The Trumpet Sounds Again

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In order to understand Washington’s tribulations, it is necessary to forget everything that is now known about the success and importance of what came to be called the Constitutional Convention. As Washington debated with himself, the name itself could not have been coined; for no one knew that the meeting, if held, would try to write a new constitution. As far as anyone could foresee, the gathering might prove no more than another in the long series of futile efforts that had been made to strengthen federal unity, a series that stretched back into the days of Washington’s military service.

Underlying Washington’s confusion was a nightmarish feeling such as he had experienced during the Revolution when he needed to act but was blind because his intelligence network had failed. The fact that Shays’ Rebellion had come as such an utter surprise to him underlined his conviction that, “scarcely ever going off my own farm,” he was dangerously “little acquainted with the Sentiments of the great world.” He begged for information from those of his friends who had “the Wheels of the Political machine much more in view than I have.” To make up his mind in the manner that was characteristic of him, he needed to weigh the facts on both sides of a question, following in the end the side that tipped the beam.

On the matter of whether it was wise to hold the convention at all, his thoughts ranged widely. If the meeting collapsed into complete failure, might that not be “the end of Federal Government”? Or, if the public proved “not matured” for important changes, the convention might patch up the Articles of Confederation just enough to enable that feeble instrument to stagger along until the situation was past remedy. On the other hand, this might be the final moment when a “peaceable” amendment of the government would be practicable.

Washington’s correspondents wrote him that there was serious talk of grouping the states into two or three separate nations, each unified in interests. There was also talk of abandoning political experimentation by reverting to that well-tried form, monarchy. Much as he disapproved of both of these possibilities, Washingon did not exclude them from his ratiocinations. He admitted that, should efforts to strengthen the federal government seem, on “full and dispassionate” examination, “impractical or unwise,” wisdom might dictate accepting a different form “to avoid, if possible, civil discord and other ills.” Having led one revolution, Washington had no desire to live through another.

 

His eventual conclusion about the convention was that it should be essayed, not because he thought it could solve all the problems facing the states, but because if the discussions were fruitful it could point the way to a solution. It should “adopt no temporizing expedient,” he wrote to Madison, “but probe the defects of the Constitution to the bottom, and provide radical cures; whether they are agreed to [by the states] or not; a conduct like this, will stamp wisdom and dignity on the proceedings, and be looked to as a luminary, which sooner or later will shed its influence.”

There remained the question whether, if the convention did meet, Washington himself should attend. “To see this Country happy whilst I am gliding down the stream of life in tranquil retirement is so much the wish of my Soul,” he wrote, “that nothing on this side of Elysium can be placed in competition with it.” But the two halves of the picture would no longer fit together. He could not be tranquil while his country was unsettled, yet what should he do?

He did not wish to accept his election as a delegate unless there was a good possibility that something useful could be achieved. His fear of being associated with failure, his belief that it would be more painful for him than for other delegates, has elicited criticism from some writers. Thus, his usually enthusiastic biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, ruled that he was “too much the self-conscious hero and too little the daring patriot. … He never could have won the war in the spirit he displayed in this effort to secure the peace.”

This judgment would have amazed Washington’s contemporaries. The advice he received from his intimates tended, indeed, to be against his going. Jay, the lawyer, was worried that the convention had been called independently of the amending provisions in the Articles of Confederation: Washington should not countenance what was illegal. Humphreys wished him to stay away because he thought the attendance would surely be small and the meeting a failure. Knox wrote that if it were known that Washington was going to attend, the eastern states would be induced to send delegates, but “the principles of purest and most respectful friendship” made him add, “I do not wish you to be concerned in any political operations of which there are such various opinions.” And Madison, who had been urging Washington to serve, had second thoughts when notified that the General’s decision was tending in that direction. Might it not be best, he asked, if Washington should not appear at once so that, if the opening sessions portended failure, he need not appear at all? “It ought not to be wished by any of his friends that he should participate in any abortive undertaking.”