Would George Washington have seceded with Robert E. Lee?


Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

19thGeorgia

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Messages
2,949
This one's easy.
With tremendous reluctance, considering the effort he and his generation put into fighting the Revolution, writing the Constitution and guiding the US through its first decades, Washington would have shot Jefferson Davis in the head.
Things changed a lot from 1789 to 1861. Washington would have shot John Brown in the head.

What was Washington's policy in regard to the Haitian Revolution of 1791 (a slave insurrection)?
 
Last edited:

cash

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Messages
33,528
Location
Right here.
I posted this on the other Washington thread this evening:

I suppose it's very liberating if one never reads anything Washington said or wrote, because then one can conjure him doing anything, even joining the confederacy he would have loathed.

But those who have read what he said and wrote are stuck with what he actually believed.

Here's what George Washington believed:
"There are four things, which I humbly conceive, are essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an Independent Power:

"1st. An indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal Head.
"2ndly. A Sacred regard to Public Justice.
"3dly. The adoption of a proper Peace Establishment, and
"4thly. The prevalence of the pacific and friendly Disposition, among the People of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community."
"Yet it will be a part of my duty, and that of every true Patriot, to assert without reserve, and to insist upon the following propositions, That unless the States will suffer Congress to exercise those prerogatives, they are undoubtedly invested with by the Constitution, every thing must very rapidly tend to Anarchy and confusion, That it is indispensible 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 Confederated Republic, without which the Union cannot be of long duration. That there must be a faithfull [sic] and pointed compliance on the part of every State, with the late 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."

"I could demonstrate to every mind open to conviction, that in less time and with much less expence than has been incurred, the War might have been brought to the same happy conclusion, if the resources of the Continent could have been properly drawn forth, that the distresses and disappointments which have very often occurred, have in too many instances, resulted more from a want of energy, in the Continental Government, than a deficiency of means in the particular States. That the inefficiency of measures, arising from the want of an adequate authority in the Supreme Power, from a partial compliance with the Requisitions of Congress in some of the States, and from a failure of punctuality in others, while it tended to damp the zeal of those which were more willing to exert themselves; served also to accumulate the expences of the War, and to frustrate the best concerted Plans." [George Washington, "Circular to State Governments," 8 June 1783]

"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." [George Washington, "Circular Letter to the States, 8 June 1783]

"To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, 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. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, 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 basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But 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. " [George Washington, "Farewell Address," 1796]

"The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts." [Ibid.]

Washington knew that the states were not independent under the Constitution, and in his cover letter transmitting the new Constitution to Congress he said, "It is obviously impracticable in the foederal [sic] government of these States; to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all--Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest. The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on situation and circumstance, as on the object to be obtained. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved; and on the present occasion this difficulty was encreased [sic] by a difference among the several States as to their situation, extent, habits, and particular interests." [George Washington to President of Congress, 17 Sep 1787]

"A survey of this correspondence and of his official career indicates that the dominant note in the political thinking of Washington, both before and after 1789, was his unwavering belief that only a strong central government, able to determine and enforce national policies, would enable the United States to assume its appropriate position among the nations of the world." [Harold W. Bradley, "The Political Thinking of George Washington," Journal of Southern History, Vol XI, No. 4, Nov, 1945, p. 472]

"No man in the United States is, or can be more deeply impressed with the necessity of reform in our present Confederation than myself. No man perhaps has felt the bad effects of it more sensibly; for to the defects thereof, & want of Powers in Congress may justly be ascribed the prolongation of the War & consequently the Expences occasioned by it. More than half the perplexities I have experienced in the course of my command, and almost the whole of the difficulties & distress of the Army, have their origin here." [Washington to Alexander Hamilton, 31 Mar 1783]

But before he died he actually answered the question, so we don't have to ask him.

"During his presidency, the preeminent Founding Father made the startling, indeed, amazing, remark that if the Union split apart into North and South, 'he had made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern.' He made the comment to his secretary of state, Edmund Randolph; it was recorded by Jefferson." [Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, p. 362]

Too much is made of his being a slave owner. He had given up buying and selling slaves, and he provided for the freedom of those he owned in his will. He was moving away from slavery.
 

RobertP

Major
Joined
Nov 11, 2009
Messages
9,279
Location
on the long winding road
Things changed a lot from 1789 to 1861. Washington would have shot John Brown in the head.

What was Washington's policy in regard to the Haitian Revolution of 1791 (a slave insurrection)?
Washington would surely have considered shooting Sumner in the head, or at the very least kicking his but*.
 
Last edited:

Andersonh1

Major
Joined
Jan 12, 2016
Messages
7,972
Location
South Carolina
"During his presidency, the preeminent Founding Father made the startling, indeed, amazing, remark that if the Union split apart into North and South, 'he had made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern.' He made the comment to his secretary of state, Edmund Randolph; it was recorded by Jefferson." [Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, p. 362]
If that's an accurate quote, then it answers the question. Randolph was secretary of state from January 1794 to August 1795, so that would have been during Washington's second term and not that many years from the end of his time in office and the end of his life, so it's doubtful he'd have changed his mind after that late date, not after years of fighting to establish and stabilize the Union. Whether the circumstances of the 1860s would make a difference or not in his thinking is impossible to say, but I doubt it.

It does suggest that he wasn't necessarily in favor of war to keep the Union together, if he's choosing sides. In this hypothetical choice, he might well have sat out the conflict even while going North.
 

kevikens

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 7, 2013
Messages
3,193
Location
New Jersey
If I may, let me be a bit more specific in my remark above about it being inconceivable of Washington not to have seceded with Lee. Lee agreed to Virginia's secession only when it was obvious that war was imminent, actually already begun. Even if Washington would have supported secession and moved north in the 1790's (assuming the quote that he would do that is accurate), if a 1790 secession (Bank of the US, assumption of state debts, paying Revolutionary debt at par) was going to result in war I cannot see Washington taking up arms against Virginia (or most Northerners, either) to keep the new Constitutional Union intact .
What people absolutely need to keep in mind is that Americans thought very differently in 1861 than they do today and even more so in 1781 (Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union adopted). Every adult of the Revolutionary War era grew up in a polity that permitted slavery (except, oddly enough for a while , Georgia) and in a polity that he saw as his country. Asking Americans of 1781 if they would take up arms against their native state for the then new confederated union was like asking modern Americans if they would take up arms against America to compel it to remain a part of the United Nations. Today's America may have taken up arms under the auspices of the UN and have its flag fly over a building in NYC but the notion of allegiance to the UN at the cost of taking up arms against the USA is inconceivable.
OK, by 1861 that had changed in the North and the Union was "one and inseparable" but that change in the South had not occurred for most. The Border States (and I suspect more than a few Northern Americans) did not question the lawfulness of secession but only its advisability or justification over the extension of slavery. Once it came down to fighting a war to prevent secession (or who owns Fort Sumter), against one's neighbors and family, Lee and most Southerners could not do that and I find it difficult to imagine a George Washington of 1789 taking up arms against his native state, his country, Virginia, for any reason.
 
Last edited:

byron ed

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 22, 2017
Messages
2,630
Location
Midwest
If the George Washington of 1789 was faced with the secession of 1861 it would have been inconceivable of him to have waged war on his native Virginia. Virginia was his native land, not the USA
Or conceivable. Washington wasn't Robert E. Lee. There's no evidence whatsoever that Washington would have chosen Virginia over the United States (after all, particularly his United States). He as likely, or more likely, would instead have fought to get Virginia back from the Confederacy.

By the time Virginians were deciding their allegiances in 1860, note that several prominent Virginians -- Generals included -- plus the entire western portion of the state went Union. As a general himself, Washington might well well have stayed with the Union and his United States. It's at a minimum conceivable.

btw, the "loyal to ole' Virginny" excuse for Lee is a bit of a modernism that perhaps you've been sold on (especially if you're a reenactor). At the time it was alternately considered loyal to be defending "ole' Virginny" against the Confederacy, as many loyal Virginians chose to do -- three prominent military commanders -- peers of Washington had he been alive -- among them.
 
Last edited:


Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!
Top