George Washington’s elegant and courteous letter to James Madison illustrates what America’s most eminent man thought about the existing government, or more properly, the need for reform of the system just prior to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (as well as providing sage counsel about moderation in dealing with civil unrest and integrity in foreign relations, among other matters).
For Washington, the need for reform centered in the “inadequacy of the powers under which [the Confederation Congress] acts.”
The Articles of Confederation provided to the national government, embodied exclusively in a unicameral legislature, specific powers to Make war and peace, appoint ambassadors, enter treaties and alliances, coin money, govern Indian affairs, and run a post office. Congress, however, had no powers in relationship to taxation or foreign and domestic commerce and the Articles provided for no executive or judiciary. Added to this was the practical reality that the states commonly refused to cooperate and seemed to scoff at requests from Congress. The Articles had no supremacy clause so Congress could not compel the States to contribute money to national projects leading to an underfunded military. The lack of any ability to regulate commerce, it was feared at the time, was hampering prosperity as the States squabbled with one another over trade. Its critics pointed to an empty treasury and a national government unable to defend its frontiers.
What some considered the fatal flaw of the Confederation system was that it allowed for no significant change in response to problems, at least as a practical matter, because it required the vote of nine state delegations for simple legislation and unanimity for amending the Articles.
In his letter, Washington expressed his opinion that “a thorough reform of the present system is indispensable” to provide the national government with “more powers, and more decision” than was “found in the existing form.” The specific need, he felt, was for the national government to have “the means of coercion in the Sovereign” to enforce obedience to the Ordinances of a General Government.” Without this, “Laws or Ordinances” would be “unobserved, or partially attended to,” a situation he thought inferior to the laws never having been made since unobserved laws are “a mere nihil” and laws only partly enforced are “productive of much jealousy and discontent.”
Thus, Washington welcomed the prospect of a convention in Philadelphia to propose reforms since he thought it the “only Constitutional mode by which the defects [in the Confederation system] can be remedied.” His ideal was “that the Convention may adopt no temporizing expedient, but probe the defects of the Constitution to the bottom, and provide radical cures.”
The letter provides a hint as to the type of government that Washington felt should result from the convention’s revisions when he hoped that “Congress will upon all proper occasions exercise the power with a firm and steady hand, instead of frittering them back to the Individual States.” This suggests that he felt a new national government would have ends to pursue and that when it was pursuing these (“proper occasions”), it would do so firmly without delegating appropriately national authority to the states. A later passage in the letter suggests that he felt trade matters could be handled by this new government. His experience as Commander in Chief of the continental army during the War for Independence probably also would have inclined him to view favorably national uniformity in military and foreign relations matters.
Finally, the letter is interesting in its specific disavowal of any reintroduction of monarchy in the United States which he recognized was inconsistent with “the public mind.”
George Washington, it is clear, was a true statesman and his motives in favoring the convention that eventually resulted in the Constitution was yet another example of his statesmanship and wisdom.
Read the Letter to James Madison by George Washington here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3821
William C. Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation (www.marriagelawfoundation.org). He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.
April 1, 2013 – Essay #31