George Washington as Chairman

When sufficient delegates had arrived in Philadelphia to make up a quorum for the Constitutional Convention, George Washington was unanimously elected president of the Convention. He accepted the honor reluctantly, protesting his lack of qualification. His opening remarks were addressed to the pride and idealism of the members:

"Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair."

As presiding officer, Washington was firm, courteous but impassive, taking no part in the debates until the last day of the Convention. He remained such an impressive figure, both physically and morally, that one delegate remarked that Washington was "the only man in whose presence I felt any awe."

Washington's support of a strong Union was rooted in his experience as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the Revolution. He recalled trying to persuade his New Jersey troops to swear allegiance to the United States. They refused, saying "New Jersey is our country!" During a recess of the Convention, Washington returned to the nearby Revolutionary battlefield at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where he and his troops had passed a bitter winter because the states had been reluctant to contribute to the general cause.

When the Convention ended and the ratification process began, Washington abandoned his silence and worked energetically on its behalf, helping to persuade a number of Antifederalists of his native state of Virginia to modify their opposition. He recognized the effectiveness of the critics in placing a Bill of Rights (which were later to become the first 10 amendments) before the electorate. At the same time, he paid tribute to James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for their support of the Constitution in The Federalist Papers, when he wrote that they "have thrown new light upon the science of Government; they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible a manner, as cannot fail to make a lasting impression."