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.
March 29, 2013 – Essay #30
Read the Letter to John Jay by George Washington here: https://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.