For we who believe that great men, not impersonal forces, make history, George Washington is Exhibit A. As the Revolution’s commander in chief, president of the Constitutional Convention, and first president of the United States, he was luminously the Founding’s indispensable man, in biographer James Flexner’s pitch-perfect phrase. A pragmatic visionary—that familiar American combination—he conceived from his hard-won experience in the French and Indian War the central Founding ideas of an American union under a strong executive three decades before the Constitutional Convention, and his hardships in the Revolution led him to forge that vision into a plan. An ambitious entrepreneur, he shared the “spirit of commerce” he knew was America’s ruling passion, and he eagerly foresaw a nation where industry and trade, not just farming, would provide opportunity for all and would generate the wealth he thought key to national power and security, a vision he fulfilled in his two terms as president. He had a born leader’s knack of attracting brilliant, like-minded young men to work with him to fill in the details and make his dream a reality, and he fired them up with ample measures of praise and credit. They were visionaries together, but he was the visionary in chief.
His youthful friendship with the Fairfax family, English aristocrats who, with 5 million colonial acres, were among the grandest of Virginia’s grandees, set him going on both his entrepreneurial and military careers. After learning surveying, the 16-year-old Washington began laying out plots in 1748 for Lord Fairfax to sell on his rich Shenandoah Valley lands. Within two years, he had earned enough to buy 1,500 acres himself, and with 2,315 acres by the time he was 20, he was on his way as a high-rolling land speculator.
Whatever the spark was that the Fairfaxes saw in Washington—some mix of will, focus, courage, and honor—Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie, the crown’s highest Virginia official, saw too when the young surveyor called on him in January 1752, bearing letters of recommendation that gained him a dinner invitation, which led to his appointment as a major in the Virginia militia just before his 21st birthday, February 22, 1753. Certainly he looked the part: “Six feet high & proportionably made,” he wrote to his London tailor, “rather Slender than thick . . . with pretty long arms & thighs,” narrow shoulders and chest compared with his wide hips, big hands, piercing gray-blue eyes above a long, straight nose, powdered brown hair tied in a queue, a firm mouth clenched ever tighter as age decayed his teeth, and with “a Constitution hardy enough to encounter and undergo the most severe tryals, and I flatter myself resolution to Face what any Man durst,” he boasted to Dinwiddie. As Jefferson later marveled, he was also “the best horseman of his age.”
Late that fall, the neophyte major put his hardihood to the test, volunteering for a mission that “I believe few or none would have undertaken,” he wrote. It set earthshaking events in motion. British and French ambitions collided in the Ohio Valley, when France made plans to build a string of forts there to enforce its territorial claim, and the British responded with plans for outposts of their own, along with an ultimatum demanding the French troops’ “peaceable Departure.” Washington’s mission: to deliver the ultimatum. It’s easy to see how his published report of his two-month midwinter mission, with its exotic tales of savage Indians, daring wilderness adventure, and haughty French defiance, made the 22-year-old an instant celebrity on two continents. In London, the Gentleman’s Magazine praised him as “a youth of great sobriety, diligence, and fidelity,” and Dinwiddie jumped him to lieutenant colonel.
No applause greeted his next wilderness exploit, though. Instead, quipped the era’s gossip, Horace Walpole, “a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire,” and it took until 1763 for the Seven Years’ War that Washington ignited to blaze through the New World, Europe, and even India and Africa, before it burned itself out.
Responding to rumors that the French were probing a strategic site where Pittsburgh later rose, Dinwiddie ordered his new lieutenant colonel to “restrain all such offenders” or “kill and destroy them.” Washington and his militiamen marched into the forest on April 2, 1754, but with 50 miles still to go, their scouts reported that 1,000 French soldiers had seized a half-finished British stockade, renaming it Fort Duquesne. Washington camped at a seemingly defensible spot named Great Meadows and called for reinforcements.
Meanwhile, hearing that a French scouting party was “sculking” about, Washington leaped into action—disastrously. His Indian allies led him and 40 men to “a very obscure place surrounded with Rocks,” where on May 28 they attacked 36 French soldiers and quickly captured 21 and killed ten, including wounded men whom Washington saw the Indians “knock . . . on the head and bereave them of their scalps.” Among the dead: a 35-year-old nobleman, the Sieur de Jumonville, who, like Washington on his earlier mission, was an envoy bearing an ultimatum demanding that the British clear out of the Ohio Valley, as the captured French officers indignantly insisted.
At first, Washington didn’t want to believe that he’d erred so grossly. The French officers, he blustered in his dispatch to Dinwiddie, were “bold Enterprising” men “of gt subtilty and cunning,” and “the absurdity of this pretext is too glaring as your Honour will see.” To his brother Jack, Washington boasted of “a signal Victory,” in which “I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.” When the London Magazine printed the letter, the battle-hardened George II scoffed, “He would not say so, if he had been used to hear many.”
The French, Washington knew, wouldn’t let the incident pass unavenged, so he strengthened his camp, mordantly dubbed Fort Necessity. On July 3, with “Shouts, and dismal Indian yells,” almost 800 French and 400 Indians swooped in, under the command of Jumonville’s enraged elder brother, and “from every little rising, tree, stump, Stone, and bush kept up a constant galding fire upon us; which was returned by us in the best manner we could till late in the Afternn. when their fell the most tremendous rain,” soaking his soldiers’ powder and making further resistance impossible. At dusk, with a third of his 300 men dead or wounded, Washington signed the surrender that the elder Jumonville offered, proud to be able to march away with drums beating and flags flying. What he hadn’t realized was that, in the rain and dark, he had signed a document, in a language he didn’t understand, that admitted his “assassination” of young Jumonville, a propaganda coup for the French. Now they could claim that the war crime of a trigger-happy backwoods officer and his savage Indian allies had forced conflict upon an innocent France.
Though the French banged that drum hard, people soon deemed Washington’s stand at Fort Necessity a gallant defiance of overwhelming odds. But when London decided in October 1754 to split the Virginia regiment into ten parts, each headed by a captain—meaning Lieutenant Colonel Washington would be demoted—Washington fumed. As he recalled bitterly more than 30 years later, “This was too degrading for G. W. to submit to; accordingly, he resigned his Military employment.”
He knew he’d be back, though; and in March 1755, when General Edward Braddock, impressed with his repute, invited him to become his aide-de-camp for an assault on Fort Duquesne, he signed on as an unpaid volunteer, to finesse the status issue. But Braddock, with a British officer’s characteristic arrogant condescension, couldn’t hear advice from any mere colonial. Shortly after his arrival in America, Benjamin Franklin gingerly tried to warn him against “ambuscades of Indians.” Braddock, Franklin reported, “smiled at my ignorance and replied, ‘These savages may indeed be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia; but upon the King’s regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible they should make any impression.’ ”
Washington’s counsel had no more effect. As the army lumbered into the woods in early June, he urged Braddock to travel lightly and guard against stealthy Indian tactics—a lesson he had learned bitterly at Fort Necessity. But “so prepossessed were they in favr. of regularity and discipline and in such absolute contempt were these people held, that the admonition was suggested in vain,” Washington wrote. Woolen-clad redcoats died from the heat as they cut a road for their heavy wagons. When Braddock finally took his young ADC’s advice and sent a lighter detachment ahead, he ordered Washington, prostrated by the dysentery sweeping the army, to travel lying in a wagon back with the baggage. The general promised that he could come forward when the fighting seemed imminent. On July 9, “tho’ much reduced and very weak,” Washington “mounted his horse on cushions,” to ease his dysentery-inflamed hemorrhoids, and took his place at Braddock’s side.
At 10 AM, just short of the fort, the French and Indians attacked, firing behind trees and rocks. The “Hallooing and whooping of the enemy, whom they could not see,” Washington recalled, “so disconcerted and confused” the serried ranks of British regulars that they fell into “a deadly Panick” and “broke & run as Sheep before the Hounds,” exposing “all those who were inclin’d to do their duty, to almost certain Death.” By contrast, the “Virginians behavd like Men, and died like Soldier’s.” Washington offered to “head the Provincials and engage the enemy in their own way; but the propriety of it was not seen into until it was too late for execution.” Nevertheless, with steely courage, he galloped over the battlefield, trying to turn chaos into orderly retreat, his tall figure so conspicuous that he “had 4 Bullets through my Coat, and two Horses shot under and yet escaped unhurt,” which he ascribed to “the miraculous care of Providence.” No such Providence guarded Braddock. A bullet pierced his lung. By the time his troops retreated, 1,000 of the 3,000-man force lay dead or wounded, and Braddock—bewilderedly muttering, “Who would have thought it?”—breathed his last.
“If wisdom is not to be acquired from experience,” Washington liked to ask, “where is it to be found?” Certainly that harrowing summer taught him priceless lessons. The first concerned military tactics. “The folly and consequence of opposing compact bodies to the sparse manner of Indian fighting, in woods, . . . was now so clearly verified that henceforward another mode obtained in all future operations,” he wrote—and followed ever after. Second, the folly was Braddock’s and other British officers’, not his—and, accompanied as it was by such an arrogant disdain for the experience of others, it seemed irremediable. “The whole transaction,” as Benjamin Franklin wryly summed up the Braddock debacle, “gave us Americans the first suspicion that our exalted ideas of the prowess of British regulars had not been well founded.”
Though after years of such defeats, British arms finally—and gloriously—won the French and Indian War (the American part of the Seven Years’ War), Washington’s role proved frustratingly inglorious. However thrilled he was when Dinwiddie named him the Virginia regiment’s colonel and commander in chief in August 1755, his was the impossible task of “protect[ing] from the cruel Incursions of a Crafty Savage Enemy a line of Inhabitants of more than 350 Miles Extent with a force inadequate to the taske.” He couldn’t prevent the “Ravages” and “cruel Barbarities” that “our inhuman Foes” wreaked on the frontier settlers, the constant “murder of poor innocent Babes, and helpless families.” It tore his heart out. “But what can I do?” he wrote Dinwiddie. “I see their situation, know their danger, and participate their Sufferings; without having it in my power to give them further relief, than uncertain promises. . . . The supplicating tears of the women; and moving petitions from the men, melt me into such deadly sorrow, that I solemnly declare, if I know my own mind—I could offer myself a willing Sacrifice to the butchering Enemy, provided that would contribute to the peoples ease.” But it wouldn’t.
Three hard years of patrolling the frontier turned Washington from a cocky prodigy into a mature commander. For all the heartache, he came away with two convictions that stayed at the core of his worldview. Three weeks after Jumonville’s death in 1754, with a French war clearly looming, representatives of seven of the 13 colonies had met in Albany, New York, to discuss “a plan for a union of all the Colonies under one government, so far as might be necessary for defence and other important general purposes,” as Benjamin Franklin, the plan’s author, described it. The colonial assemblies and the London authorities rejected the plan; but the idea of an American union was in the air from then on, and Washington’s experience trying to hold off the Indian allies of a European power with only a Virginia regiment made him a true believer. “Nothing I more sincerely wish,” he wrote the governor of Pennsylvania in 1756, 20 years before the drafting of the Articles of Confederation, “than a union to the Colonys in this time of Eminent danger.”
Similarly, more than 30 years before the Constitutional Convention, he was already thinking about the need for energy in the executive. You can’t “govern, and keep up a proper spirit of Discipline, with[ou]t Laws” and “a person invested with full power to exert his Authority” to carry them out, he wrote Dinwiddie in October 1755. It is amazing, he observed, in terms that The Federalist echoed a generation later, “that we alone shou’d be so tenacious of Liberty as not to invest a power, where Interest, and Politicks so unanswerably demand it.” The very people whose lives and property he was trying to defend wouldn’t recognize his authority to requisition supplies from them, he complained: “no orders are obey’d but what a Party of Soldier’s or my own drawn Sword Enforces; without this a single horse for the most urgent occasions cannot be had.” This is a hard way to supply an army, but he’ll keep on doing it, “unless they execute what they threaten i, e, ‘to blow out my brains.’ ” Someone has to be able to wield the force on which governmental authority ultimately rests, he understood, and he was willing to go far to do so. Out of 400 new soldiers, he wrote a fellow officer in July 1757, 114 had already deserted. “I have a Gallows near 40 feet high erected (which has terrified the rest exceedingly:) and I am determined,” he wrote, “to hang two or three on it, as an example to others.”
He quit the army at the end of 1758 and “exchanged the rugged and dangerous field of Mars for the soft and pleasurable bed of Venus,” as he wrote of a friend, marrying a rich, warmhearted widow named Martha Dandridge Custis in January 1759 and settling in as a planter on a 2,126-acre estate called Mount Vernon, which had belonged to his father and then to his now-dead eldest half-brother. A month later, on his 27th birthday, he took his seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses.
But he was too much an entrepreneur to be an ordinary country squire. He restlessly experimented with 60-odd crops before deciding in 1766 to give up land-depleting tobacco for more profitable wheat and corn. He built a modern gristmill and exported flour and cornmeal to the West Indies, England, and Portugal. The Potomac at his door was beautiful, but surely it had a use, too. He acquired a fleet of boats, and by 1772 he was salting and exporting 1 million herring a year, plus sturgeon and shad. He established a distillery, perhaps America’s biggest, that ultimately pumped out 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year. He operated with a methodical precision that Ben Franklin would have admired, and he favored such Poor Richard–like aphorisms as “System in all things is the soul of business.”
Much of his entrepreneurial zeal surged into real-estate speculation. How were our colony’s greatest fortunes made? he asked a neighbor rhetorically in 1767. “Was it not by taking up & purchasing at very low rates the rich back Lands which were thought nothing of in those days, but are now the most valuable Lands we possess?” And opportunity still abounds: “an enterprizing Man with very little Money may lay the foundation of a Noble Estate in the New Settlemts upon Monongahela for himself and posterity.”
Washington scoured the Ohio Country in 1770, scouting out prime sites. By 1772, he owned, by purchase and land grants to ex-officers, over 30,000 acres. And with his surveyor’s imagination able to visualize the continental terrain as if from a satellite, he began planning yet another entrepreneurial use for the Potomac. With dredging, locks, and portages, privately financed like an English turnpike company, it might become the profitable “Channel of conveyance of the extensive & valuable Trade of a rising Empire” in the west, where he was a major landholder.
Washington chafed under a sense of slighted merit when he left the king’s service, and his growing irritation with the English after the French and Indian War’s end in 1763 set him on the road to revolution. To protect its Indian fur trade, Britain had forbidden settlement west of the Alleghenies, and it barred the colonies from printing paper money, whose rapid depreciation harmed Britons trading with America. Washington saw his land-speculation schemes blocked and his cash-strapped tenants unable to pay him. With money scarce in the colonies, the Stamp Tax that Britain imposed on Americans in 1765 to make them defray the debt for a war they thought they’d fully paid for in blood and treasure sparked outrage that, in Washington’s case, was especially personal and fierce, since he thought Britain owed him for the war, not vice versa.
At first, he took out his ire on Cary & Co., the London agents he used to sell his produce and buy finery for himself, his wife, and Mount Vernon. The firm insolently sent him a dunning letter in 1764. “Mischances rather than Misconduct,” he replied, in the clear, round, powerful penmanship that made his written battlefield orders impossible to mistake, explain why he—“a corrispondant so steady, & constant as I have proovd”—is late in paying his bill. Crops have been poor; when they’ve been “tolerable,” Cary has sold them for “little or nothing”; and because of the London-made cash crunch, bills of exchange from his debtors that Washington sent in as payment bounced.
A year later—just after the Stamp Act—he was flaming with anger over having to suffer passively Britain’s malign role in every part of his economic life. I send you “none but Sweetscented Tobacco,” he thundered to Cary, and you get me lower prices for it than my neighbors’ poorer product commands. Plus you send me wrong or shoddy goods from London, overcharge me, and tell me to send them back next year and meanwhile do without clothes and household necessities. Since “the selling of our Tobacco’s well, & purchasing of Our Goods upon the best Terms, are matters of the utmost consequence to our well doing,” if you don’t perform better, you’re fired. As for the Stamp Act, which “the speculative part of the Colonists” consider “a direful attack upon their Liberties”: loading us with taxes will leave us less money to buy British goods, and we are learning “that many of the Luxuries which we have heretofore lavished our Substance to Great Britain for can well be dispensed with,” to your detriment. And since the act requires payment in hard money for the stamps required on legal documents, and the colonies have little of it, we’ll have to shut our law courts—so good luck trying to sue us to collect your debts.
Britain repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, but when it imposed the new Townshend taxes in 1767 and sent two regiments in 1768 to scare Bostonians out of their anti-British boycott, Washington knew that war was likely. Since “our lordly Masters in Great Britain will be satisfied with nothing less than the deprivation of . . . the liberty which we have derived from our Ancestors,” he wrote his neighbor George Mason in April 1769, “no man shou’d scruple, or hesitate a moment to use a-ms”—“arms,” that is—“in defence of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends.” Of course, we should try everything else first. But we’ve already “proved the inefficacy” of petitions, so now only “starving their Trade & manufactures, remains to be tried.”
Hitherto a lightweight in the House of Burgesses, he now threw himself into its work and emerged a leader. He approved the May 1769 Virginia Resolves declaring that only Virginians could tax themselves, and when the new governor, Lord Botetourt, responded by dissolving the House, Washington successfully presented George Mason’s non-importation plan to his colleagues, gathered extralegally—as so often during this tumultuous period—at Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern. In March 1773, he voted to start a Committee of Correspondence to harmonize the colonies’ response to British encroachment and to convene a meeting of colonial representatives. When Britain savagely retaliated for the December 1773 Boston Tea Party with the 1774 Intolerable Acts, closing the town’s port and suspending the colony’s charter, Washington and his fellow burgesses understood, he wrote, that “the cause of Boston . . . ever will be considered as the cause of America,” for the English were “endeavouring by every piece of Art and despotism to fix the Shakles of Slavry upon us.”
On July 17, 1774, George Mason came to Mount Vernon with his “Fairfax Resolves,” and, as the two friends wrote a final version together, Washington got a crash course in political theory, from natural rights to legitimacy to constitutions. The next day, with Washington in the chair, his Fairfax County constituents approved the radical, Lockean “Resolves,” which declared that the Americans’ ancestors had established the colonies at their own expense, not the Crown’s, and that they had formed a compact with Britain, confirmed by charters, promising them all the rights guaranteed by the British constitution, particularly the right of “being governed by no Laws, to which they have not given their Consent, by Representatives freely chosen by themselves”—meaning our “own Provincial Assemblys or Parliaments.” Since “Taxation and Representation are in their Nature inseperable,” it follows that “the Powers over the People of America now claimed by the British House of Commons, in whose Election we have no Share,” are “totally incompatible with the Privileges of a free People, and the natural Rights of Mankind,” and “must if continued, establish the most grievous and intollerable Species of Tyranny and Oppression, that ever was inflicted upon Mankind.”
Two days later, Washington put it in simpler terms in a letter to a friend: “I think the Parliament of Great Britain hath no more Right to put their hands into my Pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into your’s, for money.” Indeed, my “Nature . . . recoil[s] at the thought of Submitting to Measures which I think Subversive of every thing that I ought to hold dear and valuable”—and “the voice of Mankind is with me.”
In August, the Virginia burgesses renamed themselves the Virginia Convention and adopted many of the Fairfax Resolves, including Washington and Mason’s plan for an ever-tightening trade boycott. They chose Washington and six others as delegates to the First Continental Congress. The veteran soldier saw that war loomed. “I could wish, I own, that the dispute had been left to Posterity to determine,” he wrote, “but the Crisis is arrivd where we must assert our Rights, or Submit to every imposition that can be heap’d upon us.” Mrs. Washington too must have sensed what was in store: when her husband set off from Mount Vernon for the Congress in Philadelphia with fellow delegates Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendleton on August 31, 1774, she “talked like a Spartan mother to her son on going to battle,” Pendleton recalled. “ ‘I hope you will stand firm—I know George will,’ she said.”
While Washington politicked with notables of the other colonies, George Mason, also filled with foreboding, set up a Fairfax County militia that elected Washington its commander, as did four nearby county militias that set about “arming, equipping, and training for the worst event,” Washington approvingly noted. On October 9, shortly before the Congress adjourned, Washington wrote that without doubt, “more blood will be spilt on this occasion (if the Ministry are determind to push matters to extremity) than history has ever yet furnished instances of in the annals of North America; and such a vital wound given to the peace of this great Country, as time itself cannot cure or eradicate the remembrance of.”
In March 1775, the Virginia Convention—after Patrick Henry ringingly cried, “give me liberty or give me death!”—elected Washington one of Virginia’s seven delegates to the Second Continental Congress. The next month, as soon as the shots rang out in Lexington and Concord, he knew that war had begun. “Unhappy it is,” he wrote, “that a Brother’s Sword has been sheathed in a Brother’s breast, and that, the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood, or Inhabited by Slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous Man hesitate in his choice?” Not him, certainly: he arrived at the Congress in May in his military uniform. On June 15, his fellow delegates unanimously elected him commander in chief of the American armies and toasted him at a midnight supper. Moved by the honor, he rose to thank them; and they, moved by the enormity of what they were doing, rose with him, and drank standing in solemn silence.
He took command of the army in Boston in July 1775, just after the Battle of Bunker Hill, and, after masterfully checkmating the British and driving them out of the city, he went to head them off in New York. Then he met defeat after defeat, as the redcoats chased him across New Jersey into Pennsylvania, until on Christmas Day, he famously crossed the ice-clogged Delaware in snow and hail and won his history-altering victories at Trenton and Princeton between December 26, 1776, and January 4, 1777 (see “When George Washington Became Great,” Winter 2012).
By then, he realized that he was fighting an insurgency and didn’t so much have to win the war as not lose it. The theory of an insurgency is simple—hold the enemy off, harry him, outlast him—but the practice is brutal, requiring a huge effort of active will. For the next three years, Washington and his men plumbed the meaning of waiting the enemy out. When Washington got word in late April 1778 that Benjamin Franklin’s diplomatic team had signed an alliance with France, which recognized the independence of the United States, what the army was waiting for began to change. Washington would now wait to see what France would do.
As he watched and waited, he also thought and talked, trying to understand the world-changing events that he struggled to direct. In his 1778–79 winter camp in Middlebrook, New Jersey, soldiers stayed just as hungry in the midst of bountiful farmland as they had the previous winter in their harsher camp at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. As before, American farmers sold produce to the British for hard money rather than to their own countrymen for depreciating paper currency.
Coolly realistic, Washington understood why. People “may talk of patriotism; they may draw a few examples from ancient story, of great achievements performed by its influence; but whoever builds upon it, as a sufficient Basis for conducting a long and bloody War, will find themselves deceived in the end,” he wrote. “We must take the passions of Men as Nature has given them,” and therefore patriotism “must be aided by a prospect of Interest or some reward.” Since suppliers want to profit from their labors and need to be paid in money that’s worth something, he warned, we can’t “carry on the War much longer,” unless we “restore the credit of our currency.” With rampant inflation, “what funds can stand the present expenses of the Army?”
The enemy, Washington only half-jested, seemed to be “placing their whole dependance in the depreciation of our money, and the wretched management of our finances.” With good reason. Soon after the Americans went into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, late in 1779, inflation reached such ferocity that “a waggon load of money will scarcely purchase a waggon load of provision,” Washington wrote, and with money worthless, many farmers, still unpaid for what they’d already supplied, had grown only what their families could eat. Those few with something to sell couldn’t get to Washington’s camp, buried in drifts 12 feet deep after a four-day blizzard in January 1780 and 27 further snowstorms. Soldiers would go “five or Six days together without Bread, then as many without Meat, and once or twice, two or three without either,” Washington wrote. They ate dogs and tree bark and “roast[ed] their old shoes,” a private recalled. Mourned General Nathanael Greene: “A Country, once overflowing with plenty, are now suffering an Army employed for the defense of every thing that is dear and valuable, to perish for want of food.”
During these three winters, Washington pondered the army’s plight with his aides, including the brilliant, fatherless youths Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette, who had joined his military “family” in 1777 and whom the childless commander loved. They lived crammed together next to their boss, dining with him every midday—in the worst of times off a single tin plate, and waited on, Washington wrote, by a servant “indecently and most shamefully naked.” The talk, at least, was nourishing; and from these seminars in political science, as well as from “long thinking, close application, and strict observation,” Washington refined into a sophisticated political and economic worldview the conclusions he’d drawn from his French and Indian War experience, when he’d requisitioned supplies at swordpoint and yearned for a colonial union and a strong executive.
“The country does not want resources, but we [lack] the means of drawing them forth,” he knew. The solution is to “give more energy to Government” by making Congress “the supreme controuling power of the united States,” fully “vested with powers . . . competent to the great purposes of War”—especially the authority, “by loans and taxes to put our finances on a more respectable footing.” By now, “experience has demonstrated the impracticability long to maintain a paper credit without funds for its redemption.” True, Americans will dislike new taxes, for “a commercial and free people, little accustomed to heavy burthens, pressed by impositions of a new and odious kind, . . . may imagine, they have only exchanged one tyranny for another,” but we face an “absolute necessity of an immediate, ample and efficacious fund of money; large enough to . . . revive public credit and give vigor to future operations”—as Treasury secretary Hamilton later did. As for loans, “no nation will have it more in its power to repay what it borrows than this. Our debts are hitherto small. The vast and valuable tracts of un[al]located lands, . . . the advantages of every kind we possess for commerce, insure to this country a rapid advancement in population and prosperity.”
Amid the Morristown snows, Washington weighed how financial power might shape the Revolution. “In modern wars,” he wrote, “the longest purse must chiefly determine the event.” Here France and Spain (which had been helping America secretly with money and joined France in the war in 1779) seem to have the edge—but not for long. If the war continues, France will have to tax beyond what the French can “endure for any duration,” and then “France makes war on ruinous terms,” Washington wrote prophetically: for to raise revenue to pay France’s huge war debts, Louis XVI had to convene the Estates-General in 1789 for the first time in 175 years, lighting the fuse that detonated the French Revolution. Spain, Washington cautioned, “derives great wealth from her mines” in South America, but less than people think. More important, what really constitutes the wealth of nations? “Commerce and industry are the best mines of a nation; both of which are wanting to her,” concluded Washington, whose economic thought, like Hamilton’s, had outgrown both mercantilism and agricultural sentimentality. Britain, by contrast, whose “commerce is more extensive than that of both her rivals,” is a rich and prospering country, whose “system of public credit is such that it is capable of greater exertions than any other nation.” So our allies’ “succor will be fatal to us if our measures are not adequate to the emergency.”
Making matters worse, “our present Military System is too expensive for any funds except that of an Eastern Nabob” because we reject a permanent army, in the belief “that standing Armies are dangerous to a State.” Maybe that’s true in peacetime, in countries where soldiers are “Mercenaries; hirelings.” But Americans are bizarrely “prejudiced against” standing armies “in time of War,” even though our soldiers “are Citizens having all the Ties, and interests of Citizens.” And it’s a costly prejudice: “an annual Army, . . . besides being unqualified for the end designed, is . . . ten times more expensive than a permanent body of Men, under good organization and military discipline.” Washington often had “two sets of Men to feed and pay, one coming to the Army and the other going from it.”
During the war, in other words, Washington thought his way to Federalism, long before a Federalist Party existed. He believed in a strong central government, supreme over the states; a strong financial system on the British model, with taxes to fund its debt; a flourishing commerce to create prosperity (and to train seamen for a powerful navy, which would, in turn, protect shipping); and a strong military. And most officers came out of the Revolution with the same views.
As he waited for the French to act—and waited and waited—Washington became a proto-Federalist in foreign policy, too. “[H]atred of England may carry some into an excess of Confidence in France,” he wrote, again prophetically, given the strife over Revolutionary France that racked 1790s America; “but it is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest.” Washington’s personal experience proved the maxim, too, since his French allies, over whom he was nominally supreme commander, treated him with a ceremonious politeness just short of satire, agreeing with him effusively though insincerely, while keeping him in the dark as to their intentions for months at a time, and carrying out their own program on their own schedule.
Of course, dismay struck the French when their fleet arrived in American waters in July 1778 and they first saw the American army—poor, unprofessional, and small. Their battle-scarred commanding general, Comte de Rochambeau, advised his government: “Do not depend on these people nor upon their means; they have neither money nor credit; their means of resistance are only momentary and called forth when they are attacked in their own houses.”
Because Washington nursed dreams of retaking the New York he had lost—dreams that the French, though they humored him, thought delusory—he was much slower than they to see that the war had moved to the South. The Franco-American alliance had sparked a radical strategic shift in London. The ministry, viewing the raw materials of the West Indies and the southern states as Britain’s principal transatlantic interests, gave up on New England and most of the mid-Atlantic states, and envisioned an American empire that would extend from Canada down the trans-Appalachian west—which British-allied Indians would control—through the southern states and then to the sugar isles, now under French naval threat. Britain had inaugurated the new strategy by taking a laughably ill-defended Savannah at the very end of 1778, and Rochambeau had stepped ashore in America just weeks after the redcoats brought that strategy to the boil by taking Charleston after a textbook siege in 1780.
Yet Washington kept dreaming of New York even after American general Daniel Morgan crushed the British at the brilliantly executed Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina, in January 1781, where his soldiers terrified the enemy with their “Indian halloo” that became the Civil War’s rebel yell; and as Nathanael Greene, now commander of America’s southern division, inflicted such grievous casualties on British general Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Guilford Court House near Greensboro, North Carolina, in March that he rightly pronounced that the “Enemy got the ground . . . but we the victory.”
In mid-May, Cornwallis met a British force whose commander had just died, after getting orders to set up a Virginia naval base. Cornwallis made the troops and the orders his own. For the base, he chose Yorktown. On a bluff where the York River narrows enough to afford a good escape route to the far bank, it was, he judged, a “safe defensive” site, though he soon realized it was only a few “Acres of an unhealthy swamp” that was “ever liable to become prey to a foreign” navy. But there he remained, a sitting duck.
When the Americans and the French met to plan the 1781 campaign on May 21, Washington still hoped to take New York while Rochambeau had already secretly decided they would head to the Chesapeake. When news came that Cornwallis had trapped himself on the Yorktown peninsula, where the allies might squeeze him between their troops and French admiral François-Joseph de Grasse’s armada, Washington couldn’t help but agree with Rochambeau, and the two armies set off for Virginia on August 19, 1781. When, swollen by reinforcements to 19,000, they arrived at Yorktown in late September and surveyed the by-the-book defenses of earthworks, artillery batteries, and redoubts that Cornwallis’s 9,000 troops had built, the experienced Rochambeau took charge of what would unfold as a textbook siege, all “reducible to calculation,” he told Washington with cool professionalism.
On the night of October 5, Washington swung a pickax into the Yorktown earth so history could record that he broke ground for the siege’s first offensive parallel, two miles long, four feet wide, and four deep. On October 9, “General Washington put the match to the first gun,” a soldier wrote, “and Earl Cornwallis . . . received his first salutation.” A week later, short-range howitzers from the second parallel lobbed shells over Yorktown’s walls, making the whole peninsula shake as they smashed the town with a new intensity of destructiveness, while Cornwallis huddled in his subterranean bunker, and the smell of rotting horses shot for lack of fodder and thrown into the river fouled the already fetid air. At 10 in the morning of October 17, 1781, he raised a white flag, and the “thundering of our infernal machines” died away into “solemn stillness,” wrote two American soldiers. After two days of negotiations, on the afternoon of the 19th—six a half years to the day since the Battles of Lexington and Concord had begun the war—more than 8,000 sullen redcoats and Hessians filed out into captivity, their drums muffled in black.
The war was over, but neither George Washington nor George III knew it, so different does lived experience look from history crystallized in books. Almost two more years passed before the Paris peace treaty was signed in September 1783. Not until the 18th of April in ’83, eight years to the day after Paul Revere’s midnight ride, could Washington announce to his troops the official end of hostilities. The war—in which one American soldier in four had died, compared with one in five in the Civil War and one in 40 in World War II—was really over, and all soldiers should be proud of “the dignifyed part they have been called to act . . . on the stage of human affairs” in “erecting this stupendous fabrick of Freedom and Empire . . . and establishing an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions,” he told them in his favorite theatrical imagery. “Nothing now remains but for the actors of this mighty Scene . . . to close the Drama with applause; and retire from the Military Theatre.”
On his way home to Mount Vernon, he fulfilled a promise he had made at the very start of his command. “When we assumed the Soldier,” he said just after Bunker Hill, “we did not lay aside the Citizen.” On December 23, he appeared before Congress and, his hand trembling, surrendered the commission he had received eight and a half years earlier to the civil authorities who had granted it, dramatizing the subordination of the military to the civil power. When George III heard that he intended to return like Cincinnatus to his farm, he exclaimed with amazement, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world!” On Christmas Eve, 1783, private citizen Washington dismounted from his horse at his beloved Mount Vernon’s welcoming door.
Even as “a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac,” as he put it, Washington kept trying to shape public affairs, and his words and actions disprove the myth that in politics he became but a stately figurehead for the views of Madison and Hamilton. By no means. Before he left the army, the idea of a constitutional convention had formed in his mind. On March 4, 1783, he wrote Hamilton from his Newburgh camp that congressmen should go home and explain to their constituents the need to fix “the great defects of their Constitution”—the Articles of Confederation—for “unless Congress have powers competent to all general purposes, . . . the blood we have spilt in the course of an Eight years war, will avail us nothing.” In June, still at Newburgh, he publicly urged the necessity of an “indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal Head” in a “Circular to State Governments” that reads like a proto–Federalist Paper. Americans, he counseled, need “to forget their local prejudices” and “make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity.” After all, it “is only in our united Character as an Empire, that our Independence is acknowledged, that our power can be regarded, or our Credit supported among Foreign Nations.”
By July 1783, he was calling for “a Convention of the People” to correct the “want of energy in the Federal Constitution” and to make the states as subordinate to the federal government as the counties are to the state governments. How can anyone fear this step? he exclaimed. “For Heavens sake who are Congress? are they not the Creatures of the People, amenable to them for their Conduct, and dependant from day to day on their breath? Where then can be the danger of giving them such Powers as are adequate to the great ends of Government?” The need for an energetic central government is “as plain as any problem in Euclid,” he wrote from Mount Vernon in 1784.
From early on, too, he mocked the Jeffersonian fear of commerce. It’s absurd to speculate, as “Philosophers and wise men” do, “whether the luxury, effeminacy, & corruption which are introduced by it, are counterballanced by the conveniencies and wealth of which it is productive,” he wrote in October 1785. The truth is, by now “the spirit of Trade which pervades these States is not to be restrained.” The only worthwhile question is how “to establish it upon just principles,” which “cannot be done by thirteen heads” but requires “a controuling power.” And since Virginia is part of a confederation in which the “spirit of commerce” is “very strongly working,” he had written earlier, the state shouldn’t “submit to the evils arising therefrom without receiving its benefits.” He did his part by hosting a conference at Mount Vernon of Virginia and Maryland delegates in March 1785, trying to make a reality of his Potomac canal idea as a way of encouraging the industry of the west and knitting the country into a commercial unity.
The gravest danger of government “by thirteen distinct Sovereignties, or by one without adequate powers” is not that disunity retards commerce, however, but rather that “Anarchy and Confusion will soon succeed. Liberty, when it degenerates into licentiousness, begets confusion, and frequently ends in Tyranny,” Washington wrote in 1783. Three years later, he saw (or thought he saw) the prediction come horrifyingly true in Shays’s Rebellion in August 1786. Thousands of pitchfork-wielding young farmers in western Massachusetts tried to seize weapons from the Springfield armory to force a rollback of higher land taxes and to close the courts before judges could seize their farms for tax delinquency or allow creditors to foreclose. General Henry Knox, sent to quell the revolt, wrote Washington that the rebels’ “creed is, that the property of the United States has been protected from confiscation of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all,” Washington reported to Madison in November, in incredulous italics. Further, Knox wrote, “They are determined to anihilate all debts public & private.” Washington—who had spent two months on his western lands in the fall of 1784 trying to evict squatters and collect rents from his deadbeat tenants, and two more years in lawsuits to vindicate his property claims—drew his own conclusions about the breakdown of the Lockean social compact: “What stronger evidence can be given of the want of energy in our governments than these disorders? If there exists not a power to check them, what security has a man of life, liberty, or property?”
The canal conference he held at Mount Vernon proved fateful. It led to a meeting of five states on national issues in Annapolis in September 1786, which, pushed by delegates Hamilton and Madison, scheduled a constitutional convention for May 1787 in Philadelphia. Just after Christmas 1786, Madison and other Virginia notables asked Washington to head the state’s delegation, “as a mark of the earnestness of Virginia,” wrote Madison, as well as a lure “to the most select characters of every part of the Confederacy” to attend. General Knox weighed in, telling his old boss that, as he was sure to be named the Convention’s president, its success would “doubly entitle you to the glorious republican epithet ‘The Father of Your Country.’ ” Given Washington’s longtime support for a step he thought so urgent—“to avoid, if possible, civil discord, or other impending evils,” as he put it—he knew he had to go. He aimed to achieve “no temporizing expedient” but “radical cures,” he wrote Madison, that “will stamp wisdom and dignity on the proceedings.”
But this appointment, Washington ruefully sighed, “will, I fear, have a tendency to sweep me back into the tide of public affairs,” since his fame conferred the aura of his prestige on the Convention, and that prestige would be essential to legitimate whatever the Convention brought forth. Deeply aware of his symbolic role, he wore his uniform when he accepted the Convention’s presidency on May 25, 1787, and he presided with the firm dignity of a judge, speaking rarely and keeping delegates in line. That Olympian reserve, heightening the mystique of his prestige, influenced the delegates in shaping the executive branch: Pierce Butler of South Carolina opined that they would not have made it so strong “had not many members cast their eyes toward General Washington as president and shaped their ideas of the powers to a president by their opinion of his virtue.”
On September 17, 1787, the delegates signed the document and adjourned. The outcome, giving form to the energetic government Washington had so long favored (and largely following the blueprint he and his fellow Virginia delegates had helped Madison sketch just before the Convention opened), elated him. He sent Congress the document that same day, with a cover note invoking classical social-contract theory. Just as “[i]ndividuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest,” he wrote, so the states agreed to cede some “rights of independent sovereignty” to “provide for the interest and safety of all,” in a “spirit of amity” and “mutual deference and concession” that was remarkable—and that in light of the states’ wide differences “in their manners, circumstances and prejudices,” he wrote later, seemed to him “little short of a miracle.” The Constitution, he wrote an Irish baronet, “approached nearer to perfection than any government hitherto instituted among Men.”
He followed the ratification debates avidly. A “greater Drama is now acting on this Theatre than has heretofore been brought on the American Stage, or any other in the World,” he told his Dublin correspondent. “We exhibit at present the Novel and astonishing Spectacle of a whole People deliberating calmly on what form of government will be the most conducive to their happiness.” Thanking Hamilton for sending him The Federalist, he boasted that “I have read every performance which has been printed on one side and the other” of the ratification question. Much later, as president, he proudly asserted his expertise when he dismissed a congressional demand as unconstitutional. “Having been a member of the General Convention, and knowing the principles on which the Constitution was formed,” he also had at his fingertips “the opinions entertained by the State Conventions, when they were deliberating on the Constitution,” he told the legislators. “If any other proofs than these, and the plain letter of the Constitution itself, be necessary to ascertain the point under consideration, they may be found in the Journals of the General Convention, which I have deposited in the office of the department of State,” he tartly concluded, with an uncharacteristic emphasis on the personal pronoun.
But for all his enthusiasm, Washington never saw the Constitution as a self-activating machine, sufficient to ensure American freedom. Any constitution can be subverted, “if the spirit and letter of the expression is disregarded,” he knew. Because this one “is provided with more checks and barriers against the introduction of Tyranny . . . than any Government hitherto instituted among mortals,” it can’t easily degenerate into a “despotic or oppressive” government, he wrote—“so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the People.” But if “in the revolution of ages,” that virtue should give way to a “corruption of morals, profligacy of manners, and listlessness for the preservation of the natural and unalienable rights of mankind,” then “usurpations” may arise “upon the ruins of liberty, . . . against which no human prudence can effectually provide.” After all, he wrote later, no “wall of words” or “mound of parchmt can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.”
In other words, the Constitution is the letter; its animating spirit is what we would call a culture of liberty. That’s what Washington had in mind when he noted that “the information and morals of our Citizens appear to be peculiarly favourable for the introduction of such a plan of government,” where “due energy will not be incompatible with the unalienable rights of freemen.” That’s why he insisted in his first inaugural address on the “indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage.” And it’s why, in his first annual message to Congress, he dwelled on the critical importance, for the “security of a free Constitution,” of “teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exegencies of Society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, . . . and uniting a speedy, but temperate vigilence against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws.”
As clearly as anti-Federalists like George Mason, Washington saw that no republican constitution can endure without some spark of virtue and concern for the public interest glowing in the people. He knew from experience that, while some men will follow what they consider their rational self-interest and sell supplies to British occupiers rather than to patriot insurgents, no free country can exist unless many of their brothers have what Washington called “the sacred fire of liberty” burning within, sufficient to resist tyranny—even to the point of marching barefoot through the driving snow to attack Trenton and Princeton, their lives on the line.
Washington understood that not everyone would see the subtle distinction between the constitutional machinery and the American culture that animated it. “I expect, that many blessings will be attributed to our new government, which are now taking their rise from that industry and frugality into the practice of which the people have been forced from necessity,” he wrote Lafayette. But culture and Constitution would reinforce each other in a virtuous circle, he foresaw. “When the people shall find themselves secure under an energetic government, . . . when the seeds of happiness which are sown here shall begin to expand themselves, and when every one (under his own vine and fig-tree) shall begin to taste the fruits of freedom, then all these blessings (for all these blessings will come) will be referred to the fostering influence of the new government. Whereas many causes will have conspired to produce them.” Though Washington didn’t have the clunky term, he understood how the character of the people and the spirit of the laws interact dialectically to shape a society.
As he saw, with “a kind of gloom upon my mind,” that he would have to serve as the nation’s president, he had asked Hamilton “whether there does not exist a probability that the government would be just as happily and effectually carried into execution, without my aid, as with it,” and he concluded that the answer was no. Realizing that the Constitution was just an abstract framework, inert until someone breathed the spirit of life into it and fleshed it out, he recognized that it mattered who would do the job. His fame, his moral authority, made him indispensable. “Whenever a government is to be instituted or changed by the Consent of the people,” he mused, “confidence in the person placed at the head of it, is, perhaps, more peculiarly necessary.” So he took the job out of “an absolute conviction of duty,” he wrote the English Whig historian Catharine Macaulay Graham, especially since the “establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by reasonable compact, in civil Society.” Even so, he told Henry Knox a month before the inauguration, “my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.”
After he took the oath of office in a trembling voice on the balcony of New York’s Federal Hall on April 30, 1789, he began his inaugural address by confessing his “anxieties” over accepting the presidency, and he described the “conflict of emotions” he felt over “the magnitude and difficulty of the trust” he was assuming, and his “despondence” over the “inferior endowments” he brought to it. This wasn’t just formulaic modesty. As he explained to Graham, he realized that he would have to play a role for which no one had written the script. There had never been such a thing as the president of the United States before, or a president of any modern republic. There was no State of the Union Address, no “Hail to the Chief,” no cabinet, no White House, no chief of protocol. “It was to be, in the first instance, in a considerable degree, a government of accomodation as well as a government of Laws. Much was to be done by prudence, much by conciliation, much by firmness.” There was so much he had to make up as he went along, out of his own judgment, experience, and instinct, and he had to bring his audience along with him by force of character. “Few . . . can realise what a difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation had to act,” he wrote Graham. “I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any action, whose motives may not be subject to double interpretation. There is scarcely any part of my conduct wch may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.”
In inventing the presidency, as he told Madison, “it is devoutly wished on my part, that these precedents be fixed on true principles.” In “all matters of business & etiquette,” he thought a president should “maintain the dignity of office, without subjecting himself to the imputation of superciliousness or unnecessary reserve.” A republican chief executive who symbolically embodied a nation of freemen had a fine line to walk through the tensions between superiority and equality inherent in his role; a president who understood the importance of a culture of freedom needed to get republican manners right, since they would dramatize countless times each day that culture’s ideal of the relations between the people and their elected magistrate.
Would it be okay for him to visit his friends privately, he anxiously asked Vice President John Adams, or would such visits “be construed into visits from the President of the United States”? What kind of parties should he give? Could he have legislators to dinner in small groups, or must he invite them all at once? As for his title, he rejected Adams’s grandiloquent suggestion of “His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties” in favor of plain “the President of the United States.”
Of course, he was right to predict that the motives behind every choice would draw scrutiny and suspicion. At Hamilton’s suggestion, he held “levees”—a term with unfortunate royal connotations—every Tuesday at 3 PM, stiff, men-only receptions, at which he struggled to exchange a few decorous words with each guest, bowing instead of shaking hands, to the great disgust of the more egalitarian dignitaries, who complained that his bow wasn’t even a very gracious bow. The 58-year-old president, his hearing failing and his painful false teeth freezing his smile, plaintively wondered: “Would it not have been better to have thrown the veil of charity over them, ascribing their stiffness to the effects of age” rather than to “pride”? He was only doing what he and those he consulted thought was right, he told Jefferson later, and “if he could but know what the sense of the public was, he would most cheerfully conform to it.”
The criticism grew louder and nastier every year. Paradoxically, though he proved brilliant at inventing the presidency, setting a standard of probity, wisdom, and dignity that still measures his successors—and though his eight years in office yielded success upon success—his everyday experience seethed with partisan bitterness that poisoned cabinet meetings, spewed out from a press as noxious as today’s foulest blogs, and exasperated and baffled him. If he had expected something like the “spirit of amity” he had seen at the Constitutional Convention, he got instead the backbiting and recrimination that seem the natural fertilizer of democratic politics, where interest jars with interest, worldview with worldview, and ambition with ambition.
Almost no success of the Washington administration went unpunished. Opposition began when legislators considered the first part of Hamilton’s 1790–91 financial revolution, which ultimately sparked a stampede of prosperity: having the federal government pay the war debts of the states to help establish the credit of government paper, a measure odious to states fully paid up. Congress, Washington fretted, debated the issue “with a warmth & intemperence; with prolixity & threats; which it is to be feared has lessened the dignity of that body,” and in their letters home, individual congressmen ascribed “the worst motives for the conduct of their opponants; . . . by which means jealousies & distrusts are spread most impolitickly, far & wide.” The bill passed, after Madison dropped his opposition in exchange for Hamilton’s corralling votes to move the national capital to Philadelphia for ten years and then to the Potomac.
When the next year Hamilton proposed his plan for a national bank, the vituperation exploded. Congressman Madison objected that the Constitution gave Congress no power to charter a bank, and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson charged, more darkly, that the plan would empower “corrupt squadrons of paper dealers,” who, in turn, would corrupt the legislature, with the “ultimate object” of changing “from the present republican form of Government, to that of a monarchy; of which the British Constitution is to be the model,” as Washington quoted to Hamilton. “That this was contemplated in the Convention . . . is no secret,” Washington paraphrased; and the fact that Hamilton’s sole speech in the Constitutional Convention had suggested a president-for-life, elected by the propertied but subject to impeachment, gave grounds enough for the canard, hatched by Jefferson, that Hamilton favored an elective monarchy.
At first, Jefferson assumed that Washington’s support for the new credit system blindly followed Hamilton’s lead. But just as Washington had sat purring with content as the Constitutional Convention, under Madison’s guidance, gave form to the energetic government he had long envisioned, so he ardently backed Hamilton as the Treasury secretary conjured into being the modern financial structure that the president saw as the sine qua non of national power and the nursery of the commerce he thought key to national prosperity. After dutifully weighing the arguments on both sides, he signed the bank bill in February 1791. And almost overnight, Washington reported in June 1791, “Our public credit stands on that ground which three years ago would have been considered as a species of madness to have foretold.”
So while Jefferson, Madison, and their “levelling party” lambasted Hamilton as an antirepublican “monocrat,” they gradually included Washington in the indictment, pointing to his levees, his stiff bow, and his coach and horses as conclusively damning evidence that justified their “continually sounding the alarm bell of aristocracy,” Washington complained to Jefferson. The idea horrified him as much as it did Jefferson: a few months after Yorktown, when a colonel had written urging him to be king, he repelled the thought as one that “I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severety,” for it “seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country.” As he planned his inaugural address, he considered allaying fears that he nursed hereditary ambitions by noting that, childless, he had “no family to build in greatness upon my Country’s ruins”—though the assurance didn’t make the final draft.
But girding for battle in good earnest, Jefferson hired third-rate poet Philip Freneau as a no-show state-department translator, to support him while he ran his new, administration-bashing National Gazette. On July 4, 1792, Freneau printed a Page One piece denouncing Hamilton’s financial system as a recipe for “changing a limited republican government into an unlimited hereditary one”—and he had three copies dumped at Washington’s door. A week later, Jefferson found Washington fuming. Nobody planned to turn America into a monarchy, he exploded, as Jefferson recorded in his diary. “He considered [Freneau’s] papers as attacking him directly,” Jefferson reported him as spluttering. “That in condemning the admn of the govmt they condemned him, for if they thought there were measures pursued contrary to his sentiment, they must conceive him too careless to attend to them or too stupid to understand them.”
With all the internecine bitterness, Washington grieved, “I do not see how the Reins of Government are to be managed.” He realized that only he could manage them, and though he yearned to retire when his first term ended, he ran again and won unanimously on December 5, 1792. He dutifully soldiered on as one of the people’s “public servants; for in this light I consider myself, whilst I am in this office,” he wrote in July; “and, if they were to go further and call me their slave, (during this period) I would not dispute the point.”
But by then the French Revolution, which guillotined Louis XVI just after Washington’s reelection, had sharpened America’s political acrimony to a razor’s edge. Jefferson, Madison, and their party—now called Republicans, to signal enthusiastic support for revolutionary France—intensified their criticism of the Washingtonian “Federalists” as crypto-royalists for their refusal to join France in 1792 in its war on the European monarchies. In turn, the Federalists came to view Republicans as leveling fomenters of violence, mobocracy, and anarchy—Shays’s rebels on a geopolitical scale.
Right from the start, Washington foresaw the transatlantic horrors to come. Only three months after the Paris mob stormed the Bastille, he wrote that “the revolution is of too great magnitude to be effected in so short a space, and with the loss of so little blood.” Six months after that, he wrote Versailles’ former minister to the United States that “nobody can wish more sincerely for the prosperity of the French Nation than I do,” but he warned that the revolutionaries might be “making more haste than good speed, in their innovations. So much prudence, so much perseverance, so much disinterestedness & so much patriotism are necessary among the Leaders of a Nation, in order to promote the national felicity, that sometimes my fears nearly preponderate over my expectations.”
French revolutionary upheaval galvanized America in April 1793 in the fiery-haired person of Edmond-Charles Genêt, 30, Paris’s militantly undiplomatic new ambassador. As Genêt landed in Charleston and made his incendiary way to Philadelphia to present his credentials, Washington learned that France, having declared war on Austria in 1792 in order to export liberté, égalité, and fraternité at the barrel of a gun, had now declared war on Britain, too. Deciding not only that the murder of Louis XVI had annulled America’s 1778 treaty with royalist France but also that the United States could only lose by getting embroiled in European wars, Washington issued a Neutrality Proclamation on April 22, declaring that the United States, out of “duty and interest,” would “pursue a conduct friendly and impartial to the belligerent parties.”
But Genêt paid no respect as he traveled northward. Defying Washington’s edict, he commissioned American privateers to prey on British shipping, perhaps hoping to spark an Anglo-American war, despite Washington. And along his way, he fired up huge crowds with revolutionary zeal, which, over the next year, blazed up in pro-French Democratic-Republican societies, whose members staged rallies, called one another “citizen” and “citizeness” as French revolutionaries did, and wouldn’t shrink, Washington believed, from “plunging this country in the horrors of disastrous war.”
But after initial support, even Jefferson had second thoughts about Genêt when he arrived in Philadelphia in May and went from excess to excess. He fitted out another privateer and sent her to sea in July, partly crewed by Americans. Threatening to appeal to the American people over the head of “le vieux Washington” to overturn the Neutrality Proclamation, he sent angry mobs to picket the president’s house. Much later, John Adams reminded Jefferson of “the terrorism excited by Genet in 1793 when ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his house and effect a revolution in government or compel it to declare war in favor of the French Revolution against England.”
In August, amid all this commotion, Henry Knox, now secretary of war, brought to a cabinet meeting a Freneau broadside describing King Washington being guillotined. The president “got into one of those passions where he cannot command himself,” Jefferson recorded; “ran on much on the personal abuse which has been bestowed on him; defied any man on earth to produce one single act of his since he had been in the government which was not done with the purest motives; . . . that by God he had rather be in his grave than in his present situation; that he had rather be on his farm than made emperor of the world; and yet here they were charging him with wanting to be a king.”
At the climax of the Genêt affair, the French Revolution lurched leftward again; the dictators recalled Genêt—doubtless to add him to Paris’s mountain of headless corpses—for being too moderate. With the help (strangely enough) of Hamilton, he won refuge in America. Jefferson, worn out, retired from the cabinet at the end of 1793. And for a moment, calm returned.
To America, that is; but not to France, where the Terror reached its fever pitch of bloodlust and furnished an object lesson in what a revolution should not be, but can become. Everything Washington feared came to pass, and more: for he perhaps could not have imagined more than 200 victims guillotined weekly for two years, people tied naked in groups and drowned in slowly sinking barges, children buried alive, victims flayed and their skin made into gloves. Washington had often said that mob anarchy ends in tyranny: here was proof positive.
In the summer of 1794, the elements that for four years had spewed noxious vapors into American politics—Hamilton’s financial system, the French Revolution, Genêt and his Democratic Societies—exploded into an uprising in western Pennsylvania that Washington believed threatened “the very existence of Government, and the fundamental principles of the social order,” just like the Paris mob. To fund the government, Hamilton’s financial plan included a liquor excise, galling to western farmers, who made their corn and grain into whiskey that didn’t spoil and was cheap to ship to eastern markets. The government tried “to conciliate a compliance with the laws, by explanation, by forbearance, and even by particular accomodations” based on “local conditions,” Washington wrote—to no avail.
In July, armed Pennsylvanians torched a revenue agent’s house, shot at a U.S. marshal trying to serve summonses on tax-dodging distillers, and forced both officers to flee for their lives. Speakers whipped up a riotous mob of 6,000, one urging them to burn down Pittsburgh as God had incinerated Sodom, another recommending a Committee of Public Safety, just like revolutionary France’s. French-style liberty poles sprang up, and talk ran high of condemning local officials to the guillotine. The leader of this so-called Whiskey Rebellion: the vice president of the local Democratic Society.
That did it for President Washington. These are “acts which . . . amount to treason, being overt acts of levying war against the United States,” he thundered in his proclamation sending the militia into western Pennsylvania in August. If “the laws are to be so trampled upon, with impunity, and a minority . . . is to dictate to the majority, there is an end put, at one stroke, to republican government,” he wrote; “and nothing but anarchy and confusion is to be expected thereafter; . . . until all Laws are prostrate, and every one (the strongest I presume) will carve for himself.” And who is to blame? “I consider this insurrection as the first formidable fruit of the Democratic Societies,” he judged, “instituted by artful and designing members . . . primarily to sow the seeds of jealousy and distrust among the people, of the government, by destroying all confidence in the Administration of it.”
After a final warning to the rebels in late September, Washington himself, with Hamilton as chief of staff, sallied forth to Pennsylvania in October to lead 13,000 militiamen to quash the rebellion. The frightened insurgents sent two emissaries to negotiate a settlement. Their anxiety satisfied Washington that the rebels had lost heart, so he returned to Philadelphia, leaving Hamilton to mop up. The militiamen took 150 rebels prisoner, and a court sentenced two leaders to death, though Washington later pardoned them.
He did not pardon Madison, however, after his onetime confidant faulted him for blaming, in his November 1794 annual message to Congress, “certain self-created societies”—guess which—for having incited the Whiskey Rebels to “crimes, which reached the very existence of the social order.” Such reproach, Madison told Congress, was out of line in “republican government,” where “the censorial power is in the people over the government, and not in the government over the people.” Washington figured that even a president had freedom of speech, and when Madison’s rebuke made his views about the Democratic Societies clear, the friendship ended. A more decisive end to an era was Hamilton’s resignation as Treasury secretary in January 1795.
Proclaiming neutrality in the European war was one thing, making it stick quite another. Countries fighting for their lives do what they think necessary; and Britain, seeing America’s enthusiasm for Genêt, concluded that its former colony intended war, and responded accordingly. To starve the French, British warships seized American vessels trading with France or French colonies, and the Royal Navy kidnapped American seamen, claiming that they were British nationals subject to conscription. Moreover, the British wouldn’t vacate their forts in the American Northwest, as the treaty ending the Revolution required, and, claiming the surrounding territory as their own, they incited the Indians to commit “murders of helpless women and innocent children along our frontiers,” an outraged Washington wrote Chief Justice John Jay. Misreading American intentions, London was doing everything it could to provoke a war it didn’t want.
Angry as he was at Britain’s “open and daring” provocations, the president resolved to make one last try to head off a war he thought otherwise inevitable. He sent Jay, who had brilliantly negotiated the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution, to London in April 1794, to see what he could do.
This time, his hard bargaining yielded seemingly slim results. In “Jay’s Treaty,” signed in November, he got the British to yield their American forts, and he won compensation for seized U.S. ships and cargoes. In return, he promised that American courts would make U.S. debtors pay their British creditors. Debt-swamped southerners fumed, claiming that the Revolution had canceled what they owed to British merchants. But what, they grumbled, could you expect from a man who, as foreign secretary in 1784, had horrified them and westerners alike for briefly considering a treaty with Spain that would give up Americans’ right to navigate the lower Mississippi for 25 years—a vital interest to southwestern pioneers—to gain trading rights benefiting northerners? Francophile Republicans also fumed. First Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation had shredded America’s treaty obligations to France, and now his envoy was making a treaty with perfidious Albion?
The Senate ratified the pact by a whisker in June 1795. For all its apparent modesty, Jay’s Treaty, like the Neutrality Proclamation, achieved Washington’s goal of avoiding a ruinous war that America could lose. As the president explained his rationale, it takes no “gift of prophecy” to know “that if this country can remain in peace 20 years longer: and I devoutly pray it may do so to the end of time; such in all probability will be its population, riches, and resources, when combined with its peculiarly happy and remote Situation from the other quarters of the globe, as to bid defiance, in a just cause, to any earthly power whatsoever.” That’s why “[m]y policy has been, and will continue to be,” he explained, “to be upon friendly terms with, but independent of, all the nations of the earth”—even though, “by the neutral policy which has been adopted, I have brought on myself a torrent of abuse in the factious papers in this country, and from the enmity of the discontented of all descriptions therein.”
As Washington’s ex-friend Madison led a rancorous Republican-dominated Congress in lengthy fussing over Jay’s Treaty, the president announced a further pact, signed in October 1795: the Treaty of San Lorenzo, which won Spain’s agreement to let Americans navigate the lower Mississippi. Despite the best efforts of “designing men . . . to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views” and “to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other Districts,” Washington later summed up, this treaty gives westerners “a decisive proof how unfounded were the suspicions propagated among them of a policy of the General Government and in the Atlantic States unfriendly to their Interests in regard to the MISSISSIPPI.” John Jay wasn’t trying to harm any American’s interest in 1784 any more than he was in 1794.
But for all the rancor—irksome to him but mere static in the music of history—he had done what he set out to do. He had made the new government an established reality. Peace and prosperity reigned, thanks to the Neutrality Proclamation, the two foreign treaties, Hamilton’s financial system, and the people’s “industry,” “frugality,” and “spirit of commerce,” which he had fostered, not squelched. With the Mississippi open, settlers poured into the southwest; others thronged into the Ohio Country once the British had left their northwest forts and General Anthony Wayne had crushed the Indians whom they had spurred to war. Youngstown, Cleveland, and Dayton sprang up. On the banks of the Potomac, a new national capital slowly rose, whose site Washington had chosen and whose planner and chief architects he had hired. The city, he predicted, would be “[a] Century hence, . . . though not as large as London, yet of a magnitude inferior to few others in Europe.” Fittingly, it bore his name.
By the spring of 1796, he felt he had done his duty and could go home. When his second term closed in March 1797, just after he had turned 65, he returned to Mount Vernon. Four months later, he wrote, “Unless someone pops in unexpectedly, Mrs. Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been done within the last twenty years by us—that is, to set down to dinner by ourselves.”
Top Photo: ferrantraite/iStock