University of Wisconsin–Madison

George Washington and the Constitution

No figure played a more important role in the founding of the American Republic than George Washington. Washington found himself involved not only in military matters but also in the issues of governing. The resignation of his commission to Congress at the end of the Revolutionary War, according to Washington, was meant to usher him permanently into private life. The events of the 1780s would test the limits of this commitment. When the Virginia legislature selected Washington as a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention, he declined. Only the persistent pressure from several prominent individuals convinced Washington that his presence was essential.

Washington went to Philadelphia and was predictably elected president of the Convention. Saying little during the debates, Washington’s opinions concerning the plans and compromises of the Convention were the subject of much speculation. While Federalists readily used Washington’s image as support for the ratification of the Constitution, the public wanted to know what he thought of the proceedings at Philadelphia. True to form, however, Washington said or wrote little publicly.

The importance of Washington’s letter of 17 September 1787 as president of the Convention to the president of Congress cannot be over emphasized. This letter (written by Gouverneur Morris but signed by Washington) was attached to the Constitution whenever it was printed. The letter stated “the Constitution, which we now present, is the result of a spirit of amity and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.” With Washington supporting the Constitution, it was difficult for Antifederalists to explain why they opposed ratification.

In private correspondence, Washington left little room for speculation. In his letters he expressed a desire to see the Constitution adopted even though (like all Federalists) he acknowledged that it had some imperfections. He praised the amendment provision that provided a viable method of correcting problems that might become apparent after the Constitution was implemented. Occasionally, when his correspondence was published without his approval, Federalists and Antifederalists used the materials as fodder for their causes. The former suggesting that if a virtuous figure like Washington was supportive of the Constitution, ratification of the plan was essential. Antifederalists lamented that since Washington was not an experienced legislator, he had been duped by cunning politicians bent on adopting a dangerous form of government.

The Controversy Surrounding the Publication of Washington’s Letter to Charles Carter


Throughout the debate over ratification, Federalists urged others to accept the Constitution because Washington had signed it. Except for his 17 September 1787 letter accompanying the Constitution, Washington did not make a public statement on the Constitution, but his private letters reveal he supported it. He wrote one such letter on 14 December to Charles Carter (1733–1796) of Ludlow, a Stafford County, Va., planter, who also owned a home in Fredericksburg, Va. After discussing farming matters, Washington concluded by briefly giving his opinion on the Constitution. On 27 December Washington’s opinion was printed in the Fredericksburg Virginia Herald apparently under the heading of an “Extract of a letter of a late date from a member of the late Fœderal Convention, to his friend in this town.” The Herald has not been located, but on 3 January 1788 the Pennsylvania Mercury published this heading under the dateline, “Fredericksburg, December 27.” Two days earlier, on 1 January, the Maryland Journal had reprinted the Herald’s extract as a letter “from the illustrious President of the late Federal Convention.

Washington wrote Carter on 12 January that “I find that an extract of my letter to you, is running through all the news papers; and published in that of Baltimore with the addition of my name.” Five days later Carter explained that he had distributed copies of Washington’s remarks “under a prohibition … that they should not go to the press.” Washington accepted the explanation and was sorry that his concern had given Carter “so much trouble.”

By 27 March 1788 Washington’s excerpted letter was reprinted in the January issue of the Philadelphia American Museum and in forty-nine newspapers: Vt. (1), N.H. (3), Mass. (9), R.I. (4), Conn. (7), N.Y. (8), N.J. (3), Pa. (10), Md. (1), S.C. (1), Ga. (2). All but two of these newspapers—the Pennsylvania Mercury, 3 January, and the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer, 4 January—identified Washington as the letter writer.

The letter precipitated an exchange between Antifederalists and Federalists, especially in Massachusetts, concerning its authenticity and the validity of its opinions. Commenting on this debate, James Madison said that “I cannot but think on the whole that it [the letter] may have been of service, notwithstanding the scandalous misinterpretations of it which have been attempted.”