In 1964, Hollywood placed a call: The recently retired James Cagney was offered one of the greatest character roles in musical theater: Alfred Doolittle, the wastrel father of Eliza. It turned out for the best, as the role then went to Stanley Holloway, the talented actor who had originated the role on the stage.
Cagney would have loved to play it (who wouldn’t?), but Cagney had publicly announced his retirement after filming Billy Wilder’s magnificent but taxing comedy, “One, Two, Three” in 1961. On principle, Cagney refused to be one of those actors (and he had known many!) who retires, then returns, again and again, using retirement as a publicity and negotiating ploy rather than as the life choice that Cagney believed it should be.
For an actor, such a principle makes sense. But in the field of politics, the best principle may sometimes turn the other way. For as much as we all like to think that politics should be a temporary calling – “serve your country, then go home before the power corrupts you” – there are indeed times when the personal preference to retire to one’s back porch, with a rocking chair and the restful view of a river, must be sublimated to the greater good.
So it was, again and again, with a country gentleman from Virginia named George Washington.
A Country Gentleman, and a Born Leader
Born on February 22, 1732, in the quiet countryside of the colony of Virginia, George Washington was a very junior son of a successful landholder's second marriage. As the third son, he would not inherit much of the family’s land, and his position in the American colonies, far across the ocean from mother England, meant that he would not get the naval career that he hoped for as a boy, or the nobility or membership in the House of Commons that such a lad might have earned had he been born in England.
But by his mid-twenties, this young man was already known throughout the English speaking world for his service in the early days of the French and Indian War. By his thirties, he had retired from militia service, settling into the life of a rural planter and merchant, while remaining active in his community as a member of the Virginia legislature. And by his forties, he had become one of the most prominent figures in the American colonies, a leader in the coastwise boycott of the late 1760s and early 1770s that first united these colonies in opposition to a tyrannical king.
Washington served his country well in his youth, and spent his forties entirely in her service, as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army throughout the War of Independence. He rode tall in the saddle, the most conspicuous target in any battle, but was never wounded in war by shot or shell. He lived through it, commanding to great success, and proudly, humbly, the war won and his life’s work completed, he retired for the last time, at Congress’ temporary capitol at Annapolis, just before Christmas, 1783.
He could finally retire from public service and concentrate on his business, his family, and his community… or so he thought.
Economic Depression, and the Call of a Nation
By the beginning of 1787, George Washington had been enjoying his retirement from politics, as much as he could have hoped, for three years. His home at Mount Vernon was again a bustling center of activity, of which he could again be proud. The eight years of wartime had been rough on his diverse holdings; his relatives and hired managers had tried their best, but none could manage his complex plantation of tobacco, grains, orchards, manufacturing and shipping like he could himself. These three years had enabled the General to rebuild his proud reputation as one of America’s best businessmen.
The General had stayed active in politics, from a distance, of course. He lobbied legislators for a proposed canal from the Atlantic through the mountains to the west, to facilitate both trade and increased settlement of the frontier on the other side of the Alleghenies, one of his lifelong causes. And of course, he kept in close touch with the many friends and allies he had made during his years in the service. Washington’s office at Mount Vernon arguably served as the center of American political thought, even during his retirement, as he corresponded with friends near and far about the issues of the day.
One of the biggest issues was the depression. There had been a hope, a reasonable expectation, that once the peace was achieved, America would prosper immediately. Most Americans expected to return to the days of plenty as soon as the Treaty of Paris was finally signed at the Hotel d’York in September of 1783. But the economy didn’t recover. Currency was next to worthless, every treasury was bare, even farmers were starving. Something had to be done.
A meeting at Annapolis – a small “convention” of just a few of the states in late 1786 – had convinced many of the young nation’s movers and shakers that drastic political changes were needed to keep the country from being stillborn. The depression of the 1780s wasn’t a low point in the business cycle; it was beginning to look like a permanent, inescapable condition. We needed changes to the Articles of Confederation; we clearly needed a somewhat stronger government that could enforce our treaties on the high seas and abroad, pay its bills and stabilize our currency at home… while still protecting the liberty of our citizenry.
Washington corresponded with the delegates before and after the Annapolis meeting, and agreed. He endorsed their project, wished them well, and encouraged the states to make the needed changes.
So a new convention was called for the summer of 1787 – a formal one, chartered to propose such changes as might be necessary to save our young country. Each state’s government set to the task of organizing its delegation for Philadelphia. Some states sent many, some sent few. New York famously tried to sabotage the project, by weighting its delegation with opponents to any change (Alexander Hamilton was to be outvoted two-to-one all summer by his fellow New Yorkers).
But for the most part, each state tried to send its best and brightest. They knew it was an important task (though few expected the Constitutional Convention to propose as complete a change as they did in the end).
And Virginia asked George Washington to come out of retirement and participate.
A Question of Principle
General Washington had retired. He didn’t want to go back into the melee of politics again; he was busy at home, repaying his own wartime bills, rebuilding his farms. The greatest equestrian in the country was again enjoying riding a horse without being shot at, hunting for foxes instead of spies, dining in comfort at home in his dining room instead of catching a meager bite in a tent, or even out in the open. Washington’s time as Commander had lasted eight long years, from the summer of 1775 when he set out to free Boston from British martial law, to the Christmas of 1783 when he resigned his commission at Annapolis. He had traveled enough, endured enough privations, for more than one lifetime. He was entitled to hope to spend the rest of his days at Mount Vernon.
But his allies told him they needed him, in person. They needed more than his sage advice in a letter; they needed his presence at the Convention, to give the event its necessary respect. In fact, some told him, without his presence, the event had no chance of success at all.
Washington had retired. And he had retired at the top, in an era when a man’s reputation – his “honor” – was perhaps more important to him than it is today. There’s no shame today in retiring as a successful governor or senator, then taking a “lesser” public job a few years later, as baseball commissioner or cabinet secretary or ambassador. We think of our reputation as more of a lifelong thing, and usually don’t expect a later event to undo past accomplishments.
But in the 18th century – a time when there was no Rolls Royce or Bentley to drive, no designer fashions to wear or bling to flaunt – one’s personal reputation, particularly the last public accomplishment, was arguably a much more important aspect of a man’s legacy than we can imagine today. Washington had retired from public life with a reputation as the frontier general of a ragtag militia who defeated the greatest military power on earth. Why on earth would anyone want to sully that capstone on a life well lived, by returning to crass politics, especially if the success of the project was by no means guaranteed?
Besides, in addition to his public retirement, he did have three solid, legitimate reasons to decline.
- Three years hadn’t been enough time to fully rebuild his business; another summer away from the farm might undo the positive trajectory he had been building at Mount Vernon. He still had a family and a business to provide for.
- He had been sick. While Washington survived the war without ever being wounded on the battleground, he’d had a long history of other ailments, particularly in the gut. He’d spent weeks laid up, off and on, throughout his life, and the winter of 1786-1787 had seen some return of the old malady. A trip to that sickness factory known as Philadelphia, PA would hardly be desirable in his condition.
- And in fact, he had used that very excuse to beg off from attending a convention of the Society of the Cincinnati, the organization of Revolutionary War officers that thought of him as their surrogate father. They were to meet in Philadelphia too, at the same time, and he had told them he was too sick and busy to make the trip. How would it look if he appeared to have turned down their invitation for a trumped-up excuse, only to show up at the same town, at the same time, for “a better offer?” A man concerned with how his decisions were viewed would naturally be hesitant to give his public any reason for such speculation.
So the General resisted. He told his friends, near and far, that he didn’t think he could, or should, attend. He told his state government in Williamsburg the same.
But they didn’t take No for an answer. They told him the project already had its enemies, from Clinton and Yates in New York to Sam Adams in Massachusetts and Patrick Henry in his own Virginia. The presence of the nation’s great unifier would propel the project to success; his absence might very well doom it.
In the end, General Washington overruled his best internal counsel. He was certain that for his own personal reputation, he would be better off refusing, staying at home and praying for their success… but his nation was calling him. His friends – young Madison and Hamilton, old Franklin and Sherman, and so many others from across the country whom he had met in the war or served with in Congress – would all be there, and they were counting on him.
He even feared – with legitimate grounds – that his presence might overwhelm the meeting, that he would become the story, rather than just a participant. Perhaps he might serve the cause best by staying away, at that?
But he had been a champion of the project for months, even years. He had chafed at the impotence of the Articles of the Confederation, and had guided his young friends, the firebrands Hamilton and Madison in particular, as they pushed and argued for this very Convention. Now that it was happening, he could hardly abandon the effort.
So once again, as he had done in the fall of 1774 when he traveled north to attend the First Continental Congress, he set out in the spring of 1787 for Philadelphia.
In 1774, his several months in Philadelphia propelled him into an eight year commitment as the army’s Commander in Chief. He had some foreboding this time as well, that he would be unable to remain a back-bench sage like Ben Franklin could; he feared he might be called upon to preside over the Convention, and perhaps even to be made the nation’s chief executive afterward (yes, he had foreshadowing of the possibility, and desperately wanted to avoid giving the impression of grasping for such a job).
A New Commitment to His Country
With the benefit of hindsight, we know his foreboding was correct. We know that this summer in Philadelphia, just like that winter 13 years before, would propel him into another eight year commitment, this time a two-term Presidency of the United States under the new Constitution.
We know that his friends were right; his quiet leadership of the Convention gave it the gravitas it needed, for its resulting product to be taken seriously. His endorsement of the project, along with the great work of the champions of ratification – especially by his allies Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, known collectively as Publius – would help carry the day, as state after state moved to ratify the new Constitution.
And we know, today, that his eight years as President were indeed successful, that he presided over the establishment of a properly and brilliantly limited government, that he made many great appointments and set a precedent for the behavior and restraint of the American president that lasted a century.
We know it turned out for the best. But he didn’t know, not at that time, not the day he finally decided, against his better judgment, to enter the maelstrom of public life again.
In the spring of 1787, the retired general had no reason to be as confident about his future as we can be, today, in judging our past. He could see risks, dangers, to both his health and his reputation. He could see many good reasons to say No, and few good reasons to say Yes.
In the end, George Washington answered his country’s call. He went to Philadelphia and spent one more summer there, accepting the possibility that further commitments would result, because his beloved country needed him.
And today, with pride and awe, we thank Divine Providence for guiding him to that choice, because George Washington, the gentleman from Mount Vernon – merchant, equestrian, military genius, political leader – was indeed the Indispensible Man of the American Founding.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. He studied his history and political science at Northwestern University during the Reagan era, but learned far more in the years since, by reading the work of giants in the field of biography. So many great books are available on the Gentleman from Mount Vernon… for more detail on the great man’s incomparable life, read Richard Brookhiser, Paul Johnson, James Thomas Flexner, Joseph J. Ellis. With every page, one can’t help but be amazed by the man’s abilities.
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