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Reading 1: Washington and the Early Republic
When the Revolutionary War ended, no man in the United States commanded more respect than George Washington. Americans celebrated his ability to win the war despite limited supplies and inexperienced men, and they admired his decision to refuse a salary and accept only reimbursements for his expenses. Their regard increased further when it became known that he had rejected a proposal by some of his soldiers to make him king of the new country. It was not only what Washington did but the way he did it: Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, described him as "polite with dignity, affable without familiarity, distant without haughtiness, grave without austerity, modest, wise, and good."
Washington retired to his plantation at Mount Vernon after the war, but he soon had to decide whether to return to public life. As it became clear that the Articles of Confederation had left the Federal Government too weak to levy taxes, regulate trade, or control its borders, men such as James Madison began calling for a convention that would strengthen its authority. Washington was reluctant to attend, as he had business affairs to manage at Mount Vernon. If he did not go to Philadelphia, however, he worried about his reputation and about the future of the country. He finally decided that, since "to see this nation happy...is so much the wish of my soul," he would serve as one of Virginia's representatives. The other delegates during the summer of 1787 chose him to preside over their deliberations, which ultimately produced the U.S. Constitution.
A key part of the Constitution was the development of the office of President. No one seemed more qualified to fill that position than Washington, and in 1789 began the first of his two terms. He used the nation's respect for him to develop respect for this new office, but he simultaneously tried to quiet fears that the President would become as powerful as the king the new country had fought against. He tried to create the kind of solid government he thought the nation needed, supporting a national bank, collecting taxes to pay for expenses, and strengthening the Army and Navy. Though many people wanted him to stay for a third term, in 1797 he again retired to Mount Vernon.
Washington died suddenly two years later. His death produced great sadness, and it restarted attempts to honor him. As early as 1783, the Continental Congress had resolved "That an equestrian statue of George Washington be erected at the place where the residence of Congress shall be established." The proposal called for engraving on the statue that explained that it had been erected "in honor of George Washington, the illustrious Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States of American during the war which vindicated and secured their liberty, sovereignty, and liberty." Though it was easy to understand why nothing happened while the government lacked a permanent home, there was little progress even after Congress had settled on Washington, D.C. as the new capital.
Ten days after President Washington's death, a Congressional committee recommended a different type of monument. John Marshall, a Representative from Virginia who would soon become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, proposed that a tomb be erected within the Capitol. But a lack of funds, disagreement over what type of memorial would best honor the country's first president, and the Washington family's reluctance to move his body prevented progress on any project. That inaction would prove typical in the coming years.Questions for Reading 1
1. Why did so many Americans revere George Washington?
2. Which proposed monument, the equestrian statue or the tomb, do you think would have been the more appropriate way to honor Washington? Why?
3. In general, do you think it is a good idea to build monuments to people who are still live? Why or why not?
Reading 1 was compiled from History of the Washington Monument and Washington National Monument Society, complied by Frederick L. Harvey, Secretary, Washington National Monument Society (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1903).