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.