It’s hard to believe that George Washington could be underrated. After all, he’s eulogized in marble, stone, and oil; Amazon lists nearly two thousand biographies; and he’s called the Father of Our Country. And yet …
The popular perception of Washington is of a man of honor who won a war through strength of character and perseverance, and a first president who gracefully stepped down from power after two terms. Most view him as cold and aloof. Many dismiss him as an aristocrat who owned slaves, and relied on others for creative thinking and grand ideas. Historians generally concede his military contributions, and restrained leadership as president, but dismiss him as a figurehead at the Constitutional Convention. They invariably mention that during four arduous months of debate, he spoke only once.
Washington was different from our stereotype image of the man. It’s true that he was tall and stately, personally reserved, preoccupied with his reputation, and ambitious, but he also loved to dance, play cards, and attend the theater. He was a superb horseman who enjoyed wagering on races, ran his plantation with a sharp sense for profit, attended church religiously, was a master politician, and bragged that he hadn’t eaten dinner alone since before the war. Whatever he became involved in, he actively managed, and he was an expert in public relations and image making. Washington was a vibrant, athletic man who wanted more than anything else to be loved by his countrymen. He was open and vociferous about his political beliefs, but closed and silent about his political manipulations.
Washington was omnipresent during the Founding. At times he was in the thick of it, and at other times he appeared to be a figurehead content to let others direct the course of events. Appearances, however, can be deceiving. The Founding of the United States can be separated into three major events: 1) the separation from Great Britain, 2) the adoption of the Constitution, and 3) the first presidential terms that set so many precedents. George Washington was an epic figure for the first and third, but what were his contributions in framing the Constitution?
First, his mere presence ensured a quorum of states. He was unanimously elected as president of the convention, and presided over the sessions with a steady hand. His presence held at bay the Society of Cincinnati, who many feared supported a military takeover of the country.
The turning point of the convention was the Great Compromise, which was vastly more complicated than the common perception that it merely gave each state two senators. Roger Sherman is credited with using this compromise to break the stalemate, but his idea had been sitting around for weeks. The small states just didn’t have enough power to get it accepted by the convention. When the cast of characters and the breadth of actions are examined, the only conclusion is that George Washington played a major role—and typically left no fingerprints.
Historians point out that Washington spoke only once during the convention, but they seldom mention what he said. He asked the delegates to approve a last-minute motion to give states a representative for every 30,000 instead of for every 40,000. This change provided some counterweight to the equal state representation in the Senate. The timing was perfect. Everything was done, and everybody wanted to go home, so they quickly passed this stealth erosion to the Great Compromise. Washington gave what was necessary to move the convention forward, and then took back what he could when people weren’t paying attention.
Washington publicly endorsed the Constitution, putting his considerable reputation behind the ratification process. He probably orchestrated many of the ratification initiatives, especially those of Alexander Hamilton or James Madison—two of his faithful disciples. Then there is the case of Edmond Randolph. Randolph was governor of Virginia and had refused to sign the Constitution, and threatened to work with Patrick Henry against ratification. After Washington asked him to join his administration as Attorney General, Randolph switched sides and joined forces with Madison. Washington instinctively knew which action would tilt events in the direction he wanted.
Washington always kept extremely bright people close at hand, so some historians attribute his political positions and pronouncements to his subordinates. Dr. Glenn A. Phelps, professor of political science at Northern Arizona University, in George Washington & American Constitutionalism, said Washington’s “writings reveal a clear, thoughtful, and remarkably coherent vision of what he hoped an American republic would become. These notions began to emerge early in the 1770s, took on a sharper, clearer perspective during the Revolution, and changed little thereafter.” Washington knew his mind, and was not overly influenced by subordinates.
What would the Father of our Country think today? His major disappointment would be the cavalier disregard for Constitutional constraints. He wrote that, “If in the opinion of the people the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation.”
George Washington fought for Independence, helped frame our Constitution, and gave us a sterling example of Constitutional governance. He committed his life and fortune to his country, and he would be disappointed by our lack of knowledge about our founding history.