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[Detail] George Washington. Portrait by Gilbert Stuart c1929.

The Constitution

With the successful conclusion of the War for Independence, Washington and his countrymen turned to the business of life in the new nation. The general resigned his commission and returned to Mt. Vernon, where he soon came to harbor concerns about the nature of the government of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. In particular, an uprising led by Daniel Shays in western Massachusetts in 1786-7, caused Washington consternation.

Search on anarchy and confusion to find the November 5, 1786 letter to James Madison that captures Washington's growing sense of alarm, as well as his view of the unique role that Virginia's leaders might play in resolving the difficulties:

. . . Let us look to our National character, and to things beyond the present period. No morn ever dawned more favourably than ours did; and no day was ever more clouded than the present! Wisdom, and good examples are necessary at this time to rescue the political machine from the impending storm. Virginia has now an opportunity to set the latter, and has enough of the former, I hope, to take the lead in promoting this great and arduous work. Without some alteration in our political creed, the superstructure we have been seven years raising at the expence of so much blood and treasure, must fall. We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion!

Letter from George Washington to James Madison, November 5, 1786 [Transcription]

The weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation convinced Washington and many others of the need for a stronger government. The Confederation Congress, made up of people such as James Madison, passed a resolution to hold a Federal Convention in Philadelphia beginning in May 1787. The events of that summer culminated in the creation of the Constitution of the United States. Washington's role before, during, and after the drafting of the document was crucial.

Search on radical cures to reveal Washington's correspondence with Madison regarding the prospect of a Federal Convention:

. . . I am glad to find that Congress have recommended to the States to appear in the Convention proposed to be holden in Philadelphia in May. I think the reasons in favor, have the preponderancy of those against the measure. . . It gives me great pleasure to hear that there is a probability of a full representation of the States in Convention; but if the delegates come to it under fetters, the salutary ends proposed will in my opinion be greatly embarrassed and retarded, if not altogether defeated. I am anxious to know how this matter really is, as my wish is, that the Convention may adopt no temporizing expedient, but probe the defects of the Constitution to the bottom, and provide radical cures.

Letter from George Washington to James Madison, March 31, 1787 [Transcription]

The drafting of the Constitution was one thing; getting it accepted by nine legislatures out of thirteen states was quite another. Washington watched the ratification process with a wary eye, as revealed in his May 28, 1788 correspondence to Lafayette.

Search on the plot thickens to reveal the letter, which includes the following:

Since I had the pleasure of writing to you by the last Packet, the Convention of Maryland has ratified the federal Constitution by a majority of 63 to 11 voices. That makes the seventh State which has adopted it, next Monday the Convention in Virginia will assemble; we have still good hopes of its adoption here: though by no great plurality of votes. South Carolina has probably decided favourably before this time. The plot thickens fast. A few short weeks will determine the political fate of America for the present generation and probably produce no small influence on the happiness of society through a long succession of ages to come.

Letter from George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, May 28, 1788 [Transcription]