Lessons from Washington


Remarks by Senator Rob Garagiola

February 24, 2003


It is a great privilege and honor for me to stand before you tonight in this historic chamber.  And it is a great honor to serve as a Maryland state Senator.  I am in awe of the surroundings and the history that has preceded me.

Washington, himself, stood here – 220 years ago in 1783 – to resign his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.  He was here before Congress, which was temporarily meeting in Annapolis, thinking that his resignation would be the "last solemn act" of his "official life."   Washington was retiring “from the great theatre of action,” leaving public life, and heading back to his beloved Mount Vernon.


We are here to celebrate Washington’s 271st Birthday, which was this past Saturday, and to learn from his experiences.  0f course, we all know that Washington led the Continental Army to victory at Yorktown that concluded the fight for our nation’s independence.  Against long odds, he kept a rag-tag army together in a fight against the highly trained British soldiers.  As a General, he was a man of the troops and they revered him.  His contributions to this country were already great!


After the Revolutionary War, Washington expected a life of farming, out of the public spotlight.  However, three years after resigning his commission in this Chamber, Washington was, again, called on to serve this young nation.  This time, he was asked to preside over the Constitutional Convention, which met to modify the constitution and strengthen the union.  Our nation, up to that point, was governed under the Articles of Confederation – a loose structure that made it very difficult to act as a “United” states and carry on the business of the federal government.  As we know, a new form of government was created under Washington’s leadership – a government that has endured through a Civil War, economic and social upheaval, and other tests to our country’s existence.


As president of the convention, he rarely contributed to the public debate on the creation of our new Government.  Instead, Washington contributed through his presence.  Bringing the divergent views of the various states together, he recognized the need for compromise.  Washington’s method was simple and here it is:


In all matters of great national moment, the only true line of conduct …is dispassionately to compare the advantages and disadvantages of the measure proposed, and decide from the balance. 


As we consider the decisions before us over the second half of the 2003 session, the application of this method may serve us well today.  With our divergent perspectives and viewpoints, coming from the eastern shore, Baltimore, the mountains of western Maryland, the Washington suburbs, and southern Maryland, I marvel at how – in 90 days – we are able to conduct the business of the state.


With not much more time – over a period of 115 days – the work of the Constitutional Convention was completed.  Historian James Thomas Flexner wrote that it “was the gradual merging during a long summer of strangers into a coherent cultural group which made possible the eventual compromise that was to be the Constitution.”  I see us here during the cold and snowy winter doing the same on behalf of the citizens of Maryland.


After the convention, Washington headed back home to Mount Vernon, again withdrawing from public life.  Nearly a year later, the ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified the Constitution and a new Government was formed.


Washington’s life is amazing.  He commanded soldiers during the Revolution that gave birth to a nation and presided over the Constitutional Convention that led to a new government.  But, as we know, there is more.  Two years after the Convention, in 1789, Washington would reluctantly become our nation’s first President.  He was charged with awesome responsibility of leading the young nation and establishing the role of the executive branch of government.  In this role, he faced many economic challenges and would have to address the debt of the country and of the states. 


Shortly after being notified of his unanimous election as President of the United States in mid-April 1789, Washington wrote in his diary:


I bade [farewell] to Mount Vernon, to private life… [and] set out for New York…with the best disposition to render service to my country in obedience to its calls, but with less hope of answering its expectations.


Washington frequently downplayed his own abilities, saying he would seek to do as much as he could accomplish “by an honest zeal.”  Within days, he left for New York City, then our nation’s capital, with a brief stop in Baltimore for dinner and an endless succession of toasts and speeches.  On April 30, 1789, Washington took the oath of office along with Vice President John Adams.


In his inaugural address, Washington suggested to Congress that it “carefully avoid every alteration [to the Constitution] which might endanger the benefits of an united and effective government.”


He knew that there was widespread interest to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, enumerating the inalienable rights of individual citizens, and this he supported.  However, he was concerned that Congress might also seek to strip out provisions that gave Congress the “power to lay and collect taxes … and excises to pay the debts.” 


The taxing provisions of the Constitution had been hotly debated during the Constitutional Convention.  To Washington, the experience under the former Articles of Confederation of merely asking the States for money without enforcement had been an abysmal failure when trying to pay war debts and other obligations.  He was acutely aware that the new government faced a dire shortage of funds and felt that the rising tide of complaints about new taxes was misplaced.  In addition to an enormous public debt largely caused by the Revolution, roads and canals needed to be built and maintained to foster commerce and economic growth, and special attention needed to be paid to education if the union was to remain vital and strong. 


Indeed, Maryland had already recognized the need for new taxes, not only to pay off the war debt, but also to pay for new public works projects or “internal improvements.”  In 1781, Maryland adopted comprehensive tax reform, and initiated high taxes on real and personal property.  So high were the taxes that Charles Carroll, one of our signers of the Declaration of Independence, warned that they were unlike anything ever experienced under the British.  Yet, he advised that they ought to be paid for the good of the country.  These taxes were used, in part, to purchase shares in Washington’s beloved Canal project, which was intended to link the communities in the Ohio Valley with those along the Chesapeake, and to foster economic prosperity. 


It was not easy to raise money to fund the new government.  Washington stood firmly for requiring the public to pay for the services and privileges they expected from government.  He also believed, that at times, the only recourse to raising the necessary funds for good works was through games of chance, most specifically, lotteries.  He recalled, as General of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, even using a lottery to prevent discord among his officers over variations in color and quality of uniforms delivered to his troops.  This did not mean that Washington condoned gambling and speculation without careful restraint and regulation. To Washington, everything was a matter of degree and moderation.


During the First Session of Congress in 1789, a tax on imports was enacted with Washington’s signature.  Congress also requested that the new Administration submit to the next session a plan for disposing of the national debt.


A year later, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton submitted a plan to pay down the national debt and to assume the war debt of the individual states.  It called for renegotiating overseas loans at lower interest rates, increasing tariffs on some items, and imposing an excise tax on spirits.  However, Hamilton had difficulty in convincing Congress of the need to enact his plan.     


At the same time, there was a great debate on where the permanent capital should be located.  Hamilton, and others aligned with business and manufacturing interests, preferred New York City or Philadelphia.  Agrarians who mistrusted the “moneymen” of the financial centers, such as Washington’s Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, sought to move the capital south.


In the end, Jefferson helped Hamilton by lending support to Hamilton’s financial proposals, with the exception of the alcohol tax.  Hamilton, in turn, supported Jefferson’s efforts to locate the seat of government on the Potomac River.  Washington was pleased that both of these issues were resolved and that his Cabinet members were able to set their differences aside for the common good and "general welfare of this country." 


However, a year later, Hamilton asked again for an alcohol tax and, in addition, sought to charter a national bank.  This time, Jefferson and Hamilton locked horns over whether the Constitution granted authority to establish such a bank.  Washington, believing in a strong national government, supported both of Hamilton’s efforts.  In February 1791, Washington signed the bill creating the First National Bank of the United States.  A month later, Washington signed the first tax on alcohol. 


The divisions between Jefferson and Hamilton, on these and other issues, ultimately led to the creation of the political party system.  Washington did not approve of political factions and the unproductive bickering that came with them.  He summed up his efforts to reach consensus with Congress and within his cabinet in a letter he wrote to Jefferson in October 1792, in which he attempted to heal Jefferson's breach with Hamilton.  Washington's advice in 1792 is both clear and sensible, perhaps even a beacon for us all to follow in similarly troubled times when we should not permit history to repeat itself:  

... I regret, deeply regret, [wrote Washington,] the difference in opinions which have arisen, and divided you … and wish, devoutly, there could be an accommodation of them by mutual yieldings.


Washington pleaded with Jefferson and Hamilton to work together, arguing that the problems confronting the nation were simply too great to allow for divisive and unproductive arguments.  He urged them to hammer out their differences in compromise and joint action.  Washington further wrote:


A Measure of this sort would produce harmony, and consequent good in our public Councils; the contrary will, inevitably, introduce confusion, and serious mischief; and for what? because mankind cannot think alike, but would adopt different means to attain the same end…  I believe the views of both of you are pure, and well meant… should either of you be so tenacious of your opinions as to make no allowances for those of the other?


If Washington's advice and example was one of strong leadership, based upon compromise and diligent working out of differences together with deliberate speed, it was also one of courtesy and concern.   Today, as we face difficult budget and economic decisions, we are faced with challenges not unlike those confronting Washington.  We need to make hard choices that are based upon meaningful compromise and cooperative action. 


On December 14, 1799, Washington died.  President Adams said of Washington after his death:  “His example is now complete, and it will teach wisdom and virtue to magistrates, citizens, and men, not only in the present age but in future generations as long as our history shall be read.” 


Thank you.

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