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By Jay Cost

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Remembering President Washington

Today is President's Day, which is also the day we celebrate the birth of George Washington. It's appropriate, on this day, to make note of the important contributions he made to founding this great nation.

His military heroism and skill is well known, so also is his establishing many beneficial precedents that survive to this day. What is less commented upon, however, is Washington's strong nationalism, and his work to bring about the United States as it is known today.

Washington had experienced firsthand the ineptness of confederated government during the American Revolution, most notably in its inability to pay soldiers in a regular and fair way. After the war, he retired to Mount Vernon, but stayed interested in politics. He was greatly concerned about the nation's disarray. The Confederation was unable to attend to basic governmental matters - and it appeared to Washington that things were spiraling out of control. In 1785, he wrote the following to James Warren, former Paymaster General of the Continental Army:

Illiberality, Jealousy, and local policy mix too much in all our public councils for the good government of the Union. In a word, the confederation appears to me to be little more than a shadow without the substance; and Congress a nugatory body, their ordinances being little attended to...

That we have it in our power to become one of the most respectable Nations upon Earth, admits, in my humble opinion, of no doubt; if we would but pursue a wise, just, and liberal policy towards one another, and would keep good faith with the rest of the World: that our resources are ample and encreasing, none can deny; but while they are grudgingly applyed, or not applyed at all, we give a vital stab to public faith, and shall sink, in the eyes of Europe, into contempt.

Not content to sit on the sidelines, Washington was one of the key nationalists who worked behind the scenes - with men like John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison - to bring about the Constitutional Convention. In fact, one of the first preparatory meetings in advance of the Convention was held at Washington's estate in 1785. The so-called Mount Vernon Conference was a good first step in fostering good interstate relations independent of the measly Articles of Confederation. Because of its success, nationalists like James Madison sought to extend this basic idea, ultimately resulting in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia two years later.

Washington did more than this, though. He lent his nationwide credibility to the Convention by agreeing to be its President. This was an extraordinary gesture. It's easy for us to think nowadays that the Constitutional debate was fought over abstract principles and the highest notions of the public good - but, like everything else in America, politics mattered a great deal. That George Washington was willing to lend his good name to the Convention was a truly selfless act of statesmanship. His signature on the final document - the first of 39 - might very well have made the difference in the Virginia ratifying convention, where the Constitution passed by a hair's breadth. Surely, if Washington had refused to support the Constitution, it would have failed.

This country has had many heroic war time leaders, and she has almost always honored them with her never-ending gratitude, respect, and trust. The fact that George Washington would use that this adoration not to his own benefit, but to help bind the thirteen diverse states into a single Union testifies to the greatness of the nation's First President. Through the Revolutionary War, the tumultuous years of the Confederation, and the early years of the Republic - George Washington is rightly remembered as the father of his country.

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-Jay Cost