Letter from George Washington to Henry Knox (1787)

No study questions

My dear Sir,

The early attention which you were so obliging as to pay to my letter of the 8th Ulto. is highly pleasing and flattering. Were you to continue to give me information on the same point you would add to the favor, as I see, or think I see reasons for and against my attendance in Convention so near an equilibrium as will cause me to determine upon either with diffidence – One of the reasons against it is a fear that all the States will not be represented. As some of them appear to have been unwillingly drawn into the measure, their Delegates will come with such fetters as will embarrass and perhaps render nugatory the whole proceeding. In either of these circumstances – that is a partial representation – or cramped powers, I should not like to be a sharer in the business. If the Delegates assemble with such powers as will enable the Convention to probe the defects of the Constitution to the bottom, and point out radical cures – it would be an honorable employment; but not otherwise. These are matters you may possibly come at by means of your acquaintances among the Delegates in Congress who undoubtedly know what powers are given by their respective States. You also can inform me what is the prevailing opinion with respect to my attendance or non—attendance; and I would sincerely thank you for the confidential communication of it.

If I should attend the Convention, I will be in Philadelphia previous to the meeting of the Cincinnati where I shall hope and expect to meet you and some others of my particular friends the day before, in order that I may have a free and unreserved conference with you on the subject of it, for I assure you this is, in my estimation, a business of a delicate nature. That the design of the Institution was pure I have not a particle of doubt—that it may be so still is perhaps equally unquestionable. But, is not subsiding of the Jealousies respecting it to be ascribed to the modification which took place at the last General Meeting? Are not these rejected in toto by some of the State Societies, and partially acceded to by others? Has any State so far overcome its prejudices as to grant a Charter?

Will the modifications and alterations be insisted on in the next Meeting, or given up? If the first, will it not occasion warmth, and divisions? If the latter, and I should remain at the head of this order, in what light would my signature appear in recommendations, having different tendencies? In what light would the versatility appear to the Foreign members who perhaps are acting agreeably to the recommendations? These & other matters which may be agitated will, I fear, place me in a disagreeable situation if I should attend the meeting; and were among the causes which induced me to decline previously the honor of the presidency. Indeed my health is become very precarious. A rheumatic complaint which has followed me more than 6 months is frequently so bad that it is with difficulty I can raise my hand to my head or turn myself in bed. This, however smooth and agreeable other matters might be, might, almost in the moment of my departure, prevent my attendance on either occasion. I will not at present touch upon any other parts of your letter but will wish you to ponder on all these matters, and write to me as soon as you can. With sentiments of the sincerest friendship. I am your Most affect. G. Washington


Teacher Programs

Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.

Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.