George Washington’s Lament: Was the American Revolution based on foolish expectations?

Burton Weltman

The question I want to discuss in this blog entry is whether the American revolutionaries were mistaken in their expectations of what would be the consequences of making a revolution against British rule.  Why was George Washington dismayed by the outcome of the Revolution? 

As with the question discussed previously in this blog about whether the Revolution had been based on false premises, the question of whether the Revolution was based on foolish expectations is discussed at greater length in Chapter 2 of my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake?:Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).  That chapter includes lots of quotations and citations from easily accessible primary and secondary sources.  And as with the previous question, I recommend The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969) as the single best secondary source on the Revolution.

Was the American Revolution a foolish mistake?

The American Revolution was not merely or even primarily a movement for national independence.  Most of the revolutionaries did not mind being considered Englishmen.  What they minded was being controlled by the kind of government that ruled England and that the English were imposing on each of the colonies.  That is, they were opposed to centralized government and to government with a strong chief executive that might morph easily into tyranny.  Their goal was, instead, to establish a decentralized government with a weak chief executive for the colonies as a whole and for each of the separate colonies.

This goal was exemplified by the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, and by the state constitutions adopted during the Revolution, all of which established weak central governments with  weak chief executives.  The Articles left most governmental power to the states and the state constitutions left most governmental power in the hands of local officials.  The President of the United States under the Articles was essentially the chairman of the meetings of Congress and served for only one year.  Ten of the thirteen state constitutions adopted during the Revolution had similarly weak governors who were elected by the states’ legislatures and served only one-year terms.

But no sooner had these constitutions been enacted and the Revolution ended, than Founding Fathers such as George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others turned against the decentralized government under the Articles of Confederation that they had been fighting for, and moved aggressively to adopt a new Constitution with the very sort of centralized government and strong chief executive that they had been opposing.  In so doing, the Founders had no sooner won the Revolution than they abandoned the “republican” ideology which had inspired it.

The ideology that had inspired the Founding Fathers was based on two basic premises.  The first was that “the people” all have essentially the same goals and will naturally cooperate with each other when given the chance.  The Founders were not adherents of small government.  They were adherents of local government, with local government having broad powers of control over the local economy and social life.  The second premise was that ordinary people will naturally defer to their “natural leaders,” that is, to elite leaders such as the Founding Fathers, when given the chance.  The Founders’ was a philosophy of government for the common people but not by the common people.

The Founders’ republican ideology had been reinforced by their pre-Revolution experience of local government in the colonies, which had been largely cooperative, constructive and controlled by elite leaders.  Washington and other elite leaders objected to Britain’s intervention in the colonies as a violation of what they considered the right of the natural aristocracy in America to govern the colonies.

Based on their ideological premises, the Founders expected that once the corrupting and disrupting influences of the British monarchy had been eliminated, Americans would choose governments at the local and state levels that would be controlled by their natural leaders who would operate those governments in the best interests of all the people.  This did not happen.

When the Revolution ended, ordinary Americans began to make economic and political demands that greatly disturbed elite leaders.  In turn, upstart leaders of the common people began demanding authority within the new state governments.  Many of the Founding Fathers, such as Washington, Madison, John Adams and Hamilton, felt themselves being overwhelmed by democrats at the local and state levels.  And they began complaining about a new type of tyranny, the tyranny of the majority, which they claimed was even worse than royal tyranny because it was all-encompassing.  “Have we fought for this?,” George Washington lamented.

In what was seemingly an admission that they had been foolish in their expectations as to the outcome of the Revolution, the Founders tried to restore their political and social ascendancy through establishing a new Constitution that centralized power in the federal government and that included a strong chief executive.  This was a radical reversal of their original plans and expectations.  In this respect, the Revolution could be considered a mistake.  Might the Founders have had a better chance of achieving their original social and political goals if they had not made the Revolution?  Would that have been the better choice?

What do you think?

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