Friday, March 29, 2013 – Essay #30 – Letter to John Jay by George Washington – Guest Essayist: James Legee, Graduate Fellow at the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good, Villanova University

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Five years after the surrender at Yorktown, circumstances were all but calm for the young republic.  George Washington, retired to Mount Vernon, wrote a letter to the second Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation, John Jay, articulating his concerns over the state of events.  Washington began the letter disquieted by the divergent foreign policies the states pursued.  The focus of the letter quickly shifted from foreign policy, to alarm over the failure of the Articles of Confederation to hold the confederation and the need for a more energetic national government.  Washington seemed aware of a growing discontent domestically with the weak confederation produced by the revolution.  He was equally aware of the significance of the success of the American experiment, not only for her citizens, but also for the fate of self-governance in all the world.

Washington’s correspondence with Jay confirmed his fear that the United States was “guilty of violating the treaty [of Paris] in some instances.  What a misfortune it is the British should have so well grounded a pretext for their palpable infractions?”  As of 1786, the British Navy was still the dominant power on the seas.  They pursued mercantilist and protectionist policies limiting the ability of the American States to export raw materials or compete with British manufactured goods.  This was compounded by the inability of the Continental Congress to negotiate a binding treaty with the British.  Instead, each state pursued their own foreign policy with the British, often at the expense of the Confederation as a whole.  States often ignored provisions of the treaty, such as the return of land seized from loyalists.

The weakness of the Articles of Confederation concerned both Jay and Washington.  Washington alluded to “a crisis…beyond the reach of my foresight.”  To intercept this impending crisis, Washington saw the need to empower “…Congress, constituted as that body is, with ample authorities for national purposes…” the failure to do so was the “very climax of popular absurdity and madness.”  There was a need for “a power which will pervade the whole Union in as energetic a manner as the authority of the different state governments extends over the several states.”  Such statements may provide pause for advocates of limited government, particularly given the eight-year crusade led by Washington himself against a monarchical and arbitrary government.  Washington though provided a glimpse here into his theory and vision of representation.  Any harm Congress wrought upon the public would be equally wrought upon themselves.  “Are not their interests inseparably connected with those of their constituents?”  Those elected to Congress are dependent upon the people for their position, their power, and their authority to govern.  Should they abuse the public trust, they would risk “losing their popularity and future election…”

Washington wrote, “We must take human nature as we find it.  Perfection falls not to the share of mortals.” This sentiment, echoed by other founders, acknowledges the imperfection of human nature, the need for a national government capable of bridging “thirteen sovereign, independent, disunited States.” The states had thus far acted independent of the concerns for long-term stability and peace; instead they behaved in a shortsighted manner, and focused on regional interests.  He noted “If you tell the Legislatures they have violated the treaty of peace and invaded the prerogatives of the confederacy they will laugh in your face.”  The nation could not long endure on this path.

Washington understood that stability and consistency in governance and the laws was necessary for prosperity and domestic tranquility.  Without such security “the better kind of people being disgusted with the circumstances will have their minds prepared for any revolution whatever.”  Ever prescient, Shay’s Rebellion began in Massachusetts just days after Washington penned this letter to John Jay. Washington continues the train of thought in the next paragraph, as he noted, “I am told that even respectable characters speak of a monarchical form of government without horror.”  The inability of the Congress to form a cohesive policy for trade, for domestic institutions, stable currency, or to regulate trade between the states was lending itself to instability such that citizens who just waged a just war against an unjust regime contemplated a return to that hated system.

Washington understood a return to monarchy was an obvious refutation of the principle articulated in the Declaration that underpins the American experiment, that “All men are created equal.”  Tied in with this, he understood the central place of America in the role of securing human liberty around the world.  He lamented, “What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious!”  This mantle is again taken up, but by Lincoln, when he describes America is the “last best hope of the earth” to prove that man is capable of self-government and of holding onto his own liberty.  The centrality of the American experiment in proving that we can govern ourselves remains as true a principle today as when Washington and Lincoln were here to defend it.

The letter ends with Washington’s characteristic humility and statesmanship.  He likens America to a ship in a storm that he “assisted in bringing…into port and having been fairly discharged; it is not [Washington’s] business to embark again on a sea of troubles.”  He has left public life and does not believe he has “claims to public attention.”  Yet, this letter to Jay highlights his apprehension over the fate of America.  Washington wrote in the preceding paragraph, “Would to God that wise measures may be taken in time to avert the consequences we have but too much reason to apprehend.”  He would helm those measures as President of the Constitutional Convention and first President of the United States, before finally retiring from public life to enjoy Mount Vernon.

Today we face similar circumstances to those Washington surveyed in 1786.  Widespread economic troubles and insecurity lead even “the better kind of people” to disgust.  Politicians laugh and engage in mockery when they are directed to the Constitution in response to their actions, and expediency dominates public policy.  The nation wrestled with a massive public war debt, as today it faces an unprecedented federal debt.  Washington was wise enough to see the crucial role America plays in proving to the enemies of liberty that man is capable of self-government.  It is up to us, today, to continue that legacy and remedy these ills.

Read the Letter to John Jay by George Washington here: http://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3770

James Legee recently completed his Master of Arts in Political Science at Villanova University, where he was a Graduate 
Fellow at the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good. You can find him on twitter 
@JamesLegee.
7 replies
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    It is indeed up to each of us to continue to educate people about our Nation’s history and how we had better learn these lessons before it’s too late! History is repeating itself. It is up to we the people to take back control of our government, that is hardly recognizable from what it was intended to be. It’s a tough fight, but one we must wage, or we will lose this nation to complete despotism!

    Reply
  2. Ron
    Ron says:

    It’s interesting to note that Washington attempted to retire more than once. Anyone who’s ever been to Mt. Vernon can understand the draw of that place, with its expansive view over the Potomac River and its beautiful grounds and buildings. If it were on the market today, it would certainly be a multimillion dollar property, available for inspection only by invitation. Yet, he continued to care about the country he helped bring into existence by studying and writing and reminding its leaders of its purpose. Then, each time when called to leave his luxurious lifestyle, in what today would be a gated community, to serve his country yet again, and to live a far more Spartan lifestyle than he enjoyed at Mt. Vernon, he left his peaceful and carefree retirement, luxury, and freedom from the criticism of others to serve his nation and its people.

    Today, many of us live relatively luxurious lifestyles and choose to retire from the cares of our nation and our people, having been convinced by our culture that our productive days are complete and that we’re entitled to enjoy the fruits of our previous labors and leave the cares of society and our country to others. Yet, God has told us that we are to bear fruit; He didn’t limit that to a certain number of years. We have much to learn from God and from George Washington about how to live a full and productive life.

    Reply
  3. James Legee
    James Legee says:

    Barb, thanks for your comment.

    Ron, I think you bring up a good point about retiring from civic life. I’d contend- and I’m not disagreeing with you- that it’s not solely about productive days, it is, as you allude to towards the end of your comment, about a lifelong involvement. There is an attitude of retiring from public life into one’s own life. A sort of resignation, and retreat to our own metaphorical Mount Vernon, that has taken hold of a great many people of all ages and political beliefs. This is done without the sort of service seen in Washington’s younger days; it’s an exceeding cynicism and belief that there is nothing to be done, politics will go on, let others handle it. For some, it is simply a disinterest in the affairs of today. To some extent, it is this retirement from civic life that allows politicians to enact legislation or regulation at the expense of the public, without fearing for their position and authority. A prime example would be politicians from both parties drumming up a $16 Trillion national debt (a cost of roughly $53,000 per American.) Thanks.

    Reply
  4. Steve
    Steve says:

    James, Is the full text of this letter available elsewhere on the Constituting America website? I came to your essay through a link, so I might be missing other resources on the website. I believe I’ve found the full text of the letter, which I understand to be GW’s August 15, 1786 letter, here: http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/constitution/1784/jay2.html . I plan on sharing your essay and the full letter elsewhere. I can, of course, simply share the GW Papers link, but if Janine Turner has provided it, I’d like to give her credit for the effort.
    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Ralph Howarth
      Ralph Howarth says:

      I think what is happening in some cases is that people arrive on an essay via a Facebook, or other search engine, deep link and expect the originating document to be there along with the essay. They do not understand that the essay is posted as a companion along as the “Daily Reading” as the “Daily Reading” is so buried WAY long down the navigation bar on the right hand of an essay that they just don’t find it. Perhaps it would be good that the Daily Reading would be linked directly under the essayists introductory heading just above the actual essay body itself? Of course, hopefully folks would go to the home page and catch on to how the 90 in 90 days works; but a lot of deep link “lurkers at large” do not; and when they do “de-lurk” by posting something in the annual blog (which is also missing from the Blog drop-down menu), they move on to something else with little chance of being notified of a response unless they post on Facebook.

      Reply
      • Janine Turner and Cathy Gillespie
        Janine Turner and Cathy Gillespie says:

        Ralph, thank you for your suggestion! We will try posting the link to the Daily Reading at the end of the essay. The top of every Daily Essay feeds onto our homepage, and since the Daily Reading is posted on the front of the homepage, that would be a little duplicative, but hopefully the reader will see the link at the end of the essay, in the event they missed the Daily Reading on the homepage. Please let us know what you think!
        Joyfully,
        Janine and Cathy

        Reply

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