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WASHINGTON, George. Autograph letter signed ("G:o Washington"), to John Armstrong (1717-1795), Mount Vernon, 25 April 1788. 4o, 7 pages on two bifolia (9 x 7 3/8 in.). Professionally
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WASHINGTON, George. Autograph letter signed ("G:o Washington"), to John Armstrong (1717-1795), Mount Vernon, 25 April 1788. 4o, 7 pages on two bifolia (9 x 7 3/8 in.). Professionally conserved: two horizontal folds neatly reinforced, slightly obscuring some text, light dampstains to page [4], left-hand margins of pages [1] and [4] with narrow strip from old mount.\n\n"I DOUBT WHETHER THE OPPOSITION TO THE CONSTITUTION WILL NOT ULTIMATELY BE PRODUCTIVE OF MORE GOOD THAN EVIL"\n\nTHE FRAMERS "HAVE THROWN NEW LIGHT UPON THE SCIENCE OF GOVERNMENT, THEY HAVE GIVEN THE RIGHTS OF MAN A FULL AND FAIR DISCUSSION"\n\n"THAT THE PROPOSED CONSTITUTION WILL ADMIT OF AMENDMENTS IS ACKNOWLEDGED BY ITS WARMEST ADVOCATES".\n\nA lengthy, measured but forceful statement of Washington's private views on the newly drafted Constitution. The historic letter was penned during the bitter and contentious national debate over ratification. Washington had played a key role as President of the Continental Congress, overseeing the drafting of the new, desperately needed Federalist compact of government. Armstrong had served in the French and Indian War and in the Revolution, and Washington recalls a comment Armstrong made to him in 1787, predicting that his "'domestic retirement must suffer an interruption'" by "another tour of duty" to preside over the secret Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia between May and September 1787. "This took place, Washington says, "notwithstanding it was utterly repugnant to my feelings, my interests, and my wishes; I sacrificed every private consideration and personal enjoyment to the earnest & pressing solicitude of those who saw, & knew the alarming situation of our public concerns, and had no other end in view but to promote the interest of their Country..." To refuse "might, on my part be construed as a total dereliction of my Country."\n\nThe labors of that long, hot summer--with windows shut in the chamber to keep prying ears from knowing the delegates' business!--was more than worth the inconvenience. Washington is extremely pleased with the new charter and has "no doubt" that if the new Constitution gets ratified, "those persons who are chosen to administer it, will have wisdom enough to discern the influence which their examples as rulers & legislators may have on the body of the people; and will have virtue enough to pursue that line of conduct which will most conduce to the happiness of their country." For "the first transactions of a nation, like those of an individual as on his entrance into life, make the deepest impression, and are to form the leading traits in its character." He feels confident the members of the new government will "pursue those measures which will best tend to the restoration of public & private faith, & of consequence promote our national respectibility & individual welfare." Washington's key role in leading the Convention, his signature on the new charter, and the foregone certainty that he would be the first President to hold the unprecedented powers of a chief executive, went a long way to convincing many Americans to accept this new plan.\n\nBut there was by no means unanimous support as each State assembled in conventions to ratify or reject the compact. Nine of thirteen affirmations were required for adoption, and many so-called anti-Federalists feared the emergence of a powerful, centralized national government. They sought to either reject the Constitution outright, or hamstring the government's powers with amendments. Washington objects to this course. "That the proposed Constitution will admit of amendments is acknowledged by its warmest advocates;" he tells Armstrong, "but to make such amendments as may be proposed by the several States the condition of its adoption, would, in my opinion, amount to a compleat rejection of it." This would open the door to local prejudices and narrow self-interests. "It will be found that what would be a favourite object with one State (or one man) is the very thing which is strenuously proposed by another. The truth is, men are too apt to be swayed by local prejudices, and those who are so fond of amendments...cannot extend their ideas to the general welfare of the Union. They do not consider that for every sacrifice which they make, they receive an ample compensation by the sacrifices which are made by other States for their benefit... I am surprized to find that any person who is acquainted with the critical state of our public affairs, and knows the variety of views, interests, feelings & prejudices which must be consulted & conciliated in framing a general Government for these States...can wish to make amendments the ultimatum for adopting the offered system."\n\nWashington knew well whereof he spoke. His passionate commitment to Constitutional change had recent antecedents, like Shays's Rebellion in 1786 and the States's unsurprising rejection of Congress's requisition for voluntary taxes. But it reached back to the Revolutionary War and the maddening, unnecessary hardships he endured trying to wage a continental-scale war under a State-based, parochial political system. He could barely feed and clothe his troops. His army nearly disintegrated on two occasions, at Valley Forge in 1778 and two years later at Morristown. Even with victory won in 1783 it took all his prestige and authority to stem a contemplated coup d'etat by his officers to gain their back pay from an empty Congressional treasury. Washington carried home from the war a determination to build a national government capable of defending and sustaining American liberty. He sensed that the majority of the people shared his determination and he is delighted to learn that the opposition to the Constitution in Armstrong's home state of Pennsylvania is limited to "such characters as cannot have an extensive influence." They and other opponents of the new charter seek merely to "inflame the passions, and to alarm the fears" of the public "by noisy declamation" rather than by sound arguments. "Baffled in their attacks upon the Constitution, they have attempted to vilify & debase the characters who formed it; but even here I trust they will not succeed."\n\nWashington even welcomes the anti-Federalist attacks, since apart from being ineffectual, they have "called forth, in [the Constitution's] defence, abilities (which otherwise would have lain dormant) that have thrown new lights upon the Science of Government. They have given the rights of Man a full and fair discussion, and have explained them in as clear, & forcible a manner, as cannot fail to make a lasting impression upon those who read the best publications on the subject, with minds disposed to be informed." (Interestingly, in his draft contained in the Letter Book, Washington specifically lauds "the pieces under the signature of Publius" but drops this explicit endorsement here in the recipient's copy.) He knows that the most serious opposition will come within his own State's ratifying convention. But despite "the vigorous efforts which will be made in the Convention to prevent its adoption, I have not the smallest doubt but it will obtain here."\n\nWashington turns briefly to an educational matter, but even that brings him back to the importance of the new Constitution and a truly national government. Armstrong had lamented the inability of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania to keep a valued professor. "If there cannot be money found to answer the common purposes of education," Washington says here in response, "not to mention the necessary commercial circulation, it is evident that there is something amiss in the ruling political power which requires a steady, regulating & energetic hand to correct & control." Cash is scarce and property values declining, he notes. That too would change under the new system. Under "an effective government well administered, and confidence restored, the tide of population & wealth would flow to us from every quarter of the globe, and with a due sense of the blessing, make us the happiest people upon Earth."\n\nThe ratification process began in December 1787, with Delaware unanimously approving the charter. Massachusetts had ratified--narrowly--on 6 February 1788, and five other States signed on by the time Washington writes this letter. New Hampshire brought the necessary ninth vote in June, followed soon after by close margins of victory in the key States of New York and Virginia. Washington would swear the oath of office as President in New York City almost exactly one year after this remarkable letter.\n\nWASHINGTON LETTERS ON THE CREATION AND ADOPTION OF THE CONSTITUTION ARE RARE. In these rooms, on 4 December 2009, we sold Washington's equally impassioned defense of the new Constitution, to his nephew Bushrod Washington, lot 257, $3,218,500. This letter to Armstrong has been frequently reprinted and quoted by scholars: Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, vol. 29, pp. 464-467; Papers: Confederation Period, ed. Abbot, vol.6, pp. 224-227. Washington. Writings, Library of America, 1997, pp. 670-673; George Washington: a Collection, ed. W.B. Allen, Liberty Fund Classics, 1988, pp. 386-389.
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NY, US
US

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18th Century, Books & Manuscripts, Americana

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Books & Manuscripts


*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.


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