Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
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1787 / Mount Vernon

Art of the Possible


Dear Sir,
In the first moment after my return, I take the liberty of sending you a copy of the Constitution, which the federal convention has submitted to the people of these states. I accompany it with no observations. Your own judgment will at once discover the good and the exceptionable parts of it, and your experience of the difficulties, which have ever arisen when attempts have been made to reconcile such variety of interests and local prejudices as pervade the several states, will render explanation unnecessary. I wish the constitution that is offered had been made more perfect, but I sincerely believe it is the best that could be obtained at this time. And as a constitutional door is opened for amendments hereafter, the adoption of it, under the present circumstances of the Union, is in my opinion desirable.

From a variety of concurring accounts it appears to me that the political concerns of this country are in a manner suspended by a thread, and that the convention has been looked up to by the reflecting part of the community with a solicitude which is hardly to be conceived, and if nothing had been agreed on by that body, anarchy would soon have ensued, the seeds being deeply sown in every soil.
I am, etc.

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George Washington, a letter to Patrick Henry, Benjamin Harrison, and Thomas Nelson Jr. Washington wrote the letter four days before the Constitution was submitted for ratification to the thirteen states. Henry later complained that the document “squints toward monarchy” and described its features as “horribly frightful.” The next year at the Virginia ratifying convention, he said of the framers, “Who authorized them to speak to the language of We, the people, instead of We, the states?” In June 2012, Washington’s personal copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights was sold at auction for $9.8 million, the highest price yet reached for an American historical document.

The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.
G. K. Chesterton, 1908
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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