By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2007 Weider History Group
This article originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of American History magazine.
The cost of political greatness, it’s been said, is to be forced to campaign long after your death. That’s certainly true of George Washington, whose name, image, and legacy were appropriated by the Confederacy.
George Washington is rightly called the “Father of our Country.” Born on February 22, 1732, near Wakefield, Virginia, he was a planter, surveyor, soldier in the French and Indian War, a politician in Virginia’s House of Burgesses and member of the first and second Continental Congresses. A natural leader with extensive military training, he served as commander in chief of the Continental Army through eight hard years of war, sometimes holding his army together by sheer force of will. He rejected a crown, which many of his officers would gladly have given him. He presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and, of course, was the first president of the United States, from 1789 to 1797. He died in peaceful retirement at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799. More than any other individual, Washington was responsible for securing the independence of the United States, and for establishing a government that would ensure its survival and success. Its capital rightly bears his name.
It is not surprising, therefore, as civil war loomed on the horizon, that both North and South would claim Washington as their patron of democracy. After all, no one then stood higher in the public’s estimation. Historian Joseph J. Ellis wrote, “If there was a Mount Olympus in the new American republic, all the lesser gods were gathered farther down the slope” from Washington. As historian Anne Sarah Rubin noted: “Far and away the most often invoked icon of the Revolutionary War period was George Washington. Throughout the antebellum period he was beloved by Northerners and Southerners alike and by 1861 had come to symbolize all that was virtuous and heroic about the American Revolution.”
Abraham Lincoln invoked the first president as the storm clouds of war gathered. In his Cooper Union speech in New York City on February 27, 1860, Lincoln rejected Southern charges that the young Republican Party was merely a sectional party, something that Washington had warned against in his 1796 Farewell Address. Lincoln said: “Could Washington himself speak, would he cast the blame of sectionalism upon us, who sustain his policy, or upon you who repudiate it? We respect the warning of Washington, and we commend it to you, together with his example pointing to the right application of it.” Noting Washington’s strong commitment to the Union, Lincoln criticized those who made “invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.” Upon leaving Springfield, Ill., for the last time on February 11, 1861, the president-elect said, “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.”
Southerners, too, claimed Washington as their guiding spirit. A member of the Georgia delegation to the 1861 Confederate constitutional convention in Montgomery, Ala., even proposed that the new Southern nation be named the “Republic of Washington,” and many other Southern leaders invoked Washington’s name for political advantage.
Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the permanent president of the Confederate States of America on Washington’s birthday in 1861. In his inaugural address, Davis said, “On this the birthday of the man most identified with the establishment of American independence, and beneath the monument erected to commemorate his heroic virtues and those of his compatriots, we have assembled to usher into existence the permanent government of the Confederate States.” The Confederacy, he vowed, would “perpetuate the principles of our Revolutionary fathers. The day, the memory, and the purpose seem fitly associated….We are in arms to renew such sacrifices as our fathers made to the holy cause of constitutional liberty.” Although neither Davis nor Confederate General Robert E. Lee ever claimed the title for themselves, they were often called “second Washingtons.”
At first glance, it appears obvious that the Confederate States of America would seize upon the figure of Washington as a patriotic symbol, putting him on its great seal and holding him up as an icon of secession. He was a Virginian, after all, beloved throughout the country. He had owned slaves. He had led armies in rebellion against a remote, tyrannical power. Many Southerners believed that they were fighting a second American Revolution; some said that had Washington been alive in 1861, he would have supported the Confederacy.
A closer look, however, casts a dark shadow over that assertion.
Washington was firmly, indeed unshakably, for the Union. On June 8, 1783, just two years after his triumph at Yorktown, Washington sent a message to all the state governors, urging them to downplay local jealousies in order to strengthen the Union. He wrote:
[I]t is indispensable to the happiness of the individual states, that there should be lodged somewhere, a supreme power to regulate and govern the general concerns of the…republic, without which the Union cannot be of long duration. That there must be a faithful and pointed compliance on the part of every state, with the…proposals and demands of Congress, or the most fatal consequences will ensue; that whatever measures have a tendency to dissolve the Union, or contribute to violate or lessen the sovereign authority, ought to be considered as hostile to the liberty and independency of America, and the authors of them treated accordingly….[W]ithout an entire conformity to the spirit of the Union, we cannot exist as an independent power.
Three years later, with the need for a stronger federal government even more apparent, Washington wrote to future Chief Justice of the United States John Jay in August 1786, “I do not conceive 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.”
In late 1786, the inhabitants of western Massachusetts took up arms against monetary policies imposed by their own elected government. Historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote that Washington “was outraged by the very idea of rebellion against a republican government…in the years that followed the winning of independence, as the power of Congress continued to wane, his great worry had been that the failure of the states to support the union would ‘destroy our national character, and render us as contemptible in the eyes of Europe as we have it in our power to be respectable.'” The difficulties the state and national governments faced in putting down Shays’ Rebellion highlighted the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and eventually led to the convening of the Constitutional Convention and the strengthening of the federal government.
After the Constitutional Convention had done its work and adjourned, Washington wrote in November 1787, “[T]here are characters who prefer disunion, or separate confederacies to the general government which is offered to them…but as nothing in my conception is more to be deprecated than disunion, or these separate confederacies, my voice, as far as it will extend, shall be offered in favor of [the Union].” Morgan wrote that once Washington was president, he “identified the national interest so closely and so personally with the new national government that he could scarcely recognize the validity of any kind of dissent…[He] had borne the brunt of a war that was needlessly prolonged because of the supineness of the central government. He had watched the nation approach the point of dissolution in the 1780s, a development that threatened everything he had fought for.” Washington wrote to the Irish patriot Sir Edward Newenham in 1788 that, under the new Constitution, the United States would be “nearer to perfection than any government hitherto instituted among men.” He agreed with Jefferson, who confided to him in 1794, “I can scarcely contemplate a more incalculable evil than the breaking of the union into two or more parts.”
As president, Washington was true to his principles. To put down the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 — the first major insurrection against the authority of the United States — he used military force, demanding that federal law be obeyed. The dissolution of the Union, he wrote at the time, would be “the most dreadful of all calamities.” He warned, “If the laws are to be trampled upon with impunity, and a minority (a small one too) is to dictate to the majority, there is an end put, at one stroke, to republican government.” Calling on the militias of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to stop the armed rebellion against a federal excise tax on distilled spirits, the president announced that the military’s first duty is “to combat and subdue all who may be found in arms in opposition to the national will and authority.”
Once the rebellion was almost bloodlessly suppressed, he wrote to his friend and Revolutionary leader Edmund Pendleton: “I hope, and believe, that the spirit of anarchy in the western counties of [Pennsylvania], to quell which the force of the Union was called for, is entirely subdued…the spirit with which the militia turned out, in support of the Constitution, and the laws of our country…does them immortal honor. [R]epublicanism is not the phantom of a deluded imagination: on the contrary…under no form of government will laws be better supported, liberty and property better secured, nor happiness be more effectually dispensed to mankind.” He also wrote in May 1797 to Revolutionary War general William Heath that Americans should be “indignant at every attempt [of those who] should presume to sow the seeds of distrust or disunion among ourselves.”
Washington would have denounced the view of many Confederate leaders that the Union was merely a temporary, convenient alliance between the states. He was never in any doubt that the Union was intended to be permanent, despite the Constitution’s silence on the point. In 1783 Washington wrote that the first thing “essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an independent power [is] an indissoluble Union of the states under one Federal head.” After the Whiskey Rebellion, he wrote of his satisfaction that “my fellow citizens understand the true principles of government and liberty [and appreciate] their inseparable union.” As new states and their citizens joined the Union, Washington said the nation should bind “those people to us by a chain which never can be broken.”
In his Farewell Address of September 1796, Washington wrote: “To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliances however strict between the parts can be an adequate substitute. They must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced…[the federal government] has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty…the Constitution which at any time exists, ’till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.” In the address, his last major statement to the nation, Washington expressed his hope that “Union and brotherly affection may be sacredly maintained.”
Given his strong support for the Union, it follows that George Washington was no zealot in defense of states’ rights; far from it. In 1777, during the Revolution, he was criticized by some members of the Continental Congress for permitting New Jersey citizens who had been forced to swear allegiance to the British Crown to expunge this by swearing allegiance, not to their state, but to the United States. After the Revolution he saw, under the weak Articles of Confederation that then guided the relationship between the states, the dangers of states’ preeminence over the federal government — as when New York, with impunity, negotiated a private treaty with the Indians to its own advantage.
In a July 1783 letter to historian and educator the Rev. William Gordon, Washington wrote:
It now rests with [Congress]…to make this country great, happy, and respectable; or to sink it into littleness; worse perhaps, into anarchy and confusion; for certain I am, that unless adequate powers are given to Congress for the general purposes of the Federal Union that we shall soon moulder into dust and become contemptible….We are known by no other character among nations than as the United States; Massachusetts or Virginia is no better defined, nor any more thought of by foreign powers than the County of Worcester in Massachusetts…or Glouster County in Virginia…yet these counties, with as much propriety might oppose themselves to the laws of the state in [which] they are, as an individual state can oppose itself to the Federal Government, by which it is, or ought to be bound. [When counties] come in contact with the general interests of the state, when superior considerations preponderate in favor of the whole, their voices should be heard no more; so it should be with individual states when compared to the Union….I think the blood and treasure which has been spent [in building the nation] has been lavished to little purpose, unless we can be better cemented; and that is not to be effected while so little attention is paid to the recommendations of the sovereign power.
Washington concluded, “[W]hen the band of Union gets once broken, every thing ruinous to our future prospects is to be apprehended; the best that can come of it, in my humble opinion, is that we shall sink into obscurity, unless our civil broils should keep us in remembrance and fill the page of history with the direful consequences of them.”
Following the Revolution and to the end of his days, in fact, Washington was concerned that disunion would make America the plaything of European powers. Given the diplomatic flirtations of Great Britain and France with the Confederacy, this was quite prescient. Washington wrote in 1783, “[T]he United States came into existence as a nation, and if their citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own…it is in their choice, and depends upon their conduct, whether they will be respectable and prosperous, or contemptible and miserable as a nation…[it would be an] ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the Union, annihilating the cement of the confederation, and exposing us to become the sport of European politics, which may play one state against another to prevent their growing importance, and to serve their own interested purposes.” He insisted, “It is only in our united character…that our independence is acknowledged, that our power can be regarded, and our credit supported among foreign nations.”
George Washington did not share the view of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and other leading Southerners that he was a citizen of his state first, and of the United States second. It was Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Robert E. Lee’s own father, who most famously eulogized Washington as “a citizen, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” This was part of a memorial resolution that Lee introduced not in the Virginia legislature, but in the U.S. House of Representatives. Virginia was not Washington’s “country.” He believed that love of country meant “giving every possible support and cement to the Union,” and wrote in 1796: “Citizens by birth or choice of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”
Washington’s last will and testament began with what historian Richard Norton Smith called “an unmistakable political statement.” Washington described himself as “a citizen of the United States, and lately President of the same.” Smith observed, “Not [as] ‘a citizen of Virginia,’ not as a Southerner or a Tidewater aristocrat, but as an American, Washington chose to round out his life with the creed to which he had devoted himself for forty years.” Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Joseph J. Ellis wrote that the “core of Washington’s vision” was the Union, and suggested that “[a] reincarnated Washington…would have gone with Lincoln and the Union in 1861.” Another Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, Garry Wills, agreed, “He was as ardent a proponent of union as President Lincoln would be, and he had in some measure foreseen that this would be the great trial of the republic.”
One states’ rights issue in particular bothered Washington. Even though he and his wife, Martha, owned and oversaw the work of more than 250 slaves at Mount Vernon, he was not an enthusiastic supporter of the “peculiar institution.” Historian Roger Bruns noted: “As he grew older, he became increasingly aware that it was immoral and unjust. Long before the Revolution, Washington had taken the unusual position of refusing to sell any of his slaves or to allow slave families to be separated.” Although at the beginning of the Revolution he opposed using black soldiers, he eventually worked with Congress to allow “free Negroes” to join the Continental Army and even introduced measures to permit enslaved blacks to serve in return for their freedom.
After the Revolution, Washington told an English friend, “I clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.” He said soberly that if the South were ever to try to divide the nation over the issue of slavery, he would “move and be of the northern” part. He wrote to his friend John Francis Mercer on September 9, 1786, “I never mean…to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees.” Ten years later, he wrote to Robert Morris, a major financier of the Revolution, “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see some plan adopted for the gradual abolition” of slavery. As president, Washington signed legislation enforcing the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern Territory, and wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette that he considered it a wise measure.
Throughout his life, he was known as a benign slaveholder (although admittedly, to 21st-century eyes, that’s virtually an oxymoron). Washington, alone among the slaveholding framers of the Constitution, included provisions in his will for the freeing of his personal slaves, adding that, prior to their emancipation, Mount Vernon slaves should “be taught to read and write, and brought up to some useful occupation.” At the time, Virginia law prohibited teaching slaves to read.
“Deo Vindice” was the motto that appeared below the mounted figure of Washington on the Great Seal of the Confederacy: “God Vindicates.” Whether or not God vindicates the Confederacy is a question probably best left to theologians and other thinkers and philosophers. It is very clear, however, that had he lived to see it, Washington would not have supported the Confederacy. His principles were timeless, his commitment to the Union was absolute, his opposition to slavery had grown strong and his personality was such that he surely would never have been swayed by the secessionist hysteria of the early 1860s. No one worked harder or did more than George Washington to see that the United States would become — and remain — one nation, indivisible.