The Trumpet Sounds Again


To those who accused him, as disunion became more rife, of deserting a sinking cause, Washington replied that the nation would “work its own cure, as there is virtue at the bottom.” Thus he demonstrated acceptance of the Romantic doctrine that man was not basically evil and in need of restraint, but rather basically good and to be trusted. However, as was typical of his thinking, he gave the doctrine a twist. Repudiating the Romantic conclusion that, since man was naturally virtuous, the best government was that which imposed the fewest restraints, he believed that their virtue would make the American people impose upon themselves, through republican means, the governmental restraints that he considered necessary to secure a strong nation and a just and prosperous society.


Furthermore, Washington did not expect the people to find the right answers merely through inspiration supplied by their natural goodness. “I am Sure ” he explained, “the Mass of Citizens in these United States mean well , and I firmly believe they will always act well , whenever they can obtain a right understanding of matters.” His “legacy” had been an effort to supply such an understanding. However, he did not expect it or any other document to be instantaneously efficacious.

Sure that the people of America would ultimately act for the best, Washington could, after his return to Mount Vernon, watch without too much concern while the states went galloping off in several directions like thirteen half-broken colts. Thus he was consistently sanguine during the first two and a half years of his retirement, for it was only a matter of waiting for “the good sense of the people” to get the better of their prejudices.

Although unwilling to act, Washington kept himself well informed. He interrogated visitors. If newspapers were stolen before they reached Mount Vernon, he complained, and when they did arrive, he denounced them for being “too sterile, vague and contradictory, on which to form any opinion.” He secured from Thomas Jefferson and from Henry Knox, who was commander at West Point and secretary of the Society of the Cincinnati, full reports on what was going on in the East. In congratulating his friend David Humphreys on joining a commission to negotiate trade agreements in Europe, Washington added, “You will have it in your power to contribute much to my amusement and information.” He secured other foreign news through his correspondence with important Frenchmen whom he had become friends with during the war: Luzerne, Rochambeau, Chastellux, Lafayette. It was to Lafayette, in the summer of 1786, that Washington expressed his belief in the future importance of the United States in the councils of the world: “However unimportant America may be considered at present, and however Britain may affect to despise her trade, there will assuredly come a day when this country will have some weight in the scale of Empires.”


In July, 1786, Washington wrote Rochambeau of his belief that “as mankind are becoming more enlightened 8c humanized, I cannot but flatter myself with the pleasing prospect, that more liberal policies & more pacific systems will take place amongst them.”

In fact, at this very time Washington’s confidence was shredding away. Experience, instead of teaching the people effectively to govern themselves, seemed to be giving unpleasant lessons to optimists like Washington. Instead of raising a groundswell for national unity, the years were bringing ever more division. On August i, he meditated reluctantly and sadly: We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. Experience has taught us that men will not adopt and carry into execution measures the best calculated for their own good, without the intervention of a coercive power. I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation without having lodged some where a power, which will pervade the whole Union.

Washington was upset that Congress continued to be denied by the states the taxing power that would enable it to have funds of its own with which to operate and pay its debts, and that his soldiers had still not been paid. (The total income of the government in 1786 was less than one third of the interest due annually on the national debt.) Washington was disturbed when New York undermined Congress’s treaty-making power by holding her own land-buying conference at Fort Stanwix with the Six Nations. He was upset because Congress, afraid to take advantage of one of the few powers it actually had, bowed to the states on the question of regulating the settlement of western lands.∗