Justice Kennedy on George Washington
Learn more about the vital role that George Washington played in creating the Constitution and in establishing the office of the president from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
As the president of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington rarely participated in the debates. However, when the Constitution headed to the states for approval, Washington took an active role in the ratification process. Before leaving Philadelphia for Virginia, Washington sent copies of the document to Thomas Jefferson and General Lafayette, hoping for their support.
Washington also sent copies to Benjamin Harrison, Patrick Henry, and Edmund Randolph, the three most recent governors of Virginia who each had serious reservations about the Constitution. Once back home at Mount Vernon, Washington spent his mornings writing letters to political leaders throughout the nation, urging them to support the Constitution. At the same time, Washington knew that if the Constitution was adopted, he would most likely become the first President of the United States and be called away from his beloved estate.
In his correspondence, Washington clearly laid out the reasons why he believed the Constitution should be ratified. The unity of the nation had been sorely tested under the Articles of Confederation. Washington, in fact, feared the current government was so powerless that it would soon dissolve either from deteriorating support of the people or from the fact that states would no longer bother to send representatives to the Confederation Congress. While the Constitution was not perfect, it created a stronger central government that included a Congress with the power to tax, a President who would act as the nation’s chief executive, and a national court system. Washington urged people who had doubts about the Constitution to support it, reminding them that once it was approved it could be amended.
By defending the Constitution, Washington parted company with older revolutionaries such as George Mason, and allied himself with younger political leaders like James Madison. Washington opposed many of his fellow planters who believed the Constitution would destroy the republic. As Washington explained in a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, he found it "a little strange that the men of large property in the south should be more afraid that the constitution should produce an aristocracy or a monarchy than the genuine democratical people of the east."1 Deeply in debt himself, Washington was also troubled that so many Virginians believed they had a better chance for prosperity in a weak nation rather than a strong one.
At the start of the ratification convention in Richmond in May of 1788, eight states had already approved the Constitution. While Washington did not attend the convention, he stayed in contact with Madison who defended the document in a series of brilliant debates. When the vote was finally taken on June 25, the Constitution was approved by a margin of 89 to 79.
Washington headed for a celebration in Alexandria, believing that Virginia had been the ninth state to approve the document. Even when news arrived that New Hampshire had approved the Constitution immediately before Virginia, the celebrations went on. Many people agreed with James Monroe, that Washington’s influence had "carried this government."2 But a more humble Washington believed that "Providence" had once again smiled on the American people.3
Mary Stockwell, Ph.D.
1. "George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, 19 June 1788," quoted in Joseph Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 181.
2. "James Monroe to Thomas Jefferson, 12 July 1788," quoted in Ron Chernow, George Washington: A Life (New York: Penguin Press, 2010), 546.
3. "George Washington to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, 28 June 1788," quoted in Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, Volume Six, Patriot and President (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), 140.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.
Ellis, Joseph. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington: A Biography, Volume Six, Patriot and President. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954.
Maier, Pauline. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
View Mount Vernon's library holdings related to the ratification of the Constitution