George Washington wanted to die rich, and we have that to thank for the Constitution.
In the aftermath of the American Revolution, George Washington was keen to rebuild his personal finances. At the same time, the new nation’s leaders were equally eager to create a strong central government. That pair of impulses, one private and one public, lie entwined together at the center of a fantastic new biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward J. Larson, The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789.
The book traces Washington’s life from the end of the Revolution through his emergence from retirement to head the Constitutional Convention, his behind-the-scenes role in the ratification process, and his election as the first president.
There would likely be no Constitution as we know it if it were not for Washington. His maneuvering outside the public eye, his acquiescence to presiding over the convention, and his Cincinnatus-esque reputation all played a large part in the shaping of a new centralized government with a strong executive. The widely accepted notion that he would be the first president in the new government, argues Larson, increased support for the new government in the states, but also made it so that those who questioned how close the new role veered toward monarchy were seen as insulting the hero who had already once relinquished power.
While Washington influenced countless thousands, what brought him to see the need for such a powerful new government that pushed aside the states, including his beloved Virginia?
The answer lies in Washington’s realization through his own attempts to increase his wealth, that without a strong government, it was extremely unlikely the states and their inhabitants would flourish economically.
At the end of the war, there were two figures in American life unparalleled in terms of stature in the former colonies—Washington and Ben Franklin. While Franklin became bogged down in Pennsylvania while serving as its first president, Washington famously turned in his commission and retired to his farm.
However, nine years of war had left Washington’s finances and lands in a state of disarray. As he set about to not only to repair them but to increase the value of his investments, he ran into serious problems.
As he set about trying to revitalize his tidewater plantation and neighboring farms at Mount Vernon, Washington proved a stern taskmaster.
“He did not trust his slaves and regularly complained that they shirked work, stole supplies, and broke tools,” writes Larson. “He felt a need to watch them daily to keep them on task.” He notes that Washington even went so far as to record how much work they did in his presence, and then extended that amount as what would be required for the entire day—from sunup to sundown, six days a week. He also watched his overseers intently.
But the real money, Washington believed, lay in the western land investments he had made at the outset of the war.
“His long journey back from retirement to the Constitutional Convention and the presidency,” writes Larson, “began with his trip to the frontier in 1784.”
Just nine months into his retirement, Washington set out to check in on land investments he had made in Virginia and what is now West Virginia.
The journey began well, as Washington managed to collect some rent from war-ravaged tenants in Cumberland. However, that would be the high point of his trip. Farther west along Braddock’s Road, he had a 1,644 acre tract managed since 1772 by a man named Gilbert Simpson. Washington, “rarely charitable when it came to business,” according to Larson, thought Simpson was defrauding him as Simpson had produced not a single profit from the lands. Washington found a mill he paid for to be virtually nonexistent, farms to be producing little of value, and the lands full of “people of a lower order.” Squeezing what rent he could from the tenants, Washington moved on.
The next two legs of his journey would be the game-changers. On a 2,813-acre tract roughly 30 miles west, Washington found a Calvinist sect called the Seceders squatting on his land. These settlers argued that they did not need to submit themselves to Washington’s claim as Christ had called them to this land. Washington, claims Larson, “was in no mood to extend Christian charity to a band of self-righteous freeloaders.” The Seceders then offered Washington a small sum to prevent a fight, but Washington saw himself more as a landlord/developer than land speculator, and refused. Washington, who is said to have been fined for swearing while in negotiations, ended up taking them to court and winning, even though his claim was weak.
Before doing so, however, Washington began a great American tradition of real estate braggadocio. Waving a silk cloth, he declared, “Gentlemen, I will have this land just as surely as I now have this handkerchief.”
When Washington was finished with the squatters, he headed farther west to the 30,000 acres he owned near the junction of the Ohio and Great Kanawha rivers. However, Native Americans unhappy about the white settlers pouring into the Ohio Valley were reportedly waiting to attack him. Indeed, Washington’s local agent, William Crawford, had been captured, scalped, and roasted alive just two years earlier. Washington now found himself unable to even see the lands he was banking on to leave a lasting fortune.
“The trip,” reckons Larson, “disoriented and disconcerted Washington. It was as if the frontier and its people were conspiring” to prevent him from rescuing his personal wealth. Frauds, squatters, and dangerous natives stood in his way.
“Removing them,” Larson writes, “would require government action.”
But Washington was no ordinary citizen investor. Troubles that plagued him, he seems to have concluded, plagued the nation as a whole. So his issues, he believed, signified a national crisis in which the frontier could swing toward Spain, the natives, or lawless frontiersmen. “For the good of the country and his personal financial well-being,” says Larson, Washington began to argue that a new national power was needed to secure the frontier.
Around the same time, he turned to another of his long-term investment dreams—canals.
Washington had long dreamed of a canal running along the Potomac to connect the West with the East. Not only would it allow him better access to his land, but coincidentally would place Mount Vernon right at the heart of such a lucrative route. Nudged by Thomas Jefferson to get involved, Washington agreed to lead a project to develop such a canal. His campaign to raise funds and public support for the canal thrust him back into public life. He called the canal “the cement of interest, to bind all parts of the Union together by indissoluble bonds—especially that part of it, which lies immediately west.”
There were just a few obstacles.
First, Washington had no desire to go to debtors prison if the project went belly-up (there was no debt forgiveness), so he needed to negotiate a limited-liability corporation with both Virginia and Maryland. This, argues Larson, would not be an issue if interstate commerce was in the hands of a single national government that had an interest in public improvement projects.
The second obstacle was yet another state—Pennsylvania. Wealthy merchants and landowners in Philadelphia wanted to build along the Schuykill and Susquehanna rivers to put trade through Philadelphia. Washington would eventually need Pennsylvania for the western reaches of the Potomac, and have to compete with those local interests.
The final challenge was labor. While this obstacle had little to do with national problems, it represents Washington’s hard pursuit of commerce over other concerns. During construction, many men, indentured servants in the beginning, were blown apart during the blasting and digging. As a result many ran away instead. To replace them, Washington seemingly had no compunction about turning to a labor force that would be less troublesome—slaves, a population he had used previously when he needed teeth for implants in his own mouth. The dangerous work did not stop him, of course, from criticizing, writing in his diary, “To me it seemed as if we had advanced but little, owing to the fewness, and sickliness of the hands.”
It would appear that when it came to the bottom line, Washington was not overflowing with sympathy.
The canal project required a push by Washington to get Virginia and Maryland to agree on tariffs, taxes, currency, and regulation. This effort would end up kicking off the race to the Constitutional Convention.
“Without one government possessing authority over interstate commerce,” notes Larson, Washington and allies became convinced that “local interests could raise” an endless number of challenges.
So, Washington’s nationalist ally James Madison capitalized on the success of a commission created to resolve issues between Maryland and Virginia to launch a convention for other states with similar commercial disputes. That convention, though poorly attended, was the precursor to the Constitutional Convention.
The book then races through the Constitutional Convention and the ratification. In the convention, Washington scrupulously followed the gag rule, so his thoughts on the proceedings are somewhat unknown. During the ratification, he largely removed himself from the public debate, opting instead to exhort allies and fund publications that advanced their arguments. He did not want to appear unseemly as he would be the man with the most to gain if the new government was approved.
However, what is clear in Larson’s telling is that Washington hangs over it all. The convention only gains legitimacy when Washington agrees to not only attend it, but preside over it. During the convention, debates about the executive were shaped by the belief that Washington would be its first office-holder. The ratification process on the proposed government became in large part a referendum on Washington.
There were other influences besides his own pocket that pushed Washington. He was certainly among the elite horrified at the perceived unruliness of the mob in the aftermath of Shays’ Rebellion.
Larson, however, draws a link between what motivated Washington to go to war against England and what motivated him to push for a new central government. While writing about the Potomac River project, Larson argues that for Washington, it “was a viable and worthwhile enterprise precisely because it benefited private investors and the country as a whole.” That belief in the intersection of personal and common wealth “was how he had seen the American Revolution and that would be how he would see the Constitution.”
Larson has produced a nuanced vision of his subject in The Return of George Washington. He does not shy away from issues that today would be seen as flaws (especially Washington’s attitude toward slavery), and there is none of the excessive genuflecting rampant today when talking about a Founding Father. The Washington who emerges in these pages is always human, flaws and all, and yet he still manages to be a figure worth revering for his unwavering sense of duty.