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 little publicly.

The importance of Washington’s letter of 17 September 1787 as president of the Convention to the president of Congress is hard to over emphasize. This letter (written by Gouverneur Morris but signed by Washington) was attached to the Constitution whenever it was printed. In it Washington wrote that “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.

Below we have assembled some of Washington’s correspondence and also materials from Massachusetts newspapers which illustrate the influence that polemicists sought to ascribe to Washington’s opinions as the ratification process developed.