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Washington's entry into New York...

[Detail] Washington's entry into New York...

For Lesson Two:
Letter from George Washington to James Madison, March 31, 1787

NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of Letter from George Washington to James Madison, March 31, 1787 is in George Washington Papers, 1741-1799.

{excerpt begins}

The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor.--vol. 29

Mount Vernon, March 31, 1787.

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 is idle in my opinion to suppose that the Sovereign can be insensible of the inadequacy of the powers under which it acts, and that seeing, it should not recommend a revision of the Foederal system when it is considered by many as the only Constitutional mode by which the defects can be remedied. Had Congress proceeded to a delineation of the Powers, it might have sounded an Alarm; but as the case is, I do not conceive that it will have that effect.12

[Note 12: On Feb. 21, 1787, Congress had resolved that it was expedient that a convention of delegates from the several States be held at Philadelphia on the second Monday of May next "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall ... render the federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government and the preservation of the Union."]

... I am fully of opinion that those who lean to a Monarchial governmt. have either not consulted the public mind, or that they live in a region where the levelling principles in which they were bred, being entirely irradicated, is much more productive of Monarchical ideas than are to be found in the Southern States, where, from the habitual distinctions which have always existed among the people, one would have expected the first generation, and the most rapid growth of them. I also am clear, that even admitting the utility; nay necessity of the form, yet that the period is not arrived for adopting the change without shaking the Peace of this Country to its foundation. That a thorough reform of the present system is indispensable, none who have capacities to judge will deny; and with hand (and heart) I hope the business will be essayed in a full Convention. After which, if more powers, and more decision is not found in the existing form. If it still wants energy and that secrecy and dispatch (either from the nonattendance, or the local views of its members) which is characteristick of good Government. And if it shall be found (the contrary of which however I have always been more afrd. of, than of the abuse of them) that Congress will upon all proper occasions exercise the powers with a firm and steady hand, instead of frittering them back to the Individual States where the members in place of viewing themselves in their National character, are too apt to be looking. I say after this essay is made if the system proves inefficient, conviction of the necessity of a change will be dissiminated among all classes of the People. Then, and not till then, in my opinion can it be attempted without involving all the evils of civil discord. ...

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; whether they are agreed to or not; a conduct like this, will stamp wisdom and dignity on the proceedings, and be looked to as a luminary, which sooner or later will shed its influence.

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  • To whom was the document written? What role, if any, did this correspondent play in the American Revolution? What was the person's relationship to Washington?
  • What is Washington's view of the federal convention to be held in Philadelphia beginning in May 1787? What does he insist must happen there?
  • How does Washington characterize the proceedings of the Convention from his vantage point as an eyewitness to the events? What evidence exists of the famous compromises that occurred there?
  • What does Washington's correspondence reveal regarding the struggle in each of the states over the ratification of the Constitution?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.