The Greatest Vexation of Washington’s Life: Protecting the Republic

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: AMERICA'S FOUNDING FATHERS

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

After the establishment of the United States, the affairs of the new republic were chaotic. While witnessing the chaos, George Washington worried about the future of the American republic. Did he have doubts about the efficacy of the principles of republicanism?

A postage stamp in commemoration of the Articles of Confederation bicentennial.
The Articles of Confederation were considered a governing instrument by the newly formed United States in 1781. (Image: Smithsonian National Postal Museum/Public domain)

The Unfulfilled Promise of The Republic

After the Revolution’s triumph, George Washington turned his attention toward the precarious position of the whole enterprise and asked whether the republic might turn out to have been a fool’s errand.

Washington did not consider himself an intellectual and was privately embarrassed in the company of lawyers and scholars. In 1785, he wrote in a letter, “I have not leisure to turn my thoughts to commentaries: a consciousness of defective education, and a certainty of the want of time, unfit me for such an undertaking.”

At 53, he soared above the reputations of all of his fellow Americans as a soldier who had held off the British for seven long years and ensured American independence, then retreated from all of it to return to a life of peace.

But in the two ensuing years since his resignation as the commanding general of the Continental Army, and since the disbanding of that army, the principles of republicanism were not faring well.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Republic is Vulnerable

Enlightenment thinkers opined that despite being the most natural form of government, republics are also the most vulnerable. They believed that republics, unlike monarchies, are held together by virtue of public-spiritedness and self-denial of the people. Consequently, if citizens prove to be corrupt and selfish, they will bring the roof of their republic down on their heads far faster than any hostile emperor could.

Size was another factor that made republics vulnerable. Republics were supposed to work only on a relatively small scale, like the city-state republics of Renaissance Italy, the Cantons of Switzerland, or the Ancient Roman Republic.

The larger the size of a republic, the greater the risk of its internal tumult and dissolution. Furthermore, the history of past republics was a history of failure, tainted by the persistence of hierarchy. What Washington saw in post-revolutionary America made him doubt the future of the new nation.

Learn more about Edmund Randolph’s plan.

The Economy of Post-Revolution America

The Revolution released Americans from the economic constraints implemented by the British Empire, and upon gaining their freedom, they went on a binge of speculation and consumption. This created a financial bubble and ultimately led to the inevitable destiny of any bubble.

In the spring of 1784, the bubble burst, and as a consequence, five banking houses in London, which had allowed Americans to buy on credit, went bust. This, in turn, prevented American merchants from further purchases, and they too had to close their businesses.

Stephen Higginson, a banker and merchant from Massachusetts, explained the problem this way: “The importation of foreign merchandise into this State since the peace has so much exceeded the value of our exports that our Cash has of necessity been exported in great quantities. And though we are now from that cause almost drained of Money, we have yet a very great Balance against us without any means of discharging it.”

The problem was so severe that credit collapsed, land values plunged, mortgages defaulted, and worst of all, the people behaved like savages instead of republican citizens. 

The specter of self-doubt loomed over American leaders. James Warren complained that “Patriotism is ridiculed; integrity and ability are of little consequence. Money is the only object attended to, and the only acquisition that commands respect.”

Learn more about Robert Morris’s money.

The Insufficiency of Small Government

The Articles of Confederation, which had been ratified as a governing instrument by the newly formed United States in 1781, didn’t have much power to deal with this sudden evaporation of virtue. As a consequence of the extreme distaste for the imperial rule they had experienced under Britain, the members of the Continental Congress had deliberately created a minuscule government.

This type of government might have been acceptable in a small 15th Century Florentine republic, but it was completely insufficient for a nation of 3.5 million people and a country of close to 900,000 square miles.

The Congress created by the Articles of Confederation had no power to levy taxes on the states. This prevented the United States from repaying its wartime debts to European bankers. Nor did the Confederation government have much power over the 13 colonies which had thrown off British allegiance in 1776. They retained significant powers for themselves even as they became member states in the new Confederation.

Learn more about Thomas Mifflin’s Congress.

A Republic: If You Can Keep It

Instead of working together to bring about positive changes for the nation, the states used this power against each other in economic disputes. They printed worthless paper money to pay debts and enacted stay laws, which prevented sellers and lenders from collecting what they were owed.

A portrait of George Washington.
George Washington believed in giving sufficient powers to Congress for safeguarding the future of the American Republic. (Image: Gilbert Stuart/Public domain)

In 1781, Washington wrote: “Our independence, our respectability and consequence in Europe, our greatness as a nation hereafter, depends upon giving sufficient powers to Congress. Otherwise, each Assembly under its present Constitution will be annihilated, and we must once more return to the Government of Great Britain.”

Incensed at American defaults, the British government was threatening to retain control over forts on the frontier which it was supposed to have surrendered under the Treaty of Paris. If the newly established republic failed, it would not just be a catastrophe for America, but for the whole principle of republicanism.  

This was not the republic many of the Founders had hoped and fought for. The country needed more power consolidation. He knew that a new course of action was in order.

Common Questions about George Washington and the Early American Republic

Q:  Why did Enlightenment thinkers consider republicanism the most vulnerable form of government?

They believed that republics are held together by virtue of public-spiritedness, and if citizens prove to be corrupt and selfish, the nation could easily be destroyed.

Q: How did the American economy fair after Britain removed the economic constraints?

The American economy was in a terrible state after the Revolution. Americans went on a binge of speculation and consumption. This created an economic bubble in the spring of 1784. As a result, five banking houses in London, which had allowed Americans to buy on credit, went bankrupt and American merchants had to close their businesses.

Q: Why was the government of the newly independent United States insufficient?

The Congress created by the Articles of Confederation had no power to levy taxes on the states. Nor did the Confederation government have much power over the 13 colonies which had thrown off British allegiance in 1776.

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