The Trumpet Sounds Again

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Even as Washington wrote these forceful words, he must have foreseen the likelihood of a personally disturbing result: the possibility that he might be called upon to save the nation he had done so much to bring to life. His fears were not long in being realized. Madison’s next letter contained the news that Virginia would probably be the first state to appoint a delegation and that “it has been thought advisable to give this subject a very solemn dress and all the weight that could be derived from a single State.” The legislature had therefore placed Washington’s name at the head of their delegation. Whether Washington ought in the end to accept the post, Madison added soothingly, did not require immediate decision.

To the suggestions he had been receiving that he toss himself into the current crisis by personally going to Massachusetts and stilling the rebellion with his influence, Washington had a sound answer and one that allowed him to remain amid his fields and flocks: “Influence,” he wrote, “is no Government.” If the insurgents had legitimate grievances, either redress them or, if that were impossible, acknowledge the justice of the complaints (as he himself had often successfully done with the army) and explain why no remedy was immediately at hand. If the insurgents did not have legitimate grievances, “employ the force of government against them at once.” Should the force prove inadequate, “ all will be convinced that the superstructure is bad, or wants support.”

The request that he commit his prestige and abilities to the proposed convention menaced more severely his deep-laid plans “to view the solitary walk and tread the paths of private life … until I sleep with my fathers.” Washington was (or had been before Shays’ Rebellion) happier than in any previous period of his life. And he had no faith in the assurances he was being given that he could, after attending the convention, return uncommitted to Mount Vernon. Should he go, he would become again, as he had been during the Revolution, the standard-bearer of a vexed cause, to fall with its failure or be exalted with its success. If the convention failed, the failure would tarnish the shining image which was reflected in the eyes of neighbors and strangers, and which was the great reward he had won with his previous labors. If the convention succeeded, the success would mean—how could he doubt it?—demands for further service to strengthen the government he would have helped to create.

Washington’s immediate reply was that he could not attend the federal convention “with any degree of consistency” because the convention of the Cincinnati, which he had announced he would not attend, would be meeting in Philadelphia at almost the same time. He could not appear at one and not the other “without giving offence to a worthy and respectable part of the American community, the late Officers of the American army.” However, he did not slam the door. As he put it to the governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph, “… it would be disingenuous not to express a wish that some other character, on whom greater reliance can be had, may be substituted in my place; the probability of my non-attendance being too great to continue my appointment.”

 

Washington’s perturbation about his own future course undoubtedly mingled with his perturbation about Shays’ Rebellion to raise his anxiety to the fever pitch and led him to write, “What, gracious God, is man! that there should be such inconsistency and perfidiousness in his conduct?” He wondered whether General Nathanael Greene, who had recently died, was not lucky to be dead rather than live to see such times. He held the newspapers that came to Mount Vernon with trembling hands, commenting that they “please one hour, only to make the moments of the next more bitter.”

To put down the rebellion, Massachusetts called out the militia under the command of Benjamin Lincoln, a general Washington himself had trained. There not being money in the treasury, rich citizens subscribed the cost. Lincoln marched, the Shaysites fled, and, with almost no fighting, the insurrection ended.

Although Washington was puzzled as to how a revolt which had been made to sound so ominous could have been extinguished “with so little bloodshed,” his anxiety was not eased. As long as the weakness of the government remained unremedied, the country lay vulnerable to another less controllable insurrection. Might it not, indeed, have been a misfortune that this premonitory disturbance had been stilled before the need for major reforms had been made clear to all? “I believe,” Washington wrote, “that the political machine will yet be much tumbled and tossed, and possibly wrecked altogether,” before the people would agree to such a strong central power as the partisans of the coming convention wished to establish. There were times when he wondered whether wisdom did not urge postponing the convention until there was more hope that it could succeed. Or perhaps the idea should be completely abandoned.