Jonathan Horn is an author and former White House speechwriter. His Robert E. Lee biography, The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, was a Washington Post bestseller. His newest book, Washington’s End, is about the forgotten final years of George Washington’s life.
The letter from Connecticut would have looked unexceptional when it reached Mount Vernon on July 20, 1799, if not for bearing the four-week-old date, June 22. George Washington, then in his third year of retirement from the presidency, eyed the letter suspiciously as he wondered why it had taken so long to make its way through the mail.
A hint of the surprising stops the letter had made en route lay in its contents. The sender, Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., claimed to write not only for himself, but also for other influential people who had reached a similar conclusion: The country needed Washington back in the presidency.
Of all the precedents Washington set as president, limiting himself to two terms in office ranks as perhaps the most important. Accounts of his refusal to serve a third term usually focus on the farewell address he issued in 1796, toward the end of his second term. But the plot to pull Washington into the election of 1800—a contest he did not live to see—reveals a harder struggle to extricate himself from the office the Constitution’s framers designed with him in mind.
Since retiring to his farm in 1783 at the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington had received similar letters calling him out of retirement at other critical junctures. These missives had convinced Washington to attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and to accept the presidency first in 1789 and then again in 1793, as the United States began to split into the political factions he hoped never to see, with Federalists supporting his administration and Republicans destined to emerge as an opposition party. Only Washington, went the argument, could hold the country together.
Washington would lament accepting a second term. “He had rather be on his farm than to be made emperor of the world,” an adviser recalled Washington exclaiming just months after the inauguration, as Republican-leaning publications accused him of craving a crown. As the 1796 election neared, no argument could have convinced him to accept a third term. Federalists instead backed his vice president, John Adams, who defeated the Republican choice, former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, by a mere three electoral votes.
Part of Washington’s last full day as president went to writing a letter to Governor Trumbull, a Federalist friend who had served as an aide during the Revolutionary War. Once back at Mount Vernon, Washington predicted, he would not stray more than 20 miles from the place again. He was 65 years old and looked forward to riding around his farms, repairing his mansion, and preparing his personal papers for historians who would one day write his biography. Never again did he expect, as he put it, “to intermeddle in politics.”
Trumbull had his doubts. In a crisis, he believed the country would once again turn to Washington. And the great man could not exit the public stage as easily as he imagined. “I most devoutly pray Heaven to grant that no evil demon of discord may be suffered to arise and agitate the peace and happiness of our country, so as again to drag you from your pleasing quiet and repose,” Trumbull wrote Washington in 1797. “But of this event, I am far . . . from being confident.”
As Trumbull looked back on his own words two years later, the message struck him as prophetic. With the election of 1800 now just a little more than a year away, he no longer believed Adams could win reelection. Jefferson and the Republicans would wrest control of the presidency if the Federalists did not unite behind a more popular and unifying figure. The wise and good in every state, Trumbull thought, would demand that Washington offer himself.
That was the message Trumbull presented in his letter of June 22, 1799. He was not the first to conceive the idea, he wrote, just the first with the courage to broach it with Washington. But before sending the letter to Mount Vernon, Trumbull did something even more audacious. He sent the letter to two of Adams’s Cabinet secretaries: Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott, Jr., and Secretary of State Timothy Pickering. “Let no one see my letter to the general, unless it be . . . Pickering,” Trumbull wrote Wolcott in a letter enclosing the one intended for Washington. “If you disapprove of the hint I have given, tell me so, if you please, and let me know your reasons.”
Wolcott and Pickering owed their offices to Washington, who had originally appointed them, and had little loyalty to Adams, who had merely retained them. Nevertheless, Wolcott could foresee the scandalous consequences of a sitting Cabinet secretary involving himself in a plot to replace the president. He put off responding.
“It will be improper for me while I hold an office to exert any influence on the delicate subject to which you have hinted,” Wolcott finally wrote on July 16. “In the present state of our affairs, a discussion of the question among any considerable number of friends may be hazardous.” The only aid Wolcott would give was to share the letter with Pickering before sending it on to Washington, who received it nearly a month after Trumbull had written it.
The letter did not find Washington in exactly a retired state. Trumbull’s prediction of a crisis forcing Washington back into public life had already come to pass. With France preying on American shipping and demanding bribes from the envoys Adams had sent to negotiate a settlement, the United States had begun preparing for war. In July 1798, as part of the military buildup, what would have been unthinkable a year earlier had happened: Adams had appointed Washington commander in chief of the armies of the United States, never mind that Article Two of the Constitution assigned that precise title to Adams as president.
Washington worried that accepting command so soon after having left the presidency would expose him to charges of having been insincere about his desire for retirement. At the same time, declining the command would mean declining to defend his country—and that he would not do. Thus, nearly a year before Trumbull wrote his letter, Washington had already taken back the president’s military title. The only question now was whether he would take back the presidency itself.
Washington had his own problem with the sitting president. He and Adams had feuded over the rank of the other general officers in the new army after Washington had made choosing these men a condition of his acceptance of command. For second-in-command, Washington had settled on his most brilliant former Continental Army aide, Alexander Hamilton, a choice contrary to Adams’s wishes. Only after Washington threatened to resign did Adams consent.
There were moments when it seemed that Washington imagined himself back in the presidency. Once, while relaxing on Mount Vernon’s piazza, a visitor heard Washington muse how he would conduct himself if in, as he put it, “[Adams’s] place.”
One decision Washington would not have made in Adams’s place was the formal announcement in February 1799 of a new peace mission to France. The news shocked not only Washington, but also members of Adams’s own Cabinet, including Secretary of State Pickering, who deemed the move ill-advised and insulting to the country’s honor. “We were all thunderstruck when we heard of it,” Pickering informed Washington. “Confidence in the president is lost.”
The danger to which Trumbull alluded in his letter of Republicans winning the presidency would certainly have weighed on Washington. Though he had warned about the danger of political parties in his farewell address, he involved himself once out of office as never before in the campaign to elect Federalists to Congress. His belief that certain Republicans would “leave nothing unattempted to overturn the government” ensured his support for the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, which led to the imprisonment of some Republican-leaning journalists. No longer was he even on speaking terms with the most famous Republican—his former close adviser, Jefferson
.Given these circumstances, would Washington answer the pleas of Federalists desperate for him to stand against Jefferson for president?
Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott, Jr. (far left), shared Trumbull’s secret letter with Secretary of State Timothy Pickering (left) before forwarding it to Mount Vernon. Pickering himself informed George Washington that Federalists had lost “confidence” in President John Adams.
No, Washington responded to Trumbull on July 21, 1799. “The line between parties,” Washington explained, had become “so clearly drawn” that no one—not even the father of his country—could straddle it. “I should not draw a single vote from the anti-federal [Republican] side,” Washington wrote. “Any other respectable Federal character would receive the same suffrages that I should.”
To prove the point, Washington proposed Trumbull think of the election this way: “Let that party [the Republicans] set up a broomstick—and call it a true son of Liberty, a Democrat, or give it any other epithet that will suit their purpose—and it will command their votes in toto!”
And if Washington could hold his ground no better than any other Federalist candidate, he could not see why he should have to sacrifice what little tranquility his life might have left. “I have abundant cause to be thankful for the good health with which I am blessed, yet I am not insensible to my declination in other respects,” he wrote. “It would be criminal therefore in me . . . to accept an office under this conviction, which another would discharge with more ability.”
Worried that Federalists might still propose his name for president, Washington wrote Trumbull again the following month. “I must again express a strong and ardent wish and desire that no eye, no tongue, no thought may be turned towards me for the purpose alluded to.”
Yet for all of Washington’s efforts to silence the idea, it persisted. Trumbull believed that even if Washington was correct that he could not draw any votes from the Republicans, he would surely collect every Federalist vote.
That was more than could be said for Adams, after a final attempt to stop him from sending his new peace mission to France failed in the fall of 1799. Many Federalists would never forgive Adams. If he stood for the presidency the next year, the party would split. Only by announcing his retirement could Adams atone, Pickering told one fellow Federalist, who responded this way: “I have flattered myself that the great Washington would again come upon the stage, if the occasion should be made to appear worthy of his reappearance.”
The chatter continued as the country neared the start of 1800, the year of the election that would ultimately usher “that man,” as Washington called Jefferson, into the presidency. On December 16, 1799, a letter arrived at Mount Vernon from Gouverneur Morris, another prominent Federalist seeking to coax Washington into the presidential contest.
“No reasonable man can doubt that after a life of glorious labor you must wish for repose,” the letter read. “But is retirement, in the strict sense of the word, a possible thing?”
All that had happened to Washington during his busy life suggested that the answer was no—that the dream of a permanent retirement could not be achieved. But now, suddenly, it had been. Two nights before the letter arrived, Washington had passed away.
Only in death did America’s first president finally find peace from the pleas to give his country four more years of his life.