Mount Vernon The Cradle Of Constitutional Agitation
( Originally Published 1925 )
Union of States First Effected at Mount Vernon Conference—Off to the Constitutional Convention—Washington's Passion for the Constitution—Virginia in a Turmoil—Ratification—Dreading the Interruption of His Home Life—Elected First President of the United States—The Formal Notification at Mount Vernon—Breaking Home Ties—End of His Furlough —Departure for the Inauguration.
IT HAS been said that Washington left Mount Vernon a distinguished Virginian and returned after the war one of the most famous men in the world. More significant is Henry Cabot Lodge's other remark that Washington passed at a single step from being a Virginian to being an American.
In the midst of his domestic, social, and agricultural activities by the Potomac his mind dwelt continually on the conditions which his military success had imposed on the disunited states. His vision revealed to him the ruin ahead under the Articles of Confederation and the opportunity and salvation which lay only in a nation united with a firm, centralized government.
He realized the truth of the British taunt that if the now independent states were left to themselves they would soon dissolve. And so, while he wrote LaFayette and Knox and others of his complete retirement, his intention to confine his activities to the cultivation of the friendship of good men and to the practise of the domestic virtues, the enigma of his country's future was never wholly out of his mind. To his perception he added a patriotism which embraced all the states, and at Mount Vernon was conceived and developed, urged, and in a measure consummated, the idea of union and of the means to national strength and life.
In the library were written the constant stream of letters which carried the constitutional idea into every other state. During hours and days of consultation and discussion with thoughtful leaders, in walks beneath the trees, seated about his hospitable board, or during long sessions under the canopy of his riverside piazza, he argued and persuaded for the firm union of the states.
The common enemy had drawn the colonies together during the war, but once peace was declared the units flew asunder. Jealousy displaced fraternal confidence. The states discredited each other's currency. They set up import taxes against each other. Under these menacing conditions the representatives of Maryland and Virginia met at Mount Vernon in March, 1785, to devise some means of securing uniform action between the two states on the problem of the commerce and fishing of the Chesapeake and the Potomac. It was then and there decided that the two states should adopt uniform laws on imports, currency, and commercial regulations; that a naval force should be maintained at the expense of both states and for the protection of both; that the commissioners should propose to their respective state governments the establishment of conjoint laws under the assent of Congress. Here appeared the first evidence of union. It was the union of only two states, Virginia and Maryland, but it was union, and it submitted itself to the Congress of all the states. Mount Vernon was the scene of this first step toward national union.
The following January, 1786, Virginia joined Maryland in a proposal that every state should send delegates to a convention at Annapolis in September, to regulate the commerce of all the states. From the Annapolis convention emanated the call for the convention to be held in Philadelphia, in the spring of 1787, to frame a constitution for the union of all the states.
Washington was unanimously elected to head Virginia's delegation. He pleaded his retirement, rheumatism, and other reasons for declining to serve. But when there was question of his republicanism he brushed all considerations aside, began an exhaustive study of constitutional governments, of which he left lengthy autograph evidence in his library, and on Wednesday, May 9, 1787, "crossed from Mount Vernon to Mr. Digges a little after sunrise," and was one of the first delegates to reach Philadelphia. He was made the president of the Constitutional Convention, remained in the city throughout the fatiguing summer, and reached home September 22d, after an absence of four months and fourteen days.
He at once dispatched riders from Mount Vernon with copies of the Constitution to Thomas Nelson, Benjamin Harrison, and Patrick Henry, former governors of Virginia, and to other prominent men, stating his wish that it had been more perfect and his belief that it was the best that could be obtained at the time, and urging their support. A storm of discussion broke over the state. Among those arrayed against the Constitution were Patrick Henry, Benjamin Harrison, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, and James Monroe. Among those in its defense were James Madison, John Marshall, Edmund Pendleton, and General Henry Lee ("Light Horse Harry").
Washington remained at home and somewhat in the background of the "passionate agitation." But he stood committed to the Constitution as drawn, with a door open for subsequent amendments, and gave it the full force of his support. A visitor to Mount Vernon shortly after his return from Philadelphia wrote Thomas Jefferson in November:
"I stayed two days with General Washington at Mount Vernon about six weeks ago. . I never saw him so keen for anything in my life as he is for the adoption of the new scheme of government. As the eyes of all America are turned towards this truly great and good man for the first President, I took the liberty of sounding him upon it. He appears to be earnestly against going into public life again; pleads in excuse for himself his love of retirement and his advanced age, but notwithstanding of these, I am fully of opinion that he may be induced to appear once more on the public stage of life."
He subscribed for a number of copies of the Federalist, in which Madison, Jay, and Hamilton defended the Constitution. One set he had bound and placed in his library. The others he sent broadcast on their propaganda. Another and more unique addition to Mount Vernon at this time was the good ship Federalist, a present to Washington from the merchants and shipowners of Baltimore. That city celebrated the adoption of the Constitution by Maryland with a procession in which a conspicuous feature was a full-rigged ship, named the Federalist, fifteen feet long, mounted on wheels and drawn by four horses. After the celebration it was launched in the Chesapeake and navigated down the bay by Captain Barney and up the Potomac to Mount Vernon wharf. It remained there an amusing curiosity for nearly two months, when it was torn from its moorings by a high wind and was sunk.
The bitter fight for the Constitution in Virginia was waged for nearly a year. During that time Washing-ton was more active than ever with his correspondence. He saw an increasing number of people and spent himself in persuasion. It was his conviction that the alter-native to the adoption of the Constitution was the total dissolution of the uniting states. Without his influence Virginia would not have ratified, and it is probable that without Virginia the great experiment would not have succeeded. Hence it was with relief and exultation that news came telling of Virginia's ratification on June 25th. Three days later the citizens of Alexandria pre-pared a public dinner as part of the celebration of the event, which the General, Colonel Humphreys, and George Augustine Washington attended from Mount Vernon. Returning home, he noted with neighborly pride, in a letter to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney : "Thus the citizens of Alexandria, when convened, constituted the first public company in America, which had the pleasure of pouring [al libation to the prosperity of the ten States that had actually adopted the general government."
When Congress received the testimonials of ratification it appointed a day for the choice of electors of a President, who, being chosen, unanimously elected George Washington first President of the United States. So little was this unexpected that from the time of the General's return home from the Constitutional Convention requests poured in upon him to accept the office. It was the fixed idea that Washington should be the first executive of the new nation not only in every mind in America at all times, but Europe likewise accepted his choice as inevitable. In answer to LaFayette's letter on this subject, the General wrote him:
"Knowing me as you do, I need only say, that it has no enticing charms and no facinating allurements for me. However, it might not be decent for me to say I would refuse to accept, or even to speak much about an appointment, which may never take place; for, in so doing, one might possibly incur the application of the moral resulting from that fable, in which the fox is represented as inveighing against the sourness of the grapes, because he could. not reach them. All that it will be necessary to add, my dear Marquis, in order to show my decided predelictions is, that, (at my time of life and under my circumstances,) the increasing infirmaties of nature and the growing love of retirement do not permit me to entertain a wish beyond that of living and dying an honest man on my own farm."
Later, as the time drew near for the counting of the electoral votes, there was some delay, and Washington wrote Henry Knox:
"For myself the delay may be compared to a reprieve; for in confidence I tell you, (with the world it would obtain little credit,) that my movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit, who is going to the place of his execution; so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities, and inclination, which are necessary to manage the helm."
Mrs. Washington shared their regret to tear away again from the peace and retirement of their riverside home. "I little thought when the war was finished that any circumstances could possibly happen which would call the general into public life again," she wrote a friend. "I had anticipated that from that moment we should be suffered to grow old together, in solitude and tranquility. When I was much younger I should probably have enjoyed the innocent gayeties of life as much as most persons of my age; but I had long since placed all the prospects of my future worldly happiness in the still enjoyments of the fireside at Mount Vernon."
A notable scene was acted at Mount Vernon on the 14th of April, this year of 1789. Shortly after noon there arrived from New York the Secretary of Congress, Mr. Charles Thompson, who had been appointed to notify Washington of his election to the office of President. He was an old friend of the General's and had been Secretary of Congress for nearly fifteen years. Ile delivered the certificate of election and added a few words of personal address. Washington's reply is pre-served. He said:
"I am so much affected by this fresh proof of my country's esteem and confidence that silence can best express my gratitude. While I realize the arduous nature of the task which is imposed upon me and feel my own inability to perform it, I wish that there may not be reason for regretting the choice; for indeed all I can promise is to accomplish that which can be done by an honest zeal. Upon considering how long time some of the Gentlemen of both Houses of Congress have been at New York, how anxiously desirous they must be to proceed to business, and how deeply the public mind appears to be impressed with the necessity of doing it speedily, I cannot find myself at liberty to delay my journey. I shall therefore be in readiness to set out the day after tomorrow; and shall be happy in the pleasure of your company; for you will permit me to say that it is a peculiar gratification to have received this communication from you."
In anticipation of an early departure he had paid a visit of farewell to his mother at Fredericksburg, when he then saw her for the last time, and in Alexandria borrowed five hundred pounds to discharge his personal debts and another one hundred pounds to defray his expenses to the seat of government at New York City. He set out on his journey Thursday morning, April 16th. "About ten o'clock," he wrote in his diary, "I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity, and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York in company with 1W Thomson and Colo Humphreys, with the best disposition to render service to my country in obedience to its calls, but with less hope of answering its expectations."
When he reached the West Lodge gates he found a mounted escort of neighbors and friends from Alexandria, who accompanied him up to town. They said their mutual farewells at a dinner in his honor, when, suggestive of the number of units of the union, the toasts were thirteen. "Farewell," said the mayor on behalf of his fellow-townsmen: "Go and make a grateful people happy—a people who will be doubly grateful when they contemplate the recent sacrifice for their interests." Washington's emotions could with difficulty be concealed. "Unutterable sensations," said he, in closing his reply, "must then be left to more expressive silence, while from an aching heart I bid you all, my affectionate friends and kind neighbors, fare-well."