DUNN LORING, VA —In the American pantheon of "great presidents," the
first is still George Washington, even though he has been somewhat
tarnished by the now-mortal sin of having owned slaves. I live near
Mount Vernon, and I like to visit it now and then to remind myself
of what America was once like. On my latest outing there, with a foreign
visitor, I was struck again by the scale of the old slave economy. It was truly a different country, more foreign to us than England is today.
The other day I also happened to read a few quotations from Washington's letters. They were written in an English that is also becoming foreign to us. One of the difficulties of reading old documents is that we are apt to be misled by familiar words when we don't realize they were being used in old senses no longer current. We too easily read our ancestors as if they shared our own assumptions, when that may be far from the truth.
Washington wrote the letters in question shortly after the Constitutional
Convention in Philadelphia, over which he had presided in the summer
of 1787, and while the debate over ratification was raging. He explained
to Lafayette the following April that under the proposed Constitution,
the people "retain everything they do not, by express terms, give
up." This is of course the principle that would be enshrined in
the Tenth Amendment; nobody disputed it, though it is now pretty much
forgotten. It's still easy to understand, but apparently impossible to enforce.
Washington habitually referred to the U.S. Government as a "confederated
government" or "confederacy." To modern ears this is
a bit startling, since these terms are now used almost exclusively
to mean the Southern states that tried to leave the Union in Lincoln's
time; Lincoln himself sometimes called the Union a "confederacy." But he abandoned the term, probably because it was still understood to mean a *voluntary* union, which he insisted his Union was most definitely not.
Washington clearly didn't share Lincoln's view. In June 1788, fearing that the Constitution wouldn't be ratified, he wrote to General Henry Knox, "I can not but hope that the States which may be disposed to make a secession will think often and seriously on the consequences." But he didn't suggest that the states had no right to "make a secession."
A few days later Washington wrote to General Charles Pinckney that
New Hampshire had "acceded to the new Confederacy," adding
in reference to North Carolina, "I should be astonished if that
State should withdraw from the Union." Again, there is no hint
that either state was obliged to join the Union, "the new Confederacy." "To
accede" is the counterpart of "to secede." Washington
used words precisely. A state with the option to accede could also
The language is quaint, but the Father of Our Country unmistakably agreed with Jefferson, not Lincoln, that these were "Free and Independent States," united by mere confederation. He also called the Constitution itself "a compact or treaty," once more taking the Jeffersonian rather than the Lincolnian position.
Washington's choice of words is significant; he had little formal
education and was not an original or even especially trenchant thinker.
His language merely reflects the consensus of America's revolutionary generation, and for that reason is a reliable guide to a misunderstood period in American history. It also shows how completely out of touch Abraham Lincoln was with "the fathers" he claimed to speak for.
This article is reprinted from the January 2004 edition of Sobran's: The
Real News of the Month.
Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the
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