Why Was Washington a Nationalist?

About a week ago, Michael Boldin at The Tenth Amendment Center asked me to explain why George Washington was a nationalist.

Good question. After all, Washington hailed from Virginia, and to many men from the Old Dominion, Virginia was a fine enough country without another central government telling it what to do.

But Washington wasn’t alone. John Marshall was a nationalist, so was Robert E. Lee’s father, “Light Horse” Harry Lee.

James Madison really wanted a national government when he arrived in Philadelphia in 1787, and even Patrick Henry dabbled with nationalism after the Constitution was ratified.


Simple answer, they feared a potential “French Revolution’ in America and saw the Jeffersonians as little more than American Jacobins bent on lopping off some heads.

Washington had other concerns. He understood the diversity of the United States and worried that without some type of national authority, it would go flying into separate pieces to be picked off by foreign powers.

That is the same argument Edmund Randolph made in the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788, the same Edmund Randolph who refused to sign the Constitution in Philadelphia in September 1787.

To Randolph and Washington, the prospect of disunion led them to support a stronger central government–even a national one.

Of course, Randolph eventually opposed Hamilton’s push to invade Pennsylvania during the “Whiskey Rebellion,” and even Washington worried about the perception of unconstitutional federal power. But that ever present fear of an American Robespierre forced some of Virginia’s finest men (that doesn’t include John Marshall) to support a national government.

Marshall was just a slob who wanted to expand his own power.

The evidence is clearly in Washington’s Farewell Address. He worries about factions and sectionalism, i.e. real threats to Union, and encourages his fellow citizens to remember the common cause of liberty.

To Virginian’s like John Taylor of Caroline, this was all just bunk. You couldn’t have unity if that unity was directed by sectional partisans like Oliver Ellsworth or Fisher Ames.

Or John Marshall. Or Joseph Story.

The New Englanders thought that unity may not be in the best interest of their section. To these men, “nationalism” should be “Yankeeism.”

New England ascendancy was at the core of Daniel Webster’s “nationalism” in the 1830s.

Washington was the only man who kept these factions quiet. Once he was gone, the sections started chewing at the fabric of American nationalism.

Marshall and Story hoped the Supreme Court would quell future sectional violence, but they did more to promote it than they realized. By taking State action against unconstitutional laws off the table, they created the environment which eventually led to war.

Either way, the topic made for a great podcast, so I thank Michael for throwing me the suggestion.

I discuss Washington’s nationalism on Episode 614 of The Brion McClanahan Show.

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