The American Revolution had just come to an end. George Washington, 51 years old and then the commander in chief of the Continental Army, had resigned his duties and wanted nothing more than to retire to his estate at Mount Vernon and study his crops.
Before he stepped back, though, he had some hard-earned wisdom he felt compelled to share with the country. So in the summer of 1783, he drafted his “Circular Letter to the States,” in which he detailed what he believed it would take for this American experiment to succeed. In many ways, it was a precursor to his famed Farewell Address 13 years later, a prescient warning to the country of the most likely political pitfalls.
Not that he was angling for the job of leading the transitional new nation. After seven years in the battlefield, Washington wanted nothing more than a respite from public service. “Notwithstanding my advanced season of life,” he wrote in a letter to Colonel Henry Lee, “my increasing fondness for agricultural amusements, and my growing love of retirement, augment and confirm my decided predilection for the character of a private citizen.”
'With our fate will the destiny of unborn millions be involved'
But Washington knew that America had arrived at a momentous crossroads—a place of both great promise and great peril. While the colonists had won the Revolution, a formal peace treaty had not yet been signed with Great Britain. The state governors were wary of handing over any power to Congress, and a wartime army had the daunting task of transitioning back to civilian life. Not to mention, the war had saddled the fledgling nation with massive debt.
With those hardships in mind, General Washington drafted his “Circular Letter,” in which he detailed what he believed it would take for this American experiment to succeed. By June 21, 1783, the letter had been sent to all state governors, but Washington was speaking directly to the people of America through his words.
“It appears to me there is an option still left to the United States of America. That it is in their choice and depends upon their conduct, whether they will be respectable and prosperous, or contemptible and Miserable as a Nation.”
Washington appeared to believe that winning the war would be meaningless if the people of America did not do something with their newly achieved freedom. How Americans chose to act in this moment, he felt, would reverberate for future generations: “For with our fate will the destiny of unborn millions be involved.”
Washington’s four essentials for America
In his letter Washington establishes “four things, which...are essential to the existence, of the United States as an independent Power”—four things he felt would help guide America forward. They included: To have the country be unified “under one federal head.” For Americans to keep “a sacred regard to public justice.” To create a “proper peace establishment,” which at the time meant a peacetime military apparatus. And for Americans to focus on what unites them, which Washington felt “will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies and, in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community.”
These guiding principles weren't fully realized in Washington’s time. But he had hoped to impart some wisdom that would put this American experiment on the right path. “Liberty,” Washington wrote in his letter, “is the basis.”
A farewell to public life that would not stick
There were some who saw this letter as an overreach of Washington's position as a military leader, a point he himself acknowledged: “I am aware, however, that those who differ from me in political sentiment, may perhaps remark, I am stepping out of the proper line of my duty.” Yet Washington firmly believed that “silence in me would be a crime.”
To remind Americans of the wisdom of his words, Washington’s “Circular Letter” would be reprinted in newspapers four years later, on the eve of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
He had originally signed off the letter by stating “I bid a last farewell to the cares of Office, and all the imployments of public life,” happy to be returning home from war. But his retirement would not stick.
On April 14th, 1789, a week after being unanimously elected president by Congress, Washington received the election results, personally delivered to Mount Vernon by Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress. In his reply, Washington stated: “Whatever may have been my private feelings and sentiments, I believe I cannot give a greater evidence of my sensibility for the honor they have done me, than by accepting the appointment.”