The Corner

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You’re Fired!

The hunt for Anonymous reminds me that every president I have written about was vexed with back-stabbing senior administration officials.

George Washington’s first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, fed information to an anti-administration journalist, whom Jefferson employed as a State Department translator. Washington’s second secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, shared anti-administration gossip with the French ambassador. Washington hung on to Jefferson as long as he could, on the principle of keeping your friends close but your enemies closer. He forced Randolph to resign.

John Adams fired his secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, and forced the resignation of his secretary of war, James McHenry, for opposing a diplomatic overture to revolutionary France. He could have fired Treasury secretary Oliver Wolcott, who also opposed it.

James Madison forced the resignation of Secretary of State Robert Smith, for general incompetence, which included off-message conversations with a British diplomat and Madison’s congressional enemies. He offered to make Smith ambassador to Russia (sending him almost literally to Siberia) but Smith declined.

John Quincy Adams’s postmaster general, John McLean, spent his time in office scheming about the next presidential election, undermining Admas’s ally, Henry Clay, and reaching out to Adams’s enemy, Andrew Jackson. Adams wanted to fire him, but couldn’t think of a good enough reason. (JQA lacked the self-protective instincts of a good politician.)

Abraham Lincoln’s Treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, schemed with Radical Republican critics of the administration and launched an ill-fated effort to replace Lincoln as GOP nominee in 1864. Lincoln kept him on in recognition of his talents as a Treasury secretary, and finally accepted the last of his many indignant offers to resign.

None of these disgruntled men implied that the president was unbalanced. Alexander Hamilton said that of John Adams, but he was no longer a senior administration official.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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