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George Washington
Washington Retires from Public Life
by Thayer, William Roscoe


The Treaty with England had scarely been put in operation before the Treaty with France, of which Washington also felt the importance, came to the front. Monroe was not an aggressive agent. Perhaps very few civilized Americans could have filled that position to the satisfaction of his American countrymen. They wished the French to acknowledge and explain various acts which they qualified as outrages, whereas the French regarded as glories what they called grievances. The men of the Directory which now ruled France did not profess the atrocious methods of the Terrorists, but they could not afford in treating with a foreigner to disavow the Terrorists. In the summer of '96, Washington, being dissatisfied with Monroe's results, recalled him, and sent in his place Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, to whom President Adams afterwards added John Marshall and Elbridge Gerry, forming a Commission of three. Some of the President's critics have regarded his treatment of Monroe as unfair, and they imply that it was inspired by partisanship. He had always been an undisguised Federalist, whereas Monroe, during the past year or more, had followed Jefferson and become an unswerving Democrat. The publication here of a copy of Monroe's letter to the French Committee of Public Safety caused a sensation; for he had asserted that he was not instructed to ask for the repeal of the French decrees by which the spoliation of American commerce had been practised, and he added that if the decrees benefited France, the United States would submit not only with patience but with pleasure. What wonder that Washington, in reading this letter and taking in the full enormity of Monroe's words, should have allowed himself the exclamation, "Extraordinary!" What wonder that in due course of time he recalled Monroe from Paris and replaced him with a man whom he could trust!

The settlement of affairs with France did not come until after Washington ceased to be President. I will, therefore, say no more about it, except to refer to the outrageous conduct of the French, who hurried two of the Commissioners out of France, and, apparently at the instigation of Talleyrand, declared that they must pay a great deal of money before they made any arrangement, to which Charles Pinckney made the famous rejoinder, "Millions for defence, but not one cent for tribute." The negotiations became so stormy that war seemed imminent. Congress authorized President Adams to enlist ten thousand men to be put into the field in case of need, and he wrote to Washington: "We must have your name, if you will in any case permit us to use it. There will be more efficacy in it than in many an army." McHenry, the Secretary of War, wrote: "You see how the storm thickens, and that our vessel will soon require its ancient pilot. Will you--may we flatter ourselves, that in a crisis so awful and important, you will accept the command of all our armies? I hope you will, because you alone can unite all hearts and all hands, if it is possible that they can be united."[Footnote: Irving, V, 290.]

To President Adams Washington replied on July 4, 1799: "As my whole life has been dedicated to my country in one shape or another, for the poor remains of it, it is not an object to contend for ease and quiet, when all that is valuable is at stake, further than to be satisfied that the sacrifice I should make of these, is acceptable and desired by my country."[Footnote: Ibid., 291.]

Congress voted to restore for Washington the rank of Commander-in-Chief, and he agreed with the Secretary of War that the three Major-Generals should be Alexander Hamilton, Inspector-General; Charles C. Pinckney, who was still in Europe; and Henry Knox. But a change came over the passions of France; Napoleon Bonaparte, the new despot who had taken control of that hysterical republic for himself, was now aspiring to something higher and larger than the humiliation of the United States and his menace in that direction ceased.

We need to note two or three events before Washington's term ended because they were thoroughly characteristic. First of these was the Whiskey Insurrection in western Pennsylvania. The inhabitants first grew surly, then broke out in insurrection on account of the Excise Law. They found it cheaper to convert their corn and grain into whiskey, which could be more easily transported, but the Government insisted that the Excise Law, being a law, should be obeyed. The malcontents held a great mass meeting on Braddock's Field, denounced the law and declared that they would not obey it. Washington issued a proclamation calling upon the people to resume their peaceable life. He called also on the Governors of Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia for troops, which they furnished. His right-hand lieutenant was Alexander Hamilton, who felt quite as keenly as he did himself the importance of putting down such an insurrection. Washington knew that if any body of the people were allowed unpunished to rise and disobey any law which pinched or irritated them, all law and order would very soon go by the board. His action was one of the great examples in government which he set the people of the United States. He showed that we must never parley or haggle with sedition, treason, or lawlessness, but must strike a blow that cannot be parried, and at once. The Whiskey Insurrectionists may have imagined that they were too remote to be reached in their western wilderness, but he taught them a most salutary lesson that, as they were in the Union, the power of the Union could and would reach them.

One of the matters which Washington could not have foreseen was the outrageous abuse of the press, which surpassed in virulence and indecency anything hitherto known in the United States. At first the journalistic thugs took care not to vilify Washington personally, but, as they became more outrageous, they spared neither him nor his family. Freneau, Bache, and Giles were among the most malignant of these infamous men; and most suspicious is it that two of them at least were protégés of Thomas Jefferson. Once, when the attack was particularly atrocious, and the average citizen might well be excused if he believed that Jefferson wrote it, Jefferson, unmindful of the full bearing of the French proverb, Qui s'excuse s'accuse, wrote to Washington exculpating himself and protesting that he was not the author of that particular attack, and added that he had never written any article of that kind for the press. Many years later the editor of that newspaper, one of the most shameless of the malignants, calmly reported in a batch of reminiscences that Jefferson did contribute many of the most flagrant articles. Senator Lodge, in commenting on this affair, caustically remarks: "Strict veracity was not the strongest characteristic of either Freneau or Jefferson, and it is really of but little consequence whether Freneau was lying in his old age or in the prime of life."[Footnote: Lodge, II, 223.]

An unbiassed searcher after truth to-day will find that the circumstantial evidence runs very strongly against Jefferson. He brought Freneau over from New York to Philadelphia, he knew the sort of work that Freneau would and could do, he gave him an office in the State Department, he probably discussed the topics which the "National Gazette" was to take up, and he probably read the proof of the articles which that paper was to publish. In his animosities the cloak of charity neither became him nor fitted him.

Several years later, when Bache's paper, the "Aurora," printed some material which Washington's enemies hoped would damage him, Jefferson again took alarm and wrote to Washington to free himself from blame. To him, the magnanimous President replied in part:
If I had entertained any suspicions before, that the queries, which have been published in Bache's paper, proceeded from you, the assurances you have given of the contrary would have removed them; but the truth is, I harbored none. I am at no loss to conjecture from what source they flowed, through what channel they were conveyed, and for what purpose they and similar publications appear. They were known to be in the hands of Mr. Parker in the early part of the last session of Congress. They were shown about by Mr. Giles during the session, and they made their public exhibition about the close of it.

Perceiving and probably hearing, that no abuse in the gazettes would induce me to take notice of anonymous publications against me, those, who were disposed to do me such friendly offices, have embraced without restraint every opportunity to weaken the confidence of the people; and, by having the whole game in their hands, they have scrupled not to publish things that do not, as well as those which do exist, and to mutilate the latter, so as to make them subserve the purposes which they have in view.[Footnote: Ford, XIII, 229.]
Washington's opinion of the scurrilous crusade against him, he expressed in the following letter to Henry Lee:
But in what will this abuse terminate? For the result, as it respects myself, I care not; for I have a consolation within that no earthly efforts can deprive me of, and that is, that neither ambition nor interested motives have influenced my conduct. The arrows of malevolence, therefore, however barbed and well pointed, never can reach the most vulnerable part of me; though, whilst I am up as a mark, they will be continually aimed. The publications in Freneau's and Bache's papers are outrages in that style in proportion as their pieces are treated with contempt and are passed by in silence by those at whom they are aimed. The tendency of them, however, is too obvious to be mistaken by men of cool and dispassionate minds, and, in my opinion, ought to alarm them, because it is difficult to prescribe bounds to the effect.[Footnote: Lodge, II, 236.]
By his refusal to take notice of these indecencies, Washington set a high example. In other countries, in France and England, for example, the victims of such abuse resorted to duels with their abusers: a very foolish and inadequate practice, since it happened as often as not that the aggrieved person was killed. In taking no notice of the calumnies, therefore, Washington prevented the President of the United States from being drawn into an unseemly duel. We cannot fail to recognize also that Washington was very sensitive to the maintenance of freedom of speech. He seems to have acted on the belief that it was better that occasionally license should degenerate into abuse than that liberty should be suppressed. He was the President of the first government in the world which did not control the utterances of its people. Perhaps he may have supposed that their patriotism would restrain them from excesses, and there can be no doubt that the insane gibes of the Freneaus and the Baches gave him much pain because they proved that those scorpions were not up to the level which the new Nation offered them.

As the time for the conclusion of Washington's second term drew near, he left no doubt as to his intentions. Though some of his best friends urged him to stand for reëlection, he firmly declined. He felt that he had done enough for his country in sacrificing the last eight years to it. He had seen it through its formative period, and had, he thought, steered it into clear, quiet water, so that there was no threatening danger to demand his continuance at the helm. Many persons thought that he was more than glad to be relieved of the increasing abuse of the scurrilous editors. No doubt he was, but we can hardly agree that merely for the sake of that relief he would abandon his Presidential post. But does it not seem more likely that his unwillingness to convert the Presidency into a life office, and so to give the critics of the American experiment a valid cause for opposition, led him to establish the precedent that two terms were enough? More than once in the century and a quarter since he retired in 1797, over-ambitious Presidents have schemed to win a third election and flattering sycophants have encouraged them to believe that they could attain it. But before they came to the test Washington's example--"no more than two"--has blocked their advance. In this respect also we must admit that he looked far into the future and saw what would be best for posterity. The second term as it has proved is bad enough, diverting a President during his first term to devote much of his energy and attention to setting traps to secure the second. It might be better to have only one term to last six years, instead of four, which would enable a President to give all his time to the duties of his office, instead of giving a large part of it to the chase after a reëlection.

As soon as Washington determined irrevocably to retire, he began thinking of the "Farewell Address" which he desired to deliver to his countrymen as the best legacy he could bequeath. Several years before he had talked it over with Madison, with whom he was then on very friendly terms, and Madison had drafted a good deal of it. Now he turned to Hamilton, giving him the topics as far as they had been outlined, and bidding him to rewrite it if he thought it desirable. In September, 1796, Washington read the "Address" before the assembled Congress.

The "Farewell Address" belongs among the few supreme utterances on human government. Its author seems to be completely detached from all personal or local interests. He tries to see the thing as it is, and as it is likely to be in its American environment. His advice applies directly to the American people, and only in so far as what he says has in a large sense human pertinence do we find in it more than a local application.

"Be united" is the summary and inspiration of the entire "Address." "Be united and be American"; as an individual each person must feel himself most strongly an American. He urges against the poisonous effects of parties. He warns against the evils that may arise when parties choose different foreign nations for their favorites.
The great rule of conduct for us [he says] in regard to foreign Nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little Political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.

Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, ... or enmities.

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one People, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected. When belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation when we may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humour or caprice?
Compared with Machiavelli's "Prince," which must come to the mind of every one who reads the "Farewell Address," one sees at once that the "Prince" is more limber, it may be more spontaneous, but the great difference between the two is in their fundamental conception. The "Address" is frankly a preachment and much of its impressiveness comes from that fact. The "Prince," on the other hand, has little concern with the moral aspect of politics discussed and makes no pretence of condemning immoral practices or making itself a champion of virtue. In other words, Washington addresses an audience which had passed through the Puritan Revolution, while Machiavelli spoke to men who were familiar with the ideals and crimes of the Italian Renaissance.

Washington spread his gospel so clearly that all persons were sure to learn and inwardly digest it, and many of them assented to it in their minds, although they did not follow it In their conduct. His paramount exhortations--"Be united"--"Be Americans"; "do not be drawn into complications with foreign powers"--at times had a very real living pertinence. The only doctrine which still causes controversy is that which touches our attitude towards foreign countries. During the late World War we heard it revived, and a great many persons who had never read the "Farewell Address" gravely reminded us of Washington's warning against "entangling alliances." As a matter of fact, that phrase does not appear in the "Farewell Address" at all. It was first used by Thomas Jefferson in his first Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801, sixteen months after Washington was dead and buried. No doubt the meaning could be deduced from what Washington said in more than one passage of his "Farewell." But to understand in 1914 what he said or implied in 1796, we must be historical. In 1796 the country was torn by conflicting parties for and against strong friendship, if not an actual alliance, between the United States on one side and Great Britain or France on the other. Any foreign alliance that could be made in 1914, however, could not have been, for the same reason, with either Great Britain or France. The aim proposed by its advocates was to curb and destroy the German domination of the world. Now Washington was almost if not quite the most actual of modern statesmen. All his arrangements at a given moment were directed at the needs and likelihood of the moment, and in 1914 he would have planned as 1914 demanded. He would have steered his ship by the wind that blew then and not by the wind that had blown and vanished one hundred and twenty years before.

Some one has remarked that, while Washington achieved a great victory in the ratification of the Jay Treaty, that event broke up the Federalist Party. That is probably inexact, but the break-up of the Federalist Party was taking place during the last years of Washington's second administration. The changes in Washington's Cabinet were most significant, especially as they nearly all meant the change from a more important to a less important Secretary. Thus John Jay, the first Secretary of State, really only an incumbent ad interim, gave way to Thomas Jefferson, who was replaced by Edmund Randolph in 1794, and who in turn was succeeded by Timothy Pickering in 1795. Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury from the beginning in 1789 to 1795, when he made way for Oliver Wolcott, Jr. Henry Knox, the original Secretary of War, was succeeded by Timothy Pickering in 1795, who, after less than a year, was followed by James McHenry. Edmund Randolph served as Attorney-General in 1789 to 1794, then retiring for William Bradford who, after a brief year, was replaced by Charles Lee. The Postmaster-Generalship was filled from 1789 to 1791 by Samuel Osgood, and then by Timothy Pickering. Thus at the end of Washington's eight years we find that in the place of two really eminent men, like Jefferson and Hamilton, he was served by Edmund Randolph and Oliver Wolcott, Jr., and James McHenry, good routine men at the best, mediocrities if judged by comparison with their predecessors. Moreover, the reputation for discretion of some of them, suffered. Thus Randolph had not long been Secretary of State when Joseph Fauchet, the French Minister, produced some papers which could be construed as implying that Randolph had accepted money. Randolph was known to be impecunious, but his personal honor had never been suspected. Washington with characteristic candor sent Randolph the batch of incriminating letters. Randolph protested that he "forgave" the President and tried to exculpate himself in the newspapers. Even that process of deflation did not suffice and he had recourse to a "Vindication," which was read by few and popularly believed to vindicate nobody. Washington is believed to have held Randolph as guiltless, but as weak and as indiscreet. He pitied the ignominy, for Randolph had been in a way Washington's protégé, whose career had much interested him and whose downfall for such a cause was doubly poignant.

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