Alexandria, VA – As Americans, we pride ourselves on the “great experiment” that we hold dear today. The republic that our forefathers formed was the first example of a land rising-up against the mother country and declaring its independence from the yoke of tyranny. Our experiment became a rallying cry for other oppressed peoples to follow suit and claim their own sovereignty. Witness the French Revolution.
When one pulls back the covers on our unique form of self-government however, the “shining beacon” tends to become a little foggy, the waters get murky, and we see the soft underbelly of America’s democracy through different lenses.
Addressing the Society of American Newspaper Editors in 1925, President Calvin Coolidge said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” Looking at our political history and how things get done in our country, truer words have never been spoken.
Despite the virtuous philosophy Americans tout about our arms-length relationship between government and business, the fact is that throughout our history many of the country’s A-listers have been movers-and-shakers in both the political and financial realms.
It is no stretch of the imagination to note that despite the image we have of our stoic Founding Fathers huddling conspiratorially, espousing great principles based on moral beliefs, and debating the great philosophical issues to create a “more perfect union,” many of the deals struck in the name of democracy were done in some of the leading boarding houses and taverns of the land.
At the dawn of the republic, City Tavern in Philadelphia was a favorite watering hole of the Founding Fathers—the original Rat Pack. While the Continental Congress was conspiring to sever ties with England, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and John Jay, et al., dined and drank away many an evening while smoothing their plans. These backroom discussions over a pint or two back then, as it does today, dealt not only with strategy and government, but also with financial mechanisms to fund the American Revolution and which “contractors” would be tapped to support the troops.
A Secret Trade Committee was established to assign contracts and a key committee member was Robert Morris of New York, a shipping magnate who became known as the Financer of the Revolution. The committee was ostensibly a club known for its incestuous financial transactions with many merchant/politicos that made some quite wealthy. Our fledgling country depended heavily on maritime commerce. To prosecute the war at sea against Great Britain and protect our mercantile shipping, Morris’s connections and business transactions supported what was then the Continental Navy and ultimately laid the foundation for building the U.S. Navy. This merger of politics and finance was a part of the birth of the American entrepreneurial spirit we cherish today.
Alexandria’s favorite son, George Washington, was one our early, most notable entrepreneurial politicos. Not only did he own 8,000 acres in what became his Mount Vernon plantation, he also owned some 50,000 acres in West Virginia (1), Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky, and New York. Like his fellow Founding Fathers, Washington had a favorite night spot during the early days of his presidency, Fraunces Tavern in New York. It was there that the Sons of Liberty hung out during the American revolution. It was at Fraunces where Washington gave his farewell address to the troops and hung up his sword before heading home to Mount Vernon. Later, on 30 April 1789, Washington took the oath of office on the balcony of the Federal Building at 26 Wall Street, about a six-block walk from Fraunces which, no doubt, made it convenient for the attendees, and may have been a serious consideration while planning the inaugural.
In the 19th century, the Willard Hotel became synonymous with this convergence of politics and money. During President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, the Willard Hotel bar was a favorite dropping-in place for Grant, who was known to like to have a pop or two with the boys every now and then. The Willard Hotel lobby fast became the go-to spot for buttonholing the president or a cabinet member, often right in the lobby.
The practice of mixing politics and money during the Grant administration became so commonplace and his administration so replete with graft and corruption that nine cabinet members or senior presidential appointees were convicted as participants in the Whiskey Ring, the Trading Post Ring, and the Navy Department Ring, to mention just a few infamous “rings” of the day. The Willard is considered the birthplace of the term “lobbyist.”
Today, the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue is a modern example of the crossroads of politics and money in stone and glass. Originally called the Old Post Office building (2), the 1899 structure has become a White House Annex and corporate convention center all rolled up into one. Walk in the door on any given day and you can’t swing a cat without hitting a senator, a Fortune 50 corporate CEO, a Middle East prince, or a real estate developer, all hoping to make a deal in Washington. (Well, that was true until a month ago, and it will be true again when we can all come out of our houses.)
A quick geography check: The White House is at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The Willard is at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue. The Trump International Hotel is 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue. Coincidence? Nope. Coolidge was right. It’s as American as Apple Pie.
Marcus Fisk is a retired Navy Captain, Naval Academy graduate, sometime actor, sculptor, screenwriter, pick-up soccer player, and playwright. He and his wife Pamela are former long-time residents of Alexandria and currently live in Connecticut, where they travel the New England shore in their 42 Grand Banks Trawler ADAGIO.
1 It was originally part of Virginia back then, the “West” coming later. Same thing with Ohio. It didn’t look like the Ohio we know today. Borders shifted around a lot back then, especially with the landed gentry and it all depended on who your surveyor was, had he been out too late partying the night before, and who he knew in the state legislature. It was a popular trade and a lot of the Founding Fathers were surveyors, or lawyers. George Washington was trained as a surveyor. Jefferson was both and cut a mega deal with France for the Louisiana Purchase at a steal.
2 Historically, the Post Office was the Political Favors Department of the government. Many presidents rewarded loyal supporters with jobs in the Post Office Department. Curious that the PR agency for the Trump companies didn’t catch this before launching the new enterprise.
ICYMI: On Watch – Loyalty