the quartet orchestrating the second american revolution 1783 1789.pdf

The crucial question was whether now was the time to

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The crucial question was whether now was the time to invest his enormous prestige in a cause that, at least as he saw it, might very well repeat the fiasco at Annapolis. He consulted Henry Knox, his old artillery commander, framing the issue along the lines of a military decision: Should we risk a battle, or avoid a fight until the strategic situation improved? Knox and Washington had made countless decisions of that sort during the war, and Knox argued that in this case the political terrain was too treacherous, the gamble too great. The state delegations to the Philadelphia convention, as Knox saw it, were likely to be divided into three factions: conservatives, who wished no change at all; moderates, who wished only modest revisions in the Articles; and radicals, who wished a major transformation into an energetic national government. Only if the latter group was likely to triumph should Washington join the battle, and that outcome was currently unpredictable. Best, therefore, to resist all overtures to attend the convention. Knox’s analysis struck Washington as the kind of cautious wisdom that echoed battlefield decisions in days of yore. “In confidence, I inform you,” he apprised Knox in March 1787, “that it is not, at this time, my purpose to attend.” 23 This conclusion, while avowedly tentative, received reinforcement in a lengthy memorandum from David Humphreys—like Knox, a fellow veteran who had served on Washington’s staff as an aide-de- camp. A Yale graduate, an aspiring poet, and the kind of bright young man Washington liked to fold into his official family, Humphreys had recently arrived at Mount Vernon to serve as Washington’s private secretary. He saw himself as guardian of Washington’s reputation and prepared a list of reasons why attendance at the convention would be a huge mistake. The old arguments were trotted out: the Society of the Cincinnati, meeting in Philadelphia at the same time, would feel betrayed; and Washington would be violating his solemn vow never to reenter public life, the Cincinnatus argument. He then confirmed Knox’s assessment that the political context was highly problematic, going further to predict failure to reach consensus on any new political framework, making Washington’s presence a massive embarrassment (“Your opinions & your eloquence regarded as ‘trifles- light as air’ ”), thereby burdening his legacy with a dramatic failure. Humphreys then added one new ingredient to the political equation: even if by some miracle the convention succeeded, Washington would almost surely be asked to head the new government, sweeping him back into the public arena and the inevitable vicissitudes of domestic politics, ending forever the bucolic splendor of his retirement years at Mount Vernon, most probably staining his heretofore spotless reputation as a heroic figure who levitated above such political infighting. In Humphreys’s calculation, Washington had nothing to gain and much to lose by going to Philadelphia.
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