A leaflet from New York in 1807, George Washington, left - Thomas Jefferson, right. Source: New York Public Library

In Part 1 of this post, Bob Ingraham portrayed the unique leadership of George Washington, without which our Republic would not exist. In this second part, Ingraham further explores the conspiracy conducted against Washington by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others.  The defeat of this conspiracy provides context for the insights concerning parties and faction set forth in Washington’s famous Farewell Address.

PART 2: Washington Must Die!

Thomas Jefferson’s conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. Constitution was publicly conducted through two newspapers run by his close allies, Benjamin Bache’s Aurora (founded October, 1790) and Philip Freneau’s National Gazette (founded October, 1791). Together, they labeled all those associated with Washington as monarchists, lackeys of the British Crown and traitors. Gouverneur Morris, the author of the immortal Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, was repeatedly denounced by Jefferson as a “high-flying monarchy man.” Washington’s great popularity shielded him from these attacks at first, but by his second term, the Jefferson-Madison faction unleashed their full venom on the President.

The open attack on Washington began following his issuance of the Proclamation of Neutrality on April 22, 1793, an action denounced in the most extreme language imaginable in the Jeffersonian press as a betrayal of the American Revolution. Then came the Jay Treaty with Great Britain in 1794. Riots were organized outside Washington’s residence in Philadelphia. In a number of cities, he was hung in effigy. The Aurora published an editorial calling for Washington’s impeachment, saying: “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by WASHINGTON. If ever a nation was deceived by a man, the American nation has been deceived by WASHINGTON. Let the history of the federal government instruct mankind, that the masque of patriotism may be worn to conceal the foulest designs against the liberties of a people.”

Jefferson’s ally Tom Paine issued an open letter to Washington in which he actually prayed for the President’s imminent death, calling Washington “treacherous in private friendship and a hypocrite in public life,” and declaring “the world will be troubled to decide whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you had any.” A popular toast by many Jeffersonians at that time was “Speedy death to General Washington,” and a handbill was produced titled The Funeral of George Washington, depicting the President placed upon a guillotine, this only months after the decapitation of the French king.

Jefferson accused Washington and Jay of treason for proposing “a treaty of alliance between England and the Anglomen of this country against the legislature and people of the United States.” In the spring of 1796, Jefferson’s ally, Robert Livingston of New York, demanded that Washington hand over all documents related to the treaty, a demand which Washington refused as “a dangerous precedent” that violated the separation of powers doctrine by extending congressional authority over the executive branch. That same year Bache’s Aurora printed documents purporting to show that Washington had accepted a bribe from the British early in the Revolutionary War, so that all along he had really been a British spy in the Benedict Arnold mode.

Other editorials in the Jeffersonian press described Washington as “a tyrannical monster” and his Farewell Address as “the loathings of a sick mind.” Washington denounced these attacks as “outrages on common decency,” saying, “The arrows of malevolence, however barbed and well pointed, never can reach the most vulnerable part of me; though, while I am up as a mark, they will be continually aimed.”

Armed Revolt

Armed insurrection broke out in 1791 and reached its apex in August, 1794, when more than seven thousand armed men gathered in Braddock’s Field outside Pittsburgh. There, they set up mock guillotines to register their solidarity with French revolutionaries and as a threat to the leaders of the Washington administration. Today, those events, which have been mis-named by historians as the “Whiskey Rebellion,” are viewed as almost a whimsical footnote in American history, but at the time the reality was quite different.

In a 1794 letter to Light-Horse Harry Lee (the Governor of Virginia), Washington is categorical in his analysis: “I consider this insurrection as the first formidable fruit of the Democratic Societies, brought forth, I believe, too prematurely for their own views, which may contribute to the annihilation of them. That these Societies were instituted by the artful and designing members primarily to sow among the people the seeds of jealousy and distrust of the government, by destroying all confidence in the administration of it, and that these doctrines have been budding and blowing ever since, is not new to anyone who is acquainted with the character of their leaders, and has been attentive to their maneuvers. I early gave it as my opinion that if these societies were not counteracted or did not fall into disesteem from the knowledge of their origin. . . they would shake the government to its foundation.”

Later that same year, in a speech to Congress, Washington did not hesitate to denounce “certain self-created societies” as “the fomenters” of the insurrection. The Democratic Societies to which Washington refers were all created by Jefferson and his allies, beginning in 1793, based in the south but with numerous chapters throughout the nation, all of which unleashed riots, protests, and killings, modeled on the Jacobin clubs of “revolutionary” France.

In letters written to friends during this period, Washington denounced the Democratic Societies as attempting to subvert the Constitution and overthrow the government. When James Monroe published a pamphlet defending his work as minister to France, Washington responded by declaring Monroe’s views as “insanity in the extreme!” During this period, Washington wrote in a letter to Lafayette, “a party exists in the United States, formed by a combination of causes, who oppose the government in all its measures, and are determined. . . to change the nature of it, and to subvert the Constitution.”

In September Washington led a 12,000-man militia army into western Pennsylvania to quell the armed uprising. The situation was so dangerous that he insisted that all army officers should be Federalists, because Jeffersonian officers might “divide and contaminate the army by artful and seditious discourses.” Trusted Revolutionary War veterans, such as Daniel Morgan, Light Horse Harry Lee, and Alexander Hamilton, were given senior positions of command.

Washington’s Final Victory

The armed rebellion was crushed, with Washington showing great magnanimity toward the ringleaders. Disgraced, and ostracized by Washington, Jefferson had resigned from the government on December 31, 1793. Five years later, in a letter to a friend, Washington would denounce Jefferson as “one of the most artful, intriguing, industrious and double-faced politicians in America.”

Now, in the final months of his Presidency, and with his mortal life drawing toward its conclusion, Washington made one final intervention. On September 19, 1796, he issued his Farewell Address. Co-authored by Hamilton, with additional input from John Jay, this address was not delivered as a speech, but was issued in written form, as an open letter to the American people, and published in newspapers and other periodicals throughout the nation. It was meant to reach the widest possible audience.

A thoughtful reading of Washington’s words reveals a message intended both for his time and destined for all time. With neutrality secured, Jefferson in political exile and the threat of armed rebellion defeated, Washington proceeded to instruct his fellow citizens on the nature of the danger which had come perilously close to toppling Constitutional government:

“All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

“However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion. . .

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

“Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

“It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”

The danger identified, Washington then directs his focus to the future:

“I shall carry it with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.”

Three months after the issuance of his Farewell Address Washington delivered his final annual address to Congress. Here again he points to what had been accomplished and anticipates the needs of the future: the Constitutional Republic had been secured; as a result of the Jay Treaty, British troops had evacuated the western forts;  border disputes in Maine and Florida had been resolved; new treaties with the Creeks and other Indian tribes offered hope for an end to frontier violence; and the economy, as a result of Hamilton’s policies, was booming. Washington devotes an entire section of this speech to the importance of continuing to foster manufacturing as a national policy.

Then he proceeds to define immediate steps necessary for the further development and prosperity of the nation: the creation of a navy to police the coastline and protect American commerce; the establishment of a national military academy to provide a professional officer class for the army; the founding of a national university on the Potomac; further actions by Congress to encourage the country’s manufacturing sector; federal subsidies to encourage improved agricultural techniques.  It was a call for economic nationalism, the likes of which would not be seen again until the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Each Generation is Called

None of this would have been possible without leadership, without a courage which transcends one’s individual and personal desires and obligations. Repeatedly, and sometimes very reluctantly, Washington undertook challenges which no one had attempted before, but which would have gone unanswered but for his intervention. This quality of morality, which sustained Washington throughout his life, is perhaps best observed in his exhortation to the troops defending New York City in the summer of 1776:

“The time is now near at hand, which must probably determine whether Americans are to be consigned to a state of wretchedness, from which no human efforts will probably deliver them. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us no choice, but a brave resistance or the most abject submission. This is all that we can expect. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die.”

The critical lesson is that “having the right policies”—being right!—is not the same thing as leadership. Washington died in 1799, and his absence greatly weakened Hamilton. After Hamilton’s murder in 1804, the Federalist Party stumbled. There were many very good people: John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, John Marshall and others, but none were prepared or willing to lead in the way that Washington had. As a result, Jefferson was able to stage a political comeback, resulting in one-party rule that would not be interrupted until 1825, doing enormous damage to the nation.

The courage to lead, to take the future safety of the Republic and happiness of the people into one’s heart, to accept the responsibility of that calling, is what we must take from Washington to guide our actions today.


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