He used all his foresight and determination to see his vision for democracy come to fruition.
Building a country from scratch did have its advantages. It was a blank slate for George Washington that allowed a lot of flexibility on how to proceed, limited only by what was included in the Constitution. Of course, the biggest disadvantage is that there was no real model for a democratic government.
This was a test, and Washington was determined to create a democratic government. Besides a structure for this government, Washington also needed to provide this new nation with a glue that would keep it together even with all the competing interests. It would take extreme effort and sacrifice on his part. Where to start?
The newly elected Washington then did something unimaginable of genius. He hit the road. First, it was off to New England visiting all the new states that had decided to become a part of the new nation. But why? It was the first stop on weaving the fibers of all the colonies into one piece of fabric connecting the colonies and the new federal government.
In New England, there was a great deal of support for the federal government with one big burr under their collective saddle. The governors of each State had been very powerful since the creation of the Colonies. And they didn’t need no damn interference from the Federal government. And to clearly make his point that the Federal government does not have to bow down to any state, Washington dissed the Governor of Massachusetts, one of the most powerful in the country, by not accepting an invitation to eat dinner with him. It was a strong signal about who’s in charge.
The second benefit for hitting the road was a way to communicate everywhere that he was a man, not a king. Washington wasn’t afraid to use his fame and status for the promotion of building support for the new nation. On. This trip before coming into a town, he would put on his military uniform and mount his white Horse. Remember George Washington was six feet two inches, a very tall man in the time. And the people where clearly excited and cheered their hero at every turn.
Washington and his staff stayed at taverns with places to sleep. It does not take much imagination to realize how rough these places were in terms of beds and food. This decision to stay in taverns was a very another way of communicating that he was not a king. By visiting people where they lived and being able to be close to them spawned a very common expression heard and printed in papers that he is “just a man”. This seems like an obvious observation, but it was an important distinction for a country which had been under a king for their entire lifetimes and had fought a war to get out from under that yoke.
Washington strategically bypassed Rhode Island which had not yet ratified the new constitution. One of the issues there was that it was a big trading center for slaves, and people wondered what would become of this lucrative business if they were to become part of this new country. He didn’t want to stir up any trouble by appearing to influence their impending decision on whether to ratify the new Constitution. He did visit Rhode Island in his second year as president once Rhode Island ratified its wish to become a State.
After Rhode Island, Washington took a trip to the southern states, all of which except North Carolina, had voted to ratify the Constitution. If traveling through New England was tough, it was tougher traveling through the South. It was an agrarian economy, with few large cities or towns, and the roads were awful in comparison to those in the north. This trip was particularly a brave undertaking since there was a great deal of anxiety in the Southern states about losing their autonomy as part of the new government. This anxiety persisted even once the people knew the advantages to being part of the nation. This push and pull is still quite evident in our politics today.
The modus operandi for George Washington was the same, staying in taverns when available. He continued to use his fame impressing people with his tall frame and tall White Horse. Toward the end of the trip while coming back North, he reluctantly stayed at the homes of two different plantation owners because there were no suitable taverns.
Washington’s trips to the northern and southern states were well received and incredibly successful. Before the trips, the colonies were a loose collection of states supporting the constitution, but wary of what might come of their autonomy over time.
As newspapers reported his travels, speeches, and the public reactions along the way, people in the new states learned what Washington said and promised about their new government. They now felt part of the government. It was no longer imposed upon them, they imposed it on themselves.
When people talk about the Revolutionary War and the years immediately following, the focus is usually on the battles and the globe-trotting done by Benjamin Franklin to France. What made the war revolutionary, though, was forming a government that was, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “of, by, and for the people”. There had never been a government like it before.
Our country should thank Washington every day for putting flesh and bone on the constitutional framework that survives even today. Honoring him on his national holiday is not nearly enough, as there could not have been a greater gift left for us, the creation of our democracy that is still as sacred today as it was then.
Washington is truly the “Father” of our country, not just its first President.
For the prequel for this Medium story, check out hyperlink.
More detail about Washington’s “road trip” can be found in Travels with George by Nathaniel Philbrick.
Ken Grotewiel writes for the publication Our Sacred Democracy on Medium and is a Founding Member of the None of the Above Society.