Washington on Political Partisanship
Digital History ID 189
In this letter, written just five months before his death to his former personal secretary, former President Washington expresses his concern that the French government was interfering in domestic American politics. He also rejects Federalist pleas that he come out of retirement and run for the presidency in 1800. The growth of partisanship in American politics meant that the character of an individual candidate and reputation no longer matter. If he were nominated for the presidency, Washington was "thoroughly convinced" that he "should draw not a single vote from the anti-Federal side."
Early in the morning of December 13, 1799, Washington woke his wife, complaining of severe pains. Over the course of that day and the next, doctors arrived and attempted to ease his pain by applying blisters, administering purges, and bloodletting - removing perhaps four pints of his blood. Medical historians generally agree that Washington needed a tracheotomy (a surgical operation into the air passages), but this was too new a procedure to be risked on the former president, who died on December 14.
During the early weeks of 1800, every city in the United States commemorated the death of the former leader. In Boston, business was suspended, cannons roared, bells pealed, and 6000 people - a fifth of the population of the city - stood in the streets to express their last respects for the fallen general. In Washington, Congressman Henry Lee delivered the most famous eulogy. He described Washington as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
No well informed and unprejudiced man, who has viewed with attention the conduct of the French Government since the Revolution in that Country, can mistake its objects, or the tendency of the ambitious projects it is pursuing. Yet, strange as it may seem, a party, and a powerful one too, among us, affect to believe that the measures of it are dictated by a principle of self preservation; that the outrages of which the Directory [the governing body in France] are guilty, proceed from dire necessity; that it wishes to be upon the most friendly & amicable terms with the United States; that it will be the fault of the latter if this is not the case; that the defensive measures which this Country has adopted, are necesary & expensive, but have a tendency to produce the evil which, to deprecate, is mere pretence in the Government; because War with France they say, is its wish; that on the Militia shd. rest our security; and that it is time enough to call upon these, when the danger is imminent, & apparent.
With these, and such like ideas, attempted to be inculcated upon the public mind (aided by prejudices not yet eradicated) and with art and sophistry, which regard neither truth nor decency; attacking every character, without respect to persons, Public or Private, who happen to differ from themselves in Politics, I leave you to decide the probability of carrying such an extensive plan of defence as you have suggested in your last letter, into operation; and in the short period which you supposed may be allowed to accomplish it in.
I come now, my dear Sir, to pay particular attention to that part of your Letter which respects myself....
Let that party [the Jeffersonian Republicans] set up a broomstick, and call it a true son of Liberty, a Democrat, or give it any other epithet that will suit their purpose, and it will command their votes in toto! Will not the Federalists meet, or rather defend their cause on the opposite ground? Surely they must, or they will discover a want of Policy, indicative of weakness & pregnant of mischief, which cannot be admitted. Wherein then would lye the difference between the present Gentlemen in Office, & Myself?
It would be a matter of sore regret to me, if I could believe that a serious thought was turned towards me as his successor; not only as it respects my ardent wishes to pass through the value of life in retirement undisturbed in the remnant of the days I have to sojourn here. Unless called upon to defend my country (which every citizen is bound to do), but on Public ground also; for although I have abundant cause to be thankful for the good health with which I am blessed, yet I am not insensible to my declination in other respects. It would be criminal therefore in me, although it should be the wish of my Countrymen, and I could be elected, to accept an Office under this conviction, which another would discharge with more ability, and this too at a time when I am thoroughly convinced I should not draw a single vote from the Antifederal side; and of course, should stand upon no stronger grounds than any other Federal character well support; & when I should become a mark for the shafts of envenomed malice, and the basest calumny to fire at; when I should be charged not only with irresolution, but with concealed ambition, which wants only an occasion to blaze out, and, in short, with dotage and imbecility.
All this I grant ought to be like dust in the balance, when put in competition with a great public good, when the accomplishment of it is apparent. But as no problem is better defined in my mind than that principle, not men, is now, and will be, the object of contention, and that I could not obtain a solitary vote from that Party; that any other respectable Federal character would receive the same suffrages that I should; that at my time of life, (verging towards three score & ten) I should expose myself without rendering any essential service to my Country, or answering the end contemplated; Prudence on my part must arrest any attempt of the well meant, but mistaken views of my friends, to introduce me again into the Chair of Government.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull
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