Monday, December 12, 2011

A Worried Washington

On the occasion of John Jay's birthday (born 1745), the following are excepts from a letter from George Washington to Jay (pictured). Jay was a confidant of Washington's, so much so that he offered Jay the position of Secretary of State in 1789 in the newly forming government under the Constitution. Jay declined that post, which went to Thomas Jefferson. Instead, Washington appointed Jay to be the first Chief Justice of the United States, a position he held for nearly six years, though had he held on to it as a lifetime post, he would have been on the bench until 1829 -- John Marshall would have had to find something else to do.

Before all that, in 1786, a worried Washington wrote to Jay: "Your sentiments, that our affairs are drawing rapidly to a crisis, accord with my own. What the event will be is also beyond the reach of my foresight. We have errors to correct. We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation... 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 different state governments extends over the several States.

"Many are of opinion that Congress have too frequently made use of the suppliant humble tone of requisition, in applications to the States, when they had a right to assume their imperial dignity and command obedience. Be that as it may, requisitions are a perfect nihility, where thirteen sovereign, independent[,] disunited States are in the habit of discussing & refusing compliance with them at their option. Requisitions are actually little better than a jest and a bye word through out the Land.

"What astonishing changes a few years are capable of producing! I am told that even respectable characters speak of a monarchical form of government without horror. From thinking proceeds speaking, thence to acting is often but a single step. But how irrevocable & tremendous! What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal & falacious!"

The entire letter is here.

No comments: