In 1787, George Washington was persuaded to attend the Constitutional Convention and subsequently was unanimously elected its president. The Convention (also known as the Philadelphia Convention, the Federal Convention, or the Grand Convention at Philadelphia) met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from May 14 to September 17. Delegates gathered to correct the various problems that had arisen while the newly-independent nation was operating under the Articles of Confederation following independence from Great Britain. The historic result of the Convention was the crafting of the United States Constitution.
Washington had to be convinced even to attend the Convention. After the War of Independence, Washington retired to Mount Vernon, planning to return to life as a country squire. But his retirement was short. At Mount Vernon, he always had a rash of visitors, many of whom were deeply involved in political events. Washington's concerns for the country's future were deepened during a 1784 trip to his properties in the western frontier. Consequently, Washington expressed doubts in 1786 whether a viable constitution could be formed because of humanity's common failings, and even suggested a ruling elite may be necessary.
Washington also realized that many citizens suspected the Convention would be merely a seizure of power from the states by an all-powerful, quasi-royal central government. Further, Washington initially refused to attend because he suspected that he would be made the Convention's leader, and probably be proposed as the nation's first chief executive. Washington did not want to be perceived as grasping for power, and active participation in the Convention—with its implied Presidential caveat—could have been perceived as such by the public. As a proud man, Washington was protective of the reputation earned with his War service and was loathe to diminish it.
James Madison and General Henry Knox, however, were eventually able to persuade Washington to attend the Convention. As strong believers in a more national system of government, each believed that Washington needed to play a central role because of the great trust and respect he had accumulated during the War. With Madison's skillful personal courting, Washington agreed to attend.
The Convention met in Independence Hall through a typically hot and steamy Philadelphia summer. The delegates' sweltering was heightened by their decision to meet in secret and to seal the windows shut. As the delegates argued Washington observed, while sitting on a tall wooden chair on an elevated platform in front. Wearing his old military uniform, Washington participated little in the debates, seeing his function as nonpartisan, to maintain or restore order when debate became too boisterous. The role perfectly fit Washington's dignified, discreet nature. Washington intervened infrequently, and mostly to vote for or against the various proposed articles. When not in session, Washington toured the city accompanied by his enslaved workers. To avoid the crowds' emotions and staring, he often ventured out early in the morning.
While the Convention was intended merely to revise the Articles of Confederation, the objective of its leaders was to create a new government. One vigorous debate surrounded whether the government's executive should be a single person or a board of three. Eventually, a clear majority voted for a single executive based on the knowledge that Washington would probably be the first President. As a result, the presidency was written with Washington's honor and patriotism in mind, permitting him to define more clearly the office once he was elected. After the Convention, Washington's strong support convinced many to vote in favor of ratification.
William P. Kladky, Ph.D.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York, NY: Penguin, 2010.
Beeman, Richard. Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. New York, NY: Random House, 2009.
Ferling, John. The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2009.