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George Washington

A Founder of his Country

Hope, Betrayal, Victory, Glory: the End of the of War

The Presidency, First Term

Summary

Upon returning home, Washington found Mount Vernon in shambles. Eight years of neglect during the war had taken its toll: part of main building was about to collapse, fences were broken, the fields untended. It took all of Washington's efforts to get his plantation back on track.

While repairing his estate, Washington turned his attention to business. He revived his lifelong goal of building a canal to link the Ohio and Potomac Rivers. Such a canal would allow settlers in the Ohio River Valley to ship their crops to ports on the Atlantic Ocean. Currently, settlers had no way of getting their goods to market: Spain controlled shipping on the Mississippi, while moving goods over the Allegheny Mountains was too expensive. A canal would make settlement in the Ohio Valley more feasible. It would also make Washington rich, since the value of his land would rise. In the fall of 1784 Washington set out on horseback to scout potential sites for the canal. At the age of fifty-two he traveled a distance of over 650 miles through wild terrain.

While working on his land, Washington watched his country develop. He was worried by what he saw. The states, newly independent, were bickering. The Articles of Confederation had established a national government but had given it very little power. The states generally feared a strong national government, believing it would become tyrannical as Britain had been. Washington feared that without a strong national government there would be too much democracy–that every state and local government would decide its own course, ignoring or clashing with its neighbors. This would make everyone vulnerable to civil war or attacks from foreign countries. In 1786, farmers in western Massachusetts revolted against the government. Shays's Rebellion, as it was called, shocked many people who feared for their lives and property. It struck Washington and others as the result of weak central government and a step closer to anarchy.

In 1787, state leaders gathered in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. They hope to make a stronger national government that could unify the country. Washington at first refused to attend the meeting, which was to become the Constitutional Convention, because he had promised never to enter public life again. He changed his mind, however, after leaders from across the country urged him to lend his support. At the Convention, several members of the Virginia delegation introduced a radical plan: rather than revise the Articles of Confederation they proposed to scrap it altogether and create a much more powerful national government. After protracted negotiations, the delegates drafted and signed the Federal Constitution.

It took almost a year for the nine states to ratify the Constitution. This was the minimum number required to make the document valid. Most of the remaining states followed shortly after. Washington actively supported ratification in Virginia, where people were deeply divided. His support probably made the difference. Soon after the Constitution was ratified the states met to elect a president. By unanimous vote they chose Washington.

Analysis

Washington resigned his command of the Continental Army out of a belief that government should be run by the people rather than the military or some other powerful force. He also resigned because he genuinely wanted to retire. During the war he had missed his family and his home at Mount Vernon. He was eager to return. Throughout his life he claimed to be happiest at home, tending to his estate, experimenting with new crops, and entertaining a constant string of guests. Contemporaries who called him power-hungry were wrong–earlier in life he had sought power, but now he mostly wanted time to himself.

Washington hated tyranny as much as anyone in America, but he supported a stronger national government. Like most men of wealth, he feared for his property and status. Shay's Rebellion terrified him. But unlike many of his fellow planters, who spent their lives secluded on their plantations, Washington understood the value of continental unity. It was this unity that had won the war, and it was this unity that would allow the frontier to be safely settled. Most importantly, it was unity that made the nation virtuous. "This is the moment," Washington wrote in an open letter to the state governors, "when the eyes of the whole World are turned upon [Americans]; this is the moment to establish or ruin their national Character forever." In Washington's mind, the question of American unity was not simply political or economic, it was also a moral question.

Though Washington contributed relatively little to the Constitutional Convention, his support was crucial. His prestige (and that of Benjamin Franklin, who also attended) among Americans gave the Convention legitimacy. This allowed it to meet in secret–were it to meet in public the delegates probably could not have agreed on a document. Washington's support was most important when it came to the question of the presidency. Many delegates feared a strong president, believing he would behave like a monarch or tyrant. Others believed a strong president was needed to balance the power of Congress. Supporters of a strong president won the day because everyone at the meeting knew Washington would get the job. They trusted him to uphold the government rather than make himself a dictator.

It is difficult to say how Washington felt about becoming President. He clearly enjoyed his status as a hero, but privately he doubted whether he was capable of leading the country. He worried about the challenges ahead and was reluctant to leave home again. Worst of all, Washington knew that the success or failure of the new government rested largely on his shoulders, which created conflict in his decisions between his personal interests the interests of the nation.

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