Peter R. Henriques, Ph.D.
George Mason University
Copyrighted and not to be reproduced without the written consent of the author
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 "The Making of George Washington"
Chapter 2 "The French and Indian War"
Chapter 3 "The Complete Virginia Gentleman"
Chapter 4 "The Coming of the American Revolution"
Chapter 5 "Commander in Chief"
Chapter 6 "Retirement but no Rest"
Chapter 7 "Launching the New Government"
Chapter 8 "Death of a Hero"
Chapter 9 "The Measure of the Man"
Sally Cary Fairfax
Martha Washington as First Lady
"Crossing the Delaware"
Washington Family Coat of Arms
Contemporary George Washington scholars are likely to recognize some of their ideas - perhaps occasionally even some of their words - in the account that follows. If footnotes were included, there would be a great many indeed. Particular acknowledgement should be accorded to W.W. Abbot, Catherine Albanese, Fred Anderson, Ken Bolling, Richard Brookhiser, Phil Chase, Linda Colley, Joseph Ellis, Naomie Emery, John Ferling, James Flexner, Frank Grizzard, Don Higginbotham, Fritz Hirschfeld, Warren Hofstra, Robert Jones, Stuart Leibiger, Seymore Lipsett, Paul Longmore, William Martin, Edmund Morgan, Phil Morgan, Glenn Phelps, William Rasmussen, John Riley, Guthrie Sayen, Barry Schwartz, Richard Norton Smith, Dorothy Twohig, Jack Warren, Garry Wills, and Gordon Wood. The works of John Alden, Marcus Cunliffe, Douglas Southall Freeman, and Bernard Knollenberg have also been helpful.
Particular thanks to Frank Grizzard, Don Higginbotham, and Sue Williams for reading the original manuscript and making suggestions for improving it, and to my wife Marlene and to my sister, Judy Pierce, for their help in carefully proofreading the manuscript. I take responsibility for the errors that remain.
"The Making of George Washington"
George Washington was not born with the proverbial "silver spoon" in his mouth. While he was born with many more advantages than most Virginians, the Washingtons were not at the apex of the ruling families of Virginia. George's father, Augustine Washington, was a third generation Virginian and a man of ambition and drive. A member of Virginia's House of Burgesses, Augustine was not only involved in growing tobacco but also in running an iron works company as well. Following the death of his first wife, who gave him two sons and a daughter, he married Mary Ball in 1731. The following year, on February 22, 1732 (new style calendar), their first son, named George after Mary's guardian and family friend, George Eskridge, was born at their home at Pope's Head Creek (later called Wakefield) on the Potomac River in Westmoreland County.
The Washington family Bible records, "George Washington Son to Augustine & Mary his Wife was born the 11th Day of February 1731/2 about 10 in the Morning." The old style calendar entry of 11 February 1731/32 became obsolete in 1752 when the British corrected their calendar by adding eleven days, making Washington's birth date under the new style 22 February 1732. His birthday was celebrated on both days during his lifetime.
While George Washington became a prodigious record keeper and appeared early on to believe that what he did and how he was perceived mattered, relatively little is known with certainty about his formative years. Without doubt, the two events with the greatest impact on his future were the sudden death of his father when George was only eleven years old and the decision by his mother a few years later not to allow him to join the British navy and seek his fortune at sea.
Augustine Washington's death in 1743 appeared to dramatically reduce George's prospects for future wealth and success. It removed the chance of a British education afforded his older half-brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, Jr. Receiving a relatively inconsequential inheritance, George found himself living at a minor plantation, Ferry Farm, on the Rappahonock River near Fredericksburg, with his mother and four younger siblings. The details of Washington's schooling are unrecoverable at this date. A contemporary wrote, "his education was principally conducted by a private tutor," although he attended school for at least a brief time. Some of his schoolbook exercises still survive as well as a carefully copied Rules of Civility, 110 rules on the proper way to behave. The young Washington appeared to take them very close to heart. While Washington eventually became a surprisingly forceful and clear writer, and was much better read than generally believed, he nevertheless lacked formal knowledge of the classics and of any foreign language. To the end of his life he was conscious of what he called his "defective education." He was always aware that his better-educated peers might agree with what John Adams later wrote: "That Washington was not a scholar is certain. That he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation is equally past dispute." Perhaps such worries spurred GW's constant efforts at self-improvement. In the words of Lord Fairfax, Washington was "a man who will go to school all his life."
His father's death left George and his three younger brothers, John (Jack), Samuel, and Charles and sister, Betty, under the care and control of his mother, Mary Ball Washington. Later eulogized as "Mary, the Mother of Washington," the record indicates that Mary Ball was a difficult and demanding woman. Certainly, in time she became something of a trial to her increasingly famous son, complaining that he did not pay sufficient attention to her needs. At one time during the American Revolution she even initiated a move to receive aid from the Virginia General Assembly as a pauper. Perhaps equally striking, the record indicates that although she lived for thirty years after George's marriage to Martha Custis, she apparently never once during that time visited their home at Mount Vernon.
In fairness, she was obviously a woman of great strength of will and determination who successfully raised five young children by herself and chose never to remarry. It is worth noting that in the crucial decision of whether to allow George to go to sea, she took a year to finally make up her mind, sought the advice of her brother in England and successfully resisted the pressure from three powerful men, William Fairfax, Lawrence Washington, and Robert Jackson, all of whom were urging her to allow George to go. How different American history might have been if she had not been strong enough to resist their entreaties.
Denied a career at sea, George turned to surveying as a means of making a livelihood. It proved a fortuitous choice for a number of reasons. He was well suited for it. Naturally artistic, precise and exact in his reasoning, he quickly mastered the basics of the profession. In the 18th century, a surveyor was a professional on a par with being a doctor and a lawyer. It afforded the opportunity, if successful, of providing a good income. In addition to his natural bent for surveying, GW's increasingly powerful physique aided him in traversing the rugged countryside. Most important, the powerful Fairfax family offered its support and help to young Washington.
In the 18th century, even more than today, it was not only what one knew but also whom one knew. Patronage was a crucial fact of life in 18th century Virginia, and with his father dead, George was extremely fortunate to win the favor of the Fairfax family. Thomas Sixth Lord Fairfax and the Fairfax family controlled all of the land between the "head waters" of the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, an area totaling over five million acres and including parts of what is now West Virginia. The Treaty of Lancaster of 1744 with native Americans opened up the area west of the Blue Ridge Mountains to serious settlement. Lord Fairfax, the proprietor of the region called the Northern Neck, appointed his cousin, William Fairfax, to be his land agent. One of the most powerful men in Virginia, William made his home on a beautiful plantation, Belvoir, on the Potomac River. In 1743, his daughter, Anne, married one of Virginia's rising stars, Lawrence Washington, George's older half-brother, military hero and recently appointed Adjutant General of Virginia. The couple moved a few miles away to Lawrence's plantation, recently renamed Mount Vernon, in honor of Lawrence's patron during the war, Admiral Edward Vernon.
Fourteen years older than George, Lawrence was something of a surrogate father to and a role model, especially in the ways a military career could enhance a person's prestige and power. Now through an advantageous marriage, the Washingtons were linked to the powerful Fairfax family, and George was welcomed not only at Mount Vernon but at Belvoir as well. Indeed, Belvoir became something of a finishing school for George in his impressionable teenage years, and he learned first hand how the elite in Virginia society conducted themselves. With its handsome and commodious rooms adorned by luxurious carpets and rich furniture imported from England, Belvoir was one of the finest homes in the colony. The social events at the house gave young Washington his first exposure to Old World elegance and English excellence. As in so many ways, George proved an adept student. To use a modern phrase, modeling was always important to Washington. He would in time become a master of the proper way to act in various circumstances, and his first crucial lessons were learned at Belvoir.
The connection with the Fairfaxes took on added significance because William Fairfax was inexorably drawn to young Washington and treated him almost as a son. His eldest son, George William Fairfax, married the beautiful Sally Cary Fairfax and was a man of influence because of his family connections but never developed the kind of strength of character early exhibited by Washington. Young Washington's unique personality led many older, powerful men like William Fairfax, Lord Fairfax, Governor Robert Dinwiddie and Speaker of the House of Burgesses, John Robinson, to willingly aid in advancing his career.
In 1746, the Fairfaxes asked George to accompany George William Fairfax on a scouting expedition across the Blue Ridge mountains. This gave the fourteen-year old a firsthand awareness of the vastness of the frontier (all Fairfax land) and his first contact with native Americans, whose dances and activities he recorded with an element of both fascination and condescension. For the rest of his life, the west would hold a special spot in Washington's heart. Three years later, thanks to Fairfax support, George was appointed the official surveyor for Culpeper County. At seventeen, he became the youngest surveyor ever appointed in Virginia, and he was authorized to make legal surveys anywhere in Virginia that people would pay him to do so. It was a wonderful opportunity, and George made the most of it, executing a large number of surveys, mainly for the Fairfax family. His income from surveying rose by the time he was twenty years old to about 100 pounds a year (substantial in the 18th century), and he purchased approximately 2,000 acres of land for himself along Bullskin Creek in the Shenandoah Valley. His life-long desire to accumulate land, and the wealth and influence that went with it was already clearly in evidence.
While seeking wealth was always important to Washington, it was never absolutely paramount. Duty and a sense of honor were even more important. He willingly abandoned his surveying to accompany his half-brother to the Caribbean in 1751 as Lawrence futilely attempted to stave off the ravages of tuberculosis which would claim his life the following year. (George's visit to Barbados was to be the only time in his life that he would leave the American mainland). As Lawrence's illness worsened, George lobbied hard with the new governor, Robert Dinwiddie, for Lawrence's position as Adjutant General. The request was somewhat presumptuous. GW was only twenty years old without any military experience, and the Adjutant General was in charge of preparedness for Virginia's militia and the second highest paying job in the colony. Governor Dinwiddie ultimately decided to divide the post up into four districts, but he did award George the position in charge of the southern district (GW desired and eventually received the northern district).
By the age of twenty, George Washington had already demonstrated that he was an extraordinary individual. Despite the loss of his father and lack of formal education, Washington's character, determination, and ability enabled him to win the support of many influential people. He was a successful surveyor earning a sizeable salary that was further augmented by his income as Adjutant for the southern district. He already owned 2,000 acres of land and was renting Mount Vernon from Lawrence's widow. Physically, he was developing into a very impressive specimen. Very tall, approximately 6'2", he was extremely muscular and strong, more than able to bear the difficulties of surveying in the wilderness. In addition to his strength, Washington was developing grace and presence. He was a superb horseman, an excellent dancer, and he took fencing lessons to improve his agility. In short, he was a superb athlete with a compelling if not handsome face, the type of person one could not help but notice and be impressed by.
"He may be described as being straight as an Indian, measuring 6 feet 2 inches in his stockings, and weighing 175 lbs. . . . His frame is padded with well developed muscles, indicating great strength. His bones and joints are large as are his hands and feet. He is wide shouldered but has not a deep or round chest; is neat waisted, but is broad across the hips, and has rather long legs and arms. His head is well shaped, though not large, but is gracefully poised on a superb neck. A large and straight rather than a prominent nose; blue?grey penetrating eyes which are widely separated and overhung by a heavy brow. His face is long rather than broad, with high round cheek bones, and terminates in a good firm chin. He has a clear tho rather colorless pale skin which burns with the sun. A pleasing and benevolent tho a commanding countenance, dark brown hair which he wears in a cue. His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth. His features are regular and placid with all the muscles of his face under perfect control, tho flexible and expressive of deep feeling when moved by emotions. In conversation he looks you full in the face, is deliberate, deferential and engaging. His demeanor at all times composed and dignified. His movements and gestures are graceful, his walk majestic, and he is a splendid horseman."
George Mercer, 1760
Additionally, Washington possessed a fiercely strong will and driving ambition. Exactly why he had such a strong desire for success and fame might be disputed, but knowing he had these traits and had them in abundance is crucial to understanding him. Later, the great portrait painter, Gilbert Stuart, commented on the remarkable quality of Washington's face and observed that if Washington had been born in the forest, he would have been the most savage of all the Indian chiefs. Such passion was not easily chained, and Washington did not always control his temper. A surviving letter from Lord Fairfax is sympathetic but wished young Washington would get better control over his temper. In time he would, but it would be a life-long struggle. In the words of one Washington scholar, "The central mystery of Washington's character is how he learned to control his fiery temper and developed the patience, fortitude and discerning judgment that enabled him to lead the American army and later the new nation."
While George Washington had gone far to satisfy his desire to enter into the ranks of Virginia society and become a Virginia gentleman, his driving ambition was not satisfied with that. Achievement in war might elevate him above his peers, and as "fortune" would have it, he was in exactly the right place at the right time to play a central role in the next great war between Great Britain and France, fought to determine who would be the dominant country in the New World. The French and Indian War, also called The Seven Years War or the Great War for Empire, might appropriately be called "Virginia's War," and ironically, George Washington played the decisive role in its beginning.
"The French and Indian War"
Both Great Britain and France, the two great super powers of the 18th century, made claims to the Ohio Country west of the Allegheny Mountains and had vague ambitions for it, but until about the middle of the 18th century neither of them was in a position to assert its control over the area. In Virginia, a group of expansionists centered in the Northern Neck and including members of the Fairfax, Lee, Washington, and Mason families combined with powerful merchants in London, and the future governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, to form a new land company, the Ohio Company. In 1749, the company was awarded a grant of 500,000 acres of land in the Ohio country, contingent upon building a fort and settling a number of families there within a specified period of time.
In 1753, knowing that the French also claimed the territory, Dinwiddie, now acting governor of Virginia, sought permission and advice from the home government in London and received the authorization he desired. "You are to require of Them peacably to depart, . . . and if, notwithstanding Your Admonitions, They do still endeavour to carry on any such unlawfull and unjustifiable Designs, We do hereby strictly charge, and command You, to drive them off by Force of arms." Receiving the charge in mid-October, Dinwiddie needed someone to carry the ultimatum to the French as well as to ascertain more clearly what her intentions for the region were.
Undoubtedly alerted and supported by his patron, William Fairfax, one of the Councilors advising the Governor, Washington, although only 21, volunteered to undertake what was potentially both an important and difficult mission. Washington's winter journey to deliver Dinwiddie's letter to the commandant of the French forces in the Ohio Country at Fort Le Boeuf, near Lake Erie, was the stuff of legend. Braving terrible weather, intractable forests, uncertain Indian allies, and French resistance if not treachery, Washington survived an apparent assassination attempt by an Indian guide and the capsizing of his raft into the freezing Allegheny River. He reported to the Governor in January of 1754 and informed him that the French were making plans to seize the critical forks of the Ohio River (present day Pittsburgh). Washington's journal was quickly published both in America and Great Britain to considerable acclaim and greatly enhanced his status as an international figure. The House of Burgesses voted him a bonus of 50 pounds to express their appreciation for his difficult undertaking. Suddenly, George Washington was becoming noteworthy.
The advanced stage of French preparations (Washington had counted over 200 canoes ready to ferry men and supplies) induced Dinwiddie to move quickly. He desired to send a group of workmen to build a fort at the Forks of the Ohio and to raise a sufficient force to protect it from the hostile French. Such designs cost money, and Dinwiddie was hard pressed to win support from the General Assembly. Many, already angered at Dinwiddie for other reasons, wondered if the effort was primarily to aid the Ohio company rather than the colony as a whole; whether the land belonged to Virginia or Pennsylvania; and how seriously the French threatened Virginia's vital interest. Young George Washington was not among the doubters. The chance to advance Virginia's cause, deal a blow to the hated French, and advance his own position and fame was irresistible. As he confessed, "My inclinations are strongly bent to arms."
With great difficulty, Washington raised a motley band of soldiers and marched them via Wills Creek (now Cumberland, Maryland) toward the Ohio River where work was already underway on the fort. Unfortunately, before Washington and his men could arrive to protect it, the French came down in sufficient strength to capture and complete the citadel, which they named Fort Duquesne after their commander. The workmen were allowed to go back home, and thus Washington learned of a significant new development. Eschewing a cautious approach that the changed circumstances warranted, Washington proceeded toward the fort, seemingly eager to engage the French.
His Indian scouts, under the leadership of the Half-King (Tanacharison), a Seneca chief and British ally, discovered a French party of approximately 50 men moving eastward. Despite the fact that Great Britain and France were at peace and that the French now controlled the Forks, GW decided to strike. The dawn attack at Jumonville Glen, named for the French leader killed in the battle, was successful in the short run. Excited by the thrill of battle, Washington wrote his brother, Jack, "I heard the bullets whistle and believe me there is something charming in the sound." He further boasted, "If the whole detachment of the French behave with no more resolution than this chosen party did, I flatter myself we shall have no great trouble in driving them . . . to Montreal." These were the boastful words of a young and inexperienced leader.
Jumonville was a French diplomat and in the eyes of the French had been on a mission very comparable to Washington's the previous winter. Now he had been killed and the French vowed revenge. Soon Washington's augmented but still small force of several hundred men found themselves holed up in a quickly constructed fort, aptly named Fort Necessity, and facing a combined French and Indian force of about 700 men. Washington's own Indian allies, seeing the course of events perhaps more clearly than GW, deserted. After the first day of the Battle at Great Meadows, more than a third of his men lay dead or wounded, and his little fort was flooded by torrential rain. Washington had every reason to expect his own life might end the next day when the French stormed his inadequate bastion.
Rather than storming the fort, however, the French were willing to parley and allow Washington and his men to surrender and return to Virginia if GW signed a document agreeing that the French had mounted the attack only to avenge the assassination of their minister, Jumonville. The document was in French, the night was rainy, and GW's translator less than perfect, but in signing the document, GW unwittingly gave the French a great diplomatic and propaganda victory. Young Washington had apparently confessed to assassinating a French diplomat! Stung by criticism, primarily from Great Britain, Washington, who was inordinately sensitive to criticism and strongly blame-aversive, declared in his own defense, "That we were wilfully, or ignorantly deceived by our Intrepreter - I do aver and will to my dying moment."
Whatever the facts, the war had begun. Officials in Great Britain decided they could not allow the French to control the Forks of the Ohio River and thus sent over two regiments of British regulars under the command of General Edward Braddock to do what Washington and his ragtag force of colonials had been unable to do. Surprisingly, GW emerged from the debacle at Fort Necessity with his reputation intact and in some ways enhanced. After all, he had returned home with honor and after inflicting huge casualties on the hated French (the casualty figures were greatly exaggerated, but it made the action more palatable). War now seemed inevitable, and the French threat to the entire colony was more palpable. Virginia would need soldiers, and George Washington, with his military bearing, his imposing persona, and his knack of seeming to be much older than he was, became a prime candidate to help organize and lead Virginia's defense.
GW was eager to play a role in the upcoming struggle, but only on terms that complied with his sense of honor and fairness. A dispute over pay and rank led to his petulant resignation, but General Braddock's need for competent colonials familiar with the area and his favorable impression of Washington landed GW an unofficial but influential spot in the General's military "family." Thus Washington rode with Braddock's forces on July 9, 1755 when the French and their Native American allies on the banks of the Monongahela River surprised them. The Battle of the Wilderness was one of the great British disasters of the 18th century. Two-thirds of all the British officers were killed and the army routed. Washington, who almost missed the battle because he had been sick with dysentery, by all accounts conducted himself heroically. One of Washington's character traits was that death held no terror for him; indeed, a heroic death appeared to hold a certain charm. Absolutely fearless in battle (even his worst critics would not then or later ever question his courage), able to think clearly in the midst of chaos and death, Washington rallied the Virginia militia, prevented a complete rout, and carried the mortally wounded General Braddock off the field and buried him under a wagon road so that his body would not be desecrated by the victors. George Washington came very close to losing his own life as well. During the battle, he had two horses shot from under him and four bullet holes in his clothes. Neither then nor later did a bullet ever pierce his skin, giving rise to stories among some of the Indians and others that he was miraculously immune to gunfire.
The defeat of Braddock's army and the withdrawal of the British army into winter headquarters at Philadelphia in the middle of the summer meant that Virginia's western frontier was now more open and accessible to attack than ever before. The colony was suddenly at full-scale war, and Governor Dinwiddie appointed the twenty-three year old George Washington Colonel and commander in chief of the First Virginia Regiment. GW's virtually impossible task was to protect a boundary over 300 miles long and a widely scattered population against attack by a wily and knowledgeable foe. Additionally, he was to accomplish the task with a force of less than a thousand men. Ten months after taking command he tersely summarized the situation. "Desolation and murder still increase; and no prospects of Relief. The Blue-Ridge is now our Frontier." GW left a mixed record in his three and a half years as commander of Virginia's forces.
The George Washington of the French and Indian War in many ways was not the same George Washington of the American Revolution. Historian John Ferling summarized the case against Washington during the French and Indian War: "He seemed in the grip of a disturbing and unattractive obsession with his own advancement. No amount of protestation that he soldiered only for patriotic reasons - and he made that claim regularly - is quite convincing. . . . Once in command. . . he seemed unable to harness his ambition, and his lusts led him to excessive absences, to petulant outbursts, to deceitful and irresponsible conduct, to an unsavory manner that vacillated between obsequiousness and a menacing heavy-handedness, and that, at times, verged even on the treacherous."
There is some validity to these criticisms. Washington's desire for official British rank and his efforts to obtain it bordered on the obsessive. (Again, how different American history might have been had he achieved his goal). GW resigned once and threatened to resign an additional half a dozen times. He did leave his men for long periods of time and is subject to legitimate criticism for the way he occasionally treated Governor Dinwiddie. He failed to win a major victory and unsuccessfully tried to convince General Forbes that the only way to capture Fort Duquesne in 1758 was to approach it via Braddock's road (to the financial benefit of Virginia and Washington who owned land near Braddock's Road) instead of moving westward across Pennsylvania which Forbes managed to do with success.
If GW deserves criticism, he also deserves praise as he began to demonstrate those qualities that he later exhibited as the commander in chief of the Continental Army. George Washington could lead. There was a power within him. His passion and willingness to die for the cause are apparent in his plea to Governor Dinwiddie: "The supplicating tears of the women and moving petitions of the men melt me into such deadly sorrow that I solemnly declare, if I know my own mind, I could offer myself a willing sacrifice to the butchering enemy provided that would contribute to the peoples' ease . . . If bleeding, Dying! Would glut their insatiate revenge, I would be a willing offering to savage fury, and die by inches to save a people!"
Considering the problems he faced - short term enlistments, desertions, inadequate supplies, and lack of support - Washington performed credibly and gathered valuable experience for the future. There is a remarkable letter from his officers to GW urging him to reconsider his decision to retire at the end of 1758. The officers praised GW's "steady adherance to impartial justice, your quick Discernment and invarable Regard to Merit." They bemoaned the "loss of such an excellent Commander, such a sincere Friend, and so affable a Companion." They wrote, "In our earliest Infancy you took us under your Tuition, train'd us up in the Practice of that Discipline which alone can constitute good Troops." It is easy to forget that the man to whom they were referring was only 26 years old but clearly not an ordinary 26-year-old.
While flattered and moved by the officers' letter, Washington was determined to leave the service. He had been frustrated in his effort for British rank; he had weakened his powerful constitution to the point where he thought he would die; he felt unappreciated. Wounded in body and spirit, Washington decided to retire from military conflict and seek fulfillment in marriage and the life of a Virginia planter. It was his first "permanent" retirement, but it would not be his last.
"The Complete Virginia Gentleman"
One key to George Washington's greatness lay in his ability to grow. The burning ambition, the unquenchable desire for honor and fame were constants. As a young officer in the French and Indian War, this intense desire for honor and glory fostered positive traits such as "professionalism, perseverance, personal sacrifice, and valor." Unfortunately, on occasion, it also led to "incivility, ingratitude, petulance, arrogance, backbiting, deception, and an excessive concern with appearances, compensation and rank." In short, in his pursuit of great honor, Washington occasionally stained his honor. He had not yet managed to fully reconcile the demands of honor with the demands of civility that put great emphasis on making oneself agreeable to others.
In the 18th century the ideal gentleman was courteous, virtuous, enlightened, and courageous. It was a difficult goal to reach, but, by 1775, Washington had come remarkably close. One of the delegates to the Second Continental Congress wrote that the Virginia colonel is "a compleat gentleman. He is sinsible, amiable, virtuous, modest, and brave." Exactly how Washington achieved this goal is impossible to completely reconstruct. Certainly it began with the "Rules of Civility" and the tutelage and example of the Fairfax family. It appears, however, to have reached its fruition between the time he resigned from the military at the end of 1758 and his appointment as Commander in Chief in June of 1775.
The most important factor in bringing about this transformation appears to be his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis in January 1759 and the changes that followed from the marriage. Martha Custis, one year older than GW and the mother of two small children, Jacky and Patsy, was the richest widow in Virginia. Her husband, Daniel Parke Custis, died without a written will, and under Virginia law, one-third of his estate went directly to Martha and one-third under trust to each of his two minor children. Following their marriage, George Washington now controlled this fortune, and it propelled him into the ranks of the great Virginia planters. It gave him not only financial wealth but also the power and confidence that go with it. Never again would GW have to rely on patrons as he had before, and his future letters would not have the ingratiating and almost conniving tone of some of his earlier letters seeking promotion. George Washington had been a relatively wealthy man before his marriage to Martha. The death of his half-brother, Lawrence, in 1752 made him the residual heir to Mount Vernon, and he soon began renting Mount Vernon from Lawrence's widow, Anne, who before long married into the Lee family and left the area. (Mount Vernon became GW's outright upon her death in 1761). With his marriage to Martha, however, he became a truly wealthy man.
Washington's marriage gave him more than financial security. Over time it gave him psychic security as well. Washington's courtship with Martha was very brief and undoubtedly propelled in part by her great wealth. They had spent little time together. After his engagement to Martha, GW wrote one of the most unusual letters of his life, professing his love to Sally Cary Fairfax, wife of his good friend, George William Fairfax. [See sidebar of Sally Cary Fairfax]. If his marriage to Martha began in part as a marriage of convenience (on both sides, for if Martha was a good "catch," so was GW), it developed into a marriage of deep affection. In many ways, Martha seemed to be the opposite of George's demanding and hard to please mother. Martha, who adored her husband, appeared to virtually all who knew her as the soul of cheerfulness. In the words of one, "Mrs. Washington is everything that is benevolent and good." She gave GW the type of unconditional support and love that his personality, perhaps in part because of his difficult childhood, seemed so desperately to need. Perhaps the clearest example of Martha's importance to Washington's psychic well-being was that every winter during the War for Independence, Washington requested that she travel from Mount Vernon to be with him in camp, and every winter she made the trip.
George Washington on Marriage
"I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one's life, the foundation of happiness or misery."
"Do not then in your contemplation of the marriage state look for perfect felicity before you consent to wed. Nor conceive, from the fine tales the poets and lovers of old have told us of the transports of mutual love, that heaven has taken its abode on earth."
"In my estimation, more permanent and genuine happiness is to be found in the sequestered walks of connubial life than in the giddy rounds of promiscuous pleasure."
George Washington sought, as best as he could, to model his life at Mount Vernon after that of the great English gentlemen. Those traits included being well-born; independently wealthy; graceful in movement; refined in speech, manner and taste; knowledgeable in the arts, sciences, and languages; acquainted with the world; hospitable, generous and honorable; deferential to social equals; affable to social inferiors; virtuous in morality; disinterested in public service; and brave in battle.
A British gentleman needed an appropriate home. For George Washington, Mount Vernon was a life-long love and a life-long work in progress. GW made major improvements to the home shortly before his marriage and then greatly enlarged the mansion to its present size following the death of his stepdaughter, Patsy, in 1773. He was in many ways his own architect, and Mount Vernon reflects GW's love of symmetry, natural beauty, and practical elegance. The beautiful portico, for example, running the entire length of the house and facing the magnificent Potomac River, was his own innovation and was unlike any other porch in America at that time. It combined beauty and utility that epitomized GW's philosophy. Throughout his life, he bought up lands surrounding the mansion, and ultimately the Mount Vernon tract consisted of approximately 8,000 acres, five farms, and over nine miles of fencing.
Mount Vernon was not created in isolation but to be at the center of a very active social life. George Washington's later reputation as cold and aloof has obscured the fact that there was a "softer" side to GW and that he was an extremely social individual. Historian Guthrie Sayen summarized how GW enjoyed the private pleasures of the gentry elite. "He entertained and was entertained, almost nonstop. He went to horse races, boat races, and barbecues. He danced at balls and attended the theater. He played at cards, billiards, and backgammon. He hunted and fished. And he served his friends with affection and generosity." So busy was the social life at Mount Vernon that it was a noteworthy event if the Washingtons dined alone.
GW's favorite outdoor recreation was fox hunting, a sport he engaged in approximately fifty times in the year 1768 alone. Washington was a superb horseman, perhaps the finest of his day, and fox hunting allowed him to ride amidst the excitement and pageantry of the hunt as well as providing exercise and an outlet for his pent-up energy. GW dressed for the part. His orders from his agent in Great Britain, Robert Cary and Sons, indicate that in his attire for fox hunting, as in virtually everything he ordered, GW wanted the best and the most fashionable. The sight of a large, graceful man, splendidly attired, riding a spirited horse and following specially selected and trained hounds baying after the fox through the Virginia countryside was an impressive sight indeed.
Washington developed a lifelong love of the theatre and attended whenever he could. His cash accounts reveal purchasing "play tickets" wherever he traveled, including Alexandria, Annapolis, Barbados, Dumfries, Fredericksburg, New York, and Williamsburg. Twice he attended five plays in seven days. His favorite play was Joseph Addison's Cato, where the hero sacrifices his life for his beloved Rome. As time went on, GW came to see himself more and more as a "figure on the stage" with an important role to play and a strong desire to play it well. Dancing, another Virginia "sport" GW excelled in, was also one of his favorite forms of entertainment, as well as an excellent venue to show off his grace and physical presence.
Life at Mount Vernon was certainly not all fun and games. George Washington was very much a businessman-planter, deeply concerned with his own economic interests and how best to advance them. Time was short and every hour wasted was lost forever. (Active socializing was not wasted time but purposeless idling was.) GW's books and records, the most complete for an 18th century figure, reveal a remarkably energetic individual who, while recognizing there were many things beyond his control, strove endlessly to control his world and bring order out of chaos. He would not have been an easy man to work for as he set the bar at a very high level. His letters are filled with sometimes scathing comments of those who did not meet his lofty expectations. Often the frustrations would be directed at his slaves. The number of slaves at Mount Vernon continued to increase throughout Washington's life, eventually numbering over 300 by the time of his death in 1799. (See sidebar on slavery.)
Like most Virginia planters in the 1760s, Washington's major crop was tobacco. After Herculean efforts to become a "crop master" and successful planter, GW realized that the sandy soil of Mount Vernon, combined with the various hurdles erected by the British government, made it all but impossible for him to grow tobacco profitably. Always the realist, in the late 1760s GW shifted his focus to grains, mainly wheat and corn, and to other enterprises, such as fishing and milling, to turn a profit for the plantation. Unlike so many of his peers, GW never became enmeshed in debt he could not manage, perhaps because he devoted much time and attention to the soil. He was a pioneer farmer, always willing to explore new and better ways to farm. As he later wrote, "No pursuit is more congenial with my nature and gratifications, than that of agriculture."
From the time of his first surveying trip to the Shenandoah at the age of sixteen, a part of George Washington's heart was given to the West. He looked to the west and saw endless opportunity there, and like many of his fellow Virginia planters, he believed one way to wealth was through the acquisition and eventual sale of western lands. From his first purchases along the Bullskin Creek near Winchester as a teenager, to the last year of his life, GW was involved in speculating, developing, managing, buying, and selling land. His interest in land was virtually insatiable. It might be near home around Mount Vernon and Alexandria; it might be in the Dismal Swamp bordering Virginia and North Carolina or in the Mississippi land adventure; but the major investment was in land west of the Blue Ridge. The largest and most controversial of GW's western land holdings involved the so-called Bounty lands that he acquired as a result of his participation in the French and Indian War. The total acreage, consisting of land given to him by Virginia and rights acquired from other veterans, totaled over 25,000 acres and formed an important part of his total wealth.
"Land is the most permanent estate and the most likely to increase in value."
The controversy involved the terms of the grant of the Bounty lands. In order to encourage men to enlist in the French and Indian War, Governor Dinwiddie offered a bonus of 200,000 acres of land across the Allegheny Mountains to be divided up among the enlistees. While there is controversy over who was included in the grant, a careful reading indicates that the offer was initially intended for enlisted men and not for officers. For many years, due to the length of the war and Great Britain's decision in the Proclamation Act of 1763 to close the area west of the Alleghenies to settlement, no action was taken.
Washington was convinced the Proclamation was only a temporary expedient and that western expansion was inevitable. He planned carefully to be in a position to profit when the time was ripe, although he knew it was a risky enterprise. "No man can lay off a foot of land and be sure of keeping it." Finally, in 1769 at Washington's strong urging, the new governor and Council interpreted the 1754 bounty to include both officers and enlisted men. GW worked hard over the next few years insuring the grants became a reality. Careful that the soldiers obtain their promised land, he also worked through intermediaries to purchase the rights of many of the men and to obtain for himself what he privately referred to in one letter as "the cream of the country." He believed his actions were justified. "If it had not been for my unremitting attention to every favorable circumstance, not a single acre of land would ever have been obtained." He may well have been correct, but even his sympathetic biographer, James Flexner, concluded, "From his total activity concerning western land claims there rises the unmistakable impression that in this one aspect of his career, he acted as an oversharp businessman."
George Washington was not a selfless altruist unconcerned with his own interests. Indeed, a reading of his papers demonstrate that he had an unabashed concern in promoting them. Yet over time, following his marriage and his growing success, Washington came to better reconcile honor's conflicting goals of self-assertion and self-sacrifice by seeking to serve not only his interests but the interests of his neighbors, friends, family, and countrymen as well. One way GW sought to do this was through a political career.
By the 1750s the House of Burgesses was the most powerful body in colonial Virginia. Consisting of two members from each county, a seat in the House of Burgesses was highly prized but in effect open only to the top rank of Virginia's gentry. Washington aspired early to a seat in that august body. In another example of youthful audacity, GW, although only 23 and not yet either a member of the vestry or a justice of the peace, had his brother secretly explore his option of running from Fairfax County. Learning that both seats were "spoken for" by powerful men, GW did not pursue it further. Unsolicited efforts by friends in Frederick County in the same year (1755) also proved futile. (A man could be elected from any county in which he owned land and did not have to reside in the county he represented.) In the next Frederick County election in 1758, GW ran in earnest, spending a large amount of money "treating" the voters (approximately a half-gallon of spirits was purchased per voter!). Washington was easily elected and remained a member of the House of Burgesses until the beginning of the war for independence. He represented Frederick County until 1765 when he was elected by his home county of Fairfax with "an easy and creditable poll."
Although he stated, "I deal little in politics," George Washington was in fact a skilled politician and spent considerable time on what might be considered political activity. He kept all of the polls from his elections and in some cases alphabetized them in order to use them more effectively. His seventeen years of service in the General Assembly gave him invaluable experience into the way a legislative body works and the conflicting pressures and demands that must be taken into account. Compromise and conciliation were needed to achieve goals, lessons Washington learned well. During his early years in the General Assembly, Washington was a relatively obscure burgess (oratorical skill was never his forte). He grew sufficiently in influence and respectability, however, that in the fall of 1774 when it came time for Virginia to send its most prominent members to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Washington was one of the seven burgesses chosen, receiving the votes of approximately 95% of the members of the General Assembly.
George Washington's sense of noblesse oblige (the obligations of the wellborn to improve society) and his growing sense of civic responsibility became increasingly apparent during these years. He joined the vestry of the Anglican parish, became a member of the Alexandria board of trustees, and then a member of the Fairfax County Court. He was very generous with his money as well as his time. His records reveal him taking care of a growing family of nephews and nieces, aiding friends, and giving to the less fortunate. He viewed education as crucial and spent money on schooling for his nephews and for the sons of friends such as William Ramsey and Dr. James Craik.
"Not that I think his becoming a mere scholar is a desirable education for a gentleman, but I conceive a knowledge of books is the basis upon which other knowledge is to be built."
Increasingly, people turned to Washington either as an executor or counselor or guardian, and GW's code of noblesse oblige would not permit him to turn them away. As one biographer notes, "to hear them took hours; to solve their problems or to relieve their distress sometimes called for days of writing and of riding. It was costly but it was not shunned. . . . Instead, GW's service for his neighbors daily increased his sense of obligation to them and, at the same time, gave him longer patience and new understanding of men. Contact with human woe subtly slackened his acquisitive impulse."
By the early 1770s, George Washington's goal of being a great Virginia planter had been accomplished. He was wealthy, successful, influential and widely admired. Except for being disappointed in not fathering any children with Martha, he led the type of life that would be the envy of most. Perhaps Washington would have been content to live his entire life that way, but once again fortune intervened as relations between Great Britain and the American colonies deteriorated. Suddenly, George Washington once more found himself in the center of the storm. The coming of the American Revolution would thrust him into a position of importance that even he, with his great ambition, could not have foreseen.
"The Coming of the American Revolution"
Before the summer of 1774, George Washington had not been one of the more conspicuous opponents of the British measures that inspired colonial resistance. Washington was not a writer, an orator, a constitutional lawyer, or an organizer of urban masses. He was in truth primarily a planter and businessman. Consequently, he had not gained notoriety during the years of agitation in the way that a Sam Adams did in Massachusetts or a Patrick Henry did in Washington's Old Dominion.
Nevertheless, especially during the years from 1769 on, GW was in fact one of the most forward and determined of all of the colonial leaders. George Washington did not simply appear out of nowhere to become the commander in chief of the Continental Army. As it had earlier in connection with the French and Indian War, a number of things all converged to make him the right man at the right place at the right time. There were several factors that made George Washington receptive both to the patriot message of a British conspiracy to destroy America's freedom and to the task of leading armed resistance against what he earlier referred to as "my king and country."
Like most Virginians of the 1750s, young Washington luxuriated in his patriotism and love of king and country. As British national identity intensified at mid-century, most Virginians' initial impulse was to join the chorus, affirm their true 'Britishness', their unquestioned loyalty to king and constitution, and their deep hostility to France and Catholicism. Certainly, young George Washington was enamored with Great Britain. He was disheartened that his father's untimely demise kept him from obtaining a British education like his older half brothers, and he long expressed a desire to go to England and to follow British fashion. On the other hand, there were factors at work that would in time corrode this affection for the mother country.
One important result of the surge of aggressive nationalism in Great Britain by the middle of the century was that the British more clearly defined colonial Americans as "other," as not fully English, or as persons beyond the effective boundaries of the new national imagination. For men like George Washington, striving to be accepted as a member of the club, the sudden realization that the British really regarded white colonial Americans as second-class citizens was a shock. Washington believed that Americans of high achievement were just as deserving as Englishmen of high station. Frustrated by his treatment in the French and Indian War, GW declared, "We cannot conceive that being Americans should deprive us of the benefits of British subjects." He saw British operations up close and was disillusioned by what he experienced. Like viewing the powerful Wizard of Oz, things appeared in a very different light once you looked behind the curtain.
Colonel Washington was disappointed with Great Britain not only in his quest for military rank. As a Virginia planter, Washington had two main financial concerns - to make his plantation profitable and to make his large investments in western lands a success. In his business pursuits, Washington soon ran into difficulties with British merchants that remind one of his earlier disagreements with the British army. Despite his best efforts, Washington was constantly thwarted by acts of Great Britain and its merchants, acts which seemed increasingly not only shortsighted but also mean-spirited as well.
When he thought his efforts to obtain bounty lands along the Great Kanawha River were finally, after almost two decades, to be crowned with success, Parliament in the Quebec Act unceremoniously detached from Virginia the land north of the Ohio River and gave it to Canada. In so doing, she created a condition unfavorable to the development of GW's large tract on the Great Kanawha River. At the same time, the British colonial secretary, Lord Dartmouth, instructed Virginia's governor, Lord Dunmore, to stop granting western lands. As a crowning blow, on March 21, 1775, Dunmore suddenly canceled Washington's claim to thousands of acres of prime land - apparently on the pretext that Washington's surveyor was not qualified to make the surveys. Washington saw it as punishment for his vigorous opposition to the Quebec Act and other punitive measures put forth by an increasingly belligerent British Parliament.
Treated as a second-class citizen, hampered in his efforts to be a great tobacco planter, thwarted in his dream of a western empire, George Washington was understandably receptive to an ideology which warned of corruption and tyranny. And the patriots' message was not only negative but also held out the promise of virtuous, liberty-loving freemen living independent lives and advancing as far as their talents and hard work could take them. Perhaps in joining and supporting this new cause, George Washington saw both a promising cause and the chance to achieve his long-held, if temporarily dormant, desire for fame and glory.
One is struck by the depth of GW's opposition and his willingness to follow a course of armed resistance much earlier than most of his fellow Virginians. In April of 1769, in the midst of protesting the Townshend Acts which were viewed as a new effort to tax the colonies without representation, Washington became one of the first Americans to raise the possibility of armed resistance, (he may have done so as early as 1768). In his letter to George Mason, GW made his position clear but could not write out the emotive word "arms" in its entirety and instead wrote "a-ms."
"At a time when our lordly Masters in Great Britain will be satisfied with nothing less than the deprivation of American freedom, it seems highly necessary that something shou'd be done to avert the stroke and maintain the liberty which we have derived from our ancestors. . . . That no man shou'd scruple, or hesitate a moment to use a-ms in defense of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends; is clearly my opinion; Yet A-ms I wou'd beg leave to add, should be last resource."
Washington went further in this letter than almost any other Virginian was to do publicly for the next five years. Not only was a boycott in order to protest the unjust legislation, but, if it failed, GW asserted that Americans must be prepared to take up arms in a civil war against a tyrannical Parliament in order to protect their civil rights. While the Townshend Acts were repealed, Great Britain's enactment in 1774 of the Coercive Acts (called the Intolerable Acts in America) in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party brought about a new and even graver crisis. Facing the crisis brought George Washington to the center of the stage.
Along with his friend and mentor, George Mason, Washington masterminded the Fairfax Resolves and organized the independent Fairfax militia, steps which put Fairfax County in the vanguard of opposition to what they viewed as British oppression. Another good friend, Bryan Fairfax, son of his patron, William Fairfax, opposed these steps, and Washington's letters to him at this time give a clear window into GW's thinking and demonstrate how completely he embraced the patriot ideology.
"Shall we supinely sit, and see one Provence after another fall a Sacrafice to Despotism. . . . [for Parliament has] exhibited unexampled Testimony of the most despotick System of Tyranny that ever was practiced in a free Government. . . . I think the Parliament of Great Britain hath no more Right to put their hands into my Pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into your's, for money. . . . an Innate Spirit of freedom first told me, that the Measures which Administration hath for sometime been, and now are, most violently pursuing, are repugnant to every principle of natural justice; whilst much abler heads than my own, hath fully convinced me that it is not only repugnant to natural Right, but Subversive of the Laws & Constitution of Great Britain itself. . . the Crisis is arrivd when we must assert our Rights, or Submit to every Imposition that can be heap'd upon us."
The war of words became a war of bullets with the outbreak of actual fighting at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. The event shocked and saddened Washington, even if it did not surprise him. He most clearly expressed his position in a letter to Sally Fairfax's husband, George William, the following month as GW prepared to attend the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. "Unhappy it is though to reflect, that a Brother's Sword has been sheathed in a Brother's breast, and that, the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood or Inhabited by Slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous Man hesitate in his choice?"
Elected to Congress with more votes than any Virginian save the venerable Peyton Randolph who was the President of the Continental Congress, George Washington left for Philadelphia with his mind made up. Arms might be the last resort, but the time for arms had come. Did he expect to play a prominent role in the clash of arms? Did he wish to play a prominent role? While one cannot know with certainty what Washington was thinking, the preponderance of evidence indicates that the answer to both questions is "yes."
Of course, Washington's public answer was "no." Upon hearing that he was about to be nominated as the commander in chief of the yet to be raised Continental Army, an embarrassed Washington bolted from the room, encouraged his friend and attorney, Edmund Pendleton, to oppose the nomination, and emphasized to the delegates that he had not sought the nomination and did not think himself capable of doing the job. While at one level Washington did not want the appointment (what sane man would, considering the difficulties to be surmounted), at another level George Washington wanted the position and made it very likely that it would be offered to him.
There is no disputing his desire for military glory in the French and Indian War when his inclinations were by his own admission strongly bent to arms. Even at the end of that frightful war, he still expressed his belief in the benefits of a heroic death, "Who is there that does not rather envy, than regret a death that gives birth to honour and glorious memory?" GW probably never completely put out of his mind dreams of military glory. It is worth noting that after he resigned and married, he tried, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to buy a number of busts of military heroes for Mount Vernon, including those of Caesar Augustus and Alexander the Great. When he prepared to have his first (and at the time what he probably thought was his only) portrait painted in 1772 by Charles Willson Peale, significantly he donned his old uniform from the French & Indian War, now fourteen years in the past. He was widely recognized as an expert in military affairs and accepted command of a number of different county militias in addition to that of Fairfax County where he and George Mason designed the uniforms later to be adopted for the officers of the new American army. Before GW left Mount Vernon for the Second Continental Congress, Horatio Gates and Charles Lee, former British officers, visited Washington and no doubt wondered, what place, if war came, they could find in the armed forces of the colonies whose cause they had resolved to support. On the way to Philadelphia GW was feted as a military expert; in Baltimore he was asked to review their volunteer units. Congress immediately put him on four important military committees dealing with such issues as ways to defend New York City and how to find ammunition and supplies for the coming conflict.
And, of course, George Washington wore his new military uniform to the sessions of the Congress, the only member to do so. When you are over six feet tall, of imposing martial bearing and wearing a new uniform, and you know there is virtual unanimity among the delegates that an army is to be formed, it can't come as a total shock to discover that you are being seriously considered for a leadership position. Furthermore, Washington was a rare breed in the Congress, a committed patriot of impeccable credentials (in the words of one delegate, "no harum starum ranting swearing fellow but sober, steady, and calm") with considerable military experience and from the crucial colony of Virginia. George Washington throughout his life proved himself a master of and very skilled in using the effective gesture. He was always concerned how his audience would perceive and interpret his conduct. By avoiding actively soliciting for the job and by making the offer come to him, he reassured a nervous Congress that he could be trusted with power.
His very first act upon accepting command further reassured them. He offered to serve without pay. By doing so, GW went far to demonstrate he was a man who could be trusted with power because he took it reluctantly, would not abuse it, and would relinquish when the task was done. Unlike many revolutionaries, George Washington had a healthy psyche. He had a family and a plantation that he loved and to which he greatly desired to return. While desiring fame and glory, it was the fame and glory, not of achieving great power for its own sake, but rather of performing service for the greater good, a service which would earn him the affection and admiration of his fellow men that he so ardently desired. The chance to lead America in what soon became the "glorious cause," to defend and strengthen liberty and republicanism and to earn glory and fame for George Washington was a "win-win" situation. Time would demonstrate that the Congress chose more wisely than they could have hoped.
"Commander in Chief"
After penning a touching letter to Martha explaining his appointment as unavoidable and expecting to return home in the fall, General George Washington and a small retinue immediately left Philadelphia for the Boston area where the armed conflict was already underway. By the time GW arrived, the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775) had been fought, and the American forces temporarily encircled the main British army that was in complete control of the important port city. The task facing the new Commander in Chief was daunting in the extreme, and his chances for success highly problematical.
George Washington's ultimate success has been attributed to many causes ranging from British incompetence to divine intervention. Certainly, one crucial factor in his ultimate success stemmed from Washington's early understanding that only a trained, professional army could achieve the required triumph. Perhaps no one in America saw earlier and more clearly that only an army built on a permanent establishment and under centralized leadership could drive the British out of America. This idea, while commonplace today, did not accord with the accepted wisdom of his day which placed great emphasis on rage militaire. That position held that the zeal and virtue of ordinary men, inspired by great leaders and aided by the true commander in chief, Jehovah, would achieve victory. As Benjamin Rush expressed it, good generals would within six months make an army of heroes.
George Washington, while looking to Providence for aid, did not accept this line of reasoning. In his view, a trained, disciplined army led by well-qualified officers, essentially modeled on the British example, was the pivot of the entire effort to win the war and create the nation. George Washington was the consummate champion of military professionalism. He argued tirelessly for a standing army and well-paid officers, and his success in creating a relatively stable nucleus of a professional army in the midst of near chaos was a great achievement. Always the realist, GW recognized that men were motivated by interest as well as honor, and any program that did not take into account an accurate assessment of the nature of man was destined to fail.
"I do not mean to exclude altogether the ideas of patriotism. I know it exists, and I know it has done much in the present contest. But I will venture to assert, that a great and lasting war can never be supported on this principle alone. It must be aided by a prospect of interest or some reward. For a time, it may, of itself push men to action: to bear much, to encounter difficulties; but it will not endure unassisted by interest. . . . The few therefore, who act upon Principles of disinterestedness, are, comparatively speaking, no more than a drop in the Ocean."
In a sense, Washington fought at least a two-front war. He had to build the kind of army capable of defeating the British and, at the same time, convince the Congress and the American people that such an army would not endanger their basic liberty. The bias against a standing army and the fear of the man on horseback becoming a tyrant were very strong. In this struggle for the hearts and minds of the people, General Washington worked ceaselessly to prove he and his army could be trusted.
If the army were to be trusted, it must be a disciplined force, not an ill-regulated mob. To introduce discipline and subordination into an army where "the principles of democracy so universally prevail, where so great equality and so thorough a leveling spirit predominate" was a never-ending challenge. Believing that "discipline is the soul of the army," and that "the Men must be brought to face danger," Washington's goal was to turn balky, armed civilians into deferential soldiers who would obey orders from their superiors. There was to be a sharp distinction between the officers and the men, and the officers were not to let the men forget the difference. Only in this way could the army defend the liberties of America and keep the revolutionary implications of the war from spinning out of control.
"Be strict in your discipline; that is, to require nothing unreasonable of your officers and men, but see that whatever is required be punctually complied with. Reward and punish every man according to his merit, without partiality or prejudice; hear his complaints; if well founded, redress them; if otherwise, discourage them in order to prevent frivolous ones. Discourage vice in every shape, and impress upon the mind of every man, from the first to the lowest, the importance of the cause, and what is that they are contending for."
As Americans turned away from King George III, a wrenching experience for a great many, they needed new symbols to fill the void, and from a very early date they replaced one George with another, more virtuous George. Often a self-righteous people, Americans vicariously luxuriated in virtue through the virtue of their new leader. One part of George Washington's genius was that he early recognized his symbolic importance for his countrymen, and he exploited that symbolism to strengthen union. Taking as his model, Cato, the patriot who declared, "thy life is not thy own when Rome demands it," GW sought to act as the classical republican general, and to be the type of hero that the American people desired as their leader.
Initially, George Washington accepted the command only reluctantly and with great diffidence, and then his first act was to refuse a salary for his sacrifices. Throughout the struggle, he became the embodiment of the patriot who puts the common good above his own ease. He was the model of courage, often risking his life on the front lines and by his presence giving courage and inspiration to his men. Forgoing a sumptuous life-style, rejecting opportunities for nepotism or special treatment, Washington, in contrast to his conduct in the French and Indian War, did not take a single furlough throughout the course of the war. Despite his encouraging words to Martha that he would be home in the fall, it would be over six years before he saw his beloved Mount Vernon again. Then he saw for the first time his four new step-grandchildren, all born while he was away.
One of George Washington's greatest legacies was his emphasis that in a republic the military must always remain subordinate to civilian control. Exquisitely sensitive to the perceived danger of an Oliver Cromwell in America, Washington deftly eased the fears of Congress on this front. Over and over again, he deferred to Congress, even on matters where he had authority to act. While constantly frustrated by the pettiness and wrangling of Congress, which resulted in inadequate supplies and poor pay for his men, Washington never wavered in his belief that he was a "citizen soldier," and answerable to Congress. He never crossed the line separating cajoling from compulsion. Late in the war, a French General summarized the General's achievement: "This is the 7th year that he has commanded the army and has obeyed Congress: more need not be said." During the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy, near the end of the war, when many frustrated military officers threatened not to disband the army until they had been paid, Washington effectively used his vast prestige and the wellspring of affection for him to nip the conspiracy in the bud and affirm the supremacy of the civil authority. (He moved many of the officers to tears by putting his glasses on in public and saying that he found himself not only going gray in the service of his country but blind as well.)
And when victory was finally achieved, Washington followed the example of another classical hero, Cincinnatus, and voluntarily resigned his commission and returned to his farm as a private citizen. As he expressed it, "The sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first to be laid aside when these liberties are firmly established. . . . Having now finished the work assigned me, I now retire from the great theater of Action."
Of course, before the General could retire with his laurels, he would have to win them on the battlefield. George Washington's record on the battlefield was not particularly impressive. He lost more major battles than he won, and he did not demonstrate genius as a military tactician. His battle plans were almost always too complicated, and he occasionally made serious and costly blunders. Nevertheless, Washington's overall strategy was excellent, his administrative skills first rate, his perseverance in difficult times unwavering, and his courage and leadership inspiring. He became the indispensable man of the American Revolution.
Historians often compare General Washington to Fabius, the Roman General who prudently avoided battle and sought victory by employing delaying and defensive tactics. The comparison, while understandable, is also misleading. Realizing the destruction of his army would be the practical end of the revolution, GW came to believe that caution must be his watchword. His philosophy was summed up in his advice to one of his generals, "You must be sensible that the most serious ill consequences may and would, probably, result from it in case of failure, and prudence dictates, that it should be cautiously examined in all its lights, before it is attempted." If Washington acted liked Fabian, it was because of necessity. He was by nature an aggressive fighter, eager to strike a fatal blow against the enemy. Often forced by circumstances to be defensive, it is difficult to call him a Fabian when one recalls how often - at Boston, Trenton, Princeton, Germantown, Brandywine, Monmouth, Yorktown - General Washington sought battle. If his strategy was defensive, it is best called an "aggressive defensive" strategy.
While Washington did not achieve his ultimate goal of destroying the British army at Boston, he did, thanks to the acquisition of much needed artillery from Fort Ticonderoga by Henry Knox, force the British to evacuate the city on March 17, 1776. How to best parry the next British attack, virtually certain to come at New York City, was a much more difficult task. The city, essentially an island connected to the mainland by a single bridge, was virtually indefensible against an enemy controlling the waterways, but political necessity made the effort mandatory. Attempting to maneuver large numbers of troops, many with little or no training, against the largest force ever sent to the Americas, the General demonstrated he had much to learn. Leaving his left flank exposed, he was soundly beaten at the Battle of Long Island in August of 1776. His army was saved from complete destruction only because of the caution of his opponent, General William Howe, and the heroic action of John Glover and his Marblehead mariners who ferried the army to the comparative safety of Manhattan. Soon forced to withdraw north of the city, Washington left a force of nearly 3,000 men and much valuable equipment at Fort Washington fronting the Hudson River. His men were soon forced to surrender, and Washington found himself retreating across New Jersey, as his army seemed to melt away like snow before the sun. These truly were the "times that try men's souls," and GW's despair was palpable.
"If I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy on this side of the grave, I should put him in my stead with my feelings; and yet I do not know what plan of conduct to pursue. I see the impossibility of serving with reputation. . . and yet I am told that if I quit the command, inevitable ruin will follow from the distraction that will ensue. In confidence, I tell you that I never was in such an unhappy, divided state since I was born."
George Washington did not, however, succumb to despair. Indeed, desperation drove him to action. Willing to think boldly and unconventionally, Washington formed plans for a daring attack on the British garrison (comprised of Hessian troops) at Trenton, New Jersey. More a raid than a battle, the attack on Trenton reveals Washington at his very best and became a turning point in the war. Wisely choosing the morning after Christmas for the attack, the great difficulty facing Washington was to ferry his forces across the ice-filled Delaware River and reach the Hessian garrison at Trenton without being detected. Although two of the three columns failed to cross the river, Washington's main body did, successfully surprising the Hessians and capturing nearly a thousand men, including the mortally wounded commander, Johann Rall, who had failed to read a note sent to him warning him of the attack.
The victory might have proved to be short-lived. The British marched from New York under General Cornwallis to avenge the defeat, and the enlistment for most of Washington's troops expired at the end of the year. While more comfortable with gesture than with oratory, Washington eloquently urged his men to stay on. "My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected. . . . You have worn yourselves out with fatigue and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably never can do under any other circumstances." Enough responded to allow him to keep his army in the field. Rather than retreat before Cornwallis, GW conducted the extremely risky operation of slipping away and marching north, essentially putting his army between two British armies. At Princeton, Washington's forces ran into a very small part of the British army. By placing himself literally on the front lines where death was likely, he rallied his forces to a second victory within a week. In so doing he successfully changed the momentum of the war, forcing the British to pull their army into a few safe enclaves and allowing the patriots to regain virtually all of New Jersey.
Washington's successes at Trenton and Princeton, in addition to raising patriot morale, discouraged General Howe from marching toward Philadelphia through New Jersey, but he succeeded by bringing his army up the Chesapeake Bay. Washington's efforts to thwart him both at Brandywine and Germantown failed, and these defeats, coupled with the success of the American general, Horatio Gates, at Saratoga, led to murmuring that Washington was in fact not the best man for the job. How widespread this opposition, known as the Conway Cabal, was, and how seriously it threatened Washington's leadership, is debatable. Certainly, once the critics were exposed, GW emerged from the incident more clearly than ever the key military figure, and his eminence would never be seriously threatened again.
While dealing with the Conway Cabal, General Washington faced the greater challenge of keeping his army intact at Valley Forge during the grim winter of 1777/78. Valley Forge has properly become the symbol of the suffering of the Continental Army during the war as the supply system all but broke down, and the privations endured by the troops were extreme. Finally, prospects brightened as winter's grip was broken, the shad began to run in the Schuylkill River, and the hard-driving, hard-cursing new inspector-general, Baron von Steuben, effectively drilled and prepared the Continentals for the next clash with the British regulars.
It came in June of 1778 at Monmouth Courthouse as the new British General, Sir Henry Clinton, marched his men back to New York City, and Washington saw an opportunity to inflict a blow. The chances for a major success were lost by the unseemly retreat ordered by the controversial General Charles Lee (no relationship to the Lee family of Stratford Hall and to Robert E. Lee). Whether Lee, captured in the fall of 1776, was won over by the British is uncertain, but he was convinced the American troops could not stand up to British regulars and acted accordingly. Only the timely arrival of General Washington averted disaster and precipitated one of the dramatic moments of the war when he confronted Lee in the midst of the battle. According to Lafayette, it "was not the language, but the manner ? no one had ever before seen Washington so terribly excited; his whole appearance was fearful."
"General Washington seemed to arrest fortune with one glance. . . His presence stopped the retreat. . . His graceful bearing on horseback, his calm and deportment which still retained a trace of displeasure. . . were all calculated to inspire the highest degree of enthusiasm. . . I thought then as now that I have never beheld so superb a man."
The battle was a standoff, but it is worth noting that the von Steuben-trained Americans held their own with the British regulars, and Clinton turned his attention to the south and never again sought battle with Washington's battle-hardened troops.
Another heartening development of 1778 was the formalization of an alliance with France, an alliance cemented in significant measure because of her confidence that the Americans, exemplified by Washington, would see the battle through and not seek reconciliation with Great Britain. While the alliance augured well for America's cause, benefits were slow to be realized. Some Americans let up, thinking the war won, and friction developed between the two nations on just how they would best cooperate. It was really not until the Yorktown Campaign of 1781 that the alliance paid the type of dividend for which Washington hoped. In the meantime, the harried General had to keep his army intact and supplied, and deal with dramatic inflation, mutiny and the threat of mutiny, as well as the devastating blow administered by Benedict Arnold's defection to the British. Once again it was a time that tried men's souls.
"I see nothing before us but accumulating distress. We have been half our time without provisions and are like to continue so. We have no Magazines [of munitions], nor money to buy them, and in a little time we shall have no Men, if we had money to pay them. We have lived upon expedients till we can live no longer. In a word, the history of the War is a history of false hopes and temporary devices, instead of system and economy."
Despite the difficulties, Washington persevered, and in the Yorktown campaign everything finally fell into place. The French provided a major fleet of warships from the West Indies, siege guns from their base in Rhode Island, and a large army from outside of New York City. Without French aid and technical know-how, and their temporary control of the seas, the siege compelling the surrender of Lord Cornwallis and over 7,000 British troops would not have occurred. But neither could it have occurred without Washington's perseverance and boldness and willingness to embrace the plan. While the war dragged on for another year and a half, the defeat at Yorktown broke Great Britain's will to continue to pour men and money into the American war. Peace negotiations were begun in earnest; in September of 1783, the Treaty of Paris was ratified, and the United States of America took its place among the nations of the world.
During the chaos of the final chapter of the war, many, to Washington's horror, looked to him as the man to bring order and stability to the country and justice to its troops. At least one supporter even urged him to become a king. Surprising the world at large, but certainly not those who knew him well, GW utterly rejected any such notions. After an emotional, tear-filled goodbye to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York City, George Washington fulfilled his promise and returned his commission and handed in his sword to the Congress, temporarily sitting at Annapolis, Maryland. Hurrying to his beloved Mount Vernon and his family, GW arrived home on Christmas eve, 1783. After eight and a half long and difficult years, with his "mind constantly on the stretch," George Washington was ready to make a final retirement from public life and live out his remaining days as a farmer on his own land.
"The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented the Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish."
"Retirement but No Rest"
Victory achieved, his reputation assured, George Washington felt almost euphoric as he was released from years of heavy responsibility and once again able to engage, as he put it, in "agricultural pursuits & rural amusements. . . most congenial with my temper."
"At length, my dear Marquis [Lafayette], I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, and under the shadow of my own vine and fig tree. Free from the bustle of a camp and the busy scenes of public life, I am solacing myself with those tranquill enjoyments which the soldier who is ever in pursuit of fame. . . can have very little conception. . . . Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all, and this, my dear friend, being the order of my march, I will move gently down the stream of life until I sleep with my fathers."
Retirement by no means meant inactivity. Washington, now fifty-one years of age, truly believed every hour wasted was lost forever, and he remained extremely active. He lavished attention on Mount Vernon, acting as a landscape architect, interior decorator, and agricultural experimenter. He entertained constantly and expansively, once describing Mount Vernon as "a well-resorted tavern." Up early each day, GW rode for several hours, checking on his five farms and overseeing the work of his several hundred slaves. Family and friends constantly sought, and usually received, aid and advice.
Beyond Mount Vernon, Washington still looked westward and hoped to develop his western lands and to improve trade connections between east and west. No project engaged more of GW's time and energy than the idea of linking the west with the east through a series of improved roads and new canals. For Washington, the west was a potential source of personal wealth but, more importantly, it was an essential ingredient to America's success as a great nation. George Washington was the supreme nationalist, and as one leading scholar notes, GW "more than any member of the Revolutionary generation, both by word and deed, advanced the concept of an American nation."
The "great object," in Washington's view, was "to connect the Western Territory with the Atlantic States; all others with me are secondary." To help achieve that goal, and coincidentally bring trade to Alexandria, Washington became president of the Potomac Company, jointly chartered in both Virginia and Maryland, to construct a system of canals linking the two sections together by a water route. He threw himself into the task with unbounded enthusiasm despite the manifest difficulties, the greatest of which was to build a canal around Great Falls. Guests at Mount Vernon were overwhelmed with Washington's assessment of how it could be achieved, thanks to a new boat by James Rumsey. One guest recalled, "Hearing little else from the persuasive tongue of this great man, I confess completely infected me with canal mania." James Madison informed Thomas Jefferson, "The earnestness with which he espouses the undertaking is hardly to be described, and shews that a mind like his, capable of great views & which has long been occupied with them, cannot bear a vacancy; and surely he could not have chosen an occupation more worthy of succeeding."
A comprehensive vision of a national republic was the primary motivating factor in GW's involvement in the Potomac Company. The years following the ending of the War for Independence caused Washington great concern that the nation he had done so much to bring into being would not survive as a viable republic. Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government was severely limited, denied taxing power or an effective way to execute its decisions. The individual states often clashed with one another rather than cooperated. In some states, debtors gained control and creditors faced the problem of having to accept virtually worthless currency for legitimate loans. Foreign countries showed little respect. Great Britain kept troops in America despite the Treaty of Paris. Spain denied the use of the Mississippi River to American commerce. Barbary pirates seized and held for ransom thousands of Americans, and the country was too poor to ransom them and militarily too weak to stop the atrocities. In short, in the minds of a growing number of men who "thought continentally," America was in the midst of a critical period, and unless remedies were discovered and applied quickly, the great experiment in republican government would fail. George Washington was certainly among that group, and his letters in 1785 and 1786 are full of foreboding. A letter to John Jay is typical.
Your sentiments, that our affairs are drawing rapidly to a crisis, accord with my own. What the event will be, is also beyond the reach of my foresight. We have errors to correct; we have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. Experience has taught us, that men will not adopt and carry into execution measures the best calculated for their own good, without the intervention of a coercive power. I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation without having lodged some where a power, which will pervade the whole Union in as energetic a manner, as the authority of the State Governments extends over the several States.
Washington knew increasing numbers of people were willing to consider any form of government, even a return to monarchy, if it would ensure order and the protection of property. Yet, in his words, "What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious!" Washington was not alone in hoping "that wise measures may be taken in time" to avert a calamity. There was a growing movement, spearheaded by men like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, for a national convention to propose ways to strengthen the Articles of Confederation and give adequate power to the central government. Frightened by an uprising of angry farmers in western Massachusetts, called Shays Rebellion, there was enough impetus to call for the meeting of all the states to be held at the Pennsylvania State House (now called Independence Hall) in May of 1787.
It was unclear how well attended the convention would be as an earlier call for a meeting at Annapolis in 1786 had fizzled out. Certainly, a crucial component in any calculation was whether George Washington would accept his appointment and attend as a delegate from Virginia. To a degree that is difficult to appreciate, GW was idolized and revered as no other figure ever has been in American history. His attendance would instantly give the meeting added importance and prestige, and, consequently, he was "delicately pressed by many to attend." Initially, Washington leaned strongly against doing so.
There were several reasons for this beyond the desire to remain under his own vine and fig tree. At the end of the war, he had given a final farewell to public life. Wouldn't he be subject to criticism and charges of excessive ambition if he now changed his mind? The Society of Cincinnati, of which Washington was president, was meeting in Philadelphia at the same time, and Washington had told them he was indisposed and could not attend. Wouldn't it be disrespectful to the Society to then attend another meeting at the same time and location? Even disregarding these points, Washington was hesitant to commit his reputation to a questionable enterprise, one whose legality was doubted by many. Washington believed that "the people must feel before they act," and he wondered if they had "felt" enough ill effects under the Articles of Confederation to support changes to drastically strengthen the central government. If a major effort were made prematurely and failed, there would not be another chance to right the listing ship of state. Nevertheless, despite these concerns, the worsening conditions following Shays Rebellion and the gentle but remarkably persuasive reasoning of James Madison convinced GW that the meeting in Philadelphia was the last, best hope to repair the experiment before it collapsed.
George Washington's contribution to the creation and ratification of the United States Constitution was very significant. His very presence added prestige to the meeting. He was unanimously elected President and presided with decorum and fairness over every session during the four months from May to September. His appointment deflected any criticism about the convention's patriotic credentials. As President, he spoke rarely, but public oratory was not his strong suit. When he did step down from his chair as presiding office and recommend that there should be one member in the House of Representatives for each 30,000 people instead of the proposed 40,000, his recommendation was unanimously approved. At countless dinners and meetings, Washington made his views for the need for a stronger central government crystal clear, and a reconstruction of the voting by the Virginia delegation confirms this.
The office of president was created with George Washington in mind. This creative and original feature of the Constitution gave the president, while hedged, very significant powers and made him essentially independent of the judicial and executive branches. According to one participant, the powers granted would not "have been so great had not many of the members cast their eyes toward General Washington as president; and shaped their ideas of the powers to be given to a president, by their opinions of his virtue." At the close of the session, he was the first to affix his signature to the new constitution, and while not happy with all of its parts, Washington soon became one of its strongest supporters.
Because of perceived conflict of interest, Washington refused to attend the Virginia ratifying convention in the summer of 1788, but he lobbied hard behind the scenes for its ratification. To him the real choice was to accept the Constitution drawn up in Philadelphia or see the dissolution of the union. "Thus believing, I had not, nor have I now any hesitation in deciding on which [way] to lean." He carefully scrutinized the writings of those against the Constitution but remained convinced that the new government had sufficient checks against tyranny and sufficient power to effectively govern.
"It will at least be a recommendation to the proposed Constitution that it is provided with more checks and barriers against the introduction of Tyranny, and those of a nature less liable to be surmounted, than any Government hitherto instituted among mortals, hath possessed. We are not to expect perfection in this world. . . . Demagogues, men who are unwilling to lose any of their State consequence, and interested characters in each, will oppose any general government. But let these be regarded rightly, and justice, it is to be hoped, will at length prevail."
The major claim of its critics was that the new government threatened individual liberty. The most effective rejoinder was that George Washington supported the new constitution, and he would never support a document destructive of liberty. Critics admitted as much. An Anti-federalist, William Grayson, told one correspondent, "I think that were it not for one great character in America so many men would not be for this government." Following Virginia's ratification, James Monroe wrote Thomas Jefferson, "Be assured his [Washington's] influence carried this government." While pleased with the results, the ratification of the new Constitution posed another dilemma for Washington.
At one level, GW knew that he would be the first President of the United States. He was everyone's choice for the office, and Washington was simply too astute not to realize that fact. On the other hand, a genuine part of him did not want the position, and he was more reluctant to become president in 1789 than he had been to become commander in chief in 1775. The task facing the new president was daunting. Washington had no desire to face "the 10,000 embarrassments, perplexities & trouble to which I must again be exposed in the evening of a life, already consumed in public cares." Washington had pledged to permanently retire, and at his advancing age he did not want to leave his much-loved Mount Vernon yet again. His reputation and fame were already secure and could, in his view, only be weakened in the new position. As always, GW was afraid he would not be able to perform the job satisfactorily. The desire for fame and fear of failure sat uneasily with Washington throughout his entire life. His letters of the time have a plaintive quality to them - I don't want the position. Please don't choose me. "The great Searcher of human hearts knows there is no wish in mine, beyond that of living and dying an honest man, on my own farm."
In the final analysis, there was no other choice. Every single presidential elector, meeting at different places and times around the nation, chose George Washington to be the country's first President. Ultimately, for Washington, it was a "sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty." Like the Roman patriot Cato, Washington's life was not his own when his country called. While he might desire retirement, he could not refuse the call of his country. "If the sacrifice has been great, the occasion was still greater." He confided in his diary that he prepared to leave Mount Vernon for his inauguration in New York City "with a mind oppressed with more anxious & painful sensations than I have words to express." He came close in a letter to a friend, "My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit, who is going to the place of his execution."
"Launching the New Government"
"The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as 'deeply', as 'finally', staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."
George Washington's First Inaugural Address
If the task of helping to preserve "the sacred fire of liberty" was an intimidating one, George Washington brought many strengths and talents to his new office. His popularity was simply without parallel in American history. Washington's inaugural trip to New York City in 1789 led to a series of welcomes that treated him almost as a Messiah. Some participants declared that now they could die happy, having seen the great Washington with their own eyes. He inspired incredible trust and had a vast reservoir of good will to draw upon.
The new President skillfully drew on this great wellspring of trust as he wrestled with the particularly challenging problem of strengthening the national government's power. From his experiences as Commander in Chief during the American Revolution, GW had come to believe a strong national government was absolutely essential to preserving an effective and genuine union. Equally important, if somewhat paradoxical, Washington believed a strong government was necessary in order to preserve the rights and liberties of both the states and citizens. Excessive parochialism and individualism would ultimately lead to the loss of the rights they were meant to protect. Yet, Washington had to contend with the fact that at the very core of America's philosophy was a deep distrust and fear of a consolidated, central government. In short, as Joseph Ellis notes, "What was politically essential for the survival of the infant nation was ideologically at odds with what it claimed to stand for." It is difficult to imagine anyone else having the wellspring of trust and public confidence to establish a stable and effective system of government and to convince most Americans that an energetic government was not incompatible with republican liberty. Without the deep affection for their president, the fragile American experiment would have fragmented. He was the initial "core of gravity" that held the union together through its first critical challenges.
Few men, as Edmund Morgan has shown, have understood power and effective leadership better than George Washington. Throughout his career, he never underestimated the importance of looking the part. To be powerful, one must look powerful, and the President, blessed by an imposing physique and an excellent sense of theater, looked the part. He was able to endow the presidency with dignity and a certain formality and ceremony necessary to the rituals of governing without slipping (except in the minds of his relatively few critics) into the dangerous trappings of monarchy. It was a fine line to draw for Americans needed heroes and strong leaders, but at the same time they feared power. Washington's "modest dignity which at once commanded respect, and inspired the purest attachment" helped the country move relatively easily from monarchy to republicanism.
How successfully the experiment began was crucial. The first president was particularly sensitive that he and his administration were walking on "untrodden ground." As he put it, "Many things which appear of little importance of themselves at the beginning may have great & durable consequences from their having been established at the commencement of a new general government." Washington knew he personally would be closely scrutinized. "My political conduct must be exceedingly circumspect and proof against just criticism, for the eyes of Argus are upon me, and no slip will pass unnoticed." That is why a great deal of time was spent on apparently trivial matters such as how should the president be addressed (John Adams suggested 'His Exalted High Mightiness'), and the manner in which the president should receive the general public. It was decided that the President and his wife, Martha, would make a brief appearance to greet invited guests in a rather stiff and formal way before retiring to seclusion. It was thought necessary that a certain distance be kept although Washington carried this ritual for reasons of state, not from any personal preference.
George Washington was more than simply presidential looking. He was a skilled and talented leader. He was an astute judge of character and ability, and he was comfortable enough in his own persona that he sought the support of the "best and the brightest" to aid him in his mission. He was also an excellent administrator. Probably nine-tenths of his time as Commander in Chief had been spent in administration. Managing Mount Vernon, his western lands, and hundreds of slaves honed these skills. Additionally, Washington had made no bargains to attain the presidency, and he had no debts to pay off or special interests to mollify. John Adams, an occasional critic of the first president, declared, "No man, I believe, has influence with the president. He seeks information from all quarters & judges more independently than any man I ever knew."
George Washington approached his task as President with the mindset of a strong nation builder. George Washington was an "American firster." As he wrote Patrick Henry, "I want an American character, that the powers in Europe may be convinced that we act for ourselves and not for others." His primary goal was to successfully establish the union and to do all that he could do to unify the country. In order to achieve his overarching goal of a strong union, the central government must be given enough power and authority to effectively govern, but other specific goals would have to be achieved as well. The problem of the national debt and sufficient funding must be solved. Commerce must be encouraged. The western frontier must be secured from both Native Americans and foreign influence. Peace must be maintained with European powers. Partisanship and sectionalism must be minimized even if they could not be eliminated.
Foremost among the immediate pressing problems facing the president was the large national debt that threatened to strangle the new government before it was able to establish itself. The interest on the debt alone was considerably larger than the total income of the government, and, unless a way was found to deal with the crisis, the possibility of repudiating the debt had to be faced. Fortunately for Washington, whose understanding of the intricacies of banking and high finance was minimal, his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, the thirty-four old "bastard brat of a Scottish peddler" (again quoting the colorful John Adams) was a financial genius and one of the most influential of all of the founding fathers. Hamilton's bold plan involving funding, assumption of state debts, tariffs, and a national bank might solve the immediate crisis but only at a grave price. In the eyes of a growing number of his critics, led by Washington's brilliant Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton's former collaborator, James Madison, it would do so for the benefit of speculators and the wealthy and to the detriment of ordinary soldiers and farmers. Furthermore, Hamilton's plan enhanced the power of the national government to a dangerous level, threatening the rights of the states and endangering the liberties of the people.
The development of modern political parties, much to the chagrin of Washington, who saw them as a threat to the union, grew in part out of this dispute. The Republican Party of Jefferson stressed individual liberty, limited government, states rights, strict construction of the Constitution, and the agrarian way. The Federalist party of Alexander Hamilton put its stress on an active and energetic government, a flexible interpretation of the Constitution, the need for order, and a growing and bustling economy which would allow America to take its proper place among the nations of the world and bring economic prosperity to its people. The differences were profound and personal as well as philosophical. As President, Washington worked hard, if ultimately unsuccessfully, to keep relative harmony between his two brilliant cabinet members, both of whom he relied on for advice and aid.
Washington also strove mightily to maintain harmony with Congress. A former legislator, GW was well aware of their sensibilities. The new Constitution established an intricate system of checks and balances, giving the various branches of government independent powers but significantly limiting what they could do without the support of the other branches. George Washington would be a "strong" president in areas where he felt the Constitution gave him power, but he would go out of his way to cooperate with Congress and not infringe on its area of authority. As a general rule, Washington was extremely circumspect and deferential in his dealings with Congress. He seldom recommended to Congress specific items for its legislative agenda and only twice in eight years did he exercise his power to veto bills. Relations were generally cordial, although clashes occurred, especially over the respective role of each branch in the conduct of foreign affairs.
Foreign relations consisted of several interrelated components. In Washington's vision of the union, the west, the area between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River, played an essential role. While Great Britain gave up her claims to this area in the Treaty of Paris (1783), it was by no means certain that the area would permanently remain a part of the United States. Indeed, GW firmly believed that unless the national government could protect its citizens and link the west to the east through commercial connections, the west would eventually become separated from the rest of the country. The actions of Great Britain, Spain, and the Native American tribes, especially those of the northern Indians, complicated Washington's task. The British, claiming that the Americans had violated the Treaty of Paris by failing to settle the legitimate pre-war debts owed to British citizens, had declined to relinquish control of a line of important military forts in the Northwest Territory. The Spanish, after successfully prohibiting American shipping on the mighty Mississippi, were making incursions into Kentucky and Tennessee. The Indians, secretly armed by the British, were openly hostile to Americans seeking to push them ever-farther west. Fearing the loss of the west unless decisive actions were taken, Washington concentrated his efforts and the major part of the nation's budget in controlling the Indian tribes in the northwest. Twice, the Miami Indians defeated American forces, but in 1794, the Americans, under the leadership of General Anthony Wayne, completely routed a large Indian force under the command of Little Turtle at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (Ohio). The victory led to the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 that opened up Ohio for large-scale settlement.
Another threat to the stability of the frontier was the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 that occurred when angry frontiersmen in western Pennsylvania refused to pay the excise tax placed on domestic spirits. In the words of one scholar, "Now that the frontier was temporarily safe from red savages, the white savages who refused to accept the burdens of government would have to be disciplined." Washington moved slowly and moderately, but once the decision to use force was reached, he agreed with Hamilton that the government should be "like a colossus." He wanted no repeat of Shays Rebellion where the federal government was shown to be ineffectual. The new government of the United States must demonstrate it had both the power and the will to enforce its laws. Washington put his great prestige behind the action, actually leading the militia for part of their trek west, the only time an American president has actually led the military forces in the field.
Serious as problems were in the west, they paled in comparison to the challenge faced by Washington as a result of the French Revolution and the advent of a new and serious war between France and Great Britain. President Washington desired national unity, social stability, sound money, and flourishing commerce. The French Revolution threatened all of those goals. Virtually all Americans rejoiced in the early stages of the French Revolution. When the Bastille fell in 1789, Lafayette sent its key to Washington, the "patriarch" of liberty. Unfortunately, the French Revolution soon took a turn toward violence and extremism which caused Washington considerable concern. That concern deepened when France, announcing a war of all people against all kings, executed their monarchs and declared war on Great Britain in 1793.
Americans were deeply - and passionately - divided on the proper course to follow. While virtually no one wanted to go to outright war, the Republicans, led by Jefferson, were sympathetic to France and eager to help. After all, the French were fighting for "liberty, fraternity and equality," and Americans owed France a great debt for her help against a tyrannical Britain. The Federalists, led by Hamilton, who referred to the French Revolution as a volcano of "atheism, depravity and absurdity," feared support for the revolution there would lead both to extremism in America and to an open confrontation with Great Britain which might snuff out the "sacred fire of liberty." Complicating things, the French Revolution was viewed almost in religious terms by people on both sides of the issue. As GW knew, "religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause."
President Washington's primary goal was to minimize the partisan division at home and prevent America from being ensnared by the conflict and dragged into the war. He firmly believed if the United States were to assist France in any significant way, it would immediately be at odds, if not at war, with Great Britain. Caught in the middle of the historic rivalry between the two most powerful nations in Europe, GW feared America might be drawn into war, a circumstance he opposed at virtually all costs. What America needed in Washington's view was time. "For sure I am, if this country is preserved in tranquillity twenty years longer, it may bid defiance, in a just cause, to any power whatever, such, in that time, will be its population, wealth, and resource."
After consulting with his cabinet, President Washington decided to issue a proclamation declaring America's neutrality although he did not actually use the word, neutrality. The action was assailed in the opposition press, which was growing stronger and more critical, and there was debate over whether the President or Congress had such power. Some argued that since only Congress could declare war, only Congress should declare neutrality. America's neutrality was soon tested by the actions of the energetic but hotheaded French ambassador for the new republic, Citizen Edmund Genet, who soon began arming American privateers and seizing British ships in American waters. Genet's actions were so extreme that even the Republicans ultimately agreed with Washington's decision to demand his recall. Yet, if Genet's efforts to enlist popular support for the French proved to be nothing more than enthusiastic bumbling, at the same time British interference with American shipping on the open seas was pushing the country to the brink of war.
Republicans in Congress sought economic sanctions against Great Britain to force her to respect America's neutral rights. Partisan wrangling was intense. To take the issue out of Congress and hopefully mediate the crisis, Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to England to negotiate a treaty. Completed in November 1794, the treaty achieved the main goal of Washington's instructions, namely peace with Great Britain, but it appeared to do so at the expense of American interest and the French alliance. When they learned the terms of the treaty, Republicans were outraged. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to write that Jay's Treaty belonged "in the annals of treason rather than in the annals of diplomacy." There is little doubt that the majority of Americans opposed the treaty, and it presented the President with the gravest challenge of his presidency.
While disappointed with several of the specific terms, the treaty avoided war with Great Britain and gave the young nation time to grow and mature. In the final analysis, that was the decisive factor. Washington, despite the criticism that would be leveled against him (and no president was ever more thin-skinned to public criticism), signed the treaty. Following the example of the high minded Roman of classical times, he was willing to place his greatest public asset - his reputation - at risk for what he regarded as the greater good of the American nation.
" While I feel the most lively gratitude for the many instances of approbation from my country; I can no otherwise deserve it, than by obeying the dictates of my conscience."
While problems naturally persisted, George Washington's accomplishments as president were many. The financial crisis had been solved and commerce was thriving. The west had been secured and freedom to use the Mississippi River had been achieved. The nation had avoided war, and the new government was now a going concern. Washington had visited every state of the union in an effort to strengthen national unity. Now after eight long and difficult years in office, he would again voluntarily withdraw from power and prove once again that his deepest allegiance was thoroughly republican. The relinquishment of power to the new administration was the first of many peaceful transfers of power that would come to distinguish the American experiment.
Washington's final significant action was the presentation of a Farewell Address (printed in newspapers and not actually spoken). It was essentially Washington's final sermon to the American people and what he hoped would be his lasting legacy. While written in part by James Madison (Washington had asked for Madison's help when he thought he would retire after one term), and in part by Alexander Hamilton, the ideas were George Washington's. Covering many topics, the Farewell Address stressed two central points, unity at home and independence abroad. In one last plea, George Washington emphasized yet again his belief in the importance of a strong American Union.
"The Unity of Government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so; . . . it is of infinite moment, that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective & individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual & immoveable attachment to it."
"Death of a Hero"
March 4, 1797 was a memorable day for George Washington. John Adams was sworn in as the country's second President. Finally, after over twenty years of almost constant and exhausting service to his country, George Washington was retiring from public life and returning to his beloved Mount Vernon. His joy was scarcely confinable. Adams wrote to his wife the next day, "He seemed to me to enjoy a triumph over me. Methought I heard him say, 'Ah! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!'"
Would GW really retire from public service? Twice before he had made a final "retirement" from public life, and twice before he had reentered the spotlight. Only time would tell if a life committed to glory could find permanent contentment in a life of peace and ease. As he prepared to leave the presidency, Washington was certain the answer was yes. He was more than ready to make "political pursuits yield to the more rational amusement of cultivating the earth."
After years of comparative neglect, GW faced a challenge in bringing Mount Vernon up to the high standards he had for his mansion farm. Whatever the problems, however, GW seemed to be enjoying retirement. The perceptive Henrietta Liston, wife of the British ambassador, noted after visiting Mount Vernon in December of 1797 that the retired hero was "improved by retirement like a Man relieved from a heavy burden. He has thrown off a little that prudence which formerly guarded his every word . . . he converses with more ease and cheerfulness." Unfortunately, GW's joy at once again becoming a "farmer" and a private citizen was not to last.
As America's first "ex-president" and a national icon, a steady stream of supporters and mere gawkers descended on Mount Vernon, making a "normal" retirement impossible. More importantly, political partisanship grew ever more intense and greatly worried the master of Mount Vernon who became increasingly convinced that the Republican Party would risk the safety and well being of the country for its own narrow partisan gains. He complained to Lafayette: "a party exists in the United States, formed by a Combination of Causes, which oppose the Government in all its measures, and are determined (as all their Conduct evinces) by Clogging its Wheels indirectly to change the nature of it, and to Subvert the Constitution. To effect this no means which have a tendency to accomplish their purposes are left unessayed." When Washington read James Monroe's bitter attack on the foreign policy of his administration, he filled the margins of its pages with angry and sarcastic notes. The opposition was not only incorrect; they were dangerous and perhaps treasonous. With such attitudes, it was impossible for Washington to remain above the partisan fray. In fact, if not in name, he became a Federalist and a bitter opponent of the Republicans. While he continued to denounce political parties and the new politics was still not to his liking, it was not beyond his understanding, nor beneath his reach.
The growing partisanship was intricately connected with what appeared to be an even greater threat to the new nation's security. Angered by Jay's Treaty, revolutionary France virtually declared war on the young republic, seized hundreds of American ships, threatened the lives of American seamen, and treated a peace mission sent by President John Adams with the type of insult and disdain which made war appear imminent. George Washington found it impossible to simply view these developments as an outside observer. With his beloved country in danger, Washington, like an old warhorse, responded to the alarm by springing into action. Of course, the country, with war apparently looming, looked to its greatest hero to once more vindicate her honor and defend her freedom. President Adams offered, with the unanimous support of Congress, command of all the American forces to Washington, but the evidence indicates that Washington wanted the command and, as he had done in 1775, made his availability clear. In the words of a leading Washington scholar, "for all his talk of longing to sit undisturbed under his own vine and fig tree, Washington was not yet quite ready to watch the world pass him by without giving it a nudge or two."
Washington was drawn to power even as he renounced it. Indeed, Washington was a master of gaining power by renouncing it. One cannot understand the flesh and blood Washington, as opposed to the mythical Washington, without understanding that Washington's ambition and desire for fame were inextricably interwoven with his ideas of patriotism and service and duty to his beloved country. In retrospect, this final "retirement," like those that preceded it, was more like a recuperative interlude, a chance to restore himself, before inevitably going back into the thick of the battle and the center of the spotlight.
Fortunately, full-scale war did not materialize although Washington's shabby treatment of President Adams and his increasingly virulent partisanship make this one of the less attractive aspects of Washington's remarkable career. As the threat of war with France receded, Washington was able to devote more time to his beloved Mount Vernon. A friend left a description of his typical day.
"He rides out every morning by day-light, visits all his farms, returns to breakfast, then writes in his library, which is not extensive, answers letters, which are very numerous, dresses and dines at an early hour, between two and three, enjoys a social hour or two, retires sometimes to write or attend to private affairs, takes tea or coffee, and after reading a little, or sitting with friends, he retires to rest at nine o'clock, but eats no supper. He is very active and healthy, cheerful, but moderate in all things." Dr. William Thornton
Since his recent health had never been better, death was not likely to have been on his mind when Washington went out to check on his farms during the day of Thursday, December 12, 1799. He was busy making various plans for the future. Only days before, he had formulated a meticulous and remarkably detailed plan for the future of his Mount Vernon farms, setting out precisely what should be done over the next three years at every field of every farm, at every meadow, wood, pasture, stable, or pen. The General remained outside for approximately five hours despite the fact that "the weather was very disagreeable, a constant fall of rain, snow and hail with a high wind." Apparently, some time during his travels, Washington was stricken with the virulent infection that would soon claim his life, although it is possible the deadly bacteria were already in his system, waiting for the right conditions to unleash their potency.
While not obsessed with death, and certainly not afraid of it, death was often on GW's mind during his retirement years, and he made numerous comments indicating he believed he was close to the end of his life. When his sole surviving brother, Charles, died earlier in 1799 Washington wrote, "I was the first, and am now the last, of my fathers children by the second marriage who remain. When I shall be called upon to follow them, is known only to the giver of life. When the summons comes I shall endeavour to obey it with good grace." He hoped that in facing death he would do nothing to sully the reputation he had spent a lifetime building. Of course, Washington could not know when the final test would come, but he hoped and expected that he would meet the final summons "with good grace." He could not have imagined just how difficult the final challenge was going to be.
During the day of the 13th George Washington developed what appeared to be a bad cold and sore throat. He rejected the suggestion offered by his faithful personal secretary, Tobias Lear, that he take medicine and went to bed willing to let the disease "go as it came." The situation quickly deteriorated. By the early hours of Saturday morning, the 14th, the disease had progressed so rapidly that Washington, feverish, awoke very uncomfortable and with labored breathing. It is of course impossible at this late date to assert with certainty what malady struck the General, but the latest and most convincing medical studies indicate that George Washington died from acute epiglottitis caused by a virulent bacteria. The epiglottis is a cartilaginous structure located at the base of the tongue and at the entrance to the larynx (voice box). When the epiglottis swells, the airway is at risk of obstruction (in acute cases, the epiglottis may swell to greater than ten times its normal size). Washington exhibited many symptoms consistent with classic acute epiglottitis. These included: rapid onset, high fever, an extremely sore throat, great difficulty in swallowing, drooling, great difficulty in speaking without true hoarseness, increased airway obstruction, especially when leaning backward, a desire to assume a sitting position in spite of weakness, persistent restlessness, and finally an apparent improvement shortly before death. It is a "textbook" case of this extremely painful and frightening disease.
The pain associated with acute epiglottitis is intense, but the truly frightening aspect of the disease is the obstruction of the larynx that makes both breathing and swallowing extremely difficult. The first thing an infant learns to do is breathe and the second is to swallow. To have these two absolutely basic functions dramatically impaired is very frightening to anyone, no matter how brave and courageous he or she might be. Like any mortal, George Washington had to face the terror of air hunger, of smothering and gasping for each breath.
While the General received excellent medical treatment consistent with medical knowledge of the time, virtually every single action in fact compounded his suffering and hastened his demise. During the course of less than twelve hours, George Washington was bled four different times, losing approximately five pints or over eighty ounces of blood! Purgatives, emetics, and blistering greatly added to his discomfort without benefiting his condition. Washington's words, "I die hard," were certainly accurate. Yet, despite the presence of "sweat, stench, and blood" and impending death, George Washington once again rose to the occasion and confirmed his greatness. He died as he lived, and his final words and actions reveal a great deal about the man and his character.
One of Washington's most endearing traits is that he combined a sense of power with shyness. Despite all the attention and praise heaped upon him, Washington never lost sight of the shared sense of humanity. In the words of the great poet, Robert Frost, "George Washington was one of the few in the whole history of the world who was not carried away by power." During his final illness, he time and again demonstrated his concern for others even in the midst of his own intense suffering. He would not allow Martha go out into the cold to seek help in the middle of the night because she had recently been ill and he feared a relapse. When his overseer, summoned to bleed the General, manifested nervousness and anxiety about performing such an operation on his illustrious employer, GW reassured him, "Don't be afraid." In the course of the long and agonizing day, Washington consistently apologized to those trying to care for him and ease his suffering for the trouble he was causing them. He apologized to Tobias Lear who was helping move him to different positions in his endless hunger for air by worrying that the effort would fatigue Lear! He thanked his physicians for their heroic efforts and never complained about the pain they inflicted upon him. He even urged his personal body servant, Christopher Sheels, who was standing by the bed throughout the day, to sit down. How many powerful leaders, in the midst of an excruciating terminal illness, would either notice or be concerned with the fact that a personal servant had been standing on his feet for most of the day. Such actions speak volumes about Washington's character.
Equally as striking as his concern for those around him was George Washington's remarkable ability to remain "awesomely organized" to the end. Although speech was extremely difficult and painful, he managed to be certain his wife had the updated will (a surprisingly detailed and explicit document he wrote during the previous summer), and then he spelled out what he wanted done with his personal papers. This extreme interest and concern for his papers were closely connected to George Washington's desire for fame and secular immortality which were driving forces in his actions. A profound concern for his historical reputation was a major aspect of George Washington's character and helps explain his sensitivity to criticism and his desire to avoid reproach.
Duty and courage were bywords for Washington, and he lived up to his creed. Throughout the entire ordeal the General displayed remarkable fortitude and patience. Grace in the presence of mortal danger comprised a key part of Washington's code of honor, and the ultimate test of honor was courage in the face of death. As Bryan Fairfax wrote, "Yes, he is gone, but he died, as he lived, with fortitude, so that he was great to the last."
George Washington's courage in the face of death is indisputable. The source of that courage is more controversial. The complete lack of religious context surrounding his death is striking. According to the surviving record of Washington's final hours by eyewitnesses, there is no reference to any religious words or prayers, no request for forgiveness, no fear of divine judgment, no call for a minister (although ample time existed to call one if desired), no deathbed farewell, no promise or hope of meeting again in Heaven. George Washington did not draw his courage from a Christian concept of redemption and the hope of eternal bliss through the sacrifice of Christ. Rather, he drew strength from a stoical courage, a strong desire to play his last role on earth's stage in a praiseworthy fashion, and confidence in his virtue and effort to live by the highest ideals. His courage was further bolstered by his trust in a rather vaguely defined but all-powerful and benign Providence that ultimately controlled human destiny.
As death neared, Washington, a man always desiring to be in control, feared he might be buried alive. After several unsuccessful efforts, at last he managed to convey his final request to the faithful Lear. He was not to be buried until he had been dead for at least two days. (Later accounts say three days, but the evidence indicates that Washington said two days.) After Lear acknowledged that he understood and would carry out GW's wishes, Washington uttered his final words, "tis well," and died shortly thereafter sometime between 10 and 11 p.m. "without a sigh or a groan." The great body, which had endured so much, and the great mind, so steady in its operation, so sure in its conclusions, were now forever stilled. Here was no more than an empty vessel, drained for the subsistence of a nation."
"The Measure of the Man"
The word of the General's death spread with great rapidity. The startling suddenness of his demise caused a wave of shock and mourning across the nation. It is difficult to exaggerate the impact George Washington's death had on the American people. It was a cataclysmic event in the life of the young republic. Benjamin Rush, one of Washington's more severe critics, admitted that it was as if a large part of the country all lost their father at exactly the same time. The response of the Virginia Gazette was typical: "Still be the Voice of Mirth! Hushed be all Sounds of Joy! In silent sorrow, mourn, Columbia, mourn! If loss of worth unequaled here below, be cause of grief or cause of woe and grief unbounded, bides thee mourn, thy worthiest, noblest Son is no more-ILLUSTRIOUS WASHINGTON is dead!"
In addition to the actual funeral at Mount Vernon, a moving ceremony held on December 18th, there were a number of mock funerals, some of them extremely elaborate, around the nation. Between his death in December and February 22, 1800, the major final day of official mourning, at least 440 funeral elegies honoring Washington were presented around the country. GW was compared favorably to all the outstanding biblical, classical and modern heroes, but no analogy was so well developed as the contention that the departed leader had truly been a Moses for America. "As the deliverer and political savior of our nation, he has been the same to us, as Moses was to the Children of Israel." Indeed, to many, Washington was even superior to Moses. After all, Washington completed his task while Moses died just short of his fulfillment. The image that emerges from many of the eulogies is one of a man who appears "to be more than a man."
Of course, George Washington was just a man, but he was truly a remarkable man, "one of the choice ones of the earth." Following his death, Dr. Elisha Dick carefully noted Washington's measurements so that the correct size coffin could be built.
6'3 1/2" length exact
1'9" across shoulders exact
2'9" across elbows exact
Measuring the physical attributes of the man was a relatively simple task. Measuring the quality and character of the man is a much more difficult task, and one that can never be done with precision or finality.
Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual. Upon analysis, several aspects of GW's character stand out. A key part of the GW puzzle was an indomitable will that made him a formidable adversary. While others might succumb to despair, desperation drove him to action. This steely determination, absolute courage, great physical strength, and personal charisma made him an impressive individual. Intensely competitive, no one expected more of himself than he did. Being driven, and yet insecure at a one level, Washington desperately needed approval and was very sensitive to criticism, especially criticism about his intentions. He could not tolerate outside criticism in addition to his own fierce inner critic. It was not only important for Washington to act honorably, but it was also equally important that he be recognized for doing so.
While George Washington desired a prominent place in the temple of fame, he wished to enter it through the temple of honor.
Integrity was another central aspect of his character. In Thomas Jefferson's words, "His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest. . . being able to bias his decision." Integrity comes from the Latin word meaning 'whole' or 'complete', and there is, despite its complexity, a wholeness to George Washington's character. He became the man he strove to be.
"I do not recollect that in the course of my life I ever forfeited my word, or broke a promise made to any one. . . . [He] always walked on a straight line, and endeavoured as far as human frailties, and perhaps strong passions, would enable him, to discharge the relative duties to his Maker and fellow-men, without seeking any indirect or left handed attempts to acquire popularity."
Throughout his mature life two central desires motivated George Washington: his intense desire to live up to the highest ideals of disinterested service and his intense desire for fame and admiration. Further complicating the picture, Washington also desired to be autonomous and live the life of a farmer at his beloved Mount Vernon. "I have no wish which aspires beyond the humble and happy lot of living and dying a private citizen on my farm." These desires, all very intense, and all heartfelt (if not always openly expressed) were in conflict and tension with one another. One of the most careful studies of Washington's life reveals, "Throughout his life, the ambition for distinction spun inside George Washington like a dynamo . . . Back of George Washington's extraordinary exertions stirred a desire for distinction, a yearning for public esteem that ultimately became a quest for historical immortality." In the final analysis, the quest for secular immortality triumphed over his quest for autonomy as a private farmer.
There is an element of sadness to the story of George Washington. Increasingly, he sacrificed his autonomy and responded to the call of disinterested service in behalf of his country and its citizens. While he sighed for retirement and personal ease, the call of duty - and the winning of public esteem for answering it - had to be heeded. The burdens of being the "indispensable man," of always being on stage, of living the role of a classical Roman hero, were heavy indeed. In Richard Norton Smith's powerful analogy, "Like Faust, forced to pay the price of his ambitions, George Washington discovered that the fame and veneration pursued over a lifetime could only be had at enormous cost."
In enabling other men to pursue happiness according to their individual preference, GW had to deny himself the same pleasure. In that sense, he sacrificed himself for a greater cause. He did win the fame and honor he so ardently pursued but was disillusioned by some of its consequences. If Washington personally paid a heavy price, the gift he gave to America was literally priceless. As an anonymous poem expressed it:
"Mighty Washington! Words fail to tell all he has done."
George Washington was truly America's "Indispensable Man," the essential man not only in winning our independence from Great Britain, but the essential man in the successful effort to write and ratify our constitution, and the essential man in successfully keeping the country united and at peace during its early critical years. GW was the core gravity that prevented the American Revolution from flying off into random orbits. Without Washington's great skill as a unifier, and without his charisma and his view of nation's future, the United States of America would not exist today as one independent nation. In that sense he is truly the Father of the Country. He caused America's world to be. The gift George Washington gave to the American people was a viable nation based on republican principles offering a larger number of people greater freedom than ever before in human history. It is a record of leadership without parallel in American history. Of all America's great statesmen, George Washington deserves the premier position.
Sally Cary Fairfax
One of the most fascinating and controversial letters George Washington ever wrote was his letter of September 12, 1758 to Sally Cary Fairfax, the wife of his friend, George William Fairfax. In it, GW declared himself "a Votary [devotee] of love." He admitted to Sally that he was enthralled by "her charms," the power of which he "must ever submit." He recalled "a thousand tender passages" which he might try but was unable "to obliterate." He wanted his confession kept secret. "The World has no business to know the object of my Love, - declared in this manner to - you when I want to conceal it." The controversy of the letter is heightened by the fact that GW wrote it at the same time that he was engaged to marry Martha Dandridge Custis.
The letter was not made public until nearly eighty years after GW's death. Many claimed it was a forgery. Others argued Washington was referring to Martha, not Sally. Others contend the letter's suggestive phrases were written in the mode of playful flattery and should not be taken too literally. It is correctly noted that not a breath of scandal survived about any improper relationship, and the Fairfax and Washington families remained close friends following GW's marriage to Martha. In short, many argue the letter is simply not that important and should not be given any special prominence.
The exact nature of the relationship - and whether it included a physical aspect - must remain speculative, but a careful reading of the available evidence suggests that it was a very important and emotionally charged relationship for both parties. The authenticity of the letter is beyond dispute (it is now housed at Harvard University). In the context of the letter, it makes virtually no sense if one tries to connect the references to Martha. George Washington was essentially a very honest man who had trouble writing or saying things that he did not believe. While the syntax is convoluted, the meaning is clear. Washington was professing his love for Sally Fairfax. The letter was composed after Washington, extremely ill, took a furlough from the army and returned to Mount Vernon in 1757. Sally, whose husband was away in England for many months during this time, helped nurse him back to health. People sometimes fall in love with people they are not supposed to. This seems to be one of those cases.
Despite his happy and satisfying marriage to Martha, Sally always held a special spot in GW's heart. After not having seen her for 25 years, after experiencing the glory of winning the war for American independence, and after being the nation's first chief executive and national hero, Washington could still write Sally that none of the great events of his career "nor all of them together, have been able to eradicate from my mind those happy moments, the happiest of my life, which I have spent in your company." Sally's thoughts about the relationship are not preserved in writing (GW habitually destroyed all correspondence from her), but it was also very important to her.
After the war, Washington wrote George William Fairfax about the destruction of Belvoir by fire and commented, "When I viewed them [the rooms]--when I considerd the happiest moments of my life had been spent there. . . I was obliged to fly." George William commented in his reply to GW that Sally expressed no shock at hearing of the destruction of Belvoir, but hearing Washington describe the moments at Belvoir as the happiest of his life, "produced many tears & sighs from the former Mistress of it."
Most significantly, Sally kept Washington's confessional letter in her private possession for over fifty years, and it was discovered in her room only after her death. Does one keep a letter, written by a friend who was not yet famous and containing only playful flattering, for over fifty years? She was obviously deeply attracted to Washington, yet, as he did, she realized that the relationship could not be. Washington professed his love for her and wanted her to do the same. History would have been different if she had and encouraged Washington to do something reckless. Fortunately, as one scholar notes, "In the end, however much Sally may have encouraged his addresses, she saved him from disgrace and preserved a great future for him."
Of all aspects of George Washington's life, his connection to slavery is the most troubling to modern readers. Many argue that "George Washington's lifelong commitment to slavery diminishes his character." In 1743, at age eleven, he inherited ten slaves upon his father's death. By the time of his own death in 1799, there were 317 slaves at Mount Vernon. The record certainly includes troubling facts. In one letter, GW sold a recalcitrant slave, Tom, and sought in return "one hhd [hogshead] of best molasses, one of best Rum, one barrel of Lymes if good and cheap. . . and the residue, much or little in good ole spirits." He often had negative things to say about the slaves' work habits and character. Slaves were occasionally whipped at Mount Vernon (although there is no record of GW personally whipping one). Slaves, including house slaves like Olney Judge, Christopher Sheels and GW's chef, Hercules, sometimes ran away from their master. Washington appeared shocked that they would do so since they had been treated so well. Many of the slaves' dwellings were extremely primitive and their working conditions difficult. Washington was not an easy man for anyone to work for, and that must go for his slaves as well.
George Washington was "a man of his times," and we cannot lift him out of 18th century Virginia. A young visitor wrote in 1751 that in Virginia, it "is morally impossible" to live without slaves who played an essential role in colonial life. There is little if anything in the record of the first forty years of Washington's life to indicate that he seriously challenged or was troubled by the central place slavery played in Virginia (40% of Virginia's population was enslaved). But that is not the complete story. George Washington's story is a story of remarkable growth. The General of the American Revolution was in many ways a very different man than the callow Colonel of the French and Indian War. Similarly, his views on slavery changed.
In time, especially after exposure to anti-slavery views of northerners, Washington became increasingly sensitive to the dilemma of slavery and increasingly anti-slavery in his own personal views. He did a number of important things about slavery and African-Americans that are worth noting. After some hesitation, he made the decision to accept blacks into the Continental Army. During the war for independence, GW decided not to sell slaves away from Mount Vernon without their permission and kept to it. He often used black overseers on his various farms, and while he made numerous pejorative comments about blacks, he never used explicitly racist language. (It might be mentioned in passing that there has never been a credible tale of GW abusing his female slaves, and the story of him becoming fatally ill visiting a slave in the winter is completely without foundation, as is the charge that he was the father of a child by a slave woman, Venus.)
Blacks might at the present time be in an inferior state, but Washington never said they were innately inferior. He described the African-American poet, Phyllis Wheatley, as "favourd by the Muses, and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations." He warned that if the Americans did not resist British tyranny they would become "as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway." In other words, whites and blacks could both become equally abject slaves. GW explored ways "to liberate a certain species of property" which "I possess very repugnantly to my own feelings." He wrote a friend in 1794, "Were it not then, that I am principled agt. selling negros, as you would do cattle in the market, I would not, in twelve months from this date, be possessed of one, as a slave." He increasingly saw slavery as a great evil and a threat to his beloved union. "There is not a man living who wished more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it. . . . I can clearly foresee that nothing but rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union."
Most importantly, in what was essentially his final statement on slavery, he wrote into his final will a provision to free all of his personal slaves. (By law, he could not free those belonging to his wife and the Custis estate.) Additionally, he provided for their education and declared that old slaves and children without parents "be comfortably cloathed and fed by my heirs." (The estate was still paying out fees into the 1830s.) To stress the importance he placed on his decision, he particularly enjoined his executors "to see that this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled." In the words of one scholar, "it was the last and greatest debt he owed to his honor."
Critics note that Washington only freed his slaves at his death, and even then postponed the emancipation until after his wife's death. Further, he did not use his great prestige to attack the institution publicly while he was alive, and he seemed angered at people like the Quakers who did so. This was a calculated decision by the President. George Washington made the creation and unity of the new nation a more important priority than attacking slavery. While he was convinced slavery must be eradicated, he was convinced that an early attack upon it would undermine and destroy his much-loved union before it could be properly established. Was he incorrect?
One of the most enduring and widely accepted of all Washington-related myths is that he had a set of wooden teeth. He did not, although a half dozen little wooden pegs were used to anchor segments of hippopotamus ivory that formed part of the lower teeth of one set of his dentures. During Washington's lifetime, five different types of teeth and tusks were used to prepare false teeth for him, including Washington's own and those of other humans, elephants, hippopotamuses, cattle, and probably walrus. Washington was experiencing serious trouble with his teeth by 1772 and probably earlier. By the time of his first inauguration in 1789, Washington had only one tooth left, a lower left premolar. The following year, that single tooth served as the anchor for the base of a set of hippopotamus-tusk dentures made by dental surgeon, John Greenwood. After the sole remaining tooth fell out, Greenwood was forced to rework the dentures, adding several clumsy braces, when they proved unsatisfactory. Despite the fact that Greenwood's dentures were ill fitting and uncomfortable and in need of frequent alteration, Washington remained satisfied with Greenwood's efforts on his behalf and continued to use the dentist for the remainder of his life. Three sets or partial sets of Washington's dentures have survived and are in different museums and historical societies.
The Cherry Tree
The Original Version
"When George was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping every thing that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother's pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don't believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favourite, came into the house, and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him any thing about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. George, said his father, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry-tree yonder in the garden? This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet."--Run to my arms, you dearest boy, cried his father in transports, run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold."
We owe the story of Washington cutting down the cherry tree, the most famous of all myths about the first President, to the fertile imagination and facile pen of Mason Locke Weems, better known as Parson Weems, a book agent for the famous Philadelphia printer Mathew Carey, as well as an ordained Anglican clergyman. Weems's biography, Life of Washington, became an instant best seller and went through eighty editions in the 19th century alone. The story of the cherry tree first surfaced in the fifth edition. The silence of the documentary record for Washington's early years probably seals forever the possibility of determining whether there is any basis for the story, but Weems's writing style and lack of any other documentation cast serious doubt on its authenticity.
Weems's goal in his book on Washington (as in all of his books) was to provide moral instruction and guidance for his readers, especially his young readers. To achieve this goal he indiscriminately combined fact and tradition with fiction and romance. Historical authenticity was not his aim. He would hold up for "the imitation of Our Youth" a virtuous Washington, "enlivend with Anecdotes apropos interesting and Entertaining." The Cherry Tree story is a perfect example of his writing style. The Parson, for example, was perfectly comfortable including in his biography the final words of Washington's half-brother. Weems asserted that Lawrence died content after having learned that his brother, George, acted heroically at the beginning of the French and Indian War. The difficulty with the story is that Lawrence in fact died a full two years before the war began. In another example (and there are many), Weems informed his readers of the words of Washington's final prayer just before he died and after he sent everyone out of the room so that he could commune alone with God. How Weems would know what Washington said is, of course, not touched upon. The point is that while there is much of value in Weems's biography, and he had actually met Washington at least once, his stories must be viewed with skepticism concerning their historical accuracy, and treated as entertaining and instructive anecdotes.
Martha Washington as First Lady
Martha Washington, barely five feet tall with a matronly girth, has been described as "the worthy partner of the worthiest of men." By virtually all contemporary accounts, she performed her role as the nation's first "First Lady" admirably. [The term, "First Lady," was not used until later.] Unpretentious, but experienced as a hostess after 58 years of life in Tidewater Virginia Society, Martha successfully hosted a reception each Friday evening, a more open and informal gathering than the more formal President "levee" held each Tuesday and open only to men.
The always perceptive and candid Abigail Adams was thoroughly taken with Martha and left several interesting comments about her. "Mrs. Washington is one of those unassuming characters which create love and esteem." "Her manners are modest and unassuming, dignified and femenine, not a tincture of ha'ture about her."
Like her famous husband, Martha viewed her time in New York and Philadelphia more as a duty to perform than as a time of personal pleasure. As she confided to Mercy Warren, she had "long since placed all the prospects of my future worldly happiness in the still enjoyments of the fireside at Mount Vernon." Some of the frustration of her position is made clear in private letters to her niece, Fanny Bassett Washington. "I live a very dull life hear and know nothing that passes in the town - I never goe to any public place, indeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from - and as I can not doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal."
Such complaints are rare. Good natured and amiable - she once described herself as "an old fashioned housekeeper, steady as a clock, busy as a bee & cheerful as a cricket" - Martha saw her role not as an advisor but as a comforter and supporter for her husband as he sought to create a viable and lasting union.
Crossing the Delaware
With the possible exception of the British surrender at Yorktown, Washington's daring crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night of December 1776 is perhaps the most memorable moment of the war for American independence and has been celebrated time and time again. Two of the best known are the famous 19th century painting by Emanuel Leutze of "Washington Crossing the Delaware" and the 1999 movie, "The Crossing", based on Howard Fast's novel of the same name and starring Jeff Bridges as General Washington.
In terms of historical accuracy, both have serious shortcomings. The flag waving so proudly in Leutze's painting has not yet been created, the type of boats portrayed were not on use on the river, and it is highly unlikely that General Washington would have been foolish enough to stand up in such a boat in the midst of an ice-filled river. Among the many historical errors in "The Crossing" the dramatic confrontation between Washington and General Horatio Gates is completely fictitious [Washington actually urged Gates to stay as he needed experienced officers]. Washington's charge to General Henry Knox, "Move your fat ass, Henry," is ridiculous and completely out of character for the General who lived so carefully by the "Rules of Civility" [additionally, the record indicates that Knox crossed the Delaware on a different boat.]
Nevertheless, in perhaps an even more important sense, both portrayals effectively convey the drama and the majesty of this crucial event. They both effectively catch the determination and boldness of General Washington at a critical moment of the war, and "The Crossing" conveys the persistence and the hardedge side of the General in a way that viewers can understand and appreciate.
One of the more interesting but lesser known aspect of Washington's victory at Trenton was that it owed a great deal to the General's effective use of espionage, one of the unappreciated aspects of Washington's success as a military commander. He employed a double agent, John Honeyman, whom he sent across the river to gather information on the Hessian dispositions and strength, as well as to convey to Johann Rall, the unlucky Hessian commander, the utter disarray and low spirits of the American forces. Honeyman reported to Washington that the Hessians were planning a huge celebration on Christmas, and this intelligence allowed Washington to carry out his memorable attack.
GW's Coat of Arms
While George Washington said he "paid very little attention" to his ancestry and had no interest in tracing his ancestry, he was nevertheless proud of the family coat of arms. He slightly altered and surrounded it with sprigs of wheat and other farm emblems and then used it for his bookplate and other items such as incorporated the coat of arms in the watermark of his writing paper and on his wax seal. The crest is most visible in the formal west parlor at Mount Vernon. The pediment over the mantel of the elaborate chimneypiece exhibits a prominent painted representation of the seal carved of wood, and the cast-iron fireback of the fireplace contains a variation of the crest. The coat of arms also adorned tableware ordered for Mount Vernon.
On Washington's bookplate, there is a Latin motto, Exitus Aeta Probat, which is often translated, "The end justifies the mean." A more accurate and meaningful translation is, "The end proves the deed."