George Washington, “Presidency, 1789-1797

I found Washington quite a bit more interesting and even likable as I read over some of the documents produced during his presidency.  Perhaps the position forced him to ponder (or at least to write down with more detail) his feelings on governance.  Where I need to remain critical of Washington is that while he was actively establishing the U.S. Empire in the West, as revealed through his Indian policies and his response to the Whiskey Rebellion, he stressed non-interventionism in European affairs.  Clearly he wanted the U.S. to be an equal with the Europeans and to do so he continued the imperial claims (if not the policies) of the British.  This is not a new observation, but it is notable how clearly stated it is in even this brief selection of documents.  Some of the highlights in the final part of the Library of American collection of Washington’s writings are his inaugural addresses, his diplomatic letters to some Indian tribes, his letters to ambassadors and cabinet members, and his yearly addresses to Congress.  Washington continued his correspondence with the Marquis de Lafayette, which provide one window into the French Revolution (as do his letters to Jefferson in the same period).  These are included as well in the collection.


First, to carry on from the previous post, Washington says even less about the slavery during his presidency than he did in the run-up to the drafting of the Constitution.  This may be due to politics, but I cannot help but think that Washington clearly saw slavery as domestic affair.  It only comes up in his private writings about the management of Mount Vernon or his plans for his estate.  He did free all of his slaves in his will and provided for the care of the young or elderly.  In a letter to the French ambassador to the United States, Jean Baptiste Ternant, Washington offered support to help put down the slave revolt in Saint Domingue.  “I am happy in the opportunity of testifying how well disposed the United States are to render every aid in their power to our good friends and Allies the French to quell ‘the alarming insurrection of the Negroes in Hispaniola’ and of the ready disposition to effect it.” (785)  Otherwise, as I suggested, the issue of slavery is simply not there in Washington’s public eye, either due to political savvy or an odd blindness (given the large slave population in his home).

Washington also addresses the question of religious liberty, only in passing.  In a letter to the United Baptist Churches he strove to convince them that the Bill of Rights (still being debated and implemented at the time) and the Constitution would not undermined religious societies.  It seems clear to me that Washington saw little role for religion in government outside of a defense of liberty.   (I know that is an obvious point, but I never actually read Washington to any significant degree before so some of this is confirmation of textbook knowledge.)  “If I could not conceive that the general Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to established effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.” (739)  Notice that he asserted the need for positive barriers to religious tyranny, not simply the absence of an established religion.

Let me get to my main point, Washington not only envisioned a U.S. empire in the West, but he worked hard to establish it.  Evidence of this comes from his view of the people living on the frontier.  Many of his official documents such as his yearly messages to Congress call for a stronger military, more respectable foreign affairs, and unity across regions (that is bringing the West into the national fold).  In his second message, the need for a stronger military is tied directly to maintaining power on the frontier.  The most earnest of these reports to Congress on the difficulties on the frontier was his fourth, delivered in 1792.  Controlling the ambitions of frontiersmen, which might undermine the U.S. relations with Indians, was a core concern of his when drafting the message.  The central event of his Presidency, in regards to the frontier, was the 1794 Whiskey tax rebellion, which can be seen as the culmination of many 18th century anti-state movements by people in the American frontier.  However it was looked upon by the people who participated in the rebellion, Washington saw it as an anti-statist movement.  In his call to mobilize the militia he listed their crimes as including “intercepting the public officials on the highways” and tormenting private citizens who supported the whiskey tax and its collection.  We can learn a bit from his language.  One is that it was not the tax itself that was seen as odious, but rather its implementation and enforcement.  (This may be a moot point for what is a law that is not enforced, but most of us do not feel conscious of how disgusting the state is until its laws inconvenience us.  It is the moment of truth.  Many who admit to the justness of the law will cheat on their taxes to the extend they get away with it, complain about bureaucratic regulations, or even perform acts of everyday civil disobedience, while never being conscious that they are undermining the very foundation of state authority.)  Washington was also worried about the emergence of armed bands on the frontier at the very time he was mobilizing the formal militia for action.  In classic state-making, there can be only one authority. (See 870–873 and 882-884 for documents on the Whiskey Rebellion).

The Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion

To the conquered Seneca, forced into the American empire through the treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain opens the door to the continued exploitation of Seneca lands.  Most of 1790 letter to the Seneca dealt with the proper approach to selling more land to citizens of the U.S.  He insists that “in the future you cannot be defrauded of your lands.” (774)  Of course the resolution of claims of being defrauded would be handled by U.S. courts.  He seems authentically interested in the problem of land speculation, but his approach is that of a valiant elder brother.  Much of the rest of the document details his “brotherly” advice for the Seneca, including staying away from a rowdy neighbor (the Miamee), to support the leadership of Cornplaneter, and apprehending criminals.  All in all, Washington wants to sustain the rhetoric of Indian independence but certainly acts as if the U.S. is in charge of their affairs.  Washington often complained in his letters about the lack of a “pacific disposition” among the tribes the U.S. had dealings with along their frontier as well as the machinations of the Spanish.  Long before the Monroe Doctrine, Washington was defending an imperial policy in North America reflecting a dream of hegemony.

The classic history of this period from the Seneca perspective.

The classic history of this period from the Seneca perspective.

So, Washington was overseeing the establishing of the U.S. empire.  The “Farewell Address” contains some summation of his desires for a united American people (“frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our Country from the rest.” (965))  At the same time that he calls for nation unity and a strong central state, he does deliver an small dissertation on the equality of peoples and the dangers of loyalty to one nation.  “The Nation, which indulges toward another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slaves.” (973)  Of course, his main concern here is against international entanglements,  I doubt he would have extended that same logic to the U.S. itself, but we certainly can do that.  Foreign entanglements may be dangerous, but so are internal entanglements and perverted loyalties to institutions.

George Washington, “Confederation Period” (1784-1789)

The writings of George Washington in the five years between 1784—1789 provide a useful perspective on the type of nation that the United States could have become prior to the triumph of federalism and the constitution.  Despite the message given in textbooks, which often agree on the necessity of the stronger central authority given by the Constitution, the United States worked in the Confederation period.  Before the Constitutional convention, Washington’s main activities in this period included wrapping up his domestic affairs and reorganizing the Mount Vernon plantation and establishing a transportation improvement company for the Potomac.


Washington seems to be open to the diversity of the United States.  When looking for an indentured servant to work on the plantation he said “If they are good workmen, they may be of Assia, Africa, or Europe.  They may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christian of any Sect – or they may be Atheists.” (555-556) But this very diversity worried him in respect to national unity and national preservation.  In an extended letter to Benjamin Harrison he makes a case for smoother transportation to the West, largely on the grounds of unity between the regions.  “The Western settlers, (I speak now from my own observation) stand as it were upon a pivot – the touch of a feather would turn them any way.” (563)  Specifically he feared that they would run off and join the Spanish, lacking any loyalty except to liberty.  The world Washington lived in between the war and his presidency was one in which the national loyalty was limited, but the country was in a state of flux with competing identities.  Washington hoped that infrastructure could create the fusion.  For his small part, he contributed through the establishment of one company focused on the Potomac.  He made the connection between federalism and national identity explicitly in a letter to James McHenry.  “As I have ever been a friend to adequate powers in Congress, without wch it is evident to me we never shall establish a National character, or be considered on a respectable footing by the powers of Europe.” (588)  Later he talks much on diplomacy, trade law, and military issues, but shows no reflection at all on the consequences of greater central authority on the freedom of the people.  “In a word that we are one Nation today, & thirteen tomorrow.”  (589)  Why not, I ask.  Several documents here point to the danger of localization movements like that of the 1786 Shays’ Rebellion.  His advice on the rebellion was to apply state power to put down such movements because they can escalate (because, apparently, working people fundamentally irrational and therefore easily convinced to participate in rebellious activities just by seeing it nearby) or make the U.S.A. look worse in international affairs.  He used it often enough to justify the Constitutional convention and the expansion of state powers.


Shays' Rebellion

Shays’ Rebellion

We see in this period, the first of Washington’s significant writings on slavery (at least as far as this anthology is concerned).  This sums it up:
I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it – but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority. . . . But when slaves who are happy & content to remain with their present masters, are tampered with & seduced to leave them; when masters are taken at unawares by these practices; when a conduct of this sort begets discontent on one side and resentment on the other . . . it introduces more evils than it can cure.” (594)  These statements are utterly naïve coming as they do from one of the largest slaveholders in Virginia.  (Does he truly believe that he is one of these owners that the slaves would not want to avoid?  Does he think none of them desire abolition more “sincerely” than he does?  Does he really think that anti-slavery agitation was merely about turning content slaves into rebellious slaves?)  As I said before, I do not want to get involved in founder bashing but in this case Washington does seem to me to be a dumb or out of touch.  Jefferson (maybe because of Sally Hemmings) was capable of more profound thought on the reality of slavery than Washington.  Washington was eager to pass the obligation to the legislature, refusing to “possess another slave by purchase” but not wanting to undermine his personal wealth.  Right before his presidency began he was able to squeeze a bit more thought on the subject out of his brain.  “The unfortunate condition of the persons, whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret.  To make the Adults among them as easy & as comfortable in their circumstances as their actual state of ignorance & improvidence would admit; & to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born; afforded some satisfaction to my mind, & could not I hoped be displeasing to the justice of the Creator.” (701—702) Boy, I am trying hard to like you just a little bit, but you make it so hard.

No images of Washington's slaves, of course.  But here is a photo of his house.

No images of Washington’s slaves, of course. But here is a photo of his house.

George Washington, “Continental Army” 1775-1783

Despite his role in helping establish a democratic republic, George Washington’s time as commander of the Continental Army does reveal his continued commitment to a hierarchical society.  I do not think there is any inauthenticity here.  He does not seem to be interested in fighting for a democratic society.  In his 1775 letter to Thomas Gage, he complained that “the Officers engaged in the Cause of Liberty, and their Country, who by Fortune of war, have fallen into your Hands have been thrown indiscriminately, into a common Gaol appropriated for Felons—That no Consideration has been had for those of the most respectable Rank.” (181)  However, he is in some ways working toward a revolutionary army and was forced to come to terms with the democratic longings of the people he commanded.  Perhaps some of Washington’s importance comes from his ability to make that transition from an aristocratic leader to one at least in dialog with a democratic people.  In another letter to Thomas Gage, written just days, Washington begins to describe the difference between the American army and the British. “You affect, Sir, to despise all Rank not derived from the same Source with your own.  I cannot conceive any more honourable, than that which flows from the uncorrupted Choice of a brave a free Poeple [sic] – The purest Source & original Fountain of all Power.  Far from making it a Plea for Cruelty, an Mind of true Magnanimity, & enlarged Ideas would comprehend & respect it.” (183)



As any college freshman knows, Washington’s major achievement as commander of the Army was his sustaining of a regular, professional military at a time when the tendency for many American farmers was to join militias to defend their communities. I suspect that Washington’s difficulties were not just products of a frontier society lacking a traditional of military discipline.  An emerging democratic society, engaged in a revolution was hostile to the very idea of a standing military.  To his credit, Washington was aware of this and willing to work with it, even as he complained about discipline in many of his letters from the war period.  “To bring Men well acquainted with the Duties of a Soldier, requires time – to bring them under proper discipline & Subordination, not only requires time, but is a Work of great difficulty; and in this Army, where there is so little distinction between the Officers and Soldiers, requires an uncommon degree of attention. . . . Three things prompt Men to a regular discharge of their Duty in time of Action, Nature bravery – hope of reward – and fear of punishment – The two first are common to the untutor’d, and the Disciplin’d Soldier; but the latter, most obviously distinguished the one from the other.” (210)  Washington goes on to warn about the danger of too much freedom in the military.  The high turn-over, mutiny late in the war, and lack of discipline seem to be the problems inherent in a revolutionary army that emerges from a democratic society.  Even in his farewell address to the Army, he had issues of discipline firmly in his mind.  At that point, he could look at it more optimistically praising the soldiers for overcoming local prejudices and replacing them with patriotism.
We do see the roots of Washington’s federalism in some of these documents.  To John Parke Custis, he wrote: “It must be a settled plan, founded on System, order and economy that is to carry us triumphantly through the war.  Supiness, and indifference to the distresses and cries of a sister State when danger is far of [sic], and a general but momentary resort to arms when it comes to our doors, are equally impolitic and dangerous, and proves the necessity of a controlling power in Congress to regular and direct all matters of general concern.” (418—419) During the demobilization of the Continental Army, Washington strongly supported a replacement with a “Militia of the Union,” which would have uniform discipline.  In one of his last, wartime letters to his brother he again calls for a “Government of his Country” to avoid the evils of “Anarchy and Confusion,” which he thought would lead to tyranny.
Most of the letters and general orders and other documents collected in this section are tedious and of little interest to me personally.  I admit to skimming through many of them.  Most are concerned with provisioning the army and reports on military activities (mostly mundane).  Some of the more interesting documents look at the attempts by Washington to find Indian allies, his quite liberal policy toward loyalists, preventing the activities of spies, his begging to state governments for funding, and his political concerns about currency policy.  I shutter to think about the letters that the editor did not include.  Ultimately, I am not finding George Washington to be all that interesting of a figure, but given his enormous task, he likely did not have much to perfect his writing or explore the deeper political and philosophical ramifications of the revolution he was integral in making successful.  We leave that to Thomas Paine, who I wrote on early in the history of this blog. In the end, I think I am more interested in the common men and women who won the war.  Looking through the commander’s eyes does not seem to take us very far.   For Washington, these men seem to have been a problem to solve more often than they were heroes.


George Washington, The Colonial Period (1747-1775)

Most of the Library of America volume committed to George Washington’s writings are his letters, with some speeches and official documents thrown in.  I am not quite sure how to go at Washington this week, but I know I do not want to get into the tedious founder bashing.  Nevertheless, it is worth reminding ourselves that he was the richest U.S. President, with a net worth in current dollars of $525 million.  Most of this wealth was inherited or stolen from the labor of slaves (of which his plantation has over 300 at the time of his death).  He was doubtless a revolutionary.  And while compared to someone like Toussaint L’ouverture or a Robespierre, he strikes us as decidedly pompish and boring.  My impression of him when I studied him in college was that he was at best a dumb jock, with good connections and great interpersonal skills, allowing him to move up.  While none of us can doubt the contribution of Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, or even Franklin to the development of the character of the nation, what was Washington’s intellectual contribution?  Maybe I can learn something new reading this volume.


We start with this odious document “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”  We can see immediately that Washington was firmly rooted in the aristocratic tradition of Europe.  Whatever frontier spirit drove the settlement of the United States and its development in the colonial period, by the time we get to 15-year-old Washington (1747), it seems a distant at least as far as these rich planters were concerned.  I suppose I could take a look at these writings as benevolently as possible and guess that Washington needed to continually remind himself of these important rules of conduct or we would expose his true character as a vulgar ruffian.  In any case, it is a very class-conscious document, with many rules on how to treat the people above your rank and below your rank.  A few have some universal merit such as “When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it” or “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.” (6,10)  He takes on a profession at this time as a surveyor, essentially going into the big business of land speculation.  (Still a great way for rich people to get richer.)  Soon after this, he begins his military career just in time for the Seven Years’ War to break out, drawing the colonies into a global imperial conflict.

Washington seems to have been deeply interested in the alliances of the frontier Indians, negotiating with the Iroquois and suggesting to his superiors that they recruit the Cherokees and other Southern tribes into the war effort.  In one letter to Robert Dinwiddie, Washington discussed his salary, insisting that his place in the military was that of a volunteer and that he was “indefferent” to pay.  This again reflects his aristocratic leanings, seeing military service as more of a matter of honor and service than a career.  Despite this, he comes and goes in the military during the war.  Several of his war letters center on the problem of recruitment.  “The spirit of Desertion was so remarkable in the Militia that it has a suprizing effect upon the Regiment, and encouraged many of the Soldiers to desert.” In the same letter, Washington recommends the execution of some deserters.  It is worth examining at length just to get another window into this founder.  “He deserted, and carried several men with him: and, upon the most solemn promises of good Behavior, was pardoned — But for this only reason–we had no power to hold General Courts martial and now he was instrumental in carrying off seven others; two only of whom were taken.  For these reasons I hope your Honour will think him as worthy an Example against Desertion, as Lewis against Cowardice: whose execution I have delayed until the arrival of the Draughts.  These Examples, and proper encouragement for good Behavior, will I hope, bring the Soldiers under proper Discipline.” (78)  A later document suggests the pardon of James Thomas who along with Henry Campbell was charged with Desertion and sentenced to death.  Campbell still seems to have been executed.   Washington’s military letters continually complained about the lack of recruitment, low morale, and their inability to maintain troop strength.  Since he has some similar troubles during the Revolution, I can only wonder if the problem was the imposition of an aristocratic military on a more democratic society.  One final thing that comes through his letters from the Seven Year’s War is that Washington was very concerned with how his superiors saw him and his performance.  He tried to explain his failures, stressed his honor and his commitment to service, and his willingness to learn from his errors.  He sometimes sounded to me to be like an employee who has been written up by his boss a few too many times.

Other documents from the colonial period include advertisements from some of his slaves that ran away, letters regarding his marriage to Martha, and his business concerns in the early 1760s.  We can guess that some of his opposition to the British that emerged in the 1760s was due to what he saw as unfairly costly imported goods and low prices for tobacco exports.  As early as 1765 he was stating arguments in his letters suggesting that America would be better off manufacturing its own goods and trading them internally.  “I am apt to think no Law or usage can compel us to barter our money or Staple Commodities for their Manufactories, if we can be supplied within ourselves upon the better Terms.” (177)  Throughout the late colonial period, these documents suggest that Washington was not fully unaware of the issues at the heart of the colonial crisis but he remains mostly concerned with his private affairs and local development efforts (like the improvement of the Potomac navigation).  The result of some of these efforts were tending toward independence, seeing the way to escape British debts as greater economic independence at home.

Let me end with his response to the outbreak of fighting in 1775.   “Unhappy it is though to reflect, that a Brother’s Sword has been sheathed in a Brother’s breast, and that, the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood, or Inhabited by Slaves.  Sad alternative!” (164)  Unfortunately, due to planters like Washington, an incomplete revolution, and a Constitution defending slavery, this prediction would come true in a different context.