Guest Essayist: Geordan Kushner, Fellow at the Mathew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good, Villanova University

George Washington’s letter transmitting the Constitution to Congress marked a milestone achievement in the founding of the modern United States. George Washington, the President of the Second Continental Congress, sent his letter on September 17, 1787 after four months of having been locked in a crucible of sweltering summer heat, clashing political interests, grueling debate, tenacious deadlock, and demanding compromise. Even though a majority of the convention’s delegates agreed to and drafted a new Constitution, it was well known that the real battle was soon to be realized. The battle to come would be the struggle to ratify the Constitution in at least nine states, which was the minimum number required in order for it to have the force of law. Many at the time knew that this was going to be a tremendous hurdle to surmount, and you would be hard pressed to find a person who comprehended the current state of affairs better than General George Washington. He astutely realized that there was going to be much opposition against the ratification of the Constitution because it significantly reduced the authority and sovereignty of the various States. It was this obstacle, which fueled Washington’s motivation for writing a letter of transmittal to ensure that the Constitution was ratified, and the American experiment in self-government would be perpetuated into the future.

George Washington begins his letter of transmittal by stating that there had long been a desire that “the powers of making war, peace and treaties, that of levying money and regulating commerce, and the correspondent executive and judicial authorities should be fully and effectually vested in the general government of the Union.” This statement by Washington clearly refers to the principle problems plaguing the United States under the Articles of Confederation. The government under the Articles of Confederation primarily failed because of the subordinate position and lack of authority the central government held in the political system. Most of this was by design because of the fear many people had of falling back under another tyranny, similar to what had been experienced under British rule. However, fashioning a central government that was so devoid of any power would prove disastrous. As a result, economic hardship and internal insurrection were rampant under the Articles of Confederation. It did not take a long time for it to become clear that a strong central authority was needed to demand uniformity and cooperation. However, George Washington points out that delegating such authority could produce its own evident problems. Thus, Washington states, “results the necessity of a different organization.”

Washington continues in his letter by mentioning the principle difficulties that had to be faced at the Convention in order to correct the flaws and shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation. There were many problems and issues that needed to be addressed, but in general they were all more or less about the diminution of State sovereignty. George Washington asserts that it is impossible for a federal government of the States to ensure the rights of state sovereignty, while at the same time provide for the general interest and welfare of the whole. Washington alludes, by way of analogy, that it is necessary for the States to relinquish some of their sovereignty in the interest of ensuring and preserving the general prosperity of the Union. Just how much authority to be relinquished is very difficult to define according to Washington, but it is dependent upon the end goal to be achieved. Not only was this the problem faced in the Convention, but also Washington states that there was the added difficulty of difference among the States regarding their own interests, and situations.

Washington closes his letter to Congress by stating that in all of the discussions at the Convention (on the subjects previously mentioned), they (the delegates) ensured that they never lost sight of their mission to consolidate the Union.  The Founders at the Constitutional Convention knew that the mission they were charged to carry out was of the upmost importance because their success or failure would dictate whether or not a country founded by “We the People” would be able to endure into the ages. Washington mentions that it was this imperative that informed each state delegation’s decisions, and thus they were “less ridged” on those matters of lesser importance. Thus the Constitution that is being proposed “is the result of a spirit of amity.” It is at the end of Washington’s letter that his real motivation and intention becomes apparent. Washington states that of course this new Constitution is not going to satisfy all of the needs, desires, and interests of each individual state. However, even though no state is going to be completely satisfied and that it (the Constitution) will not be agreeable in every which way, it is Washington’s and the Convention’s belief that this new Constitution will promote the welfare, freedom and happiness of the United States. It is quite clear that Washington’s purpose and motivation for this letter to Congress was to alleviate the apprehension and trepidation regarding the new Constitution, and that in ratifying the Constitution the “great experiment in self-government” will continue.

Read George Washington’s Letter Transmitting the Constitution Here:

Geordan Kushner is a Graduate Fellow at the Mathew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good, Villanova University, and recent graduate student of Political Science at Villanova University.

April 4, 2013 – Essay #34 





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