Confederation Series: Volume 4

DATE April 1786 – January 1787

This is the fourth of six volumes of Washington’s papers in the Confederation period. George Washington stays close to home between April 1786 and the end of January 1787, and much of his correspondence continues to focus on his multifarious private affairs. By the fall of 1786, however, many of both incoming and outgoing letters reflect the intensifying concern about what both Washington and his correspondents viewed as the critical state of the American union.

Henry Knox almost weekly sends full reports on developments in Massachusetts as Daniel Shays and his followers mount their rebellion. A letter from Madison of 1 November marks the opening of the remarkable political correspondence between the two men extending to the time of Washington’s election to the presidency. Among the other men who were frequently corresponding with Washington about the affairs of the nation were Henry Lee, John Jay, David Humphreys, and Edmund Randolph. Before the end of 1786 George Washington learned that he had been chosen as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention to be held in Philadelphia in May 1787, and he was still agitating the question whether or not he should attend as late as February 1787.

W.W. Abbot, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Confederation Series volume 4, April 1786 – January 1787. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Volume 4: Essay
“No day was ever more clouded than the present”

Volume Four of the Confederation Series of The Papers of George Washington spans the critical period between April 1786 and January 1787. Washington spent all of this period at home at Mount Vernon, managing and improving his estate. Yet he remained a keen observer of the national scene, receiving a steady stream of reports on political developments from correspondents all over the new nation.

As the volume opens the concerns of home and family predominate. Efforts to rebuild Mount Vernon after the neglect of the war years continued, and were refocused by Washington’s determination to turn the plantation into a model American farm. By the spring of 1786, Washington had been working to rebuild Mount Vernon for two years, and began the growing season with high expectations. Unfortunately “the violent rains” of late spring ruined the spring grain and made the land impossible to plow. [1] Undaunted, Washington determined to reorganize his agricultural system and undertake “an entire new course of cropping.” [2]

“I have now taken the management of my Farms into my own hands,” Washington wrote to George William Fairfax on 25 June 1786, “and shall find employment & amusement if not profit, in conducting the business of them myself.” [3] Confederation Volume 4 documents in detail the transformation of agriculture at Mount Vernon shaped by Washington’s determination to turn the plantation into a model American farm. Washington modestly admitted he was not really skilled enough to succeed in the undertaking. “Agriculture has ever been amongst the most favourite amusements of my life,” he wrote to his English correspondent Arthur Young, “though I never possessed much skill in the art, and nine years total inattention to it, has added nothing to a knowledge which is best understood from practice.” [4]

Obtaining trained assistance was consequently vital to this new undertaking. In June 1785 Washington had expressed to George William Fairfax his desire to employ “a thorough bred practical English Farmer” at Mount Vernon. “When I speak of a knowing Farmer,” Washington explained,

I mean one who understands the best course of Crops; how to plough–to sow–to mow–to hedge–to Ditch & above all, Midas like, one who can convert every thing he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold. [5]

On 31 May 1786, through George William’s efforts, Washington contracted with what he hoped was such a man: James Bloxham of Gloucestershire, England, who agreed to assist Washington in managing stock (to be maintained primarily as a source of manure) and to instruct farm laborers “to Plow, Sow; Mow, Reap; Thatch; Ditch; Hedge &ca in the best manner.” [6] By mid-summer Washington was a bit disappointed with Bloxham. “In a word,” he wrote to William Peacey

he seems rather to have expected to have found well organized farms, than that the end and design of my employing him was to make them so. He makes no allowances for the ravages of a nine year’s war from which we are but just begining to emerge, nor does he consider that if our system of Husbandry had been as perfect as it may be found on your Farms, or in some of the best farming Counties in England, there would have been no occasion for his Services. [7]

For his part, Bloxham was apparently frustrated and disappointed by the utility of Washington’s slaves. To his former employer, Peacey, Bloxham wrote that “tese Black Peope I am Rather in Danger of being posind [poisoned].” He doubted whether Washington would be able to improve the farm, “for he have a Sett of About him which I nor you would Be trobled with But the General is goot them and he must Keep them But they are a verey Desagreable People.” [8]

Bloxham’s disappointment with slave labor mirrored the sentiments of his new employer. By the spring of 1786 Washington seems to have become thoroughly discouraged with the prospect of running his plantation on the best principles using slave labor, and more generally frustrated with the institution of slavery itself. In April 1786, in a letter critical of the efforts of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery to obtain freedom for a slave taken to Philadelphia by an Alexandria shopkeeper, Washington expressed the hope that some scheme for the abolition of slavery would be adopted. “I hope it will not be conceived from these observations,” he wrote to Robert Morris,

that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people who are the subject of this letter, in slavery. I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it — but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority: and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting. [9]

Bad weather and inadequate labor were not the only frustrations with which Washington had to cope in 1786. He was constantly pressed by a lack of cash, a problem compounded by the difficulty of settling old accounts, many of them dating back to before the war, and collecting rents and other money due from agents and managers long used to operating without Washington’s oversight. [10] The war, he wrote, had made “a general wreck” of his affairs, confounding his best efforts to repair his fortune. [11] Compounding the difficulty was the constant stream of visitors to the plantation, which only added to “the expensive manner in which I am as it were involuntarily compelled to live,” which “will admit of no diminution of my income.” [12]

Despite these obstacles, Washington forged ahead with his plans for Mount Vernon. He moved rapidly forward in instituting his “new course of cropping.” Employing what he regarded as the most advanced English practices, Washington determined to abandon the wasteful and destructive practices of Virginia agriculture in favor of careful husbandry of the land, including the return of plowland to grass, the liberal use of manures of all kinds, and careful management of erosion to avoid the loss of topsoil. To Arthur Young he wrote for a plan “of the most compleat & useful Farm yard, for Farms of about 500 Acres.” [13] He leased and ultimately acquired new land on Dogue Run, “French’s Farm,” from Penelope Manley French, and then divided the whole plantation into six farms — Mansion House, Dogue, Ferry, River, Muddy Hole, and French, with an overseer in charge of each. He also made improvements to the mansion, including the installation of new flagstones on the piazza [14] and the completion of ornamental work by Richard Tharpe (Thorpe) in what Washington called his “new room.” [15] Among all the changes that occurred at Mount Vernon in 1786, few would have as long-lasting effects as the arrival of a new secretary, Tobias Lear, on 29 May. [16] Employed at the suggestion of Benjamin Lincoln, Lear made a good impression on Washington from the start, and soon became an indispensable member of the Mount Vernon household.

Against this background of domestic concerns, Washington received and responded to an increasing flow of anxious correspondence about the state of the new nation. Through these months Washington was adamant in his determination to remain an observer of national affairs. “Sequestered as I am, from the bustlings & intrigues of the world, in the calm walks of private life,” he wrote to Theodorick Bland, “I can hardly flatter myself with being able to give much light or assistance, to those who may be engag’d in passing thro’ the dark & thorny paths of politics.” [17]

Despite his insistence that he was out of touch with politics, Washington expressed his political opinions freely to a select group of regular correspondents, including Henry Lee, Henry Knox, John Jay, Theodorick Bland, and James Madison. In April he noted to Henry Lee that the state legislatures were too much actuated by “private views, & selfish principles.” [18] To John Jay he admitted that the “errors in our National Government . . . call for correction,” but

I scarcely know what opinion to entertain of a general Convention. That it is necessary to revise, and amend the articles of Confederation, I entertain no doubt; but what may be the consequences of such an attempt isdoubtful. Yet, something must be done, or the fabrick must fall. It certainly is tottering! . . . From the high ground on which we stood–from the plain path which invited our footstep s, to be so fallen!–so lost! is really mortifying. But virtue, I fear, has, in a great degree, taken its departure from our Land. [19]

To William Grayson, he wrote in July that “our character as a nation is dwindling.” [20]

Both Washington and his nationally minded correspondents agreed that the chief institutional problem afflicting the new nation was the provinciality and self-interested conduct of state legislators and the impotence of Congress. “To be fearful of vesting Congress,” Washington wrote to John Jay in August, “constituted as that body is, with ample authorities for national purposes, appears to me the very climax of popular absurdity and madness.” The impotence of government was leading men of property, he wrote, to think of solutions that only a few years earlier would have been unthinkable:

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 s tep. But how irrevocable and 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! [21]

The critical public question, as Henry Lee framed it, was whether the people would “establish a permanent capable government or submit to the horrors of anarchy and licentiousness.” [22]

More than any other event, the agrarian uprising in western Massachusetts known as Shays’ Rebellion, which began in August 1786 and continued into February 1787, focused the attention of Washington and his political correspondents and determined them on the course that led ultimately to the Philadelphia Convention. Washington’s chief informant on these events was Henry Knox, but Washington received reports from many northern correspondents and an extraordinarily detailed report on the suppression of the rebellion from Benjamin Lincoln. These events, Washington admitted, “exhibit a melancholy proof . . . that mankind left to themselves are unfit for their own government.” Yet despite such gloomy admissions, in more hopeful moments Washington found it difficult to believe that “the great body of the people” are so “short sighted as not to see the rays of a distant sun through all this mist of intoxication and folly.” [23]

During the difficult months of November, December, and January, Washington was gradually, perhaps against his own private impulses, beginning to assume a leadership role in the nationalist movement. From despairing comments on the condition of the nation he moved on to exhortation. “Let prejudices, unreasonable jealousies, and local interest yield to reason and liberality,” he wrote to James Madison.

Let us look to our National character, and to things beyond the present period. No Morn ever dawned more favourable than ours did–and no day was ever more clouded than the present! Wisdom, & good examples are necessary at this time to rescue the political machine from the impending storm. [24]

By mid-November he was signaling the possibility, although protesting at the same time that it was impossible, that he might come out of retirement to take a hand in political reform. [25] Yet Washington worried that such a move would destroy his public reputation as a disinterested patriot. Echoing this very concern was an anonymous note Washington received in January, signed “R”: “Your Character, Sir, is beyond the reach of applause. … To engage again would bring you back to a Man. You think as I do as far as your Modesty will permit, I know you do.” [26]

The ten months embraced by Confederation Vol. 4 were anxious and difficult ones for Washington, but the focus of his attention remained, despite the increasing distractions of the failing Confederation, his home and family. Indeed Washington was already considering his own mortality. To his nephew George Augustine Washington he described himself as one of “those who have passed the meridian of life, and are descending into the shades of darkness,” [27] not foreseeing the career as president that lay ahead.

Jack D. Warren


1. GW to Benjamin Lincoln, 10 April Confederation 4: 12. [back]

2. GW to William Triplett, 25 September 1786, Confederation 4: 268-74. [back]

3. GW to George William Fairfax, 25 June 1786, Confederation 4: 126-29. [back]

4. GW to Arthur Young, 6 August 1786, Confederation 4: 196-200. [back]

5. GW to George William Fairfax, 30 June 1785, Confederation 3: 87-92. [back]

6. Articles of Agreement with James Bloxham, [31 May 1786], Confederation 4: 86-88. [back]

7. GW to William Peacey, 5 August 1786, Confederation 4: 192-93. [back]

8. James Bloxham to William Peacey, 23 July 1786, enclosed in GW to Peacey, 5 August 1786,Confederation 4: 193-95. [back]

9. GW to Robert Morris, 12 April 1786, Confederation 4: 15-17. [back]

10. See, e.g., GW to John Price Posey, 12 January 1787, and Posey to GW, 27 January 1787, Confederation 4: 512-13, 545-48. [back]

11. GW to George William Fairfax, 30 June 1786, Confederation 4: 135-41. [back]

12. GW to George Augustine Washington, 25 October 1786, Confederation 4: 307-10. [back]

13. GW to Arthur Young, 15 November 1786, Confederation 4: 371-72. [back]

14. John Rumney, Jr. to GW, 16 April 1786, GW to John Rumney, Jr., 5 June 1786; Confederation 4: 19, 96.[back]

15. GW to Edward Newenham, 10 June 1786, Confederation 4: 105-6. [back]

16. Tobias Lear to GW, 7 May 1786, Confederation 4: 34-35. [back]

17. GW to Theodorick Bland, 15 August 1786, Confederation 4: 210-11. [back]

18. GW to Henry Lee, Jr., 5 April 1786, Confederation 4: 3-5. [back]

19. GW to John Jay, 18 May 1786, Confederation 4: 55-56. [back]

20. GW to William Grayson, 26 July 1786, Confederation 4: 169-70. [back]

21. GW to John Jay, 15 August 1786, Confederation 4: 212-13. [back]

22. Henry Lee, Jr. to GW, 8 September 1786, Confederation 4, 240-41. [back]

23. GW to Henry Lee, Jr., 31 October 1786, Confederation 4: 318-20. [back]

24. GW to James Madison, 5 November 1786, Confederation 4: 331-32. [back]

25. GW to Theodorick Bland, 18 November 1786, Confederation 4: 377-79. See also GW to Madison, same date, Confederation 4: 382-83. [back]

26. R. to GW, [c.15 January 1787], Confederation 4: 523. [back]

27. GW to George Augustine Washington, Confederation 4: 307-10. [back]