by Ed Lengel
A woman helped President George Washington make one of the hardest decisions of his life. And, her name wasn’t Martha.
Washington never wanted to spend more than four years as president of the United States, and in November, 1792, the time was almost up. The autumn air was turning crisp, and he was looking forward to returning home to sit by the fireside at Mount Vernon. Washington was tired. He had spent most of his life in the service of his country. He had led the United States to victory in the Revolutionary War. Then, he had helped his fellow Americans choose a constitution. Finally, he had served as president. Now, he thought, let somebody else do all the hard work.
But the country was in trouble. Two of the most powerful men in the government–Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton–had become enemies. Jefferson thought Hamilton wanted to bring monarchy back to America–maybe even replace the president with a king–and Hamilton believed Jefferson wanted to start another revolution to get rid of all government. Washington tried to get the two men to reconcile, but they refused. Now, their followers were taking to the streets and yelling at each other. Soon, they might start fighting, and tear America apart. If they did, all of Washington’s hard work would have been for nothing.
Jefferson went to meet with Washington privately, and asked him to run the country another four years. That was the only way, Jefferson said, to protect America from Hamilton and his followers.
After he left, Hamilton also conferred with Washington privately and made the same request. That was the only way, he said, to protect the country from Jefferson and his followers. Washington could hardly believe it. He was sick of all the fighting; surely there was somebody who could get these angry men to stop arguing, and work together.
One evening, George and Martha Washington were relaxing in their presidential mansion in Philadelphia when there was a knock at the door; a man and a woman walked in. Their names were Samuel and Elizabeth Powel. George and Martha rose to meet them, and smiled, because they were good friends. Samuel was an important man. He had once been mayor of Philadelphia. Elizabeth was qualified for the job as well, but no one in those days would have considered it a suitable position for a woman. That was a shame, because Elizabeth was one of the smartest people in Philadelphia–and maybe the whole country. When she and her husband held dances and parties, people were eager to learn what she thought about about things like politics and diplomacy. Whatever she said, was almost always right.
George Washington wanted advice from Elizabeth, now. While Samuel sat down to talk with Martha, the president went with Elizabeth into another room. He admired her powerful mind, and knew he could trust her. George told her all of his worries. He knew the country was in trouble, and the bitterness between Jefferson and Hamilton was becoming dangerous. But, he also wanted to retire, spend the rest of his life with Martha–in peace–at Mount Vernon.
Elizabeth listened carefully, but she wasn’t ready to tell the president what to do–yet. She needed time to think. After a little while, she and her husband left. Two days later, Elizabeth dispatched a letter to her friend, George Washington. She had made up her mind about what he had to do.
The happiness of millions of people, Elizabeth Powel wrote, depended on George Washington’s decision. She understood it was a hard choice for him, but of he decided to go home now, the American people would think that the government was broken, the constitution didn’t work—and that George Washington couldn’t fix them. America had only been free ten years, and the constitution was only five years old. Jefferson and Hamilton might want to fight, but everybody trusted Washington. If he remained president another four years, he could give Americans a chance to learn to work together for the common good. But if he left now, everything might fall apart.
Don’t go home yet, Elizabeth told the president. He had already given so much. Now, though, the country asked for one more sacrifice.
When George Washington read Elizabeth Powel’s letter, he knew in his heart she was right. A little while later, he announced that he would stay on four more years as president. His decision, thanks to the brilliant Elizabeth Powel, may just have saved the United States.
Lengel, Ed, First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His—and the Nation’s Prosperity; pp. 222-23.
See Powel’s letter of 17 November 1792 to George Washington; published in the Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 11:395-97