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George Washington and the new Constitution



Young George Washington had a problem.  He had inherited 10 slaves to feed and raise tobacco, and a mother who never thought he accounted for enough to be sufficient.  He was 11 years old, and his father had just died.  And he only had a 6th grade education when he quit school to support his family on the interior lands his father had left him.

            All George wanted was to be someone.  Someone like his half-brother, Lawrence, 14 years older and builder of Mt. Vernon.  He wanted to be a British officer just like his brother.  It would never happen, although he tried often.

            Washington’s youth and lack of judgment started the French and Indian War.  His lack of military experience resulted in his surrender of Fort Necessity.  He later tried to be hired by British General Braddock  but that wouldn’t happen.  He signed on as a volunteer and rode into a battle on a pillow with a sick bottom.  He arrived just in time to orchestrate an orderly retreat from that General’s infamous defeat.  That was one of Washington’s greatest talents.  Retreating.  Order within chaos.  That talent would later win him a Revolution.

            When the British returned, he had become a Colonel in the Virginia Colonial Militia and marched with British General Forbes to the Forks of the Ohio.  He was then central to one of the most infamous “friendly fire” battles that you never hear of.  Some think it was a miracle that he wasn’t killed, riding between the lines of American soldiers firing on each other, while waving his sword to get them to stop.

            Is this who you would want to be the Commander in Chief of your armies?  At this, his younger age, he seemed to exhibit several unfortunate personal characteristics.  Vain perhaps, somewhat arrogant, sure of himself and prone to anger. He was not glib, however, and that was, perhaps, a benefit, as he was surrounded by other more arrogant, trained minds about to form a new nation.

             But he was tall and handsome and looked serious when he listened.  And so he did, and started learning. That trait made him the greatest American in our almost 250-year history. Not because he won the war.  He avoided decisive battles, retreating until others, with more tactical experience, won the Battle of Saratoga and the French joined in at Appomattox along with their Navy.

              No, I think he is the greatest American in history because only a man of his maturing judgment could have convinced the nation to discard the Articles of Confederation and adopt the centralized Federal structure of our Constitution to replace it.  It was one of the greatest “Bait and Switch” campaigns in history.  Clearly the second great American Revolution.  And Washington was again its leader!

            So, Washington then did the unbelievable.  He convinced the people of our new nation to trust him even further.  They could make Amendments later, he said.  Just adopt the new Constitution first, and everything would just work out.

            Would you have accepted such nonsense?  This was surely not the way to do business.  Yet Washington was the only man that all the people trusted.  So, they did, and we have a constitution with 10 of the 12 immediately tendered Amendments immediately then adopted!

            George Washington was the unanimous choice for our first President.  And he was aware that everything he did would become precedent.  And so it was so, because not everything could be specifically written into the document.

            What drove George Washington and the soon-to-be patriots to come together in the first place?  Into their “League of Friendship?”  After two Continental Congresses, they agreed, on November 15, 1777, to approve “Articles of Confederation” creating a “Confederacy” to be called “The United States of America.”  That document explicitly stated that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

            It took more than 3 years for the Confederation to come into effect, and only after ratification by Maryland on March 1, 1781, and after the Revolution had already started.  The “States” were able to prosecute the war, but the “Confederation” proved unable to govern later.

            A quick timeline of refreshingly relative events:

  1. French Jumonville killed by Washington/ Ft. Necessity surrendered –            1754
  2. Braddock’s Defeat –            1755
  3. Treaty of Paris ending the French & Indian War –            1763
  4. British Sugar Act (based on Molasses Act of 1733) –            1764
  5. British Stamp Act (after Pontiacs War 1763-64) –            1765
  6. British Quartering Act –            1765
  7. British Suspending Act –            1767
  8. British Townshend Acts –            1767-                                                                                                                                              1768
  9. “Sons of Liberty,” “No Taxation Without Representation,” “Boycotts” –            1768
  10. British send troops into Boston –            1769
  11. Boston Massacre –            1770
  12. Boston Tea Party –            1773
  13. British Coercive Acts (Intolerable Acts) –            1774
  14. First Continental Congress –             1775
  15. Battles of Lexington and Concord –             1775
  16. Second Continental Congress –            1775
  17. Siege of Boston and Bunker Hill –                                    1775-                                                                                                                                                  1776
  18. Declaration of Independence –             1776
  19. Passage of the “Articles of Confederation” –            1777
  20. Ratification of the “Articles of Confederation” –            1781
  21. Cornwallis surrender at Yorktown –            1781
  22. Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution –            1783
  23. Spain closes the Mississippi River to Americans –            1784
  24. Conspirator General James Wilkinson’s first trip to Spanish New Orleans -1787
  25. Constitutional Convention, approves new “Constitution” –            1787
  26. Massachusetts compromise for a “Bill of Rights” –             1788
  27. New Hampshire becomes ninth state to ratify Constitution –            1788
  28. Congress presents 12 Amendments (“Bill of Rights”) -1789
  29. George Washington’s first Presidency –                                                             1789
  30. Bill of Rights (Amendments 3-12) Ratified –                                                 1792

            So, if the states had their “Confederation” and “Articles” by which to run it, why did they need a new “Constitution?”  The articles seemed to work well enough in war [not so for the later Confederate States of America].  And each state retained their control.

            The “Articles of Confederation” were a failure at running a country.  Nothing could be done but by the action of all of the states, each with one vote, sitting together as their own legislative body.  No Executive to prod and lead them.  No independent Judiciary to resolve disputes between them.  Just 13 angry men.  No matter how many they sent [women didn’t count, and certainly not slaves nor Indians].  The states just wanted to stew in their own brew, in a kettle defined by their own borders.

            So, when a small tax was proposed to pay off the war debt, it failed to be ratified by the entire Confederation.  When the Spanish closed the Mississippi to those making a living in Tennessee and Kentucky, the Confederation could do nothing to prevent it.  Only several hundred men were left in the Army, and no money was available to pay for more military.

            But it was an immediate, intentional, domestic rebellion that caused the greatest fear amongst the Confederation members.  And the people of this new nation were now quite self-sufficient when it came to redressing their grievances through rebellion.

            Daniel Shays, a former Revolutionary soldier turned farmer in Massachusetts, became one of the rebellion’s leaders reacting violently to the lack of credit, high taxes, and property foreclosures.  The Governor of Massachusetts had to hire a privately funded Army to disperse the insurgency.  Something was wrong with a government that couldn’t address such domestic  violence with muscular Federal authority.

            That was enough to lure George Washington out of retirement to attend a separate meeting where the “Articles of Confederation” could be “corrected and enlarged.”

            But that was not the real intent of the majority sent.  They wanted nothing less than the overthrow of the government, replacing the Confederation with a wholly new Federal Government.  A coup d’état.  A bloodless one agreed upon.

            This was the second great Revolution in our great American Nation.  And those in attendance knew their actions would not necessarily be popular.  So, the first order of business was to receive the stamp of approval by electing the “Great Listener,” General George Washington, to preside over the meetings and give them legitimacy.  Then they closed all the doors and windows, shutting out all listeners and observers.  They swore themselves to secrecy.  Revolutions are tricky.

            So who pulled it off, this incredible change in political direction?  George Washington?  Incredibly, he had given up the reins of power and retired to his plantation.  He had to be convinced to even attend.  And there would be risk to a reputation that he mightily cherished.  He had become “Someone.”  Someone with more duties, it appeared, so he attended and was chosen to preside sitting in the “Sun Chair” about which Benjamin Franklin fretted.  But Washington only entered into debate once, and that was at the end of the proceeding.

            Thomas Jefferson, then?  Nope.  He was in Paris, Ambassador to France.  John Adams?  Nope again.  Same reason, Ambassador to England.

            Alexander Hamilton was there and knew what was happening.  Knew that the system wasn’t functioning and needed fixing.  He would ultimately be the one to affect the success of its transition.  He was a true “Federalist” and sought greater power in the Office of an Executive.  But he wasn’t a driver of these details.

            Washington also wanted an agreement with a strong Executive to run the country.  And he wanted one with greater power than was created.  But the Office of the Presidency has seemed to expand in importance in the years following his taking.  And that was what those men doing the thinking were afraid of.  Power, and its corrosive effect on the character of people.

            The founders were astonishingly aware of their own failures as humans.  But they didn’t want anyone else to tell them what to do, what to believe, how to dress, and who to pay taxes to.  No King, no Emperor, no Czar, no General, although they were willing to make an exception for Washington, who has always been our American exception.  But most of all, they were also afraid of the people and their demi-god leaders.  Remember Daniel Shays?

            Washington demonstrated the new power of the Presidency immediately after being sworn in as the nation’s first President.  As Commander-in-Chief, he personally led a federal army to put down the “Whiskey Rebellion” in Pennsylvania.  Then to avoid another war with Great Britain, he approved the controversial “Jay Treaty.”  And to the great consternation of the “Anti-Federalists,” he signed into law a bill establishing the “National Bank.”

            As a result, by Washington’s second term as President, political parties began to form around the Federalists, led by Adams and Hamilton, and the Democratic Republicans represented by Jefferson and Madison.  That development was one of Washington’s greatest disappointments.

            The ten months of debate in creating the Constitution had been exhausting.  Most of the time was spent haggling over the Legislative Branch described in Article 1.  Its text is twice as long as that relating to the President in Article 2.  And the text of Article 3, dealing with the Judiciary, is only half as long as that for the President.

            Clearly, the delegates were getting tired.  After hammering out the Connecticut compromise for the Presidency and the compromise dealing with slavery, the body relied more on committees.  The “Committee of Eleven,” the “Committee on Detail,” the “Committee on Postponed Matters.”

            A Bill of Rights was proposed by the Virginia delegate, George Mason, but was unanimously ignored as irrelevant.  Not necessary, most thought.  Each state already had such protections and liked its own version.  So, when the “small states” succeeded in obtaining “equal representation” in the Senate, the Constitution was in a form for final voting.  Benjamin Franklin’s closing statements are worthy of repeating.

                        “I confess there are several parts of this Constitution which I do

                        not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve

                        them … [the] older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment,

                        and pay more respect to the judgment of others.”

Franklin believed it was reasonable for one to “doubt a little of his own infallibility.”

            Perhaps Franklin was putting his great faith in George Washington, whom he assumed would be elected our first President.  Franklin thought that, “there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered.”

            After the unanimous approval of the final language for the Constitution, Franklin remarked about the carving of the “Sun” on the chair that Washington sat upon.  “I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.”

            And so, it remains today, with George Washington having shown us the way.  But along that way an interesting thing happened to the Bill of Rights.  As originally adopted, it didn’t apply to the states, only the Federal government. It was only after the Civil War and the 14th Amendment did the Supreme Court determine what was intended by that Amendment.

            So, the losing States lost more than just slavery.  They lost their power to violate the now Federal Bill of Rights!



About Author

Ronald R. Van Stockum, Jr. is a lawyer, teacher, biologist, writer, guitarist, and recently an actor living on his family's old farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He has a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Santa Clara University, and a Masters and PhD. in Biology from the University of Louisville. He also has his Juris Doctorate in Law from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. He practices law from offices in Shelbyville, Kentucky concentrating his legal practice in environmental law. His biologic research is in historical phytogeography. Dr. Van Stockum, Jr. has published numerous books, articles, and short stories in the areas of law, science, and creative writing. most of his 24 titles are available on this site and Amazon with many on Kindle and Audible!

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