Washington, George (1732-1799)

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Source: For the sake of convenience, we have gathered together here the editor's introductions to each chapter of George Washington: A Collection, compiled and edited by W.B. Allen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988).

Liberty Fund has a book-length biography of George Washington: John Marshall, The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).


During the final years of the war for American independence, no one was trusted more profoundly than George Washington. In its conduct of the war, the Continental Congress seemed little more than a government in name only, and so it was that Washington proved “in the absence of any real government,” as Woodrow Wilson phrased it, “almost the only prop of authority and law.”

This was never more poignantly evident than in the scene at Fraunces Tavern in New York City on December 4, 1783, when Washington ended his military career in a farewell meeting with his officers. After a moment of being at a loss for words, Washington raised his glass and said, “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take my leave of you.” Washington extended his hand to shake the hands of his officers filing past. Henry Knox stood nearest, and when the moment came to shake and pass, Washington impulsively embraced and kissed his faithful general. There, in silence, he embraced each of his officers as they filed by, and then they parted.

This dramatic signature to seven years of hard travail testifies how far Washington had conquered the hearts of his countrymen, more decisively than he had conquered the armies of the enemy. The odyssey, the development of thoughts and principles, that brought Washington to this moment had begun at least thirty years earlier; and this development would not end for nearly twenty years more. The story, told in his own words, comprises nearly fifty volumes of correspondence, memoranda, and diaries. We offer here a glimpse culled from these immense resources.

How the nine-year-old whose tentative enthusiasm speaks loudly in the letter to “Dickey Lee” or the adolescent who submitted to the lengthy process of copying out and amending one hundred ten “rules of civility and decent behavior” turned into an intrepid, self-possessed, and comprehending marshall, we shall never know. The little we do know confirms Washington’s birth on February 22, 1732, third son to Augustine Washington, and first to his mother Mary. Washington was only eleven years old when his father died of pneumonia. Those eleven years his family had lived first at Bridges Creek, then at Hunting Creek, and finally near Fredricksburg, all in Virginia. It was at Hunting Creek, rechristened Mount Vernon, that Washington lived from three to seven years of age.

Under the impress of the opinion that background and environment form men, commentators have exceeded themselves in trying to turn the sparse details of Washington’s boyhood and the manifest poverty of his education into a set of formative influences. The strongest influence, however, seems to have been his identification with Mount Vernon. In the long career that followed, Washington always centered his labors on the expectation of returning to Mount Vernon—that is, once he had inherited the estate from his beloved brother, Lawrence. Throughout his life Mount Vernon served as a compass point.

Many have attempted to tell the story, but we lack all essential evidence to judge how far and how fast the habits of youth became the traits that were destined to blossom in Washington’s adulthood. We judge it better, therefore, that Washington himself tell the story. Accordingly, the two juvenile writings here offer a glimpse of the boy that was and the man that was to be.

CHAPTER ONE    The Rules of Bravery and Liberty, 1756–1775

WHEN Washington accepted the command of the Virginia militia, which was enlisted in the service of King George to prosecute the war against the French forces in 1756, the twenty-four-year-old commander could conceive no further ambition than “by rules of unerring bravery” to merit the favor of his sovereign. He seemed singularly self-possessed. Perhaps for this reason, biographers and historians have sometimes described Washington as “a born aristocrat”; at any rate, Washington believed in an adherence to eighteenth-century principles of enlightened behavior. He dedicated himself to putting a noble and virtuous code of conduct into practice in his own life. Some historians see his truly classical behavior as the real source of his greatness.

Washington’s characteristic attitude, punctilious in matters of just respect, colored his early career in a manner which cannot be more than dimly evoked in this summary presentation of those years which culminated in his being named Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in 1775. That attitude made a large contribution to his developing political ideas. In light of the growing revolution of the colonies, these may seem a beginning; but in fact they reflect a richer course of development.

Washington was an indefatigable letter-writer and diarist, and thus one finds the principal facts about Washington’s contribution to the founding of the United States related in his own words. We find here the idea of an American union, which motivated Washington throughout the thirty years (1769–1799) of active citizenship during which he guided his country. And from the first moment of the Revolution, Washington shows a thoughtful appreciation of liberty and its political significance.

CHAPTER TWO    Tyranny: The Scourge of Liberty, 1775–1777

GEORGE WASHINGTON assumed his command in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Bunker’s Hill. The first task to confront him, therefore, was to dislodge the British forces from Boston. That event set in motion a train of events which would find the main army with Washington running from battle to battle. However, the sequence of battles is only the silver frame in which is portrayed the ups and downs of efforts to recruit effective forces, to ready raw troops to confront the soldiers and mercenaries of the most powerful nation on earth, and to produce coherent political and military policies from the disarray incident to a political vacuum.

The inspiration for so much effort was liberty—or more precisely, the determination to resist a “most tyrannical and cruel system for the destruction of our rights and liberties.” But it took every bit of Washington’s shrewdness to keep the resistance alive. Accordingly, this chapter shows the great breadth of the efforts required of Washington. To fix the context of these efforts firmly in mind one might read it with a regard for the sequence of battles of at least the main army during roughly the same period, remembering too that this was the season in which the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed to the world.

Siege of Boston. After the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, Washington positioned his troops so as to surround Boston. Colonel Henry Knox brought more than fifty pieces of artillery from Fort George in late February 1776. American and British troops exchanged fire for four days. Afterwards, two American redoubts crowned Dorchester Heights, a position that could control Boston and its harbor filled with British ships. The British sought to dislodge the Americans from the Heights, but their boats were dispersed by a storm. General Howe evacuated Boston on March 17, and Washington entered on the 20th. The British fleet then headed for New York.

Battle of Long Island. General Howe aimed to launch 20,000 troops against the 9,000 Americans at Brooklyn Heights and secure a land footing for operations against the city of New York. The British made their first landing on August 22, 1776, and by the 26th were ready to engage the American troops. On the 27th Howe attacked and took Brooklyn Heights. Washington retreated; his strategy was to postpone all issues which had a determining character and were beyond his army’s mastery, thus wearing out the offensive by avoiding its strokes and gaining the advantage of turning upon a worn-out or over-confident and off-guard British army.

Battle of Trenton. Of the three bodies of American troops that attempted to cross the Delaware River on the night of December 25, 1776, only those commanded by Washington succeeded. The Hessians, bivouacked under Colonel Rahl in Trenton, New Jersey, were completely surprised at daybreak and forced to surrender after a brief engagement.

Battle of Princeton. On January 1, 1777, Washington received word that Lord Cornwallis was en route from Brunswick to attack him at Trenton. Washington conceived of a plan of retreat that would allow him to attack Cornwallis’s communications. Creating the deception of maintaining an encamped army, Washington moved his troops around Cornwallis and toward Brunswick. As the American troops were passing Princeton, General Hugh Mercer encountered some British patrols. Their skirmishes were decided by Washington himself, after Mercer had been mortally wounded. Then Washington’s army moved on to Morristown, where they erected log huts and established winter quarters.

Battle of Brandywine. General Howe withdrew his fleet from the Delaware in August 1777. On the 22nd, Washington received word that Howe had anchored in the Chesapeake Bay. Washington promptly marched to Philadelphia. By September 7, the entire army had advanced to Newport, Pennsylvania, and on the same day Howe placed his vanguard eight miles from the Americans. With light skirmishes occurring daily, the armies finally joined battle at Brandywine on September 11. The 11,000 Americans suffered 780 casualties, while the 18,000 British took 600 casualties.

Battle of Germantown. Howe chose Germantown, six miles from Philadelphia, for his headquarters. Washington’s army was near Pennebecker’s Mill, about twenty miles away. Washington designed a surprise attack upon Howe, October 4, 1777. The advance was prompt, and the surprise promised success, but a dense fog arose and so confused the operations that the armies were forced to retire, Howe to Philadelphia and Washington to Valley Forge.

CHAPTER THREE    The Passions of Men and the Principles of Action, 1778–1780

WASHINGTON and his men nearly starved at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777 – 78, yet they emerged from that trial strengthened. They became more of an army than ever, laboring under policies that were at least improved if not made perfect by Congress under constant pressure from Washington. No longer ragtag resistance fighters, they gained international stature. An alliance with France, bringing with it the arrival of much-needed men and materiel, was pending. During this period Washington’s correspondence became intense as he sought to resolve problems of recruitment, supply, and hierarchy. Through much of this time he became de facto the sole and complete ruling authority in the country.

Setbacks were yet to come. Illusory peace overtures would paralyze American efforts, while the failure of the first French expedition would imperil the alliance. In proportion as Washington’s forces gained strength the war spread, north and south, even coming to Mount Vernon itself. The one great battle in this period bore enough import to carry the fledgling country and its troops through nearly two years of wavering.

Battle of Monmouth. Replacing Howe and being denied reinforcements, General Henry Clinton considered it vital to relocate his army from Philadelphia to New York with the least delay and the fewest possible engagements on the march. Washington wished to attack while the British army was strung out along its route. He placed half his army under the command of General Charles Lee, who initiated skirmishes near Monmouth Courthouse the morning of June 29, 1778. The plan seemed provident, yet Lee ordered a premature retreat, which became confused through conflicting orders and rumors and turned into a general withdrawal. Washington halted the disappointed and overheated troops and established them athwart the line of the British approach. Clinton retired, apparently for the night, but rose before midnight and retreated to New York.

CHAPTER FOUR    Trials and Triumph, 1780–1781

WASHINGTON had urged the notion of an American union, in the context of the Revolution, as early as 1775. The progress of the war made his appeals ever more insistent and strident. In the final two years of the war, when enormous labors were required to maintain his position in the face of a determined enemy, his appeals attained the status of virtual demands. Even as the Articles of Confederation, drafted and sent out to the states in 1777, were finally being ratified in 1781 (Maryland acceding and producing ratification March 1), Washington was urging upon legislators and others the necessity for a stronger national union. The struggle of the war years and the ongoing problem of maintaining a cohesive policy in the face of both a factious Congress and a populace that did not possess a clear national vision caused Washington to observe that human nature must receive its due consideration: “we must take the passions of men as nature has given them, and those principles as a guide which are generally the rule of action.”

Though few could know it, the war was swiftly approaching its end. Throughout the entire effort, or nearly so, there existed no formal apparatus of government to direct the effort. When finally in early 1781 “The United States in Congress Assembled” was born, there was no place for celebration; a dangerous enemy, from Washington’s perspective, still loomed before them, while inadequate provision for sustaining American forces had been made. In fact, the end of the severe trials of the war was but another step toward securing the ultimate triumph—nationhood.

Siege of Yorktown. Washington and Rochambeau pressed General Clinton so closely in late August 1781 that Clinton believed their feints toward New York were real movements; on August 25 he ordered Cornwallis to send troops from the South to resist a threatened siege of New York. The American and French armies moved toward Yorktown, where Lafayette was checking Cornwallis’s movements. On September 8, Washington received long-awaited news that Count de Grasse had arrived off the coast of Virginia. The combined strength of the allied forces was then 16,400; the British forces stood at 8,500. On September 25, the army concentrated at Williamsburg took a position within two miles of the British; four days later they had environed Yorktown. The lines fought on October 6, 9, and 11. On October 19, the British army surrendered.

CHAPTER FIVE    Washington’s Knowledge of Himself and His Army, 1782–1783

VICTORY did not bring the end of Washington’s troubles. The British remained in place on American soil for two years more. Thus, it was as difficult as it was prudent to maintain readiness in the face of general expectations of the end of conflict. Similarly, there was a very real possibility of the soldiers’ countrymen simply dismissing them with thanks and forgetting the fact that they had served dutifully through great trials without compensation. Instead of elation, therefore, Washington’s attitude in triumph was to preserve in his men and himself the sense of a “duty to bear present trials with fortitude.” This feat proved no less valuable to his country than his skill in the field of battle.

Many charges have been made through the years that Washington’s military officers plotted to make him king. A favorite villain in this set piece has always been Alexander Hamilton, but no solid evidence against him has ever surfaced. The most definite monarchical proposals that have been established were those of Colonel Lewis Nicola in a letter to Washington of May 22, 1782. Washington’s immediate and stern rebuke to Nicola, often remembered since, is reprinted here. Nicola, an Irishman naturalized in America, was generally respected and had been shown a particular courtesy by Washington. He, who was himself Washington’s age, was so stung by Washington’s rebuke that he wrote three successive apologies in the days following.

Nicola settled into comfortable republican habits thereafter, but agitation continued to wrack an army which had been woefully mistreated by its countrymen. No one exerted himself more than Washington to obtain justice for the officers and soldiers.

In February and March of 1783, new threats arose which culminated in the famous “Newburgh Addresses” to Congress. The first of these respectfully expressed the army’s dismay at the union’s inefficacy. The second address, unofficial and anonymous, broached the threat of a refusal to disband without obtaining pay. This latter address led to the famous Newburgh meeting in which the officers, who were supposed to concert their plans to obtain redress, needed to be restrained by Washington. While his letters are replete with sentiments of obtaining justice for the men, the remarks he made in his Newburgh speech, reprinted here, show how well he achieved the end of restraining them. It was reported that, as Washington commenced reading his address, he fumbled in his pockets to pull out spectacles he had only recently acquired. In the delay he remarked, “I have grown not only gray, but almost blind in my country’s service.” Washington carried the meeting. His officers voted him unanimous thanks and rejected “with disdain, the infamous propositions” of the anonymous pamphlets.

CHAPTER SIX    Washington’s Knowledge of His Countrymen, 1783

WASHINGTON’s famous “Circular Letter” constitutes the centerpiece of his statesmanship, carrying directly to his countrymen a coherent vision of the unfinished work which lay before them in the aftermath of peace. His view of that work was that “we have a national character to establish.”

CHAPTER SEVEN The General Resigns, 1783

WASHINGTON’S transition from statesman-general to citizen-statesman occurred almost effortlessly. The year-and-a half delay between the decisive victory at Yorktown and the achievement of a negotiated peace, with the subsequent six-month delay before all appropriate ratifications had been secured, imposed upon Washington the difficult and sensitive task of maintaining an army prepared to fight at the same time as the new nation was yearning to reacquire the arts of peace. Washington acted on the principle that the army had to remain standing less for the sake of defending the nation’s freedom than for the sake of symbolizing a free nation until the rest of the world officially concurred in its existence. From the beginning of this time, however, he inculcated lessons—which were acts of legislation in all but form—of political responsibility which entailed strengthening the federal union, honoring its debts, and regulating its orderly expansion through the continent. His wide correspondence bears universally the mark of his solicitude—above all for the just compensation of the soldiers.

Washington disbanded the army just as soon as the peace was made final. In taking leave of his troops he no less exhorted them to a republican faith than he had exhorted their fellow-republicans, the civilians, to keep faith with the troops. The war struggle had lasted eight years, and its effect on Washington and the soldiers is best symbolized, perhaps, in Washington’s farewell, when he assembled his officers at a tavern and endeavored to utter some parting sentiments. In the end, he could do no more than reach out in a warm embrace of the portly General Henry Knox, who stood nearest. The other officers filed by, silence pervading, and reenacted the ritual.

The effect of the war on the country is perhaps best symbolized by Washington’s resignation of his commission immediately after disbanding the army. At that point the United States stood as a free republic under no armed domination. Congress then sat at Annapolis, Maryland, to which Washington journeyed. He inquired how Congress would prefer to receive his farewell, by letter or public address. Congress summoned him to appear and speak; he did so as recorded in this chapter, resigning “with satisfaction the appointment [he] accepted with diffidence.”

CHAPTER EIGHT    The Citizen Stirs, 1784–1786

WASHINGTON returned to Mount Vernon, which was in considerable disrepair, to resume the domestic arts he had so long pined for. Martha Washington had visited him in the army’s camp when occasion permitted and shared with him and his men their many privations. Her ministrations to the soldiers were a source of comfort to them and George Washington. He had returned home but once during the long war, taking a brief stop there during the Yorktown campaign. He could already see at that time the labors which lay before him to bring Mount Vernon back to its former glory. He also saw what could not be restored: Martha’s son Jack Custis had died just after the victory at Yorktown. Both her children were now gone, and she and Washington had none of their own.

Though Washington plunged back into the managing of his estates, he found himself under no less weight of correspondence than formerly. He assured one friendly inquirer, “I have not leisure to turn my thoughts to commentaries.” Public concerns still pressed in on him; everyone, it seemed, sought his opinion, and he disappointed none. He resumed his prewar efforts to produce a waterway connecting the transappalachian region and the Potomac, as much for reasons of state—“to cement the union”—as for reasons of commerce. Continuing to press for a strengthening of the Union, between the end of 1783 and 1786 Washington drew a coterie of reform-minded men around him whose efforts at length gave hope of a general reform of the Confederation.

CHAPTER NINE    Making a Constitution, 1786–1788

WASHINGTON’s replies to Bushrod Washington in 1786 distill much of his political judgment in the period of constitutional turmoil immediately prior to the Constitutional Convention. Our understanding is bettered in knowing the context set forth by Bushrod’s letter of September 27, 1786. In that letter, Bushrod announced to Washington the formation of a “Patriotic Society” whose object was “to inquire into the state of public affairs; to consider in what the true happiness of the people consists, and what are the evils which have pursued, and still continue to molest us; the means of attaining the former, and escaping the latter; to inquire into the conduct of those who represent us, and to give them our sentiments upon those laws, which ought to be or are already made.” In reply to Washington’s initial response, which questioned the motives of such an association, Bushrod answered: “we thought that an appearance of corruption was discoverable in the mass of the people. . . .” He held that the Patriotic Society did not aim to usurp the privileges of duly constituted representatives, but only to reinforce the most salutary aspects of republican government. Washington’s second letter (November 15) closed the correspondence.

The expectant air of Washington’s correspondence during this period justifies his observation that “the present era is pregnant of great and strange events.” The role he played in these events becomes central in constructing an accurate view of his political ideas. In the Constitutional Convention, Washington played a pivotal though quiet role. Elected to preside, he did not participate in the debates, with one notable exception. On the final day of the Convention, after the Constitution had been readied for signing, a motion was made to alter the rule of representation to facilitate greater participation by the people. The Convention had debated and rejected that proposition more than once in the preceding weeks. Washington stepped down from the presiding chair and declared “his wish that the alteration proposed might take place.” The debate ceased there, and a unanimous vote of approval followed. The influence which was visible on that singular occasion had been exercised invisibly throughout the course of the Convention, as Washington maintained regular though informal conversation with the diverse delegates.

CHAPTER TEN    The Drama of Founding, 1788–1789

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.

CHAPTER ELEVEN    Presidential Addresses, 1789–1796

TOO LONG and too radical, Washington’s first draft of his first inaugural address was never delivered. Its pages scattered by a thoughtless scholar, it is here partially recreated.” Those are the words with which Dr. Nathaniel Stein opened his publication of the most extensive collection of fragments from the “discarded inaugural” heretofore published. The “thoughtless scholar” to whom he referred was Jared Sparks, the nineteenth-century compiler of Washington’s papers. Sparks took James Madison’s judgment that the address would be an embarrassment to Washington not only as reason to exclude it from Washington’s published works, but also to scissor it into samples of Washington’s autograph for Sparks’s numerous friends and acquaintances throughout the country.

Long presumed to be the work of David Humphreys, Washington’s friend and secretary—in spite of existing in Washington’s own handwriting—this work has been largely ignored. Even the casual reader of this collection, however, will find echos of its ideas throughout Washington’s correspondence reaching back as far as six years. We can only speculate about the meaning of Washington’s having apparently written to James Madison that this was Humphreys’ work, but we cannot rule out the possibility that he did so from a desire to encourage the most candid response from Madison.

It is clear from the fragments we do have (and we now publish here the most extensive compilation yet and in the most coherent order) that if we had the whole of the “discarded inaugural” it would rank alongside and perhaps above Washington’s 1783 “Circular Address” as a comprehensive statement of his political understanding. Standing even in its defective form, it is a manifest contribution to our knowledge of how far Washington’s understanding as opposed to his image contributed to the founding of the United States. We have corrected previous versions against the manuscripts, often resulting in material changes. To give one example: in the manuscript, the line that in previous versions has read, “I presume not to assert that better may not still be devised” should read “presume now” instead of “presume not.” The difference in the sense is great; this is Washington’s retrospective judgment on the work of the Constitutional Convention, many of whose members he had warned beforehand to aim not for the most that is acceptable, but for the best possible.

In this version, I signal alternative readings in the text with brackets. Empty brackets signal missing text. The order in which the fragments appear here is based solely on a reading of the manuscripts and comparison of sense. I believe that the present order is the natural order. This runs counter to the hand pagination of the extant manuscript sheets. I maintain, however, that that pagination is manifestly not in Washington’s hand: it could have been applied subsequently, even by Sparks, who had no particular regard for the order of the leaves. Immediately following the text, I have listed the sources for the fragments, which in their cataloguing indicate the order in which they have been arranged in other versions, particularly that of the Washington Papers Project at the University of Virginia.

On Independence Day of the inauguration year, David Humphreys delivered an oration before the State Society of the Cincinnati in Connecticut. This Fourth of July address was a recasting of the “discarded inaugural.” Many of the passages we have in Washington’s hand also appear there, edited to Humphreys’ third-party use. The oration cannot be employed as an exact template to establish the order of Washington’s fragments, but it does serve definitively to demonstrate that the pagination entered on the fragments does not correspond to the order of Washington’s address.

I have omitted any probable fragments that the Humphreys version of the address might be said to supply, even though it is clear that some of them must have derived from the original address. Humphreys in all probability obtained license to use the address once Washington had discarded it. The editing to which he subjected it, however, suggests that the original could not have reflected his work alone, thereby bolstering our confidence that the “discarded inaugural” reflects Washington’s own thoughts. Humphreys’ oration was published in his “Miscellaneous Works” in 1804, now available in a reprint edition.

Inauguration. The Constitutional Convention had recommended that the Confederation Congress set the place and time to commence proceedings under the new Constitution. They set the first Wednesday in January as the date by which presidential electors had to have been chosen in the states. Electors were to meet and cast their votes on the first Wednesday in February. The sessions of the Senate and the House of Representatives would open the first Wednesday in March. New York was chosen as a provisional capital.

On April 14, Charles Thomson, Secretary to Congress, handed Washington a letter from John Langdon, president pro tempore of the Senate, stating that Washington had been unanimously elected President of the United States. He left Mount Vernon on April 16, 1789 and bade farewell to his friends and neighbors in Alexandria. He arrived at New York on April 23.

The Senate and the House of Representatives completed the plans for the inauguration and ceremony on April 27. The event followed on April 30. Shortly after noon, on the balcony of Federal Hall in front of the Senate chamber, the oath of office was administered to Washington by Robert R. Livingston, Chancellor of the State of New York. Washington then addressed his assembled countrymen.

The Annual Addresses. Washington pursued three objects in his eight annual addresses to Congress. The first was to recount the conduct of the executive in relation to legislation that had been previously enacted. The second was to recommend deliberation upon prospective legislation. Third, and most important, Washington encouraged the cooperation of all the representatives in making provision for the general welfare. In all the addresses, of course, Washington was fulfilling the constitutional obligation to report to Congress on the “state of the union.”

The first addresses focussed almost exclusively upon the responsibilities of the officers of government. As the years passed, however, and corresponding with the growth of political parties and increasing dissension, Washington devoted greater attention to addressing the general public, including the much-remarked 1794 passage in which he condemned the “self-created democratic societies” which had become implicated in the Whiskey Rebellion.

The Farewell Address. With a presidential election and the prospect of a third term of office looming before him, Washington decided upon a definitive retirement in 1796. He devoted considerable thought as to the appropriate manner in which to effectuate his retirement, so as to render it, too, an advantage to his countrymen. On May 10, 1796, he asked Alexander Hamilton to help in preparing a valedictory address. Washington sent to Hamilton a draft, parts of which had been written by James Madison, upon whose offices Washington had called four years earlier—prematurely, as it turned out. The draft contained the outline of and the objects to be considered in the address. There followed four months of correspondence until Washington’s objective had been achieved. Hamilton enlisted the aid of John Jay in the project. Washington published the address on Monday, September 15, 1796, in Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser.

CHAPTER TWELVE    Washington the President,  1789–1791

WE principally behold Washington, in the following pages, describing the character of his country and administration in general correspondence, rather than in official acts. Thus it is that, in the course of pro forma responses to congratulatory letters, Washington candidly declared what he conceived as the breadth and limits of religious freedom. There also emerges here a suggestive portrait of Washington’s use of indirection, as opposed to direct command, to accomplish the aims of policy. The clearest indication of a settled policy conviction are his notes on a “Plan of American Finance” sketched in his own hand. Several of the items printed here are not found in the Fitzpatrick Writings.

As Washington undertook the task of organizing the new government under the Constitution, he was alert to the significance of every word and deed for subsequent practice. His efforts to establish healthy precedents speak for themselves, but this emphatic concern produced at least one humorous irony. Washington enlisted the aid of James Madison in drafting his first inaugural address. After he delivered it, each house of Congress responded with a written address (adopting the custom of the colonial legislatures, which always responded to Royal Governors’ official addresses that opened their legislative sessions). Madison wrote the address for the House of Representatives (but not, of course, that of the Senate). Then Washington summoned Madison’s aid in drafting his response to each of the responses from Congress. Thus, Madison was involved in lengthy conversation with himself as Washington sought to establish satisfactory principles under the conviction that “everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent.”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN    Trials of Division,  1792–1796

WASHINGTON’S administration of the government under the Constitution was not untroubled. During those eight years the founding itself was consummated, yet during that same period Americans witnessed the birth of what ultimately became the system of political parties. Washingtons unanimous election to the presidency was never to be repeated, for statesmen of the founding era discovered room to contest the “administration” of the government within the protective confines of the established Constitution. Washington himself became the tacit head of the Federalist Party, direct heir to the Federalists who prevailed in the struggle over adoption of the Constitution. The opposition party, the Democratic-Republican Party, was headed by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. In the last six years of Washingtons administration, the growing party discord figured as the most pressing political development. These years witnessed the emergence of party presses and party organizations. Most significantly, the discord divided Washingtons administration itself; for the chief party spokesmen, apart from Madison, were members of Washingtons cabinet. Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, headed the Federalists, and Thomas Jefferson spearheaded the organization of the Democratic-Republicans, even while he was Secretary of State. Madison, whose 1791–92 essays in the National Gazette laid out the Republican platform, had been the principal Federalist spokesman in Congress. To all appearances, therefore, the cemented union for which Washington had so long labored was being fractured in a contest over the spoils of victory. While maintaining the principle of energetic government, Washington sought to contain the damage of division, praying that “the cup which has been presented may not be snatched from our lips by a discordance of action.”

The Whiskey Rebellion. Congress first imposed an excise tax on distilled liquor in 1791. A group of western Pennsylvania farmers thought the tax burdensome and refused to pay it. In 1792 Congress decreased the tax, but the farmers still refused to pay. On September 15, 1792, Washington issued a proclamation imploring obedience to the law. Possibly encouraged by the formation of Democratic Soci[hoeties inspired by the French Revolution, the farmers ignored the presidential urgings, attacked federal officers, and burned buildings. Washington insisted on August 7, 1794, that the farmers desist from unlawful actions. Determined that the nations law must be observed and enforced, he called out the militia on September 25. Fifteen thousand militiamen responded, and the insurrection was subdued with virtually no casualties. Most of the captured insurgents were pardoned by the President on July 10, 1795.

The Proclamation of Neutrality. President Washington was at Mount Vernon early in April 1793 when news reached America of a declaration of war against Great Britain by the Republic of France. He cut short his Virginia vacation and returned to Philadelphia to confer with his cabinet as to the best means to protect the United States in the crisis. Washington circulated inquiries among the Secretaries and the Attorney General, asking them to consider what measures would be proper for the United States to observe, especially in light of the defensive treaty of alliance consummated with the French monarchy during the American Revolution. He ultimately determined that the United States would follow a neutral course, desiring to give neither belligerent cause for complaint. Accordingly, he issued the Proclamation of Neutrality on April 22, 1793.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN    A Work Completed, 1796–1799

WASHINGTON confidently speaks of “the happy reward of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers” in his “Farewell Address.” He left the presidency with no less pleasure than he had had in resigning his military commission thirteen years earlier, when he declared that he resigned “with satisfaction the appointment he accepted with diffidence.” The spontaneous and universal acclaim which welcomed him home from the war in 1783 was duplicated in 1796. This time, however, he had completed a much more trying task, the increasingly bitter party strife having made even him a target.

In preparing for his first inauguration, Washington opted for expressions of diffidence instead of confidence in addressing the people. By the time of the “Farewell Address,” he could speak with some confidence. He could consistently lay claim to satisfaction upon this last retirement. Not only had the country been solidified and its finances put in order, but the ominous threats of war which had loomed over his last five years in office had been greatly lessened even as the country had been strengthened to meet any eventuality. At the same time, his resignation removed him from that unfamiliar position of being held up to public scorn and ridicule by infamous scribblers.


WASHINGTON lived only three years beyond his resignation from the presidency. He returned once again to a Mount Vernon fallen to a point beyond which his labors could hope to restore it. Nevertheless, he plunged back into his favorite pursuits of agricultural development and experimentation and the design and organization of Mount Vernon. He was again to find himself under a constant press of correspondence and visitation. He was even summoned back as commander of American military forces when war with France seemed imminent. That crisis passed, however, and with it Washington’s countrymen’s claims upon him. His claims upon his countrymen would reach beyond his death, as made evident in the two items reproduced here.

Throughout his life, Washington had created the most pervasive of the myths about his own person and character, above all the idea that he somehow lacked full intellectual power. This habitual self-effacement rivaled his famous self-possession. Washington had never accepted a public charge without forswearing any opinion that he was worthy of it. Concluding his affairs in 1799, he insisted for the last time that his merit in no way exceeded that of any of his countrymen, and he requested that he be laid away “in a private manner, without parade, or funeral oration.”


Works by the Author

See Note on Further Reading - by the editors of John Marshall, The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).

Works about the Author

See Note on Further Reading - by the editors of John Marshall, The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).