Original Intent

When I hear some politician or pundit pander to the radical right with talk of no taxes and no government, I often think about George Washington’s “cover letter” to the US Constitution.

The letter was actually written by the Committee on Style of the Constitutional Convention, and unanimously approved by the entire delegate body (as far as we know, without debate).  As President of Federal Convention, George Washington signed the letter.  It was sent along with the newly approved Constitution to the Continental Congress (and its President, Arthur St. Clair), who then sent both along to the states for ratification.

Contrary to “New Federalists” and their assertions that real sovereignty lies with the people of the states, and that the Founders believed in a highly limited national government, Washington’s letter is a thoughtful statement on the need for a federal government.  He explains the consensus of the delegates that “Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest.”  He also describes a healthy government being one of consensus built on a recognition of the need “to be less rigid on points of inferior magnitude.”

Here’s the full text for your enjoyment:

Letter from the President of the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787, to the President of the Congress, Transmitting the Constitution.

Sir,

We have now the honor to submit to the consideration of the United States in Congress assembled, that Constitution which has appeared to us the most adviseable.

The friends of our country have long seen and desired, that the power of making war, peace, treaties, that of levying money and regulating commerce, and the correspondent executive and judicial authorities should be fully and effectually vested in the general government of the Union: But the impropriety of delegating such extensive trust to one body of men is evident—Hence results the necessity of a different organization.

It is obviously impracticable in the federal government of these states, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet to provide for the interest and safety of all: Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest. The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on situation and circumstance, as the object to be obtained. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved; and on the present occasion this difficulty was increased by a difference among the several states as to their situation, extent, habits, and particular interests.

In all our deliberations on this subject we kept steadily in our view, that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence. This important consideration, seriously and deeply impressed on our minds, led each state in the Convention to be less rigid on points of inferior magnitude, than might have been otherwise expected; and this the Constitution, which we now present, is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.

That it will meet the full and entire approbation of every state is not perhaps to be expected; but each will doubtless consider, that had her interest been alone consulted, the consequences might have been particularly disagreeable or injurious to others; that it is liable to as few exceptions as could reasonably have been expected, we hope and believe; that it may promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure her freedom and happiness, is our most ardent wish.

With great respect, We have the honor to be, Sir,

Your Excellency’s
most obedient and humble servants,

GEORGE WASHINGTON, President

By unanimous Order of the Convention.

His Excellency the PRESIDENT OF CONGRESS.

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