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George Washington and the Rule of Law

George Washington and the other Founders believed that all human beings possess natural rights. They believed the legitimate purpose of government is to protect the rights of individuals. The challenge of human government is that the government must be able to control the governed, but at the same time it must be obliged to control itself. In order to ensure that government protects, but does not threaten, individual rights, government must be limited by a constitution, or written law. Respect for the rule of law by both the government and the citizens is necessary to maintain the delicate balance between the government’s power and the people’s liberty. As private citizen, Commander in Chief, and President of the United States, Washington repeatedly demonstrated his respect for the principle of the rule of law.

George Washington’s commitment to the rule of law can be seen in several ways:
  1. Washington as Commander in Chief
  2. Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion
  3. Washington relinquishes power

1. Washington as Commander in Chief

Throughout the American Revolutionary War, Washington’s army faced severe supply shortages. Under the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress had no power to tax and instead had to rely on support from the thirteen states. As a result, there was seldom enough money to meet the needs of the army. For example, Washington and his men suffered terribly during the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. They lacked adequate food, clothing, and shelter. Many men deserted the army, and over 2500 died from cold, hunger, and disease – more than had been killed in all the fighting to that point. The Congress had denied Washington’s request for the money required to supply the army at Valley Forge. Instead, they instructed Washington to do what armies typically did in the past: take what was needed from the people in the countryside. This in fact is what the British were already doing. Members of Congress became angry when Washington refused to follow their instructions. Not only did Washington refuse to supply the army through force, he told his men that they would be punished if they were caught stealing food or other supplies. Washington knew for practical reasons that he could not afford to lose public support by stealing from the people. He also believed that if the new nation were to be based upon justice and the rule of the law, he and his army must set the example for others to follow.

After the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781, Washington’s commitment to the rule of law would face a major test. With the end of the war near, the thirteen states became less willing to provide the Congress with money for the army and other national needs. As a result, years of unpaid salaries to Washington’s men were still not paid. On May 22, 1782, one of Washington’s officers, Colonel Lewis Nicola wrote to him that the ineffectiveness of the Congress during the war had demonstrated the inadequacy of republican government. Nicola proposed that Washington become King of the United States.

George Washington replied to Nicola the same day, stating that he had read Nicola’s letter “with a mixture of great surprise and astonishment.” Washington continued: “no occurrence in the course of the War, has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed, and I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severity.” Washington wrote that he could not think of anything in his own conduct that would suggest that he would consider being king. “You could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.”

Washington wrote that he would work to see the army receive justice but only through lawful, constitutional means: “No Man possesses a more sincere wish to see ample justice done to the Army than I do, and as far as my powers and influence, in a constitutional way extend, they shall be employed to the utmost of my abilities to effect it, should there be any occasion.” Washington concluded by asking Nicola never again to consider the idea of monarchy: “If you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like Nature.”

It was not unusual that Nicola would prefer a king to self-government, especially considering the ineffectiveness of the Continental Congress during the war. Furthermore, throughout history, monarchies were much more common and successful than self-governing republics. What was unusual was Washington’s response. Not only did he refuse to be king, but he rebuked Nicola for even suggesting the idea. Washington’s harsh words resulted in three apologies by Nicola over the next three days.

Later that year, there was an unsuccessful attempt to amend the Articles of Confederation in order to allow Congress to levy its own taxes rather than having to ask the states for money. As a result, the Congress was still unable to pay its debts including the money owed to the army. Talk began in Washington’s army of leaving the country to defend itself or of taking up arms against the civil authorities. In March 1783, Washington learned from his headquarters in Newburgh, New York that his officers had planned a meeting to discuss their grievances against the Congress. Washington condemned and canceled the meeting, then scheduled his own meeting for Saturday, March 15.

Washington’s speech to his officers at Newburgh would be one of the most important events in American history. He began by attributing the discontent “more to feelings and passions than to reason and judgment.” He expressed his own concern for the army and promised to work with the Congress to see justice done. He urged his officers “not to take any measures, which viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained.” He told them to reject anyone who sought “ to overturn the liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in Blood.” In his dramatic speech, Washington defended the principle of the rule of law, and prevented the army from either abandoning or tyrannizing the nation.

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