Friday, February 26, 2016

Deus ex Virginia: A Tale of Cabbages, Kings, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Indispensable Mr. Washington

I recently came across this essay, written as a contribution to a series of talks organized by my peers up on the mountain in the Department of History and Philosophy of the University of Virginia's College at Wise in the ancient age of 2012 - I enjoyed writing it and I'm not sure if I've ever shared it in any other venue.  Read it and enjoy in good health!

Frances Benjamin Johnston (1899?) "African American school children
facing the Horatio Greenough statue of George Washington at the U.S. Capitol"
via Wikimedia Commons


History is littered with the corpses of tyrants who were once heroes, men who led forces in the defense of their ideals only to turn upon their own people and, on pretense of salvation or compensation, enslave them.  These bastards, I fear, are legion.  Everyone can recount the names of the most famous – Caesar, Bolivar, Napoleon, not to mention a host of other petty thugs and parasites, wrapped in flags and fancy words.  This is, however, one reason that the United States is an interesting place, a political system born out of violence, its population entirely enamored with its military savior, in which said leader not only did not seize upon the reins of state and dictatorship hungrily, but in point of fact was a critical force, perhaps the critical force, in preventing tyranny from being thrust upon him.  

This essay is the tale of that very leader the man who would not be king.  It is a story about how he became our President, of how he endowed that title with meaning, of how he turned down absolute power and in so doing saved the Republic, and of how he died of a broken heart, as most good men do.  It is also a story of Greek plays, political intrigue, class warfare, medieval imperial and religious institutions, and a key. 

Act I. The Newburgh Conspiracy

Democracy is not normal.  Never believe that it is – virtually all political systems in human history have been autocratic, dominated by one or a very few people. Democracies are fragile, easily upset and rarely enduring.  There is a lesson in this fact for we Americans – we are not normal, and we should never be under the illusion that our experience is typical.  Though, it can be said, it very nearly was. 

On October 19th, 1781 General Cornwallis surrendered to a joint Franco-American military force commanded by the good Mr. George Washington.  With his concession major fighting ended on the North American continent, though the war proper would continue until the spring of 1782.  By November of that year preliminary articles of peace had been signed, and finally, on September 3rd of 1783 the British and Americans would sign their portion of the Peace of Paris. 

During this period of neither war nor peace the Union very nearly collapsed.  Congress, a weak and ineffective organ under the Articles of Confederation, could only beg monies from the states who, unshockingly, were hesitant to either increase their taxes to cover the difference or to decrease their share of the tax income they already collected.  As such, Congress had virtually no income relative to its debts and expenditures, and it was unable to pay retiring officers and soldiers either their back pay or pensions.  Dissatisfaction built upon itself until ultimately a cabal of officers began to consider taking things into their own hands.  The result was the emergence of an officer’s cabal, the Newburgh conspiracy.

There is a great deal of debate as to the actual intentions of the Newburgh conspiracy – certainly it did demand that Congress immediately provide restitution to both officers and enlisted men or else be left undefended and to its own devices, effectively depriving it of any claim to sovereign rule and derailing the Union in its infancy.  There were also clearly those, both within and without the conspiracy that felt that the Union was fundamentally unstable.  Congress was inept, it was argued, and the Union could not hope to remain united under it.  If the Union fell, they reasoned, then war amongst the former colonies, against European powers seeking to reestablish domination over North America, and against deeply antagonist native American peoples would almost immediately commence.  The republican experiment’s failure would, they feared, lead to the failure of the American experiment as a whole.  As a result the possibility of an out and out coup d’état was very real, with the end of the coup ultimately being the installation of a military government led by a dictator or a European-style monarchy ruled by a king (if this seems unlikely, consider the histories of our various neighbors in the Southern Hemisphere).  In both cases, one man’s efforts would have made such a coup both inevitable and successful – the hero of the revolution, Mr. Washington.  Yet the conspirators knew Washington sympathized with both his men and the young Congress, and fearing he would moderate them planned on bypassing him insofar as possible – after all, Washington had already (in 1782) rebuffed a suggestion by several of his officers that he establish himself as king of the United States.

Provincially, Washington learned of the Newburgh conspiracy before it had taken significant actions.  On March 12th of 1783 the conspirators had called for a meeting of the army’s officers to discuss their demands and plans.  Washington responded by cancelling the meeting and calling his own three days later. 

The crowd was angry and hostile, from all reports, and Washington was beaten and tired.  When be prepared to speak, he drew his glasses from his pocket, unfolded them, and said only, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."  He began to read, and the Republic was, by the end of his letter, saved. 

Act II. The General Retires

On November 25th the final British forces east of the Appalachian Mountains would sail from New York harbor.  Their withdrawal was overseen by General Washington who, over a period of weeks oversaw the steady reoccupation of the city.  Almost immediately he made plans to return to Virginia, his wife, and Mount Vernon – he hoped to be retired and comfortable well in time for Christmas. 

Washington was very nearly late.  Heralded as he was as the savior of the Republic, his presence was demanded for speeches, ceremonies and dinners all along the long path from New York to northern Virginia.  One of these stops, however, was of fundamental importance to both the good General and the Union as a whole – Annapolis, Maryland. 

Annapolis at the time was serving as the capital of the United States, and Washington walked into a well-choreographed series of ceremonies (whether he wished for them or not).   

Finally, on the 23rd of December Washington was received by Congress and read a speech both brief enough and of adequate sentiment that, with your permission, I’ll quote it in its entirety here. 

“Mr. President," it began:
The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I have now the honor of offering my sincere Congratulations to Congress and of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the Service of my Country.

Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the oppertunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence. A diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our Cause, the support of the supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven.

The Successful termination of the War has verified the most sanguine expectations, and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my Countrymen, encreases with every review of the momentous Contest.

While I repeat my obligations to the Army in general, I should do injustice to my own feelings not to acknowledge in this place the peculiar Services and distinguished merits of the Gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the War.


At this point, reported witnesses, the good General began to shake and grip the papers of his speech tightly.

It was impossible the choice of confidential Officers to compose my family should have been more fortunate. Permit me Sir, to recommend in particular those, who have continued in Service to the present moment, as worthy of the favorable notice and patronage of Congress.

I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.

Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire form the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.


Washington resigned his commission, handing it to the president of Congress, received a speech delivered by Thomas Mifflin but largely written by Jefferson, and then, after the members of Congress had ceremoniously doffed their hats, Washington retired both from the army of these United States and, he hoped, from public life in general.  By Christmas Eve Washington was across the Potomac and home, a mere civilian enjoying the holiday with his wife, family, and friends. 


Act III. The Second American Revolution


"The time has come," the Walrus said, "To talk of many things: Of shoes - ships - and sealing-wax - Of cabbages - and kings -  And why the sea is boiling hot - And whether pigs have wings."

Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872)


It is probably not an overstatement to assert that the first constitution of the United States of America was an abject and utter failure.  The Federal government had little power and was essentially born bankrupt, the various states plunged up to their elbows in every imaginable type of excess, and the Union found itself in a general condition of insolvency and insecurity.  The problems of the Union arose from three key characteristics of the government established in the Articles of Confederation.  First off, virtually every decision of significance required either a supermajority or unanimity.  Secondly, the Federal government had few if any real tools for compelling coercing the states into obeying national policies or cooperating with one another, thus allowing economic, social, and political factionalism to skyrocket.   Finally, the Federal government had virtually no power to independently tax and was, as such, obliged to beg the various states for whatever scraps of income they might begrudgingly provide them with.  Add to this the complete lack of an effective executive, the virtual nonexistence of a navy or army able to project power beyond American borders, and the rapid emergence of protectionist and pyramid schemes in the various states and the Union seemed, once more, damned in its youth. 

Washington was in retirement but he was hardly ignorant of the condition of his young nation.  He was an avid correspondent, exchanging letters constantly with statesmen, scholars, and thinkers of his time.  Washington was also a voracious reader, not merely of books – though his library was in excess of 1000 volumes at the time of his death – but of magazines and newspapers as well, subscribed to from throughout the United States and Britain.  Indeed, his letters from the years immediately preceding the Constitutional Congress reflected his concern that the United States was already amidst a dangerous crisis and that, without active efforts to reform the American polity it would surely decline into misery and conflict.  Indeed, brief perusal of his letters from the mid-1780s reveal his ongoing horror that, as the crisis deepened, public tolerance for the adoption of a constitutional monarchy  was growing, rather than fading (in particular see his letter to John Jay on the 15th of August 1786).

By the time of the Annapolis Convention in 1786 that group of powerful thinkers and statesmen we so often call today the Founding Fathers had collectively decided that some effort must be undertaken to rescue the Union from its rapid deterioration.  The decision was made to call a convention of delegates, representing each of the states, together in Philadelphia to discuss the implementation of some radical reforms of the American constitution, though from the beginning the degree and nature of reform was in debate.  The first delegates met on the 14th of May of 1787, but a quorum of seven states was only reached on the 25th, and states continued to saunter into Philadelphia until late July when New Hampshire’s finally arrived.  Certainly there was no guarantee of success – 74 of the 55 appointed delegates never arrived, and Rhodes Island refused to even send any.

In fact, Washington nearly didn’t attend the convention himself.  His brother had recently died, he was recovering from a number of illnesses, and he was hesitant to participate in any convention which did not include all of the great minds of the early Republic.  It was only after months of coaxing by Madison, who felt that the good Mr. Washington’s presence would legitimate the event in the eyes of both participants and observers, that he finally gave in.  Upon formally convening Washington found himself unanimously elected as chair of the proceedings, an office he neither enjoyed nor desired, particularly because he felt that it made him unable support the strengthening of the Federal government, which he felt was essential to the survival of the Republic, in a forthright way.

The Constitutional convention is essential to this story because it created the institution of the American presidency as we now know it, including the system by which our elected monarch takes office.  Originally, under the Articles of Confederation the United States had no independent executive officer or officers.  Certainly there was a president, but this individual was selected by the unicameral confederal Congress as the head of parliamentary procedure for that body during its debates, discussions, and votes – he exercised no independent political authority.  Indeed, this is how the American executive came to take on the odd name of “president” – the term, in its original form, refers not to an individual holding power in his or her own right, such as principe or prince, king, imperator or emperor, dictator, and monarch (to name only a few), but rather to one who presides over a meeting – a keeper of order.  This, indeed, is typically regarded as one of the fatal flaws of the Articles.  The Congress was ill-equipped to fulfill its legislative duties, much less engage in the kind of bureaucratic and military oversight which allows a polity to function in an efficient and timely way. 

It was not that the writers of the Articles were naïve, mind you.  They simply regarded the monarchic principle as one to be avoided – they understood monarchic systems as concentrating entirely too much power into the hands of a single person who need only guarantee the loyalty of the military to transform a polity of laws into a tyranny.  Yet the experience of the Revolution and the post-bellum years had left most of the founders convinced a monarch of some type was necessary.  The most radical proposal was probably that of Alexander Hamilton who, among other things, proposed a powerful monarch serving for life or “time of good behavior,” put in place by a college of electors, specifically and consciously modeled on the British monarchical system. 

Ultimately, however, the tide of opinion among the founders turned in the direction of a periodically elected monarch, one who would serve comparatively short terms before having to stand for reelection.  The question then became one of how would the monarch be chosen.  Here, it seems, there are two models which have dominated most of history – the democratic electoral model and the parliamentary model. With regards to the former, the people, which is to say that part of the people regarded as citizens, would directly elect the president by some variety of majority vote.  The parliamentary model, however, would duplicate the method by which the prime minister of the United Kingdom received his office, allowing one or both houses of the legislature to participate in the selection of a president from their own ranks.  Each of these plans, however, carried their own seeds of destruction.

The democratic electoral model potentially invested enormous trust in the poor- and middle-classes.  The founders were not insulting of these classes, who worked hard, were ethical, and perhaps smelled of cabbage, but they did fear the age old phenomenon of “bread and games” – that is to say the tendency of the masses to give up their liberties and political rights in exchange for promises of security, entertainment, and wealth.  On the other hand, the founders feared the possibility that a cabal might form in the legislature that selected only puppet executives, giving them effective control over the apparatus of state and, again, leading the republic down the short road to tyranny. 

The solution, it seems, was to draw upon an institution that many Americans whose origins most Americans today, and I expect at the time, were largely if not entirely unfamiliar with – the electoral college. 

Two of the most important political systems in the history of the Western world were (and in one case, is) presided over by monarchs elected by colleges of aristocrats. One of these is the Papacy, or the Bishopric of Rome, in which the College of Cardinals meet in conclave and elect a Pope to serve as the Roman Catholic Church’s monarch in matters temporal and spiritual; upon his death or retirement, the College reconvenes and a new Pontiff is elected.   The other of these is the Holy Roman Empire in which the Emperor, or King of Rome, was elected by seven Kurfürsten, or Electors, all of whom were temporal or church aristocrats or monarchs.   Neither of these institutions could be described as new in any sense – the method of papal election was solidified by Gregory X in 1247’s Ubi periculum bull, while the method of imperial election was issued by the Reichstag of the Empire in 1356 in the form of Charles IV’s Golden Bull.  Yet their use as a model for the Americans, who feared centralized authority of both the monarchical and aristocratic types, is nonetheless surprising. 

Yet when the Committee of 11, the convention’s working committee, proposed the Electoral College as an alternative to the more popular Virginia Plan-based parliamentary mode, the proposal was accepted on the basis that not only did it prevent the development of a legislative cabal, but it further guaranteed the relevance of the states and regions, and their independence with regards to influencing the presidential election – the southern states generally preferring to leave the decision to the state legislators, the northern states tending towards popular elections determining the electors.  In other words, the institution of the presidency was designed, quite consciously, to be powerful enough to actually do things yet still eternally dependent on the will of both the masses and the elites within the context of each region and states’ biases.  The system was complex and difficult to understand and it was built on a total lack of trust among the founding fathers with regards to themselves, their respective state governments, and the people as a whole.  Save one man, it would seem.  The good Mr. Washington. 

On the 17th of September in the year 1787 the convention passed the Constitution as we have it today, sans amendments.  Over the course of 1788, after one of the most philosophically informed (and occasionally brutal) bouts of national politics, the Constitution was gradually passed by each of the thirteen states, in no small part because of the machinations of James Madison and concessions to the Anti-Federalist factions which led to the adoption of the ten amendments constituting the Bill of Rights by 1791. 
The United States now had a Federal Government.  It remained only to populate it with demi-gods or, in lieu of them, Virginians.


Act IV. The Election of 1789


There was never any question of who it had to be.  The new, indirectly elected monarch of the United States, invested with infinitely more power than the founders had ever envisioned providing any political leader with at the dawn of the Revolution, had to be someone who could be trusted.  He had to be trusted as a statesman, as a leader, and as an individual.  He must be someone who transcended the factions of religion and region, someone who was seen as both militarily competent and utterly dedicated to the civilian rule, someone who would evoke fear in neither aristocrats nor the ordinary folk.  This first president would indeed preside over his nation, his every action becoming precedent to be carefully mimicked for centuries to come, his decisions establishing, more than any other official of the Union in history, the political cultural and norms of the Republic. 
There was no doubt Washington would be elected, but the landscape of the election was, especially to modern eyes, odd.  The legislature of New York deadlocked over their allotment of electors – not over the supporters of Washington in his bid for the presidency, but over electors who would vote that most ignoble of offices, the vice-president.  Neither North Carolina nor Rhodes Island had ratified the constitution and, as such, they were ineligible even to participate.  Connecticut, Georgia, New Jersey, and South Carolina’s electors were chosen exclusively by their legislatures – an indirect election of the indirect electors to the presidency.  The other states either directly elected their electors (a tongue twister) or allotted them, through elections via electoral districts.  In all states participating the first vote by their electors, that which determined the President, chose Washington – still the only Electorally unanimous president, and likely to be the last.

There is some debate over whether the good Mr. Washington wanted the office.  Consider the first paragraph of his inaugural address:


Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the fourteenth day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years—a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time. On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence, one, who inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies. In this conflict of emotions all I dare aver, is, that it has been my faithful study to collect my duty from a just appreciation of every circumstance by which it might be affected. All I dare hope, is, that if, in executing this task, I have been too much swayed by a grateful remembrance of former instances, or by an affectionate sensibility to this transcendent proof of the confidence of my fellow-citizens, and have thence too little consulted my incapacity as well as disinclination for the weighty and untried cares before me, my error will be palliated by the motives which misled me, and its consequences be judged by my country with some share of the partiality in which they originated.


Indeed, if Washington was honest, as I suspect he largely was, he was at best ambivalent about the honor accorded him in by the office of the presidency – he knew very well that the success or failure of the Republic, rightly or wrongly, accurately or inaccurately, would largely be laid upon his lap and his reputation, so far unsullied, could only receive injury from participating in what he calls “civil administration.”  I imagine that Washington’s situation was not unlike that of Midas or Solomon, those great leaders-cum-parables who got what they long wished for, only to realize that the object of their desire entailed costs unimagined.



Socrates: It will, I imagine, seem ridiculous that things are made manifest through imitation in letters and syllables; nevertheless it cannot be otherwise. For there is no better theory upon which we can base the truth of the earliest names, unless you think we had better follow the example of the tragic poets, who, when they are in a dilemma, have recourse to the introduction of gods [from] machines. So we may get out of trouble by saying that the gods gave the earliest names, and therefore they are right.”


Plato, Dialogue of Cratylus, 425d (4th Century BCE, translation Harold N. Fowler, 1921) 


Historians and social scientists are men and women in search of regularities and patterns.  Particular events take on importance in no small part because they are reflections of general principles – absent general principles, events are mere trivia. 

But occasionally events do not seem to hinge upon general principles.  Once in a very long while the thundering stampede of history, so often following the same path, curves away because of one event or one person.   The ancient Greeks and Romans referred to these sorts of events as instances of “god from the machine,” a reference to the propensity for Greek religious dramas to have their plots resolved in ways that seem counter the apparent path of events as a product of the unforeseen (at least by the plays’ characters) intervention of supernatural beings.  This hero should have died, save for the intervention of this goddess lowered from the ceiling; this ruler would have led a happy people had he not raised the ire of that god who himself is raised from a trap door; and so forth.  Change anything else, the story merely goes along as it would have.  But the intervention of the divine changes everything. 

The real world is like this, it seems.  Imagine a world where George Washington died in a firefight during the French and Indian War – the United States likely loses the War of Independence, or at least is in a far worse position when the time for negotiations finally arrives.  Imagine a world where Washington dies during the American Revolution, or retires before full British withdrawal, and the emergence of 13 petty tyrannies perpetually at odds or a national pattern of military dictatorships resembling those of Latin America in the 19th and 20th Century.  Imagine a world where George Washington had preferred the Greeks to the Romans in his reading, a world where he modeled himself after Plato’s philosopher-king instead of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the farmer who would not be king, a world where he became dictator or king, or merely His Royal Highness, President of the United States.  Imagine a world where George Washington, wracked with grief at his brother’s death and physically exhausted by his efforts during the revolution, refused to attend the Constitutional Convention, leaving it devoid of legitimacy and his command of the delegations.  Imagine a world where the first election was never accepted by any of the factions out of their mutual distrust, or a world where factions were quashed before they philosophically matured.  Imagine a world where Washington ran for a third term, or perhaps more, and designated his heir in the manner of the “good” Roman emperors.

In any of these scenarios, and many besides, all is lost.  Everything that makes the United States good, a model, a beacon of any importance and any note beyond the rust and grime of power, all of it is lost before it begins.  No one person was ever so important to the United States, and no election so critical as that which brought him into office. 


Deus ex Virginia.


Act V. The President Retires

“Where may the wearied eye repose; When gazing on the Great; Where neither guilty glory glows, Nor despicable state? Yes—one—the first—the last—the best— The Cincinnatus of the West, Whom envy dared not hate, Bequeath'd the name of Washington, To make man blush there was but one!”


George Gordon, Lord Byron

From Ode to Napoleon Buonoparte

Washington was sworn into office on the 30th of April in 1789 on Wall Street in New York City, on the balcony of Federal Hall. He would serve two terms as president (the second even more grudgingly than the first) and would refuse to stand for a third term, and in so doing Washington would set yet another precedent.  As Washington says in his Farewell Address:


The acceptance of, and continuance hitherto in, the office to which your suffrages have twice called me have been a uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty and to a deference for what appeared to be your desire. I constantly hoped that it would have been much earlier in my power, consistently with motives which I was not at liberty to disregard, to return to that retirement from which I had been reluctantly drawn. The strength of my inclination to do this, previous to the last election, had even led to the preparation of an address to declare it to you; but mature reflection on the then perplexed and critical posture of our affairs with foreign nations, and the unanimous advice of persons entitled to my confidence, impelled me to abandon the idea.


When Washington retired he despised the office of the presidency.  Anti-Federalists, led by Jefferson and Monroe, had steadily aligned against him and begun slander campaigns directed at Washington and members of the Federalist faction.  Washington was also troubled that he had been obliged to militarily put down insurrections on the frontier and that relations with France had steadily deteriorated due both to the more powerful nation’s desire to use the Union as a puppet and the radicalization of French liberal philosophy during the French revolution.   Washington feared that American government was on the verge of both usurpation by foreign influences and degeneration into ethical morbidity.  The old man was tired, physically pained by years of military service and emotionally wrought by the pains of political service and the dissolution of old friendships.  Indeed, in a letter of 1796 from Washington to Jefferson it is possible to glean a real sense of the former’s sense of betrayal:


Perceiving, and probably, hearing, that no abuse in the Gazettes would induce me to take notice of anonymous publications, against me; those who were disposed to do me such friendly Offices, have embraced without restraint every opportunity to weaken the confidence of the People; and, by having the whole game in their hands, they have scrupled not to publish things that do not, as well as those which do exist; and to mutilate the latter, so as to make them subserve the purposes which they have in view.

As you have mentioned the subject yourself, it would not be frank, candid, or friendly to conceal, that your conduct has been represented as derogatory from that opinion I had conceived you entertained of me. That to your particular friends and connextions you have described, and they have denounced me, as a person under a dangerous influence; and that, if I would listen more to some other opinions, all would be well. My answer invariably has been, that I had never discovered any thing in the conduct of Mr. Jefferson to raise suspicions, in my mind, of his insincerity; that if he would retrace my public conduct while he was in the Administration, abundant proofs would occur to him, that truth and right decisions, were the sole objects of my pursuit; that there were as many instances within his own knowledge of my having decided against, as in favor of the opinions of the person evidently alluded to; and moreover, that I was no believer in the infallibility of the politics, or measures of any man living. In short, that I was no party man myself, and the first wish of my heart was, if parties did exist, to reconcile them.

To this I may add, and very truly, that, until within the last year or two ago, I had no conception that Parties would, or even could go, the length I have been witness to; nor did I believe until lately, that it was within the bonds of probability; hardly within those of possibility, that, while I was using my utmost exertions to establish a national character of our own, independent, as far as our obligations, and justice would permit, of every nation of the earth; and wished, by steering a steady course, to preserve this Country from the horrors of a desolating war, that I should be accused of being the enemy of one Nation, and subject to the influence of another; and to prove it, that every act of my administration would be tortured, and the grossest, and most insidious mis-representations of them be made (by giving one side only of a subject, and that too in such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero; a notorious defaulter; or even to a common pickpocket). But enough of this; I have already gone farther in the expression of my feelings, than I intended.


And so Washington left office in 1797, returned to Mount Vernon and attempted to hide from public life, an effort at which (with the exception of taking on formal military title again in order to help Adams prepare for the possibility of a French invasion, a position at which he, perhaps for the only time in his life, expressed his disdain for Anti-Federalists openly and, rather imperiously, demanded, but ultimately did not receive, the right to appoint senior officers) he largely succeeded. 

Washington’s retirement, in and of itself, was unremarkable.  Each day he would tour his farm by horseback, returning home for dinner.  At dinner he was normally beset by guests (most of whom, he would bemoan in letters, he did not know), would go out for a constitutional, and then would take tea.

After tea he would busy himself about the house until dusk, and once the candles were lit he would retire to his study, sitting at his writing desk, to read and engage in correspondence until, tired, he would go to bed.  In 1799 Washington would write two wills, one of which Martha burnt at his request on the day of his death, the other of which in tremendous detail outlined his bequests, including his request that his slaves be freed  and supported with proceeds of his estate.

In December of that year, Washington would develop a sore throat after riding in poor weather.  After bleeding and medicines he became convinced of his rapid decline.  He explicitly requested that he buried in a simple manner, with no ceremony or speeches, political, religious, or otherwise – a request that was respected largely in its neglect.  He sat for a few hours, before dying, by the fireplace privately with Martha before returning to bed, where his final words were simply, “Tis well.”  Within days his correspondence was censored – much of his private correspondence was burned by his relatives, including most of his letters to and from his wife. 

In an oration before Congress the day after Christmas Washington’s old friend Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, III eulogized Washington famously.  He said:


First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere—uniform, dignified and commanding—his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. . . . Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. . . . Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.


Jefferson would concur, many years later, repenting of his earlier slights in a letter of 1814:


On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance. For his was the singular destiny and merit, of leading the armies of his country successfully through an arduous war, for the establishment of its independence; of conducting its councils through the birth of a government, new in its forms and principles, until it had settled down into a quiet and orderly train; and of scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example.

I thank you for your time and attention.

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