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Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independenceby A J Langguth
For George Washington, America at peace was proving to be a disappointment. When he resigned his command of the Continental Army in December 1783, he expected to ride off to the perfect plantation life he had envisioned throughout the Revolutionary War. But after the challenges and glory of the past eight years, civilian routine could sometimes seem humdrum. And from Mount Vernon, Washington watched appalled and helpless as the nation he loved began to fall apart.
The reasons were hard for him to accept. As a Virginian, Washington had overcome his initial dislike of New Englanders in the early days of the war and led them in a united cause. He had believed that after enduring such a painful birth, the new nation would develop a unique American character, dedicated to independence and justice. And yet greed and regional hatreds were threatening to destroy his dream.
On his first night at home, Washington started up anxiously in bed before dawn. It took a moment or two for him to realize that "I was no longer a public man, or had anything to do with public transactions."
As a tranquil isolation settled over Mount Vernon, Washington had to admit that he missed the stir and bustle of the old days. To Thomas Jefferson, who was headed for Paris to represent the United States, Washington complained of his "torpid state" and solicited any political gossip: "If you have any news that you are likely to impart, it would be charity to communicate a little of it to a body."
Meantime, Washington was left with time to reflect on his inevitable death. He was fifty-two, with his great work finished, and men in his family did not survive into old age. Writing to Gilbert Lafayette in Paris, he confided to the twenty-six-year-old marquis, "I am not only retired from all public employment, but I'm retiring into myself." When Lafayette came to America the following year, Washington found his visit all too short and predicted that they might not meet again because he "might soon expect to be entombed in the dreary mansions of my fathers."
In retirement, Washington passed his days by restoring and expanding his estate, which had suffered from his long absence. He struck a bargain with his bibulous gardener that if the man would stay sober, Washington would allow him a dram of liquor in the morning and a drink of grog at night, along with four dollars at Christmas to let him get drunk for four days and nights.
Although Washington was a private citizen, admiring visitors constantly showed up at his door. He kept a hundred cows at Mount Vernon, but the crowds came in such numbers that he was forced to buy butter for their meals. With the stream of guests so unrelenting, a year and a half passed before the day that Washington could dine alone with his wife.
He would greet everyone courteously and offer refreshment to men and women who were often unfamiliar to him. With strangers, Washington would withdraw to his chambers soon after supper while his guests remained at the table. But when Washington felt entirely comfortable with the company, he might take enough champagne to lower his reserve and get him laughing.
To accommodate his new life as his country's most admired citizen, Washington added bedrooms in the attic of the main house and raised the roof for two new wings. In leisure moments, he unleashed French hounds, a gift from Lafayette, to chase the gray foxes Washington bred as quarry. A superb horseman, he was hunting three days a week until that palled and he passed his time instead by answering the rising volume of letters.
Washington also had to cope with the artists and sculptors who importuned him for a chance to capture his likeness. Protective of his role in history, Washington usually agreed to receive them and showed both respect and curiosity for men with a temperament so different from his own. One of them, Joseph Wright, made busts from face masks, and Washington stretched out reluctantly on a cot to let the artist oil his face and daub it with plaster. But when Martha Washington came into the room unexpectedly, her cry of alarm made Washington smile, which he said explained the slight twist to his mouth in Wright's finished statue. Another explanation might have been the false teeth he commissioned from a favorite craftsman named John Greenwood.
Obliging as Washington tried to be, he resisted when the eminent French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon wanted to depict him in Roman garb. Washington apologized to Jefferson, who had arranged the commission, that although he understood that togas were "the taste of connoisseurs," he preferred something more modern. Houdon compromised on a military cloak but insisted on another life mask. Even though his assistant later dropped the cast, Houdon's finished statue captured Washington's broad brow and firm chin, the straight line of his mouth, and his steady gaze. It also conveyed a trace of the shy diffidence that, despite his public austerity, had won Washington so many admirers.
For Martha Washington, two children in their household supplied a welcome diversion. After her twenty-seven-year-old son, Jacky Custis, died just before the American victory at Yorktown in 1781, the Washingtons agreed to raise his two younger children — five-year-old Nelly and her three-year-old brother, George Washington Custis, nicknamed "Wash" or "Tub." Although Washington enjoyed "the little folks," he balked at adding one other relative to the household.
His mother, Mary Washington, had complained for years about the way that her George had forsaken her and gone off to fight a war. All the same, Washington had been a dutiful son even when her demands exasperated him. Now, nearing eighty, she was threatening to vacate the house that Washington had bought for her in Fredericksburg and move in with him. For once, Washington found a value in the assault of visitors on Mount Vernon. He wrote urgently to assure her that the constant hubbub would interfere with the serenity that should be her first concern.
Mary Washington accepted that argument and stayed on in Fredericksburg until her death from breast cancer. Washington waived the hundreds of pounds in debts that her estate owed him, but a year passed before he sent for the few mementos she had bequeathed to him. Putting on a black armband of mourning, Washington expressed to his sister "a hope that she is translated to a happier place."
Since Washington had more property than ready cash, his finances were always precarious. Yet he rejected a plan by officials in Pennsylvania to petition the Continental Congress for money on his behalf. Nothing must tarnish his reputation as a patriot who had never exploited his service to the nation. Washington explained that his attitude toward such rewards "had been long and well known to the public." He then made an even greater sacrifice by turning down grants of land that the Congress was awarding other Revolutionary War veterans.
As Washington had learned, wilderness land was not always a lucrative investment. He had once bought thirty-two thousand uninhabited acres on the Ohio and Great Kanawha rivers, along with other tracts in the same territory where he had fought for Britain as a young officer during the French and Indian Wars. When he rode out to inspect his holdings, however, Washington was confronted by squatters who had been living on his property for the past ten years. They had cleared the land and built sturdy log houses and refused to accept Washington, hero or not, as their landlord.
He hired a lawyer and fumed for the next two years until he won his case. But upon hearing that the squatters were "now in my power," Washington declined "to distress them further" and repeated his earlier offer to rent them the land. The experience taught him how contentious the frontier had become, and he resolved to sell off his western investments. When no buyer was willing to pay thirty thousand English guineas for his acreage, Washington was forced to hire an overseer, and that man managed to turn a profit on the land. All the same, Washington's debts forced him to dispose of his accumulated stocks at one-twentieth of their face value.
In retirement, Washington had begun to keep a squire's diary, usually limited to the day's weather and the condition of his crops. If he recorded the names of his many guests — for example, on Friday, May 20, 1785, "A Mr. Noah Webster came here in the afternoon and stayed the Night" — Washington seldom bothered with why they had called or what they talked about. In Webster's case, the lexicographer had come to present in person his plan for a new system of government.
When James Madison, a Virginia planter in his mid-thirties, rode to Mount Vernon to spend a weekend, Washington recorded no more than his arrival and the fact that he had left Monday morning after breakfast. Madison was normally no more expansive than his host, but he had observed Washington attentively during his visit and concluded that the scope of his new projects — including a plan for Virginia and Maryland to join in improving navigation on the Potomac — "shows that a mind like his, capable of grand views, and which has long been occupied with them, cannot bear a vacancy."
Madison also saw that a political crisis confronting the United States could force Washington out of retirement and compel him to address again the great issues of his time.
That crisis had been building even before the war ended, but Washington's hopeful nature had persuaded him that the "unsettled and deranged" state of affairs under the Articles of Confederation would be resolved. In the meantime, he could only suggest electing representatives wisely and supporting their attempts to preserve a union welded among the fractious individual states.
But Washington's trip west had reminded him how little was binding one state to another. War had given them a common enemy, but now the country had to base its identity on more than opposition to British rule. Without a common purpose, western settlers, who were likely to be immigrants, might feel no bond with the original states. Washington saw such men standing on a pivot. "The touch of a feather would turn them any way." They might even join with the Spanish colonists further down the Mississippi, although at the moment the Spaniards seemed blind to their opportunity.
Washington longed for a nation united by high principle. To depend on mere commercial self-interest pointed up a central weakness of the Articles because one state's dissenting vote could kill any legislation. Not only was unanimous agreement required, but if a state's delegates did not show up for a debate, their absence was recorded as a negative vote.
That flaw was proving particularly damaging to tax policy. In 1781, the Continental Congress had tried to pay the interest on the federal debt by levying a 5 percent tax on all imports. Every state approved the legislation except Rhode Island. Two years later, congressional leaders tried again with a tax limited to twenty-five years. By then, the opposition had grown until New York, Maryland, and Georgia joined Rhode Island in rejecting the measure.
Washington had endorsed those attempts to raise revenue for his army and watched in the following years as deadlocks and inertia grew only worse. "The Confederation appears to me to be little more than a shadow without substance," Washington complained, dismissing the fears of southerners that they were being dominated by New England. "We are either a united people, or we are not," Washington wrote to Madison in 1785. "If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending to be it." Perhaps his countrymen would have to admit that the British had been right all along when they predicted that the American experiment could not last.
To Madison, a major shortcoming in the Articles had been setting up the Continental Congress with only one chamber and then expecting it to act as both legislative and executive branches of government. And he considered the way representation was apportioned to be blatantly unfair. His state of Virginia had sixteen times more residents than Delaware, yet their votes in the Continental Congress counted as the same. Even to amend the Articles required unanimous agreement by all thirteen states.
When an economic depression struck and no federal legislation controlled the nation's economy, states passed local laws aimed solely at protecting their own interests. Britain was violating terms of the peace treaty of 1783, but when Massachusetts tried to retaliate by imposing taxes against British shipping, Connecticut defeated that strategy by declaring that its ports would remain free. New Jersey undercut New York in the same way, as Delaware undercut Pennsylvania.
Washington was outraged by state legislators who were short-sighted as well as selfish. "My opinion is," he wrote in the spring of 1786, "that there is more wickedness than ignorance in the conduct of the states."
Even though sentiment was growing that the Articles had failed, challenging them might be denounced as an assault on the government itself, even as treason. A scant three years after John Jay signed the peace treaty with Britain, he was urging Washington to speak out for amending the Articles. Jay admitted, though, that he could not say whether "the people are yet ripe for such a measure."
Washington might be braced for a second revolution, but James Madison — short and unimposing, a victim of persistent fevers, stomach ailments, and occasional seizures — seemed an unlikely crusader to lead it. After graduating from the College of New Jersey at Princeton, Madison had been a state delegate in Virginia before winding up, at age twenty-nine, in the Continental Congress for the last three years of the war.
Apart from his height, calculated generously at five feet five, Madison had none of the public stature of the "Signers," those men whose names adorned the Declaration of Independence. He was almost twenty years younger than Washington and fifteen years younger than John Adams. Thomas Jefferson was only eight years older and had become a close friend, but Jefferson was already a towering figure from that legendary era.
And yet it was falling to Madison to argue that the jerry-built Articles could not be salvaged. They must be scrapped. America must start over again. His position was radical, but Madison had already shown an intellectual courage that could not be intimidated.
After leaving the Continental Congress, he had returned to Virginia to study law, hoping to earn his own living and stop depending on income from Montpelier, his family's estate. Madison soon found law practice narrow and unsatisfying and doubted that his thin voice and dry manner promised success. Like Washington, he turned to land speculation. His partner was the Revolutionary War hero "Light Horse Harry" Lee, but their venture proved ill-fated, and Madison escaped gratefully to a seat in the Virginia Assembly in Richmond.
Madison's first cautious step toward sweeping reform was to join his state's call for a convention in Annapolis, Maryland, to examine the nation's trade policies. Earlier, he had missed a session that Washington had convened at Mount Vernon to explore jurisdiction over the Potomac River because Governor Patrick Henry had neglected to inform the delegates in time.
That Mount Vernon conclave had failed, and the response in Annapolis was just as discouraging. Only nine of the other twelve states agreed to send delegates, and representatives from only five of those states made it to Annapolis.
But the men who did arrive shared Madison's longer-range objectives. They called on the Continental Congress to sponsor another convention in May 1787. Aware of the resistance if their true goal were known, they claimed that their gathering would limit itself "to the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation."
Washington approved of any attempt to extend control by the Continental Congress over the nation's commerce. But he warned that change would come hard. "It is one of the evils of democratical government," he wrote, "that the people, not always seeing itandfrequently misled, must often feel before they can act right." The slow progress toward a remedy was lamentable, Washington added, and yet forcing change before the people were ready could bring about political "convulsions" that would destroy liberty.
Then, before the delegates could gather in Philadelphia, an uprising in western Massachusetts made their convention more urgent than ever.
The Massachusetts legislature had been meeting its Revolutionary War debts by imposing steep taxes that could be paid only with hard money. Lenders were not required to accept the devalued Revolutionary dollars that had become a bitter joke. Such stringent measures left farmers facing foreclosure of their land, even jail. Petitioning for relief, they asked that paper money be honored and that repayment deadlines be eased. But the legislators cared chiefly about protecting the state's creditors and, for two years in a row, had rejected the farmers' appeals.
By 1786, the widespread discontent revived the same slogans that had aroused Massachusetts against the British only a decade earlier. Beginning with indignant town meetings, the protests grew until bands of armed men surrounded several country courthouses to stop the courts from collecting debts or carrying out foreclosures.
The state's governor, James Bowdoin, responded with force, just as Britain's provincial governors had done, and sent troops to open the courts. In late January 1787, a retired Revolutionary army captain from Springfield named Daniel Shays reacted by marching twelve hundred angry men to seize their town's federal arsenal.
The result was a reenactment of the Boston Massacre. State militiamen fired into the crowd, killing four protesters. After ten days of uproar, another Revolutionary War veteran, General Benjamin Lincoln, brought in enough troops to quell the brief rebellion. Lincoln's actions led to no casualties but a hundred men were taken prisoner. Another 790 rebels were allowed to clear themselves by swearing an oath of allegiance.
That option was not extended to Shays and his fellow ringleaders. They were convicted of high treason and sentenced to death. But the Massachusetts legislature at last voted relief for the state's debtors, and the men were pardoned.
As America's envoy in Paris, Thomas Jefferson was observing the far greater turbulence that was threatening King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette. From the safe distance of the French capital, Jefferson could dismiss Shays's uprising with a romantic metaphor. "I like a little rebellion now and then," he wrote to Abigail Adams, although John Adams's downright wife was unlikely to agree. "It is like a storm in the atmosphere."
More than once, Jefferson had let his pleasure in a striking phrase overtake his more humane instincts. To the Adamses' son-in-law, he had written, "The tree of liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."
James Madison was not given to fanciful language, and more profound differences distinguished him from his good friend. Jefferson was tall and youthful, with reddish hair that never seemed combed. Though he was somewhat shy in company, Jefferson's unmistakable warmth with friends and his lively curiosity drew men and women to him.
Burdened with a pinched severity, Madison possessed unfailing good manners but little charm. He had been described, not unfairly, as "a schoolteacher dressed up for a funeral." One critic carried the image further: "a country schoolmaster in mourning for one of his pupils whom he had whipped to death."
Washington Irving, a young businessman with literary aspirations, would compare him one day to shriveled fruit — "a withered little Apple-John."
Both men enjoyed good wine, and they imported choice vintages from France. Jefferson spoke French well, but Madison was uncomfortable in the language because he had been taught by a Scottish teacher who left him speaking with a pronounced burr.
Jefferson's optimism and vivid imagination let him embrace many fresh enthusiasms. Madison's caution and reserve could make him seem the older of the two and kept him perpetually anchored in the practical world.
But the two men were also alike. Their health was a matter of lifelong concern to both of them — Jefferson's blinding migraine headaches, Madison's painful intestinal disorders. And for Jefferson, good humor ranked as the highest virtue in a friend — even above integrity. Madison possessed a dry wit, and from his college years had retained a fondness for racy jokes. He told them, in male company, exceedingly well.
Politically, little separated the two. When Jefferson sailed to France to represent the United States, Madison had taken up in the Virginia Assembly the battle for religious liberty that Jefferson had once waged. Madison's opponent was Patrick Henry, the Revolution's foremost orator, who had introduced an assessment bill that would support Christian churches by letting Virginians assign a share of their taxes to their own congregations.
Madison saw the legislation as a way for clergymen to feed again on state revenues as they had done under the British. When the Anglican Church dominated Virginia before the Revolution, Presbyterians had fought any favoritism. Now they seemed to want their share.
At Madison's urging, the bill's final passage was delayed long enough for him to write a rebuttal that he titled "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments." Madison had heard reports that even churchgoing Christians were uneasy about Henry's bill, and he played on their distrust of government.
"Who does not see," Madison wrote, "that the same authority, which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects?"
Madison sent a copy of his argument to Mount Vernon. Because he did not know Washington's views, he pretended not to be its author. Washington said he believed that Henry's proposal was divisive, but in principle he saw no harm in Christians — or, for that matter, Jews and Mohammedans — receiving tax relief for supporting their religion.
Before the showdown, Patrick Henry had been elected governor, which prevented his hypnotic voice from being heard in the legislature. Madison won the vote with a public response so favorable that he introduced an even stronger guarantee of religious freedom, one that Jefferson had first drafted six years earlier. It, too, passed easily.
While Jefferson was in France, he and Madison had devised a private code for their letters. Using it, Madison described the way Patrick Henry was trying to thwart their vision for America. Jefferson had always considered Henry something of a charlatan, but he had never questioned his genius as an orator. His reply to Madison was characteristically extravagant:
"What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his death."
Shays's rebellion, together with a similar uprising in Rhode Island, had left Madison even more determined to reform the federal government. He worried, though, that some delegates might arrive in Philadelphia favoring a monarchy for the United States. Instead, Madison offered what he called a "lesser evil" — partitioning the federal government into three separate and powerful branches.
To bolster his arguments, he had been studying a range of political philosophies. Montesquieu made the case for small republics, but Madison preferred the Scottish philosopher David Hume's essay "On the Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth." Hume, who had died just as America was claiming its independence in 1776, derided Plato's Republic and Thomas More's Utopia because they were predicated on changes in human nature that Hume considered highly unlikely.
He argued instead that, while a man in his personal life might be virtuous, in politics he should be considered a knave who must be controlled by a constitution. But Hume could also envision a great-hearted leader who would suppress his personal ambition in order to establish a truly free state.
Madison was sure Washington was such a man.
Without Shays's rebellion, Washington might not have been inclined to risk his reputation by going to Philadelphia. But what he had heard about the unrest in Massachusetts alarmed him enough to bring on fever and pains for the first time since his return to Mount Vernon. "I am mortified beyond expression," Washington wrote, "when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any country."
Although the Massachusetts revolt had been put down, Washington was receiving reports of other movements that threatened to break up the states into two or even three distinct nations. After all, the separatists argued, the United States already comprised a territory larger than the combined size of Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, and Italy.
To prevent that sort of splintering, Washington agreed that a conference might be valuable. Nothing might come of it, but a thoughtful discussion could be influential later, when the people were more prepared to make drastic changes. His friends, however, urged Washington not to attend in person. They reminded him that he had pledged never again to accept a public position. To join Virginia's delegation in Philadelphia could be seen as breaking his word.
By now, Madison could read Washington adeptly and suspected that he would end up going to Philadelphia. Washington's view of his own importance was entirely realistic, but he had never wanted to be seen as grasping or ambitious. He must be persuaded and then allowed to give way with a becoming reluctance.
As Washington raised objections, one did weigh heavily on him: He had already told the Society of the Cincinnati, a new fraternal order, that he would not be going to Philadelphia for the society's convention. How could he now show up in the city and shun their meeting?
The issue was delicate because the membership included men who had served loyally under Washington during the Revolution, but he did not approve of the direction in which they were headed.
The society had been named by Washington's great friend Henry Knox for Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus, the Roman general who defeated his country's enemies before returning to civilian life. America's Cincinnati intended to aid distressed veterans and maintain ties with military allies in France. Since cheery Henry Knox himself would pose no threat to the Republic, Washington at first had agreed to preside over the society, even though its membership was limited to former Revolutionary War officers.
That restriction provoked suspicion among civilian politicians, and in New York and Philadelphia they formed clubs called the Sons of Saint Tammany to offset the society's influence. And when the Cincinnati voted to deed their membership to their eldest sons, Washington realized why outsiders might regard it as intended to become a homegrown aristocracy. He announced his opposition to hereditary membership and called for an end to national Cincinnati conventions.
It was after the state chapters resisted his reforms that Washington made excuses for not attending their Philadelphia gathering. Now, if he went to the Constitutional Convention instead, he might offend a group of men for whom "I shall ever feel the highest gratitudeandaffection."
Martha Washington was leaving the decision to her husband, but she let him know that, with the war over, she had expected him to grow old at her side. She certainly would not be leaving her grandchildren to accompany him to Philadelphia. Even Madison, although he wanted him there badly, understood the stakes for Washington if the Philadelphia meeting were to fail as Annapolis had. He wrote that Washington should not "participate in any abortive undertaking."
But Madison could report that he had persuaded the suspicious members of the enfeebled Continental Congress to sanction the proposed convention. That concession at least would protect against any charge of illegitimacy. To ease Washington's fear that he would be embarrassed by a poor showing of delegates, Madison assured him that, at the very most, only three states would refuse to send representatives — Connecticut, Maryland, and Rhode Island.
And, finally, if Washington still declined to participate, a substitute chairman was available. Benjamin Franklin, the one American whose renown compared with Washington's, had returned from France. He had been deified there for his talents and adored in Parisian society for flirtations that turned, more often than he might have wished, into avuncular friendships.
The French reverence for Franklin was so great that Jefferson had won instant acclaim for his reply whenever Parisians asked whether he had come to replace Dr. Franklin. "No one can replace him, sir," Jefferson would say. "I am only his successor." But writing in code to Madison, Jefferson noted that John Adams had opened his eyes to Franklin's vanity and his other less admirable qualities.
For Madison and his colleagues, Franklin's announcement that he would attend the convention was heartening, although, at eighty-one, he was too frail to take an active role in the debate. But, as Franklin wrote to Jefferson, the convention must succeed or "it will show we have not the wisdom among us to govern ourselves."
At last, Washington notified his friend Edmund Randolph, who had agreed to join the Virginia delegation, that he, too, would be making the trip to Philadelphia — "contrary to my judgment."
With Washington committed, Madison spelled out to him in a private letter what the convention must accomplish. He acknowledged that several of his proposals were "radical," especially those that stripped away many state powers and transferred them to one strong federal executive. But if that were not done, Madison predicted that the states would "harass each other with rival and spiteful measures dictated by mistaken views of interest."
Madison wanted to extend federal supremacy to the courts as well and produce a government of well-organized and balanced powers. But he did not expect his eminently rational plan to convince the individual states, and he knew that a new federal government could not rely entirely on the power of persuasion. Madison stressed to Washington that whenever a state balked at a specific provision, the central government must be able to resort to force; the "right of coercion should be expressly declared."
Copyright © 2006 by A. J. Langguth
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