Forging a New Nation
Washington's trip to discover what was on the minds of Americans.
by T.H. Breen
The joyful reception George Washington received in New York in 1783 — as depicted in this late 19th-century oil and needlework interpretation — was much like many of the described scenes during his tour of the Colonies between 1789 and 1791.
President George Washington deserves recognition as a gifted political innovator — and that may come as a surprise, even to those who admire him for his military achievements. But, in fact, during his first days in office as President, he organized several long and difficult journeys to America that fundamentally changed how the people perceived their relationship with the new federal government. It is a legacy that endures to this day.
Drawing upon his immense popularity, Washington envisioned an ambitious tour of the United States — from New Hampshire to Georgia — as a way to transform the abstract language of the Constitution into a powerful, highly personal argument for a strong federal union. At a key moment in our country's history when the very survival of the new system was in doubt, he took to the road to discover what was on the minds of the American people — and to share with them the immense promise of a republican form of government.
The extraordinary undertaking reminds us that long after the victory over the British, Washington was still working to preserve ideas that he believed had energized the Revolution. He appreciated — as Abraham Lincoln did — how vital a strong union is to preservation of the nation's core values. When he began his tours of the United States, neither Washington nor the people he encountered were quite sure what it meant to be citizens of a very large republic. They found themselves engaged in an exciting, unprecedented experiment in self-rule.
Between 1789 and 1791, Washington visited all of the original 13 states. Although travel by coach was extremely difficult, he covered thousands of miles, and on at least two occasions was involved in potentially fatal accidents. The first trip took him from Mount Vernon to New York City for his inauguration as President. It covered the middle states, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Later that year, Washington visited New England, then a region of the United States, which, despite a revolutionary heritage, harbored serious doubts about the power of the new federal government. He took another brief trip to Rhode Island in 1790, an action designed chiefly to solidify support in a state that had taken an embarrassingly long time to ratify the Constitution. The arduous journey to the South began in the spring of 1791. It lasted several months and left the daily business of government in the hands of Cabinet members who were none too sure how to reach the President in case of emergency.
Washington's insights into the performance of power resulted in a presidency that suited not only his own character — diffident and formal — but also the expectations of a people who had just successfully established a republican government. Along the roads from New Hampshire to Georgia, ordinary American people, women as well as men, had a voice in authenticating Washington's performance of executive leadership under the Constitution. The populist character of this conversation is important to remember, since most narratives of this period in our nation's history focus almost exclusively on a small group of familiar political and intellectual leaders — Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson — and in this account of clashing egos, the people are often reduced to the role of mere spectators to the creation of their own republic. In fact, through elaborate parades, huge receptions, special decorations and long welcoming speeches, they engaged fully in a process of mutual discovery about the character of the new government. If it had not been so, if the founding years had really involved only a small group of leaders, the Nation would have been far more unstable than it was in fact. It was Washington's genius to engage the people in a conversation about their shared future.
No other Founding Father could have taken on this task. After all, Washington brought immense political capital to the presidency. He may have been the most charismatic person ever to hold the office. Everything about the man — his behavior, dress and pronouncements, even his coach — became emblematic of the new constitutional order. In a profound symbolic sense he was the Nation. But whatever his reputation as the hero of the Revolution, as President, Washington had to discover how best to communicate the goals of the new republic persuasively to the public.
Washington had several options. In early modern times, English monarchs organized grand progresses that took them to the far reaches of their kingdoms. By appearing in distant places, kings and queens checked the ambitions of potentially rebellious rivals, a group that one historian has termed "over-mighty subjects." The trips also cost an extraordinary amount of money, a fact that did not bother the likes of Queen Elizabeth I, since she expected her fawning hosts to pay the bill. In a society that had just achieved independence from Great Britain, the trappings of royalty had little appeal either for Washington or for the people.
Washington weighed the merits of the various possibilities. The President had no assurance of success. He operated in an uncertain political environment in which every decision lacked clear precedent. No one knew the rules.
Indeterminacy put a heavy burden on Washington. Even mundane acts had the potential to become precedents, binding future generations, or worse, triggering destructive factions. In January 1790, in an unusually forthright letter to Catherine Macaulay, the celebrated London author of History of England (1763-1783), Washington confessed, "The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by creating a reasonable compact, in civil Society."
With obvious trepidation, Washington accepted the responsibility. "Few," he noted, "who are not philosophical Spectators, can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation had to act." The President, who worried about the force of public opinion and who strove so hard to translate the Constitution into a working national government, knew the dangers that awaited him. "In our progress toward political happiness my station is new," he told Macaulay, "and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground."
This reflective, often apprehensive Washington is not the figure with which most of us are familiar. Few historians of the Early Republic associate him with bold innovation or daring risk. They usually depict him — especially during his first years as President — as somewhat wooden, a person possessing admirable personal attributes but not one inspiring intimacy, or even deep affection. He receives credit for recruiting gifted colleagues such as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson into his Cabinet and working productively with James Madison, who among other tasks was busy drafting the Bill of Rights.
In such brilliant company, Washington recedes into the background, becoming a kind of well-meaning avuncular character who did his best to keep dysfunctional Cabinet members from fighting in public over complex fiscal issues. It was this genial Washington who later persuaded Mason Locke Weems, otherwise known as Parson Weems, to reimagine Washington's entire life story. In his celebrated Life of Washington (1800), Weems — who was in fact no clergyman — tried to make his subject more exciting, more dynamic, even if that meant inventing whole cloth tales of cutting down a cherry tree, kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge and throwing a silver dollar across a wide river. Other, more modern treatments of Washington distance themselves from pure fabrication, but honesty seems to make them a little grumpy, as if they wished that the real Washington had been closer to Weems' fiction than he was in fact.
Any attempt to transform Washington into a polished conversationalist able to speak knowledgeably at dinner parties about music, philosophy or literature is a non-starter. He was no Jefferson. Nevertheless, Washington's painful awkwardness in social situations — dinner guests often watched him play with the silverware or drum the table with his fingers — should not diminish our appreciation of his talents or accomplishments. He was a masterful politician who could size up a potential ally or adversary within minutes. Although Washington had little interest in political philosophy, he understood the dynamics of power.
Even before he arrived in New York City in 1789 for his inauguration, Washington sensed more powerfully than did many contemporaries that revolutions most often end badly.
Today, more than ever, we recognize that the shared goals that sustain armed resistance frequently give way to destructive faction. The American Revolution was no exception. It could easily have yielded chronic instability, with one weak government following another until the union dissolved into hostile fragments. Ratification of the Constitution in itself certainly did not guarantee that the American people would cooperate for the common good. The transition from full-scale war to relative political tranquility was difficult, certainly far more so than the eager
Minutemen of 1775 appreciated.
Washington, however, understood the problem. In large measure, he accepted the presidency — an act that postponed a much desired retirement to Mount Vernon — to preserve the union. He worried constantly that national unity would give way to destructive fragmentation. During the mid-1780s Washington was convinced that time was running out for the United States. As if he needed instruction on how to meet the challenge, the leaders of North Carolina who had dragged their feet on ratification of the Constitution reminded Washington of how hard it was to bring the critics and the doubters around to supporting the new government. In a letter sent to Washington in May 1789, the Governor and Council observed, "Your Excellency will consider (however others may forget) how extremely difficult it is to unite all the People of a great Country in one common sentiment upon almost any political subject, much less a new form of Government materially different from one they have been accustomed to." They were optimistic. After all, "We sincerely believe that America is the only country in the world where such a deliberate change of Government could take place under any circumstances whatever."
Washington hoped the North Carolinians were right. The preservation of a strong post-revolutionary union would not be easy. It required constant vigilance. For him, federal unity nearly became an obsession. The Revolution for which he had fought depended on solidarity. This driving sense of strength through unity served the country well during a difficult period, but as one also must admit, Washington's uncompromising commitment to a strong union sometimes clouded his judgment. As he traveled the primitive roads of America, he remained blind to the corrosive effect that slavery would have upon the nation. And there is no question that his insistence on unity occasionally caused him to mistake candid criticism of the government for disloyalty.
Such concerns hardly detract from Washington's accomplishment. We study his journey to America today to recapture a sense of national purpose and unity that has gone missing from the ongoing conversation between our country's elected leaders and the people. It is true, of course, that Washington's appeal for solidarity often fell on deaf ears. And, unlike him, we know what the future held for the country after his presidency. Civil War almost destroyed the Nation he worked so hard to preserve. Local concerns have repeatedly trumped comprehension of the common good. Political parties stimulated heated debate, which sometimes has led to the utter paralysis of the government. Regional antagonism and civil war seemed to make a mockery of Washington's vision for the new Nation. But, whatever the subsequent course of events, the study of Washington's travels reminds us, now more than ever, of the enduring need for the American people to pull together to recover the original promise of the Revolution.
This essay has been adapted from
T.H. Breen's George Washington's Journey: The President Forges a New Nation (New York, 2016) with permission of Simon and Schuster.