The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789
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Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward J. Larson recovers a crucially important—yet almost always overlooked—chapter of George Washington’s life, revealing how Washington saved the United States by coming out of retirement to lead the Constitutional Convention and serve as our first president.
After leading the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War, George Washington shocked the world: he retired. In December 1783, General Washington, the most powerful man in the country, stepped down as Commander in Chief and returned to private life at Mount Vernon. Yet as Washington contentedly grew his estate, the fledgling American experiment floundered. Under the Articles of Confederation, the weak central government was unable to raise revenue to pay its debts or reach a consensus on national policy. The states bickered and grew apart. When a Constitutional Convention was established to address these problems, its chances of success were slim. Jefferson, Madison, and the other Founding Fathers realized that only one man could unite the fractious states: George Washington. Reluctant, but duty-bound, Washington rode to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to preside over the Convention.
Although Washington is often overlooked in most accounts of the period, this masterful new history from Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward J. Larson brilliantly uncovers Washington’s vital role in shaping the Convention—and shows how it was only with Washington’s support and his willingness to serve as President that the states were brought together and ratified the Constitution, thereby saving the country.
President. Hamilton was among the first to realize that they needed to agree on a candidate for the office or risk losing it to the opposition.75 Coupled with Washington, Adams represented something of a ticket balancer. Federalists generally agreed that, with Washington from the South, the Vice President should come from the Northeast. Some liked a candidate who, while supportive of federalist policies and opposed to early constitutional amendments, might appear more moderate and less elitist
library.18 Surely they discussed the Convention and, despite their differences, established a rapport. A generation older than Washington and crippled by gout and kidney stones, Franklin nevertheless retained more boyish enthusiasm than the Virginian. Social magnets, both men charmed the ladies—though Franklin purportedly took them to bed while Washington danced them into delirium. Both also enjoyed the company of men, with Franklin drawing them into witty conversation and Washington keeping
Georgia’s Pierce, who later privately expressed great relief in confirming that it was not his copy.47 Other delegates also jotted down some firsthand observations about the Convention in private journals or letters that subsequently became public, but the only comprehensive account of the closed-door sessions appeared in the copious daily notes taken by Madison, which he vowed to keep confidential until the last delegate died.48 As it turned out, passing at age eighty-five in 1836, he was that
it, Washington clearly conspired in the timing of its delivery. To begin “the main business” of the Convention, as Madison termed it in his notes, Washington called on Randolph.50 The Virginia governor then presented his delegation’s plan for a new national government. Once he took the floor, Randolph held it for most of the day and left no doubt about his state’s radical intentions. As presented by Randolph, the fifteen numbered resolutions that became known as “the Virginia Plan” contained the
expect his fame to be immortal. We wish to know, who besides him, can concentrate the confidence and affections of all America?”87 And railing against the electoral system for selecting presidents, Mason charged that “so many persons would be voted for, that there seldom or never could be a majority in favor of one, except one great name.”88 When Henry had the gall to assert that Jefferson opposed ratification, Madison countered that Washington supported it: check and checkmate.89 In making these