Washington: The Greatest American Part II

Nor, perchance did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion.

Pope Leo XIII

With the end of the Revolutionary War Washington was looking forward to a well earned retirement from public life at his beloved Mount Vernon.

On June 8, 1783 he sent a circular letter out to the states discussing his thoughts on the importance of the states remaining united, paying war debts, taking care of the soldiers who were wounded in the war and the establishment of a peace time military and the regulation of the militia.  It is an interesting document and may be read here.   No doubt Washington viewed this as in some respects his final thoughts addressed to the American people in his role as Commander in Chief.

Washington ends the letter with this striking passage:

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.

The War having been won Washington resigned his commission to Congress in Annapolis, Maryland on December 23, 1783.  The next day he had reached his heart’s desire:  home, Mount Vernon.  Christmas the next day was probably the happiest in his life.

His respite from public service was destined to be brief.  An advocate for a strong Federal government, Washington was dismayed at how inadequate the Articles of Confederation proved to be as the states squabbled with each other and problems like the war debt remained unresolved.  When the call went out for a Constitutional Convention he supported it.  He was dismayed when he was chosen to be one of the Virginia delegates, but, no doubt with some gritting of his false teeth, he went.  He was chosen immediately and unanimously to be the President of the Convention.    Washington spoke little at the Convention, but his views as an advocate for a much stronger central government helped sway the other delegates.  I have no doubt that the Presidency would have been a much weaker office, but for the assumption of the delegates that Washington would of course be the first to hold that office.

Two anecdotes from the Constitution are instructive as to the awe in which Washington was held by this point in his career.

Gouverneur Morris, who wrote a large part of the Constitution and was a friend of Washington, was bet a dinner that he would not slap Washington on his back and give him a friendly greeting.  Morris did so, laying his hand on Washington’s shoulder as he greeted him.   Washington gave him a cold stare, Morris removed his hand from Washington as if it was singed, and stated that he would not attempt that again for a thousand dinners!  On another occasion, one of the delegates had dropped notes about a meeting of the Convention on the street outside of the Convention.  The Convention had agreed that the deliberations were to be secret.  Washington at the next session, prior to the meeting beginning, pointed out the notes, indicating that he thought such carelessness a breach of the secrecy agreement, and invited whoever had written the notes to come forward and get them.  No one moved, as some of the most brilliant men ever produced by this country shrank from facing Washington like errant schoolboys.

After the Convention concluded, Washington made it known that he supported ratification by the states of the new Constitution.  That support, and the universal assumption that he would be the first president, were key to the ratification struggles in the states.  Washington reluctantly agreed to serve, and was unanimously elected president by the electoral college in 1789 and 1793, a miracle of unanimity that has never been repeated.

Washington was keenly aware that everything he did as President would set a precedent.  This was a burdensome responsibility but also an opportunity to shape the course of the new Republic.  One course charted by Washington was against religious bigotry.

A fairly conventional Anglican, Washington had never had any use for the religious enmities of the world in which he was born.  Throughout his life he had friends of all beliefs, and he constantly practiced a policy of tolerance for the faiths of all Americans, which he demonstrated as Commander in Chief at the start of the Revolution when he banned the Continental Army from celebrating Guy Fawkes Day.

This stand against anti-Catholicism was not unusual for Washington.  Throughout his life Washington had Catholic friends, including John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the US.  He would sometimes attend Mass, as he did during the Constitutional Convention when he led a delegation of the Convention to attend Mass in Philadelphia as he had attended Protestant churches in that town during the Covention.  This sent a powerful signal that under the Constitution Catholics would be just as good Americans as Protestant Americans.

Washington underlined this point in response to a letter from prominent Catholics, including Charles and John Carroll, congratulating him on being elected President:

“[March 15], 1790


While I now receive with much satisfaction your congratulations on my being called, by an unanimous vote, to the first station in my country; I cannot but duly notice your politeness in offering an apology for the unavoidable delay. As that delay has given you an opportunity of realizing, instead of anticipating, the benefits of the general government, you will do me the justice to believe, that your testimony of the increase of the public prosperity, enhances the pleasure which I should otherwise have experienced from your affectionate address.

I feel that my conduct, in war and in peace, has met with more general approbation than could reasonably have been expected and I find myself disposed to consider that fortunate circumstance, in a great degree, resulting from the able support and extraordinary candor of my fellow-citizens of all denominations.

The prospect of national prosperity now before us is truly animating, and ought to excite the exertions of all good men to establish and secure the happiness of their country, in the permanent duration of its freedom and independence. America, under the smiles of a Divine Providence, the protection of a good government, and the cultivation of manners, morals, and piety, cannot fail of attaining an uncommon degree of eminence, in literature, commerce, agriculture, improvements at home and respectability abroad.

As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.

I thank you, gentlemen, for your kind concern for me. While my life and my health shall continue, in whatever situation I may be, it shall be my constant endeavor to justify the favorable sentiments which you are pleased to express of my conduct. And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.

G. Washington”

Washington sent a similar letter on August 18, 1790 to the Jewish synagogue in Newport:


While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

As far as it was in his power, Washington was determined that the United States would make religious enmity something deeply un-American.

As the first President Washington confronted an endless series of problems.  The states were saddled with huge war debts, the new nation began virtually bankrupt, the United States confronted hostile Indian tribes on the West with almost no army, many Americans were deeply suspicious of the new-fangled Federal government, disputes between states as to borders, trade and many other matters were common, the foreign policy of the new nation had to be set, and last, but not least, the Federal government was a government in name only with no infrastructure set up to do anything.  A man less a slave of duty would have said thanks but no thanks of being put at the head of an enterprise that seemed to many discerning observers, both at home and abroad, to be destined to be an embarrassing failure.  However, Washington had won the Revolution against the odds, and he assumed that God was not done with America.  In that spirit he proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day for the new nation:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, A.D. 1789.

Washington was of course not alone in his efforts to make the new nation work.  He had at his disposal the brightest generation of statesmen ever to be produced by this country, and he made use of them:  John Adams as his Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as his Secretary of the Treasury, were merely the chief names that Washington called upon among the Founding Fathers as the new government found its way.  Some presidents seem to like mediocrities to serve them, perhaps fearful they will be lessened by comparison with a brilliant cabinet member.  Washington had no such fear:  he always attempted to find the most talented men he could to aid him, and no Founding Father disputed that Washington was the man in charge now, as he had been at the head of the Army during the War.

In regard to the War debts of the states, Washington fully endorsed the proposal of Hamilton that the Federal government assume these debts.  His idea to have the Federal government adopt the Revolutionary War debts of the states in order to establish the credit of the new Federal government was a policy of genius.  At a stroke he restored the credit of the country as a whole, made certain the debt would be paid, made America attractive to foreign investors and laid the basis of future American prosperity.  His ideas on the subject were set forth in his first report to Congress on  public credit, 1789, and which may be read here.

The final paragraph of the report is salient for the time in which we live:

Persuaded as the Secretary is, that the proper funding of the present debt, will render it a national blessing: Yet he is so far from acceding to the position, in the latitude in which it is sometimes laid down, that “public debts are public benefits,” a position inviting to prodigality, and liable to dangerous abuse,—that he ardently wishes to see it incorporated, as a fundamental maxim, in the system of public credit of the United States, that the creation of debt should always be accompanied with the means of extinguishment. This he regards as the true secret for rendering public credit immortal. And he presumes, that it is difficult to conceive a situation, in which there may not be an adherence to the maxim. At least he feels an unfeigned solicitude, that this may be attempted by the United States, and that they may commence their measures for the establishment of credit, with the observance of it.

Washington also agreed with Hamilton’s proposal, albeit with some reluctance over whether it was authorized by the Constitution, to charter the First Bank of the United States.  Washington was quite enthusiastic over Hamilton’s plan to establish a national mint for the coining of silver and gold Federal coins, remembering all too well the worthless paper Continentals issued by Congress during the Revolution.

Washington’s administration suffered military disasters at first in the Northwest Indian War, with Generals Josiah Harmar and Arthur St. Clair suffering two humiliating defeats to the infant United States Army in 1790 and 1791.  In 1792 peace emissaries sent by Washington were murdered by the hostile tribes.  In 1793 Washington coaxed out of retirement one of his ablest battlefield generals of the Revolution, Major General “Mad” Anthony Wayne.  Wayne formed what he called the Legion of the United States, trained the men thoroughly, through prodigious efforts made sure that they were properly fed, uniformed and armed, and led them to an overwhelming victory on August 20, 1794, at Fallen Timbers, which led to the opening of the Ohio Valley to American settlement.

The divisions between Federalists and Anti-Federalists were allayed to some extent by the passage of the Bill of Rights amendments to the Constitution in 1789, which were ratified by the States with lightning speed, being added to the Constitution on December 15, 1791.  Political parties, or factions as they were called, arose during Washington’s administration between Federalists and Republicans led by Jefferson.  Washington deplored this development, although he was closer in his ideas to the Federalists with their support of the Federal government than he was to the Republicans who were skeptical of new government.  The resignation as Secretary of State by Thomas Jefferson in 1793 demonstrated that the rise of political factions was something that even George Washington could not prevail against.

With the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789 the Federal judiciary came into being.  The Constitution vested in the United States courts the resolution of disputes between states, with the Supreme Court having original jurisdiction of such disputes.  The first such case, New York v. Connecticut, would be heard in 1799 during the Adams administration.

The French Revolution was an early foreign policy crisis for the Washington administration.  Jefferson and his followers were enthralled by the French Revolution, viewing it as the culmination of what they had started in the American Revolution.  Federalists, including Washington, were appalled by the atrocities committed by the French revolutionaries.  More than that, Washington feared that America, due to the enthusiasm of many Americans for the French Revolution, was at risk of being drawn into a war against Great Britain on the side of France.

In the Spring of 1793 Edmond-Charles Genet arrived in America.  The ambassador of the French revolutionary regime, he insisted on being known as Citizen Genet rather than Ambassador Genet.  Genet’s mission to America was to enlist American privateers to wage war upon the British.  President Washington quickly told him that this was in violation of American neutrality and denounced all attempts by Genet to drag America into the war between Britain and France.  Genet’s attempts to ignore Washington alarmed Jefferson, who, as Secretary of State, had a meeting with Genet that degenerated into a screaming match.  Washington was furious at the behavior of Genet.

The American government formally requested his recall.  Genet received a letter of rebuke from his government:

“Dazzled by a false popularity you have estranged the only man who should be the spokesman for you of the American people. It is not through the effervescence of an indiscreet zeal that one may succeed with a cold and calculating people.”

Genet’s successor, Citizen Fauchot, arrived in January 1794, with documents from the French government denouncing Genet’s conduct as criminal, and an arrest notice summoning him back to France.  Fearing for his life, Genet request asylum.  Hamilton, his greatest foe in the cabinet, interceded with Washington to grant the request, and Genet spent the rest of his long life in America in New York state as a gentleman farmer, marrying a daughter of Governor Clinton and becoming a naturalized American citizen.  Washington managed to keep American neutral in the great struggle engulfing the world and giving the United States a badly needed time of peace.  The treaty negotiated by John Jay in 1794 averted possible war with Great Britain, led to the abandonment of British forts in American territory in the West, resolved the boundary line between Canada and the United States in the northeast, obtained compensation for American merchants for ships seized by Great Britain during the course of their war with France, and established Great Britain and the United States as trading partners.

The chief domestic crisis of the Washington Administration was the Whiskey Rebellion, which began in 1791 in Western Pennsylvania as a resistance movement to the Federal excise tax on whiskey.  In 1794 this came to a head with George Washington, after the failure of peace emissaries he sent to talk to the rebels, marching with 13,000 militia into western Pennsylvania.  The rebels dispersed and there was no confrontation.  The tax was repealed in 1801 by the Republican controlled Congress, setting the precedent, followed by the country, with the major exception of the Civil War, that such disputes were to be resolved by the political process and not by armed revolt.

Washington very reluctantly agreed to serve a second term, and adamantly refused to serve a third, feeling as if he were a prisoner about to be set at liberty.  In 1792 he began writing his farewell address, only being deterred from retirement then by arguments that only he as President could bridge the political divisions  between Federalists and Republicans.  Modified in 1796 it was published on September 19th of that year.  It is an important document, summing up Washington’s advice to the country and it rewards careful reading.  Here are some of the salient points:

1. ReligionOf all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

2.  Centralized PowerIt is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism.

3.  PartisanshipThere is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

4.  Government DebtAs a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it, avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should co-operate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment, inseparable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties), ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the conduct of the government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue, which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.

5.  Honesty as Policy-. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy.

6.  Foreign Policy– If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

In retiring from the public scene Washington made this closing observation, and I shall give him the last word in this examination of his life:  Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend.  

Published in: on February 22, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Washington: The Greatest American Part II  
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