James Madison Papers

To James Madison from George Washington, 18 November 1786

From George Washington

Mount Vernon 18th. Novr. 1786.

My Dr. Sir,

Not having sent to the Post Office with my usual regularity, your favor of the 8th. did not reach me in time for an earlier acknowledgment than of this date.

It gives me the most sensible pleasure to hear that the Acts of the present Session, are marked with wisdom, justice & liberality. They are the palladium of good policy, & the only paths that lead to national happiness. Would to God every State would let these be the leading features of their constituents characters: those threatening clouds which seem ready to burst on the Confederacy, would soon dispel. The unanimity with which the Bill was received, for appointing commissioners agreeably to the recommendation of the Convention at Annapolis; and the uninterrupted progress it has met with since, are indications of a favourable issue. It is a measure of equal necessity & magnitude; & may be the spring of reanimation.

Altho’ I have bid a public adieu to the public walks of life, & had resolved never more to tread that theatre;1 yet, if upon an occasion so interesting to the well-being of the confederacy it should have been the wish of the assembly that I should have been an associate in the business of revising the foederal System; I should, from a sense of the obligation I am under for repeated proofs of confidence in me, more than from any opinion I should have entertained of my usefulness, have obeyed its call; but it is now out of my power to do this with any degree of consistency—the cause I will mention.

I presume you heard Sir, that I was first appointed, & have since been rechosen President of the Society of the Cincinnati; & you may have understood also that the triennial Genl. Meeting of this body is to be held in Philada. the first monday in May next. Some particular reasons2 combining with the peculiar situation of my private concerns; the necessity of paying attention to them; a wish for retirement & relaxation from public cares, and rheumatic pains which I begin to feel very sensibly, induced me on the 31st. ulto. to address a circular letter to each State society informing them of my intention not to be at the next Meeting, & of my desire not to be re-chosen President.3 The Vice President4 is also informed of this, that the business of the Society may not be impeded by my absence. Under these circumstances it will readily be perceived that I could not appear at the same time & place on any other occasion, without giving offence to a very respectable & deserving part of the community—the late officers of the American Army.

I feel as you do for our acquaintance Colo. Lee; better never have delegated, than left him out; unless some glaring impropriety of conduct had been ascribed to him. I hear with pleasure that you are in the new choice. With sentiments of the highest esteem & affectn. I am &c.

Go: Washington

FC (DLC: Washington Papers). In clerk’s hand. RC not found, but was used for printed copy in Stan. V. Henkels Catalogue No. 694 (1892).

1Washington made various statements at the close of the war of his desire to retire from public office and to return to private life. Both in a circular letter to the states of 8 June 1783 and in his Address to Congress on resigning his commission (23 Dec. 1783) he made clear his intention of permanently withdrawing from public office (Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XXVI, 483–84, 495; XXVII, 284–85).

2Actually, Washington knew that the veterans’ organization had been under fire from critics, and he considered the political furor an embarrassment that could be avoided by not attending the session (Freeman, George Washington, VI, 76–77). Torn by a sense of duty and his desire to escape political carping, Washington looked to JM and others for advice. David Stuart, a Fairfax County delegate to the General Assembly, told Washington the legislators considered the General’s acceptance of the assignment vital. His membership on the Virginia delegation “appeared to be so much the wish of the House that Mr. Maddison concieved it might probably frustrate the whole scheme if it was not done” (Stuart to Washington, 19 Dec. 1786 [DLC: Washington Papers]). As for the possible embarrassment of the Cincinnati convention, Stuart hinted that Washington might accept a place and later find an excuse for not actually going to Philadelphia. “The original imperfection of the foederal union, and its present tottering state,” Stuart wrote, “may perhaps at that time present themselves in such a point of view, as to supersede every objection.” See also Washington to JM, 16 Dec. 1786.

3Letter to the State Societies of the Cincinnati, 31 Oct. 1786 (Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XXIX, 31–33).

4Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates.

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