Robert Middlekauff, Review of Presidential Series, Volume 19

Review of The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series, volume 19
Journal of Early American Literature

Reviewed by Robert Middlekauff

This volume, the nineteenth in the Presidential Series, finds George Washington hard at work in service of a country that he had done more to bring into existence than anyone in the world. It reminds us that he had spent a major part of his life striving at the behest of a people he believed had been called into being by Providence. His own sense of himself had held firm over the years, though by 1783 his early commitments to the United States may have settled simply into a quiet resignation to do his best. The passion of the Revolution had, in a sense, faded for him, yet the convictions of the great years of the war had not. Winning independence was one thing; making something of it, another. The nineteenth volume of the series of his presidency takes its place in the attempt to reconstruct his part in an effort that called into being talents fashioned in a lifetime of service.

The Washington Project, located in Charlottesville, Virginia, is now in its second half century. This review is not the place to assess the entire effort, or even to list its chief editors; but a short comment on the various series covering Washington’s correspondence from the beginning of his life to its end surely is appropriate. So far, the project has included his diaries (six volumes), and five additional series: Colonial (ten volumes), Revolutionary (twenty-two volumes), Confederation (six volumes), Presidential (nineteen volumes to date), and Retirement (four volumes). The organization of the project into several categories makes sense, and offers a means of thinking about Washington’s life and his time. Including letters to him adds enormously to one’s ability to understand and use his letters. The best earlier collection edited by John C. Fitzpatrick—thirty-nine volumes published in the years 1931–39—included only a few of the letters written to Washington. The modern collection, including volume 19 of the Presidential Series, provides all the letters written to him, fully annotated. One may be sure that the texts of the letters have been carefully established, and the annotation shows a careful hand throughout. As one who has used several of the Washington series, I can express gratitude and admiration to the several generations of editors who have done a massive amount of work on the Washington Project.

The volume under review includes Washington’s correspondence near the middle of his second term. His first term had been filled with problems of great scope: putting together a new government for the United States, deciding how its debt should be paid, establishing its offices, defining as clearly as possible its relations with other nations, and, among many other things, finding the men to make it work. He also had faced a variety of other problems lingering from the Revolution—for example, issues with veterans, the army, and the navy. Then there were those matters commonly thought of as personal—his family in Virginia, Mount Vernon, and the business side of his farming.

Washington had every right to feel tired—in fact he was tired—but much still was expected of him in America and abroad. Shortly after taking office, he made several trips in order to gain a close-up look at the American people, and to give them an opportunity to scrutinize him, and, perhaps, to celebrate his leadership in the Revolution. For much of his life he had assumed leadership.

Examination of his correspondence in the years following the great demands of his first term as president reveals that, though he was tired, his fatigue did not rob him of determination to give his best to his country. Doing so did not mean that he confronted nothing but crises everyday. His correspondence reveals something quite different—the first presidency was made up of small as well as large problems and duties. Much of what he had to do fell under the category of routine: appointing officials to carry out the obligations of government, for example. Reading the letters to him leaves the impression that six years after the beginning of his first term the US government was not large enough, that there was need of more officials, perhaps a layer of bureaucrats who might have relieved the president of such duties as approving the appointments of lighthouse keepers, or collectors of tariffs on imports. To be sure, Washington did not have to generate the candidates for such jobs, but he did have to look at recommendations of such people. What moved him in these actions was probably a desire to get things right. He was acting in an arena of a new national government that required help in getting its footing. Washington was very much aware that precedents were important, for like it or not, everything his administration did would serve as a model for those who followed in the next administrations.

Given the circumstances related to the government of the new Republic, and given his own disposition and habits of mind, it is not surprising to find a broad and complicated set of subjects in his correspondence. At the minimum, they included low-level appointments of tax collectors, appeals for money from Americans and foreigners, horses, land sales, supplies of oil for lighthouses, the design of the Capitol, the development of the city of Washington, veterans of the Revolution, major federal appointments (to the Departments of State, Treasury, and War and the office of the attorney general), the Northwest Indians, military posts, aspects of farming (crops, fencing, cultivation, trees, seeds, among others). There are letters to and from a variety of men, great and small, several involved in major problems involving the United States.

All the crises discussed in correspondence that give this volume a special meaning arose with the French Revolution. War between Britain and France occurred in these years. The United States managed to remain out of this war that lasted, with several interruptions, throughout three decades. Near the end of Washington’s second term, war with Britain seemed unavoidable, especially in the face of British actions on the sea against American commerce and Britain’s refusal to withdraw its troops from the old Northwest despite the requirements of the Treaty of Paris (1783). These matters, joined to restrictions against American trade with the British West Indies, compelled the Washington administration to search for diplomatic solutions. President Washington emphatically desired to maintain peace with Britain. In June 1794 he sent Chief Justice John Jay to London to find a way to solve this array of problems. Jay, a man with experience in dealing with European officials, arrived not knowing what he would find in the Foreign Office. His reception by Prime Minister William Pitt and Foreign Secretary Lord William Wyndham Grenville (son of George Grenville who had earned American hatred for his stamp tax in 1765) was friendly, even promising. The young Grenville proved to be a man of compromise, and very different from his father. The actual negotiations were difficult, but Jay and Grenville managed to produce a treaty that did not fully satisfy either side, but led to political and financial arrangements of genuine importance.

Washington distrusted British promises to evacuate the Northwest posts and was unhappy with treaty terms that established limited commercial rights. But despite his distrust and doubts he came to believe that since nothing better could be extracted from the British, it should be ratified.

His letters in this volume reveal only a part of his reactions. They also uncover only a portion of the conduct of Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, an old Virginia colleague and friend. The review of the Jay Treaty in America proved to be almost as complicated as the process that produced it in Britain. For Randolph at this time engaged in negotiations (or plotting) with Jean-Antoine-Joseph Fauchet, the French minister to America. Their relationship is not completely clear, but when it was discovered, Washington became convinced that Randolph’s purposes were not in the interest of his country. Suspicions grew into conviction by some that Randolph was betraying his country and led to an explosive meeting in which Randolph’s conduct was uncovered. Though he denied that he had committed any offense, he resigned his office, but he did not remain quiet. Rather he published a pamphlet, Vindication of Mr. Randolph’s Resignation (1795), giving his version of events surrounding his dealing with Fauchet. It was a confused and confusing account. In his explanation of this affair, he managed to deepen the alienation Washington felt from him, and muddied the political waters generally. That Washington regarded Randolph’s claim that he had been treated unfairly, that he had been denied the opportunity to explain himself, as untrue is clear in his response (of October 21, 1795) that “you are at full liberty to publish, without reserve, any, and every private & confidential letter I ever wrote to you; nay more—every word I ever uttered to, or in your presence, from whence you can derive any advantage in your vindication” (63).

Washington was more circumspect in the phrasing of letters to the Marquis de Lafayette’s son, who wished to visit him during the negotiations with Britain that yielded the Jay Treaty. As the letters concerning the approach to Britain indicate, friendship with France remained a sensitive concern. His letters to young Lafayette reveal how this personal matter entered the diplomacy of the day. Washington feared that such a visit would offend the British, who might interpret it as favoring France, their enemy, over themselves. But as a close friend of Lafayette, he did not wish to disappoint him or his son. Washington sought Alexander Hamilton’s help, and that worthy man responded with delicacy and skill. Eventually an invitation was extended to the boy, and an affair that Washington feared might disrupt the larger matter of relations with Britain was resolved.

Alexander Hamilton appears frequently in this volume, though he had given up leadership of the Treasury to Oliver Wolcott at the end of January 1795. He served his old commander even out of office, in contrast to John Adams, who felt ignored, and pretty much was. Thomas Jefferson only makes a single appearance, for by this time he had taken himself back to Monticello. His colleague James Madison, a power in the House of Representatives, made his presence felt throughout, sometimes in a heavy-handed way. Edmund Randolph had once hoped for an even greater role. Timothy Pickering entertained similar hopes, and followed Randolph as secretary of state. He was of limited ability, and like most, never gained the office he desired.

And what of George Washington, a fatigued man, who stayed in his post while yearning for the fields of Mount Vernon? Despite his wishes for escape he remained at this point in his administration what he had been when it began. He was different in one major respect. He knew and understood more about his country and the world than he had in 1789.

The negotiations around the Jay Treaty reveal how that understanding had deepened. A letter of December 22, 1795, to Gouverneur Morris provides evidence:

My policy has been, and will continue, while I have the honor to remain in the Administration of the government, to be upon friendly terms with, but independent of, all the Nations of the earth. To share in the broils of none. To fulfill our own engagements. And to supply their wants, and be carriers for them all; being thoroughly convinced that it is our policy, & interest to do so; and that nothing short of self respect, and that justice which is due to us as a nation, ought to involve us in War.


He had long been a man of wisdom and control. Within its limits his mind was powerful, and gifted with strong analytical ability. It was not distinguished by imagination, but it was clear and skillful in getting at the root of problems. Washington’s entire being—mind and affections—was shaped by his honesty; especially in the ways he put his talents to use in the service of the United States.

From EARLY AMERICAN LITERATURE, Volume 52, no. 3. Copyright © 2017 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.