Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 25: Private Statesmanship: Agriculture, Improvements, Union (1783 to 1785) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 25: Private Statesmanship: Agriculture, Improvements, Union (1783 to 1785) - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Private Statesmanship: Agriculture, Improvements, Union (1783 to 1785)
General Washington devotes his time to agriculture, to the duties of friendship, and to institutions of public utility.—Resolves of Congress and of the Legislature of Virginia for erecting statues to his honor.—He recommends the improvement of internal navigation.—Declines accepting a donation offered by his native state.—The Society of the Cincinnati.—The causes which led to a change of the government of the United States.—Circular letter to the Governors of the several states.
1784When an individual, long in possession of great power, and almost unlimited influence, retires from office with alacrity, and resumes the character of a private citizen with pleasure, the mind is gratified in contemplating the example of virtuous moderation, and dwells upon it with approving satisfaction. Such was the example exhibited by General Washington. His feelings were thus described in his letter to his friend Lafayette:—“I have not only retired from all public employments, but am retiring within myself, and shall be able to view the solitary walk, and tread the paths of private life, with heartfelt satisfaction. Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all; and this, my dear friend, being the order of my march, I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my fathers.”
Every day brought to Mount Vernon testimonials of the grateful and ardent affection universally felt by his fellow-citizens. Congress, soon after peace was proclaimed, unanimously passed a resolution for the erection of an equestrian statue of their General, at the place which should be established as the seat of government. The legislature of Virginia too, at its first session after his resignation, passed the following resolution.
“Resolved that the executive be requested to take measures for procuring a statue of General Washington, to be of the finest marble and best workmanship, with the following inscription on its pedestal:
“The general assembly of the commonwealth of Virginia have caused this statue to be erected as a monument of affection and gratitute to George Washington, who, uniting to the endowments of the hero, the virtues of the patriot, and exerting both in establishing the liberties of his country, has rendered his name dear to his fellow-citizens, and given the world an immortal example of true glory.”
This statue stands in the capitol of his native state.
The time of Washington was now chiefly devoted to agriculture, that great source of national prosperity. The energies of his active mind were directed to its improvement. His energies were extended beyond his own country; and he entered into a correspondence on this interesting subject with those foreigners who had been most distinguished for their additions to the stock of agricultural science.
Mingled with this favorite pursuit, were the multiplied avocations resulting from the high office he had lately filled. But their numerous occupations could not withdraw his mind entirely from objects tending to promote and secure the prosperity of his country.
A person looking beyond the present moment, could not inspect the map of the United States, without perceiving the importance of connecting the west with the east, by facilitating the intercourse between them.
The attention of General Washington had been directed to this subject in early life; and he had obtained the passage of a bill for opening the Potomac and the James. This business was in a train which promised success when the war of the revolution diverted the attention of its patrons from internal improvements to the still greater objects of liberty and independence. As that war approached its termination, internal navigation reclaimed its just place with the wise and thinking part of society.
Accustomed to contemplate America as his country, Washington now took a more enlarged view of the advantages to be derived from opening both the eastern and western waters. After peace had been proclaimed, he traversed the western parts of New England and New York; and saw with prophetic eye the immense advantages which have since been derived from executing the plans he meditated.
Scarcely had he answered those spontaneous offerings of the heart which flowed in upon him from every part of a grateful nation, when his views were seriously turned to this interesting subject. In the autumn of 1784, he made a tour as far west as Pittsburg; after returning from which, his first moments of leisure were devoted to the task of engaging his countrymen in a work which appeared to him to merit still more attention from its political, than from its commercial influence on the Union. In a long and interesting letter to the Governor of Virginia, he detailed the advantages which might be derived from opening the great rivers, the Potomac and the James, as far as should be practicable. His plan also extended to the navigable waters of the west, and to a communication with the great lakes of that region. By these means alone, he thought, could the connexion of the western with the Atlantic country be preserved. This idea was pressed with much earnestness in his letters to several members of Congress.
His letter to the Governor of Virginia was communicated to the legislature, and the internal improvements it recommended were zealously supported by the wisest members of that body. While the subject remained undecided, General Washington, accompanied by the Marquis de Lafayette, who had crossed the Atlantic for the purpose of devoting a part of his time to the delights of an enthusiastic friendship, paid a visit to the capital of the state. Amidst the festivities which were produced by the occasion, the great business of internal improvement was assiduously pressed; and the ardour of the moment was seized to conquer those objections to the plan which still lingered in the bosoms of members who thought that no future advantages could compensate for the present expense.
An exact conformity between the acts of Virginia and Maryland being indispensable to the improvement of the Potomac, a resolution was passed soon after the return of General Washington to Mount Vernon, requesting him to attend the legislature of Maryland, in order to agree on a bill which might receive the sanction of both states. This agreement being happily completed, those bills were enacted which form the first essay towards connecting the navigation of the eastern with the western waters of the United States.
Dec. 1784These acts were succeeded by one which conveys the liberal1 wishes of the legislature with a delicacy not less honorable to its framers than to him who was its object. The treasurer had been instructed to subscribe, in behalf of the state, for a specified number of shares in each company. At the close of the session, a bill was suddenly brought in, and passed unanimously by both houses, authorizing the treasurer to subscribe for the benefit of General Washington, the same number of shares in each company as were to be taken for the state. A preamble was prefixed to the enacting clause of this bill, which enhanced its value. With simple elegance it conveyed the sentiment that, in seizing this occasion to make a donation which would in some degree testify their sense of the merits of their most favored and most illustrious citizen, the donors would themselves be the obliged.
This delicate and flattering testimony of the affection of his fellow-citizens was not without its embarrassments. From his early resolution to receive no pecuniary compensation for his services, he could not permit himself to depart; and yet this mark of the gratitude and attachment of his country could not easily be rejected, without furnishing occasion for sentiments he was unwilling to excite. To the friend who conveyed to him the first intelligence of this bill, his difficulties were fully expressed.
Oct. 1785A correspondence with the Governor on this subject was closed with a letter in which he said, “whilst I repeat therefore my fervent acknowledgments to the legislature for their very kind sentiments and intentions in my favor, and at the same time beg them to be persuaded that a remembrance of this singular proof of their goodness towards me will never cease to cherish returns of the warmest affection and gratitude, I must pray that their act, so far as it has for its object my personal emolument, may not have its effect; but if it should please the General Assembly to permit me to turn the destination of the fund vested in me, from my private emolument to objects of a public nature, it will be my study, in selecting these, to prove the sincerity of my gratitude for the honor conferred upon me, by preferring such as may appear most subservient to the enlightened and patriotic views of the legislature.”
The wish suggested in this letter was gratified: and, at a subsequent time, the trust was executed by conveying the shares respectively, to the use of a seminary of learning established in the vicinity of each river.2
General Washington felt too strong an interest in the success of these works, to refuse the presidency of the companies instituted for their completion.
These were not the only institutions which occasionally drew the farmer of Mount Vernon from his retreat.
The sentiments with which the officers of the American army contemplated a final separation from each other will be comprehended by all who are conversant with the feelings of the human heart. Companions in virtuous suffering, in danger, and in glory—attached to each other by common exertions made in a severe struggle for the attainment of a common object—they felt that to part forever was a calamity too afflicting to be supported. The means of perpetuating those friendships which had been formed, and of renewing that endearing social intercourse which had taken place in camp, were universally desired. Some expedient was sought which might preserve the memory of the army, while it cheered the officers who were on the point of separating with the hope that the separation would not be eternal; that the bonds by which they were connected would not be totally dissolved; and that for many beneficial purposes, they would still form one great society.
May 1783This idea was suggested by General Knox, and matured in a meeting at which the Baron Steuben presided. An agreement was then entered into by which the officers were to constitute themselves into one society of friends, to be denominated the society of the Cincinnati,3 to endure as long as they should endure, or any of their eldest male posterity; and, in failure thereof, any collateral branches judged worthy of becoming members were to be admitted into it. Distinguished individuals of the respective states might be admitted as honorary members for life.
The society was to be designated by a medal of gold representing the American eagle. The insignia of the order were to be presented to the ministers who had represented his Most Christian Majesty at Philadelphia, and to the French officers who had served in the United States, and they were to be invited to consider themselves as members of the society, at the head of which the commander-in-chief was respectfully solicited to place his name.
An incessant attention to the preservation of the exalted rights and privileges of human nature, and an unalterable determination to promote and cherish union and national honor between the respective states, were declared to be the immutable principles of the society. Its objects were to perpetuate the remembrance of the American revolution, as well as cordial affection and the spirit of brotherly kindness among the officers, and to extend acts of beneficence to those officers and their families who might require assistance. For this purpose a common fund was to be created by the contribution of one month’s pay on the part of each officer becoming a member.
The military gentlemen of each state were to constitute a distinct society, deputies from which were to assemble triennially in order to form a general meeting.
Soon after the organization of this institution, those jealousies which had in its first moments been concealed, burst forth into open view. In October 1783, a pamphlet was published by Mr. Burke of South Carolina, pourtraying in the fervid and impetuous language of passion the dangers to equal rights with which it was supposed to be replete.4 The alarm was spread through every state, and a high degree of jealousy pervaded the mass of the people.
It was impossible for General Washington to view this state of the public feeling with indifference. Bound to the officers of the army by the strictest ties of esteem and affection, he was alive to every thing which might affect their reputation or their interest. However ill-founded the public prejudices might be, he thought this a case in which they ought to be respected; and if it should be found impracticable to convince the people that their fears were misplaced, he was disposed “to yield to them in a degree, and not to suffer that which was intended for the best of purposes, to produce a bad one.”
A general meeting was to be held in Philadelphia in May 1784, and, in the meantime, he had been appointed temporary president. The most exact enquiries assiduously made into the true state of the public mind, resulted in a conviction that opinions unfriendly to the institution, in its actual form, were extensively entertained; and that those opinions were founded in real apprehensions for equal liberty.
A wise and necessary policy required, he thought, the removal of these apprehensions; and at the general meeting in May, the hereditary principle, and the power of adopting honorary members, were relinquished. The result demonstrated the propriety of this alteration.
While General Washington thus devoted his time to rural pursuits, to the duties of friendship, and to institutions of public utility, the political state of his country, becoming daily more embarrassed, attracted more and more deeply the anxious solicitude of every enlightened and virtuous patriot. From peace, from independence, and from governments of their own choice, the United States had confidently anticipated every blessing. The glorious termination of their contest with one of the most powerful nations of the earth; the steady and persevering courage with which that contest had been maintained, and the unyielding firmness with which the privations attending it had been supported, had surrounded the infant republics with a great degree of splendor, and had bestowed upon them a character which could be preserved only by a national and dignified system of conduct. A very short time was sufficient to demonstrate that something not yet possessed was requisite, to ensure the public and private prosperity expected to flow from self-government. After a short struggle so to administer the existing system as to make it competent to the great objects for which it was instituted, the effort became apparently desperate; and American affairs were impelled rapidly to a crisis, on which the continuance of the United States as a nation appeared to depend.
A government authorized to declare war, but relying on independent states for the means of prosecuting it, capable of contracting debts, but depending on thirteen distinct sovereignties for the means of payment, could not be rescued from ignominy and contempt but by finding those sovereignties administered by men exempt from the passions incident to human nature.
It has been already stated that the continent was divided into two great political parties, the one of which contemplated America as a nation, and labored incessantly to invest Congress with powers competent to the preservation of the Union. The other attached itself to the state governments, viewed all the powers of Congress with jealousy, and assented reluctantly to measures, however indispensable, which would enable the head to act, in any respect independently of the members. Men of enlarged and liberal5 minds who, in the imbecility of the General Government could discern the imbecility of the nation itself, who felt the full value of national character, and the full obligation of national faith, arranged themselves in the first party. The officers of the army, whose local prejudices had been weakened by associating with each other, and whose experience had furnished lessons on the inefficacy of requisitions not soon to be forgotten, threw their weight into the same scale.
The other party, if not more intelligent, was more numerous and more powerful. It was nourished by prejudices and feelings which grew without effort, and gained strength from the intimate connexion between a state and its citizens. It required a concurrence of extrinsic circumstances to force on minds unwilling to receive the demonstration, a conviction of the necessity of an effective national government, and to give even a temporary ascendency to that party which had long foreseen and deplored the crisis to which the affairs of the United States were hastening.
Sensible that the character of the government would be decided by the measures which should immediately follow the treaty of peace, patriots of the first ability sought a place in the Congress of 1783. Combining their efforts for the establishment of principles which might maintain the honor and promote the interests of the nation, they exerted all their talents to impress on the states the necessity of conferring powers on the government which might be competent to its preservation. With unwearied perseverance, they obtained the assent of Congress to a system which, though unequal to what their judgments would have approved, was believed to be the best that was attainable.
The committee to whom this interesting subject was referred, reported sundry resolutions recommending it to the several states to vest in Congress permanent funds, adequate to the immediate payment of the interest on the national debt, and to the gradual extinction of the principal.
April 1783After a tedious debate, the report was adopted; and a committee, consisting of Mr. Madison, Mr. Hamilton, and Mr. Ellsworth,6 was appointed to prepare an address, which should accompany the recommendation to the several states.
This able state paper will excite, even at this day, emotions of admiration for its authors, and of astonishment at its failure. In the refusal of the states to comply with the measures it recommended, we find a complete demonstration of the impracticability of preserving union without investing its government with adequate powers.
No person felt more anxious solicitude for the complete success of the plan recommended by Congress, than General Washington.
Availing himself of the usage of communicating on national subjects with the state governments, and of the opportunity given by his approaching resignation of the command of the army, to convey to them his sentiments impressively, he had determined to employ all the influence which the circumstances of his life had created, in earnest recommendation of measures on which the happiness and prosperity of his country were believed to depend. On the 8th of June, 1783, he addressed a paternal and affectionate letter to the Governors of the respective states, in which his congratulations on the successful termination of their revolutionary struggle, and on the high destinies in prospect, were mingled with solemn admonitions warning them of the perils with which their new situation was environed. With impressive earnestness he urged upon them “four things,” as essential “to the existence of the United States as an independent power.”
“1st. An indissoluble union of the states under one federal head.
“2d. A sacred regard to public justice.
“3d. The adoption of a proper peace establishment.7
“4th. The prevalence of that pacific and friendly disposition among the people of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and politics, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and, in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community.”
The letter enlarged upon these topics, and pressed them on the consideration of those to whom it was addressed, with that anxious earnestness which grew out of a most devoted love of country, and a deep-felt conviction that the prosperity of that country would be determined by the measures it was about to adopt.
This solemn and affecting admonition was laid by the Governors of the several states before their respective assemblies. Its impression could not be surpassed. Like the counsel of a parent, on whom the grave is about to close forever, it sunk deep into the hearts of all. But, like the counsels of a parent withdrawn from view, the advice was too soon forgotten.
The recommendations of Congress did not receive that prompt consideration which the exigence demanded, nor did they meet that universal assent which was necessary to give them effect.8
Not immediately perceiving that the error lay in a system which was unfit for use, the distinguished patriots of the revolution contemplated with increasing anxiety, the anti-American temper which displayed itself in almost every part of the Union.
That the imbecility of the federal government, and the impotence of its requisitions, would abase the American character in the estimation of the world, was no longer a prediction. That course of national degradation had already commenced.
While the system recommended on the 18th of April, 1783, was depending before the states, requisitions for the intermediate supply of the national demands were annually repeated by Congress, and were annually neglected. Happily, a loan had been negotiated in Holland by Mr. Adams, out of which the interest of the foreign debt had been partly paid; but that fund was exhausted, and the United States had no means of replacing it. Unable to pay the interest, they would, in the succeeding year, be liable for the first instalment of the principal; and the humiliating circumstance was to be encountered of a total failure to comply with the most solemn engagements, unaccompanied with the prospect of being enabled to give assurances that, at any future time, their situation would be more eligible. If the condition of the domestic creditors was not absolutely desperate, their prospect of obtaining payment was so distant and uncertain, that their evidences of debt were transferred at an eighth, and even at a tenth of their nominal value.
In 1786, the revenue system of April, 1783, was again solemnly recommended to the consideration of the several states, and again failed to receive their unanimous assent; and thus was finally defeated the laborious and persevering effort made by Congress to obtain the means of preserving the faith of the nation.
General Washington’s letters of that period abound with passages showing the solicitude with which he watched the progress of this recommendation. In a letter of October, 1785, he said—“The war has terminated most advantageously for America, and a fair field is presented to our view; but I confess to you freely, my dear sir, that I do not think we possess wisdom or justice enough to cultivate it properly. Illiberality, jealousy, and local policy, mix too much in our public counsels for the good government of the Union. In a word, the confederation appears to me to be little more than a shadow without the substance; and Congress a nugatory body, their ordinances being little attended to. To me, it is a solecism9 in politics;—indeed, it one of the most extraordinary things in nature, that we should confederate as a nation, and yet be afraid to give the rulers of that nation, who are the creatures of our own making, appointed for a limited and short duration, and who are amenable for every action, recallable at any moment, and subject to all the evils they may be instrumental in producing—sufficient powers to order and direct the affairs of the same. By such policy as this the wheels of government are clogged; and our brightest prospects, and that high expectation which was entertained of us by the wondering world, are turned into astonishment.”10
[1. ]Generous; appropriate for gentlemen.
[2. ]One object of Washington’s benefactions eventually became Washington and Lee University. Governor Patrick Henry and the Virginia legislature endorsed Washington’s proposal for charitable use of the shares in the James and Potomac River Companies bestowed upon him. In 1785 he had suggested to Madison, Randolph, and others that two schools for poor children be established, but by 1795, when the companies and shares had matured, he proposed that the 50 shares of the Potomac River Company be used to establish a national university in the District of Columbia. His Farewell Address of 1796 endorses the idea without mentioning his private benefaction (see chapter 33 and appendix B, below), but given the suspicions about encroaching federal power among the supporters of the Democratic-Republican party, a national university was not established. In 1796 the 100 shares of the James River Company were endowed to the Liberty Hill Academy in Virginia; at the time, Washington’s was the largest gift ever made to a private educational foundation in America, and it saved the Academy from possible closure. In 1798 the trustees changed the name to Washington Academy and later to Washington College—and in 1871, after the tenure of Robert E. Lee as its president, to Washington and Lee University. See William B. Allen, ed., George Washington: A Collection (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988), letters 102, 107, 215, and 299, and Washington’s will (no. 235, pp. 669–71); and James T. Flexner, George Washington: Anguish and Farewell (1793–1799), volume 4 of Flexner’s biography of Washington (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969, 1972), pp. 199–201.
[3. ]Named after Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus, Roman senator and renowned republican of the fifth century The Senate twice called upon him to become military dictator in an emergency (458 and 439 ), and each time, immediately after rescuing Rome and her desperate armies, he resigned his power. Washington’s designation as a latter-day Cincinnatus is one instance of a general appeal in America’s revolutionary and founding era to the leading statesmen of Roman republicanism, as evident from such famous pen-names of the time as Cato, Brutus, Publius, and Agrippa.
[4. ]Aedanus Burke (1743–1802) of Ireland and South Carolina, Lieutenant in the Continental army (to 1778) and militia captain (1780), state judge and legislator, U.S. Representative (1789–91); his pamphlet Considerations on the Society or Order of the Cincinnati was widely circulated in America and translated into French and German.
[5. ]Not low in mind; i.e., enlightened.
[6. ]James Madison (1751–1836) of Virginia, lawyer, state revolutionary leader, Continental and Confederation Congressman (1780–83), state legislator, leading framer of the 1787 Constitution and co-author of The Federalist Papers, U.S. Representative (leading framer of the Bill of Rights), Secretary of State under Jefferson, fourth President; Alexander Hamilton of New York; Oliver Ellsworth (1745–1807) of Connecticut, lawyer, state judge, state revolutionary leader, Continental and Confederation Congressman (1778–83), active delegate and proponent of the 1787 Constitution, U.S. Senator (1789–96), Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1796–1801).
[7. ]Marshall is quoting from Washington’s 1783 Circular to the States; the third point, on a “proper peace establishment,” refers to the military establishment of a nation in time of peace. William B. Allen has called this message to the states “the centerpiece of [Washington’s] statesmanship, carrying directly to his countrymen a coherent vision of the unfinished work which lay before them in the aftermath of peace.” George Washington: A Collection, p. 227.
[8. ]The recommended augmentation in the powers of Congress would require amendment of the existing constitution of the union, the Articles of Confederation; according to Article Thirteen of that constitution, any amendment to it requires the unanimous consent of the member states.
[9. ]An impropriety in language, the unfitness of one word to another; Washington employs it in an analogous sense.
[10. ]To James Warren (1726–1808) of Massachusetts, trusted adviser of John and Samuel Adams in the revolutionary period, President of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1775, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1776 and 1787; husband of the poet and historian Mercy Otis Warren; not related to the Massachusetts brothers Joseph and John Warren (doctors, revolutionary patriots).