History of the U.S.A. by Bill Nye


Burr went West, and was afterwards accused of treason on the ground that he was trying to organize Mexico against the United States government. He was put in a common jail to await trial. Afterwards he was discharged, but was never again on good terms with the government, and never rose again.

When he came into town and registered at the hotel the papers did not say anything about it; and so he stopped taking them, thus falling into ignorance and oblivion at the same moment, although at one time he had lacked but a single vote to make him President of the United States.

England and France still continued at war, and American vessels were in hot water a good deal, as they were liable to be overhauled by both parties. England especially, with the excuse that she was looking for deserters, stopped American vessels and searched them, going through the sleeping-apartments before the work was done up, —one of the rudest things known in international affairs.

An Embargo Act was passed forbidding American vessels to leave port, an act which showed that the bray of the ass had begun to echo through the halls of legislation even at that early day.

In the mean time, Jefferson had completed his second term, and James Madison, the Republican candidate, had succeeded him at the helm of state, as it was then called.

His party favored a war with England, especially as the British had begun again to stir up the red brother.

Madison was a Virginian. He was a man of unblemished character, and was not too haughty to have fun sometimes. This endeared him to the whole nation. Unlike Adams, he never swelled up so that his dignity hurt him under the arms. He died in 1836, genial and sunny to the last.

It was now thought best to bring on the war of 1812, which began by an Indian attack at Tippecanoe on General Harrison's troops in 1811, when the Indians were defeated. June 19, 1812, war was finally declared.

[Illustration] from Comic History of the U.S.A. by Bill Nye


The first battle was between the forces under General Hull on our side and the English and Indians on the British side, near Detroit. The troops faced each other, Tecumseh being the Indian leader, and both armies stood ready to have one of the best battles ever given in public or private, when General Hull was suddenly overcome with remorse at the thought of shedding blood, especially among people who were so common, and, shaking a large table-cloth out the window in token of peace, amid the tears of his men, surrendered his entire command in a way that reminded old settlers very much of Cornwallis.