Probably more than any of the other Founding Fathers, with the possible exception of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington spent a lot of time worrying about the future. In his speeches he was always referring to the ‘unborn millions’ and he gave a lot of thought to how might be perceived in a hundred years time.
However considering he was the undisputed father of his country he was also extremely pessimistic as to its future, a problem that got worse as he got older. The drafting of the Constitution that created the United States was a fairly difficult experience in itself and Washington commented that, ‘I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of the convention, and do therefore repent having any agency in the business’. Eventually it was finished and helped rescue America from the chaos of the Articles of Confederation. Washington doubted though whether their experiment in Republican government would succeed, confiding to a friend that, ‘I do not expect the Constitution to last for more than twenty years’.
He repeated variations of this prediction as time went by, largely based on two factors. One was the growth in party factions after he was President. Washington was undoubtedly a unique figure and united the country in a way that no one since has been able to emulate. However after his Presidency the Founding Fathers split into two groups, the Federalists led by Adams and Hamilton and the Democratic-Republicans led by Jefferson and Madison. These developments so alarmed Washington that he spent a good chunk of his Farewell Address warning the nation against ‘the malignant spirit of faction’. However the problems got worse rather than better and when a friend wrote to him asking if he would stand for President again he refused arguing that, ‘Let [the Jeffersonians] set up a broomstick, and call it a true son of Liberty…and it will command their votes in toto!’.
The second factor was slavery. Unlike most of the other Founding Fathers who had slaves Washington freed his upon his death (or if you’re being picky technically on the death of his wife). Partly this was because he had developed a genuine moral disgust at the institution of slavery but also because he was concerned about his reputation as a defender of liberty. He also worried a great deal about the unspoken deal that was struck at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 not to discuss the issue of slavery. If you read the Constitution today slaves are referred to as ‘other persons’.
While many of the other Founding Fathers were content to bury their heads in the sand, Washington was very aware that this issue would one day threaten the existence of the Republic. Even Jefferson, who didn’t free his slaves, wrote that, ‘I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever’. Of course in this, as in many things, Washington was right, as only sixty years after his death the Civil War almost tore the country apart.
Despite Washington’s predictions in his more gloomy moments that the Constitution would barely last twenty years, the United States has endured for over two hundred, and grown in a way he could not have imagined. The problem of factions is still very much with us, and if anything getting worse rather than better. That said, this is one prediction though where I’m extremely glad that Washington got it wrong.