A FTER the peace was signed in September, 1783, all the British soldiers left America, and Washington felt that his work was done. So he resolved to give up his post as commander-in-chief, and go back to his pleasant Virginian home.
He was glad at the thought of going back to the home he loved, yet sad at the thought of saying farewell to his officers. For eight years they had worked for him faithfully, together they had faced dark days, together they had been through deep waters. And now that victory was won, Washington's heart was filled with love and gratitude.
It was at Faunces's Tavern in New York that Washington met his officers for the last time. When he came into the long, low room where they were all gathered, he was so moved that he could not speak. Silently he went to the table and filled a glass with wine. Raising it, he turned to the men who stood as silently about him, and with an effort, commanding his voice, he spoke.
"With a heart full of love and gratitude," he said, "I now take leave of you, most devoutly wishing that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honourable."
Then having drunk to the toast he set the glass down.
"I cannot come to each of you to take my leave," he said brokenly, "but shall be obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand."
The General who was nearest to Washington then turned to him and silently grasped his hand.
With tears in his eyes, Washington put his arms about him and kissed him. And thus one after the other his officers silently said good-bye, no one of them trusting himself to speak.
Washington Taking Leave of his Officers
Then still in silence, they followed him to the boat which was to carry him on the first part of his way to Annapolis where Congress was assembled, and where he was to lay down his sword.
His journey was like a royal progress. In every town and village through which he passed the people gathered to cheer and bless him. So he reached Annapolis. There before Congress he resigned his commission. Then with a sigh of relief, a simple citizen once more, he mounted his horse and rode homewards.
But now the colonies which had wrung themselves free from the rule of Britain were not altogether happy. They called themselves the United States, but there was little union. Before the Revolution there had been much jealousy between the various states. For a time, indeed, in the heat of the struggle, they had forgotten these differences. But now that the struggle was over, and peace had come, these jealousies appeared again. Each state had its own government, its own taxes, its own money. So there was great confusion. But no state wanted to give up any of its privileges, and it seemed hopeless to institute one Central Government, for each state thought only of itself, and each one was afraid of giving Congress too much power lest it should usurp the power of the state government.
The states quarrelled with each other about their boundaries, some of them made absurd claims to vast territory on the strength of their royal charters, quite forgetting that these charters were now done away with. There were riots everywhere, indeed, never was the State in such danger of shipwreck as now at its very beginning.
Washington from his quiet retreat at first watched the struggle anxiously, but not despairingly. "Everything will come right, at last," he said. "My only fear is that we shall lose a little reputation first."
As time went on, however, he grew more anxious. "I think we have opposed Great Britain," he said, "and have arrived at the present state of peace and independency, to very little purpose, if we cannot conquer our own prejudices."
But Washington had no real need to fear. The men who had fought for their freedom proved themselves worthy of it, and in May, 1787, a meeting of all the states was called at Philadelphia.
Of this Convention, as it was called, Washington was chosen President. It was no easy post, nor was the business for which the members of the Convention were called together a simple business. They had, indeed, a very great task to perform, the task of forming a new constitution or mode of government, which all states would accept. It was not easy to please every one, and also do thoroughly good work. So for four months the Convention sat, discussing this and that, listening now to one side, now to another, weighing, judging and deciding.
But at length the thing was done. In the same hall where the Declaration of Independence had been signed the Constitution had been framed. Then the delegates went home and a copy of the Constitution was sent to each state.
It had been agreed that nine states must accept the Constitution before it could become law. The question now was whether nine would accept it or not. Many hesitated a long time. For it seemed to them that this new Constitution which was going to unite all the states into one was going also to give far too much power into the hands of a few people. It would be a case of tyranny over again, many feared. And, having suffered so much to free themselves from one tyranny, they were not ready to place themselves under a second.
But others at once saw the need of a strong central government and accepted the new Constitution whole-heartedly and almost at once. Delaware had the honour of coming first early in December, 1787, but before the month was gone two more states, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, followed the good example. A week or so later came Georgia and then Connecticut. After a good deal of hesitation Massachusetts also came into line; then Maryland and South Carolina.
Only one more state was now needed to make the union safe. Would that one state come in, the friends of union asked themselves, and they worked their hardest to make people think as they did.
At length their efforts were rewarded and New Hampshire made the ninth, and just four days later the great State of Virginia also came in. New York soon followed and only North Carolina and Rhode Island remained out of the Union. But in time they, too, came in, Rhode Island last of all, and not for fully a year after the first President had been chosen, and the government organised.
The new government required that there should be a Congress to look after the affairs of the nation, with two houses, something after the fashion of the British Parliament. It also required that there should be a President at the head of everything.
There was little doubt as to who should fill that place. George Washington, the man who had led the army to victory, was the man chosen to be first President of the United States.
Other people were indeed voted for, but Washington had more than twice as many votes as John Adams, who came next to him. The others were simply nowhere. So Washington was made President and Adams vice-president.
But Washington had no wish to be President. He was too old, he said (he was only fifty-seven) and besides he was not a statesman but a soldier. The people, however, would not listen to him. "We cannot do without you," they said. "There is no use framing a new government if the best man is to be left out of it."
So to the entreaties of his friends Washington yielded. But it was with a heavy heart, for he greatly doubted his own powers.
"In confidence I tell you," he wrote to an old friend, "that my movement to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution."
But whatever he felt, his journey to New York was not like that of a criminal, but rather like that of a king. From far and near the people crowded to see him pass. They raised triumphal arches, they scattered flowers at his feet, they sang chants and hymns in his honour. From first to last it was one long triumph. When he reached New York bells rang and cannon boomed, the streets were gay with flags, and crowded with people, and as he passed along cheer upon cheer thundered and echoed over the city.
Next day, the 30th of April, 1789, Washington took his place as President of the United States.
At nine o'clock in the morning the churches were thronged with people praying for the welfare of their President. By twelve these same people were all crowding to the Federal Hall eager to be present at the great ceremony. Soon the space in front of the hall was one closely packed mass of people; every window and balcony was crowded also, and people were even to be seen on the roofs.
A little after noon Washington reached the hall, and as he stepped out on to the balcony a cheer of welcome burst from the gathered thousands. Again and again they cheered, again and again Washington bowed in acknowledgement. He was greatly touched; tears stood in his eyes, and at length utterly overcome he sat down.
Suddenly a deep hush fell upon the swaying crowd and after a slight pause Washington rose again. Then in the grave silence the voice of Robert R. Livingston, the Chancellor of New York, could clearly be heard.
"Do you," he asked, "solemnly swear that you will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of your ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States?"
With his hand upon the Bible which the Secretary of the Senate held beside him Washington replied.
"I do solemnly swear," he said, "that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
Then bowing his head he kissed the Bible held before him. "So help me God," he murmured.
The Chancellor then stepped forward and in a ringing voice he shouted, "Long live George Washington, President of the United States."
A great answering shout went up from the people, the flag was broken to the breeze, and cannon boomed forth a salute to the first President of the United States.
Again and again Washington bowed his thanks to the cheering people. Then, shaken with emotion, the shouts still sounding in his ears, he turned away and entered the hall to read his address.
Thus the Story of the United States under the Constitution was begun.
Washington was a thorough aristocrat and now that he had been chosen head of the State he felt that he must surround himself with a certain amount of ceremony. Now he no longer walked or rode abroad, but drove about in a fine coach drawn by six white horses. He no longer went to see people, but they came to him on certain days and at appointed times. When he held receptions he dressed himself splendidly in black velvet with silk stockings. He wore a jewelled sword at his side and buckles both at the knee and on his shoes. Instead of shaking hands with people he merely bowed.
All this ceremony and state came easily to Washington. Even as a
simple Virginian gentleman he had been used to a certain amount of
it. For in those days plain gentle-folk were much more ceremonious
than they are
The first President's post was no easy one. The whole machinery of government had to be invented and set going, and first and foremost the money matters had to be set straight.
They were in a great muddle. The war had cost a great deal, so the new government began in debt and nearly every separate state was also in debt. But a clever man named Alexander Hamilton took hold of the money matters and soon put them right.
Among other things he said that the government must take over the war debts of all the states. At once the states made an outcry. "If we allow the government to pay our debts," they said, "we become slaves to the government. If we give up control of our own money matters the government will have too much power over us. We put too much power in the hands of a few." Then they talked of tyranny.
You see many of the people of the United States rightly or wrongly had come to look upon any government as certain to be tyrannous. However, Hamilton got his way in the end. The money matters of the nation were settled satisfactorily, and the separate states bound more securely together.
And now another state joined the union, that of Vermont. Vermont, as you can see if you look on the map, lies between New Hampshire and New York, and there had been bitter disputes between the two over the land which both claimed. In 1765, however, King George III had decided that the land belonged to New York, and must be under the rule of that colony. The people, however, rebelled. And when in 1777 the Governor of New York threatened to drive them all into the Green Mountains if they did not yield peaceably they raised an army of volunteers to whom they gave the name of Green Mountain Boys. They took this name from the word Vermont which meant Green Mountain.
The Green Mountain Boys fought the New York Governor and declared Vermont a separate colony. Now these old quarrels were forgotten. New York no longer claimed the land, and Vermont joined the Union as the fourteenth state.
In the following year another state was added to the Union. This was the State of Kentucky. It was, like several other states, an offshoot of Virginia, and carved out of the territory which Virginia claimed by right of her old charter which gave her all the land between the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Among the early settlers of Kentucky was a famous hunter named Daniel Boone. He was a gentle, kindly man who loved the forest and the loneliness of the wilderness. All the lore of the forest was his, he knew the haunts and habits of every living thing that moved within the woods. He could imitate the gobble of the turkey, or the chatter of the squirrel, and follow a trail better than any Indian. It was with no idea of helping to found a state, but rather from a wish to get far from the haunts of his fellowmen that he moved away into the beautiful wilds of Kentucky.
In those days Kentucky was not inhabited by any tribe of Indians, but it was their hunting ground, and they were very angry when they saw white men come to settle there and spoil their hunting. So Boone had many fierce fights with Indians, and was more than once taken prisoner by them.
Many other settlers followed Boone, and after the Revolution many Virginians moved to Kentucky. These people soon became clamorous for separation from Virginia, and at last in 1792 Kentucky was received into the Union as a separate state.
And now the question of a suitable capital for the United States began to be thought of. The first Congress had met at New York, but it only remained there a short time. Then the seat of government was moved to Philadelphia. Philadelphia, however, was not considered a good place. So it was decided to build a new capital. The Northern States wanted it in the north, the Southern States wanted it in the south, but finally it was agreed upon to have it on the Potomac River almost in the middle, Virginia and Maryland offering the territory. Splendid plans were made, and the building was begun, but for the next ten years Philadelphia still remained the seat of government.
So four busy years went past, and the time of Washington's presidency drew to an end. He rejoiced to think that after his hard work for his country he could now go back to his peaceful home at Mount Vernon, and be at rest. But his friends would not let him go. The government of the United States was not yet firmly on its feet. Only he could make it firm, they said. The people loved him, and would be guided by him when they would not follow any one else, therefore he must stay.
At length Washington yielded to the entreaties of his friends and allowed himself to be elected President a second time.
And now there arose difficulties between the United States and their old friends, the French. For, while the Americans had been hammering away at their Constitution, and making a new nation out of raw material, the French had risen against the tyranny of their king, and had declared France a Republic. And when many of the European countries joined together to fight France, and force them to take back their king, the French people looked to the sister Republic across the Atlantic for help. They had helped the Americans in their struggle, surely now the Americans would help them. But the French went too far. They seemed to lose all sense of right and wrong, they put hundreds of people to death without cause and drowned France in blood.
So, many people who had wished them well at the beginning, turned from them, and although many people in America were ready to fight for the French, Washington determined to keep peace. He was not ungrateful to the French for their help in the American Revolution. But he felt that their wild orgy of blood was wrong, and he saw, too, that America was too young a nation to plunge again into war. So he proclaimed the United States to be neutral, that is, that they would take part on neither side in the European War.
When the French heard that America refused to help them, they were greatly hurt. But worse was yet to follow, for Washington, besides refusing to fight for the French, made a treaty with the British, with whom the French were at war.
The War of Independence had left some bitterness between the old country and the new. And as time went on that bitterness increased rather than lessened. The United States felt that Britain hardly treated them with the respect due to an independent nation, and indeed some of Britain's actions were fairly high handed.
During the war a great many Negroes had been carried off into Canada, and Britain would not pay for them. The boundaries between the United States and Canada were still in dispute. Britain made no effort to settle them, but kept possession of such forts as Oswego, Detroit, Niagara, and others. Then, because they were at war with France, the British interfered with, and almost ruined, American trade with the French West Indies. And lastly, what seemed to Americans the worst insult of all, they claimed the right of search. That is, they claimed the right of searching neutral vessels for British seamen and of taking them by force to serve in the British navy. In those early days it was difficult to distinguish an Englishmen from an American by his speech, and thus Americans were often seized and made to serve in the British navy. There were other grievances, but these were chief.
Taken altogether they made the Americans so angry that Washington feared another war, for which he knew the nation was not ready. He decided therefore to make a bid for peace, and sent John Jay to London to arrange matters between the two countries.
Jay did not find British statesmen in any yielding mood, and so the treaty which he arranged, and which goes by his name, was not altogether favourable to the Americans. There was, for instance, nothing in the treaty about paying for the slaves, nor about the right of search. But seeing that he could get no better terms Jay accepted those offered him. Undoubtedly America asked more than Britain could well give. Equally undoubtedly Britain gave less than America had a right to expect.
Washington was not satisfied with the treaty, but he felt that Jay had done his best. He felt, too, that it was either the treaty or war. So rather than have war he signed it.
When, however, the terms of it became known a cry of rage rang through the country. Those who had supported it were hooted at and stoned in the streets, John Jay was burned in effigy, the treaty itself was publicly burned. Even Washington, beloved as he was, did not escape. Taunts and insults were flung at him. He was called a tyrant and a traitor, but in spite of all the opposition Washington stood firm. He held to the treaty, and peace with the old country was kept.
The storm was bitter while it lasted, but at length it died down and the men who had flung insults at Washington saw in time that he had been right. He had kept peace; and as a young nation America stood in need of peace more than anything else.
Washington's second term of office now came to an end. He was utterly weary of public life, and he resolutely refused to stand for President again. It was nearly forty years, now, since he had first begun to work for his country. He felt that his work was done, and all he wanted now was to spend his last days quietly in his beloved home, Mount Vernon.
This time Washington had his way and laid down his office. Then, as second President, the people chose John Adams, who had already been Vice-President.