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The Trumpet Sounds Again
WASHINGTON AFTER THE REVOLUTION: II
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
Washington was in extreme agony as winter closed in over his quiet fields. The news that had previously reached him had in no way foreshadowed such a calamity. “After what I have heard,” he wrote, “I shall be surprized at nothing.” Had someone told him, when he retired from the army, “that at this day, I should see such a formidable rebellion against the laws and constitutions of our own making. … I should have thought him a bedlamite, a fit subject for a mad house.” Not doubting that what his friends wrote him was accurate, he found himself menaced by a conclusion to him as terrible as it was “unaccountable,” “that mankind when left to themselves are unfit for their own Government. I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any Country. In a word, I am lost in amazement when I behold what intrigue, [and] the interested views of desperate characters [could achieve].” Yet he still believed that the majority, even if they “will not act,” could not be “so shortsighted, or enveloped in darkness, as not to see rays of a distant sun thro” all this mist of intoxication and folly.”
Washington’s health, which had been excellent in his retirement, suddenly collapsed. He suffered from “a violent attack of the fever and ague succeeded by rheumatick pains (to which till of late I have been an entire stranger).”
It has become common for modern historians to view Shays’ Rebellion in a sympathetic light. Depression and the shortage of specie had combined, so the historians say, to make it impossible for back-country farmers to pay their taxes and their debts; appeals for relief had been turned down by the wealthier men around Boston who controlled the Massachusetts government; and finally, rather than have their farms expropriated and perhaps be themselves imprisoned, the western farmers were blocking the sessions of courts that might take such action. The insurgents hoped that the protest and the delay would result in their being accorded legal relief.
This, however, was not the story that penetrated by newspaper and letter to Virginia. After Washington had sent Knox’s inflammatory report to James Madison, then serving in the Virginia House of Delegates, Madison wrote back that Knox’s intelligence was not so black as what Madison had heard “from another channel.” In summarizing for his father the situation as it was viewed at the Virginia capital, Madison expressed fear of that violent seizure of property by the poorer classes, which skeptics had prophesied would be the eventual outcome of the democratic experiment.
The fact that Washington, as he rode about his own neighborhood, saw nothing menacing and could write that in Virginia “a perfect calm prevails” did not keep him from believing, as he wrote to Knox, that “there are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to.” Were the Tories and Britains who had foreseen dreadful events, Washington asked, “wiser than others, or did they judge of us from the corruption and depravity of their own hearts?” And he went on, ”… when I reflect on the present posture of our affairs, it seems to me to be like the vision of a dream. My mind does not know how to realize it, as a thing in actual existence, so strange, so wonderful does it appear to me. … When this spirit first dawned, probably it might easily have been checked; but it is scarcely within the reach of human ken, at this moment, to say when, and where, or how it will end.”
A major danger of political life is that extremism, real or fancied, at one end of the spectrum stirs up extremism at the other end: many of Washington’s former officers saw the counterforce to Shays in the Society of the Cincinnati. And the time for the next “triennial General Meeting” of the society was coming around. As he was required to do, Washington summoned the meeting for the first Monday in May in Philadelphia. But he then announced that he would not himself attend or accept re-election as president general. In a circular letter to the various state societies, he blamed this on the pressure of affairs at Mount Vernon, and on failing health. However, he confided to Madison that he was disassociating himself because the state societies had refused to ratify the changes in the society’s charter that he had pushed through at die last meeting. These changes would have removed those clauses which made a potential antirepublican political force out of what he wished to be no more than a benevolent association of former fellow officers.
He had sent to Madison extracts from Knox’s alarming letter in order to prod the Virginia legislature into electing delegates to the convention that the Annapolis Convention had called to revise the federal government. In his covering letter he wrote: What stronger evidence can be given of the want of energy in our governments than these disorders? … If there exists not a power to check them, what security has a man for life, liberty, or property? … Thirteen sovereignties pulling against each other, & all tugging at the federal head, will soon bring ruin on the whole; whereas a liberal, and energetic Constitution, well guarded and closely watched, to orevent incroachments. mieht restore us to that degree of respectability and consequence, to which we had a fair claim, and the brightest prospect of attaining.