WASHINGTON, George. Autograph letter signed ("G:o Washington") to Bushrod Washington, Mount Vernon, 30 September 1786. 4 pages, bifolium, creases discreetly reinforced.
WASHINGTON WARNS AGAINST THE DANGERS OF LOCAL, SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS: "IT APPEARS MUCH WISER AND MORE POLITIC, TO CHOOSE ABLE AND HONEST REPRESENTATIVES"
Washington--Shays's Rebellion fresh in his mind--makes a strong defense of elected, representative government against the idea of a private, special interest group--the "Patriotic Society"--to which his nephew belongs. Like most threats to democracy, Bushrod's Patriotic Society clothed itself in high-minded language. "The object of the institution," he told his uncle in a 27 September letter, "is to inquire into the state of public affairs; to consider in what the true happiness of the people consists...to inquire into the conduct of those, who represent us, and to give them our sentiments..."
Washington isn't buying it. "Generally speaking," he writes here on 30 September, "I have seen as much evil as good result from such Societies as you describe the Constitution of yours to be; they are a kind of imperium in imperio [government within the government], and as often clog as facilitate public measures... To me it appears much wiser and more politic, to choose able and honest representatives, and leave them in all national questions to determine from the evidence of reason, and the facts which shall be adduced, when internal and external information is given to them in a collective state. What certainty is there that Societies in a corner or remote part of a State can possess that knowledge which is necessary for them to decide on many important questions which may come before an Assembly?...May not a few members of this society (more sagacious and designing than the rest) direct the measures of it to private views of their own?"
A similar group appeared in Massachusetts, Washington points out. "What has been the consequence? Why they have declared the Senate useless; many other parts of the Constitution unnecessary; salaries of public officers burthensome &c." Then, alluding to the furor over Shays's Rebellion, he points out that this extra-legislative gang declared the Court of Justice oppressive, then resorted to violence to thwarts the foreclosure of farms. "You may say no such matters are in contemplation by your Society: granted: a snow-ball gathers by rolling; possibly a line may be drawn between occasional meetings for special purposes, and a standing Society to direct with local views and partial information the affairs of the Nation, which cannot be well understood but by a large and comparative view of circumstances..."
In response to this stern warning, Bushrod explained that he and his friends "thought that an appearance of corruption was discoverable in the mass of the people, or, what is as bad, a total insensibility to their public interest." The Society would therefore educate the people to their true interests. "It is true," Bushrod said, "that a few designing men might creep into these societies; but I should hope that a majority would be virtuous." A powerful expression of Washington's faith in the people to govern themselves without the tutelage of their "virtuous" betters. It was an argument he continued with his nephew in the letter offered in the next lot. Published in Fitzpatrick 29:21-24.