Most Americans were still celebrating their Revolutionary War victory when fresh sparks of rebellion flared in Philadelphia. By 1786, they had burst into flames and spread northward to New York and Massachusetts, then southward into Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. By 1791, they lapped onto the Blue Ridge, across the Shenandoah, and over the Appalachians, where they engulfed the entire frontier, as angry mobs swelled into an army ready to fight for independence . . . and not from Britain—but from the United States!
Goaded by the press, foreign agents, and ambitious home-grown demagogues, tens of thousands of American farmers vilified President George Washington, his government, Congress, the courts, and the army—much as they had vilified King George III, the British Parliament, and the Redcoats two decades earlier in 1776.
“If ever a nation was debauched by a man,” growled a correspondent in Philadelphia’s Aurora, “the American nation has been debauched 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.” Another writer urged the President to “retire immediately; let no flatterer persuade you to rest one hour longer at the helm of state.”
Only two decades earlier, Washington and members of Congress had led Americans in rebellion against British taxation, calling it “the horror of all free states, wresting your property from you . . . and laying open to insolent tax-gatherers, [your] houses, the scenes of domestic peace and comfort.” Washington growled to a British friend at the time, “I think the Parliament of Great Britain hath no more right to put their hands in my pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into yours for money.”
Now, Congress was sending its own “insolent tax-gatherers” across the nation to wrest properties from those who wouldn’t or couldn’t pay taxes. Even more appalling: George Washington, “the father of our country,” was ready to lead an army to enforce American tax laws, assailing his fellow citizens “for creating discord”—just as the British government had assailed him “for creating discord” after Parliament had passed the Stamp Act in 1765.
“The Constitution and laws must strictly govern,” Washington thundered as he prepared to call up troops to crush farmer opposition to taxes in western Pennsylvania. It was every American patriot’s worst nightmare come true—George Washington turned tyrant—a George IV.
Only four years earlier, in 1788, Virginia governor Edmund Randolph, who had been Washington’s aide-de-camp at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, warned that the new American Constitution was a “fetus of monarchy.”5 His fellow Virginian Patrick Henry agreed, insisting that the Constitution would simply replace Britain’s parliamentary and royal tyranny with homegrown congressional and presidential tyranny. “Liberty will be lost and tyranny must and will arise,” Henry protested. “As this government stands, I despise and abhor it.”
But President Washington remained firm in his determination to preserve the government and the Union, insisting that “the daring and factious spirit which has arisen to overturn the laws and to subvert the Constitution ought to be subdued. If that is not done . . . we may bid adieu to all government in this country. . . . Nothing but anarchy and confusion can ensue. . . . If the minority . . . are suffered to dictate to the majority . . . there can be no security for life, liberty or property.”
Then, in one of the defining events in the creation of the U.S. presidency, Washington startled his countrymen by ignoring constitutional limits on presidential powers and ordering troops to crush tax protests by American citizens—much as the British government had tried, and failed, to do in the years leading up to the American Revolution.
It was not the first time—nor would it be the last—that Washington would assume—or as critics charged, “usurp”—powers not granted by the Constitution. Indeed, from the moment he took office in the spring of 1789, Washington had been obsessed with establishing the President as “a supreme power to govern the general concerns of a confederated republic.” Fearing anarchy, disunion, and an end to American freedom if he failed to act decisively, he transformed himself—and the presidency— from a relatively impotent figurehead into America’s most powerful leader, creating what modern scholars have called the “imperial presidency.” Although often associated with twentieth- and twenty-firstcentury presidents, the imperial presidency was George Washington’s creation over eight tumultuous years, as one by one, he raised seven pillars of power that sustain the mighty American presidential edifice today—the power to control executive appointments, foreign policy, military affairs, government finances, and federal law enforcement, along with the power to legislate by presidential proclamation and to issue secret fiats under the cloak of executive privilege.
Washington’s steady assumption of ever more extra-constitutional powers during his years in office came as no surprise to tens of thousands of Patrick Henry’s followers. After the Constitutional Convention, Henry—and at least five delegates to the convention itself—condemned the secret proceedings and the Constitution they produced as nothing less than a bloodless coup d’état.
The Confederation Congress had called the convention “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation . . . [to] render the federal constitution, adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the union.”Instead, convention delegates—the socalled framers—ignored the instructions. “That they exceeded their power is perfectly clear,” Patrick Henry roared. “The federal convention ought to have amended the old system. For this purpose they were solely delegated. The object of their mission extended to no other consideration.”
With George Washington presiding, the Constitutional Convention voted not only to proceed in secret, but to discard the Articles of Confederation and overthrow the old U.S. government. Still operating in secret, they then wrote a new constitution that established a new form of government, with a legislature armed with most of the powers of the British Parliament that Americans had struggled to destroy during eight torturous years of rebellion. Only thirty-nine of the fifty-five delegates who came to the convention stayed to the end, and three of them refused to sign the document. Virginia planter George Mason, a neighbor of George Washington, raged that the document gave the government “dangerous power” and that it would end “in monarchy or a tyrannical aristocracy.” He affirmed that he “would sooner chop off my right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.”
The framers made a tacit recognition of republicanism with a disingenuous assertion in the preamble that “We the people” had ordained and established “this Constitution for the United States of America,” but Mason, Henry, and other “antifederalists” saw through the ruse. “The Constitution has been formed without the knowledge or idea of the people,” Mason growled. Patrick Henry was equally furious: “Who authorized them to speak the language of We, the People? The people gave them no power to use their name.
“The new form of government,” Henry argued, “will oppress and ruin the people. Our rights and privileges are endangered . . . the rights of conscience, trial by jury, liberty of the press, all your immunities and franchises, all pretensions to human rights and privileges are rendered insecure, if not lost.”
Within a year after Washington’s new government had assumed power, Virginia Governor Henry (“Light-Horse Harry”) Lee declared Patrick Henry a prophet: “His predictions are daily verified. His declarations . . . on all the doings of government already have been undeniably proved . . . we can be relieved, I fear, only by disunion.” Those were not words Washington had hoped to hear. After leading the war of independence for eight years, then struggling for six years to unite the states into a republic, Washington believed that “no morn ever dawned more favorably than ours.” With chaos and anarchy abounding about him, however, Washington proclaimed, “Wisdom and good examples are necessary at this time to rescue the political machine from the impending storm.”
Copyright © Harlow Giles Unger