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George Washington

George Washington

George Washington: Washington & the Constitution

The life of a retired hero wasn't bad. Washington slowly rebuilt his estate at Mount Vernon, which had been badly damaged by the war. He entertained a never-ending flow of guests and responded to literally thousands of letters. He was wealthy and revered. It was, in some ways, the fulfillment of the childhood dream he had started living when he married Martha. Now he was no longer just a part of the Virginia gentry; he was at its head.

There was only one problem for Washington in his retirement: although he waited for death, death wouldn't come. He had tried to exit the public stage, but destiny refused to comply. His time had not yet come.

And so, stuck on the national stage, with too much time on his hands and an outsized reputation, the retired Washington remained involved in politics almost despite himself. There was a logic to his continued interest. After all, his reputation was intimately bound up with that of the new nation. As the military founder and most conspicuous defender of the country, the nation's path of development would color how Washington himself was remembered. Care for the cause and for his own legacy compelled him to wish for the nation's success.

But what Washington saw of the new nation's politics troubled him. Based on its actions, it looked to Washington as if the Congress had drawn the wrong lessons from the Revolutionary War. For Congress, Washington's victory over the British marked the triumph of their republican ideals over Britain's tyrannical monarchic ones. The new government they erected reflected this conviction: Congress rejected a standing army and a strong executive, since those had marked Britain's regime, and put their faith in the authority of state and local governments.

Washington had a different perspective on the meaning of his victory. He agreed with Congress that it had marked the triumph of republican ideals. But republican victory had only been possible because Washington had borrowed some of the better elements of the British system. A standing army, he knew, was necessary for protecting national security; it had won him the war. A strong executive was just as necessary. Many times during the war, when negotiating with his own troops or with foreign allies, Washington had been hamstrung by Congress's inability to provide clear leadership. And if the government was going to have national institutions, like an army and centralized leadership, it would need a national government to fund and legitimize them—roles state and local governments had never been able to fulfill.

Underlying these policy disagreements was a more fundamental disharmony. The Congress, whose members were elected by separate states, to which they remained uniquely accountable, never saw itself as a national institution. Indeed, it didn't even envision the new country as a single nation. It saw itself as a federal body and the new country as nothing but a confederation of more or less autonomous states. Congressmen remained parochially bound to their own regions.

But Washington's service in the army had changed the tenor of his allegiance. The army had fought for all the states. Washington had fought battles in the north and south, alongside soldiers from every colony. The experience had helped him foster an attachment to the colonies as a whole. In Washington's eyes, the colonies shared a common, united destiny in opposition to Britain. And it was to that common destiny, that aspirational unity, that Washington felt allied. He was understandably disappointed by Congress's refusal to constitute itself as a national body.

In August 1786, that disappointment turned to anger and fear. In that month, a poor farmer in central Massachusetts named Daniel Shays decided that he was no better off under the new government than he had been under the old one, and decided to start a rebellion. More frightening for Washington than this internal threat of anarchy was Congress's inability to put it down. Because of Congress's scheduling and the government's weakness, it took Secretary of War Henry Knox until February 1787 just to bring the Shaysites under control. Washington feared that all the Revolution had accomplished would be lost because of poor government. Something needed to be done.

Washington was not alone. Dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation, the document governing the independent colonies' new government, had been growing ever since their ratification in 1781. By the mid-1780s, systematic problems with the Articles convinced many prominent statesmen that they needed to be substantially revised, perhaps even replaced. A grand convention was planned for May 1787 to rethink them, and Washington, at the urging of fellow Virginian James Madison, decided to attend.

Washington's presence at what has come to be known as the Constitutional Convention was mostly ceremonial, but significant. Washington was the embodiment of the American people, and he knew it. Just by attending, he conferred on the Convention a mantle of legitimacy: the spirit of the Revolution was with them. When he agreed to serve as the Convention's president, he all but cloaked it in his own glory, guaranteeing that its recommendations would carry national weight. Indeed, historians have argued that had Washington not signed the final Constitution, it is unlikely that a sufficient number of states would have ratified it.10

Washington did more than just confer legitimacy, though. His presence at the Convention helped make the production of a final document possible. Of all the issues before the Convention, none proved as difficult to resolve as the role of the executive. Although all parties agreed that the decentralized Articles of Confederation needed to be reworked, the delegates could not reach consensus on just how much power the new central executive should have. In the end, rather than confront the problem directly, they decided to sketch the job description in broad strokes and leave the specifics to its first office holder. They had discovered over the course of their debates that although they could not agree on the duties of the office, they could all agree on the man who should fulfill them: the only man whose virtue was absolutely beyond question, His Excellency, General George Washington.11

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