It has become fashionable online for pessimistic right-wingers to declare that the U.S. Constitution no longer governs America. Our problems are too big, this faction argues, for constitutional solutions. Some have even asserted the inevitability – or perhaps necessity – of a “Protestant Franco.” They hint that only a strong man, armed with absolute power, can set the times aright and restore virtue by force.

America desperately needs a revival of statesmanship, but theorizing about post-constitutional government will not bring it about. In fact, rejecting the Constitution will only hobble conservatives’ attempts to curtail liberalism. Speculation about dictatorship will only alienate the great body of the people the right should be trying to win over.

Our Founders understood just how important consent of the governed is to republican virtue, and none more practically than George Washington. He knew that a statesman had to respond to threats forcefully, even take up arms, whether that meant staging a revolution against British tyrants or enforcing the law against insurrectionists in the Whiskey Rebellion. But Washington also knew that any republic lives or dies by popular support, and that respect for the Constitution was vital in securing it.

Washington’s statesmanship was a mix of ruthlessness and mercy, and constitutes a practical wisdom from which conservatives can still learn much. As Robert O’Connell argues in his excellent military biography of Washington, Revolutionary, the General’s character was essential to winning the War for Independence. The British fought a punitive war, whereas Washington insisted his soldiers fight as gentlemen. He always sought, O’Connell writes, “the ethical high ground, never stooping to the excesses the British smeared over their attempts to suppress the Revolution,” a strategy “calculated to maximize the contrast between British and American war efforts.” 

This Washingtonian way of war stems from a deep philosophical insight: Governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Neither virtue nor liberty can be simply imposed on a people – they must first want it for themselves. Constitutions are a way to ensure that just government receives consent, and that policy is made by consensus. In all their speculations about imposing virtue on the people, the so-called “New Right” has lost sight of that fundamental truth. 

Even in Washington’s day, however, not everyone shared his respect for limited government or popular consent. For example, a Continental Army officer named Lewis Nicola wrote to Washington in May, 1782, complaining of congressional corruption and speculating that some kind of a monarch could be the solution. Not altogether unlike the neo-Francoists today, Nicola denounced “republican bigots” opposed to this kind of executive strength and essentially urged Washington to stage a coup détat.

Washington’s response to Nicola should serve as a warning to contemporary post-constitutionalists. The General acknowledged that Nicola was correct about the corruption in Philadelphia, but denounced the prescription for strong-man politics in the strongest possible terms. “Let me conjure you then, if you have any regard for your Country, concern for your self or posterity—or respect for me,” Washington wrote, “to banish these thoughts from your Mind, & never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.” Justice could never be served by the raw use of absolute power.

Despite Washington’s disfavor, sentiments like Nicola’s persisted in the Continental Army. As historian David Head recounts in his book A Crisis of Peace, the officers’ bitter resentment of Congress and even the American people grew in 1782 and 1783 as the war limped to a conclusion. Resentment turned to conspiracy, and a group of mutineers began a plot to overthrow Congress and replace it with a military junto lead by Washington himself.

Washington was incensed when he caught wind of the plot. He wanted to root out the corruption in Philadelphia just as much as the conspirators, but knew that an attempted coup was a surefire way to lose the people’s support. Furthermore, it was a betrayal of the republican principles the country had just fought a war to maintain.

On March 15, 1783, Washington gathered his senior officers at the military headquarters in Newburgh, New York, to put a stop to their scheme. To the assembly, he gave a moving address arguing against any kind of military attempt to seize power:

“And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country—as you value your own sacred honor—as you respect the rights of humanity, & as you regard the Military & national character of America, to express your utmost horror & detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, & who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, & deluge our rising Empire in Blood.”

As an alternative to the conspiracy, Washington pledged that he would work tirelessly for the redress of the officers’ grievances. He agreed with them that Congress had been mistreating the Army, but the best solution was constitutional politics. In the years after the Newburgh Conspiracy was foiled, Washington argued stridently for the replacement of the Articles of Confederation and the ratification of the new Constitution. His influence was indispensable for achieving the kind of reform the country really needed, in part because it ensured the new government would have popular support.

Washington held that constitutional statesmanship, not brute force, would best secure both interests and honor. Echoing some of Shakespeare’s finest lines, he told his officers:

“By thus determining – & thus acting, you will pursue the plain & direct Road to the attainment of your wishes. You will defeat the insidious designs of our Enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret Artifice. You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism & patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; And you will, by the dignity of your Conduct, afford occasion for Posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to mankind, ‘had this day been wanting, the World had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.’”

To be clear, Washingtonian statesmanship is not mere proceduralism, but rather a deep respect for republican self-government. As Hillsdale College professor Matthew Spalding notes in an essay collected in his volume Patriot Sage: “Just as the individual government of the self requires rules and good habits of behavior, so popular self-government requires laws and good habits of citizenship. Washington set out to create a nation of both.” The statesman’s great insight is that a constitution is the best tool for achieving that kind of government.

Washington would have little patience for any so-called “conservatives” defending the administrative state. He believed in a vigorous, uncompromising defense of Americans’ traditional liberties. But by the same token he would have had little patience for right-wing forces arguing that to save the people we must subvert their rights.

A practical statesman must, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “know where we are, and whither we are tending” is he is to “judge what to do, and how to do it.” Can anyone really look at the state of American society and argue that too much constitutionalism is the problem? It seems, rather, that an assertion of our constitutional rights is the solution to the centralizing tyranny imposed by liberalism and the administrative state.

The Constitution is therefore no mere “parchment promise,” but rather our most powerful weapon in the struggle for a virtuous liberty. It is a symbol around which a truly conservative statesman can rally the American people, a covenant which unites us as citizens. One faction of the right may have slipped into a speculative despair about the future, but that is no reason to abandon the document and unilaterally disarm.