In retirement at Mt. Vernon Washington and Martha greet visiting French generals, just some of a steady stream of visitors.
Note—We left George Washington resigning his commission before Congress. Today the veteran comes home.
When George Washington rode up to his beloved Mt. Vernon in May of 1783 he had not seen it in nearly eight years. After receiving his commission from the Continental Congress as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in 1775 he had ridden post haste to Cambridge, Massachusetts to take up his duties. He had stayed with his Army throughout the long war. Unlike other senior officers, he never took a furlough and thanks to his amazingly robust constitution had never fallen seriously ill with any of the many camp malaise that laid low many requiring convalescent leave. Nor, despite often exposing himself to danger and being an easy-to-spot target with his commanding 6’2” frame on his usual huge grey charger, was he ever seriously wounded. After the disastrous Long Island and New York City campaigns, Martha would come up from Virginia to visit him in winter quarters, but he had never dared a separation from the Army.
He was luckier than many returning veterans. The home plantation had escaped the ravages of war. Banastre Tarleton’s raiders had never reached it in their rampages across Virginia. Martha was not only a devoted wife, but she was a capable estate manager with the help of experienced overseers and many skilled slave craftsmen, the condition of the property was as good as could be imagined. Of course, the war had disrupted the markets for his crops and other products and the economy of Virginia was a wreck. There would be many long rides around the property and directing his slaves to make repairs and improvements up to his high standards.
There was also desk work to attend to. He meticulously assembled all of his expense records and submitted them to Congress for re-imbursement. You will recall that Washington’s pledge to serve at no pay was a key point in winning the votes to be elected. Now he expected to collect about $450,000. If that does not seem out of line to modern eyes for eight years away at war, it was a jaw dropping figure in the 18th Century. Washington’s accounts included receipts for the most trivial purchases—quills and ink, for instance and bootblack—but were somewhat vague on larger expenses including hauling his extensive baggage and the expenses of Martha’s annual visits. He also picked up the expenses of his official family—the rotating cast of young pets, aides, and staff officers who shared his mess and usually quarters. In a pinch the General had also personally assumed some expenses for the Army. It added up. Congress swallowed hard and eventually ponied up mostly in bonds and extensive land grants.
Washington also entertained a steady stream of old comrades, admirers, political connivers, and speculators offering golden opportunities. He gently turned aside most of the politicians but sometimes entered into some speculation or another in Western land or a favored scheme. He treasured his contact with his former officers and kept up a voluminous correspondence with many including Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, and the Marquis de Lafayette in France.
His ties with his officers led to the establishment of an enduring and from the beginning controversial organization.
Semi-legendary Roman Republic hero Cincinnatus was called from his plow to be Consul and dictator to meet a crisis and retired back to his farm when the emergency passed.
From the moment that he told his brother officers that he was retiring from the Army and public service in his famous Farewell at New York’s Frauncis Tavern, the classical allusion loving educated elite who made up many of those officers began comparing him to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a patrician farmer of the early Roman Republic who gave up his plow to accept dictatorial powers as Consul and Magister Populi to meet an emergency. After leading Rome to victory over an aggressor, he voluntarily gave up power and returned to the farm. The humble act was even in antiquity so unusual that the name of Cincinnatus was remembered and revered long after the details of the crisis he met were but foggy memories.
Even before the emotional meeting at the Fraunces Tavern Henry Knox, the former Boston bookseller, connected Cincinnatus with a society of Revolutionary officers that would honor Washington’s example of humble, selfless service. A dinner meeting was called in May at Mount Gulian, also known as the Verplanck House chaired by another Washington favorite, Hamilton. The dinner is often cited as the founding meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati.
Continental officers, but not Militia or Volunteers, with three years’ service in the war or who were on active service at war’s end were eligible for membership. Also eligible were senior officers of the French Army and Navy who had been involved in the Yorktown campaign and naval actions off the coast and in the Caribbean. Most controversially, membership could be passed on to eldest sons by the traditional feudal rule of primogenitor. Many critics felt that smacked of aristocracy and some feared it opened the gate to the creation of an American hereditary nobility.
But the idea was a success and by the end of 1783 functioning chapters were up and running in all thirteen states and King Louis XVI ordained the French Society of the Cincinnati, which was organized on July 4, 1784. Almost half of the eligible 5,000 men had enrolled in chapters by year’s end. Members proudly wore and displayed an Order medal featuring an eagle on a blue, white, and buff ribbon.
The Diamond Eagle of the Society of the Cincinnati was the gift of French naval officers to George Washington in 1784 and has been the official insignia of the Society's president general ever since.
Washington initially has some reservations about the organization, especially when some officers did seem to feel that membership should make them eligible for special privileges from the State governments and feeble central government under the Articles of Confederation. He discouraged such talk pointing out that Cincinnatus was a model of selfless service and simple republican virtue. Finally, however, he concluded that even with hereditary membership, it was not an order of nobility since no title, privileges, or property were granted by any state for membership. In December he allowed himself to be elected President General of the Society and he served in that largely ceremonial position until his death. Washington almost always wore his Society medal pinned to his coat including his entire time as President.
Controversy over the Order and Washington’s part in it would erupt again during his second term when radical Republican clubs which supported the French Revolution again leveled charges of aristocracy. The Order of the Cincinnati continues to exist to this day and is open to one lineal descendent at a time of the originally eligible officers. The members frankly consider themselves an elite but the Order keeps a low profile and is not involved in any political activity.
One of Washington’s prime post-war concerns was his vast western land holdings. He had received grants for his service in the French and Indian Wars from both the British and from Virginia which claimed western lands stretching from today’s western Pennsylvania all the way to the Mississippi River and theoretically to the Western Ocean.
On paper he was easily the largest landowner in the new United States. But he was having a hard time turning vast potential wealth into reliable income. Part of the problem was that continuing Indian warfare on the frontier prevented settlement of much of his Ohio Valley claims. But a bigger problem was a combination of squatters who would not pay rent and settlers on the land with conflicting claims.
Washington’s vision was for a kind of feudal empire. He did not want to sell the land he claimed instead he wanted to offer it to settlers on 999 year leases with a relatively moderate annual rent that would provide Washington and his heirs a steady and reliable income for generations.
So, one fine morning Washington packed his saddle bags, mounted his big horse, and rode out of Mt. Vernon to visit the area he had last seen at Braddock’s Retreat back in 1755. In the years since the mostly trackless wilderness and Native hunting grounds around the headwaters of the Ohio had been settled, more or less, by frontier farmers. The smoke of chimney fires rose from stump clearings in the forest and spread over valleys and hollows of the hilly country. The old General would ride up to a cabin and surprise the astonished farm family, often sitting down to supper with them and stretching out his long frame on a palett by the fire for the night. He was friendly, but firm. The settlers he saw as squatters on his land would have to agree to his offer of a 99 year lease or vacate the property and move on.
After years of dispute most of Washington's western land holdings ended up in Pennsylvania, not Virginia. The area included Ft. Pitt and the newly created Washington County were his claims against squatters was heard.
Of course, the settlers saw things differently. Many thought they had earned the land by virtue of their sweat and labor and the improvements they had made. Some had blazed and surveyed their land, filing claims with local courts either unaware of Washington’s claims or believing them to be unenforceable yet others had grant papers from Pennsylvania which along with Virginia and New York all claimed the area. None were willing to pay rent or vacate.
Washington rode home without satisfaction but he hired lawyers to file suit in recently created Washington County, Pennsylvania against David Reed and other dissenting Presbyterians known as the Seceders for back rent and possession of the land. In 1786 with an eastern Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice presiding on circuit—an establishment type bound to be sympathetic to a gentleman of property and the Great Man of his era—ruled in Washington’s favor. The General waived the back rent if the settlers would sign the long leases. Most declined, lost their land and investments, and moved on. But Washington was no more successful in getting anyone else to accept the deal and other squatters remained on other plots.
The Western visit would sour the feelings between Washington and the western settlers whether or not they were on his land. Washington now regarded them as a lawless rabble and they in turn viewed him no longer as the hero of the Revolution, but as oppressor just like the British. These attitude would come to a head years later in the Whiskey Rebellion and explain Washington’s use of a massive army to enforce taxation on locally produced whiskey.
Back home Washington tried to stay out of politics, but it was not easy. The weakness of the Articles of Confederation presented him with practical problems, especially the attempt of Pennsylvania and other states to levy internal tariffs on products from other states. This made it difficult and expensive for him to market his wheat and other crops there or in nearby Maryland. His protégé Hamilton had his ear with his complaints that the war debts of the Confederation and the several states were crippling commerce, trade, and development. And he was concerned that the Confederation was so militarily weak—the Continental Army had been dissolved and the equivalent of a single regiment was spread uselessly to small frontier garrisons—that it was unable to protect settlers in the Trans-Allegheny west from continuing Indian warfare.
A fellow Virginian, young James Madison working in concert with Hamilton proposed a conference of states in 1786 to meet at Annapolis to hash out some common problems—a dispute between Maryland and Virginia over navigation rights on the Potomac and Rhode Island’s levy of an impost on all traffic on the Post Road that was the only recognized route connecting the Southern states with Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. In addition, Shays’ Rebellion broke out in Massachusetts just before the conference convened scaring the hell out of propertied classes in all of the states. The lack of Federal armed forces meant it took weeks for Massachusetts to mobilize its Militia to quash the rebellion.
Five states clustered around the Mid-Atlantic convened for the meeting but determined that the problems could not be addressed without changes to the Articles of Confederation which severely restricted effective central government. At Madison’s urging they sent out a call for a new Convention of the states to amend the Articles. Madison and Hamilton persuaded a reluctant Washington to attend as a Virginia delegate. His presence and prestige were essential in persuading other states to have the confidence to send delegations.
As President of the Convention, Washington presided over the signing of the Constitution. All of the delegates present were represented in this painting. At the foot of the platform are critical actors Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison.
The Convention convened in Philadelphia in May 1787 as delegations dribbled in. It officially opened on May 25 and Washington, in whom everyone had confidence, was unanimously elected President of the Convention. He took a high-backed chair with a sun carved on the back to assume his duties Pennsylvania State House also known as Independence Hall. He presided with even-handed probity through the long deliberations that summer in the very room where he had accepted his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.
Madison and other members of the Virginia delegation had no intention of simply modifying the Articles. Instead at the outset of the convention he presented the Virginia Plan for a whole new government. That plan would become the basis of discussions. Since the Convention almost immediately exceeded the authority of its call and there was a general fear that public demonstrations would make calm deliberations impossible. The proceeding would be held in the strictest secrecy.
The stoic Washington was not sanguine as deliberations dragged on through the sweltering heat. He confided to Hamilton, “I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of our convention and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business.” He seldom interjected himself into the proceedings but when a stubborn minority was putting up a fierce resistance to the powers of the proposed new Federation he privately met with arch anti-Federalist Patrick Henry, the former Revolutionary firebrand and governor of Virginia arguing that the only alternative to the new government would be anarchy.
When all of the complex compromises were reached however and the proposed Constitution came before each state delegation for a vote, the always proper Washington declined to cast his vote in the Virginia delegation because everyone knew that the enumerated powers of the new Presidency were tailored in the universal expectation that he himself would exercise them.
After much wrangling a draft of the Constitution was approved and a signing ceremony was set for September 17. Several delegates were unhappy with the product and left before the signing and three of those remaining refused to sign—Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. They demanded a Bill of Rights. Other delegate accepted Madison’s assurance that a Bill of Rights could be added as amendments after the adoption of the basic structure of the government.
Then there was one last glitch. Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts suddenly proposed an amendment to lower the size of Congressional Districts from 40,000 to 30,000 citizens. Washington, who had refrained from participating in debates, spoke in favor mostly to move things along and it carried without further debate.
Then the final vote was taken. Since Rhode Island had never even sent delegates and three of the four members of the New York Delegation had gone home, Washington announced the results—the document carried by “eleven states, and Colonel Hamilton.” As presiding officer, he then was first to sign the document followed by other who were present. Still others added their names later.
Washington returned once again to Mt. Vernon. It was known that he approved of the product but since he was expected to be elected President, he abstained from the ratification debates that raged in the states leaving it to Hamilton and Madison to defend the new Constitution with John Jay in the Federalist Papers.
After ratification was finally complete the old soldier prepared for his new service.
Next— We will have to keep entries on Washington's presidency and final years--at least three more chapters, for another time.