Washington's Hardest Decision

With this essay the Atlantic begins a series of biographical papers each of which will discuss that time of supreme crisis, that turning point. when a man’s fortunes were made or lost. DOUGLAS SOUTHALL FREEMAN, the leading historian of the South, knows more about George Washington than any other man alive. Ten years ago he began laying the foundation for his great biography, four volumes of which have already appeared, with a fifth announced for this autumn. Mr. Freeman, affectionately known as the Sage of Richmond, was for thirty-four years the editor of the Richmond News Leader, but at his busiest he never ceased to work at his monumental life of Robert E. Lee for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1934. He knew the turning point in Lee’s career, and he now singles out with fresh illumination the hardest decision General Washington ever made.


THE time had come when the General felt that he could resign without disservice to his country. Sir Guy Carleton’s last transport had left New York. Not a British soldier remained on the soil of the United States elsewhere than at the western posts from which it was assumed the garrisons soon would be withdrawn. The peace treaty contained explicit admission of American independence; the alliance with France was firm. Command of what remained of the Continental Army could be transferred safely to Henry Knox, former Chief of Artillery.

So, on the 23rd of December, 1783, Washington appeared before Congress at Annapolis, Maryland, and in ceremonies made tense by their complete simplicity, he read a brief address that concluded with these words: “Having finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of action; and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”With that he drew the folded paper from his pocket, stepped forward, placed the document in the hands of President Thomas Mifflin; and as soon afterwards as courtesy allowed, he mounted his waiting horse and started for Mount Vernon.

He knew he was a national hero. Had not Congress voted him an equestrian statue? When later he asked for his commission as a souvenir, was there not talk of returning it to him in a gold casket? Men who had witnessed all the discouragements and defeats of war from 1775 to Yorktown in 1781 believed that his energy, his resolution, his leadership had carried the cause to victory, and they did not begrudge any honor or withhold applause of any apostrophe the most imaginative of their orators could fashion.

The General was honored not less for what he was than for what he had accomplished, because the people of the United States realized that in dealing with Congress, with jealous subordinates, and with some difficult men among the fine corps of officers France had sent to America, he had displayed a patience and a candor that had behind them unshakable integrity. Washington was alone on his pedestal of public acclamation. Survivors of his campaigns mentioned his name gratefully and then paused before they spoke of anyone else, even of Nathanael Greene, who had conducted a magnificent campaign with a small force on the other front.

This distinction in the public mind was the one the retiring Commander-in-Chief most desired and most cherished. The day before he said farewell to Congress, he told the authorities of Annapolis that he had the “greatest of earthly rewards: the approbation and affections of a free people"; and when he had been home a month he wrote that he was “made extremely happy by the gratitude of my countrymen.”Others might seek the prize their ambition coveted; the good opinion of the country repaid him for eight years’ neglect of his private affairs. He would not trade principles for popularity but he wanted to preserve his position at any honorable price. Although he never quite persuaded himself that it was possible to escape all criticism, he confessed later to Arthur Young: “I have studiously avoided, as much as was in my power, to give any cause for ill-natured or impertinent comments on my conduct.”

The surest means to these ends obviously was to keep away from political contention. He would continue to love his country and to rejoice in its progress, but he had lived his day. “I shall view the busy world,”he told one of his French comrades, “in the calm light of philosophy and with that serenity of mind which the soldier in his pursuit of glory, and the statesman of fame, have not time to enjoy.” He went further: “I am not only retired from all public employments, but I am retiring within myself and shall tread the private walks of life with heartfelt satisfaction.” To his beloved Lafayette, his son in the spirit, he wrote almost exuberantly: “Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all; and this, my dear friend, being the order of my march, I will move gently down the stream of life until I sleep with my fathers.”


RETIREMENT did not bring leisure. His antebellum debts remained; bonds and mortgages due him had not been collected or had been paid, usually, in depreciated currency; he heard that lands on the Ohio which he had patented with every safeguard of law were being offered for sale in Philadelphia and even in Europe as the property of other men; inquiries of every sort came to him by post; guests, sometimes a dozen of them at a time, enjoyed his viands and drank his Madeira, while their servants gorged in his quarters and their horses munched his corn because he lived in a district that boasted no inn to care for visitors’ attendants and mounts. Almost a year and a half elapsed before he had a single dinner alone with his wife. With Mount Vernon crowded week after week, Washington counted himself fortunate if he could devote himself to business during the morning and discharge his duties as host during the afternoon.

Public service gnawed many hours. Some estates of which he had been executor in 1775 still were unsettled; trusteeships continued; his interest in the development of the West made him a willing leader in a movement to improve the navigation of the upper Potomac, and when a company was organized to link this eastern river with the watershed of the Ohio, he became its president. Even if financial difficulty and busy occupation denied him the contemplative ease he had thought he would have, life at Mount Vernon was as close to the fulfillment of his dreams as a practical man could have expected. With himself the sole loser by possible mistakes of judgment, Washington did not have to display the public “care and caution” that had been the vigilant law of his anxious life in the Army. There could be on the plantation no Thomas Conway to scoff at his management, no Charles Lee to revile him, no Horatio Gates to hold suspiciously at arm’s length. Decisions about crops and cattle did not incense Governors or arouse Delegates in Congress.

For a short time, Washington had optimism, curbed but confident, for the future of the Union. “Everything, my dear Trumbull,” he wrote a former secretary, “will come right at last, as we have often prophesied; my only fear is that we shall lose a little reputation first.” He told Governor Benjamin Harrison, his long-time spokesman in Congress: ” Like a young heir, come a little prematurely to a large inheritance, we shall wanton and run riot until we have brought our reputation to the brink of ruin, and then, like him, shall have to labor with the current of opinion, when compelled perhaps, to do what prudence and common policy pointed out, as plain as any problem in Euclid, in the first instance.”

Before many months, the theorem was confused. The gradual economic recovery of some parts of the country was less apparent from the seclusion of Mount Vernon than was the political bewilderment of public men. Ugly rivalries developed among the States; Congress manifestly needed more powers than it had, but it would not exercise those it possessed; the considerable volume of specie left in America by French and British was hoarded or sent overseas for needed goods; a depreciated currency was a dragging ball and chain whenever a forward step was made; British commercial policy appeared inflexibly hostile.

Washington tried to view this philosophically in the private letters he wrote. Over and over he remarked that the people “must feel before they will see,” but he found even his tightly woven patience raveling. “Illiberality, jealousy, and local policy mix too much,” he warned, “in all our public councils, for the good government of the Union.” In the dispute over the grant to Congress of powers to raise revenue and to regulate commerce, he did not pretend to be a nonpartisan, though he made no public statement. “If we are afraid to trust one another under qualified powers,” he insisted, “there is an end of the Union.” In another communication his argument was: “We are either a united people or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation. . . . If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending to it.”

This letter was written to the Virginia Congressman, James Madison, thirty-four years of age, for whose discerning accounts of public events Washington was grateful. Most of the General’s older friends in public life were dead or feeble, preoccupied with their own affairs or concerned chiefly with the politics of their State. Exchange of views with the Adamses, with Franklin, and with Hancock never had been frequent. Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and even Philip Schuyler now wrote seldom. Most of those sending information to Mount Vernon or seeking his advice on political questions were men, such as Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox, who had been too young to participate in the colonial juntas and too busy with arms during the war to share conspicuously in the organization of the State governments. Washington enjoyed and extended this correspondence. Of his 159 political letters written to Americans in four and a quarter years at home after the war, 76 were addressed to one or another of seven men, all of them in their twenties or thirties. Without the least intention of doing so, Washington speedily became the leader of a company of young men more interested in the Union than in the individual States.

Washington’s own opinion of the States was being lowered by every delay on their part in voting to Congress the power to raise revenue with which to revive public credit. The danger that America would lose the reputation she had won in the war made him forget on occasion his resolution to give no cause for “ill-natured comments,” “My opinion,” he said almost angrily in May, 1786, “is that there is more wickedness than ignorance in the conduct of the States.” He concluded unhappily: “The want of disposition to do justice is the source of the national embarrassments.”It was not necessary to specify. Unwillingness to pay taxes, suspicion of government in general and particularly of Federal government, the selfish jealousy of rival States, and an alarming increase in every sort of vicious economic cheating that promised temporary gain — these were hampering the recovery of America and were too widespread for Washington to spend time in describing them to correspondents who battled daily with the base realities.

He began to think that the men who formed the American Confederation ” probably had,"as he put it, “too good an opinion of human nature,”and he Confessed his concern over a situation he did not think he could improve. “Having happily assisted,”he said, “in bringing the ship into port, and having been fairly discharged, it is not my business to embark again on a sea of troubles.” He continued: “Nor could it be expected that my sentiments and opinions would have much weight on the minds of my countrymen; they have been neglected, though given as a last legacy in the most solemn manner. I had then perhaps some claims to public attention. I consider myself as having none at present.”


EVENTS of the summer and autumn of 1786 seemed to confirm all Washington’s fears for the future of the Union. Bitter loss and perilous sliding on the very brink of financial chaos had not convinced the country that a surfeit of paper money was worse than a shortage of specie. Seven States yielded to the temptation and started the presses again. Rhode Island outdid them all by voting to issue any needy freeholder paper currency equal in nominal value to half the estimated value of his real estate, the only security behind the bills. This currency was made legal tender for the payment of all debts. If a creditor refused it, the debtor could deposit the bills with the court and procure his discharge. Any person who declined to accept this paper money in current purchase and sale was liable to arrest and fine. If, as a few courageous leaders warned, the result of this emission of depreciating paper was relief for the poor debtor and ruin for the well-to-do creditor, this was considered by many as precisely what should come to pass. All had shared in saving property during the war; they should divide equally what had been preserved. To Washington it seemed as if the controlling faction in Rhode Island were burning down the homes of all, but he said, half bitterly, “there are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to.”Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts alarmed him, if possible, still more. Anxiously he wrote to inquire whether the insurgents had a just grievance that should be corrected; and if they had no excuse for their acts, he wished to know what Massachusetts intended to do to vindicate its courts and its laws.

Until this time Washington had abandoned his detached position to the extent only that he had spoken sternly in private letters of men and of policies that threatened to ruin the country’s credit and to destroy the Union. Now, in answer to his inquiries, his friends had to suggest that he do more than write. David Humphreys knew how earnestly his old chief wished to continue in retirement, but in describing to the General the state of affairs in New England, the former military secretary gave this unpleasant advice: “In case of civil discord, I have already told you that it was seriously my opinion that you could not remain neuter, and that you would be obliged, in self-defense, to take part on one side or the other, or withdraw from the Continent. Your friends are of the same opinion.” Word was sent, also, that Congress might ask him to come to New York to counsel the discouraged Delegates; James Madison had received intimation that it would be desirable for Washington to make a “ private visit “ to New England if conditions grew worse, as some of his correspondents believed they inevitably would. “ We are all,” Light-Horse Harry Lee wrote his old leader, “in dire apprehension that a beginning of anarchy with all its calamities has approached, and [we] have no means to stop the dreadful work.”Washington himself said, “I shall be surprised at nothing. for if, three years since, any person had told me that at this day I should see such a formidable rebellion against the laws and constitutions of our own making as now appears, I should have thought him a bedlamite, a fit subject for a mad house.”

Benjamin Lincoln routed Shays’ insurrectionists in January—February, 1787, and deferred, if he did not render unnecessary, a call for the former Commander-in-Chief to take the field, but the Massachusetts general could not destroy the contagion of unrest. Madison confessed a fear that discontent still was spreading. Washington thought the spring of 1787 would witness events that would “astonish the world.” If this was to be prevented and a score of other dangers averted, the Federal government must be strong enough to raise money and lo enforce law. Unless these things were done, the Union would cease to exist. It could not live on sentiment or by sufferance. The Revolution was played out, the spirit of ‘76 was gone. Most of Washington’s correspondents and native guests were of one mind on all this. The speediest rescue, they agreed, would be through the revision of the Articles of Confederation, but in what manner should this be undertaken? From what quarter could strength be mustered to overcome the hostility of those who lived in the illusion their States could survive though the Union perished?

The answer was not as complex as the question made it appear. A demand had been taking shape for a convention of the States. The proceedings of the Annapolis convention, attended by several of Washington’s most devoted political lieutenants, had pointed the way. If a body of the ablest men of the entire country met and exchanged views, their recommendations for changes in the Articles might be approved. The proviso was a most important part of the plan. Any success that attended the work of a new convention would depend, among other things, on the representation of all the States, and on the standing and equipment of the men who were put forward — small men, small issue.

Favorable action by Congress on the call for a convention and the election of Delegates by all the States except Rhode Island came quickly and presented a new problem to the old soldier, whose hounds in full cry made finer music, he thought, than even that of General Saint-Simon’s band at Yorktown. Instead of having the prospect of continuing the daily delights of rural life and all the pleasures of experimenting with seed and trees from far countries, Washington might be required to return to the realm of wrangle: the Virginia General Assembly had named him unanimously as one of the State’s representatives at the Federal Convention, which was to meet in Philadelphia early in May.

His supporters were divided over the “yes" or “no" of his acceptance. James Madison insisted that Virginia could not spare Washington from her delegation and that gloom would engulf the enterprise in his absence, Edmund Randolph, then Governor, and Henry Lee were equally urgent. Henry Knox was doubtful. Washington, he said, would be elected president of the convention if he attended, with the result that “the proceedings . . . will more immediately be appropriated to you than to any other person.” Knox concluded: “Were the convention to propose only amendments and patchwork to the present defective constitution, your reputation would in a degree suffer.” Conversely, the proposal over Washington’s signature of an “energetic and judicious system” would be “highly honorable to your fame . . . and doubly entitle you to the glorious republican epithet, The Father of your Country.” David Humphreys was cautious, almost pessimistic: “What chance is there . . . that entire unanimity will prevail? Should this be the fact, however, would not the several members, as it were, pledge themselves for the execution of their system? And would not this inevitably launch you again on a sea of politics? ... I have heard few express any sanguine expectations concerning the successful issue of the meeting, and I think not one has judged it eligible for you to attend.”


WASHINGTON’S inclination was to accept Humphreys’s view. Previously the General had notified the Society of the Cincinnati that he would not attend its meeting, which was to be held in Philadelphia about the time the Federal Convention assembled. It might seem rude, if not insincere, to decline to sit with his old officers and then to appear in the same town as a member of another body. Besides, he was having rheumatic pains and could not conveniently be absent from his plantations at the wheat harvest. On the other hand, the life of the Union depended on revitalizing its organic law. If this could be done at the proposed convention, “it would,”he said, “be an honorable employment,” but if the convention were small and restricted to easy amendment, then, he said frankly, “I should not like to be a sharer in this business.” Still again, he wondered whether his absence from the convention might not be considered, as he phrased it, “dereliction to republicanism.” Even worse motives, which he did not specify, might be attributed to him.

The choice was difficult, but in the end the pressure of his friends and the prospect of the attendance of leading men in considerable number induced him to accept appointment and to start promptly for Philadelphia. When the convention was organized, he was unanimously elected president, as Henry Knox had predicted, and in that position he was spared a direct share in debates for which he was not well-equipped. His presence meant more than his vole, though he went on record for a strong executive and for a lower House of Congress in which there could be a Representative for as few as 30,000 voters. He was willing, too, to have the constitution become effective when seven States approved it, and he did not value the good opinion of all honest men so highly that he withheld denunciation of those who refused to participate in efforts to give America a respectable and responsible government.

Rhode Island’s absence from the convention outraged him. That State, he said privately, “still perseveres in that impolitic, unjust and, one might add without much impropriety, scandalous conduct which seems to have marked all her public councils of late.”Empty argument on the floor, fruitless debate over trifles, angered him further. For a time, he almost despaired of a favorable outcome, and, he confided to Alexander Hamilton, “do therefore repent having had any agency in the business.” He went on: “The men who oppose a strong and energetic government are, in my opinion, narrowminded politicians, or are under the influence of local views.”

The document that finally was placed before him for signature contained a few provisions he disliked and many that he approved. His judgment both of the constitution and of the country’s needs made him favor ratification: but was it necessary that he publicly say so? He had stepped out of retirement in the emergency and had taken the risk of being denounced as a partisan: could he not return to his position as the impartial friend of all right-minded men? The constitution, he wrote Lafayette, “is now a child of fortune, to be fostered by some and buffeted by others.”Then he said, “What will be the general opinion on, or the reception of it, is not for me to decide, nor shall I say anything for or against it; if it be good, I suppose it will work its way good; if bad, it will recoil on the framers.”

Washington’s old neighbor, Colonel George Mason, draftsman of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and a member of the delegation to the convention, had begun to assail parts of the constitution before he had left Philadelphia. Patrick Henry aligned himself against ratification. So did Richard Henry Lee. The incurably suspicious Arthur Lee, youngest brother of Richard Henry, was of opinion that what others termed “errors” in the constitution were a deliberate scheme to create an oligarchy. Washington thought the arguments of these men were feeble, shortsighted objections to the best system of government on which it had been possible to reach agreement. The moment the constitution was assailed, his experience in dealing with an impotent Congress and with selfish States made him the champion of the new plan. He left the detailed argument to Madison, to Hamilton, and to others scarcely less astute; but almost without regard to its effect on his reputation as a man who stood apart from the political controversies of the time, he opened correspondence with supporters of the constitution in all the States where he had friends of influence and he continued eagerly to follow the deliberations of all the State conventions. They absorbed much of his thought in the winter of 1787-88 and the following spring.

Nowhere did the heat of contest rise more quickly or the fires of debate flame more furiously than in Virginia, where Washington and the other supporters of an adequate Federal government had to face the persistent opposition of Patrick Henry, who was fully aroused and at the head of a powerful following. It was manifest early in 1788 that ratification or rejection of the constitution in the Old Dominion would be by a narrow margin. Washington took up his pen with much awkwardness but he wielded it as vigorously as if it had been a sword, though in one instance only, and then by mistake, did his letters get into print.

Without excessive risk and opposition, the constitution received the favorable vote of nine States. When Virginia became the tenth in June, 1788, by a disagreeably narrow majority of ten, many thought that Washington’s efforts had been decisive in prevailing over the opposition of Patrick Henry. “Be assured,” James Monroe said, “General Washington’s influence carried this government.”


WASHINGTON had not been subjected to personal abuse, though in several instances relations had been strained. “With some,” he said, “to have differed in sentiment is to have passed the Rubicon of their friendship.” He added: “With others (for the honor of humanity) I hope there is more liberality; but the consciousness of having discharged that duty which we owe to our country is superior to all other considerations.” Unruffled, he continued: “It is the lot of humanity. But if the shafts of malice had been aimed at me in ever so pointed a manner . . . shielded as I was by a consciousness of having acted in conformity to what I believed my duty, they would have fallen blunted from their mark. ... At my age, and in my circumstance, what sinister object or personal emolument had I to seek after, in this life?”

Now that the task was performed and the new government was assured of a chance to prove itself, he hoped once again that he could return permanently to the quiet occupation he most enjoyed. “The growing infirmities of age and the increasing love of retirement daily confirm my predilection for domestic life: and the great Searcher of human hearts is my witness that I have no wish which aspires beyond the humble and happy lot of living and dying a private citizen on my own farm.”

When this was written, August 16, 1788, Washington knew that jealous, hostile men probably were saying already he “aspired” — and to the highest office. While the Philadelphia convention still was in session, the assumption had been that he would head the new government. The powers vested in the President of the United States had been shaped, as Pierce Butler said afterwards, with one eye on Washington; otherwise they would not have been so extensive. Lafayette, reading the constitution “with an unspeakable eagerness and attention” in Paris, was alarmed because a President who exercised those powers was eligible for reelection, but he found comfort, he wrote, in the belief that Washington could not decline the presidency and, once in the chair, would recommend that the seat be narrowed if it proved too much like a permanent throne.

In February, 1788, General John Armstrong, friend and comrade since the days of the French and Indian War, had exhorted Washington solemnly: “Persuaded as I am it will cost you much anxious thought, nevertheless, if the call of God is manifested to you in a plenary or unanimous call of the people, I hope that will obviate every objection; if not for the whole term of four years, at least for half that time, if health admit; considering, as you will, that we were not made for ourselves, therefore must not live to ourselves. My sole reason for these early hints is, that by a divine blessing you may be made instrumental in giving a wise and useful example to successors, in more things than what may be merely essential to the office.”

Washington scarcely could have read a more disturbing letter or one written in wiser appeal to his love of country. In answer, he reminded Armstrong he had accepted membership in the convention because, “at so critical a moment, an absolute refusal to act might on my part be construed as a total disregard of my country, if impelled to no worse motives"; but a call to another “tour of duty" of this kind? He hoped from his heart he would not receive it. “I am so wedded to a state of retirement,”he said, “and find the occupations of a rural life so congenial with my feelings, that to be drawn into public at my age could be a sacrifice that would admit of no compensation.”

There he left it; there he prayed it would remain. Even to Lafayette, he elaborated only in this: “it might not be decent for me to say I would refuse to accept or even to speak much about an appointment which may never take place.”He repeated over and over again that he did not entertain a wish “beyond that of living and dying an honest man on my own farm,”but these answers neither silenced nor satisfied the Federalists, whose cause he had made his own. They continued to urge him to accept an office they insisted the electors unanimously would tender him.


AS LONG as he could, he persisted in saying, “The event . . . may never happen,”but by October, 1788, he felt the “kind of gloom" coming over him that always had shadowed him when he had to make a crucial decision. He comforted himself, as best he could, with the assurance that if he had to accept, he would remain in office no longer than was necessary to get the new bark over the shoals and into the clear channel. Then he might be permitted “once more to retire,” as he wrote wistfully, “to pass an unclouded evening after the stormy day of life.” Another hope of the autumn was that the “government would be just as happily and effectually carried into execution without my aid as with it.”He did not find his friends willing to admit this, or even to look for someone else. Before the month ended, he was forced to say, “At my time of life, and under my circumstances, nothing in this world can ever draw me from [retirement] unless it be a conviction that the partiality of my countrymen had made my services absolutely necessary, joined to a fear that my refusal might induce a belief that I preferred the conservation of my own reputation and private ease to the good of my country.”

On that he stood, but not confidently, because the two influences he had underlined, the conviction of duty and the fear of just reproach, challenged him hourly. In December he cried: “May Heaven assist me in forming a judgment, for at present I see nothing but clouds and darkness before me. ... If ever I should, from any apparent necessity, be induced to go from home in a public character again, it will certainly be the greatest sacrifice of feeling and happiness that ever was or ever can be made by [me].” He still clung to the hope that he would not be called, and he told himself that if he were elected he would decline if he could.

One letter after another, written those he knew would keep his statement confidential, set forth his overwhelming perplexity. Against acceptance he mustered all save one of the arguments that seemed most reasonable to him: he was too old; his interest was in agriculture; he had a growing love of retirement; the office would involve new fatigues and trouble; if he returned to public life after all he had said about ending bis service, might he not be “chargeable with levity and inconsistency, if not with rashness and ambition”? His last citadel of defense was the assertion that the duties of the office most certainly could be discharged by someone else as successfully as by him. What he naturally kept to himself was the unhappy state of his finances: he did not have money with which to pay for even current household purchases and he would have to go deeper in debt to make the journey to the temporary capital.

In the “contra” column of this balance sheet of duty and inclination, the heaviest entry had the simplicity of this eight-word question: Was the good of the country at stake? If danger or collapse did not threaten the new structure, he would remain in his own house, where by silence and kindly action he could preserve the good opinion of his fellow citizens; but if the welfare of the United States required his service, he would leave Mount Vernon again, risk his reputation and endure the clamor, the censure, the unjust abuse even, he was apt to receive. “If I know myself,” he said, “I would not seek or retain popularity at the expense of one social duty or moral virtue.”

The new year, 1789, brought hope for the future of America along with added unhappiness for Washington. Elections to the First Congress, he wrote Lafayette, “have been hitherto vastly more favorable than we could have expected.”There were evidences of an “increasing unanimity” that was “not less indicative of the good disposition than the good sense of the Americans.” Through the “clouds and darkness” of his own perplexity, Washington thought he saw “a path as clear and direct as a ray of light, which led to the attainment” of national happiness. “Nothing,” he continued, “but harmony, honesty, industry and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people.” In that was promise and perhaps reward, but with it —of all things! —an embarrassing multitude of insistent applications for office as if he already were President. To the burden of answering these letters was added the task of getting affairs in order at Mount Vernon. Five or six hundred pounds had to be borrowed, also, if Alexandria merchants were to be paid before . . .

Yes, it now was “before” and not “if” he had to quit that beloved refuge of his on the Potomac, and face again the contest and confusion. He did not say in plain words ”I will accept,”because formal notice of election had not been received. The electors in the various States were assumed to have met on February 4 and were believed to have cast their votes unanimously for Washington; but their certificates had to be delivered to the new Congress, which was not due to meet until a month later. In March, Washington’s correspondents wrote discouragingly of the slow arrival of Senators and Representatives. It was impossible to say when a quorum would be mustered and the vote be counted, but the result was certain. Washington knew it, and knew that his sense of duty demanded he accept. There was no escape. Delay in the organization of Congress, he told himself, was no more than a reprieve.

Painfully, sadly, on the 1st of April he opened his heart to Henry Knox, his still-young former Chief of Artillery, the man who had never failed him: “My movements 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: so unwilling am I in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities and inclination which is necessary to manage the helm. I am sensible that I am embarking the voice of my countrymen and a good name of my own, but what returns will be made for them, Heaven alone can foretell. Integrity and firmness is all I can promise; these, be the voyage long or short, never shall forsake me, though I may be deserted by all men.”

That was the decision; the rest was formality. When Charles Thomson arrived at Mount Vernon on the 14th of April and delivered the official announcement of unanimous election, Washington wasted no time in answer: “Having been impressed with an idea of my being with Congress at as early a period as possible, I propose to commence my journey . . . the day after tomorrow”; a long, hard journey for him — and for any like-minded man who comes after him.

(In November we shall publish the second paper in this series:Could Napoleon Have Won?" by C. S. Forester.)