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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Wednesday, May 9, 1787

May 09, 2020 - 4 minute read

The Adventures of George Washington

It was just at sunrise this morning when General Washington left  Mt. Vernon for Philadelphia by carriage, accompanied by  three slaves, including his valet William Lee.  Lee had personally served Washington during the Revolutionary War and for two decades has accompanied him nearly everywhere.  Giles and Paris are postilions, men who ride and drive the horses that pull his carriage.  Giles is also a trusted messenger who frequently delivers many of Washington’s letters as far away as Philadelphia and Williamsburg. 

Washington prefers to begin his travels early in the morning, generally before dawn, stopping for breakfast and dinner at taverns and inns along the way. He likes to travel at a fairly quick pace, usually about five miles an hour. This morning, after crossing into Maryland, he dined with Richard Henderson in Bladensburg, about twenty miles from Mt. Vernon. Tonight, he is lodging at the home of Thomas Snowden in Montpelier. He has not been feeling well and tonight is suffering from “a very violent headache and sick stomach.”

Snowden served under Washington as a Major in the Continental Army and has welcomed Washington to his home on many occasions. Located on the old Post Road about halfway between Mt. Vernon and Annapolis, it is a convenient location for Washington to visit on his journeys. One of the rooms on the second floor has already become known as “the Washington bedroom.” Apparently, Snowden has recently been involved in preliminary work paving the way for the convention.

Persuading Washington to attend the convention has not been easy.  His views about the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation are well known, as he even acknowledged in a letter to his old comrade in arms, Henry Knox. “My opinion of the energetic wants of the federal government” he wrote, “are well known – publicly and privately.”  James Madison has been sharing with him his own views on constructing a strong national government and Washington generally agrees. In fact, he highly favors the proposed convention, but only if the delegates will “probe the defects of the constitution [Articles of Confederation] to the bottom and point out radical cases.” 

However, when notified by Governor Edmund Randolph that he had been selected as one of the delegates from Virginia, Washington refused the appointment, encouraging that another be chosen in his place. A major obstacle to his attendance is the decision of the Society of the Cincinnati to schedule its triennial meeting in Philadelphia at the same time as the convention.  Washington had already notified the Society he will not attend and, indeed, prefers not to be reelected as its President.  The necessity of attending to private matters; his “determination of passing the remainder of my days in a state of retirement;” and rheumatic pains which made it difficult to raise his hand above his head or turn himself in bed also argue for his non-attendance.  

Washington does not want to insult the Society, but at the same time he desires to avoid being embroiled in its debates. Moreover, it would be embarrassing to all concerned if he were to attend the convention after having declined the Society’s invitation, especially since they were both meeting in Philadelphia. In addition to these concerns, Washington prudently guards his personal reputation. Would his refusal to participate in the convention be “considered a dereliction of republicanism?”  What if an insufficient number of delegates attended or attended with instructions limiting their ability to fully deliberate?  What if the convention were to fail? In any of these circumstances, he wrote to General Knox, “I should not like to be a sharer in this business.”

As months have passed, conditions have changed and the pressure on Washington to attend the convention has intensified.  The resolution calling for the convention passed by the Confederation Congress in February was a positive sign, but Shay’s Rebellion was an ominous one.  Madison, Knox, and others have kept Washington apprised of the insurgency in Massachusetts and similar but smaller events other Eastern States, leading him to conclude, “We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion…What stronger evidence can be given of the lack of energy in our government than these disorders? How melancholy is the reflection that in so short a space, we should have made such large strides toward fulfilling the prediction of our transatlantic foes – ‘leave them to themselves and their government will soon dissolve.’”

While pressing Washington, his friends have also protected him. To Edmund Randolph, Madison noted that Washington’s friends, including himself, do not want Washington to participate in any “abortive undertaking” or in any way risk his reputation. Nevertheless, they pressed on, appealing to his “utmost talents to promote the happiness of your country.”

Finally, in late March, Washington relented, reluctantly. Declaring that his change of position is “contrary to my judgment” and his concern that his attendance “would sweep me back into the tide of public affairs when retirement and ease is….much desired by me,” he succumbed to his many friends’ encouragement to lend his name and reputation to the meeting to be held here in Philadelphia, next week on May 14.

General Washington is known for keeping a daily diary.  It seems that last night, lodging with the Snowdens in Montpelier, he realized he had left his diary back in Mt. Vernon.  He will most likely pick up a new one as he passes through Baltimore.

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