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WASHINGTON AFTER THE REVOLUTION: II
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
Washington had, during 1775, attended the Second Continental Congress as a delegate from what he then regarded as “my country,” Virginia. Virginia was considering a military alliance with the other twelve colonies, but to achieve this was no easy matter. During their long histories the colonies had been jealous of each other, with practically no political connection other than that which was now dissolving: their allegiance to the crown.
In the end, the Continental Congress achieved its alliance by electing George Washington to command the forces of all. Although chosen as the visible embodiment of continental co-operation, Washington, when he assumed the leadership of what was still an overwhelmingly New England army, reacted, upon occasion, like any commander of alien troops. The New Englanders, he wrote, were “an exceedingly dirty and nasty people.” But soon, as regiments came in from other parts of the alliance and he maneuvered them against a common foe, Washington’s allegiance to Virginia gave way to a truly continental point of view. This he brought home with him from the war.
Although other men, including many of the soldiers who had shared Washington’s wartime experiences, had also become convinced during the conflict of the importance of close continental co-operation, the question of whether the United States was one nation or a loose alliance of thirteen had not been resolved. The Continental Congress remained an assembly of different sovereignties, and the Articles of Confederation provided little more than “a firm league of friendship.”
In the early stages of the Revolution, political cooperation had been close, but as the conflict dragged on, and particularly after victory seemed assured, the divisive forces had become increasingly powerful. The states not only failed to meet the expenses incurred by the central body that was directing the war, but refused the unanimous agreement necessary to allow the Continental Congress taxing powers of its own. The army could not be paid; businessmen who had lent money to the central government could not secure even their interest; and the combined dissatisfactions began to coalesce in a manner extremely dangerous to republican institutions. In 1783, Washington was offered the leadership of a movement that could easily have developed into what we would today call fascism.
It was with the greatest difficulty that he prevented the army from joining with the businessmen in terrorizing the governments. Promising to do everything he could, consistent “with the great duty I owe my country,” to procure eventual justice for the soldiers, Washington persuaded them, when they were no longer needed against the enemy, to go home with cruelly empty pockets. The civil creditors were also left in the lurch.
Washington had saved the American republican form of government; this he believed would profit the soldiers more than receiving their back pay. He had also turned his back on the possibility of achieving unlimited personal power. As Jefferson acknowledged, “The moderation and virtue of a single character has probably prevented this revolution from being closed as most others have been by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
How much responsibility for making the government function effectively did Washington assume when he persuaded the army and forced the Congress’s civilian creditors to accept present injustice while placing their reliance for future redress on republican forms? His experience had taught him that the rightful debts could not be paid, that the glorious possibilities of republicanism could not be achieved, unless Americans pushed sectionalism aside and learned to act as one nation, not thirteen. While still serving as Commander in Chief, he had yearned for major reforms in the government. In July, 1783, he wrote privately that he wished a “Convention of the People” would establish a “Federal Constitution” that would leave the determination of local matters to the states but provide that, “when superior considerations preponderate in favor of the whole, their [the states’] Voices should be heard no more.”
However, Washington recognized that this conception was still far beyond the present reach of national opinion. In a circular letter to the states which he wrote in June of 1783, Washington publicly urged not the substitution of a new, stronger instrument for the Articles of Confederation, but rather an interpretation and amendment of the Articles that would give the federal government the strength to meet its obligations and establish any necessary central authority.
Eager to give his advice the greatest weight possible, and also anxious to defend himself from any suspicions that political ambitions had made him step outside his authorized military sphere, Washington announced that this, his only major political document to date, was also his last. Once he was released from his military duties, he would never again “take any share in public business.” His advice came to be known as “Washington’s legacy.”