Why Washington Relinquished His Power, And Why He Returned
“For Washington,” writes Edward Larson in The Return of George Washington, “retirement made sense.” It was an act inconceivable at the time, of course: George Washington, the most popular man in America and perhaps the most famous man in the world, had just defeated the most powerful nation on Earth. Why wouldn't he want to retain power? No less than King George III said that Washington would be “the greatest man in the world” if he resigned at the war's close.
Both in public and private, however, Washington never pretended that he wanted to lead a new country should the colonies succeed in overthrowing British rule. In 1783, with the Treaty of Paris signed, ending the war, Washington relinquished power. He handed in his commission and returned home to his beloved Mount Vernon. Larson's latest book explores Washington's life between 1783 and 1789—a time typically thought to be Washington's quiet period, with the retired general an American Cincinnatus returning to his farm after restoring the Roman Republic. The book astonishes with continual revelations of a Washington deeply engaged in national affairs and concerned for the floundering United States on the verge of collapse.
THE GREATEST MAN IN THE WORLD
Washington wrote in a letter to his former lieutenant, Marquis de Lafayette, “I am not only retired from all public employments, but I am retiring within myself; and shall be able to view the solitary walk, and tread the paths of private life with heartfelt satisfaction.” Free from the burdens of power, Washington wanted to rebuild his farm and invest in property on the new frontier in the west. As Larson explains, “Washington had spent only ten out of the past three thousand days of war at his eight-thousand-acre working plantation, and its finances were confused.” Washington himself wrote at the time: “I made no money from my Estate during the nine years I was absent from it, and brought none home with me.”
He threw himself into the task of rebuilding his property, developing “a passion for improving his livestock and soil productivity by applying new methods of scientific farming.” He expanded his residence, hosted formal meals, and traveled to inspect his frontier properties in western Virginia and Pennsylvania—weeks-long trips at the time. He kept up with political affairs through correspondence with those in power, and he often railed in those letters about the failures of Congress and the untenable state of American affairs.
The Revolutionary War had not been kind to the infrastructure of the United States, and the sorry state of government under the Articles of Confederation was immediately obvious. Because Congress could not levy taxes, it couldn't pay its debts, including the back-pay and pensions owed to soldiers of the Continental Army—something that weighed heavily on Washington. Moreover, because the individual states could never hope to look much farther than their own borders, the country had little chance of being truly “continental,” expanding westward.
The frontier especially troubled Washington. If the land were developed, it could become a valuable source of wealth for the United States; if it weren't, it would become vulnerable to a foreign power developing it. Settlers on the frontier had little loyalty to the United States, and could just have easily cast their lot with Spain, who owned the land west of the Mississippi, and, indeed, controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River. "The ties of consanguinity which are weakening every day will soon be of no bond." Meanwhile, American Indians weren't exactly rolling over as their land was taken away, making the frontier a dangerous place indeed.
From Mount Vernon, Washington corresponded unremittingly with members of Congress, urging negotiations with the American Indians; the cancellation of land claims that sometimes reached 500,000 acres by settlers of the frontier; and the establishment, as Larson explains, of one "compact new state at a time." Within the borders of these new states, wrote Washington, Congress could sell land at prices "as would not be too exorbitant & burthensome for real occupiers, but high enough to discourage monopolizers." Good settlements in newly represented states would facilitate good governance. Canals could be the Interstate highway system of their time, connecting the powerful eastern colonies with the west, opening up trade and bringing together peoples. To achieve this, however, a strong central government would be necessary.
Congress's debt continued to pile up, and now flat broke, it simply could no longer pay interest on its debt. As the individual states absorbed the losses, Congress began losing its already tenuous relevance. Soon, the same sorts of protests that preceded the American Revolution began spreading across the United States. Wrote Washington: "It is but the other day we were shedding our blood to obtain the Constitutions under which we now live—Constitutions of our own choice and framing—and now we are unsheathing the Sword to overthrow them!" A Constitutional Convention was called to work through the problem of the moribund American government.
Though Washington was alarmed and frustrated by the national goings-on, he hesitated over attending such a Constitutional Convention. It was, in Larson's words, "something of a chicken-and-egg dilemma. For his own sake and that of the country, he should not go unless the convention was likely to succeed, and yet it was not likely to succeed unless he went." But Washington's life was now good, and peaceful. "He had never been happier than during the past few years of honored retirement, and he had rarely been healthier."
But the country needed him. Washington decided to attend, though only reluctantly, and only on the condition that the convention call for "radical cures" for what ailed the country. If he were going to abandon the peace and joy of his retirement and his beloved Mount Vernon, he expected the delegates of the convention to have their act together and to be ready with big ideas and the nerve to see them through.
HIS FIRST PRESIDENCY
Delegates to the convention unanimously voted Washington president of the convention, a position he had not asked for, and one for which "he felt himself embarrassed," asking "the indulgence of the House toward the involuntary errors which his inexperience might occasion."
Still, as Larson writes:
Washington was comfortable with command. Being persuaded that only a strong general government could save the union, he was ready to play whatever part was required of him to secure that end … Henceforth, as Washington realized perhaps more than anyone, he no longer represented merely himself, the army, or Virginia. He represented the nation, and on him the future rested.
The proceedings and results of the Constitutional Convention are well known. And though Washington was long thought to be a passive player in the event, Larson reveals a man keenly aware of the stakes, and with a serious agenda. For example, after weeks of parliamentary business, Washington carefully timed the dropping of the "bombshell" of the gathering: the presentation of the Virginia Plan, authored by James Madison and presented by Edmund Randolph. The plan called for a total redesign of the government of the United States, consisting of three branches, with a chief executive, a two-house legislature, and a judiciary of lower courts and a supreme court.
"Virginia," writes Lawson," had staked its ground, forcing others to respond." Throughout the convention, Washington never stated his views on the extent of a new government's power. He didn't need to. For years, he had been the "personification of nationalism in the United States."
Months of debate and negotiation ensued, with delegates enumerating and balancing powers among the branches of government. Washington would get his way; only the details needed to be worked through.
The Constitution of the United States was signed by the delegates on September 17, 1787, and Washington immediately raced home to resume his managerial duties at Mount Vernon, once again, as Larson notes, playing the role of Cincinnatus. The country, meanwhile, had to figure out what to do with this proposed new form of government. After oftentimes rancorous debate within and between the states, the country ratified the new Constitution the following year, and electors were soon chosen to vote for the country's first president.
On April 14, 1789, Charles Thompson, a secretary of Congress, arrived at Mount Vernon bearing news: "I am honored with the commands of the Senate to wait upon your Excellency with the information you are being elected to the office of President. You are called not only by the unanimous votes of the Electors but by the voice of America."
Once again, as The Return of George Washington describes, he would have to leave home.