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Constitutional Convention

Constitutional Convention 1787

Before resigning his military commission in November 1783, Washington wrote his final Circular Letter to the States. In it he expressed the view that with the conclusion of the war, America was entering a period of "political probation," in which events would determine if the nation would become "respectable and prosperous" or "contemptible and miserable." He then listed four developments essential for national success: formation of an "indissoluble union under one federal head," demonstration of a "sacred regard to public justice," adoption of a "proper peace establishment," and cultivation of a public character able to see past local interests to a general good. The first was most pressing, in that it was a prerequisite to the others.

The need for a strong union became increasingly evident in subsequent years, as some states negotiated separate treaties with potential enemies and others unjustly canceled debts by printing worthless paper money. In September 1786, delegates from five states meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, called for a convention of all states the following year, with the goal of amending the Articles of Confederation to meet "the exigencies of the Union." That Autumn a mob uprising in western Massachusetts, known as Shays' Rebellion, targeted courts of law in reaction to farm foreclosures. The specter of a larger-scale assault on democratic institutions that the existing national government would be powerless to oppose made a significant impression on Washington and others.

When the Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia in May 1787, Washington was elected convention president by a unanimous vote, just as he had been unanimously chosen to lead the Continental Army twelve years before. Determining that it would make a new constitution rather than amend the old, the Convention drew on the writings of political theorists like Montesquieu and the historical insights of delegates like Madison in constructing a government that would be most likely to operate effectively, but least likely to become tyrannical. Presiding impartially over the Convention, Washington took no active part in its debates, nor in the subsequent ratification debates in the several states. But it is a mark of the power of Washington's character, and of the depth of his countrymen's recognition of his moral stature, that despite this official silence he played a critical role throughout. For instance, a key provision of the new Constitution-the adoption of a single executive as one of the three branches of government-was highly controversial due to the delegates' antipathy to anything resembling monarchy. It was the widely held assumption that Washington would become the first occupant of this executive office that carried the day on this point. And although Washington was not active in the ratification debates, his approval of the Constitution was well known, and did much to mollify popular concerns.

James Monroe wrote to Jefferson after ratification, "Be assured, [Washington's] influence carried this government." Thus in the creation of the longest-lived and most widely-copied constitution in human history, as in the winning of American independence previously, we see the impossibility of separating the character of Washington from the early nation's accomplishments.