Presidential morality discussed at 18th Century conference

As the entire nation attempts to assess the details of the Clinton scandal, the community of Williams College explored some of the same issues at the annual conference of the Northeast American Society for 18th Century Studies (NEASECS. The three-day conference featured more than 45 panels and lectures, one of which was a roundtable discussion about presidential morality in the 1790s and the 1990s.

In its 22nd year, the conference was held for the first time at Williams College this past Thursday through Sunday.

President of the College Harry Payne said he was approached by Society organizers about holding this year’s conference at Williams three years ago.

Payne said he realized that the conference would be the perfect opportunity to showcase Williams to a group of eminent scholars and agreed to host the convention. The convention was organized by a committee of 19 professors (including 12 Williams professors).

Although the Society studies the entire 18th century, this year’s conference focused on a discussion of the end of the Enlightenment period. The Enlightenment, which took place during the 1600s and 1700s in the United States and Europe, is known for its advances in the study of mathematics and science as well as the writing of philosophers such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

The panels examined such subjects as 18th century art and science. Participants also saw performances of the Williams Trio and attended the final production of the theatre departments “A Tale of Mystery” on Saturday night.

In addition to the discussion panels, there were two plenary sessions featuring Jacqueline Hecht of the National Institute for Demographic Studies in Paris and Joyce Appleby, a professor of history from UCLA, as speakers.

Although all of the lectures pertained to a study of the to enlightenment, one of the discussions was more centered in the 20th century than the 18th century.

James MacGregor Burns, a professor emeritus of political science led a roundtable discussion on presidential morality focused on the Clinton scandal and Clinton’s interpretation of the public persona as compared to the interpretations made by the initial presidents of the United States.

Burns, Professor ofRomance Languages Susan Dunn, and two other professors visiting from other colleges explored the disparity between George Washington’s and Bill Clinton’s definition of the public office and its duties.

Dunn pointed out that presidents such as Adams and Jefferson understood that politicians were quite similar to performers and that the American people would try to emulate their actions.

“The doors to the oval office are never really closed,” she said. “However, doors to bathrooms and bedrooms can be closed.”

Miroff explained the difference between the republican and democratic interpretation of the presidency. He specifically noted that the Republican president typically exemplifes control throughout his tenure while the Democratic president is an “average Joe.”

He said “the danger [for Clinton] will be that the public will begin to see shamelessness as lawlessness.”

Although he agreed with the arguments made by his colleagues, Robinson focused more on the destruction of the government which has been wrought by the rise of political parties.

Following the presentations made by each of the professors, the roundtable was opened up to questions and comments from the audience. Several of the audience members mentioned the inevitable neglect of presidential agendas during crises such as Watergate and the Kenneth Starr inquiry. Audience members also pointed out that both Nixon and Clinton were not damaged by the actual actions that they committed but rather by their subsequent cover-ups of the crimes.

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