George Washington - Ada Russell

First Citizen

Washington after disbanding the army went to Annapolis to surrender his commission to Congress, and he had a triumphal march thither. Every town, hamlet and farm he passed cheered him wildly, and firing of cannon, bands, flags all acclaimed the Father of his Country, the founder of American independence. Congress received him with unreserved enthusiasm and distinction.

To a certain extent there was reason in his fears that the War of Independence was not yet over, as but for his personal action the expulsion of the British would have been but an episode in long and bloody struggles. We know only too well to-day how hard are the steps of revolutions, what they cost to wage and how barren their victories may be, for it is easier to pull down than to build up. The brilliant soldier of fortune is common enough, but the constructive statesman with a personality strong enough to give his views weight is the rarest and most precious of people. If Washington had been a demagogue, the thirteen colonies now independent might never have been able to agree on a federal constitution, and either he might have established his own personal rule, like Caesar or Napoleon, or, more probably, Britain and France and even Spain, might have once more matched their might together and the strongest taken the old British colonies as their prize. The American revolution was one of the few successful democratic revolutions of the modern world, and it was successful because it was led by a man like Washington, who had no private ambition or revenge to satisfy, who had no wish to destroy for the sake of destroying, who knew what bounds must be set to liberty, and who knew, finally, the limits of what the State can do for the individual. He never encouraged his followers to think that every ill flesh is heir to would be abolished when America shook off British rule; he never incited them to madness by descriptions of their wrongs. He was no talker, and if he has left behind him none of those magnanimous sayings which endear a hero to posterity and impose on his own age, he has done none of the harm that with a touch of the temperament of the actor or orator he would assuredly have done. His countrymen have reason to be sincerely grateful that their Founder had no touch of picturesque Caesarism in his composition.

Immediately after laying downs his command, he retired to Mount Vernon, where he announced his intention of finishing his days in the cultivation of his estate. He began the old pre-war round of rising at four o'clock in the morning and seeing to the affairs of his plantation, and visiting his friends, but he could not help keeping a more watchful eye than ever before on the trend of public events, and he was more alive to the need for developing American resources. Among the many great public measures which he supported was a plan for improving the navigation of the James and Potomac Rivers, and when the General Assembly wished to present him with shares in the profitable new concern, he refused, saying:

"For the sake of money, which indeed I never coveted from my country, I may lose the power to do her some service which may be worth more than all money." The value of the shares, therefore, was by his wish appropriated to a University within the bounds of the present District of Columbia and to a college subsequently called Washington College in Rockbridge County. As ever he gave much to the poor.

Washington resigning


But this rural peace was not for Washington. The thirteen colonies needed a constitution. There was no entity to treat with foreign powers, there was no taxing body, and there was no supreme legislature; and discharged soldiers and other unruly spirits were therefore beginning to use their talents in unlawful directions. Congress had done its work and had no power to rule the State; indeed there was no State.

So strong was local feeling in America at that time, that few people wished for a central State, and it took the masses of the people some time to see that a federation was necessary. What powers of control it was desirable to give the new central State to he established was not decided at that time nor ever completely in the history of the United States, for before ever the Union came into existence we may see the two parties of Federalists and "State Rights" or "Republicans" or "Democratic Republicans" as this latter party carne to be called later, and later again "Democrats." The Federalists wanted a strong central State, the Democrats wanted large measures of local self-government.

A Constituent Assembly met at Philadelphia in 1787 and in a few months' time drew up the constitution of the United States, much as it is to-day. It was formed in outline after the English pattern of three Estates,—but instead of King, Lords and Commons, there was to be President, Senate and House of Representatives. The original constitution provided an Electoral College, (still retained although with modified functions), to elect, the President. The Senators were to be chosen by the legislatures of the States, and each State was to be equally represented. They were to be elected for six years, a third of their number resigning in rotation and giving place to a new third portion. The members of the House of Representatives were to be chosen directly by the people on the basis of almost universal male suffrage, and to hold office for two years only. The President was to hold office for four years, when he might be re-elected to a further term of service. As a concession to "States' Rights" the various States which composed the Union were made independent except for foreign policy, taxation, coinage and certain legislative principles.

Ever since the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had been busy on the penal code, and he substantially accepted that of Great. Britain as he found it, being specially careful not to alter words and phrases which time had consecrated and lawyers had long agreed to interpret after a certain fashion; and to this practical sagacity of Jefferson the United States owes a great debt. Some features, however, and important features, of the English law were completely altered. The descent of property to the eldest son was abolished, for America did not want a landed aristocracy. The death sentence was limited to the blackest crimes, and religious toleration was extended not only to all Christians, as some people wanted, but to "Jew and Gentile, Christian and Mahometan, Hindoo and infidel of every denomination," as Thomas Jefferson triumphantly relates. Jefferson wanted to abolish slavery, to introduce compulsory elementary education and many other revolutionary measures, but the times were not yet ripe for such innovations.

When the moment came for choosing a President of the United States of America, there was no doubt as to the people's choice. George Washington was inaugurated therefore on 30th April, 1739, and his sensations on thus being dragged once more from his peaceful home at Mount Vernon he thus described in a letter to a friend:

"My movement to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to his place of execution, so unwilling am I, in the evening of life, nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an ocean of difficulties, without the competency of political skill, abilities, and inclination which are necessary to manage the helm."

Another triumphal journey, in his own carriage-and-four, from Mount Vernon to New York, a royal reception in that city, then state processions in a chariot-and-six with out-riders and liveried servants, and then the great ceremony of his inauguration. His speech was a notable one. "When I contemplate," he said, "the interposition of Providence, as it was visibly manifested in guiding us through the Revolution, in preparing us for the reception of a general government, and in conciliating the goodwill of the people of America towards one another after its adoption, I feel most oppressed and almost overwhelmed with a sense of the Divine munificence. I feel that nothing is due to my personal agency in all those complicated and wonderful events except what can simply be attributed to the exertions of an honest zeal for the good of my country."

In 1700 the seat of Government was removed from New York to Philadelphia, but Washington wished it to be established at the mouth of the Potomac, as it ultimately was—at "Washington."

Chateaubriand, one of the most ardent disciples of Rousseau, came over to America, the land of his dreams, the dwelling-place as he and his friends imagined of Man unsophisticated and spoiled by civilisation. "There is nothing old in America," he says, "but the woods, the children of the earth, and Liberty, mother of every human society: that is well worth monuments and ancestors!" His stories of his adventures have not quite the validity of legal documents, but he had a charming literary style and he represents almost as well as Jefferson the ideals that lay in the hearts of many of the American revolutionaries. He relates at length an interview he claims to have had with Washington in 1791,—three years after the fall of the Bastille and outbreak of the French Revolution.

"When I arrived at Philadelphia," he says, "the great Washington was not there. I was obliged to wait for a fortnight. He returned. I saw him pass in a carriage drawn with rapidity by four spirited horses driven four-in-hand. Washington, according to my ideas, was necessarily Cincinnatus; Cincinnatus in a carriage disturbed somewhat my Roman Republic of 296 B. C. Could the Dictator Washington be anything but a rustic goading forward his oxen and holding the plough-share? But when I presented myself with my letter of introduction at the house of this great man, I found all the simplicity of the old Roman."

In 1793 Washington, again much against his will, was reelected President for a further period of four years, and in this second term of office he made treaties with foreign countries and with the Indians, and dealt with all the important measures that arose, like a trained statesman and administrator. He got through an enormous amount of work, and he required his staff to work hard. He gave no munificent rewards to his adherents, like Napoleon, and what acts of generosity he performed were always out of his own money.

He said once about a friend: "As George Washington I would do this man any kindness in my power; but as President of the United States I can do nothing." He created a tradition of public faithfulness, and parsimony even, for his successors, and he also created a traditional limit for the President's term of office by retiring at the end of his second period of office.

Refusing every representation from his friends, he returned to Mount Vernon, there to end his days three years later.

Contracting a chill, he died within a few days, on December, 1799, and was buried in the family vault at Mount Vernon.

His death seemed a national calamity, and the whole country went into mourning. Nor was the sorrow confined to America. Napoleon ordered his army to attach crepe to all its standards and flags, and the British admiral Lord Bridport, when he heard the news, had his flag lowered to half-mast.

As he desired in his farewell address to Congress, when definitely laying down his powers, the free nation which was the work of his hands has been "sacredly maintained," and that largely because the American nation have remembered his counsels. "In all the changes to which you may be invited," he told them, "remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; . . . and remember especially that for the efficient management of your common interests, in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigour as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable. Liberty itself will find in such a Government . . . its surest guardian."

For foreign policy, his last counsels to his people were to steer clear alike of friendships and enmities with other countries, to make themselves strong and hold aloof from the entanglements of the Old World. "There can be no greater error," he said, "than to expect or calculate upon real favours from nation to nation."

Chateaubriand made a very just contrast of Washington and Napoleon, the two great generals of the two new democracies. The genius of the latter, he said, seemed of a higher flight than that of the former. Washington did not surpass human stature, or astonish mankind by deeds beyond their comprehension. He did not travel with winged speed from Egypt to Austria and from Spain to Russia, and defeat the most celebrated captains of the age and nations old and renowned. "He defends himself with a handful of citizens in a country without historical memories and without fame. . . . Something silent envelops the actions of Washington; he acts slowly; he seems to feel that he is entrusted with the liberty of the future, and he fears to compromise it. Not his own destinies inspire this hero of a new sort, but those of his country; he will not stake that which does not belong to him. But from this profound obscurity what light is to burst! Search the unknown woods where Washington's sword shone, and what will you find? Tombs? No, a world! Washington left the United States for trophy on his battle-field. . . . This man, who made little personal impression because he was natural and in just proportions, merged his own existence in that of his country; his glory is the common inheritance of growing civilisation; his fame rises like one of those sanctuaries whence flows an unfailing spring for the People."

This is a similar note to that struck by a later President of the United States, Dr. Woodrow Wilson, in a speech on Independence Day, 1918, at the tomb of Washington:

"From this green hillside," he said, "we also ought to be able to see with comprehending eyes that world that lies about us, and should conceive anew the purposes that must set men free."