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Circular Letter to the States

Having received news of the signing of a preliminary peace treaty on April 11, 1783 Congress proclaimed a cessation of hostilities. The news reached George Washington at Newburgh and on April 19th he announced the grand news to the army. Although the final treaty had yet to be signed, the Revolution was over, independence won.

As Washington prepared to return to private life, his thoughts turned to the future of his country and the fate of the soldiers with whom he had served. The sight of so many unhappy, despairing soldiers marching from camp moved him to do something he had rarely done since becoming commander in chief; he meddled in politics. Washington knew that he would soon lay down his sword, but he also knew that Citizen Washington would have far less influence than "His Excellency." While he still had power, Washington decided to write a "Circular Letter to the States." More than seven thousand words, it was his longest public message of the war, and although he addressed it to the state governors, he intended it for all Americans.

First and foremost, Washington urged "an indissoluble Union of the S under one Federal Head." Only by a strong central government to which the states must yield authority could the nation preserve itself against domestic discord and foreign threats. Without a "supreme power to regulate and govern," he warned, "every thing [sic] must very rapidly tend to anarchy and confusion."

He repeated a plea that he had made many times before for "compleat [sic] and ample Justice" for the army. The promise of half pay and commutation was a "solemn” act that was "absolutely binding upon the United States." Although he did not endorse it directly, readers could not mistake the fact that Washington was urging approval of the unpopular impost. He finished "I now bid adieu…at the same time I bid a last farewell to the cares of office, and all the employments of public life."

Although widely reprinted and read, Washington’s address had little measurable impact. It had all been done before and ignored before. In Virginia his address actually provoked ire. According to Edmund Randolph, some of his fellow Virginians thought Washington had stepped across the "proper line of duty" with his "unsolicited obtrusion." David Howell of Rhode Island, who sympathized with Washington's position, nonetheless lamented that in his judgment the general had been duped by "coxcombs" who "induced" him to use "his personal authority" to support "destructive" measures. The results represented a low moment for Washington.

William M. Fowler, Jr.
Distinguished Professor of History
Northeastern University

Bibliography
"Circular Letter to the States, 8 June 1783," The Writings of Washington, Vol. 26, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1931-1944, 483-96.

William M. Fowler, American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783. New York: Walker Books, 2011.