Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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Who's the Boss?

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


Every generation of Americans, probably since the middle of the 19th Century, if not earlier than that, maybe the early 19th century, have been told that you can go grow up to be president. Of course initially it was just white angle of sex and prost in men. We’re starting to finally see a change in that with Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama’s run for the Democratic nomination. But basically, that notion that anybody can be president is one of the powerful myths of American society.

Beneath it is a really important fact though and that is, the presidency of the United States is an incredibly important and powerful position. And we’re going to use the next three episodes, starting with this one to really look at that presidency and look at some of the people who filled that job, who really made a difference. And in this first of the three episodes, we’re going to look at four American presidents who I think, really defined the role of the presidency, in the most positive ways.

Of course we’ve got to start with the father of our country, George Washington. If you think of that, that’s quite a title, the father of the country. But Washington, I think not only deserved it, but really lived up to it. If you think about 1789, you’re elected as the first president of the United States of America, 13 new states. There is no play-book, there’s no precedent for anything. You’ve got the constitution which gives you an outline of what the powers of the presidency are, and the Bill of Rights, which says what the rights of the people are. But what do you do? I mean you’re the president now; you’ve got to run this country. And so you know, you’ve got to deal with politics and economics and all those things.

First and foremost, Washington I think, displays an incredible genius for leadership by looking at that constitution and saying, he reads it says I can appoint advisers. And he creates the idea of a cabinet. Well he’s already chosen John Adams as his Vice president, which is a brilliant choice. He appoints John Jay as the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, which is also brilliant. And then for two significant points, essentially his domestic advisor, and his foreign affairs advisor, domestically he makes Alexander Hamilton the secretary of the Treasury and the secretary of state. The person in charge of foreign affairs is Thomas Jefferson. They are political geniuses, both each in their own way, and they’re incredible rivals.

So actually the irony here is, the Father of the country is almost like his two sons were fighting for his affection and attention. And a lot of historians have portrayed it that way. Hamilton of course, is a strong federalist, and he really helps Washington solidify the power of the federal government by creating a national bank, by putting down the whisky rebellion and showing the government has some power.

Jefferson of course negotiates treaties, keeps us out of war kinds of things. John Jay actually goes and negotiates a treaty, you should check that out, it’s in the bonus material. Washington under Hamilton’s direction eliminates the debt from the American Revolution. So it’s an incredible administration, because it sets a precedent for what the leadership’s about. He of course is re-elected in 1792 and his term runs from 1789 to 1797. And his farewell address is equally important. You really should read that, and again that’s in the bonus material.

This is where he tells United States two important things. And again, domestic and foreign. I mentioned when you think about presidents, think about domestic policy, foreign policy. In this case, domestic is Hamilton, foreign is Jefferson the federalists. And Jefferson of course later starts the democratic republican party which is a state's rights promoting party. But in his farewell address, Washington says two things, one avoid entangling alliances. This is really crucial. He’s really concerned that if United States gets involved with alliances particularly with European countries, it will get caught up in their conflicts and it will hurt the growth of the United States. Of course he’s exactly right, and it is brilliant advice.

The second piece of advice is to avoid political parties. But you know what, it’s already too late. It’s 1797, and Hamilton and Adams, under Washington’s leadership have really formed the federalist party, the strong centralized government party. Jefferson of course is not feeling great about that, and thinks that state’s rights and the Bill of Rights are most important. So he starts the Democratic Republican party. And in fact, Jefferson runs against Adams in the 1796 election, and loses to him. Adams having been vice president, but it’s the beginning of political parties.

Now the irony of that time is, we’re going to need an amendment because, the way the constitution was written was, the second vote getter becomes vice president. And in this case, Adams wins the presidency and Jefferson who’s diametrically opposed politically to Adams’ federalism, is his vice president. You might guess they weren’t in a lot of dinners at the White House in those days between those two guys.

In 1800 the election comes up again, this time it’s Adams against Jefferson again. And this time Jefferson wins and he’s the next president that we’re going to take a look at. We’re going to look at Jefferson and then Jefferson was succeeded by Madison, and then Monroe. And we want to look at those presidencies, particularly Jefferson’s and Monroe. But this is the democratic republican state's rights group that comes into office. They really believe in governments for the people. They believe the federalists are really the government about governing. And that it’s about a centralized, a national bank, and a federal government.

Jefferson sees the democratic republicans about state's, rights. Nonetheless, when he gets a chance to purchase Louisiana, he totally kind of ignores the constitution. He doesn’t go to the Congress and say I need a bunch of money to buy Louisiana. He tells Napoleon, yes, sold and then he goes to Congress and Congress says, great, nice going, good deal here is the money.

That’s brilliant. I mean he just triples, quadruples the size of the United States. I showed you on a map in an earlier episode how much land we increased by. He also rather brilliantly organizes Lewis and Clark. He designates Lewis and Clark to explore the new territory and to move out and check what do we really own. What did we really buy here? And Lewis and Clark of course with the guides of Sacajawea, the native American woman guide for most of the trip, explored the entire mid west and north west of the United States. All those incredible, the upper Mississippi River and the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains and all the way up to the cascades and Puget sound. I mean it's incredible exploration. But it also brings back lots of information for Jefferson, and it’s a real stunning achievement in Jefferson’s administration.

Later, of course James Madison succeeds Thomas Jefferson and there is the war of 1812. And Madison is a fairly good president. He is much more of kind of a closeted intellectual thinker. The president that I would say we want to pay attention to more in this string, is James Monroe. There are two events in Monroe’s administration that are particularly important.

Monroe of course is I think brilliant the way that Washington was, in that he appoints, John Quincy Adams, the son of the former president and former vice president, John Adams. John Quincy Adams is the secretary of state, and John Quincy Adams is a very bright guy. He manages as Secretary of State under Monroe’s direction to sign a treaty called the Adam’s- Onis Treaty in 1819. What that is is the acquisition of Florida.

Now think about that, if you can imagine the map of the United States, with Florida not being one of the states. It would be kind of odd, to say the least. Probably we would have gained that territory at some point. But this is important because it’s a sooner rather than later. It kind of completes that Eastern sea board. We catch Spain at a point where light, the same way that Jefferson caught Napoleon needing money and willing to sacrifice territory. We find that Spain needs some money and is willing to sacrifice some territory.

They’re actually having a fight in Mexico. Mexico is trying to get its independence and so Florida is really kind of just a pain in the butt for them. So it’s like, here we’ll sell it to you. And basically Adams gets Florida for a song and Monroe very wisely kind of oversees that in the same way the Monroe doctrine. Once Mexico is independent and several of the other Latin American Countries and Southern American countries; Bolivia, Columbia, become independent form Spain, Monroe issues the Monroe doctrine.

I’ve mentioned this in earlier episodes, but I’ll go over it again. It’s very important because, what the United States says is, any independent countries in the Western Hemisphere can’t be interfered with by European powers. Now, the United States on its own saying that probably wouldn’t scare France, probably wouldn’t scare Germany very much or even Spain. But the United States with Great Britain standing behind it, and once again Adams negotiated this and Monroe oversaw it. And I think again it's brilliant leadership by finding the right people to do things.

Here we kind of stand there saying nobody can come into the Western Hemisphere. And if we look over our shoulder, there is Great Britain with the greatest navy in the world saying, "We’re helping them out here."

So Jefferson and Monroe, what we see is the physical expansion. They oversee the physical expansion at the beginning of the 19th century. I don’t know if I can stress enough how important that is, the Louisiana purchase, the acquisition of Florida, Lewis and Clark expedition, and the Monroe doctrine, really combine to make the United States almost a continental power, within the first 75 years of its existence. That’s pretty stunning.

The final president who really defines the presidency, and I think I’m mentioning here leadership, appointing people who re very intelligent and are going to make your administration work, taking opportunities when you see them. The next person who we have to mention, is Andrew Jackson. I’m personally not a big fan of Andrew Jackson. But as an honest historian, you’ve got to have Jackson as one of the great presidents.

He runs against John Quincy Adams in 1824, and he loses that election. And there are some politics that go with that. It’s a very tainted election to a lot of people. And some people refer to it as they call the corrupt bargain, that Henry Clay who also ran at that time threw his support to Adams, and that stole the presidency from Jackson. Whatever the case, you can look that up, I’ll put some stuff on the bonus material for you about that. But Jackson in 1828 wins fair and honestly, and he takes over.

There is a lot of significance in Andrew Jackson’s presidency. He’s the 7th president of the United States, he’s the first one who wasn’t a Virginian or from Massachusetts. You had Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, all Virginians, John Adams, John Quincy Adams both from Massachusetts. They’re all kind of old school if you will. They’re from the original colonies. Here’s is Jackson who is not form Virginia. He’s born in Tennessee, raised in Tennessee in Kentucky.

Washington was a heroic General in the war, but Jackson is a real war hero. He’s an Indian fighter, he wins the battle of New Orleans in the war of 1812. He’s not very well educated as far as formally educated. The other guys all of course went to college at some point, or got some formal education. Jefferson starts the University of Virginia, I mean these are serious scholars. And Jackson certainly would not be classified like that.

He was a real strong state's, rights guy. He really opposed the national bank. And basically during his administration, he essentially gets rid of the national bank for a while, which proves great disasters economically. But he’s against it because he thinks that, it victimizes the little guy. Jefferson and Jeffersonian democracy is about government for the people, Jacksonian democracy is really about government by the people.

In fact at his inauguration, he opens the White House up and lets anybody come in off the street to celebrate his inauguration. So he’s really about the people, and giving jobs to people who’ve been loyal to him. What’s called the spoil system kind of starts. But slowly he looks to get the average guy, it’s really who Jackson cares about and really promotes.

Jackson did believe the only good Indian, was a dead Indian which is a horrible quote that’s come through American History. And so his removal of the Cherokees, defying the Supreme Court, is not the greatest moment in American History. But it does raise the issue of presidential power and should it be checked? Can it be checked? In this case, it wasn’t, and probably could have been. And with a stronger Congress, it probably could have been an impeachable offence, nonetheless, that’s how powerful Jackson is how and how popular he is.

Probably his most interesting moment I think, and a great one is, when he fights a John C. Calhoun from South Carolina, over the tariff. There was a tariff in 1828 that was the tariff of abominations. This was a tax on exports. And so South Carolina’s being taxed to send its cotton over to England, and to send its tobacco over to Europe. And it’s a very high tariff. It’s a high tax. So they feel like they’re not going to make their profit. And Calhoun comes up with a doctrine he calls Nullification. What Calhoun claims is, if a state doesn’t like a federal law, it doesn’t like a federal tax, like a tariff, it can nullify that law. It can declare it null and void.

The doctrine of Nullification says state's rights are greater than federal power. Now you’ve got Jackson in office and you might think, okay at least he’s a states rights guy, he’s a democratic republican. He comes out of the Jefferson’s school of political philosophy, but this is what makes these presidents great. They do something that you don’t expect. Jefferson ignores the Congress and buys Louisiana. Monroe says the United States is the Policeman of the Western Hemisphere. We’ve got Washington, I mean left and right, just advances. And Jackson doesn’t stand up for states rights here, because he knows it will really destroy the union. And he threatens South Carolina. He says, if you think you’re going to ignore this tariff, I’m going to send federal troops in and stop this. I’m going to nip this right in the butt. So the nullification crisis as it’s called ends pretty quickly because John Calhoun knows Andrew Jackson doesn’t make idle threats.

That kind of leadership, that kind of defining the role of the president as opportunistic, as assertive, as a leader, as someone who looks for other people with talent to fill the roles that are necessary to make the government work well. Those are really the defining features that these presidents; Jackson, Monroe, Jefferson, Washington, all bring to the presidency in the first 75 years.

So for your ideas and action now, here’s what I’m going to ask you to do. I want you to go read the second article of the constitution. I’ve got it in the bonus materials for you. And read it carefully, and decide for yourself if Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Jackson, were strict or loose interpreters of that constitution.

Did they follow it, did they read it carefully and stick to the rules, or were they flexible about it? In fact do they actually violate it? Did Thomas Jefferson actually violate that second article of the constitution by buying Louisiana and then contracting Lewis and Clark to explore the West and to open this up, the pacific, the entire Pacific realm of the United States for future generations, and future settlement and exploration?

Maybe he was just opportunistic, but maybe he actually overstepped the bounds of the constitution. That’s going to be up to you to decide. It’s time for you to become a history detective again, and to look at that article, look at the actions, and judge from the evidence yourself. So that’s your challenge, and I want you to do that, but always remember you’re supposed to have fun with history.

What we’ve talked about in this episode, is the first 75 years or so of the US presidency. And really, I think what might be interesting to note here, is that from 1789 when Washington took over, through 1860, I’m only mentioning four US presidents who really defined the Office. It’s very tough. It’s a very tough job, and it’s really even tougher to find exceptional people to fill the role. We’ve seen how these four; Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Jackson help define the presidency in those first 75 years. How they met challenges, how they asserted their leadership.

What we’re going to look at next, are four more people who refined that leadership and really led the United States in periods of crisis, or turmoil, or periods when strong assertive leadership needed to be exercised in a way that required someone to really take the presidency that Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, and Jackson created. And refine it and bring that leadership up to another level. That’s what’s coming up next and go do that challenge, and read that constitution and have some fun with history.

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