On Presidents’ Day, a Look at Washington’s Concerns for the Republic

economic woes and an underpowered congress plagued post-revolutionary u.s.

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Establishing the United States was a larger endeavor than most realize. Friendships dissolved, arguments over policies raged, and the Constitution emerged from uncertain beginnings. Even George Washington had doubts about the nation.

George Washington statue
George Washington watched post-revolutionary America as its newly established form of government grew into a successful new nation. Photo By Becca Eley / Shutterstock

The Constitution of the United States of America is a changeable, living document. By basing the nation’s structure on it, the United States opens itself to questions of interpretation and change, with many complex factors of its framework often mixed up or looked over.

For example, even Presidents’ Day, annually celebrated on the third Monday of February, isn’t the proper name for the holiday honoring the U.S. presidents—legally, it’s known as Washington’s Birthday, even though George Washington’s birthday is February 22. It was changed in the 1960s to honor both Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday falls on February 12.

The malleable, dynamic nature of the U.S. political system concerned some of the Founding Fathers. Would it really work? Could it last? Even Washington himself was unsure of the nation’s sustainability.

When the Banks Went Bust

In his video series America’s Founding Fathers, Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, shed light on the uncertainty of the new nation. Dr. Guelzo said that a republic depends on the virtues of its people to hold it together, due to their power of voting and electing officials. Additionally, republics had only been tested on smaller scales.

“What Washington saw in post-revolutionary America made him afraid on all these counts,” Dr. Guelzo said. “With the end of the [American] Revolution, Americans found themselves released from the economic constraints placed upon them by the former British colonial overlords, and they went on a binge of speculation and consumption.”

The economic bubble burst in the spring of 1784 when five London banking houses went bust. They had been allowing Americans to buy things on credit, but Americans ran out of “specie”—or hard coin—with which to pay their debts. Merchants closed shops, mortgages defaulted, and credit collapsed.

What Congress Left Out

The colonists believed the British government overstepped its bounds in ruling the lives of its citizens, so the Continental Congress intentionally created a small government. For the purpose of saving the economy in 1784, it proved to be too small of a government.

“The Congress created by the Articles of Confederation had no power to levy taxes on the states, which meant that the United States had no reliable way of repaying its wartime debts to bankers in Paris and Amsterdam,” Dr. Guelzo said. “Without that authority, no one would lend the American government a farthing.”

This limited governmental reach wasn’t confined to its overseas dealings, either. At home, a weak Congress failed to rein in the states.

“The 13 colonies which had thrown off British allegiance in 1776 retained significant powers for themselves even as they became member states in the new Confederation, power which they did not hesitate to use against each other in economic disputes; powers which they did not hesitate to use in printing worthless paper money to pay debts and enacting stay laws which prevented sellers and lenders from collecting what they were owed.”

This, Dr. Guelzo said, was not the republicanism that Washington had fought for. He had warned years earlier that America’s greatness and independence rested on giving Congress sufficient power while ensuring that honest people would self-govern through virtue.

The American experiment continues today.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily