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.