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This article originally appeared in Mount Vernon magazine, published three times a year by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
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Americans generally recognize George Washington’s indispensable role as commander in chief of American forces during the Revolutionary War and as the first president under the United States Constitution.
Many know he presided over the convention that drafted the Constitution, but few today fully appreciate his key role in forging and framing that document. If James Madison was the Constitution’s chief architect, as some textbooks say, then Washington was its general contractor in that he, more than anyone, got the work done.
Washington intended to retire from public service following the American Revolution and leave the country’s political future to others. He envisioned an energetic republic uniting the 13 states and the vast western territories ceded by Britain under the treaty recognizing American independence. He said as much in his 1783 Circular Letter to the States, issued at a time when he despaired over the Confederation’s inability to pay its troops and repay its creditors.
His 1784 trip to inspect his western properties, which showed him the nation’s tenuous hold on its lands west of the Appalachians, reinforced his conviction that the Articles of Confederation then looping the states into a loose alliance must be revised to give the central government effective control over interstate commerce, foreign affairs, national defense, and its own revenue. To him, these were essential to promote liberty, protect property, and preserve independence.
The breakdown of public order in some states, the reckless emission of paper money by others, and the worsening economic conditions due to state-imposed limits on interstate commerce and the inability of the central government to levy a protective tariff on foreign goods deepened the concerns of Washington and like-minded nationalists. “That it is necessary to revise, and amend the articles of Confederation, I entertain no doubt,” Washington wrote in 1786 to Foreign Secretary John Jay, “but what may be the consequences of such an attempt is doubtful.”
By the end of 1786, with a debtors’ insurrection in Massachusetts, wholesale printing of devalued paper money by Rhode Island, and open rebellion in Vermont, Washington began to doubt if Americans were capable of self-government. “Who besides a tory could have foreseen, or a Briton predict them!” he wrote to War Secretary Henry Knox. “Notwithstanding the boasted virtue of America, we are far gone in every thing ignoble & bad.” To Madison, who was already thinking about a new national political structure, Washington added, “Thirteen Sovereignties pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head, will soon bring ruin to the whole; whereas a liberal, and energetic Constitution, well guarded & closely watched, to prevent incroachments, might restore us to that degree of respectability & consequence, to which we had a fair claim.”
In March 1787, three months after the disturbances in Massachusetts died down, Washington wrote to his former aide the Marquis de Lafayette about the ongoing impact of those events on the campaign for constitutional reform. “These disorders are evident marks of a defective government,” Washington asserted. “Indeed, the thinking part of the people of this Country are now so well satisfied of this fact that most of the Legislatures have appointed, & the rest it is said will appoint, delegates to meet at Philadelphia the second Monday in may next in general Convention of the States to revise, and correct the defects of the federal System.”
Virginia had already tapped Washington to lead its delegation, and he was debating whether he should go. His main worries were that the convention had been called to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation, not to frame a fundamentally new constitution, and the people might not yet be ready to accept the needed overhaul. He did not want to waste his time and political capital tinkering with a failed system. “A thorough reform of the present system is indispensable,” Washington wrote to Madison, “and with hand and heart I hope the business will be essayed in the full Convention.”
By this point, Washington had written to Jay, Knox, and Madison requesting their advice on a restructured government. Struck by the similarities of their suggestions, Washington prepared an abstract comparing them. All envisioned a national government with separate legislative, judicial, and executive branches. Most of all, they were obsessed with reining in the states. On matters of national concern, they maintained, the central government must have the power to act directly on the people and not just through the states.
In his responses to Knox, Jay, and Madison, Washington embraced their proposals and made them his own. “Those enumerated in your letter are so obvious, & sensibly felt that no logick can controvert,” he told Jay. “But, is the public mind matured for such an important change?” Saying much the same to Knox, Washington expressed his worries that, jealous of their power, state officials “would give their weight of opposition to such a revolution.” Nevertheless, he wrote to Jay, he wished to try the convention route and find out “what can be effected.” It might represent “the last peaceable mode” of saving the republic.
With the outline of a new constitution in hand, Washington agreed to attend the convention. In reflection of the depth of his commitment to serve, Washington was one of the few delegates to arrive on time in Philadelphia. He went to the State House at the appointed hour on May 14 to find only Madison and the Pennsylvania representatives present. They returned daily as other delegates trickled in, but it took 10 more days to obtain a quorum.
In the meantime, the Virginians and Pennsylvanians present met privately and cobbled together the framework for a constitution, which became known as the Virginia Plan because Virginia governor Edmund Randolph offered it at the Convention. Little is known about these meetings, but letters from those present suggest Washington attended each one and supported the outcome. As one Virginian depicted the still-forming plan, nothing less than a revolution in government was brewing. “The most prevalent Idea,” he wrote, “seems
to be a total Alternation of the present federal System and substituting a great National Council … with full legislative Powers upon all the Objects of the Union.” This sentence effectively summarized the Virginia Plan:
People would replace states as the building blocks of a national republic, and Congress would no longer go hat in hand to the states for everything. On matters of national interests, it would either dictate to the states or deal directly with the people.
When the Convention did obtain a quorum, it promptly chose Washington as its president and turned to the matter of rules. Those rules provided that, so long as it was represented, each state would have one vote; a majority of states represented could carry a vote; and, most controversially, secrecy would prevail throughout. With windows shuttered and doors closed the members met day after day, six days a week, for more than three months. Due to the strictly enforced secrecy, the only record of the proceedings came from Madison’s minutes, which he kept private for a generation, the official tally of motions and votes, and a scattering of personal notes and letters.
The silence that engulfed the Convention limits what is known about Washington’s role because, as presiding officer, he rarely spoke on substantive matters inside the hall, where Madison recorded the debate. Washington did talk privately with other members, of course, and voted with the Virginia delegation. He also supervised the deliberations and called on members when they spoke. But no one recorded these utterances and, obeying the secrecy rule, Washington did not repeat them in letters or other writings. The other members likely knew where he stood on significant matters, but beyond his oft-stated desire to create a central government with power to tax, maintain an army, and regulate interstate and international commerce—positions that he had publicly championed since 1783—the record of his specific contributions to the Constitution remains frustratingly oblique. We can only surmise those details from the clues available to us. But those clues are revealing, especially his often decisive vote within the Virginia delegation. In the end, for example, it was his vote that allowed Virginia to endorse the Constitution.
One day after the Convention committed itself to secrecy, the Virginia delegation dropped its bombshell. Having participated in preparing it, Washington clearly conspired in the timing of its delivery. To begin “the main business” of the Convention, as Madison termed it in his notes, Washington called on Randolph. The Virginia governor then presented his delegation’s plan for a new constitution. Once he took the floor, Randolph held it for most of the day and left no doubt about his state’s radical intentions.
As presented by Randolph, the plan contained the outline for a “national” government composed of a two-house legislature, some sort of chief executive, and a judiciary with supreme and inferior courts. This represented his delegation’s radical cure for America’s woefully inadequate central government. The hope, Randolph said, lay in a national government with power to legislate on matters of general concern and compel obedience. “Sovereignty is the integral Thing,” one delegate wrote regarding Randolph’s plea, “We ought to be one Nation.”
Virginia had staked its ground, forcing others to respond. Washington sided with his delegation— everyone there knew that. In doing so, he helped to hijack the Convention. Congress had endorsed this gathering as a meeting to draft amendments to the Articles—amendments that all 13 states would have to approve. Washington’s Virginia instead proposed using it to scrap the existing government and forge a nation with the consent of only nine states. That night, he likely worked on the letter he posted the next day to Thomas Jefferson. “The business of this Convention is as yet too much in embryo to form any opinion of the result,” he wrote. “That something is necessary, all will agree; for the situation of the General Government (if it can be called a government) is shaken to its foundations—and liable to be overset by every blast. In a word, it is at an end, and unless a remedy is soon applied, anarchy & confusion will inevitably ensue.” These worried words echoed Randolph’s urgent speech.
After heatedly debating and narrowly defeating a motion to limit the proceedings to amending the Articles of Confederation, the Convention accepted the Virginia Plan as the starting point for its deliberations and never looked back. Washington sat silent in the hall, but surely spoke in private. “Persuaded I am that the primary cause of all our disorders lies in the different State Governments,” he soon wrote to fellow Virginian and extended relation David Stuart, “and in the tenacity of that power which pervades the whole of their systems.” So long as states retained “independent sovereignty,” he predicted, the country would falter.
The initial battle won, the war then raged over the precise structure and powers of Congress, the nature of the executive, the establishment of inferior federal courts, protections for state-sanctioned slavery, and myriad other matters. Washington again remained silent but wrote privately, including to Alexander Hamilton: “The Men who oppose a strong & energetic [central] government are, in my opinion, narrow minded politicians, or are under the influence of local views.”
No issue mattered more to him than the new government’s sovereignty over matters of national concern, which the Convention ultimately identified in a list of enumerated powers assigned to the central government that included every one that Washington had lobbied for since 1783. There were other topics for the members to address, some so divisive as to nearly derail the Convention. Some were issues that every delegate knew would directly impact Washington, should he lead the resulting government. They would look to him on these issues too, and he, in turn, helped to shape the outcome, but national supremacy mattered most to him. “Vain is it to look for respect from abroad, or tranquility at home,” Washington wrote to Lafayette one day before the delegates approved the list of enumerated powers, “till the wisdom and force of the Union can be more concentred.”
Evidence abounds for Washington’s influence in shaping various provisions of the Constitution, and for securing the compromises that kept the Convention on track, but his role in crafting the executive offers as good an example as any of the part he played in Philadelphia. Since everyone presumed that Washington would become the new government’s first executive, no one could conceive of the position without thinking about him in it. Indeed, within the year, South Carolina’s Pierce Butler flatly stated that his colleagues at the Convention “shaped their Ideas and Powers to be given to the President, by their opinions of [Washington’s] Virtue.”
Having agreed to begin their deliberations by working through the Virginia Plan, the delegates reached its two resolutions regarding the executive on June 1. Perhaps because Washington was sitting among them, when the delegates reached these resolutions, they fell silent. He would be the first president, of course, and the delegates seemed reluctant to cross him. But who would follow Washington? Benjamin Franklin broke the silence. Observing that the structure of the executive is “of great importance,” he urged the delegates to “deliver their sentiments on it before the question was put.” These comments burst the dam, and debate flooded the room. Four days later, with the discussion still going strong, he could add with reference to Washington and the debate over the executive, “The first man, put at the helm would be a good one. No body knows what sort may come afterwards.”
The members debated the executive at length three separate times during the Convention. In June, during the first of these occasions, they raised virtually all of the issues about the presidency that would later occupy them, but they had trouble even resolving whether one person or a committee should hold the office. With Washington in the room, a unitary executive should have seemed obvious to all, especially since every state had but one governor. Fearful of investing too much power in any single person, however, some delegates—including two from Virginia—favored an executive triumvirate like those of late republican Rome. Denouncing a single executive as “the fetus of monarchy,” Randolph averred that “the people” would oppose it. Further, George Mason added, an executive troika could better represent the country’s three regions than could any one ruler.
These comments on a single executive, coming as they did from old friends, vexed Washington, who prided himself on his republican virtue, public support, and unbiased nationalism. Every delegate who knew him well must have understood that Washington would never consent to serve as one member of an executive triumvirate nor be suited for such a post. While he remained silent, others rallied to defend the sort of unitary executive that Washington was so clearly qualified to fill. “Unity in the Executive” promotes “vigor and dispatch” in office, James Wilson noted, and by fixing responsibility on one person, served as “the best safeguard against tyranny.” Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts stressed that a troika would be especially troublesome in war. “It would be a general with three heads,” he declared.
While these positions came out in the course of the formal debate, delegates discussed them on other occasions as well. Like Washington, some members regularly attended evening teas and balls, where they could talk in semiprivate settings. Even those delegates who did not circulate in high society inevitably spent considerable time together outside the Assembly Room. Most of them lived tightly packed into a handful of the city’s best boarding houses and inns, where they dined at common tables.
While he stayed in a private home where he could dine in, Washington frequently ate out with other members. Indeed, on June 2, after the extent of disagreement over the power and structure of the executive first became apparent, Washington ate with the delegates at City Tavern, where the subject of day’s heated debate—should the United States have one executive officer or three—likely came up and surely remained on everyone’s mind. While in session earlier that day, the members raised and could not resolve the issue; but now, as many of those delegates casually dined with the man who would be that king, Washington’s presence must have reassured them. As a frequent guest at City Tavern, Pierce Butler may have been present. If so, it might explain his later comment that powers vested in the executive would not “have been so great had not many of the members cast their eyes toward General Washington as President.” At the Convention’s next session, the states voted by a margin of seven to three for a single executive. Virginia joined the majority, with Washington casting the deciding vote.
So it went for week after week as Washington successfully guided the Convention to its historic conclusion in September, when all the remaining states voted for the Constitution even though some delegates objected to parts of it. The Convention then approved a cover letter and two resolutions for transmitting the finished draft to Congress. “The friends of our country have long seen and desired, that the power of making war, peace, and treaties, that of levying money and regulating commerce, and the corresponding executive and judiciary authorities should be fully and effectually vested in the general government,” the letter stated. These factors, it claimed, justified “the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence.” This letter opened the public campaign for ratification.
The resolutions asked Congress to forward the Constitution to the states and, if they ratified it, to set a time for choosing presidential electors and a date for the new government to assume power. Washington’s signature on the cover letter and resolutions assured they would command attention. Indeed, they made it look as if the Constitution came from him, which was its backers’ intent. All that remained was for the delegates to ceremonially sign the document.
Washington signed first and above the rest in a bold, large hand somewhat reminiscent of John Hancock’s already well-known signature on the Declaration of Independence: Go: Washington, Presidt and Deputy from Virginia. Then the other 38 signers filed forward by state. While the last members were signing, Franklin looked at the half sun adorning the crown of Washington’s chair and uttered the remark that Madison chose as the closing anecdote for his notes of the Convention. “I have,” he said to those near him, “often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.”
Edward J. Larson was Head of the History Department at the Univesity of Georgia and held the Douglas Southerhall Freeman Chair in American History at the University of Richmond and the John Adams Chair in American Studies at Leiden University. Recipient of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History, Larson is the author of twelve books and over one hundred published articles, including The Return of Georg Washington and George Washington: Nationalist.