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Washington Letter to Jefferson

  • George Washington Letter to Thomas Jefferson Concerning the Constitutional Convention, May 30, 1787
  • George Washington Letter to Thomas Jefferson Concerning the Constitutional Convention, May 30, 1787
  • George Washington Letter to Thomas Jefferson Concerning the Constitutional Convention, May 30, 1787
  • George Washington Letter to Thomas Jefferson Concerning the Constitutional Convention, May 30, 1787
  • George Washington Letter to Thomas Jefferson Concerning the Constitutional Convention, May 30, 1787
  • George Washington Letter to Thomas Jefferson Concerning the Constitutional Convention, May 30, 1787
George Washington wrote this letter to Thomas Jefferson from Philadelphia where he was attending the Constitutional Convention.
Related documents:
  • Articles of Confederation
    Articles of Confederation, March 1, 1781
  • Virginia Plan
    The Virginia Plan, May 29, 1787
  • United States Constitution
    United States Constitution, September 17, 1787
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George Washington Letter to Thomas Jefferson Concerning the Constitutional Convention, May 30, 1787

On May 30, 1787, just days after being unanimously elected president of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, George Washington wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as the minister to France. Jefferson was informed on the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention through letters from the delegates, particularly Washington and James Madison. Jefferson was generally in support of the Constitution, despite the lack of a bill of rights. His approval was sought, and his opinions used in attempts to influence others, especially during the Virginia ratification debates in 1788.

This letter from Washington covered suggestions for a French fur trade businessman and information about the Society of the Cincinnati, but ended by expressing Washington's feelings on the current desperate state of the national government and the need to remedy it. Even more than Jefferson's opinion, Washington's view carried a great deal of weight. This is the reason why Washington later refused to be a delegate to the Virginia ratifying convention. He believed that his moral influence, rather than any participation as an active delegate would be most beneficial to the Federalist cause. Moreover, anticipating that he would become the first president of the United States under the new constitution once ratified, Washington wanted avoid future accusations of self-promotion.

For Educators

Questions

1. Where was Thomas Jefferson? Why was he not at the Convention?
2. What was Washington's opinion of the Articles of Confederation?

Further Discussion

1. Why did Washington and Jefferson's opinions carry so much weight with their contemporaries? If either of them was against the Constitution, do you think that it would have been ratified? Why or why not?

Links

Library of Congress Bibliographic Information-Washington letter to Jefferson

Suggested Reading

Kaminski, John P., and Gaspare J. Saladino, eds. The Documentary History of the  Ratification of the Constitution, Vol 10: Ratification of the Constitution by the States: Virginia, Vol. 3. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1993.

Philadelphia 30th May 1787
Dear Sir,
  It has so happened, that the letter which you did me the honor of writing to me the 14th of November last, did not come to my hands till the first of the present month; and at a time when I was about to set off for the Convention of the States appointed to be holden in this City the 14 th Instt Consequently, it has not been in my power, at an earlier period, to reply to the important matters which are the subjects thereof. This, possibly, may be to be regretted if the house of de Coulteaux should, in the meantime, have directed its enquiries to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or New York without having had the advantages which are to be derived from the extension of the inland navigations of the Rivers Potomack and James, delineated to them. Silence on this head may be construed into inferiority, when the fact (in my judgment) is, that Alexandria or Richmond, provided the communication with the latter can be conducted by the Greenbrier and Great Kanhawa (as some aver and others doubt), has infinite advantages over either of the Towns just mentioned. With respect to James River, I am not able to speak with so much precision as of the former, with which (having had opportunities to be so) I am much better acquainted.—To this therefore I shall chiefly confine my observations.
 [Here continues eleven pages of the letter concerning the appropriateness of Alexandria for the fur trade and Washington's opinion on a French encyclopedia entry on the Society of the Cincinnati]
 For the reason I have mentioned, I cannot think it expedient for me to go into an investigation of the writers deductions. I shall accordingly content myself with giving you some idea of the part I have acted, posterior to the first formation of the Association.
 When I found that you and many of the most respectable characters in the Country would entirely acquiesce with the Institution as altered and amended in the first General Meeting of 1784, and that the objections against the obnoxious parts were wholly done away, I was prevailed upon to accept the Presidency. Happy in finding (so far as I could learn by assiduous enquiries) that all the clamours and jealousies which had been excited against the original association, had ceased; I judged it a proper time in the last Autumn, to withdraw myself from any farther Agency in the business, and to make my retirement compleat agreably to my original plan. I wrote circular letters to all the State Societies, announcing my wishes, informing that I did not propose to be at the triennial meeting, and requesting not to be re-elected President.—This was the last step of a public nature I expected ever to have taken. But having since been appointed by my Native State to attend the National Convention, and having been pressed to a compliance in a manner which it hardly becomes me to describe; I have in a measure, been obliged to sacrifice my own Sentiments, and to be present in Philadela. at the very time of the General Meeting of the Cincinnati, after which I was not at liberty to decline the Presidency without placing myself in an extremely disagreeable situation with relation to that brave and faithful class of men, whose persevering friendship I had experienced on so many trying occasions.
 The business of this Convention is as yet too much in embryo to form any opinion of the result. Much is expected from it by some, but little by others, and nothing by a few.—That something is necessary, all will agree; for the situation of the General Government (if it can be called a government) is shaken to its foundation and liable to be overset by every blast.—In a word, it is at an end, and unless a remedy is soon applied, anarchy and confusion will inevitably ensue. But having greatly exceeded the bounds of a letter already I will only add assurances of that esteem, regard, and respect with which
      I have the honor to be
       Dear Sir
        Yr most obed. &
        Very Hble Serv.,
         G: WASHINGTON