In 1783, George Washington drafts a letter that he asks to be sent to the state legislatures of all the states that made up colonies of the USA. These states were Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island.
Washington wrote as a retiring general and war hero to commend to his fellow citizens the need to examine its government’s existing operational flaws and pursue the kind of improvements that were soon to be found in a newly drafted US Constitution. This letter reminds the reader quite a bit about the character of General Washington. His tone, his attitude and general disposition suggest a humility that quite naturally complemented his leadership skills. He speaks in this letter as one who is prepared to cheerfully leave public service. There is no foreshadowing of any plan to be the first President of the USA; only the admonitions of a leader who hopes to share lessons learned from the time that he’d spent in leadership.
As Washington explains, the old system, which operated under the Articles of Confederation, was all but unworkable. It had relied on maximizing state or colonial authority at the expense of the protection and promotion of the nation as a whole.
In so many ways the document simply failed to consider the essential needs that a charter should have in terms of operational authority. Consider, at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the Treaty of Paris (1783) — which ended the war with Great Britain — was formally submitted to the Confederation Congress and yet no action was taken because state delegates failed to attend sessions of the national legislature. Perhaps the most consequential act of the Confederated Congress couldn’t occur for several months because of the poor design of government charter — The Articles of Confederation.
In his letter Washington tries to remind readers of many of the practical challenges he faced in prosecuting the war and the similar challenges the new nation would have unless the charter were modified.
Washington opens with the good news for his fellow citizens: Now is an amazing time to form a new union and North America is a particularly great place to do it:
Here, they are not only surrounded with every thing which can contribute to the completion of private and domestic enjoyment, but Heaven has crowned all its other blessings, by giving a fairer opportunity for political happiness, than any other Nation has ever been favored with. Nothing can illustrate these observations more forcibly, than a recollection of the happy conjuncture of times and circumstances, under which our Republic assumed its rank among the Nations; The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period;
At this point, Washington explains the political leaders in America have more understanding about fundamental freedoms and liberty than perhaps has existed in any other time. And taking advantage of this opportunity requires a willingness to act to codify rules and a charter that will protect and promote the interests of the nation as a whole, rather than let the nation go asunder as it is riven by divisions and special interest.
….. it is in their choice, and depends upon their conduct, whether they will be respectable and prosperous, or contemptible and miserable as a Nation; This is the time of their political probation, this is the moment when the eyes of the whole World are turned upon them, this is the moment to establish or ruin their national Character forever, this is the favorable moment to give such a tone to our Federal Government, as will enable it to answer the ends of its institution, or this may be the ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the Union, annihilating the cement of the Confederation, and exposing us to become the sport of European politics, which may play one State against another to prevent their growing importance….
And indeed a choice needed to be made. A choice to expand the nation and allow it to prosper or to have it collapse. As amazed as many were — including Washington — with the resounding victory against the British, the young nation wasn’t out of the water. Washington saw in practical ways that the challenges that went unmet during the Revolutionary War were the kinds of things that signaled the country post-war remained in jeopardy.
First and foremost was its military might. Having defeated one of the greatest military powers in existence in the 18th century many Americans might think that the defense of its nation was the one thing the Confederation Congress excelled at. But as Washington points out, nothing could be further from the truth. And he argues that the key to protecting the nation was to insure unity of the states and operational authority of the federal government:
In what part of the Continent shall we find any Man, or body of Men, who would not blush to stand up and propose measures, purposely calculated to rob the Soldier of his Stipend, and the Public Creditor of his due? and were it possible that such a flagrant instance of Injustice could ever happen, would it not excite the general indignation, and tend to bring down, upon the Authors of such measures, the aggravated vengeance of Heaven?
Yet the paralysis of the Articles of Confederation had created just such a situation. Washington notes that the present system had left the government teetering on bankruptcy because the federal government didn’t have the authority to compel states to make payments to support the war or to directly assess the public to get those resources for the citizenry at large. Victory over Britain was something that all Americans could share in, but the cost to pay salaries and pensions for soldiers was something that the present government had failed to ensure that all citizens shared in being responsible for.
Washington urges the nation to go forward with a national government that can meet its commitments, ensure that its contractual obligations are met and can establish its military readiness in a uniform manner. This once again reflects the ideals of a distinguished leader who can rightfully claim to be “considered as the Legacy of One, who has ardently wished, on all occasions, to be useful to his Country, and who, even in the shade of Retirement, will not fail to implore the divine benediction upon it.” Ultimately America would take his advice to heart and the US Constitution would be formally ratified in 1788.
Read the Circular Letter to the States by George Washington here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3764
Horace Cooper is a legal commentator and a fellow at the Center for Political and Constitutional Studies at Frontiers for Freedom
March 28, 2013 – Essay #29