(A speech delivered to the Yadkin River Patriots Chapter of the DAR, Albemarle, North Carolina, on the occasion of Constitution Week, September 15, 2000.)
Madam Regent, Daughters of the American Revolution: I am pleased to be with you again today to present your Constitution Week address.
How do a people survive at peace? That was what our young nation had to learn to do following its astonishing victory at Yorktown.
Much of my remarks today are taken directly from two books: George Washington and the New Nation: (1783-1793) by James Thomas Flexner and Miracle At Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen. I will not attempt to point out which statements come from which book.
You know, as do I, much about George Washington's life - his excursions into the westward wilderness as a young surveyor and emissary of the Virginia governor to the French , his involvement in the French and Indian War, his success as a Virginia Planter, his selection as Commander of the Continental Army and his successful leadership of that Army against the British, his Presidency of what we call the Constitutional Convention, and his two terms as President of the United States of America.
As I'm sure you are much aware of these accomplishments, I choose not dwell so much of them, rather I prefer to speak about the early government, or lack thereof, of our country and George Washington's activities and influence upon our ultimate governmental structure.
Let us begin by considering the government under which the Continental Army fought.
Representatives of the Thirteen Colonies met in 1776 and form a Confederation of sovereign states, steadfastly refusing to establish a Federal government. It was not until five years later that a document was agreed upon with respect to this Confederation. Article III of that document read, "The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other." Yet, if friendship sufficed to hold the nation together during war, in peace that friendship was not enough.
"The Confederation, resting only on good faith, had no power to collect taxes, defend the country, pay its public debt, let along encourage trade and commerce. On that day in 1781 when a messenger brought news of the victory at Yorktown, there was not sufficient hard money in the treasury for the man's expenses; each member paid a dollar from his pocket.
In desperate need, Congress sent out requisitions, 'a timid kind of recommendation from Congress to the States,' Washington called it. Often there was no response; New Jersey and New York were especially recalcitrant. A notice was printed in the New York Packet for October 1, 1781, terse and to the point, twice reprinted: 'The Subscriber has received nothing on account of the quota of the State for the present year. Signed, Alexander Hamilton, Receiver of Continental Taxes.'
"The states which paid were bitter against the states which did not and said so. A Virginian wrote in 1787, 'New Hampshire has not paid a shilling since peace and does not ever mean to pay one to all eternity.'
"The country was by no means blind to the fact that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate and needed mending. Successive presidents of Congress sent letters to the state legislatures, urging them not only to pay their requisitions but to vote additional powers to Congress. State executives asked their local legislatures to recommend that Congressional powers be strengthened. Yet nothing happened; every effort fell through. Among those who began early to work for reform, three names stand out: Washington, Madison, and Hamilton.
On September, 1980, then a young aide-de-camp for General Washington, Alexander Hamilton, wrote to his friend Duane his now famous letter in which he outlines his first clear exposition of the need for a constitutional convention. Within this seventeen page letter, Hamilton wrote, 'It is impossible to govern thirteen sovereign states. A want of power in Congress made the government fit neither for war or for peace. There is but one remedy - to call a convention of all the states. And the sooner the better.'
"For the ensuing seven years Hamilton never stopping driving and pushing for a convention." Washington, Madison, and others supported Hamilton in this connection. Many in each state refused to recognize the need or desirability for a Federal government. Yet they did see the problems before them.
The war debt still hung heavy; states found their credit failing and small hope of betterment. Seven states had resorted to paper money. True, the postwar depression was lifting. But prosperity remained a local matter; money printed by Pennsylvania must be kept in Pennsylvania's own borders. State and section showed themselves jealous, preferring to fight each other over boundaries as yet unsettled and to pass tariff laws against each other. New Jersey had her own customs service; New York was a foreign nation and must be kept from encroachment. States were marvelously ingenious at devising mutual retaliations; nine of them retained their own navies. (Virginia had even ratified the peace treaty separately.)
"Madison saw the picture clearly. 'New Jersey,' he wrote, 'placed between Philadelphia and New York, was likened to a cast tapped at both ends; and North Carolina, between Virginia and South Carolina, to a patient bleeding at both arms.'
"When Virginia passed a law declaring that vessels failing to pay duty in her ports might be seized by any person and prosecuted, 'one half to the use of the informer and the other half to the use of the commonwealth," she was not aiming at Spain or England but at the cargoes of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Massachusetts. 'Most of our political evils,' Madison wrote, "may be traced to our commercial ones."
Now what was George Washington doing during the years following the war? First, he had to disband the Army, and many Officers and Men did not want to go home until they were paid. It was their idea to march upon Congress an obtain their pay at the point of a bayonet. Some wished for Washington to be made King. He refused to consider this idea.
Washington persuaded his officers and men to put down their weapons, to return home and take up their former trades or livelihoods. He himself wished to do the same.
The model he chose for this transition came from Roman tradition, a soldier warrior, Cincinnatus, who did just that. After winning the war, he returned to his home and plough and resumed his life's work. And Washington had much to do at his farm. It had run down during the war and required his utmost attention. Once, when a mill he owned far to the interior, had not paid him a dividend for some time, I inquired of it from its manager. The manager sent him some bills issued by the State of Virginia which by then were nearly worthless due to severe inflation. Washington threw them into a drawer, perhaps never to notice them again. Much later, these bills became a collector's item and are worth many times their face value.
While Washington did not intend to be a public figure, he did carry on extensive correspondence with many friends and formers officers and men, always asked them to come to Mt. Vernon to visit. And visit they did. Mount Vernon is located just seven miles from Alexandria, the chief city in the region, and was on the main road leading towards Fredericksburg and Richmond.
Washington's habit was to arise early, read and do his accounts, then at seven he took his breakfast. Almost every day except Sunday, Washington stepped out the door to where a groom waited with one of his horses. He leapt into the saddle and cantered rapidly down the driveway in anticipation of hours of refreshing exercise and relaxing attention to a flood of continuing practical details. Often he made the circuit of all five farms, a ride of about twenty miles, before he returned in time to dress for a three o'clock dinner.
Washington routinely went to bed early, before the family and guests ate their evening meals. When a guest was present, however, with whom he wished to talk at length, he attended the evening meal and enjoyed all the merriment that accompanied and followed it.
Most of Washington's farmlands were kept at routine tasks of producing food. They grew primarily corn and wheat. Washington did not return to Virginia's traditional tobacco economy, which he had abandoned before the Revolution as uneconomical. When fish ran the Potomac, they manned the seines; some of the catch was dried for year-round food, some sold, fifteen shillings a hundred for shad and four shillings a thousand for herring in 1785. They tended the stock, which Washington listed in that same year as one hundred and thirty-six cattle including six bulls and twenty-six draught oxen; two hundred and eighty-three sheep. The hogs, he noted, could not be counted since they ran wild in the woods, but they were enough to send eight tons of pork to the smokehouses.
Improvement in agriculture, it is said, was Washington's passion. Every day, he engaged in experimentation, seeking to find new or more abundant crops that would grow in Virginia soil Also he introduced new decorative plants and established "botanical gardens" at Mount Vernon and at some of his other farms.
Washington also wished to improve Virginia's mules by putting to American mares some of Spain's sensational jackasses. Washington was particularly interested in mules, as they could eat and digest certain forage plentiful to the region that was unsuitable for a horse's digestive system.
Now Spain had a law against exporting these jackasses, but the Spanish King sent Washington a pair of them as a present. Lafayette, who had been working abroad on the mule enterprise, procured from Malta what Washington called "the most valuable things you could have sent me," a jack and a jenny.
The first to arrive were the two jacks from Spain. They arrived at Boston, and Washington sent one of his men there to retrieve them. Initial attempts to mate these Spanish jacks to American mares proved futile. The jacks seem to have no interest in the enterprise. Washington was discouraged, returning to the age old practice of mating stallions to mares. He and his men even speculated that the King of Spain might have played a prank on him by sending jacks that were "gay."
By the time the pair from Malta arrived for the subsequent breeding season, Washington had devised a new idea for the enterprise. He placed a jenny nearby to enhance the jack's enthusiasm for the affair, then, at the moment of truth, exchanged a mare for the jenny. Washington's idea worked, and he obtained the result he sought.
Washington's property holdings extended deep into the wilderness, and he was keenly aware that transportation to market was essential for the effective development of that land. In those days, this meant canals. He had special interest in the construction of two canals - one near the Virginia/North Carolina coast, the other running up the Potomac into Maryland and what's now West Virginia. For the latter he was influential in the establishment of a stock company to finance and own the Potomac canal. Difficulties ensued, labor was hard to locate, subscription money was not paid and he realized there was no legal mechanism to collect the money. That venture faltered.
Now how did that Confederation of thirteen sovereign states transform itself into a Federal government? Clearly, it was not easy.
The first crucial event was a convention held in March 1785 in Alexandria to settle what's sometimes called the "Oyster War." Virginia and Maryland appointed commissioners to attend a conference at Alexandria concerning navigation and fishing rights for their states. The Virginia delegates had not been empowered to discuss navigation in the Chesapeake, but Maryland refused to proceed unless Virginia agreed not to charge tolls at the mouth of that inland sea, and the Virginians finally exceeded their instructions by giving assent. During the eight day conference at Alexandria and Mount Vernon, where it moved itself, agreement was reached on the complicated matters, such as the apportioning of fishing rights involved in the common use of the waters. A most important outcome of that conference was that Virginia and Maryland agreed to meet annually "for keeping up harmony in the commercial relations between the two states."
While ratifying the agreement, the Maryland legislature decided to invite Delaware and Pennsylvania to the annual conferences. Virginia thereupon proposed a conference of all the states "to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to the common interest and their permanent harmony."
This call led to the Annapolis Convention, which, in turn, sent out the call that led to the Constitutional Convention. Thus, the historic sequence which dredged up the eventual solution to the question of one or thirteen seemed (in Madison's words) "naturally to grow out of the Mount Vernon Conference."
The 1787 conference in Philadelphia was billed as one to suggest changes to the Articles of Confederation, not to write a Constitution. Had it been billed as the latter, historians doubt it would have ever been held.
Washington was elected as a delegate from Virginia. He and Benjamin Franklin were by far the most respected among the delegates. The conference unanimously elected Washington as its president. Washington served in that capacity during the entire four month of deliberation; however, he often turned over the presiding officer's position to one or another delegate. Washington was a quiet force, not speaking to a single issue during the entire conference. Yet, he met with delegates outside of the chambers, and, no doubt, they all knew what Washington's preference was on the many issues.
One of the important rules of that conference was that there would be no discussion "on-the-street" of any details being considered. Amazingly, that rule prevailed. There was none.
Once, Washington found a document carelessly left in open view of non-delegates. At the next session, he scolded the delegates for this and said he would leave the papers on his desk at the end of the day, would the one who owned them please come retrieve them then. No one ever claimed ownership. Apparently, carelessness was avoided in future.
As we know, our Constitution was written at that Convention. The long, hard struggle for ratification followed; eventually the Congress and various States passed it.
Now our country needed an Executive, a President. Once again they turned to George Washington. He accepted, appointed competent, even brilliant, cabinet members, and established by example a Federal government that could stand the test of time.