Constitution 225: George Washington’s Constitution


Close up of Washington's handwritten note on his copy of Acts of Congress, courtesy of the Donald W. Reynolds Museum at Mount Vernon and Mark Finkenstaedt.


Today’s Constitution 225 post was written by Jim Zeender,  senior registrar in Exhibits at the National Archives.

Imagine George Washington’s first day on the job as President of the United States on April 30, 1789. What what his role? How was he to act? What were his duties and powers? Who should advise him? Who worked for him?

The Constitution described the role of the President in general terms, but spelled out only a few specific duties and powers. Since the democratic republic created under the Constitution was an entirely new form of government, there was no user’s manual. There were no previous presidents he could look to for advice. The Constitution, the proposed Bill of Rights, and Acts of Congress were the closest thing. After the first session of Congress, these documents were printed and compiled into a volume.

Visitors to the Donald W. Reynolds Museum at Mount Vernon will have a rare opportunity to see Washington’s personal copy of this rare volume.

Inside, his handwritten notes in pencil can be seen in the margins. The text was printed by Francis Childs and John Swaine and bound by Thomas Allen, all of New York. Washington received the book in 1789, his first year in office as U.S. president, and brought it with him to Mount Vernon upon his retirement in 1797. Only three are known to exist today, the Washington copy and copies originally owned by Thomas Jefferson and John Jay.

Washington’s copy of the Constitutional Convention’s first draft of the Constitution, annotated by Washington and William Jackson, the Convention’s Secretary, will also be on view at Mount Vernon. The draft consists of seven pages, printed by John Dunlap and David Claypoole of Philadelphia Only page five will be on exhibit, featuring the section of the draft describing the executive’s powers.

Both documents will go on display at the Mount Vernon Museum on Constitution Day, September 17.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association acquired the Acts of Congress volume at a Christie’s auction in New York on June 22 of this year. As if destined, the winning paddle number was “222,” Washington’s birthday! The prized volume will become a center piece for the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, scheduled to open at Mount Vernon in the fall of 2013.

Washington’s copy of the draft Constitution is from the National Archives and will be on view through October. The Acts of Congress can be seen through February 22, 2013. Shown together for the first time, the two documents “offer an unprecedented view of history in the making, through the mind and actions of America’s first president.”

Page 5 of George Washington's draft of the Constitution (ARC 1501555)


George Washington was not known as a philosopher of government. He had not read as widely on the subject as James Madison, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.  However, his background as a surveyor, landowner, businessman, politician, and soldier informed a pragmatic yet visionary approach to the development of the young American republic. His eight years of experience as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, as well his experience dealing with the Continental Congress, its committees and members, and state governors and representatives, made clear to Washington the need for a strong unitary executive.

At the end of the war, he voluntarily resigned his commission at the height of his power. He retired to his beloved Mount Vernon and its daily routines, but he also kept up a large correspondence and hosted many visitors.  He kept a watchful eye on the young nation from his Potomac perch and soon saw the need to replace what was left of the Confederation Congress, a body dependant on the states for support, unable to raise its own funds and often not even able to assemble a quorum of members needed to conduct the nation’s business.

In a speech given at Annapolis the same day he resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief, Washington said “though I retire from the employment of public life I shall never cease to entertain the most anxious care for the welfare of my country. May the Almighty dispose the heart of every citizen of the United States to improve the great prospect of happiness before us.”

Three and half years later, the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia. The delegates chose Washington to serve as chairman. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson (in Paris) that covered various subjects and was written in the early days of the Convention, Washington summarizes the challenges facing the delegates.

The business of this Convention is as yet too much in embryo to form any opinion of the result. Much is expected from it by some—but little by others—and nothing by a few—That something is necessary, all will agree; for the situation of the General Governmt (if it can be called a governmt) is shaken to its foundation—and liable to be overset by every blast. In a word, it is at an end, and unless a remedy is soon applied, anarchy & confusion will inevitably ensue. (Letter from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, May 30, 1787. Digital Edition of the George Washington Papers.)

In the months of June and July, debate raged back and forth on many issues, including the relationship of the national government to the states, the Executive to the Legislature, and representation in the House and Senate.   In this letter, Washington makes clear his support for “a strong and energetic government” and it is easy to understand his frustration in the chair as the advocates of stronger state governments droned on for weeks.

The Men who oppose a strong & energetic government are, in my opinion, narrow minded politicians, or are under the influence of local views. The apprehension expressed by them that the people will not accede to the form proposed is the ostensible, not the real cause of the opposition—but admitting that the present sentiment is as they prognosticate, the question ought nevertheless to be, is it or is it not the best form? If the former, recommend it, and it will assuredly obtain mauger opposition. (Letter from  George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, July 10, 1787. Digital Edition of the George Washington Papers)

On July 26, the Convention paused and created a Committee on Detail to prepare in written form what had been agreed to so far. The Committee took ten days to do its work. The draft text was printed on August 6. With a more clearly defined framework, the Convention resumed its proceedings. Chairman Washington and the Convention’s Secretary, William Jackson, would write changes or notes on the printed draft as the Convention worked its way through the document.

The Convention continued its work in the hot weeks of August and early September, sometimes going back and forth on key clauses, including who would elect the president and what his powers were to be.   On September 12, a Committee on Style presented a near final draft and two days later, 39 of the original 55 delegates (representing 12 states) signed the final engrossed version.

As Chairman, Washington deliberately stood back from the debate and only spoke twice on matters of substance. He influenced delegates behind the scenes and participated in the votes of the Virginia delegation. In a letter to his good friend the Marquis de Lafayette, written the day after signing the new Constitution, Washington takes a cautious tone on the document’s future.

In it [the Constitution] is the production of four months deliberation. It is now a Child of fortune, to be fostered by some and buffited by others. what will be the General opinion on, or the reception of it, is not for me to, decide, nor shall I say any thing for or against it—if it be good I suppose it will work its way good—if bad it will recoil on the Framers. (Letter from George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, September 18, 1787. Digital Edition of the George Washington Papers.)

When the Convention concluded its business, Chairman Washington was given charge of the Convention’s records, its journals, voting records, and miscellaneous items. Among them was the Chairman’s copy of the Committee on Detail draft. Eleven years later in 1798, Washington had completed two terms as president of the United States and still had the Convention Papers in his custody.


George Washington. Copy of painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1931-1932 (ARC 532888)


He decided it was time to turn over the records to the State Department for safekeeping. There was no National Archives; the State Department served as the keeper of the government’s valuable records.  After the establishment of the National Archives in 1934, the State Department transferred custody of the records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention.

The Acts of Congress found its way into various hands along the way back to Mount Vernon. At Washington’s death, the volume and the other contents of Washington’s Library were willed to his nephew and Supreme Court Justice, Bushrod Washington and then from Bushrod to his son Laurence A. Washington.  For a long period, it was part of the collection of newspaper magnate and publisher William Randolph Hearst. In 1964, the volume was purchased on behalf of the Estate of Richard Deutrich, which remained the owner until the recent sale at Christie’s.

See these two important pieces of history on display at the Donald W. Reynolds Museum at Mount Vernon, starting on Constitution Day, September 17. Washington’s copy of the draft Constitution is from the National Archives and will be on view through October. The Acts of Congress can be seen through February 18, 2013.

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