Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER TEN: The Drama of Founding 1788-1789 - George Washington: A Collection
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER TEN: The Drama of Founding 1788-1789 - George Washington, George Washington: A Collection 
George Washington: A Collection, compiled and edited by W.B. Allen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988).
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
The Drama of Founding
In Washington’s writings in this chapter he comments on the prospects for the new government in the aftermath of the ratification of the Constitution. He also reflects on the past; in particular, he responds to an inquiry from Noah Webster in 1788 touching the dispute about whose strategy it was that produced the battle of Yorktown. Today, still, commentators assert that it was nevertheless not the idea of an assault against Clinton at New York which had seized Rochambeau. For Rochambeau the decisive combat would take place not in New York but in Virginia. In order to do so, he had to convince General Washington himself. This rendition finds a Washington stuck on the idea of relying on French naval forces to assault Clinton, as opposed to Cornwallis, over whom victory, and with it the war, was finally gained. In Washington’s own time this version of events had emerged, prompting Webster to inquire just what did occur. Washington’s lengthy response, read in the light of letters stretching back to 1777, places the matter in a truer light.
Washington looked forward even as he looked back. He approached the installation of the new government with that characteristic diffidence noted throughout his military career. It was universally believed that the Constitutional Convention settled on the design it did, above all on the strong executive, because of the expectation that Washington would be the first President. Nevertheless, just as at length he had been persuaded to attend the Constitutional Convention he had done so much to bring about, at length he had to be persuaded to accept the presidency. Washington seemed genuinely uncertain whether events were unfolding around him or whether he in fact was producing them, giving credibility to his opinion that “a greater drama is now acting on this theatre than has heretofore been brought on the American stage, or any other in the world.” Whether he was merely acting or directing, the last act in this drama was his inauguration on April 30, 1789.
TO THE SECRETARY FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Mount Vernon, July 18, 1788
A few days ago, I had the pleasure to receive your letter from Poughkeepsie; since which I have not obtained any authentic advices of the proceedings of your Convention. The clue you gave me, to penetrate into the principles and wishes of the four classes of men among you who are opposed to the Constitution, has opened a large field for reflection and conjecture. The accession of Ten States must operate forcibly with all the opposition, except the class which is comprehended in your last description. Before this time you will probably have come to some decision. While we are waiting the result with the greatest anxiety, our Printers are not so fortunate as to obtain any papers from the Eastward. Mine which have generally been more regular, have, however, frequently been interrupted for some time past.
Newspapers in the mailIt is extremely to be lamented, that a new arrangement in the Post Office, unfavorable to the circulation of intelligence, should have taken place at the instant when the momentous question of a general Government was to come before the People. I have seen no good apology, not even in Mr. Hazard’s publication, for deviating from the old custom, of permitting Printers to exchange their Papers by the Mail. That practice was a great public convenience and gratification. If the privilege was not from convention an original right, it had from prescription strong pretensions for continuance, especially at so interesting a period. The interruption in that mode of conveyance, has not only given great concern to the friends of the Constitution, who wished the Public to be possessed of every thing, that might be printed on both sides of the question; but it has afforded its enemies very plausible pretexts for dealing out their scandals, and exciting jealousies by inducing a belief that the suppression of intelligence, at that critical juncture, was a wicked trick of policy, contrived by an Aristocratic Junto. Now, if the Post Master General (with whose character I am unacquainted and therefore would not be understood to form an unfavorable opinion of his motives) has any candid Advisers who conceive that he merits the public employment they ought to counsel him to wipe away the aspersion he has incautiously brought upon a good cause; if he is unworthy of the office he holds, it would be well that the ground of a complaint, apparently so general, should be inquired into, and, if [well] founded, redressed through the medium of a better appointment.
It is a matter in my judgment of primary importance that the public mind should be relieved from inquietude on this subject. I know it is said that the irregularity or defect has happened accidentally, in consequence of the contract for transporting the Mail on horseback, instead of having it carried in the Stages;Mail coaches but I must confess, I could never account, upon any satisfactory principles, for the inveterate enmity with which the Post Master General is asserted to be actuated against that valuable institution. It has often been understood by wise politicians and enlightened patriots that giving a facility to the means of travelling for Strangers and of intercourse for citizens, was an object of Legislative concern and a circumstance highly beneficial to any country. In England, I am told, they consider the Mail Coaches as a great modern improvement in their Post Office Regulations. I trust we are not too old, or too proud to profit by the experience of others. In this article the materials are amply within our reach. I am taught to imagine that the horses, the vehicles, and the accommodations in America (with very little encouragement,) might in a short period become as good as the same articles are to be found in any Country of Europe. and at the same time, I am sorry to learn that the line of Stages is at present interrupted in someparts of New England and totally discontinued at the Southward.
I mention these suggestions only as my particular thoughts on an Establishment, which I had conceived to be of great importance. Your proximity to the Person in question and connection with the characters in Power, will enable you to decide better than I can on the validity of the allegations; and, in that case, to weigh the expediency of dropping such hints as may serve to give satisfaction to the Public. With sentiments of the highest consideration &c.
PS: Since writing the foregoing, I have been favored with your letter which was begun on the 4th and continued till the 8th. and thank you for the information therein contained. Your next will, I hope, announce the ratification by your State without previous amendments.
TO JONATHAN TRUMBULL
Mount Vernon, July 20, 1788
My dear Trumbull:
I have received your favor of the 20th of June and thank you heartily for the confidential information contained in it. The character given of a certain great Personage, who is remarkable for neither forgetting nor forgiving, I believe to be just. What effect the addition of such an extraordinary weight of power and influence as the new Arrangement of the East India affairs gives to one branch of the British Government cannot be certainly foretold; but one thing is certain, that is to say, it will always be wise for America to be prepared for events. Nor can I refrain from indulging the expectation that the time is not very distant, when it shall be more in the power of the United States than it hath hitherto been, to be forearmed as well as forewarned against the evil contingencies of European politics.
Ratification proceedingsYou will have perceived from the public Papers, that I was not erroneous in my calculation, that the Constitution would be accepted by the Convention of this State. The Majority, it is true, was small, and the minority respectable in many points of view. But the great part of the minority here, as in most other States, have conducted themselves with great prudence and political moderation; insomuch that we may anticipate a pretty general and harmonious acquiescence. We shall impatiently wait the result from New York and North Carolina. The other State which has not yet acted is nearly out of the question.
As the infamy of the conduct of Rhode Island outgoes all precedent, so the influence of her counsels can be of no prejudice. There is no State or description of men but would blush to be involved in a connection with the Paper-Money Junto of that Anarchy. God grant that the honest men may acquire an ascendency before irrevocable ruin shall confound the innocent with the guilty.
I am happy to hear from Genl. Lincoln and others that affairs are taking a good turn in Massachusetts; but the Triumph of salutary and liberal measures over those of an opposite tendency seems to be as complete in Connecticut as in any other State and affords a particular subject of congratulation. Your friend Colo. Humphreys informs me, from the wonderful revolution of sentiment in favour of federal measures, and the marvellous change for the better in the elections of your State, that he shall begin to suspect that miracles have not ceased; indeed, for myself, since so much liberality has been displayed in the construction and adoption of the proposed General Government, I am almost disposed to be of the same opinion. Or at least we may, with a kind of grateful and pious exultation, trace the finger of Providence through those dark and mysterious events, which first induced the States to appoint a general Convention and then led them one after another (by such steps as were best calculated to effect the object) into an adoption of the system recommended by that general Convention; thereby, in all human probability, laying a lasting foundation for tranquillity and happiness; when we had but too much reason to fear that confusion and misery were coming rapidly upon us. That the same good Providence may still continue to protect us and prevent us from dashing the cup of national felicity just as it has been lifted to our lips, is the earnest prayer of, My Dear Sir, your faithful friend, &c.
TO NOAH WEBSTER, ESQ.
Mount Vernon, July 31, 1788
French-American military cooperation in 1781I duly received your letter of the 14th inst., and can only answer you briefly and generally from memory; that a combined operation of the land and naval forces of France in America, for the year 1781, was preconcerted the year before; that the point of attack was not absolutely agreed upon,* because it could not be foreknown where the enemy would be most susceptible of impression; and because we (having the command of the water with sufficient means of conveyance) could transport ourselves to any spot with the greatest celerity; that it was determined by me, nearly twelve months beforehand, at all hazards, to give out and cause it to be believed by the highest military as well as civil officers, that New York was the destined place of attack, for the important purpose of inducing the eastern and middle states to make greater exertions in furnishing specific supplies, than they otherwise would have done, as well as for the interesting purpose of rendering the enemy less prepared elsewhere; that by these means, and these alone, artillery, boats, stores, and provisions, were in seasonable preparation to move with the utmost rapidity to any part of the continent; for the difficulty consisted more in providing, than knowing how to apply the military apparatus; that before the arrival of the Count de Grasse, it was the fixed determination to strike the enemy in the most vulnerable quarter, so as to ensure success with moral certainty, as our affairs were then in the most ruinous train imaginable; that New York was thought to be beyond our effort, and consequently that the only hesitation that remained, was between an attack upon the British army in Virginia and that in Charleston: and finally, that by the intervention of several communications, and some incidents which can not be detailed in a letter, the hostile post in Virginia, from being a provisional and strongly expected, became the definitive and certain object of the campaign.
I only add, that it never was in contemplation to attack New York, unless the garrison should first have been so far degarnished to carry on the southern operations, as to render our success in the siege of that place, as infallible as any future military event can ever be made. For I repeat it, and dwell upon it again, some splendid advantage (whether upon a larger or smaller scale was almost immaterial) was so essentially necessary, to revive the expiring hopes and languid exertions of the country, at the crisis in question, that I never would have consented to embark in any enterprise, wherein, from the most rational plan and accurate calculations, the favorable issue should not have appeared as clear to my view as a ray of light. The failure of an attempt against the posts of the enemy, could, in no other possible situation during the war, have been so fatal to our cause.
That much trouble was taken and finess used to misguide and bewilder Sir Henry Clinton, in regard to the real object, by fictitious communications, as well as by making a deceptive provision of ovens, forage, and boats, in his neighborhood, is certain. Nor were less pains taken to deceive our own army; for I had always conceived, where the imposition did not completely take place at home, it could never sufficiently succeed abroad.
Your desire of obtaining truth, is very laudable; I wish I had more leisure to gratify it, as I am equally solicitous the undisguised verity should be known. Many circumstances will unavoidably be misconceived and misrepresented. Notwithstanding most of the papers, which may properly be deemed official, are preserved; yet the knowledge of innumerable things, of a more delicate and secret nature, is confined to the perishable remembrance of some few of the present generation. With esteem, I am sir, Your most obedient humble servant, G. Washington
TO BENJAMIN LINCOLN
Mount Vernon, August 28, 1788
My dear Sir:
I received with your letter of the 9th. instant, one from Mr. Minot, and also his History of the Insurrections in Massachusetts. The work seems to be executed with ingenuity, as well as to be calculated to place facts in a true point of light, obviate the prejudices of those who are unacquainted with the circumstances and answer good purposes in respect to our government in general. I have returned him my thanks for his present, by this conveyance.
The public appears to be anxiously waiting for the decision of Congress, respecting the place for convening the National Assembly under the new government, and the Ordinance for its organization. Methinks it is a great misfortune, that local interests should involve themselves with federal concerns at this moment.
Support for the new ConstitutionSo far as I am able to learn, foederal principles are gaining ground considerably. The declaration of some of the most respectable characters in this state (I mean of those who were opposed to the government) is now explicit, that they will give the Constitution a fair chance, by affording it all the support in their power. Even in Pennsylvania, the Minority, who were more violent than in any other place, say they will only seek for amendments in the mode pointed out by the Constitution itself.
Federalist-Antifederalist election intrigueI will however just mention by way of caveat, there are suggestions, that attempts will be made to procure the election of a number of antifoederal characters to the first Congress, in order to embarrass the wheels of government and produce premature alterations in its Constitution. How these hints, which have come through different channels, may be well or ill founded, I know not: but, it will be advisable, I should think, for the foederalists to be on their guard so far as not to suffer any secret machinations to prevail, without taking measures to frustrate them.Amendments to the Constitution That many amendments and explanations might and should take place, I have [no] difficulty in conceding; but, I will confess, my apprehension is, that the New York Circular letter is intended to bring on a general Convention at too early a period, and in short, by referring the subject to the Legislatures, to set every thing afloat again. I wish I may be mistaken in imagining, that there are persons, who, upon finding they could not carry their point by an open attack against the Constitution, have some sinister designs to be silently effected, if possible. But I trust in that Providence, which has saved us in six troubles yea in seven, to rescue us again from any imminent, though unseen, dangers. Nothing, however, on our part ought to be left undone. I conceive it to be of unspeakable importance, that whatever there be of wisdom, and prudence, and patriotism on the Continent, should be concentred in the public Councils, at the first outset. Our habits of intimacy will render an apology unnecessary. Heaven is my witness, that an inextinguishable desire [that] the felicity of my country may be promoted is my only motive in making these observations. With sentiments of sincere attachment etc.
TO ALEXANDER HAMILTON
Mount Vernon, August 28, 1788
I have had the pleasure to receive your letter dated the 13th. accompanied by one addressed to Genl. Morgan. I will forward the letter to General Morgan by the first conveyance, and add my particular wishes, that he would comply with the request contained in it. Although I can scarcely imagine how the watch of a British officer, killed within their lines, should have fallen into his hands who was many miles distant from the scene of action, yet, if it so happened, I flatter myself there will be no reluctance or delay in restoring it to the family.
Comments on “Publius”As the perusal of the political papers under the signature of Publius has afforded me great satisfaction, I shall certainly consider them as claiming a most distinguished place in my Library. I have read every performance which has been printed on one side and the other of the great question lately agitated (so far as I have been able to obtain them) and, without an unmeaning compliment, I will say, that I have seen no other so well calculated (in my judgment) to produce conviction on an unbiased Mind, as the Production of your triumvirate. When the transient circumstances and fugitive performances which attended this Crisis shall have disappeared, That Work will merit the Notice of Posterity; because in it are candidly and ably discussed the principles of freedom and the topics of government, which will be always interesting to mankind so long as they shall be connected in Civil Society.
The circular letter from your Convention, I presume, was the equivalent by which you obtained an acquiescence in the proposed Constitution. Notwithstanding I am not very well satisfied with the tendency of it, yet the foederal affairs had proceeded, with few exceptions, in so good a train, that I hope the political Machine may be put in motion, without much effort or hazard of miscarrying.
On the possibility of becoming PresidentOn the delicate subject with which you conclude your letter, I can say nothing; because the event alluded to may never happen; and because, in case it should occur, it would be a point of prudence to defer forming one’s ultimate and irrevocable decision, so long as new data might be afforded for one to act with the greater wisdom and propriety. I would not wish to conceal my prevailing sentiment from you. For you know me well enough, my good Sir, to be persuaded, that I am not guilty of affectation, when I tell you, that it is my great and sole desire to live and die, in peace and retirement on my own farm. Were it even indispensable a different line of conduct should be adopted; while you and some others who are acquainted with my heart would acquit, the world and Posterity might probably accuse me [of] inconsistency and ambition. Still I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man, as well as prove (what I desire to be considered in reality) that I am, with great sincerity and esteem, etc.
TO THOMAS JEFFERSON
Mount Vernon, August 31, 1788
I was very much gratified by the receipt of your letter, dated the 3d. of May. You have my best thanks for the political information contained in it, as well as for the satisfactory account of the Canal of Languedoc.Canals at Languedoc It gives me pleasure to be made acquainted with the particulars of that stupendous Work, tho’ I do not expect to derive any but speculative advantages from it.
. . . and in AmericaWhen America will be able to embark in projects of such pecuniary extent, I know not; probably not for very many years to come; but it will be a good example and not without its use, if we can carry our present undertakings happily into effect. Of this we have now the fairest prospect. Notwithstanding the real scarcity of money, and the difficulty of collecting it, the labourers employed by the Potomack Company have made very great progress in removing the obstructions at the Shenandoah, Seneca and Great Falls. Insomuch that, if this Summer had not proved unusually rainy and if we could have had a favourable autumn, the Navigation might have been sufficiently opened (though not completed) for Boats to have passed from Fort Cumberland to within nine miles of a Shipping port by the first of January next. There remains now no doubt of the practicability of the Plan, or that, upon the ulterior operations being performed, this will become the great avenue into the Western Country; a country which is now settg. in an extraordinarily rapid manner, under uncommonly favorable circumstances, and which promises to afford a capacious asylum for the poor and persecuted of the Earth.
I do not pretend to judge how far the flames of war, which are kindled in the North of Europe, may be scattered; or how soon they will be extinguished. The European politics have taken so strange a turn, and the Nations formerly allied have become so curiously severed, that there are fewer sure premises for calculation, than are usually afforded, even on that precarious and doubtful subject. But it appears probable to me, that peace will either take place this year, or hostility be greatly extended in the course of the next. The want of a hearty co-operation between the two Imperial Powers against the Porte; or the failure of success from any other cause, may accelerate the first contingency; the irritable state into wch. several of the other Potentates seem to have been drawn, may open the way to the secd. Hitherto the event of the contest has proved different from the general expectation. If, in our speculations, we might count upon discipline, system and resource, and certainly these are the articles which generally give decisive advantages in War, I had thought full-surely the Turks must, at least, have been driven out of Europe.
Is it not unaccountable that the Russians and Germans combined, are not able to effect so much, as the former did alone in the late War? But perhaps these things are all for the best and may afford room for pacification. I am glad our Commodore Paul Jones has got employment, and heartily wish him success. His new situation may possibly render his talents and services more useful to us at some future day. I was unapprised of the circumstances which you mention, that Congress had once in contemplation to give him promotion. They will judge now how far it may be expedient.
By what we can learn from the late foreign Gazettes, affairs seem to have come to a crisis in France; and I hope they are beginning to meliorate. Should the contest between the King and the Parliaments result in a well constituted National Assembly, it might ultimately be a happy event for the kingdom. But I fear that Kingdom will not recover its reputation and influence with the Dutch for a long time to come. Combinations appear also to be forming in other quarters. It is reported by the last European accounts that England has actually entered into a Treaty with Prussia; and that the French Ambassador at the Court of London has asked to be informed of its tenor. In whatever manner the Nations of Europe shall endeavor to keep up their prowess in war and their ballance of power in peace, it will be obviously our policy to cultivate tranquility at home and abroad; and extend our agriculture and commerce as far as possible.
I am much obliged by the information you give respecting the credit of different Nations among the Dutch Money-holders; and fully accord with you with regard to the manner in which our own ought to be used. I am strongly impressed with the expediency of establishing our National faith beyond imputation, and of having recourse to loans only on critical occasions. Your proposal for transferring the whole foreign debt to Holland is highly worthy of consideration. I feel mortified that there should have been any just grd. for the clamour of the foreign Officers who served with us; but, after having received a quarter of their whole debt in specie and their interest in the same for sometime, they have infinitely less reason for complaint than our native Officers, of whom the suffering and neglect have only been equalled by their patience and patriotism. A great proportion of the Officers and Soldiers of the American Army have been compelled by indigence to part with their securities for one eighth of the nominal value. Yet their conduct is very different from what you represented that of the French Officers to have been.
The new Constitution and proposed amendmentsThe merits and defects of the proposed Constitution have been largely and ably discussed. For myself, I was ready to have embraced any tolerable compromise that was competent to save us from impending ruin; and I can say, there are scarcely any of the amendments which have been suggested, to which I have much objection, except that which goes to the prevention of direct taxation; and that, I presume, will be more strenuously advocated and insisted upon hereafter, than any other. I had indulged the expectation, that the New Government would enable those entrusted with its Administration to do justice to the public creditors and retrieve the National character. But if no means are to be employed but requisitions, that expectation was vain and we may as well recur to the old Confoederation. If the system can be put in operation without touching much the Pockets of the People, perhaps, it may be done; but, in my judgment, infinite circumspection and prudence are yet necessary in the experiment. It is nearly impossible for anybody who has not been on the spot to conceive (from any description) what the delicacy and danger of our situation have been. Though the peril is not past entirely; thank God! the prospect is somewhat brightening.
You will probably have heard before the receipt of this letter, that the general government has been adopted by eleven States; and that the actual Congress have been prevented from issuing their ordinance for carrying it into execution, in consequence of a dispute about the place at which the future Congress shall meet. It is probable that Philadelphia or New York will soon be agreed upon.
I will just touch on the bright side of our national State, before I conclude: and we may perhaps rejoice that the People have been ripened by misfortune for the reception of a good government. They are emerging from the gulf of dissipationAgriculture, manufacturing, and commerce and debt into which they had precipitated themselves at the close of the war. Oeconomy and industry are evidently gaining ground. Not only Agriculture; but even Manufactures are much more attended to than formerly. Notwithstanding the shackles under which our trade in general labours; commerce to the East Indies is prosecuted with considerable success: Salted provisions and other produce (particularly from Massachusetts) have found an advantageous market there. The Voyages are so much shorter and the vessels are navigated at so much less expence, that we hope to rival and supply (at least through the West Indies) some part of Europe, with commodities from thence. This year the exports from Massachusetts have amounted to a great deal more than their exports [sic]. I wish this was the case everywhere.
Commerce with FranceOn the subject of our commerce with France, I have received several quaeries from the Count de Moustiers; besides the information he desired relative to articles of importation from and exportation to France, he wished to know my opinion of the advantage or detriment of the Contract between Mr. Morris and the Farm; as also what emoluments we had to give in return for the favors we solicited in our intercourse with the Islands. As I knew that these topics were also in agitation in France, I gave him the most faithful and satisfactory advice I could: but in such a cautious manner as might not be likely to contradict your assertions or impede your negotiations in Europe. With sentiments of the highest regard etc.
TO ALEXANDER HAMILTON
Mount Vernon, October 3, 1788
In acknowledging the receipt of your candid and kind letter by the last Post; little more is incumbent upon me, than to thank you sincerely for the frankness with which you communicated your sentiments, and to assure you that the same manly tone of intercourse will always be more than barely welcome, indeed it will be highly acceptable to me. I am particularly glad in the present instance, that you have dealt thus freely and like a friend.
Speculations on vote of the Electoral CollegeAlthough I could not help observing, from several publications and letters that my name had been sometimes spoken of, and that it was possible the Contingency which is the subject of your letter might happen; yet I thought it best to maintain a guarded silence and to seek the counsel of my best friends (which I certainly hold in the highest estimation) rather than to hazard an imputation unfriendly to the delicacy of my feelings. For, situated as I am, I could hardly bring the question into the slightest discussion, or ask an opinion even in the most confidential manner, without betraying, in my judgment, some impropriety of conduct, or without feeling an apprehension, that a premature display of anxiety might be construed into a vain-glorious desire of pushing myself into notice as a candidate. Now, if I am not grossly deceived in myself, I should unfeignedly rejoice, in case the Electors, by giving their votes in favor of some other person, would save me from the dreaded Dilemma of being forced to accept or refuse.
If that may not be, I am, in the next place, earnestly desirous of searching out the truth, and of knowing 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. I am truly solicitous to obtain all the previous information which the circumstances will afford, and to determine (when the determination can with propriety be no longer postponed) according to the principles of right reason, and the dictates of a clear conscience; without too great a reference to the unforeseen consequences, which may affect my person or reputation. Untill that period, I may fairly hold myself open to conviction; though I allow your sentiments to have weight in them; and I shall not pass by your arguments without giving them as dispassionate a consideration, as I can possibly bestow upon them.
In taking a survey of the subject, in whatever point of light I have been able to place it, I will not suppress the acknowledgment, my Dr. Sir that I have always felt a kind of gloom upon my mind, as often as I have been taught to expect, I might, and perhaps must ere long, be called to make a decision. You will, I am well assured, believe the assertion (though I have little expectation it would gain credit from those who are less acquainted with me) that if I should receive the appointment and if I should be prevailed upon to accept it, the acceptance would be attended with more diffidence and reluctance than I ever experienced before in my life. It would be, however, with a fixed and sole determination of lending whatever assistance might be in my power to promote the public weal, in hopes that at a convenient and early period my services might be dispensed with, and that I might be permitted once more to retire, to pass an unclouded evening after the stormy day of life, in the bosom of domestic tranquility.
But why these anticipations? if the friends to the Constitution conceive that my administering the government will be a means of its acceleration and strength, is it not probable that the adversaries of it may entertain the same ideas, and of course make it an object of opposition? That many of this description will become Electors, I can have no doubt of, any more than that their opposition will extend to any character who (from whatever cause) would be likely to thwart their measures. It might be impolitic in them to make this declaration previous to the Election; but I shall be out in my conjectures if they do not act conformably thereto, and that the seeming moderation by which they appear to be actuated at present is neither more or less than a finesse to lull and deceive. Their plan of opposition is systematized, and a regular intercourse, I have much reason to believe between the Leaders of it in the several States is formed to render it more effectual. With sentiments of sincere regard &c.
TO BENJAMIN LINCOLN
Mount Vernon, October 26, 1788
My dear Sir:
A critical period for the new Constitution in various statesI have been lately favored with the receipt of your letters of the 24th and 30th of September, with their enclosures, and thank you sincerely for your free and friendly communications. As the period is now rapidly approaching which must decide the fate of the new Constitution, as to the manner of its being carried into execution, and probably as to its usefulness, it is not wonderful that we should all feel an unusual degree of anxiety on the occasion. I must acknowledge my fears have been greatly alarmed, but still I am not without hopes. From the good beginning that has been made in Pennsylvania, a State from which much was to be feared, I cannot help foreboding well of the others. That is to say, I flatter myself a majority of them will appoint foederal members to the several branches of the new government. I hardly should think that Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia, would be for attempting premature amendments. Some of the rest may, also, in all probability be apprehensive of throwing our affairs into confusion, by such ill-timed expedients.
There will however, be no room for the advocates of the Constitution to relax in their exertions; for if they should be lulled into security, appointments of Antifoederal men may probably take place, and the consequences, which you so justly dread, be realized. Our Assembly is now in session; it is represented to be rather antifoederal, but we have heard nothing of its doings. Mr. Patrick Henry, R.H. Lee and Madison are talked of for the Senate. Perhaps as much opposition, or, in other words, as great an effort for early amendments, is to be apprehended from this State, as from any but New York. The constant report is, that North Carolina will soon accede to the new Union. A new Assembly is just elected in Maryland, in which it is asserted the number of Foederalists greatly predominates; and that being the case, we may look for favorable appointments, in spite of the rancour and activity of a few discontented, and I may say apparently unprincipled men.
Possibility of becoming PresidentI would willingly pass over in silence that part of your letter, in which you mention the persons who are Candidates for the two first Offices in the Executive, if I did not fear the omission might seem to betray a want of confidence. Motives of delicacy have prevented me hitherto from conversing or writing on this subject, whenever I could avoid it with decency. I may, however, with great sincerity and I believe without offending against modesty or propriety say to you, that I most heartily wish the choice to which you allude may not fall upon me: and that, if it should, I must reserve to myself the right of making up my final decision, at the last moment when it can be brought into one view, and when the expediency or inexpediency of a refusal can be more judiciously determined than at present. But be assured, my dear Sir, if from any inducement I shall be persuaded ultimately to accept, it will not be (so far as I know my own heart) from any of a private or personal nature. Every personal consideration conspires to rivet me (if I may use the expression) to retirement. At my time of life, and under my circumstances, nothing in this world can ever draw me from it, unless it be a conviction that the partiality of my Countrymen had made my services absolutely necessary, joined to a fear that my refusal might induce a belief that I preferred the conservation of my own reputation and private ease, to the good of my Country. After all, if I should conceive myself in a manner constrained to accept, I call Heaven to witness, that this very act would be the greatest sacrifice of my personal feelings and wishes that ever I have been called upon to make. It would be to forego repose and domestic enjoyment, for trouble, perhaps for public obloquy: for I should consider myself as entering upon an unexplored field, enveloped on every side with clouds and darkness.
From this embarrassing situation I had naturally supposed that my declarations at the close of the war would have saved me; and that my sincere intentions, then publicly made known, would have effectually precluded me for ever afterwards from being looked upon as a Candidate for any office. This hope, as a last anchor of worldly happiness in old age, I had still carefully preserved; until the public papers and private letters from my Correspondents in almost every quarter, taught me to apprehend that I might soon be obliged to answer the question, whether I would go again into public life or not.
Vice-Presidential considerationsYou will see, my dear Sir, from this train of reflections, that I have lately had enough of my own perplexities to think of, without adverting much to the affairs of others. So much have I been otherwise occupied, and so little agency did I wish to have in electioneering, that I have never entered into a single discussion with any person nor to the best of my recollection expressed a single sentiment orally or in writing respecting the appointment of a Vice President. From the extent and respectability of Massachusetts it might reasonably be expected, that he would be chosen from that State. But having taken it for granted, that the person selected for that important place would be a true Foederalist; in that case, I was altogether disposed to acquiesce in the prevailing sentiments of the Electors, without giving any unbecoming preference or incurring any unnecessary ill-will. Since it here seems proper to touch a little more fully upon that point, I will frankly give you my manner of thinking, and what, under certain circumstances, would be my manner of acting.
For this purpose I must speak again hypothetically for argument’s sake, and say, supposing I should be appointed to the Administration and supposing I should accept it, I most solemnly declare, that whosoever shall be found to enjoy the confidence of the States so far as to be elected Vice President, cannot be disagreeable to me in that office. And even if I had any predilection, I flatter myself, I possess patriotism enough to sacrifice it at the shrine of my Country; where, it will be unavoidably necessary for me to have made infinitely greater sacrifices, before I can find myself in the supposed predicament: that is to say, before I can be connected with others, in any possible political relation. In truth, I believe that I have no prejudices on the subject, and that it would not be in the power of any evil-minded persons, who wished to disturb the harmony of those concerned in the government, to infuse them into my mind. For, to continue the same hypothesis one step farther, supposing myself to be connected in office with any gentleman of character, I would most certainly treat him with perfect sincerity and the greatest candour in every respect. I would give him my full confidence, and use my utmost endeavours to co-operate with him, in promoting and rendering permanent the national prosperity; this should be my great, my only aim, under the fixed and irrevocable resolution of leaving to other hands the helm of the State, as soon as my service could possibly with propriety be dispensed with.
I have thus, my dear Sir, insensibly been led into a longer detail than I intended; and have used more egotism than I could have wished; for which I urge no other apology, than but my opinion of your friendship, discretion and candour. With sentiments of real esteem etc.
TO MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE
Mount Vernon, January 29, 1789
My dear Marquis:
By the last post I was favored with the receipt of your letter, dated the 5th of September last. Notwithstanding the distance of its date, it was peculiarly welcome to me: for I had not in the mean time received any satisfactory advices respecting yourself or your country. By that letter, my mind was placed much more at its ease, on both those subjects, than it had been for many months.
The last letter, which I had the pleasure of writing to you, was forwarded by Mr. Gouverneur Morris. Since his departure from America, nothing very material has occurred. The minds of men, however, have not been in a stagnant State. But patriotism, instead of faction, has generally agitated them. It is not a matter of wonder, that, in proportion as we approach to the time fixed for the organization and operation of the new government, their anxiety should have been encreased, rather than diminished.
Federal electionsThe choice of Senators, Representatives, and Electors, which (excepting in that of the last description) took place at different times, in the different States, has afforded abundant topics for domestic News, since the beginning of Autumn. I need not enumerate the several particulars, as I imagine you see most of them detailed, in the American Gazettes. I will content myself with only saying, that the elections have been hitherto vastly more favorable than we could have expected, that federal sentiments seem to be growing with uncommon rapidity, and that this encreasing unanimity is not less indicative of the good disposition than the good sense of the Americans. Did it not savour so much of partiality for my Countrymen I might add, that I cannot help flattering myself the new Congress on account of the self-created respectability and various talents of its Members, will not be inferior to any Assembly in the world. From these and some other circumstances, I really entertain greater hopes, that America will not finally disappoint the expectations of her Friends, than I have at almost any former period. Still however, in such a fickle state of existence I would not be too sanguine in indulging myself with the contemplation of scenes of uninterrupted prosperity; lest some unforeseen mischance or perverseness should occasion the greater mortification, by blasting the enjoyment in the very bud.
Reluctance to become PresidentI can say little or nothing new, in consequence of the repetition of your opinion, on the expediency there will be, for my accepting the office to which you refer. Your sentiments, indeed, coincide much more nearly with those of my other friends, than with my own feelings. In truth my difficulties encrease and magnify as I draw towards the period, when, according to the common belief, it will be necessary for me to give a definitive answer, in one way or another. Should the circumstances render it, in a manner inevitably necessary, to be in the affirmative: be assured, my dear Sir, I shall assume the task with the most unfeigned reluctance, and with a real diffidence for which I shall probably receive no credit from the world. If I know my own heart, nothing short of a conviction of duty will induce me again to take an active part in public affairs; and, in that case, if I can form a plan for my own conduct, my endeavours shall be unremittingly exerted (even at the hazard of former fame or present popularity) to extricate my country from the embarrassments in which it is entangled, through want of credit; and to establish a general system of policy, which if pursued will ensure permanent felicity to the Commonwealth. I think I see a path, as clear and as direct as a ray of light, which leads to the attainment of that object. Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people. Happily the present posture of affairs and the prevailing disposition of my countrymen promise to co-operate in establishing those four great and essential pillars of public felicity.
Useful arts and domestic manufacturingWhat has been considered at the moment as a disadvantage, will probably turn out for our good. While our commerce has been considerably curtailed, for want of that extensive credit formerly given in Europe, and for default of remittance; the useful arts have been almost imperceptibly pushed to a considerable degree of perfection.
Though I would not force the introduction of manufactures, by extravagant encouragements, and to the prejudice of agriculture; yet, I conceive much might be done in that way by women, children and others; without taking one really necessary hand from tilling the earth. Certain it is, great savings are already made in many articles of apparel, furniture and consumption. Equally certain it is, that no diminution in agriculture has taken place, at the time when greater and more substantial improvements in manufactures were making, than were ever before known in America. In Pennsylvania they have attended particularly to the fabrication of cotton cloths, hats, and all articles in leather. In Massachusetts they are establishing factories of Duck, Cordage, Glass, and several other extensive and useful branches. The number of shoes made in one town and nails in another is incredible. In that State and Connecticut are also factories of superfine and other broad cloths. I have been writing to our friend Genl. Knox this day, to procure me homespun broad cloth, of the Hartford fabric, to make a suit of cloaths for myself. I hope it will not be a great while, before it will be unfashionable for a gentleman to appear in any other dress. Indeed we have already been too long subject to British prejudices. I use no porter or cheese in my family, but such as is made in America: both those articles may now be purchased of an excellent quality.
American tranquillityWhile you are quarrelling among yourselves in Europe; while one King is running mad, and others acting as if they were already so, by cutting the throats of the subjects of their neighbours, I think you need not doubt, my dear Marquis, we shall continue in tranquility here. And that population will be progressive so long as there shall continue to be so many easy means for obtaining a subsistence, and so ample a field for the exertion of talents and industry. All my family join in Compliments to Madame la Fayette and yours. Adieu.
TO BENJAMIN LINCOLN
Mount Vernon, January 31, 1789
My dear Sir:
Antifederalist intriguesYour two letters of December 20th and January 4th are before me. I am much obliged to you for the intelligence contained in them: because it enabled me to contradict a report in circulation among the Antifederalists, that your State had made choice of only one Representative to Congress, that no more would probably be appointed and that every thing was in very great confusion. Though facts will ultimately become known; yet much mischief to the federal cause may be done, by suffering misrepresentation to pass unnoticed or unrefuted. Last winter the Antifederalists in Philadelphia published, that Connecticut had been surprised into an adoption of the Constitution, while a great majority of the freemen were opposed to it. Now it is certain, nothing can fix the stigma of falsehood upon that assertion better than the late respectable appointments in that State. Much the same thing has happened in Maryland. The Federal Ticket has been carried by a Majority of thousands. In the County which bears my name, there was not a dissenting vote.
By the best information I can obtain, federal sentiments are spreading perhaps, faster than ever in this Commonwealth. It is generally supposed that six, if not seven, of the Representatives from it to Congress, will be decided friends to the Constitution. I will only add, that, in Maryland and this State, it is probable Mr. John Adams will have a considerable number of the votes of the Electors. Some of those gentlemen will have been advised that this measure would be entirely agreeable to me, and that I considered it to be the only certain way to prevent the election of an Antifederalist. With sentiments of the greatest esteem &c.
TO FRANCIS HOPKINSON
Mount Vernon, February 5, 1789
Hopkinson’s musicWe are told of the amazing powers of musick in ancient times; but the stories of its effects are so surprizing that we are not obliged to believe them unless they had been founded upon better authority than Poetic assertion; for the Poets of old (whatever they may do in these days) were strangely addicted to the Marvellous; and If I before doubted the truth of their relations with respect to the power of musick, I am now fully convinced of their falsity, because I would not, for the honor of my Country, allow that we are left by Ancients at an immeasurable distance in everything; and if they could sooth the ferocity of wild beasts, could draw the trees and Stones after them, and could even charm the powers of Hell by their musick, I am sure that your productions would have had at least virtue enough in them (without the aid of voice or instrument) to melt the Ice of the Delaware and Potomack, and in that case you should have had an earlier acknowledgment of your favor of the 1st. of December which came to hand but last Saturday.
I readily admit the force of your distinction between “a thing done and a thing to be done,” and as I do not believe that you would do “a very bad thing indeed” I must even make a virtue of necessity, and defend your performance, if necessary, to the last effort of my musical Abilities.
But, my dear Sir, if you had any doubts about the reception which your work would meet with, or had the smallest reason to think that you should need any assistance to defend it, you have not acted with your usual good Judgement in the choice which you have made of a Coadjutor; for should the tide of prejudice not flow in favor of it (and so various are the tastes, opinions and whims of men that even the sanction of divinity does not ensure universal concurrence) what, alas! can I do to support it? I can neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note on any instrument to convince the unbelieving, but I have, however one argument which will prevail with persons of true taste (at least in America), I can tell them that it is the production of Mr. Hopkinson.
With the compliments of Mrs. Washington added to mine for you and yours, I am, etc.
TO GEORGE STEPTOE WASHINGTON
Mount Vernon, March 23, 1789
Advice for youth on conduct and characterAs it is probable I shall soon be under the necessity of quitting this place, and entering once more into the bustle of public life, in conformity to the voice of my Country, and the earnest entreaties of my friends, however contrary it is to my own desires or inclinations, I think it incumbent on me as your uncle and friend, to give you some advisory hints, which, if properly attended to, will, I conceive, be found very useful to you in regulating your conduct and giving you respectability, not only at present, but thro’ every period of life. You have now arrived to that age when you must quit the trifling amusements of a boy, and assume the more dignified manners of a man.
At this crisis your conduct will attract the notice of those who are about you, and as the first impressions are generally the most lasting, your doings now may mark the leading traits of your character through life. It is therefore absolutely necessary if you mean to make any figure upon the stage, that you should take the first steps right. What these steps are, and what general line is to be pursued to lay the foundation of an honorable and happy progress, is the part of age and experience to point out. This I shall do, as far as in my power with the utmost chearfulness; and, I trust, that your own good sense will shew you the necessity of following it. The first and great object with you at present is to acquire, by industry, and application, such knowledge as your situation enables you to obtain, as will be useful to you in life. In doing this two other important advantages will be gained besides the acquisition of knowledge: namely, a habit of industry, and a disrelish of that profusion of money and dissipation of time which are ever attendant upon idleness. I do not mean by a close application to your studies that you should never enter into those amusements which are suited to your age and station: they can be made to go hand in hand with each other, and, used in their proper seasons, will ever be found to be a mutual assistance to one another. But what amusements, and when they are to be taken, is the great matter to be attended to. Your own judgement, with the advice of your real friends who may have an opportunity of a personal intercourse with you, can point out the particular manner in which you may best spend your moments of relaxation, better than I can at a distance. One thing, however, I would strongly impress upon you, vizt. that when you have leisure to go into company that it should always be of the best kind that the place you are in will afford; by this means you will be constantly improving your manners and cultivating your mind while you are relaxing from your books; and good company will always be found much less expensive than bad. You cannot offer, as an excuse for not using it, that you cannot gain admission there; or that you have not a proper attention paid you in it: this is an apology made only by those whose manners are disgusting, or whose character is exceptionable; neither of which I hope will ever be said of you. I cannot enjoin too strongly upon you a due observance of oeconomy and frugality, as you well know yourself, the present state of your property and finances will not admit of any unnecessary expense. The article of clothing is now one of the chief expences, you will incur, and in this, I fear, you are not so oeconomical as you should be. Decency and cleanliness will always be the first object in the dress of a judicious and sensible man; a conformity to the prevailing fashion in a certain degree is necessary; but it does not from thence follow that a man should always get a new Coat, or other clothes, upon every trifling change in the mode, when perhaps he has two or three very good ones by him. A person who is anxious to be a leader of the fashion, or one of the first to follow it will certainly appear in the eyes of judicious men, to have nothing better than a frequent change of dress to recommend him to notice. I would always wish you to appear sufficiently decent to entitle you to admission into any company where you may be; but I cannot too strongly enjoin it upon you, and your own knowledge must convince you of the truth of it, that you should be as little expensive in this respect as you properly can. You should always keep some clothes to wear to Church, or on particular occasions, which should not be worn everyday; this can be done without any additional expence; for whenever it is necessary to get new clothes, those which have been kept for particular occasions will then come in as every-day ones, unless they should be of a superior quality to the new. What I have said with respect to clothes will apply perhaps more pointedly to Lawrence than to you; and as you are much older than he is, and more capable of judging of the propriety of what I have here observed, you must pay attention to him in this respect, and see that he does not wear his clothes improperly or extravagantly. Much more might be said to you, as a young man, upon the necessity of paying due attention to the moral virtues; but this may, perhaps, more properly be the subject of a future letter when you may be about to enter into the world. If you comply with the advice herein given to pay a diligent attention to your studies, and employ your time of relaxation in proper company, you will find but few opportunities and little inclination, while you continue at an Acadimy, to enter into those scenes of vice and dissipation which too often present themselves to youth in every place, and particularly in towns. If you are determined to neglect your books, and plunge into extravagance and dissipation, nothing I could say now would prevent it; for you must be employed, and if it is not in pursuit of those things which are profitable, it must be in pursuit of those which are destructive. As your time of continuing with Mr. Hanson will expire the last of this month and I understand Dr. Craik has expressed an inclination to take you and Lawrence to board with him, I shall know his determination respecting the matter; and if it is agreeable to him and Mrs. Craik to take you, I shall be pleased with it, for I am certain that nothing will be wanting on their parts to make your situation agreeable and useful to you. Should you live with the Doctor I shall request him to take you both under his peculiar care; provide such clothes for you, from time to time, as he shall judge necessary, and do by you in the same manner as he would if you were his own children. Which if he will undertake, I am sensible, from knowledge which I have of him, and the very amiable character and disposition of Mrs. Craik, that they will spare no proper exertions to make your situation pleasing and profitable to you. Should you or Lawrence therefore behave in such a manner as to occasion any complaint being made to me, you may depend upon losing that place which you now have in my affections, and any future hopes you may have from me. But if, on the contrary, your conduct is such as to merit my regard, you may always depend upon the warmest attachment, and sincere affection of Your friend and Uncle.
TO JAMES MADISON
Mount Vernon, March 30, 1789
My dear Sir:
I have been favored with you Letter of the 19th; by which it appears that a quoram of Congress was hardly to be expected until the beginning of the past week. As this delay must be very irksome to the attending Members, and every days continuance of it (before the Government is in operation) will be more sensibly felt; I am resolved, no interruption shall proceed from me that can well be avoided (after notice of the Election is announced); and therefore take the liberty of requesting the favor of you to engage Lodgings for me previous to my arrival. Colo. Humphreys, I presume, will be of my party; and Mr. Lear who has already lived three years with me as a private Secretary, will accompany, or preceed me in the stage.
Plans for New York lodgingsOn the subject of lodgings I will frankly declare, I mean to go into none but hired ones. If these cannot be had tolerably convenient (I am not very nice) I would take rooms in the most decent Tavern, till a house can be provided for the more permanent reception of the President. I have already declined a very polite and pressing offer from the Governor, to lodge at his house till a place could be prepared for me; after which should any other of a similar nature be made, there would be no propriety in the acceptance. But as you are fully acquainted with sentiments on this subject, I shall only add, that as I mean to avoid private families on the one hand, so on another, I am not desirous of being placed early in a situation for entertaining. Therefore, hired (private) lodgings would not only be more agreeable to my own wishes, but, possibly, more consistent with the dictates of sound policy. For, as it is my wish and intention to conform to the public desire and expectation, with respect to the style proper for the Chief Magistrate to live in, it might be well to know (as far as the nature of the case will admit) what these are before he enters upon it.
After all, something may perhaps have been decided upon with respect to the accommodations of the President, before this letter wd. have reached you that may render this application nugatory. If otherwise, I will sum up all my wishes in one word, and that is to be placed in an independent situation, with the prospect I have alluded to, before me. With strong, and Affectionate friendship I am etc.
TO THE MAYOR, CORPORATION, AND CITIZENS OF ALEXANDRIA
[Alexandria, April 16, 1789]
Election to PresidencyAlthough I ought not to conceal, yet I cannot describe, the painful emotions which I felt in being called upon to determine whether I would accept or refuse the Presidency of the United States.
The unanimity of the choice, the opinion of my friends, communicated from different parts of Europe, as well as of America, the apparent wish of those, who were not altogether satisfied with the Constitution in its present form, and an ardent desire on my own part, to be instrumental in conciliating the good will of my countrymen towards each other have induced an acceptance.
Those, who have known me best (and you, my fellow citizens, are from your situation, in that number) know better than any others that my love of retirement is so great, that no earthly consideration, short of a conviction of duty, could have prevailed upon me to depart from my resolution, “never more to take any share in transactions of a public nature.” For, at my age, and in my circumstances, what possible advantages could I propose to myself, from embarking again on the tempestuous and uncertain ocean of public-life?
Farewell to Alexandria neighborsI do not feel myself under the necessity of making public declarations, in order to convince you, Gentlemen, of my attachment to yourselves, and regard for your interests. The whole tenor of my life has been open to your inspection; and my past actions, rather than my present declarations, must be the pledge of my future conduct.
In the mean time I thank you most sincerely for the expressions of kindness contained in your valedictory address. It is true, just after having bade adieu to my domestic connexions, this tender proof of your friendship is but too well calculated still farther to awaken my sensibility, and encrease my regret at parting from the enjoyments of private life.
All that now remains for me is to commit myself and you to the protection of that beneficent Being, who, on a former occasion has happly brought us together, after a long and distressing separation. Perhaps the same gracious Providence will again indulge us with the same heartfelt felicity. But words, my fellow-citizens, fail me: Unutterable sensations must then be left to more expressive silence: while, from an aching heart, I bid you all, my affectionate friends and kind neighbours, farewell!
[*]Because it would be easy for the Count de Grasse, in good time before his departure from the West Indies, to give notice, by express, at what place he could most conveniently first touch to receive advice. [G.W.]