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An Interesting Correspondence

This week’s puzzle is derived from a handful of the many letters that compose George Washington’s voluminous correspondence with the notables of his age.  These letters were written shortly after the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.  At this point, not everyone knew where everyone else stood!  Washington did such a good job in his role as President of the Convention – in being (seemingly) impartial, that some of his fellow Virginians weren’t quite certain whether he would support it or not.

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The first letter is from George Mason

Gunston Hall, October 7th, 1787

Dear Sir,

I take the Liberty to enclose You my Objections to the new Constitution of Government; which a little Moderation & Temper, in the latter End of the Convention, might have removed.  I am however most decidedly of Opinion, that it ought to be submitted to a Convention chosen by the people, for that special purpose; and shou’d any Attempt be made to prevent the calling such a Convention here, such a Measure shall have every Opposition in my power to give it.

You will readily observe, that my Objections are not numerous (the greater part of the enclosed paper containing reasonings upon the probable Effects of the exceptionable parts) tho’ in my mind, some of them are capital ones.

Mrs Mason, & the Family, here join in their Compliments to your Lady and Family, with dear Sir Your affecte & obdt Sert

G. Mason

The next letter is from Washington to James Madison.  He has some rather sharp things to say about George Mason, whom he refers to as Col. M.  Apparently, he is of the opinion that Richard Henry Lee is giving him his marching orders.  His initial comment on the “unanimity” of the Congress in sending the Constitution to the States for approval is also interesting.  In her book Ratification, Pauline Meier provides insight into this subterfuge:

The word “unanimously”, Richard Henry Lee explained to George Mason, referred only to the decision to transmit the Constitution and related documents to the states, but it was inserted “hoping to have it mistaken for the unanimous approbation” of the Constitution itself.

Washington agreed as is evident from the letter below! Emphasis WWTFT.

Mount Vernon
October 10, 1787

I thank you for your letter of the 30th Ult. It came by the last Post. I am better pleased that the proceedings of the Convention is handed from Congress by a unanimous vote (feeble as it is) than if it had appeared under stronger marks of approbation without it.  This apparent unanimity will have its effect. Not every one has opportunities to peep behind the curtain; and as the multitude often judge from externals, the appearance of unanimity in that body, on this occasion, will be of great importance.

The political tenets of Colo. M. & Colo. R.H.L. are always in unison—It may be asked which of them gives the tone? Without hesitation, I answer the latter; because the latter, I believe, will receive it from no one. He has, I am informed, rendered himself obnoxious in Philadelphia by the pains he took to disseminate his objections amongst some [of] the leaders of the seceding members of the legislature of that State.  His conduct is not less reprobated in this County.  How it will be relished, generally, is yet to be learned, by me.  As far as accounts have been received from the Southern & Western Counties, the Sentiment with respect to the proceedings of the Convention is favorable—Whether the knowledge of this, or conviction of the impropriety of withholding the Constitution from State Conventions has worked most in the breast of Col. M.  I will not decide; but the fact is, he has declared unequivocally (in a letter to me) for its going to the people. Had his sentiments however been opposed to the measure, Instructions which are given by the freeholders of this County to their representatives, would have secured his vote for it. Yet, I have no doubt but that this assent will be accompanied by the most tremendous apprehensions, and highest colorings to his objections. To alarm the people, seems to be the ground work of his plan.  The want of a qualified Navigation Act, is already declared to be a mean by which the produce of the Southern States will be reduced to nothing, & will become a monopoly of the Northern & Eastern States.  To enumerate all his objections, is unnecessary; because they are detailed in the address of the seceding members of the Assembly of Pennsylvania; which, no doubt you have seen.

I scarcely think that any powerful opposition will be made to the Constitution’s being submitted to a Convention of the people of this State.  If it is given, it will be at that meeting—In which I hope you will make it convenient to attend; explanations will be wanting—none can give them with more precision and accuracy than yourself.

The Sentiments of Mr Henry with respect to the Constitution which is submitted, are not known in these parts. Mr Jos[ep]h Jones (who it seems was in Alexandria a few days before my return home) was of opinion that they would not be inimical to it—others however conceive, that as the advocate of a paper emission, he cannot be friendly to a Constitution which is an effectual bar.

From circumstances which have been related, it is conjectured that the Governor wishes he had been among the subscribing members, but time will disclose more than we know at present with respect to the whole of this business; and when I hear more, I will write to you again. In the mean while I pray you to be assured of the sincere regard and affection with which I am—My dear Sir Yr Most Obedt & Very Hble Servt

Go: Washington

P.S. Having received (in a letter) from Colo. Mason, a detail of his objections to the proposed Constitution I enclose you a copy of them.

The next is an excerpt of a note from Richard Henry Lee, one of the subjects of Washington’s previous letter to Madison. Emphasis WWTFT.

Dear Sir, New York October 11, 1787


It is under the strongest impressions of your goodness and candor that I venture to make the observations that follow in this letter, assuring you that I feel it among the first distresses that have happened to me in my life, that I find myself compelled by irresistible conviction of mind to doubt about the new System for federal government recommended by the late Convention.

It is Sir, in consequence of long reflection upon the nature of Man and of government, that I am led to fear the danger that will ensue to Civil Liberty from the adoption of the new system in its present form. I am fully sensible of the propriety of change in the present plan of confederation, and although there may be difficulties, not inconsiderable, in procuring an adoption of such amendments to the Convention System as will give security to the just rights of human nature, and better secure from injury the discordant interests of the different parts of this Union; yet I hope that these difficulties are not insurmountable.  Because we are happily uninterrupted by external war, or by such internal discords as can prevent peaceable and fair discussion, in another Convention, of those objections that are fundamentally strong against the new Constitution which abounds with useful regulations. As there is so great a part of the business well done already, I think that such alterations as must give very general content, could not long employ another Convention when provided with the sense of the different States upon those alterations.

I am much inclined to believe that the amendments generally thought to be necessary, will be found to be of such a nature, as tho they do not oppose the exercise of a very confident federal power; are yet such as the best Theories on Government, and the best practice upon those theories have found necessary.  At the same time that they are such as the opinions of our people have for ages been fixed on.  It would be unnecessary for me here to enumerate particulars as I expect the honor of waiting on you at Mount Vernon in my way home early in November.  In the mean time I have only to request that my best respects may be presented to your Lady and that I may be remembered to the rest of the good family of Mount Vernon.  I have the honor to be dear Sir, with the most unfeigned respect, esteem, and affection, Your most obedient and very humble servant,

Richard Henry Lee

The next excerpt is from a letter written to Washington by James Madison, in which he rather breathlessly criticizes George Mason’s complaints about the Constitution. Emphasis WWTFT.

New York
October 18, 1787
Dear Sir,
I have been this day honored with your favor of the 10th instant, under the same cover with which is a copy of Col. Mason’s objections to the Work of the Convention. As he persists in the temper which produced his dissent it is no small satisfaction to find him reduced to such distress for a proper gloss on it; for no other consideration surely could have led him to dwell on an objection which he acknowledged to have been in some degree removed by the Convention themselves—on the paltry right of the Senate to propose alterations in money bills—on the appointment of the vice President—President of the Senate instead of making the President of the Senate the vice president, which seemed to be the alternative—and on the possibility, that the Congress may misconstrue their powers & betray their trust so far as to grant monopolies in trade &c. If I do not forget too some of his other reasons were either not at all or very faintly urged at the time when alone they ought to have been urged; such as the power of the Senate in the case of treaties & of impeachments; and their duration in office. With respect to the latter point I recollect well that he more than once disclaimed opposition to it. My memory fails me also if he did not acquiesce in if not vote for, the term allowed for the further importation of slaves; and the prohibition of duties on exports by the States. What he means by the dangerous tendency of the Judiciary I am at some loss to comprehend. It never was intended, nor can it be supposed that in ordinary cases the inferior tribunals will not have final jurisdiction in order to prevent the evils of which he complains. The great mass of suits in every State lie between Citizen & Citizen, and relate to matters not of federal cognizance.
I find by a letter from the Chancellor (Mr Pendleton) that he views the act of the Convention in its true light, and gives it his unequivocal approbation. His support will have great effect. The accounts we have here of some other respectable characters vary considerably. Much will depend on Mr Henry, and I am glad to find by your letter that his favorable decision on the subject may yet be hoped for. The Newspapers here begin to teem with vehement & virulent calumniations of the proposed Govt. As they are chiefly borrowed from the Pennsylvania papers, you see them of course. The reports however from different quarters continue to be rather flattering. With the highest respect & sincerest attachment I remain Dear Sir,

Yr Obedt & Affecte Servant

Js Madison Jr

Here is a brief note from Patrick Henry in which he succinctly acknowledges his receipt of the Constitution and his lack of enthusiasm for it. Emphasis WWTFT.

October 19, 1787

Dear Sir,

I was honored by the Rect of your Favor together with a Copy of the proposed fœderal constitution, a few Days ago, for which I beg you to accept my Thanks. They are also due to you from me as a Citizen, on Account of the great Fatigue necessarily attending the arduous Business of the late Convention.

I have to lament that I cannot bring my Mind to accord with the proposed Constitution. The Concern I feel on this Account, is really greater than I am able to express. perhaps mature Reflection may furnish me Reasons to change my present Sentiments into a conformity with the opinion of those personages for whom I have the highest Reverence. Be that as it may, I beg you will be persuaded of the unalterable Regard & Attachment with which I ever shall be Dear sir your obliged & very humble Servant

P. Henry

Finally, Washington’s response to Madison, in it he speaks respectfully of Patrick Henry, but a bit less so of Charles Pinkney! Emphasis WWTFT.

Mount Vernon
October 22, 1787

Dear Sir,

When I last wrote to you, I was uninformed of the Sentiments of this State beyond the circle of Alexandria, with respect to the New Constitution.  Since, a letter which I received by the last Post, dated the 16th, from a member of the Assembly, contains the following paragraphs.

“I believe such an instance has not happened before, since the revolution, that there should be a house on the first day of the Session, and business immediately taken up.  This was not only the case on Monday, but there was a full house; when Mr Prentice was called up to the Chair as Speaker, there being no opposition. Thus, the Session has commenced peaceably.

“It gives me much pleasure to inform you that the sentiments of the members are infinitely more favorable to the Constitution than the most zealous advocates for it could have expected.  I have not met with one in all my inquiries (and I have made them with great diligence) opposed to it, except Mr Henry who I have heard is so, but could only conjecture it, from a conversation with him on the subject.  Other members who have also been active in their inquiries tell me, that they have met with none opposed to it. It is said however that old Mr Cabell of Amherst disapproves of it—Mr Nicholas has declared himself a warm friend to it.

“The transmissory note of Congress was before us to day, when Mr Henry declared that it transcended our powers to decide on the Constitution; that it must go before a Convention.  As it was insinuated he would aim at preventing this, much pleasure was discovered at the declaration. Thursday week (the 25th) is fixed upon for taking up the question of calling the Convention, and fixing the time of its meeting: In the meantime, five thousand copies are ordered to be printed, to be dispersed by the members in their respective Counties for the information of the People. I cannot forbear mentioning that the Chancellor, Pendleton, espouses the Constitution so warmly as to declare he will give it his aid in the Convention, if his health will permit. As there are few better judges of such subjects, this must be deemed a fortunate circumstance.”

As the above quotations is the sum of my information, I shall add nothing more in the subject of the proposed government, at this time.

Mr C. Pinkney is unwilling (I perceive by the enclosures contained in your letter of the 13th) to loose any fame that can be acquired by the publication of his sentiments. If the discussion of the navigation of the Mississippi could have remained as silent, & glided as gently down the Stream of time for a few years, as the waters do, that are contained within the banks of that river, it would, I confess, have comported more with my ideas of sound policy than any decision the case can obtain at this juncture. With sentiments the most Affecte and friendly I am—Dear Sir Yr most Obedt Servt.

Documents are from the fantastic online resource at the University of Virginia


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