George Washington played no small part in the creation of the U.S. Constitution. Today is 225 years since September 17, 1787 when 39 of the original 55 delegates signed the Constitution in preparation for its ratification in 1789.
by Scott L. Vanatter
By example and in deeds, but also in words, George Washington inspired a country and ultimately established a nation.
Washington is known, rightly so, as the indispensable founding father. His public and private character inspired confidence in his fellow Founders. Not as well known today are Washington’s words. Some were quite public – from his widely-published journal as a young officer in the Virginia regiment of the British army of the 1750s, to his 1783 prayer (for the governors, the states, the people and the soldiers) upon his resigning as general, to his grounding First Inaugural (upon taking office as president), to his forward-looking Farewell Address as he gave up power a second time to retire for good to his beloved Mt Vernon.
Other words were conveyed in private counsel and correspondence. These fitly chosen words added a contextual dimension to the almost superhuman confidence his fellows had in him.
FAMOUS AT AGE 21
At the age of 21 George Washington became famous up and down the American Colonies and even in Europe. He wrote a journal of his exploits encountering the French and Indians beginning in late 1853.
As an up-and-coming major in the Virginia regiment, Washington was chosen by Virginia Governor Dinwiddie to make his way through the wilderness to deliver a strongly-worded letter warning the French to cease violating British rule. Washington was to observe French enforcements and make friends with Indian tribes. He arrived and met privately with the French commandant, who refused to back down.
On the way back to Williamsburg, Washington and his entourage encountered bitter cold, deep snow, and freezing rain. During their 78-day expedition they met with a few friendly Indian chiefs. They then disguised themselves in Indian dress, but were ambushed by some French Indians who shot at them point blank. While Washington and his men escaped death, at least one of his companions had all of his fingers and a few his toes frozen in the inclement weather.
The day after arriving in Williamsburg, Washington wrote of his exploits which were then presented the following day to the Virginia Assembly; which immediately raised a regiment of 300 men to defend British rights. Washington’s journal was published as a pamphlet in Williamsburg, then two months later on March 21 and May 28 his account of the 78-day expedition was published in the Maryland Gazette.
Later in 1754 Washington led an expedition to help reinforce and build a fort at present day Pittsburgh. They were ambushed by a French scouting party, and ended up killing the French leader. The French attached the fort, and thus Washington was instrumental in starting the French and Indian War, which spread across North America and Europe. The following year Washington took charge when General Braddock was killed in the Battle of Monongahela.
In all these experiences, not only his actions and accomplishments, but also his words were critical in how he developed into the leader we all know.
What he thought and wrote — many times at the most critical junctures of our nation’s founding — also helped secure the confidence his peers felt for him.
A hundred years after his death, one historian commented that, “His character has been exalted at the expense of his intellect, and his goodness has been so much insisted upon both by admirers and critics that we are in danger of forgetting that he had a great mind as well as high moral worth.”
Fifteen years after Washington died, Jefferson described Washington’s intellect thusly, “His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though, not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder.” Would that we all, with Washington, were just ‘a little lower than’ the three lofty minds cited.
Upon accepting responsibility to win our freedom, Washington, during the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, looked at present circumstances and into the future. He observed that:
“The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army…. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die.” He outlasted and beat British military might.
Upon giving up military power, Washington described in a public prayer, the attitude he hoped a grateful people would adopt, to become a happy Nation.
“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 Geld; 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 the mind, which were the characteristics of the divine Author of our blessed religion ; without an humble imitation of whose example, in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”
(Note that this is his sole public mention of Jesus; he often spoke using a general description of Deity, such as Divine Providence. See especially the phrase, “whose example, in these things”.)
Upon leading Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin strongly encouraged Washington to attend and to preside at the Convention. Franklin wrote to him that he was “persuaded that your Presence will be of the greatest Importance to the Success of the Measure.” (Franklin to Washington, April 3, 1787)
When the convention began Washington presided over but did not publically participate in the debates. “His largest contribution, was not that of his counsel but that of his presence.” Still, during the deliberations he let his desires be known behind the scenes in counsel and in letters to leaders:
“I wish a disposition may be found in Congress, the several States Legislatures, and the community at large to adopt the Government which may be agreed on in Convention; because I am fully persuaded it is the best that can be obtained at the present moment, under such diversity of ideas as prevail.” (Washington to Henry Knox, August 19, 1787)
To his dear friend and aide, Marquis de Lafayette he wrote:
“The plot thickens fast. A few short weeks will determine the political fate of America for the present generation and probably produce no small influence on the happiness of society through a long succession of ages to come. . . . I will confess to you sincerely, my dear Marquis; it will be so much beyond anything we had a right to imagine or expect eighteen months ago, that it will demonstrate as visibly the finger of Providence, as any possible event in the course of human affairs can ever designate it.” (Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, May 28, 1788)
Upon taking the office of president the United States, Washington laid out in his First Inaugural how best we would keep and preserve liberty.
“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
During his service as president, in his fifth Annual Address to Congress, he cautioned the nation and its leaders against having a “reputation of weakness.” In recent years, e.g., such men as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Ambassador Bolton have spoken against what they have termed, “Provocative Weakness.” Candidate Romney has also warned against the Provocation of Weakness. Washington originally warned:
“There is a rank due to the United States among nations, which will be withheld, if not absolutely lost, by the reputation of weakness. If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure the peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.”
This time-tested truism, and one of Washington’s specific recommendations to us, is violated by leaders at their and our peril. In times of trouble, Washington was the first person which other hardy and capable leaders looked to. Yes, he was “first in war” and “first in peace.”
Near the end of his term of service, Washington echoed how he began. This time he focused on educating rising generations not only in general learning – a major support of a free people – but also in the specific area of the “science of government.” His prescient advice in his final State of the Union address to Congress:
“The more homogenous our citizens can be made in these particulars the greater will be our prospect of permanent union; and a primary object of such a national institution should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic what species of knowledge can be equally important and what duty more pressing on its legislature than to patronize a plan for communicating [this science] to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”
Upon leaving office and giving up power yet again, in his timeless Farewell Address Washington warned that the new nation should:
“Avoid likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”
This was and is not new, not even mysterious doctrine. However, it is sage advice too often forgotten since his time, and even in the present circumstance.
Lastly, with respect to the Constitution itself, Washington did not see it as a living document, ungrounded by agreed-upon, written principle. He wisely recommended in his Farewell Address thatL
“If in the opinion of the people the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this in one instance may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”
At times his thoughts were sought out by other wise leaders, privately. At other times he proactively, respectfully — and privately — offered his considered opinion. Behind the scenes his words helped support and confirm the esteem with which he was held by his fellow leaders and countrymen and women who looked to these wise men to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.
In many cases his words conformed to the prevailing wisdom of the keenest of thinkers, and in some key areas were as prescient as any others. What Washington believed was possible, other Founders could find reason to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
A modern historian described how Washington’s example, his actions, and his words combined to form something greater than a great man. “Before there was a nation—Before there was a symbol of this young nation (a flag, a constitution, a national seal) there was Washington. Even when in the course of revolutionary events a flag did appear and a Constitution, they did not have a long tradition behind them. But Washington was there, steadying the symbols, lending strength to them instead of drawing from them.”
Who he was, what he did — and, yes, even what he thought, spoke, and wrote — combined to create in one an almost superhuman idea and ideal in the minds of his fellow Founders. As talented and specialized as the other Founders were, it was the trust they infused into Washington which allowed them to put into effect what was decided after long and careful deliberation. Not only his example, and his stability, but also — at times — his words were critical to our nation’s founding.
With this trust they asked him to win our freedom, chair the purposeful design of a new nation, and to inhabit and embody the office of the first chief executive. As if that was not enough, his eternal epitaph, his shocking behavior in giving up power (twice) can be thought of as the greatest political legacy America has bequeathed to the world — even greater than that of the lofty ideal of true Independence, or the surety and blessings of a written Constitution.