Inventing a Nation Washington, Adams, Jefferson
By Gore Vidal
Yale University Press Copyright © 2003 Gore Vidal
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-300-10171-6
In the fall of 1786 the fifty-four-year-old president of the Potomac Company, George Washington, late commander in chief of the American army (resigned December 23, 1783, after eight years of active duty) was seriously broke. Majestically, he had refused any salary from the revolutionary American government so seldom in useful Congress assembled. But it had always been agreed that should their cause be victorious, Congress would pay the General's expenses, which it did, with some awe at Washington's meticulous bookkeeping and lavish way of life-Congress had to cough up $100,000.
Now the General was retired to his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon. Despite one hundred slaves, Mount Vernon yielded insufficient revenue, while various western lands on the Ohio River were costing the General more than they brought in. Worse, since he was the world's most famous man he was also the most visited at home by both countrymen and wide-eyed Europeans. He was an indulgent host; unfortunately, neither his wealth nor that of his wife, Martha Custis, could pay for so royal a way of life. At one point, he seriously considered retreating north to Niagara; if that did not keep his admirers at bay, he was willing to flee even farther into Canada in order to escape his expensive fame. But a few trips away from Mount Vernon made it clear that there was to be no escape for him anywhere; he was to be famous for life and, probably, for all he knew or suspected, thereafter. Glumly he wrote, "My living under the best economy I can use must unavoidably be expensive." Plainly, Mount Vernon was to be "a well-resorted tavern, [frequented by] any strangers who are going from North to South or from South to North." Yet his crops were sparse. Bad soil. Too little fertilizer. He needed to be, he complained, Midas-like, "one who can convert everything he touches into manure as the first transmutation towards gold."
Reluctantly (apparent reluctance was his style whenever something desirable came his way), Washington had accepted the presidency of a joint Virginia-Maryland company to develop the navigability of the Potomac River-the so-called River of Swans-upon whose bank sat Mount Vernon itself. In early 1785 Washington was offered valuable shares in the company for himself and his heirs. He accepted only with the proviso that he might give whatever dividends that came his way to charities. This letter of stern condition became, as intended, the most highly publicized part of the legislature's official grant. The ongoing, self-nurtured image of Washington as a modest and even selfless hero had made him for sixteen years the iconic-today's overused word-center of the world's stage. When word spread that he had refused the kingship of the newly founded American Union, an astonished King George III noted that if this story was true, "He will be the greatest man in the world." The story was, we are told, true; and so he was. Others felt that he had been tempted but for two things: for George III to be succeeded by George IV (or even I) had a slightly surreal, even retrogressive ring to it: finally, there was no heir, no Prince of Virginia plotting in Tidewater, prey to chiggers.
Before 1789 the thirteen former British colonies were held uneasily together by certain fraying Articles of Confederation. Like the squire of Mount Vernon, most of the States were now broke, and it seemed impossible for the weak Confederation to raise sufficient revenues to pay off the interest and principal of the debt incurred during eight years of war. What to do? On February 28, 1785, a worried Washington wrote the Confederation's secretary for war, Henry Knox, that in the absence of a serious federal government, "we are no more than a rope of sand, and shall as easily be broken." When fellow Southerners warned that a stronger Union would mean New England's "tyranny" over the South, Washington wrote, "If we are afraid to trust one another under qualified powers, there is an end of the Union." The question pending was by whom and to what end were the powers of such a Confederation or Union to be qualified.
Washington knew that something would have to be done more soon than late to strengthen the Articles of Confederation: others agreed. Immediately, there was a division between those eager for a new centralized federal arrangement and those who wanted the States to be only loosely affiliated. The first group became known as Federalists; the second, as supporters of states' rights, were Anti-Federalists, later to be known as Republicans. The first were mostly men who had made their mark in the Revolution; they were young; they tended to be lawyers, a new aristocracy-at least that was how they were regarded in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The Republicans were often rural magnates like Patrick Henry of Virginia. Washington, the embodiment of Federalism, was also first among the rural magnates, while the author of the Declaration of Independence, the former governor of Virginia Thomas Jefferson, was-with his famous pursuit of happiness for all but slaves and other untidy human fractions-a focal point for future Republicanism. Happily for the Federalists, as of 1786 Jefferson was the Union's minister to France and so out of range unlike the thin-skinned Washington who, although above the political battle, nevertheless subscribed to ten newspapers not by any means friendly to the president of the Potomac Company, currently under attack for having spent fifteen guineas for a pair of French pheasants-a terrible unpatriotic waste of money. Actually, the birds were a present from Louis XVI, to be delivered by Washington's old friend and wartime colleague Lafayette. One can imagine a tabloid of today telling its readers, on page six, how fifteen American "peasants" had been bought by President Chirac.
On May 18, 1786, Washington wrote John Jay, "That it is necessary to revise and amend the Articles of Confederation, I entertain no doubt; but what may be the consequences of such an attempt is doubtful yet something must be done, or the fabric must fall, for it certainly is tottering." In September a meeting of representatives from the thirteen States was requested by Virginia to assemble at Annapolis, capital of Maryland. They were instructed to report on "the trade and commerce of the United States" and nothing more. But a New York delegate, the thirty-two-year-old lawyer Alexander Hamilton, arrived with a three-year-old draft of a constitution in his pocket. Unfortunately, and to Washington's dismay, only five state delegations showed up, less than a quorum. Undismayed, Hamilton kept busy. He allied himself with the other brilliant delegate, the thirty-five-year-old James Madison of Virginia. Madison and Hamilton were more or less as one for a strong federal government. But it was Madison who had fought in the Virginia legislature for interstate conventions, and now the one at Annapolis proved to be the key. Washington's anxiety was somewhat mitigated when twelve delegates, headed by Hamilton (Washington's former military aide), had taken it upon themselves to call for a second assembly to meet the second Monday of the following May, 1787, to review and revise the Articles of Confederation.
Meanwhile, the rickety Confederation was appalled when Massachusetts was revolutionized by one Captain Daniel Shays, a revolutionary hero whom Lafayette himself had presented with an expensive sword. But by September of 1786 Shays was obliged to sell the sword. Massachusetts was in a general depression. Worse, its Commonwealth taxes were more onerous than those so recently paid to the faraway King George. When new signs of rebellion in Rhode Island were reported, Madison, the future Republican, was now very much in Federalist mode. He wrote Jefferson in Paris: "Many gentlemen, both within and without Congress, wish to make this meeting subservient to a plenipotentiary Convention for amending the Confederation. Tho' my wishes are in favor of such an event, yet I despair so much of its accomplishment at the present crisis that I do not extend my views beyond a commercial reform."
Meanwhile, Captain Shays, having sold Lafayette's sword to feed his family, took up the terrible swift sword of revolution. With an army of veterans, he prepared to seize the national armory at Springfield. En route, jails were broken into and debtors freed. The rhetoric of the Shaysites was calculated to terrify the merchant class: "That the property of the United States has been protected from confiscation of Britain by the joint exertion of all, and ought to be the common property of all." In this crisis, there were no Federalists, no future Republicans: only frightened men of property. Most, by now, wanted to create a strong new nation where no revolt like that of Daniel Shays could ever again happen and where tranquillity, if not happiness, was the common pursuit.
In February 1787 Washington was officially notified that Congress, in response to the efforts of Hamilton and Madison, had named the second Monday in May for a convention to meet in Philadelphia "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation." This was disingenuous. From the start of the famous Constitutional Convention, the prime movers, Hamilton and Madison, were actively engaged not in revising these (to them) inadequate articles but in replacing them: Washington's rope of sand was to be replaced by a supple chain of bronze.
Finally, New York State joined forces with those of Massachusetts to put down Shays's rebellion, which was now threatening to abolish all debts, divide up property, print paper money, and even reunite with England. "I am mortified beyond expression," Washington wrote "Light Horse" Harry Lee of Revolutionary fame, "when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any country." To the suggestion that his great influence should be invoked, Washington wrote, "In order to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts ... I know not where that influence is to be found and, if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for our disorders.... Influence is no government." Nevertheless, Shays's revolt was defeated by the Massachusetts militia February 2, 1787.
On November 5 Washington made his moves. He wrote to James Madison, now a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, "Without some alteration in our political creed, the superstructure we have been seven years raising at the expense of so much blood and treasure, must fall. We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion." But despite the best efforts of Madison and Hamilton, Congress would agree only to the Annapolis Convention's proposal that there be a meeting of delegates from all the States at Philadelphia in May "to take into consideration the Trade and Commerce of the United States." Hamilton's attempt to extend this narrow mandate was stopped by the Virginians. Madison had been for biding their time until ... Washington's letter, which made all the difference. Madison could now enlist the country's greatest man as favoring, in the Annapolis Convention's phrase, "a general revision of the federal system." Building upon Washington's "some alteration in our political creed," Madison himself was, he wrote, "leaning to the side of hope." For one thing, the Virginia Assembly had voted for "general revision." It had also voted to send seven delegates to Philadelphia, led by General Washington.
Washington was reluctant, as always, to go. This time he had a new sort of excuse. He had been expected to attend the triennial meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati in May at Philadelphia. But due to rheumatism and long-neglected business affairs, he had said that he could not be present. The Society was made up of those officers who had served with him in the Revolution. It had also been founded as a hereditary affair of knightly men. For Jefferson it was too aristocratic by half. Washington agonized to his friends over the hurt feelings of the Cincinnati once they realized that he preferred making a new constitution to further bonding with them. Madison played the General delicately. Perhaps little Jemmy (five-foot-six) already understood that it was necessary for Big George (six-foot-three) to imitate such classical heroes as Cincinnatus himself, who, after winning victories for Rome, gave up his dictatorship and went home to raise cabbages in manly obscurity.
During this time of anguish, trapped between two sets of duty, Washington had a row with his mother, a woman as strong-minded as he. She asked him to send her fifteen guineas. He did so-reluctantly, as it was all the cash that he had on hand: "It is really hard upon me when you have taken everything you wanted from the plantation, by which money could be raised, when I have not received one farthing directly nor indirectly from the place for more than twelve years if ever, and when in that time, I have paid ... (during my absence) two hundred and sixty odd pounds, and by my own account fifty odd pounds out of my own pocket to you, besides (if I am rightly informed) everything that has been raised by the crops on the plantation." Thus the father of his country to its unwitting grandmother.
As Washington-perhaps sensing that the biographer Parson Weems would one day immortalize him as "the boy who could not tell a lie"-continued to fret about what the Cincinnati might think of him if they knew he had chosen to ignore them in order to birth a new nation. By mid-March, he said he would remain home, true to his word to them. Apparently, the rheumatism was indeed so bad that he could not turn over in bed without pain; he also wore one arm in a sling. Pressure to go to the Constitutional Convention came from Madison. From Knox, dire warnings that the convention without him would be as irrelevant as Annapolis. Simultaneously, Washington was worried about what his non-attendance might be attributed to. Antirepublicanism? Promonarchism? Finally, day after day, those ten newspapers reported to him that every state seemed to be sending its most illustrious sons. Yet had he not vowed, upon retirement, to never more "intermeddle in public matters"? How could the people ever again trust him if he ...?
On April 9 he crossed the Rubicon. He would go to the Constitutional Convention even though "under the peculiar circumstances of my case [it] would place me in a more disagreeable situation than any other member would stand in, as I have yielded, however, to what appeared to be the earnest wishes of my friends, I will hope for the best." Not a word about begetting a new exceptional nation where happiness would forever reign. Worse, Mother was seriously ill. He hurried to her home in Fredericksburg. Mother was better. He also visited one of his farms, and investigated a new method of growing potatoes.
Excerpted from Inventing a Nation by Gore Vidal Copyright © 2003 by Gore Vidal. Excerpted by permission.
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