In 1789, as George Washington became the first president of the United States, the world was all but certain that the American experiment in liberty and representative government would founder. More than a few Americans feared that the world was right. In Washington’s Circle, we see how Washington and his trusted advisers, close friends, and devoted family defied the doomsayers to lay the foundation for an enduring constitutional republic. This is a fresh look at an aloof man whose service in the Revolutionary War had already earned him the acclaim of fellow citizens. Washington was easy to revere, if difficult to know.
David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler reveal Washington’s character through his relationship with his inner circle, showing how this unlikely group created the office of the presidency. Here is a story of cooperation, confrontation, triumph, and disappointment, as the president, Congress, and the courts sorted out the limits of executive power, quarreled over funding the government, coped with domestic strife, and faced a world at war while trying to keep their country at peace.
Even more, it is a story of remarkable people striving for extraordinary achievements. Many of these characters are familiar as historic icons, but in these pages they act and speak as living individuals: the often irked and frequently irksome John Adams, in the vice presidency; the mercurial Alexander Hamilton, leading the Treasury Department; the brilliant, deceptively cunning Thomas Jefferson, as secretary of state; James Madison, who was Washington’s advocate—and his eyes and ears—in Congress; and Washington’s old friend and former brother-in-arms Henry Knox, at the administration’s beleaguered War Department. Their stories mingle with those of Edmund Randolph, John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, and the others who stood with a self-educated Virginia farmer to forge the presidency into an institution protective of its privileges but respectful of congressional prerogatives.
Written with energy, wit, and an eye for vivid detail, Washington’s Circle is the fascinating account of the people who met the most formidable challenges of the government’s earliest hours with pluck, ability, and enviable resourcefulness. When the world said they would fail, they rolled up their sleeves. This is their story.
Praise for Washington’s Circle
“A fine, readable history of the first presidency . . . [David and Jeanne Heidler] provide not only a lively history but a group portrait of Washington and the various figures vying to influence him.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Washington’s Circle positively glows with narrative exuberance. This is a book that will make even the most jaded student of the American Revolution bark little laughs of pure delight while reading.”—Open Letters Monthly
“Traditional accounts portray Washington as a solitary actor in the drama of American nationhood, as chilly and featureless as the marble shaft that dominates his namesake capitol. In fact, he was the intensely human lead in one of history’s most colorful, and contentious, ensembles. David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler bring the whole cast to unforgettable life in this character study–cum–group portrait–cum–old-fashioned page-turner.”—Richard Norton Smith, author of On His Own Terms
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“A Citizen of So Much Consequence”
he presidency had “no enticing charms, and no fascinating allurements” for George Washington.1 By 1789 and in his fifty-seventh year, he had become proof of the Talmudic story of how a man comes into the world with his fists clenched wanting everything but leaves it with his hands open desiring nothing. For years ambition had been Washington’s master, driving him as a youth to seek glory for the fame and approval that came with it. Age hammered most of that out of him, but even on the eve of the Revolution, a residue of the deep-rooted impulse remained. He had worn his old Virginia militia uniform to the Continental Congress in 1775 just in case anyone needed a reminder of his military experience. During the Revolution he won the world’s applause and his countrymen’s admiration, and he enjoyed both without acting as if either mattered. He was a proud man taught by observation and experience the wages of arrogance and the perils of heedless certainty.
Washington’s country wanted him for its chief magistrate and thereby confronted him with another kind but equally troubling test of reputation. There is every reason to believe Washington did not want the post. He was tired. Nobody could know the toll levied by eight years fighting the British for American independence. Nobody could know how much the four years following the end of the Revolutionary War had made him happy. He grew things on the ground above the majestic river he loved, living in the house he loved with the woman he loved and surrounded by little ones and their friends, grandchildren, and giggling nieces and nephews growing up and making their way, often with his help, which made him happier still. He complained about the place called Mount Vernon becoming “a well-resorted tavern,” but the people who filled it as guests kept out of his way during the day and filled his evenings with bright conversation and quiet admiration. Leaving Mount Vernon was like being cast out of Eden and instantly led to Golgotha, the place of skulls. He had wanted everything when young with clenched fists. Now an old man, his hands were open, and he wanted nothing.
Out of Eden, this famous and admired man had reluctantly attended the convention in Philadelphia to frame a new government. That enterprise alone risked his reputation, and only entreaties from friends appealing to his sense of duty had persuaded him to go. He presided over the gathering during its four months of heated debates with the impassive detachment that had made him famous and admired, the American Cincinnatus who had set aside his sword to return to his plow. The delegates had been angry, stubborn in their opinions, suspicious of one another, and resolutely opposed to this and then that measure, but in the end they were collectively superb. Washington watched, pleased to see something grow, like a healthy stand of wheat or a blooded colt finding its legs. He almost never spoke at the convention but quietly voiced opinions at evening dinners with small groups of fellow delegates. He had been the first to sign the document called the Constitution, confident that it did what was best for the country. He pushed for its ratification with a fierce resolve of his own, a feeling that ran so deep that he could not brook opposition to it. One of his oldest friends could not agree. He was a friend no more.
Yet despite his confidence in having done right, a strange sense of inadequacy leavened his dread as the new government took shape in New York City. He had worried that merely by attending the convention he was violating his pledge that after the Revolution he would leave public life forever, but that had been the vanity of a man eager to preserve his repute for keeping promises. Now it wasn’t vanity that robbed him of sleep and clouded his days. For the first time in his life, George Washington was afraid that a challenge was beyond him. What his country wanted was too large, too demanding, too complex for a Virginia farmer who stumbled over his words in public and might just simply stumble under the weight of these new incalculable burdens. He was too old, too feeble, too ignorant. His eyes were failing, his memory sometimes was fogged, and people everyone else clearly heard seemed to be mumbling to him. He had nothing to prove. He had everything to lose. People already called him the “father of his country,” a pleasant tribute, a bauble of public acclaim, but it was a bauble, like a fading epaulet on a tunic stored in a forgotten trunk.
That September of 1788 George Washington had received a letter from Alexander Hamilton, his former military aide and a fellow delegate to the convention. Hamilton urged him to accept the presidency. The advice was familiar enough to be dreary. “The new government in its commencement may materially depend” on your acceptance. By “serving in the Constitutional Convention” and supporting its product, you in essence agreed to “filling the station in question.” Hamilton echoed other correspondents but with more presumption: Your country needs you, the new government needs you, only your reputation can give this experiment the chance it needs. And there was an admonition wrapped in adulation: “A citizen of so much consequence as yourself . . . has no option but to lend his services if called for.” With as much a command as a compliment, Hamilton went to the heart of the issue. If the new government failed, Washington’s place in history would be in jeopardy. Everyone who framed the new government would be blamed, including George Washington. Especially George Washington.2
Alexander Hamilton sent hard words despite their flattery. Could it be possible that Washington’s every sacrifice during the war would count for nothing if he did not drink from this last bitter cup? Would every indignity borne, every conspiracy thwarted, every battle lost and won become as nothing if he did not do this last thing? “A citizen of so much consequence as yourself . . . has no option but to lend his services if called for,” Hamilton intoned.3 The message had a presumptuous air, which was Hamilton’s habit, but the words “has no option but to lend his services” were like a hammer on Washington’s conscience.
This and other letters from Hamilton were part of a growing plea from a growing chorus that staggered George Washington. As the convention designed the office described in Article II of the Constitution, every power given it and even the vague reach of its responsibilities had been crafted with him in mind. What had he been thinking when he left for Philadelphia in May 1787 and in the months that followed? Was his expectation of his certain selection so high that the choice of someone else would have left him feeling discarded and downcast? George Washington acted the part of a leader so convincingly during the war that his headquarters became a stage, his movements a pageant, and the quiet humility of his resignation at Annapolis at the end of the war a grand finale. The suggestion that he was now being coy, that he wanted to be coaxed and appear as if answering a call rather than grabbing a prize, derives mainly from the seeming inevitability of his presidency. The truth of the matter was the actor was now old, the play not only untried but unwritten, and the supporting cast uncertain. He was not being coy. At the moment of inevitability, he could not quite believe it. His response to these many entreaties were tortured motifs of fatalism and quiet desperation over the bitter cup he would gladly pass to another, but no one else was there.
Hamilton’s words were like a hammer, but other friends, James Madison and Gouverneur Morris chief among them, coaxed more softly. Madison first met George Washington in 1781 when the general visited Philadelphia shortly after his victory at Yorktown, but they didn’t form a friendship until the mid-1780s. It was an in-between time for Madison. He had quit the Congress to become a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates, where he fought for religious freedom. The two shared an interest in western commerce, and from that blossomed the kind of relationship Madison had formed with Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s departure for France as the new American minister had left a void in Madison’s life.
It became apparent that Madison and Washington also shared a vision about the potential for America to be a great nation. Their mutual acquaintances formed a circle of influence that included young Virginia governor Edmund Randolph, but their shared concerns over crippled commerce spurred action more than political theorizing. Virginia’s quarrels with Maryland over navigation of the Potomac prompted citizens of the two states to meet in the spring of 1785. Washington opened Mount Vernon to them for the occasion. The meeting was limited to discussing navigation and usage of shared waterways such as the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, but it was successful in producing a compact that both states ratified. Its most important contribution was showing that interstate cooperation was possible between suspicious rivals. From it, Madison ran with the idea of a larger gathering with a broader purpose. All the states should meet to “remedy defects” of the present government. He persuaded the Virginia state legislature to issue the general invitation to the states in January 1786, and Maryland agreed to host at its state capital.
The Annapolis Convention met for three days in September, but the result was disappointing. Nine states planned to attend, but only five delegates made it in time. The rest were either late, or absent because their states didn’t bother to appoint anyone. Maryland did not even send someone across the street to look in on the proceedings. Hamilton was there, as were Madison and Edmund Randolph, and they managed at the end to salvage the event from complete futility. Hamilton insisted that the convention invoke the authority of the Congress to call yet another meeting, this one to gather in Philadelphia with the stated purpose of addressing deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation. That was the meeting that became the Constitutional Convention, the convocation that George Washington had fretted about, presided over, and now could blame for all his trouble, the thing that could save the country from ruin and damn him to purgatory with the same stroke.
As he headed back to the Congress in the summer of 1788, Madison stopped at Mount Vernon. It was his and Washington’s custom never to divulge their conversations, but the subject of the presidency had to figure prominently during this visit. After arriving in New York City, Madison kept up the pressure, but Washington still demurred, and Madison became mildly relentless. He returned in December to spend Christmas at Mount Vernon. By then eleven states had ratified the Constitution, two more than necessary to put it into effect. The old Congress was now a relic as the new government was scheduled to convene. Elections had already begun filling the new legislature. The Electoral College was slated to choose the president.
A letter came from Gouverneur Morris in New York. Morris had met Washington during the Revolution and had been among the few members of the Continental Congress to visit the encampment at Valley Forge in the horrid winter of 1777–78. The sight had shaken Gouverneur Morris like nothing in his experience. The instant he returned to the Congress, he began talking himself hoarse and working tirelessly to get those forlorn soldiers clothes, shoes, food, money, weapons, encouragement. Washington liked him immensely.4
Morris’s resolute behavior during the Revolution, his commitment to nationalism, his impressive learning, and his sober pragmatism for all his sophisticated charm were among the traits that miffed some as much as they impressed Washington. As a youth, Morris had learned not to take himself or the world too seriously. He looked askance at politics as a process in which “the madness of so many is made the gain of so few.”5 In 1780, Morris had lost a leg in what he called a carriage accident but rumor said was caused by a fall from a lady’s balcony when her husband unexpectedly showed up. As a consequence, he had the look of a peg-legged pirate to match a devil-may-care attitude mixed with flawless manners and a ready wit. It all made him the target of tittering gossip. His lost leg was legendary and still a subject of hushed conversation in New York drawing rooms even years later. Nobody believed the carriage accident story, and Morris didn’t care. Leaping from a bedroom window with an irate husband on his heels was better theater. It made prim John Jay assess the missing limb by muttering that he wished Morris “had lost something else.”6
As he was writing to Washington in the fall of 1788, Morris was preparing for an extended trip to Europe. Its purpose was mostly business, but Morris was never far from pleasure and was looking forward to the change. Like Hamilton, he paused to remind George Washington of his obligations but took a different tack, characteristically sugaring his wisdom with wit. He explained that he had not sent any of his Chinese pigs Washington admired because the boar had developed a wandering eye for “meer common sows.” Worse, his well-bred “consort” had exacted revenge by becoming the “Paramour of a Vulgar Race.” The results were an estranged couple and depressingly unexceptional piglets. Washington would have chuckled. The farmer appreciated barnyard humor.
But Morris’s next sentences raised the gloomy refrain: All would be well, presumably even in pig land, when Washington became the president.7 The farmer put the letter away, but a few weeks later another arrived without the sugar. In fact, it was decidedly tart. “You must be President,” Morris announced in exasperation. “No other Man can fill that Office.” No other man could “awe the Insolence of opposing Factions.” Morris then swung his own version of Hamilton’s hammer: the tarnished reputation. “On the other Hand you will, I firmly expect,” he cheerfully said, “enjoy the inexpressible Felicity of contributing to the Happiness of all your Countrymen; even of those who hate because they envy, and envy because they cannot, dare not, imitate you.”8 Here were blows of a different sort, the artistry of Gouverneur Morris appealing to duty and playing to vanity with the reference to reputation. The delegates in Philadelphia had made Morris the stylist for the Constitution. Washington held in his hands the reason why.
He trusted these men. The dozens who dared write obviously were the voices of scores more in timid silence and legions who kept quiet in the certainty that no persuasion was necessary, that Washington would do his duty as always. He could not ignore this. He had no choice, except possibly to be president briefly to have things settled. He then could slip away. Two years at most would be his sentence, he thought. He did not formally announce anything, but reports told of him quietly putting his Virginia affairs in order, an unmistakable signal that he was preparing a journey to New York City, the temporary capital. When he arranged a loan, everyone was certain. In addition to setting up a new household, he intended to bear his travel costs, another sign of his long-range intentions, for he would owe only a few for a formal loan rather than many for small kindnesses that in the end would prove more costly to repay. Friends besieging him for places in the government were bad enough, but the swarms of strangers had begun filling the letter pouches from Alexandria, and so far he had no obligations to any of them for anything. He would keep it that way. He would stay in no private homes en route to New York. He would not accept private hospitality when he arrived there. He intended to pay from his own pocket for food and drink as he went and arrange rent at going rates for his residence in the city.9
The presidency, after all, was not a prize. The country was obligated to him for nothing more than the office’s constitutionally stipulated salary as set by Congress, and Washington would try to refuse that. Private citizens owed him only the chance to make things work. He waited for the official notification “with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” He knew he had no sly tricks up his sleeve to pull this last trick off with aplomb. Instead of tricks, possibly “integrity & firmness,” even if lacking in “political skill,” would be enough.10
It was April. He heard a man arrive at Mount Vernon’s front door. Everything, everything and all, distilled to this moment. He went to greet the rider.
On the morning of April 6, 1789, the United States Senate conducted its first official business by counting the electoral ballots in the first presidential election. Any drama stemming from this event derived from its solemnity, and when President Pro Tempore John Langdon finished the tally, there were no surprises. Washington was unopposed, which meant all 69 electors had voted for him, but they spread their second vote among 10 other candidates. John Adams topped that list with 34 votes, which made him vice president. The Senate immediately named messengers to inform Washington and Adams of their election. Charles Thomson, the former Congress’s secretary, was selected for the errand to Washington’s estate in Virginia.
Thomson left New York City on April 7, 1789, on a long journey of some 250 miles. On the eighth day he reached the Potomac, the last of the “many large rivers” he would later complain about crossing.11 The Potomac was indeed large, a sweeping watercourse that sluiced through Virginia’s western piedmont and tumbled in a series of rapids and falls to the Tidewater, the region near enough Chesapeake Bay to mirror its ebb and flow and admit Atlantic commerce. The river had been a timeless constant in George Washington’s life, a liquid tether around his heart.
Thomson took a ferry across the Potomac, passed through Alexandria, and was soon riding on roads through old-growth forests that opened on cultivated fields. As the sun reached high meridian, he came upon an unpretentious whitewashed gate, the entrance to the grounds of Mount Vernon’s main house, which sat about a mile to the east. The path before him led downward on a slight grade into a thick copse of oak trees. The effect was tranquil and reassuring, a different world from the rough-hewn one outside the estate’s fences. Everything within gave testimony to the owner’s passion for system and order. But the magnificent setting more than rivaled the serenity of the place. Thomson’s eyes were drawn toward what appeared to be a white stone house sitting above a large meadow of long grass that rippled in the breeze. One visitor had aptly described it as “altogether the most charming Seat I have seen in America.”12
Up close everything seemed intimate, even the house, which sat invitingly behind a bowling green. Thomson followed the neatly edged drive that arced toward the house, trees placed at perfect intervals. On either side what seemed uncleared forests were actually planned “Wildernesses” planted symmetrically to hide the estate’s vegetable gardens and slave quarters. The trees presented a delightful variety and were trimmed to display their most appealing features.
Attention to the house’s architecture revealed its asymmetrical plan, something counter to popular fashion. Its exterior accommodated its interior rather than the other way around. Windows were placed at imperfect intervals, and the house’s cupola sat slightly off its center. The exterior stone facings were another visual trick, for they were actually wooden panels beveled and painted with a sand-laced concoction. Thomson might have pondered how the place suited George Washington as much as it reflected his personality. The house’s imperfections balanced form and utility. Grand from a distance, the aesthetic flourishes were revealed to be prudent and frugal at close inspection. Its owner was like that.
It was noon when Thomson arrived at the mansion. Usually Washington would have been riding his circuit of farms, and a visitor would have been seated in the house’s central passage that bisected the mansion and opened on the rear piazza with its sweeping view of the Potomac below and Maryland beyond. An important guest like Thomson, though, was allowed to wait in the formal parlor, an airy room of wood panels painted Prussian blue. Thomson did not have to wait. George Washington knew that Thomson was coming from New York with news of the election. A letter from Henry Knox had told him so.13 Washington apparently had calculated the time of Thomson’s arrival and abandoned his daily program accordingly. Their meeting at the front door of Mount Vernon was cordial but formal, and Charles Thomson would have known that to be Washington’s way.
They walked through the formal parlor into the New Room, the house’s most formal setting, started during the Revolution and finished after it. With its high ceiling and ornately painted panels, it was appropriate for the event about to unfold. Despite its historic significance and the impressive backdrop, the ceremony was simple. Thomson read the paragraph he had prepared.
Sir, the President of the Senate, chosen for the special purpose, having opened and counted the votes of the electors in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, I was honored with the commands of the Senate to wait upon your Excellency with the information of your being elected to the office of President of the United States of America. This commission was entrusted to me on account of my having been long in the confidence of the late Congress, and charged with the duties of one of the principal civil departments of the Government. I have now, sir, to inform you that the proofs you have given of your patriotism and your readiness to sacrifice domestic ease and private enjoyments to preserve the happiness of your country did not permit the two Houses to harbor a doubt of your undertaking this great and important office, to which you were called, not only by the unanimous vote of the electors, by the voice of America.
I have it, therefore, in command to accompany you to New York, where the Senate and House of Representatives are convened for the dispatch of public business.14
Thomson ended by stating that they would begin their journey at Washington’s convenience. He then read the official communication from John Langdon announcing the unanimous election. Days earlier, Washington had prepared a response, and now he slowly read a carefully fashioned declaration of his willingness to serve that was framed in humble reluctance. “I wish,” Washington read from the paper, “that there may not be reason for regretting the choice, for, indeed, all I can promise is to accomplish that which can be done by honest zeal.”15 He said he would be ready to travel as soon as possible, no later than the day after the next.
Table of Contents
1 "A Citizen of So Much Consequence" 3
2 "The Most Insignificant Office" 21
3 "Not the Tincture of Ha'ture About Her" 38
4 "His Person Is Little and Ordinary" 54
5 "Republican Court" 72
6 "A Stranger in This Country" 85
7 "A Certain Species of Property" 106
8 "This May End Disagreeably" 126
9 "A Spirit of Accommodation" 149
10 "The Sensation of a Philosophic Mind" 164
11 "A Particular Measure Proceeding from a Particular Officer" 182
12 "Positively Unable to Articulate a Word" 198
13 "Political Heresies" 212
14 "Sweets of Office" 225
15 "Spirit of Party" 241
16 "The Look of an Upstart" 260
17 "Laugh Us into War" 275
18 "Earnest Desire to Do Right" 293
19 "A War Soon with Britain" 308
20 "Do Not Turn Your Back" 324
21 "That Man Is a Traitor" 337
22 "To You I Shall Return" 353
23 "A Magic in His Name" 373
24 "Friends and Fellow Citizens" 385
25 "Already Turned Farmer Again" 402
Epilogue: Closing the Circle 419