George Washington: It Was the Divine “Providence” of God that Guided the Americans Through the Revolution, Victory, and the Adoption of the Newly Adopted Constitution and He Prays that the Same Providence Will Continue to Sustain Them Now That That Constitution Is Under Attack

Written a week after he informed Alexander Hamilton that he would likely accept calls to assume the Presidency

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“That Providence which has hitherto smiled on the honest endeavors of the well meaning part of the People of this Country will not, I trust, withdraw its support from them at this crisis.”

We are not aware of any other letter of Washington casting divine influence on the passage of...

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George Washington: It Was the Divine “Providence” of God that Guided the Americans Through the Revolution, Victory, and the Adoption of the Newly Adopted Constitution and He Prays that the Same Providence Will Continue to Sustain Them Now That That Constitution Is Under Attack

Written a week after he informed Alexander Hamilton that he would likely accept calls to assume the Presidency

“That Providence which has hitherto smiled on the honest endeavors of the well meaning part of the People of this Country will not, I trust, withdraw its support from them at this crisis.”

We are not aware of any other letter of Washington casting divine influence on the passage of the Constitution; This letter comes from a private collection and was acquired generations ago from Paul Richards

Our first letter of Washington directly relating to the passage of the U.S. Constitution in all our decades in this field

Also unquestionably the foremost letter on agriculture he wrote, addressed to the founder and the first president of the Philadelphia Agricultural Society

It shows him in the forefront of the science of agriculture, referencing crop rotation, his methods, and detailed observations

The longest Washington ALS we have ever carried, and – very uncommonly – with the original free frank still attached to the letter

The success of the American Revolution was a long-shot, as an unorganized group of farmers took on the greatest military power of the day. Its leader, George Washington, had been a minor officer in the British Army over a decade earlier, yet he was the best the Americans had, and though a very wealthy landowner with everything to lose, he agreed to lead the revolt. Victories were few and far between for the Americans, and at times the army under his command was reduced to a few thousand dedicated but ill-armed, ill-fed and ill-housed men. There were a number of moments during the Revolutionary War when it actually seemed over except for British mopping up operations. It can confidently be said that it was only the determination of Washington that held the American cause and army together. He fought on, refusing to consider the possibility of defeat, even when it seemed inevitable if not imminent. That the war ended victoriously was an astonishing achievement for Washington. Afterwards, he had every opportunity to become a king or dictator, but he refused. It’s not every person who can walk away from power this way, and it shows the sterling character of the man.

The basis of the post-Revolutionary War United States government was the Articles of Confederation. This document reflected the states’ wariness of vesting too much power in a central governing authority, and guaranteed the states their “sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” There was no executive or judicial branches of government, just a Congress responsible for conducting foreign affairs and national defense. The Articles denied Congress the power to collect taxes, regulate interstate commerce, enforce laws or take any action that all of the states had not approved. This resulted in a weak and ineffectual government, one which was failing and threatening to drag the country down with it.

Many of the nation’s leading statesmen felt that the Articles needed to be revised. Washington was one such proponent, arguing “we have errors to correct.” So in September 1786, five states sent delegates to the Annapolis Convention, the first coordinated meeting to deal with these issues. At its close, the delegates issued a report to the thirteen state legislatures and Congress, proposing that the states appoint commissioners to meet at Philadelphia in May 1787, for the explicit purpose of framing measures to strengthen the Articles, to “render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union…”

Virginia had been the leader among the American colonies in calling for independence in 1776, and now determined to be the leader among states in calling for a constitutional convention. On December 1, 1786, its legislature accepted the proposal of the Annapolis Convention and passed an act for “appointing deputies from this Commonwealth to a Convention proposed to be held in the City of Philadelphia in May next for the purpose of revising the federal Constitution.” The deputies Virginia would appoint under this act were empowered to meet with those “authorized by other States to assemble in Convention… and to join with them in devising and discussing all such Alterations and farther Provisions as may be necessary.” Ultimately, every state except Rhode Island would send delegates.

The Constitutional Convention convened on May 25, 1787, in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Presiding as the Convention’s president was Washington, who sat in the famous rising sun chair that can still be seen today. It soon became clear that amending the Articles of Confederation would not solve the country’s problems, and a bold decision was taken to craft a complete replacement. After debating all summer, the delegates reached an agreement, deciding upon a stronger, more centralized form of government, one with executive, legislative, and judicial branches. New powers were granted to all these branches, including the ability to regulate interstate commerce and the currency, and to provide for the national defense. A compromise was reached on a method to set up the Congress with two branches, with representation in the House of Representatives being based on population, while each state would be guaranteed an equal two members in the Senate. The new Constitution passed the convention, and following a signing ceremony on September 17, 1787, most of the delegates repaired to the City Tavern where, according to Washington, they “dined together and took cordial leave of each other.”

On September 28, Congress directed the state legislatures to call ratification conventions in each state. Article VII stipulated that nine states had to ratify the Constitution for it to go into effect. Ratification was not a foregone conclusion. Able, articulate men used newspapers, pamphlets, and public meetings to debate ratification of the Constitution. Those known as anti-Federalists opposed the Constitution for a variety of reasons. Some continued to argue that the delegates in Philadelphia had exceeded their congressional authority by replacing the Articles of Confederation with an illegal new document. Others complained that the delegates in Philadelphia represented only the well-born few and consequently had crafted a document that served their special interests. Another frequent objection was that the Constitution gave too much power to the central government at the expense of the states and that a representative government could not manage a republic this large. The most serious criticism was that the Constitutional Convention had failed to adopt a bill of rights proposed by George Mason. In New York, Governor George Clinton expressed these anti-Federalist concerns in several published newspaper essays under the pen name Cato, while Patrick Henry and James Monroe led the opposition in Virginia. Those who favored ratification, the Federalists, fought back, convinced that the new government being established would work, and that rejection of the Constitution would result in anarchy and civil strife. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay responded to Clinton under the pen name Publius. Beginning in October 1787, these three penned 85 essays for New York newspapers and later collected them into 2 volumes entitled “The Federalist Papers”, which analyzed the Constitution, detailed the thinking of the framers, and responded to the critics. They successfully countered most criticism.

Five state conventions voted to approve the Constitution almost immediately (December 1787 to January 1788), and in most of them the vote was unanimous (Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia) or lopsided (Connecticut). Pennsylvania politics was divided roughly two to one between those who favored the Constitution and those who did not. So it is no surprise that in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention in December 1787, there was a 46-23 divide among the elected delegates. The Pennsylvania anti-Federalists felt that the ratification had been railroaded and were bitter about the process. But the well-organized Federalists began the national contest in strong shape as they had rapidly secured five of the nine states needed to make the Constitution law. The first real test of the Constitution in an influential state with both sides prepared for the contest came in Massachusetts in January 1788. Here influential older Patriots like Governor John Hancock and Sam Adams led the anti-Federalists. Further, the rural western part of the state, where Shays’ Rebellion had occurred the previous year, was an anti-Federalist stronghold. But Hancock changed sides and the Constitution was ratified in a very close vote. Here as in Pennsylvania, opponents were not reconciled to the result. Maryland and South Carolina ratified, and when, on June 21, 1788, New Hampshire ratified, the Constitution became legal. There would be a new U.S. government.

But the legitimacy and effectiveness of the new government depended on approval by the important populous states of Virginia and New York, both of which lagged behind. Virginia approved the Constitution in an especially close vote (89-79), hardly a ringing endorsement despite Washington and James Madison having been leaders at the Constitutional Convention. Perhaps no state was as deeply divided as New York, where the nationalist-urban artisan alliance could strongly carry New York City and the surrounding region, while more rural upstate areas were strongly anti-Federalist. The opponents of the Constitution had a strong majority when the convention began and set a tough challenge for Alexander Hamilton, the leading New York Federalist. Hamilton managed a brilliant campaign that narrowly won the issue (30-27) by combining threat and accommodation. This was July 26, 1788; the new government would go into effect as legitimate. North Carolina and Rhode Island would ratify later.

Pennsylvania’s anti-Federalists presented not merely an early challenge to the ratification of the Constitution, but an ongoing one. The Pennsylvania minority in the legislature had requested that their objections be placed on the record at the time of the vote. This minority bought newspaper space and sent their objections out all over the nation. Their report, written on December 18, 1787, was widely circulated across the country. While it did nothing to help the cause during the ratification campaign, the Pennsylvania anti-Federalists continued to agitate, making it clear they were preparing for the real struggle to de-legitimize the document they felt lay ahead. By July 1788, though the Constitution had been ratified by eleven states, in Pennsylvania societies, committees and associations in the western counties were as active as ever, and they made a call for a state convention at Harrisburg to make demands on the new Federal government. One was called, and on September 3, 1788, 33 delegates, representing almost every county of the state, were present at the convention. Before they adjourned on September 6 resolutions were adopted and an address prepared, urging the legislature to apply to Congress for a revision and amendment of the Constitution by a new federal convention that would presumably undo the damage and create a document more to their liking.

This “second convention” movement was a real threat. Several states were attempting to organize them. Only Pennsylvania succeeded. They were also strong in Virginia and Massachusetts. Nothing ever came of them but it was not a given and Pennsylvania’s early September meeting gave Washington reason to be concerned.

Washington received word that this “second Pennsylvania convention” was in session and well knew its purposes. Though scientific agriculture was on his mind as he wrote Richard Peters, a founder and the first president of the Philadelphia Agricultural Society, so was the potentially harmful revolt in Pennsylvania against the new Constitution and government that would soon meet under it.

“It would seem from the public Gazettes that the Minority in your State are preparing for another attack of the – now – adopted Government; how formidable it may be; I know not. But that Providence which has hitherto smiled on the honest endeavors of the well meaning part of the People of this Country will not, I trust, withdraw its support from them at this crisis.

Autograph letter signed, 3 pages, Mount Vernon, September 7, 1788, to Peters, Esquire, Belmont – near Philadelphia, with integral address leaf and the bold free frank still present. At the time, Peters was the Speaker of the PA lower house. In it Washington manifests his interest in scientific agriculture, describes the various successes he has had with crop rotation and greater yields, and his own experiments in plant husbandry. He also makes a moving statement of confidence in the new Constitution, and his belief that divine Providence had been with the Americans, and him, all along, through the Revolution and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and would not desert them in this time of testing.

“Occasional absences from home – and occurrences – unimportant to any except myself – added to the want of matter wherewith to trouble you – are the reasons for my not having acknowledged the receipt of your favor of the 27th of June at an earlier period. I was sorry to hear from the above letter that the crops of wheat in the lower parts of your state were indifferent. The cause assigned for it, aided by the uncommonly wet spring, produced the same effect with us. Is it to the difference of climate – our continental situation – that added changes in the temperature of the air – or to the different modes of cultivating the land, that the wheat in this country, more than in England, is so apt to be injured by the winter? Has no remedy been suggested yet to the Agricultural Society of Philadelphia for preventing the evils which result from the heaving of the ground, by which the roots of the wheat are exposed to, and perish after frost? Against this, and the Hessian-fly [a significant pest of cereal crops], if it has advanced so near you, it is time, indeed to arm yourselves. For the latter, it is said, spreads desolation where ever he goes. But it is not the Yellow bearded wheat an antidote against the venom of these destructive insects? Colonel Morgan and others have informed us that it is. That fact, ought, in my opinion, to be ascertained by repeated experiments; because, if true, the remedy is at hand – is easy – and can be applied with little additional expense; and, perhaps, no diminution in the crops.

“The Buck Wheat which I sowed in the Spring (or in the early part of Summer) for manure, was, I apprehend, put in too late, and stood too long before it was plowed in; for I have been amazingly plagued with it. Perhaps the extreme wetness of the season may have contributed as much, or more than either, to my difficulties. Buck Wheat, in many places yielded to a super advance of weeds (distinguished with us by the name of Carrot and Hog Weeds) and in low places to a coarse grass which subdued everything else. None of these, more than the Buck Wheat could I plow in till after Harvest; before which, all of them has passed the Meridian of their bloom, and that succulent state which must have fitted them both for speedy putrefaction and fermentation. They were not buried so well at the first plowing as they ought and now, that I am crossing the former plowing I find it next to impossible to make tolerable work; or to go ten steps together before the plow is choked. How this might have been in a season not more that usually wet, I will not undertake to decide; but the inference I am inclined to draw from the whole, is, that the Buck Wheat should be sown in April – plowed in before it begins to seed; in June the ground when this takes place being again sown. The expense of which, in my opinion, will be amply compensated by the succulency of the plant – seasonable plowings in – and superior preparation. The plants having time to rot, and ameliorate the soil.

“The harrows which you were so obliging as to provide for me came safe; but my fields being in a manner always under water, I could make no use of them. I am not less pleased with them, however, on that account, for I think them well calculated for the cultivation of corn in my mode, with potatoes and carrots intermixed. Of the advantages of which husbandry I am more and more convinced as I advance in my experiments, having tried this mixture with success in very dry – very wet- and in ordinary seasons. The greatest difficulty lies in judiciously working the corn, as the plows can never cross their last furrow, and the hoe harrow after a good plowing before the ground gets foul or hard – will I conceive effectively do this.

“I do not know what cause to attribute it, but my plants of scarcity have not answered (fully) my expectations – probably from improper management; for the leaves never having never grown to the size I have been taught to expect, have not, I presume, been often enough pulled. I shall thank you, however, for a little seed for next year. – And beg leave to remind you of the potato cleaner. The sooner it comes to me now the better. My cabbages between the corn rows have failed entirely. They will not do in this mode of cultivation – and for that reason I am disposed to discard them altogether. Potatoes and carrots will, I am certain, succeed in it, and are a very good substitute for this vegetable. Peas also I am afraid will not be a beneficial one in my rotation system. One of two things I have had demonstrative proof of this season, namely that peas exhaust, as Irish potatoes enrich the soil considerably. I mean that when the first are sown broad – and carried off the ground. A field which was in these articles last year was sown with oats & clover this year. The difference in quality of them, though there was no perceivable in the quality of the soil previous to the preceding crops, was so apparent as to be discovered almost as far as the field could be seen. – Those on the potatoes ground being so much the most luxuriant.

“It would seem from the public Gazettes that the Minority in your State are preparing for another attack of the – now – adopted Government; how formidable it may be; I know not. But that Providence which has hitherto smiled on the honest endeavors of the well meaning part of the People of this Country will not, I trust, withdraw its support from them at this crisis.

“With best respects to Mrs. Peters & yourself, in which Mrs. Washington joins me, I am, dear Sir, your most overt. Humble servant. G. Washington.”

Mount Vernon notes that Washington’s use of the term “Providence” to mean “Divine Providence”, and the organizations states thusly his theological beliefs: “It is clear that he believed in a Creator God of some manner, and seemingly one that was also active in the universe. This God had three main traits; he was wise, inscrutable, and irresistible. Washington referred to this God by many names, but most often by the name of ‘Providence.’”

Washington would be sworn in as President eight months later on April 30, 1789. And of course, his observations and predictions about the Constitution and new government proved correct. As for Peters, in addition to being a practical farmer, he served in the Pennsylvania General Assembly from 1787 to 1790. After the ratification of Pennsylvania’s own constitution, Peters was made Speaker of the Pennsylvania Senate in 1791. The following year President George Washington nominated Peters to a seat on the United States District Court for the District of Pennsylvania where Peters served until his death in 1828.

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