The View from Mount Vernon
A few days before Christmas in 1786 George Washington received a gift he didn’t want. It was a letter from Virginia’s governor, Edmund Randolph, trying to pry him out of retirement.
The envelope included a copy of an act passed on December 4 by the Virginia general assembly appointing delegates to a convention in Philadelphia “for the purpose of revising the federal constitution” and the names of seven delegates the legislature had chosen. Washington’s name stood at the top of the list. Randolph explained that the assembly was alarmed by the “storms” that threatened to bring the American nation to a quick end, as its enemies had predicted. “To you I need not press our present dangers,” Randolph said. As commander of the army Washington had witnessed the inefficiency of the Continental Congress and could see the steadily “increasing langour of our associated republics.” Now only those “who began, carried on & consummated the revolution” could “rescue America from the impending ruin.” Randolph urged Washington to accept the legislature’s unanimous choice of him as a Virginia delegate to the Philadelphia convention.1
His appointment was not a complete surprise to Washington. He had tried to head it off in November, after James Madison, a leader of the assembly and former member of the Confederation Congress, warned him that the legislature was going to choose delegates to the convention and that Washington’s name would probably be first on the list. It was “out of his power” to accept such an appointment, Washington replied. A few weeks earlier—on October 31, 1786—he had notified state chapters of the Society of the Cincinnati that he would not stand for reelection as the society’s president and would not attend its second triennial meeting, which was scheduled to convene in Philadelphia on the first Monday in May—a week before the federal Convention would assemble in the same city. Washington gave the Cincinnati several compelling reasons for his decision: His private affairs had become seriously “deranged” by his long absence during the war, and they now needed his “entire & unremitting attention”; he was deeply and “unavoidably engaged” in a project to open navigation of the great rivers flowing through Virginia; and, after so many years of arduous service, he yearned for “retirement & relaxation from public cares.” Moreover, his health was not good: He had recently suffered a violent attack of “fever & ague, succeeded by rheumatick pains” such as he had never before experienced. How then could he pick up and go to the federal Convention without offending “a very respectable & deserving part of the Community—the late officers of the American Army,” who made up the Society of the Cincinnati?2
In fact, Washington had another, more pressing reason for backing away from his association with the Cincinnati, which he explained in confidence to Madison. When he had first agreed to head the new society in 1783, he thought of it as a fraternal organization whose main purpose was to take care of officers’ widows and other dependents. Then, to his surprise, a pamphlet by South Carolina’s Aedanus Burke provoked an uproar against the Cincinnati and, above all, its plan to pass membership on to the eldest sons of Revolutionary War officers. Critics such as Burke said that practice would lead to the creation of an hereditary aristocracy, which was totally at odds with the republican system established by the Revolution.3
Washington accepted reelection as president at the Society’s first general meeting in 1784 after it proposed several changes in its rules, including the elimination of hereditary membership. But some state chapters refused to ratify the reforms, so by the fall of 1786, as the Society’s second general meeting approached, Washington found himself, as he told Madison, in a “delicate” position. He didn’t want to seem disloyal to his fellow officers, who included some of his dearest friends and confidants, nor did he want to support an institution “incompatible (some say) with republican principles.” Under the circumstances, he simply could not attend the federal Convention in Philadelphia while the Society of the Cincinnati was also meeting there. That was his excuse, deeply felt and, to Madison at least, clearly explained.4
Washington was more circumspect with Randolph. He was grateful for the honor conferred on him by the general assembly, he wrote the governor, and in general stood ready to obey the calls of his country. However, there were at the moment “circumstances” that “will render my acceptance of this fresh mark of confidence incompatible with other measures which I had previously adopted” and from which he had “little prospect of disengaging myself.” The legislature should replace him with someone “on whom greater reliance can be had,” since the likelihood of his nonattendance was too great.5
Randolph refused to take no for an answer. Neither he nor the members of Virginia’s council of state, to whom he showed Washington’s letter, saw any need for Washington to withdraw immediately. It would be as easy for Randolph to appoint another delegate in Washington’s place “sometime hence” as now. Perhaps the obstacles to Washington’s attendance would somehow disappear, or the national crisis would become so severe that it outweighed all other considerations. “I hope therefore,” Randolph wrote, “that you will excuse me for holding up your letter for the present.” James Madison also urged Washington to leave the door open for a later acceptance in case “the gathering clouds should become so dark and menacing as to supercede every consideration, but that of our national existence or safety.” Randolph and Madison played Washington like expert fishermen, and Washington, who no doubt understood full well what was going on, decided not to fight.6
As a result, when newspapers throughout the country announced Virginia’s election of a delegation to the proposed federal Convention, Washington’s name remained at the top of the list. No American commanded admiration and trust like Washington, which was precisely why Randolph and Madison were loath to let him resign. His appointment was “a mark of the earnestness of Virginia” and an invitation to other states to send their best men as delegates to the proposed convention. Indeed, by appointing a notably strong set of delegates—which included Washington, Randolph, Madison, the distinguished jurists George Wythe and John Blair, and also George Mason, who had drafted Virginia’s state constitution and its influential declaration of rights—the Virginia legislature meant to convey a sign of its zeal “and its opinion of the magnitude of the occasion.”7
The proposed convention needed all the support it could get. In late 1786, its chances of actually meeting, much less accomplishing anything, were remote at best. It looked like another in a long line of failed proposals to strengthen the Confederation. This time the call for a convention had come from a handful of state delegates who met from September 11 to 14, 1786, in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss giving Congress the power to regulate the trade and commerce of the United States. Only five of the nine state delegations showed up on time, though more were on the way. Rather than wait (as usual) for the laggards, the delegations already present called on all the states to send representatives to another meeting in Philadelphia on the second Monday of May, 1787, “to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” Then the meeting adjourned. The delegates had received no authority to call a convention from the state legislatures that appointed them. Moreover, Article XIII of the Articles of Confederation said that any alterations in the Articles had to be “agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the Legislatures of every State.”8 Did that mean Congress had to initiate or at least endorse any meeting called to propose changes to the Articles? If so, would the states elect delegates to a convention that was, in the language of the day, “irregular”—that is, called in a way that seemed to bypass the established procedures of the Confederation? Should they?
Virginia said they should. On November 23, 1786, the state’s general assembly adopted a beautifully crafted act that endorsed the call for a convention and authorized the election of delegates. The act, which Governor Randolph forwarded to the other states as well as to Washington, said the crisis had arrived when “the good people of America” had to decide whether they were to reap the fruits of independence and a union “cemented with so much of their common blood” or give way to “unmanly jealousies and prejudices, or to partial and transitory interests,” and “renounce the auspicious blessings prepared for them by the Revolution.” The assembly argued that the proposed convention would be a better place to discuss reforms of the federal system than the Confederation Congress, where those debates “might be too much interrupted by the ordinary business before them,” and where various highly capable individuals could not participate because they were disqualified by law or “restrained by peculiar circumstances.” It called for the appointment of seven “Commissioners,” by “joint ballot of both Houses of Assembly,” and authorized the governor to fill any vacancies if those elected declined to serve. On December 4, the legislature chose its delegates (or commissioners). Virginia, the largest and most populous state in the union, won considerable honor for its early support for the convention—although New Jersey had, in fact, chosen its delegates a week earlier.9
Washington’s name added to the impact of Virginia’s action. Suddenly the convention began to look like an event worth taking seriously. The Pennsylvania assembly specifically cited the Virginia precedent on December 30, when it became the third state to elect delegates to the convention. By mid-February, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Delaware, and Georgia had joined the list. That made seven of the thirteen states, which was not enough to assure that the convention would meet, especially since some of them made their appointments contingent on Congress’s giving the convention its approval. That so many states were willing to participate was nonetheless remarkable considering how unlikely it seemed at first that anything would come of the proposal.10
TO GO OR NOT TO GO
Letting his name remain on the list of Virginia delegates was one thing; going to Philadelphia was another. Washington had questions to ask, and only a few good ways of getting answers while he remained at Mount Vernon. He scanned newspapers for information, and he picked up more news from a stream of visitors so steady that at times his home seemed like a tavern (though one where the proprietor always picked up the tab). Above all, however, Washington relied on his correspondents, many of whom were old officers of the Continental Army. Over the next four months a surge of letters between them and Washington laid out the problems that made the nation’s situation critical, discussed what constitutional changes were needed to remedy those problems, and evaluated the likelihood that the Philadelphia convention would do what had to be done.
Soon after receiving Randolph’s letter, Washington asked General Henry Knox what the “prevailing sentiments” on the convention were and how well attended it was likely to be. Knox’s friendship with Washington went back to 1775, when Washington took command of the Continental Army camped in Cambridge, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Boston. It was Knox, a portly onetime Boston bookseller, who had led the expedition that dragged cannon from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain to Dorchester Heights, where that artillery helped convince the British to evacuate Boston on March 17, 1776. He was with Washington through the rest of the war, during the devastating campaign in New York and Washington’s critical victories at Trenton and Princeton, through the miserable winters at Morristown and Valley Forge, and on to the trenches at Yorktown in 1781. Knox was a leading organizer of the Society of the Cincinnati in 1783. Two years later he became the country’s secretary of war. Situated as he was in New York and in close contact with members of Congress, he soon became a major source of information on national affairs for a network of correspondents.11
Washington also wrote to Connecticut’s Colonel David Humphreys, who had been an aide-de-camp during the final years of the revolutionary war and became a particularly trusted and beloved member of the commander’s military family. Like Knox, Humphreys had served with Washington from the battles of Long Island and Harlem—which Humphreys described in his Essay on the Life of the Honorable Major-General Israel Putnam (1788)—through to Yorktown. Washington gave Humphreys the honor of delivering to Congress the flags of the defeated British and German troops, along with his official report on the British capitulation of October 1781. Humphreys was with Washington when he surrendered his commission to Congress on December 23, 1783, then accompanied him back to Mount Vernon, where Humphreys joined the joyful celebrations of the commander’s homecoming on Christmas Eve. A member of the Cincinnati, a poet, and a diplomat, Humphreys corresponded regularly with Washington between 1784 and 1786, when he served as secretary to the American commission negotiating commercial treaties in Europe. After he returned to America in 1786, Humphreys stayed at Mount Vernon for six weeks, working on a projected biography of Washington, before returning to Connecticut, where his home town promptly elected him to the state legislature.12
Washington considered Humphreys a reliable source of information on the attitudes of the Cincinnati, “the temper of the people, and the state of Politics at large,” particularly in the northeastern part of the country. He told Humphreys about his exchange of letters with Madison and Randolph, then asked the question that troubled him. If the issue of his attending the convention “should be further prest (which I hope it will not, as I have no inclination to go),” Washington asked, “what had I best do?”13
“No inclination” was an understatement. During his eight years away from home while commanding the Continental Army, thoughts of Mount Vernon had been Washington’s greatest solace. He tried to write his plantation manager (and distant cousin), Lund Washington, on a regular basis and to direct from afar major renovations of his house, taking respite from war with thoughts of plaster, paint, and newly planted groves of trees. He complained when letters from Virginia failed to arrive since that denied him “the consolation of hearing from home, on domestic matters,” and he dreamed of the day when he could join those who, in the words of the prophet Micah, had beaten their “swords into plowshares” and he too could sit at peace “under his vine and under his fig tree” with no one to make him afraid.14 Once, in 1781, as the army marched toward Yorktown, Washington rode his horse a heroic sixty miles in a single day to get home for a brief visit. It had been over six years since he had seen Mount Vernon. Except for one additional short, sad visit to bury his stepson, Jackie Custis, he would not return for another two years.15 Then, with his military service over, he fully intended to stay put.
Washington made his intentions emphatically clear in a long circular letter he sent to the states in June 1783, as his command neared its end. Washington called on Americans to commit themselves to “an indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal Head,” which was essential, to realize the promises of the Revolution. He stressed the importance of “a sacred regard to Public Justice,” which demanded paying the nation’s debts, including those to the officers of the Continental Army. Washington also urged the states to abandon “local prejudices and policies” where necessary for “the interest of the community.” He could not be accused of any “sinister” purpose in expressing these convictions, he said, because he was determined to take no part in “public business” after the war and to pass the rest of his life “in a state of undisturbed repose.” He bid “a last farewell to the cares of office, and all the employments of public life.”16
Six months later, when he submitted his resignation to Congress at the Maryland State House, Washington repeated his renunciation of future public office. “Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation,” he said, “I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence.” He was not, Washington emphasized, retiring simply from the army but “from the Service of my Country,” indeed from “all the employments of public life.”17
His military service made Washington a hero; his retirement made him a legend. To observers everywhere he seemed an exception to the rules that normally governed human beings. A Caesar or a Cromwell might exchange military for dictatorial political power, but not Washington. He became the American Cincinnatus, a man who left the plow to save his country, then took it up again when the danger had passed.18 In late 1786, however, Washington’s renunciation of public office complicated his reflections on whether or not to attend the federal Convention. If he accepted a place on the Virginia delegation, would he be going back on his word? Would he destroy the foundation of that very prestige that made his name on the list of Virginia delegates so influential?
Above all, Washington wanted to stay home. By 1786 he had fully realized his youthful ambitions for glory; his reputation was so monumental that it seemed he could harm but not enhance it. He was finally free to do what pleased him most. When he first returned to Mount Vernon, he had to remind himself every morning that he was no longer “a public Man, or had anything to do with public transactions.” By February 1784 he could write Knox that he was “beginning to experience that ease, and freedom from public cares” that “takes some time to realize.” He had come to feel like “a wearied Traveller” who, “after treading many a painful step, with a heavy burden on his Shoulders, is eased of the latter,” having reached his destination. With obvious delight he wrote his beloved Marquis de Lafayette—another member of his close military family—that he had “not only retired from all public employments, but I am retireing within myself,” and “tread the paths of private life with heartfelt satisfaction—Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all.” That was his new order of march: He was determined to “move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my Fathers.”19
There was much at Mount Vernon to solace the soul. Washington’s home looked across the wide Potomac toward Maryland, surrounded by lawns, gardens, and flowering trees. The rest of his estate also had a certain natural beauty. An early twentieth-century visitor who tramped through lands that Washington had visited on horseback, day after day, could still find there, as meadow larks sang and the scent of honeysuckle filled the air, reason enough “to understand how there came to be a poet called Wordsworth.” (He was, however, also struck by the extremely poor quality of the soil.)20
Managing the plantation was a complex job not altogether unlike administering the Continental Army. By buying or leasing adjacent lands, Washington had built an enormous estate that by 1786 ran some ten miles along the Potomac and inland as much as four miles. Less than half of its 8,000 acres was cultivated, and he divided the arable land among five independently administered farms, each with its own work force, animals, tools, barns, sheds, and cabins. Washington generally visited all five every day, riding a circuit of some twenty miles, and kept careful records for each. He also owned a ferry across the Potomac, a fishery, a gristmill that served his neighbors as well as his plantation, and a variety of “manufactories” that produced commodities for his plantation such as linen and woolen cloth that he would otherwise have had to purchase.21
But the plantation and his financial affairs had fallen into disarray. Washington’s new secretary, Tobias Lear, discovered that Washington had lost some £10,000 sterling—a fortune at the time—during the war. Moreover, expenses at Mount Vernon persistently outran the plantation’s earnings. There was little Washington could do either to pay his creditors—cash was hard to come by at the time—or collect from his debtors, many of whom were relatives. He could, however, try to make his plantation profitable.22
Addressing that problem engaged his natural talents, which were less literary than technical and managerial (which is perhaps why we have more trouble “knowing” him than others of his generation who were more at ease with the written word). Washington had little formal schooling; he never attended college, and his interests tended toward the practical. As a young man he had been a surveyor, which required mathematical skills; technical devices always fascinated him (or, as one observer put it, he had a leaning toward “mechanics”). Now Washington developed an avid interest in the scientific approach to agriculture, hoping it might reveal ways of teasing more bountiful crops from his weak and exhausted soil.23
He corresponded with the English agricultural reformer Arthur Young, who sent Washington volumes of the Annals of Agriculture, to which Young was a major contributor. Eventually Washington owned thirty-two volumes of the publication, which he carefully studied, copying passages of particular interest, as he frequently did throughout his life. Young offered, as a “brother farmer,” to supply Washington with “men, cattle, tools, seeds, or any thing else that may add to y[ou]r rural amusement.” Across the Atlantic and the impediments of time that distance brought, the two men discussed plows, farmyard design, soil, seeds, and crop rotation. “Agriculture,” Washington volunteered, “has ever been amongst the most favourite amusements of my life.” He celebrated the establishment of an Agriculture Society in Philadelphia, and he wished that other states would found more such societies so their members could correspond with each other and inform the public of “all useful discoveries founded on practice, with a due attention [to] climate, Soil, and Seasons.”24
Meanwhile, Washington carried out his own experiments, attempting to increase soil fertility with manure or with soil dredged from the bottom of the Potomac, and he began a complex system of crop rotation that involved planting in succession corn with potatoes and carrots, buckwheat, wheat, peas, barley, oats, and red clover. His letters on farm practice have a warmth and enthusiasm unusual except in those he wrote to old friends from the Continental Army’s officer corps. Those who knew him best—Humphreys, who described Washington’s love of farming in the biography he wrote, John Jay, or the Marquis de Lafayette—recognized his passion for agriculture and so knew how to please him. In February 1788, for example, Jay sent Washington some English rhubarb seed that he had reason to think was “of the best kind… . If the seed prove good,” Jay continued, “you will soon be able to determine whether it will flourish in your climate, & in what Soil & Situation best.” In return, Washington offered to mate one of Jay’s mares with his Spanish Jack, a noble jackass that he’d received as a gift of the Spanish king. When Lafayette sent Washington another jackass and two jennies from the Isle of Malta, Washington described them as “the most valuable thing you could have sent me.” Although “not quite equal to the best Spanish Jennies,” he told Jay, the animals would help him “establish a valuable breed of these animals in this Country.”25
After the war, as Washington told the Cincinnati, he also took up another of his old projects, one that first attracted his attention in the early 1770s: to develop the Potomac River into a major route to the west. Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Virginian, shared his enthusiasm. “All the world is becoming commercial,” he wrote Washington in March 1784. It no longer made sense to speculate “whether commerce contributes to the happiness of mankind” since “our citizens have had too full a taste of the comforts furnished by the arts & manufactures to be debarred the use of them.” Virginians must “endeavor to share as large a portion as we can of this modern source of wealth & power.” Jefferson wanted the Virginia assembly to invest tax revenues into opening “the upper waters of the Ohio & Patowmac”—connecting the Potomac with rivers or streams that flowed into the Ohio and finding ways around the waterfalls that obstructed navigation—but critics always said that public money was carelessly managed and so “spent to little purpose.” If Washington superintended the project, however, fears of poor management would disappear. Would that, Jefferson asked, “break in too much on the sweets of [your] retirement and repose”?26
Washington agreed entirely on the “practicability of an easy, & short communication between the waters of the Ohio & Potomack.” That route had advantages “over all others.” He described his prewar efforts to extend navigation of the Potomac through a privately owned, incorporated company, which still seemed more promising to Washington than the prospect of getting tax money for river development. Was he willing to take the lead? Perhaps, he wrote Jefferson in March 1784, “if that undertaking could be made to comport with those ideas, & that line of conduct with which I mean to glide gently down the stream of life” and “did not interfere with any other plan I might have in contemplation.”27
In September 1784, Washington began a trip—part pleasure, part business—that he had long dreamed of, a journey of some 600 miles up the Potomac and through the Appalachians to the Ohio Valley, where he owned vast stretches of land. The route was much the same as that he took as a twenty-two-year-old Virginia militia officer thirty years earlier, at the start of his military career, and again in 1755, when he joined General Edward Braddock on an expedition up through Virginia and Maryland and across the Appalachians to a site near the Monongahela River where Braddock and some 465 of his men met their inglorious end at the hands of a few well-positioned Indian and French soldiers. If Washington hoped to find a way to alleviate his financial distress in that ghost-ridden west, he was disappointed: A mill he hoped to sell was in such disrepair it found no buyers, and his lands were filled with squatters who refused to acknowledge his title.28
That was vexing, but Washington had become absorbed with another quest: to find the best way to link the upper reaches of the Potomac with the Ohio River, which formed at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and flowed down to the Mississippi, that great highway of the interior. Everywhere he went he asked questions, made observations, and speculated on how best to tie the river systems together. He also met James Rumsey and first saw Rumsey’s invention: an odd-looking boat, somewhat like a catamaran, with poles on its sides that drew power from a front-mounted waterwheel to push the contraption upstream, against the current. Washington was delighted with the device, which he thought would help solve the problem of navigating the Potomac. By then he was hooked. He assumed leadership of the project to develop the river—not from necessity, as he suggested to the Cincinnati, but with passion. Washington became president of the new Potomac Company, which, thanks to his efforts, received charters and financial support from both Virginia and Maryland. The mass of the company’s capital would, however, have to come from private subscribers.29
If the Potomac Company succeeded in tying the west to the Atlantic via the Potomac River, the value of Washington’s lands in the west would increase. So would that of his Mount Vernon estate if the town of Alexandria, only nine miles away, became a major trading metropolis. But he wrote Knox that he hoped for the project’s success “more on account of its political importance … than the commercial advantages which would result from it, altho’ the latter is an immense object.” If the settlers filling the west, generally immigrants with no historical bonds to the United States, could not easily trade with the Atlantic coast, they might attach themselves to the Spanish to their west or the British to their north. Washington feared they would “become a distinct people from us,” with “different views” and “different interests, & instead of adding strength to the Union, may in case of a rupture with either of those powers, be a formidable & dangerous neighbour.”30
THE STATE OF THE NATION
The Potomac link with the west would be, in short, a bond of nationhood for a nation in desperate need of bonds. The very possibility that western settlers might switch their allegiance to Britain or Spain testified that the “continental belt” remained “too loosely buckled,” as Thomas Paine had put it in Common Sense. In fact, the “continental belt” had never been adequately tightened, as Washington and his fellow officers knew from painful wartime experience, and the union became even weaker after the peace, when the need for national government seemed less pressing. The basic problem was, as one of Washington’s correspondents put it with admirable succinctness, “no money.”31 Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no power to levy taxes. The struggle with Britain began when colonists denied Parliament the right to tax them on the principle of “no taxation without representation.” With independence, it seemed safest to keep the right to tax in the state legislatures, where the people were directly represented. The Continental Congress could legally print money, and it did so to finance the opening years of the war, but its currency depreciated to the point of uselessness. Congress could also borrow money, which it did. And in the 1780s it began to make arrangements for surveying and selling government lands in the west, but it would take time before those sales produced a substantial revenue stream.
In the meantime, Congress depended on annual payments—requisitions—from the states to make interest and principal payments on the war debt and to cover current expenses. But none of the states paid all of their requisitions, and Georgia paid nothing. A few states began to pay interest on the portion of the national debt that was owed to their citizens. The part of the national debt that was owed to foreign nations, however, remained the sole responsibility of Congress. In 1781 and again in 1783, Congress asked the states to let Congress collect duties on imports (an “impost”) so it could at least pay its debts. But amendments to the Articles of Confederation required unanimous ratification by the state legislatures, and Rhode Island refused to ratify the first impost amendment. State consideration of the revised 1783 impost dragged on into early 1786, when the states that had not acted were urged to ratify the proposal quickly and avoid the “fatal effects” of Congress’s defaulting on its contractual obligations.
Virginia congressman Henry Lee (an ex-army officer known as “Light Horse Harry”) wasn’t optimistic. The members of the New York legislature, he told Washington in February 1786, were “violent enemys to the impost,” and he feared that “even the impending … dangers to the existence of the Union will not move them.” In fact, New York ratified the 1783 impost amendment but insisted that the duties levied by Congress be paid in New York’s paper money and collected by state officials. Congress refused to accept those conditions. “Part of the principal of our foreign loans is due next year,” Lee noted, but Congress had “no certain means … to pay even the interest.” Massachusetts delegate Rufus King reported that employees of the Confederation “begin to clamour” because they had long gone unpaid, and the handful of troops beyond the Ohio River was starting to mutiny and desert. The country’s situation, another member of Congress commented, was “indeed wretched—Our Funds exhausted, our Credit lost, our Confidence in the federal Government destroyed.”32
In 1783 Washington had called on the country to pay the debts Congress had incurred during the Revolutionary War as a matter of justice and honesty. To default on the foreign debt would also undermine the country’s capacity to borrow abroad in the event of another military crisis. “We have it in our power to be one of the most respectable Nations upon Earth,” he wrote in October 1785, when the problems of national finance were already abundantly clear. Nobody could deny that “our resources are ample, & encreasing,” but by denying Congress a share of that wealth “we give the vital stab to public credit, and must sink into contempt in the eyes of Europe.”33
There were good reasons for his fears. One incident after another demonstrated that Congress’s sorry financial state left the United States at the mercy of other nations. When Britain excluded American ships and American exports from the West Indies and also blocked American imports into Britain, Congress could do nothing. The British imposed those restrictions, Washington said, on an assumption that the states could not unite against them; he predicted—incorrectly—that Britain’s shortsighted policies would provoke the states into giving Congress power to regulate trade.34 Congress could not retaliate after Spain closed the Mississippi to American shippers in 1784. After meeting with the Spanish negotiator Don Diego de Gardoqui, Secretary for Foreign Affairs John Jay found he could get commercial privileges from Spain only if the United States gave up navigation of the Mississippi for twenty-five years. When he asked Congress for permission to negotiate a treaty on those terms, he succeeded mainly in causing a profound split between Northern commercial states, which were willing to vote “yes” to enhance their trade over the Atlantic, and Southern states, which saw their future and that of their western lands tied to the Mississippi. When the Barbary States of North Africa began seizing American ships in the Mediterranean, the United States could neither pay them off, as Britain and other European countries did, nor respond with force. It had no navy. Moreover, its army had shrunk to some 625 unpaid, poorly equipped men, mostly in western Pennsylvania—too few to prevent squatters from moving onto Indian lands, which threatened to provoke open war at several points along the western frontier. The United States was becoming “the sport of transatlantic politicians of all denominations.”35
Congress could not enforce the powers it clearly had under the Articles of Confederation. The Articles granted “the united states in congress assembled … sole and exclusive right and power” over “peace and war, the sending and receiving of ambassadors, negotiating treaties and alliances,” and “regulating the Indian trade.” Nonetheless, New York negotiated a separate treaty with the Iroquois, with devastating implications for national policy.36 Congress could not even assure compliance with the peace treaty it had negotiated and ratified. In late 1785, the British formally refused to evacuate their posts in the northwest, arguing that they were not obliged to honor the peace treaty while the Americans violated it. In particular, they charged that the treaty’s fourth article, which said creditors would confront no legal impediments to recovering the full value in pounds sterling of all bona fide debts previously contracted, had been violated by the states. An investigation by John Jay confirmed the charge and discovered that both New York and South Carolina had also violated the treaty’s sixth article, which prohibited further prosecutions of Loyalists for wartime activities and future confiscations of Loyalist property. Jay concluded that there was almost nothing Congress could do to end those practices or to compensate the victims for their losses. “Our affairs,” he wrote Washington in June 1786, “seem to lead to some crisis—some Revolution—something I cannot foresee, or conjecture.” He was more “uneasy and apprehensive” than during the war, when “we had a fixed Object,” and when he believed the Americans would “ultimately succeed” because “Justice was with us. The Case is now altered—we are going and doing wrong.”37
Meanwhile the Confederation Congress remained in a state of paralysis. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress could not engage in war, enter into treaties or alliances, coin money and regulate its value, determine the expenses necessary for the country’s welfare, appropriate money, or essentially do anything of significance without the consent of nine state delegations. Even lesser matters—except for adjourning from day to day—required the consent of seven states. A state needed at least two delegates (and could have as many as seven) for its vote to count. If its delegates were equally divided, its vote was so recorded but did not count. However, for long periods of time too few delegations were present for Congress even to attempt anything of significance. In April 1786, Rufus King complained that there had been nine state delegations present on the floor of Congress on only three days since the previous October, which meant that his staying there through the winter was a “mere farce… . Foreigners know our situation, and the friends of free Governments through the world must regret it.”38
When, finally, nine states (but no more) were present, Congress needed their unanimous consent to exercise its major powers. That was all but impossible because of sectional jealousies and conflicting interests. “Every State,” Henry Knox complained, “considers its representative in Congress not so much the Legislator of the whole Union, as its own immediate Agent or Ambassador” to represent its particular views. How then could the United States become a republic that could “rival the Roman name”?39
Washington knew all these problems, as Governor Randolph acknowledged. In 1785 Washington described the Confederation as “little more than an empty sound, and Congress a nugatory body.” It seemed extraordinary that Americans would confederate for national purposes but then refuse to give officials who were “Creatures of our own making—appointed for a limited and short duration—who are amenable for every action—recallable at any moment—and subject to all the evils they may be instrumental in producing, sufficient powers to order & direct the affairs of that Nation.” He saw no threat of tyranny in expanding the powers of the federal government since the members of Congress were “so much the creatures of the people” that they could have no views or interests apart from those of their constituents. He did, however, see reason to fear “the worst consequences from a half starved, limping Government, that appears to be always moving upon crutches, & tottering at every step.”40
By 1786 Washington’s dream of a “respectable nation”—that is, a nation that could be “considered on a respectable footing by the powers of Europe”—seemed increasingly remote.41 The very future of the republic—a government without hereditary rulers, in which all power came from the people—seemed in doubt. Washington shared John Jay’s fears that “the better kind of people” would be “led by the Insecurity of Property, the Loss of Confidence in their Rulers, & Want [Lack] of public Faith & Rectitude, to consider the Charms of Liberty as imaginary and delusive” and adopt “almost any change” that promised “Quiet and Security.” American affairs were “drawing rapidly to a crisis.” Requisitions were “a perfect nihility,” he wrote Jay in August 1786, and “if you tell the Legislatures they have violated the treaty of peace and invaded the prerogatives of the confederacy they will laugh in your face. What then is to be done?” Things could not go on as they had; “I am told that even respectable characters speak of a monarchical form of government without horror… . What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on … equal liberty are merely ideal & fallacious!” Experience showed “that men will not adopt & carry into execution, measures the best calculated for their own good without the intervention of a coercive power. I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation, without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union in as energetic a manner, as the authority of the different state governments extends over the several States.”42
Popular unrest in the fall and winter of 1786–1787 brought these fears to a peak. Discontent was “not confined to one state or to one part of a state” in the northeast, Henry Lee told Washington in September 1786, but pervaded “the whole.” Soon David Humphreys reported that although General John Sullivan, then the president of New Hampshire, had put down an insurrection there “without effusion of blood,” in Massachusetts, where the event remembered as Shays’s Rebellion was under way, “everything” was “in a state of confusion.”43 Was America following the pattern of previous republics, which ended after a plague of anarchy led law-abiding people to invest power in some strong leader who could restore order? “For God’s sake,” Washington implored Humphreys, “tell me, what is the cause of all these commotions?” Were they provoked by licentiousness, British influence, or “real grievances” that could be redressed? “I am really mortified beyond expression that in the moment of Acknowledged Independence we should, by our conduct, verify the predictions of our transatlantic foe, & render ourselves ridiculous & contemptible in the eyes of all Europe.”44
Washington’s correspondents—above all Humphreys, Knox, and General Benjamin Lincoln, all old army officers—sent Washington detailed reports that were heavily slanted against the insurgents in Massachusetts. Rufus King came to a different but correct conclusion: He wrote John Adams, the first American minister to Great Britain, that heavy, direct taxes on polls and real property, levied by the state in the midst of a commercial depression, along with pressure from private creditors, had driven farmers in several Massachusetts counties to obstruct tax collections and close courts until the legislature could grant them relief. “You will see this business greatly magnified and tories may rejoice,” he told Adams, “but all will be well.”45
King might have added that the situation in Massachusetts was an extreme case of a widespread problem. In the 1780s, to pay their war debts and requisitions to Congress, the states had increased taxes to a level several times what they had been before 1776. Moreover, except for New York and Pennsylvania, which received substantial revenue from taxes on imports, the states depended primarily on regressive taxes on persons and property, which caused widespread discontent. Some states averted rural insurrections by issuing paper money or providing other forms of tax or debt relief. But Knox, who, as secretary at war, went to Massachusetts to investigate, insisted that high taxes were only the “ostensible cause of the commotions.” The insurgents, he said, were not simply poor but also “desperate & unprincipled men” who paid little or no taxes; they resented their inferiority to the wealthy and sought to take advantage of the government’s weakness to redress the imbalance. They planned to “annihilate all debts public and private” and pass laws that would redistribute wealth by making unfunded paper money legal tender “in all cases whatsoever.”46
Lincoln, who led Massachusetts troops against the insurgent followers of Daniel Shays, later echoed Knox’s claims, while Congressman Henry Lee managed to exaggerate them. The insurgents wanted not only to abolish debts and redistribute property, Lee claimed, but to reunite with Britain. The “mal-contents” supposedly had close ties with Vermont (then seeking independence from New York), which “it is believed [sic] is in negotiation with the Governor of Canada.” Lee also reported that a majority of people in Massachusetts opposed their government—not, as Knox claimed, a fifth of the people in some counties—and “the same temper prevails more or less” in all the New England states. “In one word, my dear Gen[era]l,” he wrote to Washington, “we are all in dire apprehension that a beginning of anarchy with all its calamitys has approached, & have no means to stop the dreadful work.”47
A sense of helplessness made a bad situation almost unbearable. Congress could only call for troops to help Massachusetts by pretending they would be used against Indians: The Articles of Confederation did not give it a clear and indisputable power to suppress domestic insurrections. The states seemed equally powerless. Massachusetts, whose constitution Washington considered one of the most “energetic in the Union,” had now seen “its laws arrested and trampled under foot.” Its government, Humphreys reported, lay “prostrated in the dust. And it is much to be feared that there is not energy enough in that State, to reestablish the civil Powers.” The state treasurer couldn’t even borrow money to supply a volunteer army. Lincoln himself had to raise funds for the expedition he led against the insurgents, which he did by urging a group of wealthy Bostonians to lend “part of their property if they wished to secure the remainder.” Meanwhile, Knox reported that the strength of the uprising was growing, “& it is expected that they will soon take possession of the Continental Magazine at Springfield,” where there were “ten to fifteen thousand stand of Arms in excellent order.”48
Lincoln’s army actually suppressed the uprising with relative ease, and the Massachusetts government reclaimed its old effectiveness after the spring 1787 elections. A surge in voting participation (three times more people voted than the year before), provoked by severe and partisan reprisals against the “rebels” enacted under Governor James Bowdoin, gave Bowdoin’s opponent, John Hancock, 75 percent of the popular vote. Sixty more towns also sent representatives to the legislature, which grew from 198 members in 1786 to 266 in 1787; and then, after it became a more genuinely representative body, the legislature adopted a conciliatory position in place of the Bowdoin administration’s hard-line policies. Soon order returned, even in embattled sections of the state. The problem was hardly as serious or as intractable as Knox had claimed.49
Washington, however, believed the frenzied reports he received. In a letter dated December 26, 1786—the same in which he asked for advice on the convention—he thanked Knox for his clear “advices” and asked him to send more accounts of the events in Massachusetts because he could depend on them, unlike the “vague & contradictory” accounts in newspapers. Not even Lee’s charge that the insurgents sympathized with Britain seemed untenable: The British were certainly fomenting discontent among Indians on the frontier, and Washington was sure they would also take “every opportunity to foment the spirit of turbulence within the bowels of the United States” in order to “distract” our governments and encourage divisions. The “commotions” gave “a melancholy proof of what our trans atlantic foe have predicted; and of another thing … still more to be regretted … that mankind left to themselves are unfit for their own government.” The whole episode seemed to Washington “like the vision of a dream. My mind does not know how to realize it, as a thing in actual existence, so strange—so wonderful does it appear to me!”50 Governor Randolph thought the uprisings in Massachusetts might even persuade Washington to go to Philadelphia. At least he should not resign from the delegation, Randolph urged in January 1787, “until time shall disclose the result of the commotions now prevailing.”51
A crippled national government; state authority trampled into the dust; a people incapable of self-government; a revolutionary cause on the brink of failure: The situation amounted to a crisis of unprecedented importance in the young republic. For those caught up in that frame of mind, the entire future of the United States was at stake. Washington was not, he acknowledged, an “unconcerned spectator” of these developments.52 He had already compromised his retirement from public affairs by becoming involved with the Potomac Company, which he saw as a way to promote union. Now something more had to be done. But what? And was the proposed convention a feasible way of doing what was needed?
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
Americans had been designing and redesigning their governments since 1776, when the states enacted the world’s first written constitutions. In devising new governments for the states, the Americans built on deep colonial precedents and could act with a confidence born of experience. By contrast, the national government was new; it seemed at times to threaten state power; and its most obvious precedent—the supervising authority of Britain—did not encourage trust. The colonists had, after all, spent over a decade questioning, resisting, and finally throwing off the authority of the British government. At every step, the effort to establish a formal plan of government for the union met resistance and delay. The Continental Congress had worked on the Articles of Confederation for over a year before sending the document to the states for ratification; it took another three and a half years before the Articles finally went into effect in March 1781—seven months before the Revolutionary War finally ended at Yorktown.
Now, in late 1786 and early 1787, some of Washington’s correspondents mused on what changes in national government would resolve the country’s problems and shared their ideas with him. To a man they proposed giving the national government a more complex structure, like those in most of the states, with separate legislative, executive, and judiciary departments. They also proposed a more centralized national government, one to which the states would be clearly subordinate.
It was a big mistake for the Articles of Confederation to put all of the federal government’s powers in Congress, John Jay wrote Washington on January 7, 1787. Congress was too large, too open, too subject to private ambitions, and too oblivious of character, honor, and dignity to govern effectively. He proposed a new government that divided power among a legislature, an executive, and a judiciary. The legislature should be bicameral, with a popularly elected lower house and an upper house whose members held office for life. Executive authority could be entrusted to a “Governor General” whose powers and term of office were clearly defined and limited. With the advice of a special council whose members were drawn from the judiciary—much like the council of revision in Jay’s home state of New York—the governor general should be able to veto acts of the legislature. How much power such a government should have was, Jay thought, worthy of “much Thought,” but he was inclined to think “the more the better.” The states should be left with only those powers necessary for regulating their internal affairs, and the national government should appoint and have power to remove from office “all their principal Officers civil and military.”53
Henry Knox sent his ideas to Washington a week after Jay. He too proposed separating and balancing power among three branches of a new central or “general” government. Again like Jay, he advocated a bicameral legislature, with a lower house whose members held office for terms of one, two, or three years; and an upper house whose members had terms of five, six, or seven years. Knox would place the executive power in a governor general chosen for a seven-year term by both houses of the legislature, but “impeachable by the lower house and triable by the Senate.” The governor general would appoint judges who held office on good behavior, but who could be impeached and tried just like the executive. Knox also expressed a strong preference for a single national government rather than an association of governments. Certainly all national laws should be obeyed by the “local governments”—Knox didn’t even use the word “states”—and “if necessary” such laws should be enforced by “a body of armed men” kept for that purpose. Knox’s “rude sketch” of a more workable government was dramatically different from the Confederation, but anything less, Knox thought, would “hazard the existence of republicanism” and risk either having European nations divide up the United States or “a despotism arising from highhanded commotions.”54
Was the proposed convention a good way to get such radical but necessary changes? Even the advocates of reform disagreed on that. Some—including Rufus King, who was as impatient as anyone with the imbecilities of the Confederation—thought that proposals for changing the central government should come from the legally constituted Congress and be submitted to the state legislatures for ratification, following the procedure described in the Articles of Confederation. Knox, however, considered that route to change absolutely hopeless: Congress’s recommendations were too ineffectual, the state legislatures too recalcitrant. Getting the unanimous consent of the states for essential changes to the Articles of Confederation would be impossible. John Jay proposed instead that Congress declare in plain, strong terms that the Confederation government was inadequate to achieve its purposes and recommend that the people of the states “without Delay” elect delegates to state conventions, whose sole purpose would be to choose deputies to a general convention. That general convention could then enact constitutional changes, without any further process of approval, based upon “the only Source of just authority—the People.” What Jay proposed was not, however, what the Annapolis meeting proposed. And as more and more states chose delegates to the Philadelphia convention, it drew support from men who, like Rufus King, still questioned its legality but by February 1787 had come to think it was more prudent for the partisans of change to back the convention than to oppose it. However, King, like Jay, doubted “that much Good” would come from the convention.55
Washington’s correspondents agreed, in any case, that mere amendments to the Articles of Confederation would not do the job. If the Philadelphia convention recommended only measures to prop up the Confederation, Knox wrote, it would be a step backward, “assisting us to creep on in our present miserable condition, without a hope of a generous constitution” capable of shielding the country from “the effects of faction, and despotism.” The convention’s recommendations might even exacerbate the country’s problems, producing, as Jay feared, “endless Discussions, and perhaps Jealousies and Party Heats.” Knox—but not Humphreys—saw a remote chance that, if the convention were well attended by a “respectable set of men,” it would propose a more energetic government and the country would accept it. Certainly the convention was, as the Virginia legislature had argued, a more likely place to produce such a proposal than Congress, whose peculiar voting requirements could sometimes keep measures with clear majority support from passing. Even an imperfect proposal from the Philadelphia convention would get men thinking about the subject, and so might serve, Knox suggested, as a “stage in the business” of establishing a “good Constitution.”56
So long as opinion on the convention was divided and its outcome remained uncertain, Knox and Humphreys both thought Washington should stay home. By attending, Humphreys said, Washington would offend the Cincinnati and violate the retirement from public affairs he had announced in resigning his military commission. At some point he might need to do that, Humphreys said, but “the Crisis is … not yet come.” Washington’s “personal influence & character” were “the last stake … America has to play.” Rather than risk his reputation needlessly, Washington should wait “for the united call of a Continent entire.” Knox said the same thing.57
Their advice coincided with Washington’s inclinations. In February 1787, he wrote Knox confidentially that he did not plan “at this time” to attend the convention—which suggested he might still change his mind. Above all, he wanted “to do for the best, and to act with propriety.” He favored the “shortest course” toward getting the federal government the powers it needed for fear that, like a house on fire, the building might burn to ashes while people argued over the best way to put out the flames. He did not think Congress was the most “efficacious” route to constitutional change “for reasons too numerous to enumerate.” Washington als
The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788
The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788
When the delegates left the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in September 1787, the new Constitution they had written was no more than a proposal. Elected conventions in at least nine of the thirteen states would have to ratify it before it could take effect. There was reason to doubt whether that would happen. The document we revere today as the foundation of our country’s laws, the cornerstone of our legal system, was hotly disputed at the time. Some Americans denounced the Constitution for threatening the liberty that Americans had won at great cost in the Revolutionary War. One group of fiercely patriotic opponents even burned the document in a raucous public demonstration on the Fourth of July.
In this splendid new history, Pauline Maier tells the dramatic story of the yearlong battle over ratification that brought such famous founders as Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and Henry together with less well-known Americans who sometimes eloquently and always passionately expressed their hopes and fears for their new country. Men argued in taverns and coffeehouses; women joined the debate in their parlors; broadsides and newspaper stories advocated various points of view and excoriated others. In small towns and counties across the country people read the document carefully and knew it well. Americans seized the opportunity to play a role in shaping the new nation. Then the ratifying conventions chosen by “We the People” scrutinized and debated the Constitution clause by clause.
Although many books have been written about the Constitutional Convention, this is the first major history of ratification. It draws on a vast new collection of documents and tells the story with masterful attention to detail in a dynamic narrative. Each state’s experience was different, and Maier gives each its due even as she focuses on the four critical states of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York, whose approval of the Constitution was crucial to its success.
The New Yorker Gilbert Livingston called his participation in the ratification convention the greatest transaction of his life. The hundreds of delegates to the ratifying conventions took their responsibility seriously, and their careful inspection of the Constitution can tell us much today about a document whose meaning continues to be subject to interpretation. Ratification is the story of the founding drama of our nation, superbly told in a history that transports readers back more than two centuries to reveal the convictions and aspirations on which our country was built.