Washington and Jay on stronger government (1786)

john jay By the summer of 1786, the newly-formed American confederation was a dire economic state. The collapse of foreign trade, wartime debts, currency inflation and other difficulties plunged much of America into recession. The 13 state governments acted in their own interests while the national Congress, its powers limited by the Articles of Confederation, could do little in response. Many began to crave a stronger national government with some coercive power over the States. These views are found in this exchange of letters between two prominent Founding Fathers: John Jay and George Washington. Writing in June 1786, Jay (pictured) expressed concern that the ongoing crisis and lack of government may drive “the better kind of people” toward another revolution. In response, Washington noted that “even respectable characters speak of a monarchical form of government without horror”:

June 27th 1786

Dear Sir,

…On such occasions, I think it better fairly to confess and correct errors than attempt to deceive ourselves and others by fallacious, though plausible excuses. To oppose popular prejudices, to censure proceedings and expose the improprieties of the States is an unpleasant task but it must be done.

Our affairs seem to lead to some crisis, some revolution – something that I cannot foresee… I am uneasy and apprehensive, mores than during the war. Then we had a fixed object, and though the means and time of obtaining it were often problematical, I did firmly believe we should ultimately succeed because I was convinced that justice was with us.

The case is now altered: we are going and doing wrong, and therefore I look forward to evils and calamities but without being able to guess at the instrument, nature or measure of them…

There doubtless is much reason to think that we are woefully and, in many instances, wickedly misled. Private rage for property suppresses public considerations; personal rather than national interests have become the great objects of attention… The mass of men are neither wise nor good and virtue, like the other resources of a country, can only be drawn to a point and exerted by strong circumstances ably managed, or a strong government ably administered…

What I most fear is that the better kind of people, by which I mean the people who are orderly and industrious, will be led by the insecurity of property, the loss of confidence in their rulers and the want of public faith and rectitude, to consider the charms of liberty as imaginary and delusive. A state of fluctuation and uncertainty must disgust and alarm such men and prepare their minds for almost any change that may promise them quiet and security…

Your obedient and humble servant,
John Jay

Mount Vernon
August 1st 1786

Dear Sir,

I have to thank you very sincerely for your interesting letter… Your sentiments that our affairs are drawing rapidly to a crisis accord with my own. What the event will be is also beyond reach of my foresight.

We have errors to correct. We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our Confederation. Experience has taught us that men will not adopt and carry into execution measures calculated for their own good, without the intervention of a coercive power. I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union…

To be fearful of investing Congress, constituted as that body is, with ample authorities for national purposes appears to me the very climax of popular absurdity and madness… We must take human nature as we find it. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals… It is much to be feared, as you observe, that the better kind of people, being disgusted with the circumstances, will have their minds prepared for any revolution whatever…

What astonishing changes a few years are capable of producing. I am told that even respectable characters speak of a monarchical form of government without horror. From thinking proceeds speaking, thence to acting is often but a single step…

With sentiments of sincere esteem and friend, I am, dear sir, etc.
George Washington