The Trumpet Sounds Again

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Everyone knew that if Washington did go to the convention, the greatness of his reputation would make him the most conspicuous member, and his eminence would give him the farthest to fall. In addition to being affectionate, the desire to spare him was both patriotic and pragmatic. Washington was the unsullied symbol of the glorious American Revolution; it would be disgusting to have him splattered with mud. And there was also the fact that his prestige, as long as it was not unwisely squandered, was a mighty lever lying in reserve that could be brought to bear at the right moment. As Knox put it, there might arise some solemn occasion, in which you may conceive it to be your duty again to exert your utmost talents to promote the happiness of your country. But this occasion must be of an unequivocal nature, in which the enlightened and virtuous citizens should generally concur.

Washington’s own reasoning continued to be inconclusive. He had promised in his legacy that he would never again accept public office: if he accepted election as a delegate would he not be accused, and rightly so, of having broken his word? And in early March a new fear formed in his mind: should he fail to attend, would his refusal be attributed to “a deriliction to republicanism”? Could he even be accused of wanting the government to collapse into a tyranny, perhaps one that he himself could lead?

As often happened with Washington, when his mind became more troubled, his health deteriorated. Although he continued trying to calm his nerves with his old panacea of riding restlessly over his land, his rheumatism was sometimes so afflicting that he could not lift his arm to his head or turn himself in bed.

As Washington looked out of Mount Vernon’s windows at the vistas he had so carefully planned and created, as he rode through the fields where he had started so many amusing projects which it would take a lifetime to finish, his beloved home seemed to dim before his eyes, receding again into the unattainable dream that it had become during his eight years of military exile. And the thought of a new exile was driving his wife almost frantic. Martha could not, she admitted sadly, “blame” Washington if, “by acting according to his ideals,” he again shattered their domesticity. But she added with great passion that she had little thought that, once the war was ended, “any circumstances could possibly have happened” which would call him “into public life again. I had anticipated that from that moment we should have been left to grow old in tranquillity and solitude together.”

The news that now came in from across the countryside was good from the point of view of the nation and republicanism, but it was bad for Washington’s hopes of remaining at Mount Vernon. Indications were multiplying that his faith in the people had not been so misplaced as it had for a time seemed. A realization of the need for self-discipline, for effective government, had been slowly augmenting like water swelling in subterranean streams. It had only been necessary to dig a well, and that is what Shays’ Rebellion had done. The nation had overreacted (as Washington himself had) to that small insurrection because tens of thousands of people had already come to feel that the nation was frighteningly vulnerable to chaos. Support for the coming convention grew amazingly. Congress gave the meeting a semblance of legality by endorsing it. And, in state after state, indications pointed to the election of influential delegations. Knox changed his advice, writing on April 9, “It is the general wish that you should attend.”

Washington had already, on March 28, written Governor Randolph that if his health permitted he would accept election to the Virginia delegation. This would require him, he added, to reach Philadelphia a week before the convention opened on May 14, so that he could “account, personally, for my conduct to the General Meeting of the Cincinnati.”

The Cincinnati situation added to Washington’s unhappiness. If he were there in person, he would have to disassociate himself from the decisions of his fellow officers for whom “I shall ever retain the most lively and affectionate regard.”

Washington soon wrote Randolph a second letter in which he repeated his fear that the delegates would arrive so “fettered” by provisos that “the great object” would be unobtainable. He added that he had given his consent “contrary to my judgment,” for his rheumatism had now become so painful that he was carrying his arm in a sling.

The day Washington finally established for his departure, May 8, 1787, moved inexorably nearer. However, “The Weather being squally with showers I defer’d setting off till the Morning.” When on the morrow he stepped into his coach by candlelight, Martha watched unhappily from Mount Vernon’s doorway. “Mrs. Washington,” he wrote down, not without irritation, “is become too domestick, and too attentive to two little Grand Children to leave home.”