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wickedness than ignorance in the conduct of the States, or, in other words, in the conduct of those who have too much influence in the government of them; and until the curtain is withdrawn, and the private views and selfish principles upon which these men act are exposed to public notice, I have little hope of amendment without another convulsion.” He did not confine himself, however, to letters, important as the work done in this way was, but used all his influence toward practical measures outside of Congress, of whose action he quite despaired. The plan for a commercial agreement between Maryland and Virginia was concerted at Mount Vernon, and led to a call to all the States to meet at Annapolis for the same object. This, of course, received Washington's hearty approval and encouragement, but he evidently regarded it, although important, as merely a preliminary step to something wider and better. He wrote to Lafayette describing the proposed gathering at Annapolis, and added: “A general convention is talked of by many for the purpose of revising and correcting the defects of the federal government; but whilst this is the wish of some, it is the dread of others, from an opinion that matters are not yet sufficiently ripe for such an event.” This expressed his own feeling, for although he was entirely convinced that only a radical reform would do, he questioned whether the time had yet arrived, and whether things had become bad enough, to make such a reform either possible or lasting. He was chiefly disturbed because he felt that there was “more wickedness than ignorance mixed in our councils,” and he grew more and more anxious as public affairs declined without apparently producing a reaction. The growing contempt shown by foreign nations and the arrogant conduct of Great Britain especially alarmed him, while the rapid sinking of the national reputation stung him to the quick. “I do not conceive,” he wrote to Jay, in August, 1786, “we can exist long as a nation without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union in as energetic a manner as the authority of the state governments extends over the several States.” Thus with unerring judgment he put his finger on the vital point in the whole question, which was the need of a national government that should deal with the individual citizens of the whole country and not with the States. “To be fearful,” he continued, “of investing Congress, constituted as that body is, with ample authorities for national purposes, appears to me the very climax of popular absurdity and madness. . . . Requisitions are actually little better than a jest and a byword throughout the land. If you tell the legislatures they have violated the treaty of peace, and invaded the prerogatives of the confederacy, they will laugh in your face. . . . It is much to be feared, as you observe, that the better kind of people, being disgusted with the circumstances, will have their minds prepared for any revolution whatever. . . . I am told that even respectable characters speak of a monarchical government without horror. From thinking proceeds speaking; thence to acting is often but a single step. But how irrevocable and tremendous! What a triumph for our enemies to verify their predictions! . . . It is not my business to embark again upon a sea of troubles. 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.”
It is interesting to observe the ease and certainty with which, in dealing with the central question, he grasped all phases of the subject and judged of the effect of the existing weakness with regard to every relation of the country and to the politics of each State. He pointed out again and again the manner in which we were exposed to foreign hostility, and analyzed the designs of England, rightly detecting a settled policy on her part to injure and divide where she had failed to conquer. Others were blind to the meaning of the English attitude as to the western posts, commerce, and international relations. Washington brought it to the attention of our leading men, educating them on this as on other points, and showing, too, the stupidity of Great Britain in her attempt to belittle the trade of a country which, as he wrote Lafayette in prophetic vein, would one day “ have weight in the scale of empires.”
He followed with the same care the course of events in the several States. In them all he resisted the craze for issuing irredeemable paper money, writing to his various correspondents, and urging energetic opposition to this specious and pernicious form of public dishonesty. It was to Massachusetts, however, that his attention was most strongly attracted by the social disorders which culminated in the Shays rebellion. There the miserable condition of public affairs was bearing bitter fruit, and Washington watched the progress of the troubles with profound anxiety. He wrote to Lee: “You talk, my good sir, of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found, or, if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is not government. Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.” Through “all this mist of intoxication and folly,” however, Washington saw that the Shays insurrection would probably be the means of frightening the indifferent, and of driving those who seemed impervious to every appeal to reason into an active support of some better form of government. He rightly thought that riot and bloodshed would prove convincing arguments.
In order to understand the utter demoralization of society, politics, and public opinion at that time, the offspring of a wasting civil war and of colonial habits of thought, it is interesting to contrast the attitude of Washington with that of another distinguished American in regard to the Shays rebellion. While Washington was looking solemnly at this manifestation of weakness and disorder, and was urging strong measures with passionate vehemence, Jefferson was writing from Paris in the flippant vein of the fashionable French theorists, and uttering such ineffable nonsense as the famous sentence about “once in twenty years watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants.” There could be no better illustration of what Washington was than this contrast between the man of words and the man of action, between the astute leader of a party, the shrewd manager of men, and the silent leader of armies, the master builder of states and governments. I have followed Washington through the correspondence of this time with some minuteness, because it is the only way by which his work in overcoming the obstacles in the path to good government can be seen. He held no public office; he had no means of reaching the popular ear. He was neither a professional orator nor a writer of pamphlets, and the press of that day, if he had controlled it, had no power to mould or direct public thought. Yet, despite these obstacles, he set himself to develop public opinion in favor of a better government, and he worked at this difficult and impalpable task without ceasing, from the day that he resigned from the army until he was called to