washington gets a letter -- 2/21/19

Today's encore selection -- from Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier. In 1786, George Washington did not accept his invitation to the Constitutional Convention, which would desperately need his presence to have a chance of succeeding in its attempt to replace the Articles of Confederation that then governed the thirteen states:

"A few days before Christmas in 1786 George Washington received a gift he didn't want. It was a letter from Virginia's governor, Edmund Randolph, trying to pry him out of retirement.

"The envelope included a copy of an act passed on December 4 by the Virginia general assembly appointing delegates to a convention in Philadelphia 'for the purpose of revising the federal constitution' and the names of seven delegates the legislature had chosen. Washington's name stood at the top of the list. Randolph explained that the assembly was alarmed by the 'storms' that threatened to bring the American nation to a quick end, as its enemies had predicted. 'To you I need not press our present dangers,' Randolph said. As commander of the army Washington had witnessed the inefficiency of the Continental Congress and could see the steadily 'increasing langour of our associated republics.' Now only those 'who began, carried on & consummated the revolution' could 'rescue America from the impending ruin.' Randolph urged Washington to accept the legislature's unanimous choice of him as a Virginia delegate to the Philadelphia convention.'

"His appointment was not a complete surprise to Washington. He had tried to head it off in November, after James Madison, a leader of the assembly and former member of the Confederation Congress, warned him that the legislature was going to choose delegates to the convention and that Washington's name would probably be first on the list. It was 'out of his power' to accept such an appointment, Washington replied. A few weeks earlier -- on October 31, 1786 -- he had notified state chapters of the Society of the Cincinnati that he would not stand for reelection as the society's president and would not attend its second triennial meeting, which was scheduled to convene in Philadelphia on the first Monday in May -- a week before the federal Convention would assemble in the same city. Washington gave the Cincinnati several compelling reasons for his decision: His private affairs had become seriously 'deranged' by his long absence during the war, and they now needed his 'entire & unremitting attention'; he was deeply and 'unavoidably engaged' in a project to open navigation of the great rivers flowing through Virginia, and, after so many years of arduous service, he yearned for 'retirement & relaxation from public cares.' Moreover, his health was not good: He had recently suffered a violent attack of 'fever & ague, succeeded by rheumatick pains' such as he had never before experienced. How then could he pick up and go to the federal Convention without offending 'a very respectable & deserving part of the Community -- the late officers of the American Army,' who made up the Society of the Cincinnati?

1787 Portrait of George Washington by James Peale

"In fact, Washington had another, more pressing reason for backing away from his association with the Cincinnati, which he explained in confidence to Madison. When he had first agreed to head the new society In 1783, he thought of it as a fraternal organization whose main purpose was to take care of officers' widows and other dependents. Then, to his surprise, a pamphlet by South Carolina's Aedanus Burke provoked an uproar against the Cincinnati and, above all, its plan to pass membership on to the eldest sons of Revolutionary War officers. Critics such as Burke said that practice would lead to the creation of an hereditary aristocracy, which was totally at odds with the republican system established by the Revolution.

"Washington accepted reelection as president at the Society's first general meeting in 1784 after it proposed several changes in its rules, including the elimination of hereditary membership. But some state chapters refused to ratify the reforms, so by the fall of 1786, as the Society's second general meeting approached, Washington found himself, as he told Madison, in a 'delicate' position. He didn't want to seem disloyal to his fellow officers, who included some of his dearest friends and confidants, nor did he want to support an institution 'incompatible (some say) with republican principles.' Under the circumstances, he simply could not attend the federal Convention in Philadelphia while the Society of the Cincinnati was also meeting there. That was his excuse, deeply felt and, to Madison at least, clearly explained.

"Washington was more circumspect with Randolph. He was grateful for the honor conferred on him by the general assembly, he wrote the governor, and in general stood ready to obey the calls of his country. However, there were at the moment 'circumstances' that 'will render my acceptance of this fresh mark of confidence incompatible with other measures which I had previously adopted' and from which he had 'little prospect of disengaging myself.' The legislature should replace him with someone 'on whom greater reliance can be had,' since the likelihood of his nonattendance was too great."


Pauline Maier


Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2010 by Pauline Maier


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