GEORGE WASHINGTON

AND THE STANDING OAK

By

W. B. Allen, Director

Council of Higher Education for Virginia

Keynote Remarks for

“Washington Legacy Conference”

June 12, 1999

Mount Vernon, Virginia and Washington D. C.

Sponsored by Intercollegiate Studies Institute and The Heritage Foundation

 

The George Washington of “Cherry Tree” fame might better be associated with a standing oak, the song of which should outlast the oak, which itself outlasts the composer.  For George Washington sought in every way to produce a Constitution for the United States that could stand with all the might and permanence an oak tree suggests.  In May, 1789 he indicated how his thoughts ran in a letter to James Madison.  “…as you have begun, so I could wish you to finish, the good work in a short reply to the Address of the House of Representatives … that there may be an accordance in this business…  As the fist of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent, it is devoutly to be wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles."” In these passages Washington referred to the fact that he had called upon Madison to draft the first inaugural address that was actually delivered just the week before, and he therefore wished Madison also to draft a response to the return address from the House.  Such care was ever the hallmark of Washington’s life.

            To understand Washington’s care, however, we need unveil it beneath that characteristic diffidence noted throughout his career, whether in the military or upon installation of the new government.  It was universally believed that the Constitutional Convention settled on the design it did, above all the strong executive, because of the expectation that Washington would be the first President.  Nevertheless, just as he had been at length persuaded to attend the Convention he had done so much to produce, at length he had to be persuaded to accept the presidency.  Washington seemed honestly uncertain whether events were unfolding around him or whether he were in fact producing them, giving credibility to his opinion that “a greater drama is now acting on this theatre than has heretofore been brought on the American stage, or any other in the world.”  Whether he were merely acting, or directing, the climactic act in this drama was his inauguration on April 30, two hundred and ten years ago.

           

On April 14 Charles Thomson, Secretary to Congress, handed Washington a letter from John Langdon, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, stating that Washington had been unanimously elected President of the United States.  He left Mount Vernon on April 16, 1789 and bid farewell to his friends and neighbors in Alexandria, Virginia.  He arrived at New York on April 23rd.

The Senate and the House of Representatives completed the plans for the inauguration and ceremony on April 27.  The event followed on the thirtieth.  Shortly after noon, on the balcony of Federal Hall in front of the Senate Chamber, the oath of office was administered by Robert R. Livingston, Chancellor of the State of New York.  Washington then addressed his assembled countrymen.

The first inaugural address focussed almost exclusively upon the responsibilities of the officers of government.  As the years passed, however, and corresponding with the growth of political parties and increasing dissension, Washington devoted greater attention to addressing the general public, including the much remarked 1794 “State of the Union” passage in which he condemned the “self-created democratic societies,” which had become implicated in the Whisky Rebellion and which seemed to him so strikingly like those nurseries of terror spawned in the French Revolution.

Washington organized the new government with exquisite attention to the significance of every word and deed for subsequent practice.  At one point, for example, he determined to “advise and consult” with the Senate on a matter involving negotiations with Indian tribes.  Washington, accompanied by his Secretary of War, Henry Knox, presented himself before the Senate while the clerk read off the main points that concerned him – seeking the point by point “advice and consent” of the Senate.  After cooling his heels while what was to become the world’s greatest deliberative body debated how to proceed, the President turned on his heels – never to return personally before the Senate for such purposes – and initiated the strong executive, who would present his accomplishments for “advice and consent” after rather than before the fact.

As President Washington seemed very much the “delegater.”  He gathered around him able minds whom he trusted to investigate, debate, and recommend.  Though he reflected much (and wrote a great deal), in councils he was rather Spartan, generally preferring to entice others to consider options and reserving to himself the decision among them.  He seemed throughout his life to follow the advice he gave to his nephew in 1786, namely that the secret in democratic politics is to “speak seldom but always to effect.”  The most dramatic instance occurred in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, to which I will return shortly.  In the presidency there were numerous such instances, from the debate over the national debt and the location of a national capitol to the stratagems for bringing the United States safely through the perils of European wars.

President Washington was at Mount Vernon early in April of 1793, when news reached America of a declaration of war against Britain by the Republic of France.  He cut short his Virginia vacation and returned to Philadelphia (the temporary national capitol) to confer with his cabinet as to the best means to protect the United States in the crisis.  Washington circulated inquiries among the Secretaries and Attorney General, asking them to consider what measures would be proper for the United States to observe, especially in light of the defensive treaty of alliance consummated with the French monarchy during the American Revolution.  He ultimately determined that the United States would follow a neutral course, desiring to give neither belligerent cause for complaint.  Accordingly, he issued the Proclamation of Neutrality on April 22, 1793.  In doing this Washington rather led than followed Congress --- and perhaps popular opinion as well.

His efforts to establish healthy precedents speak for themselves, but Washington’s administration of the government under the Constitution was not untroubled.  During those eight years the founding itself was consummated, yet during that same time Americans witnessed the birth of what ultimately became the system of political parties.  Washington’s unanimous election to the presidency was never to be repeated, as statesmen of the founding era discovered room to contest the “administration” of the government within the protective confines of the Constitution.  He became the tacit had of the Federalist Party, direct heir to the Federalists who prevailed in the struggle over adoption of the Constitution.

The opposition party, the Democratic-Republican Party, was headed by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.  In the last six years of Washington’s administration, the growing party discord figured as the most significant and most pressing political development.  The country witnessed the emergence of party presses and party organizations.  Most significantly, however, the parties divided the Administration itself; for the chief party spokesmen, apart from Madison, were members of Washington’s own Cabinet.  Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, managed the Federalists, while Thomas Jefferson spearheaded the opposition party, the Republicans, even while he was Secretary of State.  Madison, whose 1791-92 essays in the National Gazette laid out the Republican platform, had been the principal Federalist spokesman in Congress.  To all appearances, therefore, the cemented union for which Washington had so long labored was being fractured in a contest over the spoils of victory.  While maintaining the principle of energetic government, Washington sought to contain the damage of division, praying that “the cup which has been presented may not be snatched from our lips by a discordance of action.”  The fact that this discord was ultimately contained “within the walls of the Constitution” is perhaps the single greatest achievement of the founding.

With a presidential election and the prospect of a third term of office looming before him, Washington determined upon a definitive retirement in 1796.  He devoted considerable thought to the appropriate manner in which to effectuate his retirement, so as to render it, too, an advantage to his countrymen. On May 10, 1796 he asked Alexander Hamilton to help in preparing a valedictory address.  Washington sent to Hamilton a draft, parts of which had been authored by James Madison upon whose offices Washington had called four years earlier, prematurely as it turned out.  After four months of correspondence Washington’s objective had been achieved, and he published the “Farewell” on Monday, September 17, 1796 – Constitution Day – in Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser.

Washington confidently speaks of “the happy reward of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers” in his “Farewell Address.”  He left the office of the presidency with no less pleasure than he had resigned his military commission earlier.  On the earlier occasion he had declared that he resigned “with satisfaction the appointment the accepted with diffidence.”  The spontaneous and universal acclaim that welcomed him home from the revolutionary war in 1783 was duplicated on this occasion.  This time, however, he had completed a much more trying task, the increasingly bitter party strife having made even him an open target.  Not only had the country been solidified and its finances put in order, but the ominous threats of war that loomed over his last five years in office had been greatly lessened even as the country had been strengthened to meet any eventuality.  At the same time, his resignation removed him from that unfamiliar position of being held up to public scorn and ridicule by “infamous scribblers.”

In testing Washington’s character in the presidency, and his contribution to the United States, it is absolutely necessary to weigh his last years against the backdrop of his early years.  He had ended his military career with a poignant farewell to the officers who had served faithfully under him.  Woodrow Wilson noted that, in the final years of the war “the absence of any real government, Washington proved almost the only prop of authority and law.”  How this came to be was displayed fully in Fraunce’s Tavern, November 23, 1783.  The British departed New York, and the General took leave of his men.  In an emotional moment, at a loss for words, Washington raised his glass:  “With heart full of love and gratitude, I now take my leave of you.”  He extended his hand, to shake the hands of his officers filing past.  Henry Knox stood nearest and, the moment come to shake and pass, Washington impulsively embraced and kissed his faithful General.

There in perfect silence, he so embraced each of his officers as they filed by, and then they parted.  This dramatic signature to eight years of hard travail testifies how far Washington conquered the hearts of his men and his countrymen still more decisively than he conquered the armies of the enemy.  The odyssey, the development of thoughts and principles, which brought Washington to this moment, began at last thirty years earlier and would not end for nearly fifteen years more.  He tells the story in his own words throughout nearly fifty volumes of correspondence, memoranda, and diaries, the best of which I have collected in a single volume.

When young George Washington accepted the command of Virginia militia that had enlisted in the service of King George, he seemed already singularly self-possessed.  This more than any other trait is perhaps that which has so often inclined biographers and historians to describe him as a “born aristocrat.”  He was still only eleven years old when his father died of pneumonia, during which period of years he lived with his family first at Bridges Creek, then at Hunting Creek, and finally near Fredericksburg, all in Virginia.  It was at Hunting Creek, re-christened Mount Vernon, where Washington lived from three to seven years of age, that he seemed to undergo the strongest influence in his life.  Throughout his life thereafter Mount Vernon served as a compass point.

In the long career that followed Washington always centered his labors on the expectation to return to Mount Vernon.  Still, this planter-manager devoted more time – if not more thought – to the salvation of his country than to the caring for his own estate.

Washington held from the first moment of the Revolution, if not earlier, a thoughtful appreciation of liberty and its political significance.  Further, it is clear that the idea of an American union motivated him throughout the thirty years (1769-1799) of active citizenship in which he guided his countrymen.  At the same time Washington was the original creator of the most pervasive myths about his person and character, above all the idea that he somehow lacked full intellectual power.  His self-possession was rivaled by his habitual self-effacement.  He never accepted a public charge without forswearing any opinion that he was “the man for the job,” at least after his intense and successful lobbying for the first office as commander of Virginia militia.  When he closed his life in 1799, requesting to be put away “without parade or funeral oration,” he insisted for the last time that, in his view, his merit in now way exceed that of his ordinary countrymen.

A fragment of an early letter written by Washington and rescued from a fire bears the following tantalizing dictum: “Law can never make just which in its nature is unjust.” [i]   From the fragment (which consists of only sixty-nine words), we can surmise only that it was certainly written prior to the period of the Constitution and probably during a period of currency instability during the Revolution.  In the fragment Washington speaks of imbibing “the true principles” and rails against attempts to depreciate currency by law as unjust infringement of contracts.

Washington’s characteristic attitude, punctilious in matters of just respect, culminated in his being named Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in 1775 and made a very large contribution to his developing political ideas. He assumed his command in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Bunker’s Hill. The first task to confront him, therefore, was to dislodge the British force from Boston.  That event set in motion a train of events that would find main army with Washington running from battle to battle.

General Washington urged the notion of an American union prior to the Declaration of Independence – as early as 1775.  The progress of the war made his appeals ever more strident and more insistent.  In the final two years of the war, despite the enormous labors required to maintain his position in the face of a powerful and determined enemy, his appeals attained the status of virtual demands.  Even as the Articles of Confederation came finally to be ratified (Maryland acceding and producing ratification on March 1, 1781), Washington urged upon legislators and others the necessity for a stronger national union.  He reflected in this the fruit of sad experience:  “We must take the passions of men as nature has given them, and those principles as a guide which are generally the rule of action.”

Victory did not bring the end of Washington’s troubles.  The British would remain in place on American soil for two years more.  Further, it had become doubly difficult to preserve due prudence and readiness in the face of general expectations of the end of conflict.  Similarly, there was a very real possibility of the soldiers’ countrymen simply dismissing them with thanks and forgetting the fact that they had served dutifully through great trials without compensation.  Instead of elation, therefore, Washington’s attitude in the face of the triumph was to preserve in his men and himself the sense of a “duty to bear present trials with fortitude.”

These events were followed by Washington’s famous “circular letter” of 1783,which constitutes the centerpiece of his statesmanship, carrying directly to his countrymen a coherent vision of the unfinished work which lay before them in the aftermath of peace.  His view of that work was that “we have a national character to establish.”  That greater victory yet eluded the Americans even in the aftermath of peace.

Washington returned in 1783 to a Mount Vernon in considerable disrepair, to resume the domestic arts he had so long pined for.  Martha Washington had visited with him in the army’s camp when occasion permitted, and she shared with him and his men their many privations.  Her ministrations to the soldiers were a source of reinforcement for them and for George Washington.  He had returned home but once during eight years of war, taking a brief stop there at the time of the victorious Yorktown campaign.  He could see already at that time the labors that lay before him to bring Mount Vernon back to its former glory.  But he would have two years more before he could undertake the work.  He could also see all that could not be restored, Martha’s son, Jack Custis, having died just after the Yorktown victory.  Both her children were now gone, and they had none of their own.

Though Washington plunged back into the tasks of managing his estates, public concerns still pressed in on him.  Everyone, it seemed, required his opinion, and he disappointed none.  He resumed his pre-war efforts to produce a waterway connection between the Transappalchians and the Potomac, as much for reasons of state, “to cement the union,” as for reasons of commerce.  Further, he continued to press for a strengthening of the union.  Between the end of 1783 and 1786 Washington managed to draw a coterie of reform-minded men around him, men whose efforts at length gave hope of a general reform of the Confederation.

The expectant air of Washington’s correspondence during this period justifies his observation that “the present era is pregnant of great and strange events.” The role he himself played in these events is critical in constructing an accurate view of his life and of his political ideas. In the Constitutional Convention he played a pivotal though quiet role.  He was elected to preside and did not participate in the debates, with one notable exception on the final day.  The influence that was visible on that singular occasion was exercised invisibly throughout the course of the Convention, as Washington maintained regular though informal conversation with the diverse delegates.

The single, compelling example of Washington’s influence occurred on the last day of the Convention.  At that moment the Constitution had been completely agreed on, save for the device for signing.  It had been engrossed and was ready to hand, so soon as the Convention would determine how it wished to proceed to close its work.  In spite of the spirit of accomplishment that filled the air, however, the Convention remained a parliamentary body.  Motions were still in order.  Massachusetts’ Gorham rose to move an alteration in the formula for representation. He urged a reduction in the scale of representation, from 1:40,000 to 1:30,000.  King of Massachusetts and Carroll of Maryland “seconded and supported” his idea, despite the fact the Convention had reaffirmed the rule of 1:40,000 on a motion of James Madison more than a month before (8/8) and had undergone numerous discussions prior to that time.  If anything were settled, this was it.  Indeed, Madison’s motion had been that, considering the future growth of population, the rule of 1:40,000 would produce too large a representation, and therefore the provision should read, “not exceeding one for every 40,000.”  The Convention at that time accepted it “nem contadicente.”

The only debate recorded by Madison on this day came from George Washington, though Madison indicates that King and Carroll did indeed say something.  At all events, the last substantive debate of the Convention was provided by its president, his only recorded contribution to the debate.  He spoke as follows:

When the President rose, for the purpose of putting the question, he said that although his situation had hitherto restrained him from offering his sentiments on questions depending in the House, and it might be thought, ought now to impose silence on him, yet he could not forbear expressing his wish that the alteration proposed might take place.  It was much to be desired that the objections to the plan recommended might be made as few as possible – The smallness of the proportion of Representatives had been considered by many members of the Convention, and insufficient security for the rights & interests of the people.  He acknowledged that it had always appeared to himself among the exceptionable parts of the plan; and late as the present moment was for admitting amendments, he thought this of so much consequence that it would give much satisfaction to see it adopted.

Following this appeal no voice of opposition was raised and the measure passed unanimously.  Washington thereby set his seal on the genius of the regime as he had theretofore silently worked to assure that an adequate structure, capable of governing, would be erected.  In this display we behold an instance of Washington’s power within the Convention.

This example of Washington’s enormous influence justifies our questioning whether James Madison, and not he, should be called the “father of the Constitution.”  I would lay it down as an axiom that no one who could not be said to have laid down the fundamental law for a people could, fully and properly, be called a founder.  Thus, not his great personal attributes but only his legislation could make Washington a founder.

That is the difficulty of Washington, not just who he was, but how great he was, really. We can not broach that question fully here, although we must at least give a nod to it.  This would be required, if for not other reason, because of the wealth of materials that have been produced to call the matter into question.  In general these are works that portray Washington rather more as a “symbol” than an accomplished human being, stretching back at least a century.  Last decade historians such as Gordon Wood and sociologists such as Barry Schwartz repeated the doubts.  Scwartz’s work was blunt indeed:  “It is the range and significance of Washington’s shortcomings that make it difficulty to understand his veneration on the basis of personal qualities alone.” [ii]   We find a glancing contrast in Forrest McDonald, who does not refute that Washington had shortcomings but offers substantial discussion of Washington’s “self-conscious” attempt to construct and preserve his “character.” [iii]

Nothing highlights Washington’s determination and intent so clearly as the climax of his efforts toward union in the Convention.  There he makes manifest the claim he made to LaFayette in1789, that “I see a path, as clear and direct as a ray of light,” to the ultimate political happiness and prosperity of the United States. [iv]   For us, however, it remains true that no one to date has told the whole story with that compelling clarity it demands, and which, perhaps, Washington expected to obtain only at the hands of some American Homer. [v]

Washington was perfectly esoteric in is conduct regarding the development of an American republic.  He published no treatises in his own name and founded no societies.  Indeed, following the close of the war, he did not even hold any public office.  Nevertheless, he worked no less – and perhaps even more – assiduously toward the goal of a national union. The locus classicus for his ideas is the renowned “Circular Address to the Governors of the Thirteen States.”

In the period from March, 187 to 1788 the “Circular Address” was widely cited and reprinted in newspapers or pamphlets across the country. [vi]   So far as we can tell, this phenomenon was entirely spontaneous.  The address had been immensely popular when originally issued in 1783,and now it could be seen that it was also largely understood as Washington had intended it – a blueprint for founding.

Washington almost never relented in his private labors to encourage a strengthening of the national government.  He maintained an extensive private correspondence devoted largely to this purpose; he pursued schemes such as the Potomac-Ohio Canal specifically with the view in mind of strengthening the union; and he lost no chance to further opportunities to build the powers of the Confederation or, ultimately, to call a new convention.  He virtually hovered over the 1785 Alexandria Conference (which turned into the Mount Vernon Conference) on trade, maintained an active interest in the subsequent Annapolis Conference (which grew out of the former) and consulted with its leading participants to secure the calling of the Philadelphia Convention.  Even when his projects and activities seemed private and economic, they seemed to him “big with great political, as well as commercial consequences to these States. [vii]

Such an ambition would have required, over and above the vague hope of union, some specific notions of the form to be instituted.  That it must be republican is the first level of specificity.  The goal was susceptible of further refinement was suggested by Washington’s continued recourse to it throughout the war.  From Valley Forge he returned to the general notion:

If we are to pursue a right system of policy, in my opinion, there should be none of these distinctions.  We should all be considered, Congress, Army, etc. as one people, embarked in one cause, in one interest; acting on the same principle and to the same end. [viii]

This end entailed not only the framing of a specific constitution, but a constitution understood as creating a regime – a characteristic way of life. Washington and his troops were struggling “for every thing valuable in society” and “laying the foundation of an Empire.” [ix]   Not surprisingly, therefore, he had considered long before what that may entail in the way of considerations:

To form a new Government, requires infinite care, and unbounded attention; for if the foundation is badly laid the superstructure must be bad, too much time, therefore, cannot be bestowed in weighing an digesting matters well.  We have, no doubt, some good parts in our present constitution; many bad ones we know we have, wherefore no time can be misspent that is employed in sep[a]rating the Wheat from the Tares.  My fear is, that you will all get tired and homesick, the consequence of which will be, that you will patch up some kind of constitution as defective as the present; this should be avoided, every man should consider that he is lending his aid to frame a constitution which is to render millions happy, or miserable, and that a matter of such moment cannot be the work of a day. [x]

Washington gave this advice to his brother in the middle of Virginia’s efforts to repair its constitution and at a time when continental efforts to draft a constitution were just beginning.  That he saw them as part of a national effort may be gathered from his invocation of the fate of future “millions.”  That it would take time, and frequently renewed considerations, was the lesson of the years to follow.

In the “Circular Address” Washington made clear that the conditions for achieving the status of  “a people” in the United States hinged completely upon the establishment of a rule of justice, not only within the institutions, but within the souls of the people.  The pre-condition for self-government is the accomplishment of that prayer, for a disposition in the citizens “to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind,” with which Washington closed the address.  A spirit of moderation, understood as a moral proposition – the acceptance of self-government as an objective not only in institutional terms but within the soul of each is that without which “we can never hope to be a happy nation.”  The accomplishment of such a spirit, however, turned upon the efforts of those who would supply the policy and institutions of the nation – on statesmanship.

We have a clear picture of the ideas with which Washington entered the Convention.  Washington had exchanged a detailed correspondence with such coadjutors as Knox, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison.  He had read their sketches of possible plans, and he had even gone to the length of copying out in his own hand the essential points of those plans which detained his attention.  He had also delivered his watchword:

…my wish is the convention may adopt no temporizing expedients, but probe the defects of the constitution to the bottom, and provide radical cures; whether they are agreed to or not; a conduct like this, will stamp wisdom and dignity on the proceedings, and be looked to as a luminary, which sooner or later will shed its influence. [xi]

The fact that Washington used the term, “the constitution,” to refer to the Articles of  Confederation, is virtually a dead giveaway of the extensiveness of his ambition and, more importantly, his fundamental understanding of the terms of founding.

As the Convention opened the first question pending was that of who should preside.  All attention focused on Washington and Franklin.  Franklin diverted all hesitation by bringing in the nomination of Washington.  With his elevation to the chair Washington fell silent, at least so far as all written records testify.  This pattern, however, conforms generally to what most of his biographers record of his service in the Virginia House of Burgesses prior to Independence also.  He spoke there but seldom, though apparently with effect.

I should note that the apocryphal record suggests that Washington did speak during the Convention, though Madison did not record it.  Gourverneur Morris, in his eulogy of Washington, records an eloquent speech near the opening of the Convention, and another tale shows Washington rebuking (in general) a fellow delegate who had incautiously let drop his copy of the proceedings where the secret proceedings may have been compromised.  In each of these cases, the apocrypha emphasize an authority peculiar to Washington, whereby his words bear the weight of authoritative deeds in the eyes of his fellows.

Unlike great part of the nationalists, Washington did not undertake a general campaign on behalf of the Constitution – at least not directly.  True to his past experience, his private expressions of opinion had the facility of finding their way into the press.  “Washington’s opinions, even rumors of them, were too good copy to be passed over even at his desire.” [xii]   Nevertheless, he held to his resolve “not to appear as a partisan in the interesting subject.”  He wished, rather, that the Constitution would convey is claims, as he urged in letters to friends, particularly distant friends such as Catherine MaCaulay-Graham and LaFayette.  To LaFayette, for example, he could boast that the Constitution “is provided with more checks and barriers against the introduction of tyranny, and those of a nature less liable to be surmounted, than any government hitherto instituted among mortals hath possessed.” [xiii]   We seek, however, a more programmatic expression of Washington’s views, especially one that might take the form of a public deed.

Unfortunately, much of the prime candidate for this office is lost to us.  I refer to the “Discarded Inaugural Address.”  Standing even in its defective form, it is a manifest contribution to our understanding of how far Washington’s understanding, as opposed to his image, informed the founding of the United States.  One example would be his assertion, in the document, that “I presume now to assert that better may not still be devised.”  This is clearly Washington’s retrospective judgment of the work of the Convention, many of whose members he had warned  beforehand to take aim, not for the most that is acceptable, but for the best possible.

Washington appraised the work of the Convention as that of his “colleagues” and his own.

Although the agency I had in forming this system, and the high opinion I entertained of my Colleagues for their ability and integrity may have tended to warp my judgment in its favour; yet I will not pretend to say that it appears absolutely perfect to me, or that there may not be many faults which escaped my discernment.  I will only say that, during and since the session of the Convention, I have attentively heard and read every oral and printed information on both sides of the question that could be procured.  This long and laborious investigation, in which I endeavoured as far as the frailty of nature would permit to act with candour has resulted in a fixed belief that this Constitution, is really in its formation a government of the people; that is to say, a government in which all power is derived from, and at stated periods reverts to them – and that, in its operation, it is purely a government of Laws made and executed by the fair substitutes of the people alone.

Note the emphasis both on his agency in forming the system and his continued effort to assure himself as to its nature.  The proposed address rehearsed all of the structural components of the Constitution from the perspectives both of their republican safety and of their efficiency.  He judged its superiority to most constitutions which “have existed in the world” on three grounds:  first, it has adequate powers to perform the task of governing; secondly, it has no greater power than is requisite to accomplish the “safety and happiness of the governed,” and, third, (as he said to LaFayette) never before has any government so efficaciously guarded itself against degeneration into oppression.  Washington continued to place the Constitution in the context of the Revolution, to show it as an accomplishment of the Revolution rather than a latter day departure.

Washington undertook to define the character of the regime as such, as, as he put it, “to express my idea of a flourishing state with precision; and to distinguish between happiness and splendour.”  In making that distinction he returned to the animating theme of the “Circular Address,” self-government understood as a spirit of moderation.  Now, however, he adds to it a spirit of “magnanimity,” a spirit that becomes possible for a people truly moderate once they enjoy the blessing of a genuine regime.  This is the same “magnanimity” that he praised and encouraged in the “Farewell.”  This theme returned Washington to the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.

I rejoice in a belief that intellectual light will spring up in the dark corners of the earth; that freedom of enquiry will produce liberality of conduct; that mankind will reverse the absurd position that the many were, made for the few; and that they will not continue slaves in one part of the globe, when they can become freemen in another.

Washington then aimed to undertake the presidency with a sense of duty (he explained earlier that he had no posterity to advantage by his conduct!).  He aimed, too, to do so in the company of his fellow citizens, entering a path that would yet prove “intricate and thorny,” but that would “grow plain and smooth as we go.”  It would grow so he held, because of their adhering to that “eternal line that separates right from wrong.”

As we read and listen to such sentiments or observations, we cannot fail but be mindful that there is no other central participant in the founding who spoke so comprehensively about the mission of founding the United States.

To Washington the work of the Convention enabled the pursuit of a political course that vindicates self-government understood as the capacity of man to guide himself by the light of moral claims.  The affirmation hinged on the two-fold condition of accomplishing such a political structure as would preserve to individuals the opportunity to pursue that course at the same time as men in general proved capable of doing so.  They would qualify for self-government in the sense of free institutions in proportion as they qualified for self-government in the sense of that capacity of soul to govern themselves by the light of reason.  Insofar as Washington’s efforts within the Convention were directed toward that end, our assessment of his influence must be governed by the need to discern that principle at work.  We have already suggested the basis for such judgment.  It bears repeating, however, that Washington’s final contribution to the Convention testifies as well as anything may that he, at least, judged at the end that he had accomplished his goal.  The time to make a bow to democracy was precisely at that moment when judgment held that democracy had been safely hedged in with appropriate checks and guides.  This was surely Washington’s way of joining in Franklin’s recognition of the sun painted at the back of the President’s chair as a rising, not a setting sun.

George Washington actively shaped not only the American presidency but the work of the Constitutional Convention.  To note this adds no lustre to his name, but rather advances our own understanding of the accomplishment of the founding.  We cannot embellish his epitaph, which was written in the characteristic form of that Socratic irony that proved immensely valuable to him in accomplishing the task he undertook (and to which he adhered in discarding the temptation to come of the closet in the draft his first inaugural).

Washington lived only three years beyond his resignation from the presidency.  He returned once again to a Mount Vernon fallen, this time to a point beyond which his labors could hope to restore. Nevertheless, he plunged back into his favorite pursuits of agricultural development and experimentation and the design and organization of Mount Vernon.  He was again to find himself under a constant press of correspondence and visitation (even his only enemy, George III, wrote of him as “the greatest” statesman alive).  Indeed, he was even summoned back as a commander of American military forces at a time when war with France seemed an imminent prospect.  That passed, however, and with it Washington’s countrymen’s claims upon him.  His claims upon the, however, would reach beyond his death, and the deaths of generations of them, increasingly made evident in the form of a Constitution that stands out in human history like a majestic oak in the middle of an orchard of cherry trees.



[i] The Collector Magazine, July 1892, p. 171.

[ii] Barry Schwartz, George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol (New York:  Free Press, 1987).

[iii] Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum:  The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (Lawrence, Kansas:University Press of Kansas, 1985).

[iv] Letter to LaFayette, January 29, 1789.

[v] Letter to LaFayette, May 28, 1788.

[vi] John P. Kaminski and Gaspare J. Saladino, eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution (Madison, Wisconsin: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1981), vol. XIII, pp. 60-62.

[vii] To David Humphries, July 25, 1785.

[viii] To John Bannister, April 21, 1778.

[ix] General Orders, March 1, 1778, Valley Forge.

[x] To John Augustine Washington, May 31, 1776.

[xi] To James Madison, March 31, 1787.

[xii] Henry Knox to George Washington, quoted in “Washington and the Constitution,” David M. Matteson, #7 in Honor to George Washington, ed. By Albert Bushnell Hart for the George Washington Bicentennial Commission, Washington, D. C., 1931,p. 21.