George Washington's pre-presidential statesmanship, 1783-1789.

Author:Ray, John

Between the close of the Revolutionary War and ratification of the Constitution, did George Washington "take a lead in re-forming the Union, or was he merely brought in, so to speak, in an honorary capacity?"(1) As Marcus Cunliffe suggests, how this question is answered bears importantly, perhaps decisively, on our whole understanding of Washington: was he an ambitious master of the art of statesmanship or was he a mediocrity whose transformation into indispensability was the work of greater minds? Cunliffe, whose thoughtful and engaging study has done much to rekindle interest in Washington, concludes that the central figure of the American founding was neither a statesman of genius nor a brilliant reformer, but was instead an honest administrator and a prudent conserver.(2) Cunliffe admits that in Washington's writings "there is an implication (which, because of his scrupulous modesty, appears only now and then in his letters) that he had begun the work [to reform the Articles of Confederation], and through example and precept had indicated the path for the new nation to follow."(3) Yet Cunliffe rejects Washington's understanding of himself. He insists that as late as August 1786--when Washington wrote John Jay that his "sentiments and opinions" had been "neglected, tho' given as a last legacy in the most solemn manner"(4)--Washington was "following some way behind the active controversialists."(5) Not all historians have followed Cunliffe in reducing the importance of Washington's pre-presidential statesmanship--James Thomas Flexner and Glenn A. Phelps give Washington a crucial role in the "critical period" of the 1780s.(6) Yet it is useful to Cunliffe's influential account of Washington during these formative years in light of Washington's own account of his intentions and activities.

Cunliffe is right in his observation that Washington thought of himself as the person most responsible for reform of the Articles of Confederation, but is he right to conclude that Washington was wrong about himself? As early as 1780 Washington had warned that the Union was in danger of disintegrating: "I see one head gradually changing into thirteen.... I see the powers of Congress declining too fast for the consequence and respect which is due to them as the grand representative body of America."(7) Three years later, at the very close of the war, Washington wrote Alexander Hamilton:

My wish to see the Union of these States established upon liberal and

permanent principles, and inclination to contribute my mite in pointing

out the defects of the present Constitution, are equally great. All my

private letters have teemed with these Sentiments, and whenever this topic

has been the subject of conversation, I have endeavoured to diffuse and

enforce them.(8)

He believed that "no Man in the United States is, or can be more deeply impressed with the necessity of a reform in our present confederation than myself."(9) Washington concluded his letter to Hamilton with a rare revelation of his own conscious intention:

the prejudices of some, the designs of others, and the mere Machinery of

the Majority, makes address and management necessary to give weight to

opinions which are to combat the doctrines of those different classes of

Men, in the field of Politics. . . . I wish you may understand what I have


What is statesmanship if not "address and management" of "men in the field of politics"? Hamilton, we can be sure, understood.

Washington knew his opinions were widely spread in "the multiplicity of my correspondencies in this Country as well as in many parts of Europe."(11) The letters of 1784-89 show Washington working steadily and self-consciously first toward reform of the Articles of Confederation and then toward passage of the Constitution of 1787.(12) These letters reached out to a rising generation. From January 1784 to April 1789, Washington wrote a known total of 159 political letters to Americans, of which Douglas Southall Freeman says seventy-six, or almost half, were to seven men in their twenties or thirties, as follows: Alexander Hamilton, six; David Humphreys, twelve; Henry Knox, seven; Henry Lee, three; James Madison, eighteen; Edmund Randolph, fifteen; David Stuart, fifteen."(13) Thus, "the call again was to youth under the same captain."(14)

During the last years of the Revolutionary War, when the political outcome of the war was by no means certain, Washington's letters did "teem" with his concern for a stronger national government. In the two years following the war, Washington wrote fewer letters on this or any other subject. After nearly nine years of continuous absence from Mount Vernon, his private affairs were naturally time absorbing, and he was without a private secretary.(15) But there is no reason to conclude, as Cunliffe does, that "in 1784-1785 he was not thinking in grandly Continental terms."(16) To give just three examples of Washington's thinking in 1784 and 1785: in January 1784 Washington wrote Virginia's Governor Benjamin Harrison:

The disinclination of the individual States yield competent powers to

Congress for the Federal Government, their unreasonable jealously of that

body and of one another, and the disposition which seems to pervade each,

of being all-wise and all-powerful within itself, will, if there is not a

change in the system be our downfall as a nation. This is as clear to me as

the A, B, C.(17)

In December 1784 Washington wrote Henry Knox:

there is a kind of fatality attending all our public measures, inconceivable

delays, particular States counteracting the plans of the United States when

submitted to them, opposing each other upon all occasions, torn by internal

disputes, or supinely negligent and inattentive to everything which is not

local and selfinteresting and very often short sighted in these, make up

our system of conduct. Would to God our Countrymen, who are entrusted with

the management of the political machine, could view things by that large

and extensive scale upon which it is measured by foreigners, and by the

Statesmen of Europe, who see what we might be, and predict what we shall

come to. In fact, our Federal government is a name without substance.(18)

In August 1785 Washington wrote James McHenry:

As I have ever been a friend to adequate powers of Congress, without which

it is evident to me we never shall establish a national character, or be

considered as on a respectable footing by the powers of Europe, I am sorry

I cannot agree with you in sentiment not to enlarge them for the regulating

of commerce.... We are a united people under one,head, and for federal

purposes; or we are thirteen independent sovereignties, eternally

counteracting each other... I confess to you candidly, that I can foresee

no evil greater than disunion.(19)

To support his claim that in 1784 and 1785 Washington was not thinking in Continental terms, Cunliffe contends that the Potomac Plan for inland navigation, which greatly occupied Washington in this period, aroused his "pride as a Virginian ... and [that] after he had assumed control, Washington initially thought in regional rather than national terms."(20) Washington did want the middle states, and especially Virginia, to be the ones to benefit most from a developed inland waterway. In laying the proposal before Governor Harrison (who laid it before the Virginia Assembly) Washington first took "a short view of our own" interest, but then noted: "when considered in an interested point of view, [the plan] is alone sufficient to excite our endeavours; but in my opinion, there is a political consideration for so doing, which is of still greater importance."(21) Washington was thinking of the fact "that the flanks and rear of the United States are possessed by other powers, and formidable ones too."(22) It was "necessary ... to apply the cement of interest, to bind all parts of the Union together by indissoluble bonds, especially that part of it, which lies immediately west of us, with the middle States."(23) An inland waterway would "attract the attention of the Western country, and to convince the wavering Inhabitants thereof of our disposition to connect ourselves and them, and to facilitate their commerce with us."(24) In another letter, Washington writes that he is "engaged in a project which I think big with great political, as well as commercial consequences to these States.... I may be singular in my ideas."(25) Madison, who also appreciated the larger political intention behind the Potomac Plan, clearly understood that Washington intended to lead the way to a greater American empire. Washington, he said,

could not have chosen an occupation more worthy of succeeding to that of

establishing the political rights of his Country, than the patronage of

its natural advantages; works which will double the value of half the

lands within the Commonwealth, will extend its commerces, [and] link with

its interests those of the Western States.(26)

According to Cunliffe, before his August 1, 1786, letter to John Jay, Washington had "expressed his opinions with oracular vagueness" and had not begun "to sort out his ideas."(27) This was not Washington's opinion either of the firmness of his ideas or of his expression of them. In April 1786, he declared "My sentiments with respect to the federal Government, are well known, publicly and privately have they been communicated without reserve."(28) Moreover, in the letter to Jay, excellent...

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