George Washington by William Roscoe Thayer

Produced by the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. The Riverside Library George Washington By WILLIAM ROSCOE THAYER 1922 TO HARRIET SEARS AMORY WITH THE BEST WISHES OF HER OLD FRIEND THE AUTHOR PREFACE To obviate misunderstanding, it seems well to warn the reader that this book aims only at giving a sketch of George Washington’s life
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The Riverside Library

George Washington









To obviate misunderstanding, it seems well to warn the reader that this book aims only at giving a sketch of George Washington’s life and acts. I was interested to discover, if I could, the human residue which I felt sure must persist in Washington after all was said. Owing to the pernicious drivel of the Reverend Weems no other great man in history has had to live down such a mass of absurdities and deliberate false inventions. At last after a century and a quarter the rubbish has been mostly cleared away, and only those who wilfully prefer to deceive themselves need waste time over an imaginary Father of His Country amusing himself with a fictitious cherry-tree and hatchet.

The truth is that the material about George Washington is very voluminous. His military records cover the eight years of the Revolutionary War. His political work is preserved officially in the reports of Congress. Most of the public men who were his contemporaries left memoirs or correspondence in which he figures. Above all there is the edition, in fourteen volumes, of his own writings compiled by Mr. Worthington C. Ford. And yet many persons find something that baffles them. They do not recognize a definite flesh and blood Virginian named Washington behind it all. Even so sturdy an historian as Professor Channing calls him the most elusive of historic personages. Who has not wished that James Boswell could have spent a year with Wellington on terms as intimate as those he spent with Dr. Johnson and could have left a report of that intimacy?

In this sketch I have conceived of Washington as of some superb athlete equipped for every ordeal which life might cause him to face. The nature of each ordeal must be briefly stated; brief also, but sufficient, the account of the way he accomplished it. I have quoted freely from his letters wherever it seemed fitting, first, because in them you get his personal authentic statement of what happened as he saw it, and you get also his purpose in making any move; and next, because nothing so well reveals the real George Washington as those letters do. Whoever will steep himself in them will hardly declare that their writer remains an elusive person beyond finding out or understanding. In the course of reading them you will come upon many of those “imponderables” which are the secret soul of statecraft.

And so with all humility–for no one can spend much time with Washington, and not feel profound humility–I leave this little sketch to its fate, and hope that some readers will find in it what I strove to put in it.






_Channing_ = Edward Channing: _History of the United States_. New York: Macmillan Company, III, IV. 1912.

_Fiske_ = John Fiske: _The Critical Period of American History, 1783-1789_. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1897.

_Ford_ = Worthington C. Ford: _The Writings of George Washington_. 14 vols. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1889-93.

_Ford_ = Worthington C. Ford: _George Washington_. 2 vols. Paris: Goupil; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1900.

_Hapgood_ = Norman Hapgood: _George Washington_. New York: Macmillan Company. 1901.

_Irving_ = Washington Irving: _Life of George Washington_. New York: G.P. Putnam. 1857.

_Lodge_ = Henry Cabot Lodge: _George Washington_. 2 vols. American Statesman Series. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1889.

_Marshall_ = John Marshall: _The Life of George Washington_. 5 vols. Philadelphia. 1807.

_Sparks_ = Jared Sparks: _The Life of George Washington_. Boston.

_Wister_ = Owen Wister: _The Seven Ages of Washington_. New York: Macmillan Company. 1909.




Zealous biographers of George Washington have traced for him a most respectable, not to say distinguished, ancestry. They go back to the time of Queen Elizabeth, and find Washingtons then who were “gentlemen.” A family of the name existed in Northumberland and Durham, but modern investigation points to Sulgrave, in Northamptonshire, as the English home of his stock. Here was born, probably during the reign of Charles I, his great-grandfather, John Washington, who was a sea-going man, and settled in Virginia in 1657. His eldest son, Lawrence, had three children–John, Augustine, and Mildred. Of these, Augustine married twice, and by his second wife, Mary Ball, whom he married on March 17, 1730, there were six children–George, Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred. The family home at Bridges Creek, near the Potomac, in Westmoreland County, was Washington’s birthplace, and (February 11, Old Style) February 22, New Style, 1732, was the date. We hear little about his childhood, he being a wholesomely unprecocious boy. Rumors have it that George was coddled and even spoiled by his mother. He had very little formal education, mathematics being the only subject in which he excelled, and that he learned chiefly by himself. But he lived abundantly an out-of-door life, hunting and fishing much, and playing on the plantation. His family, although not rich, lived in easy fashion, and ranked among the gentry.

No Life of George Washington should fail to warn the reader at the start that the biographer labors under the disadvantage of having to counteract the errors and absurdities which the Reverend Mason L. Weems made current in the Life he published the year after Washington died. No one, not even Washington himself, could live down the reputation of a goody-goody prig with which the officious Scotch divine smothered him. The cherry-tree story has had few rivals in publicity and has probably done more than anything else to implant an instinctive contempt of its hero in the hearts of four generations of readers. “Why couldn’t George Washington lie?” was the comment of a little boy I knew, “Couldn’t he talk?”

Weems pretended to an intimacy at Mount Vernon which it appears he never had. In “Blackwood’s Magazine” John Neal said of the book, “Not one word of which we believe. It is full of ridiculous exaggerations.” And yet neither this criticism nor any other stemmed the outpouring of editions of it which must now number more than seventy. Weems doubtless thought that he was helping God and doing good to Washington by his offensive and effusive support of rudimentary morals.

Weems had been dead a dozen years when another enemy sprang up. This was the worthy Jared Sparks, an historian, a professor of history, who collected with much care the correspondence of George Washington and edited it in a monumental work. Sparks, however, suffered under the delusion that something other than fact can be the best substance of history. According to his tastes, many of Washington’s letters were not sufficiently dignified; they were too colloquial, they even let slip expressions which no man conscious that he was the model of propriety, the embodiment of the dignity of history, could have used. So Mr. Sparks without blushing went through Washington’s letters and substituted for the originals words which he decided were more seemly. Again the public came to know George Washington, not by his own words, but by those attributed to him by an overzealous stylist-pedant. Well might the Father of his Country pray to be delivered from the parsons.

One of the earliest records of Washington’s youth is the copy, written in his beautiful, almost copper-plate hand, of “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior, In Company and Conversation.” These maxims were taken from an English book called “The Young Man’s Companion,” by W. Mather. It had passed through thirteen editions and contained information upon many matters besides conduct Perhaps Washington copied the maxims as a school exercise; perhaps he learned them by heart.

They are for the most part the didactic aphorisms which greatly pleased our worthy ancestors during the middle of the eighteenth century and later. Some of the entries referred to simple matters of deportment: you must not turn your back on persons to whom you talk. Others touch morals rather than manners. One imagines that the parson or elderly uncles allowed themselves to bestow this indisputably correct advice upon the youths whom they were interested in. A boy brought up rigidly on these doctrines could hardly fail to become a prig unless he succeeded in following the last injunction of all: “Labor to keep alive in your heart, that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

When he was eleven years old, Washington’s father died, and his older half-brother, Lawrence, who inherited the estate now known as Mount Vernon, became his guardian. Lawrence had married the daughter of a neighbor, William Fairfax, agent for the large Fairfax estate. Fairfax and he had served with the Colonial forces at Cartagena under Admiral Vernon, from whom the Washington manor took its name. Lord Fairfax, William’s cousin and head of the family, offered George work on the survey of his domain. George, then a sturdy lad of sixteen, accepted gladly, and for more than two years he carried it on. The Fairfax estate extended far into the west, beyond the immediate tidewater district, beyond the fringe of sparsely settled clearings, into the wilderness itself. The effect of his experience as surveyor lasted throughout George Washington’s life. His self-reliance and his courage never flagged. Sometimes he went alone and passed weeks among the solitudes; sometimes he had a companion whom he had to care for as well as for himself. But besides the toughening of his character which this pioneer life assured him, he got much information, which greatly influenced, years later, his views on the development, not only of Virginia, but of the Northwest. Perhaps from this time there entered into his heart the conviction that the strongest bond of union must sometime bind together the various colonies, so different in resources and in interests, including his native commonwealth.

From journals kept during some of his expeditions we see that he was a clear observer and an accurate reporter; far from bookish, but a careful penman, and conscious of the obligation laid upon him to acquire at least the minimum of polite knowledge which was expected of a country gentleman such as he aspired to be.

Here is an extract in which he describes the squalid conditions under which he passed some of his life as a woodsman and surveyor.

We got our suppers and was lighted into a Room and I not being so good a woodsman as ye rest of my company, striped myself very orderly and went into ye Bed, as they calld it, when to my surprize, I found it to be nothing but a little straw matted together without sheets or any thing else, but only one thread bare blanket with double its weight of vermin, such as Lice, Fleas, etc. I was glad to get up (as soon as ye light was carried from us). I put on my cloths and lay as my companions. Had we not been very tired, I am sure we should not have slep’d much that night. I made a Promise not to sleep so from that time forward, chusing rather to sleep in ye open air before a fire, as will appear hereafter.

Wednesday 16th. We set out early and finish’d about one o’clock and then Travelled up to Frederick Town, where our Baggage came to us. We cleaned ourselves (to get rid of ye game we had catched ye night before), I took a Review of ye Town and then return’d to our Lodgings where we had a good Dinner prepared for us. Wine and Rum Punch in plenty, and a good Feather Bed with clean sheets, which was a very agreeable regale.

The longest of Washington’s early expeditions was the “Journey over the Mountains, began Fryday the 11th of March 1747/8.” The mountains were the Alleghanies, and the trip gave him a closer acquaintance than he had had with Indians in the wilds. On his return, he stayed with his half-brother, Lawrence, at Mount Vernon, or with Lord Fairfax, and enjoyed the country life common to the richer Virginians of the time. Towns which could provide an inn being few and far between, travellers sought hospitality in the homes of the well-to-do residents, and every one was in a way a neighbor of the other dwellers in his county. So both at Belvoir and at Mount Vernon, guests were frequent and broke the monotony and loneliness of their inmates. I think the reputation of gravity, which was fixed upon Washington in his mature years, has been projected back over his youth. The actual records are lacking, but such hints and surmises as we have do not warrant our thinking of him as a self-centred, unsociable youth. On the contrary, he was rather, what would be called now, a sport, ready for hunting or riding, of splendid physical build, agile and strong. He liked dancing, and was not too shy to enjoy the society of young women; indeed, he wrote poems to some of them, and seems to have been popular with them. And still, the legend remains that he was bashful.

From our earliest glimpses of him, Washington appears as a youth very particular as to his dress. He knew how to rough it as the extracts of his personal journals which I have quoted show, and this passage confirms:

I seem to be in a place where no real satisfaction is to be had. Since you received my letter in October last, I have not sleep’d above three or four nights in a bed, but, after walking a good deal all the day, I lay down before the fire upon a little hay, straw, fodder, or bearskin, which ever is to be had, with man, wife, and children, like a parcel of dogs and cats, and happy is he who gets the berth nearest the fire. There’s nothing would make it pass off tolerably but a good reward. A doubloon is my constant gain every day that the weather will permit my going out, and sometimes six pistoles. The coldness of the weather will not allow of my making a long stay, as the lodging is rather too cold for this time of year. I have never had my clothes off but lay and sleep in them, except the few nights I have lay’n in Frederic Town.[1]

[Footnote 1: Hapgood, p, 11.]

Later, when Washington became master of Mount Vernon, his servants were properly liveried. He himself rode to hounds in the approved apparel of a fox-hunting British gentleman, and we find in the lists of articles for which he sends to London the names of clothes and other articles for Mrs. Washington and the children carefully specified with the word “fashionable” or “very best quality” added. Still later, when he was President he attended to this matter of dress with even greater punctilio.

One incident of this early period should not be passed by unmentioned. Admiral Vernon offered him an appointment as midshipman in the navy, but Washington’s mother objected so strongly that Washington gave up the opportunity. We may well wonder whether, if he had accepted it, his career might not have been permanently turned aside. Had he served ten or a dozen years in the navy, he might have grown to be so loyal to the King, that, when the Revolution came, he would have been found in command of one of the King’s men-of-war, ordered to put down the Rebels in Boston, or in New York. Thus Fate suggests amazing alternatives to us in the retrospect, but in the actual living, Fate makes it clear that the only course which could have happened was that which did happen.

In 1751 the health of Washington’s brother, Lawrence, became so bad from consumption that he decided to pass the winter in a warm climate. He chose the Island of Barbados, and his brother George accompanied him. Shortly before sailing, George was commissioned one of the Adjutants-General of Virginia, with the rank of Major, and the pay of L150 a year. They sailed on the Potomac River, perhaps near Mount Vernon, on September 28, 1751, and landed at Bridgetown on November 3d. The next day they were entertained at breakfast and dinner by Major Clark, the British officer who commanded some of the fortifications of the island. “We went,” says George Washington, in a journal he kept, “myself with some reluctance, as the smallpox was in his family.” Thirteen days later, George fell ill of a very strong case of smallpox which kept him housed for six weeks and left his face much disfigured for life with pock marks, a fact which, so far as I have observed his portraits, the painters have carefully forgotten to indicate.

The brothers passed a fairly pleasant month and a half at the Barbados. Major Clark, and other gentlemen and officials of the island, showed them much attention. They enjoyed the hospitality of the Beefsteak and Tripe Club, which seems to have been the fashionable club. On one occasion, Washington was taken to the play to see the “Tragedy of George Barnwell.” This may have been the first time that he went to the theatre. He refers to it in his journal with his habitual caution:

Was treated with a play ticket by Mr. Carter to see the Tragedy of George Barnwell acted: the character of Barnwell and several others was said to be well perform’d there was Musick a Dapted and regularly conducted by Mr.

But Lawrence Washington’s consumption did not improve: he grew homesick and pined for his wife and for Mount Vernon. The physicians had recommended him to spend a full year at Barbados, in order to give the climate and the regimen there a fair trial, but he could not endure it so long, and he sailed from there to Bermuda, whence he shortly returned to Virginia and Mount Vernon. George, meanwhile, had also gone back to Virginia, sailing December 22, 1751, and arriving February 1, 1752. Even from his much-mutilated journal, we can see that he travelled with his eyes open, and that his interests were many. As he mentioned in his journal thirty persons with whom he became acquainted at the Barbados, we infer that in spite of bashfulness he was an easy mixer. This short journey to the Barbados marks the only occasion on which George Washington went outside of the borders of the American Colonies, which became later, chiefly through his genius, the United States.[1]

[Footnote 1: J.M. Toner: _The Daily Journal of Major George Washington in 1751-2_ (Albany, N.Y., 1892).]

In July, 1752, Lawrence Washington died of the disease which he had long struggled against. He left his fortune and his property, including Mount Vernon, to his daughter, Sarah, and he appointed his brother, George, her guardian. She was a sweet-natured girl, but very frail, who died before long, probably of the same disease which had carried her father off, and, until its infectious nature was understood, used to decimate families from generation to generation.

To have thrust upon him, at the age of twenty, the management of a large estate might seem a heavy burden for any young man; but George Washington was equal to the task, and it seems as if much of his career up to that time was a direct preparation for it. He knew every foot of its fields and meadows, of its woodlands and streams; he knew where each crop grew, and its rotation; he had taken great interest in horses and cattle, and in the methods for maintaining and improving their breed; and now, of course being master, his power of choosing good men to do the work was put to the test. But he had not been long at these new occupations before public duties drew him away from them.

Though they knew it not, the European settlers in North America were approaching a life-and-death catastrophe. From the days when the English and the French first settled on the continent, Fate ordained for them an irrepressible conflict. Should France prevail? Should England prevail? With the growth of their colonies, both the English and the French felt their rivalry sharpened. Although distances often very broad kept them apart in space, yet both nations were ready to prove the terrible truth that when two men, or two tribes, wish to fight each other, they will find out a way. The French, at New Orleans, might be far away from the English at Boston; and the English, in New York, or in Philadelphia, might be removed from the French in Quebec; but in their hatreds they were near neighbors. The French pushed westward along the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes, and from Lake Erie, they pushed southward, across the rich plains of Ohio, to the Ohio River. Their trails spread still farther into the Western wilderness. They set up trading-posts in the very region which the English settlers expected to occupy in the due process of their advance. At the junction of the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers, they planted Fort Duquesne, which not only commanded the approach to the territory through which the Ohio flowed westward, but served notice on the English that the French regarded themselves as the rightful claimants of that territory.

In 1753 Governor Dinwiddie, of Virginia, had sent a commissioner to warn the French to cease from encroaching on the lands in the Ohio wilderness which belonged to the King of England, but the messenger stopped one hundred and fifty miles short of his goal. Therefore, the Governor decided to despatch another envoy. He selected George Washington, who was already well known for his surveying, and for his expedition beyond the mountains, and doubtless had the backing of the Fairfaxes and other influential gentlemen. Washington set out on the same day he received his appointment from Governor Dinwiddie (October 31, 1753), engaged Jacob Van Braam, a Hollander who had taught him fencing, to be his French interpreter; and Christopher Gist, the best guide through the Virginia wilderness, to pilot the party. In spite of the wintry conditions which beset them, they made good time. Washington presented his official warning to M. Joncaire, the principal French commander in the region under dispute, but he replied that he must wait for orders from the Governor in Quebec. One object of Washington’s mission was to win over, if possible, the Indians, whose friendship for either the French or the English depended wholly on self-interest. He seems to have been most successful in securing the friendship of Thanacarishon, the great Seneca Chief, known as the Half-King. This native left it as his opinion that

the colonel was a good-natured man, but had no experience; he took upon him to command the Indians as his slaves, and would have them every day upon the scout and to attack the enemy by themselves, but would by no means take advice from the Indians. He lay in one place from one full moon to the other, without making any fortifications, except that little thing on the meadow, whereas, had he taken advice, and built such fortifications as I advised him, he might easily have beat off the French. But the French in the engagement acted like cowards, and the English like fools.[1]

[Footnote 1: Quoted by Lodge, I, 74.]

Believing that he could accomplish no more at that time, Washington retraced his steps and returned to Williamsburg.

Governor Dinwiddie, being much disappointed with the outcome of the expedition, urged the Virginian Legislature to equip another party sufficiently strong to be able to capture Fort Duquesne, and to confirm the British control of the Ohio. The Burgesses, however, pleaded economy, and refused to grant funds adequate to this purpose. Nevertheless, the Governor having equipped a small troop, under the command of Colonel Fry, with Washington as second, hurried it forth. During May and June they were near the Forks, and with the approach of danger, Washington’s spirit and recklessness increased. In a slight skirmish, M. de Jumonville, the French commander, was killed. Fry died of disease and Washington took his place as commander. Perceiving that his own position was precarious, and expecting an attack by a large force of the enemy, he entrenched himself near Great Meadows in a hastily built fort, which he called Fort Necessity, and thought it possible to defend, even with his own small force, against five hundred French and Indians. He miscalculated, however. The enemy exceeded in numbers all his expectations. His own resources dwindled; and so he took the decision of a practical man and surrendered the fort, on condition that he and his men be allowed to march out with the honors of war. They returned to Virginia with little delay.

The Burgesses and the people of the State, though chagrined, did not take so gloomy a view of the collapse of the expedition as Washington himself did. His own depression equalled his previous exaltation. As he thought over the affairs of the past half-year in the quiet of Mount Vernon, the feeling which he had had from the start, that the expedition had not been properly planned, or directed, or reenforced in men and supplies, was confirmed. Governor Dinwiddie’s notion that raw volunteers would suffice to overcome trained soldiers had been proved a delusion. The inadequate pay and provisions of the officers irritated Washington, not only because they were insufficient, but also because they fell far short of those of the English regulars.

In his penetrating Biography of Washington, Senator Lodge regards his conduct of the campaign, which ended in the surrender of Great Meadows, and his narrative as revealing Washington as a “profoundly silent man.” Carlyle, Senator Lodge says, who preached the doctrine of silence, brushed Washington aside as a “bloodless Cromwell,” “failing utterly to see that he was the most supremely silent of the great men of action that the world can show.” Let us admit the justice of the strictures on Carlyle, but let us ask whether Washington’s letters at this time spring from a “silent” man. He writes with perfect openness to Governor Dinwiddie; complains of the military system under which the troops are paid and the campaign is managed; he repeatedly condemns the discrimination against the Virginian soldiers in favor of the British regulars; and he points out that instead of attempting to win the popularity of the Virginians, they are badly treated. Their rations are poor, and he reminds the Governor that a continuous diet of salt pork and water does not inspire enthusiasm in either the stomach or the spirit. No wonder that the officers talk of resigning. “For my own part I can answer, I have a constitution hardy enough to encounter and undergo the most severe trials, and, I flatter myself, resolution to face what any man durst, as shall be proved when it comes to the test, which I believe we are on the borders of.” In several other passages from letters at this time, we come upon sentiments which indicate that Washington had at least a sufficiently high estimation of his own worth, and that his genius for silence had not yet curbed his tongue. There is the famous boast attributed to him by Horace Walpole. In a despatch which Washington sent back to the Governor after the little skirmish in which Jumonville was killed, Washington said: “‘I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.’ On hearing of this the King said sensibly, ‘he would not say so if he had been used to hear many.'” This reply of George II deserves to be recorded if only because it is one of the few feeble witticisms credited to the Hanoverian Kings. Years afterward, Washington declared that he did not remember ever having referred to the charm of listening to whistling bullets. Perhaps he never said it; perhaps he forgot. He was only twenty-two at the time of the Great Meadows campaign. No doubt he was as well aware as was Governor Dinwiddie, and other Virginians, that he was the best equipped man on the expedition, experienced in actual fighting, and this, added to his qualifications as a woodsman, had given him a real zest for battle. In their discussion over the campfire, he and his fellow officers must inevitably have criticized the conduct of the expedition, and it may well be that Washington sometimes insisted that if his advice were followed things would go better. Not on this account, therefore, must we lay too much blame on him for being conceited or immodest. He knew that he knew, and he did not dissemble the fact. Silence came later.

The result of the expeditions to and skirmishes at the Forks of the Ohio was that England and France were at war, although they had not declared war on each other. A chance musket shot in the backwoods of Virginia started a conflict which reverberated in Europe, disturbed the peace of the world for seven years, and had serious consequences in the French and English colonies of North America. The news of Washington’s disaster at Fort Necessity aroused the British Government to the conclusion that it must make a strong demonstration in order to crush the swelling prestige of the French rivals in America. The British planned, accordingly, to send out three expeditions, one against Fort Duquesne, another against the French in Nova Scotia, and a third against Quebec. The command of the first they gave to General Edward Braddock. He was then sixty years old, had been in the Regular Army all his life, had served in Holland, at L’Orient, and at Gibraltar, was a brave man, and an almost fanatical believer in the rules of war as taught in the manuals. During the latter half of 1754, Governor Dinwiddie was endeavoring against many obstacles to send another expedition, equipped by Virginia herself, to the Ohio. Only in the next spring, however, after Braddock had come over from England with a relatively large force of regulars, were the final preparations for a campaign actually made. Washington, in spite of being the commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces, had his wish of going as a volunteer at his own expense. He wrote his friend William Byrd, on April 20, 1755, from Mount Vernon:

I am now preparing for, and shall in a few days set off, to serve in the ensuing campaign, with different views, however, from those I had before. For here, if I can gain any credit, or if I am entitled to the least countenance and esteem, it must be from serving my country without fee or reward; for I can truly say, I have no expectation of either. To merit its esteem, and the good will of my friends, is the sum of my ambition, having no prospect of attaining a commission, being well assured it is not in Gen’l Braddock’s power to give such an one as I would accept of. The command of a Company is the highest commission vested in his gift. He was so obliging as to desire my company this campaign, has honoured me with particular marks of his esteem, and kindly invited me into his family–a circumstance which will ease me of expences that otherwise must have accrued in furnishing stores, camp equipages, etc. Whereas the cost will now be easy (comparatively speaking), as baggage, horses, tents, and some other necessaries, will constitute the whole of the charge.[1]

[Footnote 1: Ford, I, 146-49.]

The army began to move about the middle of May, but it went very slowly. During June Washington was taken with an acute fever, in spite of which he pressed on, but he became so weak that he had to be carried in a cart, as he was unable to sit his horse. Braddock, with the main army, had gone on ahead, and Washington feared that the battle, which he believed imminent, would be fought before he came up with the front. But he rejoined the troops on July 8th. The next day they forded the Monongahela and proceeded to attack Fort Duquesne. Writing from Fort Cumberland, on July 18th, Washington gave Governor Dinwiddie the following account of Braddock’s defeat. The one thing happened which Washington had felt anxious about–a surprise by the Indians. He had more than once warned Braddock of this danger, and Benjamin Franklin had warned him too before the expedition started, but Braddock, with perfect British contempt, had replied that though savages might be formidable to raw Colonials, they could make no impression on disciplined troops. The surprise came and thus Washington reports it:

When we came to this place, we were attacked (very unexpectedly) by about three hundred French and Indians. Our numbers consisted of about thirteen hundred well armed men, chiefly Regulars, who were immediately struck with such an inconceivable panick, that nothing but confusion and disobedience of orders prevailed among them. The officers, in general, behaved with incomparable bravery, for which they greatly suffered, there being near 60 killed and wounded–a large proportion, out of the number we had!

The Virginia companies behaved like men and died like soldiers; for I believe out of three companies that were on the ground that day scarce thirty were left alive. Capt. Peyroney and all his officers, down to a corporal, were killed; Capt. Polson had almost as hard a fate, for only one of his escaped. In short, the dastardly behaviour of the Regular troops (so-called) exposed those who were inclined to do their duty to almost certain death; and, at length, in despite of every effort to the contrary, broke and ran as sheep before hounds, leaving the artillery, ammunition, provisions, baggage, and, in short, everything a prey to the enemy. And when we endeavored to rally them, in hopes of regaining the ground and what we had left upon it, it was with as little success as if we had attempted to have stopped the wild bears of the mountains, or rivulets with our feet; for they would break by, in despite of every effort that could be made to prevent it.

The General was wounded in the shoulder and breast, of which he died three days after; his two aids-de-camp were both wounded, but are in a fair way of recovery; Colo. Burton and Sr. John St. Clair are also wounded, and I hope will get over it; Sir Peter Halket, with many other brave officers, were killed in the field. It is supposed that we had three hundred or more killed; about that number we brought off wounded, and it is conjectured (I believe with much truth) that two thirds of both received their shot from our own cowardly Regulars, who gathered themselves into a body, contrary to orders, ten or twelve deep, would then level, fire and shoot down the men before them.[1]

[Footnote 1: Ford, I, 173-74-75.]

In this admirable letter Washington tells nothing about his own prowess in the battle, where he rode to all parts of the field, trying to stem the retreat, and had two horses shot under him and four bullet holes in his coat. He tried to get the troops to break ranks and to screen themselves behind rocks and trees, but Braddock, helpless without his rules, drove them back to regular formation with the flat of his sword, and made them an easy mark for the volleys of the enemy. Washington’s personal valor could not fail to be admired, although his audacity exposed him to unjustified risks.

On reaching Fort Cumberland he wrote to his brother John, on July 18th:

As I have heard, since my arrival at this place, a circumstantial account of my death and dying speech, I take this early opportunity of contradicting the first, and assuring you, that I have not as yet composed the latter. But, by the all-powerful dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability and expectation.[1]

[Footnote 1: Ibid. 175-76.]

The more he thought over the events of that day, the more was he amazed–“I join very heartily with you in believing,” he wrote Robert Jackson on August 2d, “that when this story comes to be related in future annals, it will meet with unbelief and indignation, for had I not been witness to the fact on that fatal day, I should scarce have given credit to it even _now_.”[1]

[Footnote 1: Ford, I, 177.]

Although Washington was thoroughly disgusted by the mismanagement of military affairs in Virginia, he was not ready to deny the appeals of patriotism. From Mount Vernon, on August 14, 1755, he wrote his mother:

Honored Madam, If it is in my power to avoid going to the Ohio again, I shall; but if the command is pressed upon me, by the general _voice_ of the country, and offered upon such terms as cannot be objected against, it would reflect dishonor upon me to refuse; and _that_, I am sure must or _ought_ to give you greater uneasiness, than my going in an honorable command, for upon no other terms I will accept of it. At present I have no proposals made to me, nor have I any advice of such an intention, except from private hands.[1]

[Footnote 1: Ibid. 180-81.]

Braddock’s defeat put an end to campaigning in Virginia for some time. The consternation it caused, not only held the people of the sparse western settlements in alarm but agitated the tidewater towns and villages. The Burgesses and many of the inhabitants had not yet learned their lesson sufficiently to set about reorganizing their army system, but the Assembly partially recognized its obligation to the men who had fought by voting to them a small sum for losses during their previous service. Washington received L300, but his patriotic sense of duty kept him active. In the winter of 1758, however, owing to a very serious illness, he resigned from the army and returned to Mount Vernon to recuperate.

During the long and tedious weeks of sickness and recovery, Washington doubtless had time to think over, to clarify in his mind, and to pass judgment on the events in which he had shared during the past six or seven years. From boyhood that was his habit. He must know the meaning of things. An event might be as fruitless as a shooting star unless he could trace the relations which tied it to what came before and after. Hence his deliberation which gave to his opinions the solidity of wisdom. Audacious he might be in battle, but perhaps what seems to us audacity seemed to him at the moment a higher prudence. If there were crises when the odds looked ten to one against him, he would take the chance. He knew the incalculable value of courage. His experiences with the British regulars and their officers left a deep impression on him and colored his own decisions in his campaigns against the British during the Revolutionary War. To genius nothing comes amiss, and by genius nothing is forgotten. So we find that all that Washington saw and learned during his years of youth–his apprenticeship as surveyor, his vicissitudes as pioneer, tasks as Indian fighter and as companion of the defeated Braddock–all contributed to fit him for the supreme work for which Fate had created him and the ages had waited.



War is like the wind, nobody can tell into whose garden it may blow desolation. The French and Indian War, generally called now the Seven Years’ War, beginning as a mere border altercation between the British and French backwoodsmen on the banks of the upper Ohio River, grew into a struggle which, by the year 1758, when Washington retired from his command of the Virginia Forces, spread over the world. A new statesman, one of the ablest ever born in England, came to control the English Government. William Pitt, soon created Earl of Chatham, saw that the British Empire had reached a crisis in its development. Incompetence, inertia, had blurred its prestige, and the little victories which France, its chief enemy, had been winning against it piecemeal, were coming to be regarded as signs that the grandeur of Britain was passing. Pitt saw the gloomy situation, and the still gloomier future which it seemed to prophesy, but he saw also the remedy. Within a few months, under his direction, English troops were in every part of the world, and English ships of war were sailing every ocean, to recover the slipping elements and to solidify the British Empire. Just as Pitt was taking up his residence at Downing Street, Robert Clive was winning the Battle of Plassey in India, which brought to England territory of untold wealth. Two years later James Wolfe, defeating the French commander, Montcalm, on the Plains of Abraham, added not only Quebec, but all Canada, to the British Crown, and ended French rivalry north of the Great Lakes. Victories like these, seemingly so casual, really as final and as unrevisable as Fate, might well cause Englishmen to suspect that Destiny itself worked with them, and that an Englishman could be trusted to endure through any difficulties to a triumphant conclusion.

Beaten at every point where they met the British, the French, even after they had secured an alliance with Spain, which proved of little worth, were glad to make peace. On February 10, 1763, they signed the Treaty of Paris, which confirmed to the British nearly all their victories and left England the dominant Power in both hemispheres. The result of the war produced a marked effect on the people of the British Colonies in North America. “At no period of time,” says Chief Justice Marshall, in his “Life of Washington,” “was the attachment of the colonists to the mother country more strong, or more general, than in 1763, when the definitive articles of the treaty which restored peace to Great Britain, France, and Spain, were signed.”[1] But we who know the sequel perceive that the Seven Years’ War not only strengthened the attachment between the Colonies and the Mother Country, but that it also made the Colonies aware of their common interests, and awakened among them mutual friendship, and in a very brief time their sense of unity prevailed over their temporary enthusiasm for England. George III, a monarch as headstrong as he was narrow, with insanity lurking in his mind, succeeded to the throne in 1760, and he seized the first opportunity to get rid of his masterful Minister, William Pitt. He replaced him with the Earl of Bute, a Scotchman, and a man of ingenious parts, but with the incurable Tory habit of insisting that it was still midnight long after the sun was shining in the forenoon of another day.

[Footnote 1: Marshall: _The Life of George Washington_ (Philadelphia, 1805, 5 vols.), II, 68.]

Before the Treaty was signed and the world had begun to spin in a new groove, which optimists thought would stretch on forever, an equally serious change had come to the private life of George Washington. To the surprise of his friends, who had begun to doubt whether he would ever get married, he found his life’s companion and married her without delay. The notion seems to have been popular during his lifetime, and it certainly has continued to later days, that he was too bashful to feel easy in ladies’ society. I find no evidence for this mistaken idea. Although little has been recorded of the intimacies of Washington’s youth, there are indications of more than one “flame” and that he was not dull and stockish with the young women. As early as 1748, we hear of the Low-Land Beauty who had captivated him, and who is still to be identified. Even earlier, in his school days, he indulged in writing love verses. But we need not infer that they were inspired by living damsels or by the Muses.

“Oh ye Gods why should my poor resistless Heart Stand to oppose thy might and power–

* * * * *

“In deluding sleepings let my eyelids close That in an enraptured dream I may
In a rapt lulling sleep and gentle repose Possess those joys denied by day.”[1]

[Footnote 1: Quoted by Wister, 39.]

Cavour said that it was easier for him to make Italy than to write a poem: Washington, who was also an honest man, and fully aware of his limitations, would probably have admitted that he could make the American Republic more easily than a love song. But he was susceptible to feminine charms, and we hear of Betsy Fauntleroy, and of a “Mrs. Meil,” and on his return to Mount Vernon, after Braddock’s defeat, he received the following round robin from some of the young ladies at Belvoir:

Dear Sir,–After thanking Heaven for your safe return I must accuse you of great unkindness in refusing us the pleasure of seeing you this night. I do assure you nothing but our being satisfied that our company would be disagreeable should prevent us from trying if our legs would not carry us to Mount Vernon this night, but if you will not come to us tomorrow morning very early we shall be at Mount Vernon.


Apparently Washington’s love affairs were known and talked about among his group. What promised to be the most serious of his experiences was with Mary Philipse, of New York, daughter of Frederick Philipse, one of the richest landowners in that Colony, and sister-in-law of Beverly Robinson, one of Washington’s Virginian friends. Washington was going to Boston on a characteristic errand. One of the minor officers in the Regular British Army, which had accompanied Braddock to Virginia, refused to take orders from Washington, and officers of higher grade in Virginia Troops, declaring that their commissions were assigned only by Colonial officials, whereas he had his own from King George. This led, of course, to insubordination and frequent quarrels. To put a stop to the wrangling, Washington journeyed to Boston, to have Governor Shirley, the Commander-in-Chief of the King’s Forces in the Colonies, give a decision upon it. The Governor ruled in favor of Washington, who then rode back to Virginia. But he spent a week in New York City in order to see his enchantress, Mary Philipse, and it is even whispered that he proposed to her and that she refused him. Two years afterwards she married Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Morris, and during the Revolution the Morris house was Washington’s headquarters; the Morrises, who were Tories, having fled.

Persons have speculated why it was that so many of the young women whom Washington took a fancy to, chilled and drew back when it came to the question of marriage. One very clever writer thinks that perhaps his nose was inordinately large in his youth, and that that repelled them. I do not pretend to say. So far as I know, psychologists have not yet made a sufficiently exact study of the nose as a determining factor in matrimony, to warrant an opinion from persons who have made no special study of the subject. The plain fact was that by his twenty-fifth year, Washington was an unusually presentable young man, more than six feet tall, broad-shouldered, very strong, slender and athletic, carefully polite in his manners, a boon companion, though he talked little, a sound and deliberate thinker; moreover, the part he had taken in the war with the Indians and the French made him almost a popular hero, and gave him a preeminent place among the Virginians, both the young and the old, of that time. The possession of the estate of Mount Vernon, which he had inherited from his half-brother, Lawrence, assured to him more than a comfortable fortune, and yet gossip wondered why he was not married. Thackeray intimates that Washington was too evidently on the lookout for a rich wife, which, if true, may account for some of the alleged rebuffs. I do not believe this assertion, nor do I find evidence for it. Washington was always a very careful, farseeing person, and no doubt had a clear idea of what constitutes desirable qualifications in marriage, but I believe he would have married a poor girl out of the workhouse if he had really loved her. However, he was not put to that test.

One May day Washington rode off from Mount Vernon to carry despatches to Williamsburg. He stopped at William’s Ferry for dinner with his friend Major Chamberlayne. At the table was Mrs. Daniel Parke Custis, who, under her maiden name of Martha Dandridge, was well known throughout that region for her beauty and sweet disposition. She was now a widow of twenty-six, with two small children. Her late husband, Colonel Custis, her elder by fifteen years, had left her a large estate called White House, and a fortune which made her one of the richest women in Virginia. From their first introduction, Washington and she seemed to be mutually attracted. He lingered throughout the afternoon and evening with her and went on to Williamsburg with his despatches the next morning. Having finished his business at the Capitol, he returned to William’s Ferry, where he again saw Mrs. Custis, pressed his suit upon her and was accepted. Characteristic was it that he should conclude the matter so suddenly; but he had had marriage in his intentions for many years.

During the summer Washington returned to his military duties and led a troop to Fort Duquesne. He found the fort partly demolished, and abandoned by the French; he marched in and took it, and gave it the name of Fort Pitt, in recognition of the great statesman who had directed the revival of British prestige. The fort, thus recovered to English possession, stood on the present site of Pittsburgh. I quote the following brief letter from Washington to Mrs. Custis, as it is almost the only note of his to her during their engagement that has been preserved:

We have begun our March for the Ohio. A courier is starting for Williamsburg, and I embrace the opportunity to send a few words to one whose life is now inseparable from mine. Since that happy hour when we made our pledges to each other, my thoughts have been continually going to you as another Self. That an all powerful Providence may keep us both in safety is the prayer of your ever faithful and affectionate friend.[1]

[Footnote 1: P.L. Ford, _The True George Washington_, 93.]

Late in that autumn Washington returned for good from his Western fighting. On January 6, 1759 (Old Style), his marriage to Mrs. Custis took place in St. Peter’s Church, near her home at the White House. Judging from the fine writing which old historians and new have devoted to describing it, Virginia had seen few such elegant pageants as upon that occasion. The grandees in official station and in social life were all there. Francis Fauquier was, of course, gorgeous in his Governor’s robes but he could not outshine the bridegroom, in blue and silver with scarlet trimmings, and gold buckles at his knees, with his imperial physique and carriage. The Reverend Peter Mossum conducted the Episcopal service, after which the bride drove back with a coach and six to the White House, while Washington, with other gentlemen, rode on horseback beside her acting as escort.

The bridal couple spent two or three months at the White House. The Custis estates were large and in so much need of oversight that if Washington had not appeared at this time, a bailiff, or manager, would have had to be hired for them. Henceforth Washington seems to have added the care of the White House to that of Mount Vernon, and the two involved a burden which occupied most of his time, for he had retired from the army. His fellow citizens, however, had elected him a member of the House of Burgesses, a position he held for many years; going to Williamsburg every season to attend the sessions of the Assembly. On his first entrance to take his seat, Mr. Robinson, the Speaker, welcomed him in Virginia’s name, and praised him for his high achievements. This so embarrassed the modest young member that he was unable to reply, upon which Speaker Robinson said, “Sit down, Mr. Washington, your modesty is equal to your valor, and that surpasses the power of any language that I possess.” In all his life, probably, Washington never heard praise more genuine or more deserved. He had just passed his twenty-seventh year. In the House of Burgesses he had the reputation of being the silent member. He never acquired the art of a debater. He was neither quick at rebuttal nor at repartee, but so surely did his character impress itself on every one that when he spoke the Assembly almost took it for granted that he had said the final word on the subject under discussion. How careful he was to observe the scope and effects of parliamentary speaking appears from a letter which he wrote many years later.

Agriculture has always been a particularly fine training-ground for statesmen. To persons who do not watch it closely, it may seem monotonous. In reality, while the sum of the conditions of one year tally closely with those of another, the daily changes and variations create a variety which must be constantly watched and provided for. A sudden freshet and unseasonable access of heat or cold, a scourge of hail, a drought, a murrain among the cattle, call for ingenuity and for resourcefulness; and for courage, a higher moral quality. Constant comradeship with Nature seems to beget placidity and quiet assurance. From using the great natural forces which bring to pass crops and the seasons, they seem to work in and through him also. The banker, the broker, even the merchant, lives in a series of whirlwinds, or seems to be pursuing a mirage or groping his way through a fog. The farmer, although he be not beyond the range of accident, deals more continually with causes which regularly produce certain effects. He knows a rainbow by sight and does not waste his time and money in chasing it.

No better idea of Washington’s activity as a planter can be had than from his brief and terse journals as an agriculturist. He sets down day by day what he did and what his slaves and the free employees did on all parts of his estate. We see him as a regular and punctual man. He had a moral repugnance to idleness. He himself worked steadily and he chided the incompetent, the shirkers, and the lazy.

A short experience as landowner convinced him that slave labor was the least efficient of all. This conviction led him very early to believe in the emancipation of the slaves. I do not find that sentiment or abstract ideals moved him to favor emancipation, but his sense of fitness, his aversion to wastefulness and inefficiency made him disapprove of a system which rendered industry on a high plane impossible. Experience only confirmed these convictions of his, and in his will he ordered that many slaves should be freed after the death of Mrs. Washington. He was careful to apportion to his slaves the amount of food they needed in order to keep in health and to work the required stint. He employed a doctor to look after them in sickness. He provided clothing for them which he deemed sufficient. I do not gather that he ever regarded the black man as being essentially made of the same clay as the white man, the chief difference being the color of their skin. To Washington, the Slave System seemed bad, not so much because it represented a debased moral standard, but because it was economically and socially inadequate. His true character appears in his making the best of a system which he recognized as most faulty. Under his management, in a few years, his estate at Mount Vernon became the model of that kind of plantation in the South.

Whoever desires to understand Washington’s life as a planter should read his diaries with their brief, and one might almost say brusque, entries from day to day.[1] Washington’s care involved not only bringing the Mount Vernon estate to the highest point of prosperity by improving the productiveness of its various sections, but also by buying and annexing new pieces of land. To such a planter as he was, the ideal was to raise enough food to supply all the persons who lived or worked on the place, and this he succeeded in doing. His chief source of income, which provided him with ready money, was the tobacco crop, which proved to be of uncertain value. By Washington’s time the Virginians had much diminished the amount and delicacy of the tobacco they raised by the careless methods they employed. They paid little attention to the rotation of crops, or to manuring, with the result that the soil was never properly replenished. In his earlier days Washington shipped his year’s product to an agent in Glasgow or in London, who sold it at the market price and sent him the proceeds. The process of transportation was sometimes precarious; a leaky ship might let in enough sea water to damage the tobacco, and there was always the risk of loss by shipwreck or other accident. Washington sent out to his brokers a list of things which he desired to pay for out of the proceeds of the sale, to be sent to him. These lists are most interesting, as they show us the sort of household utensils and furniture, the necessaries and the luxuries, and the apparel used in a mansion like Mount Vernon. We find that he even took care to order a fashionably dressed doll for little Martha Custis to play with.

[Footnote 1: See for instance in W.C. Ford’s edition of _The Writings of George Washington_, II, 140-69. Diary for 1760, 230-56. Diary for 1768.]

The care and education of little Martha and her brother, John Parke Custis, Washington undertook with characteristic thoroughness and solicitude. He had an instinct for training growing creatures. He liked to experiment in breeding horses and cattle and the farmyard animals. He watched the growth of his plantations of trees, and he was all the more interested in studying the development of mental and moral capacities in the little children.

In due time a tutor was engaged, and besides the lessons they learned in their schoolbooks, they were taught both music and dancing. Little Patsy suffered from epilepsy, and after the prescriptions of the regular doctors had done no good, her parents turned to a quack named Evans, who placed on the child’s finger an iron ring supposed to have miraculous virtues, but it brought her no relief, and very suddenly little Martha Custis died. Washington himself felt the loss of his unfortunate step-daughter, but he was unflagging in trying to console the mother, heartbroken at the death of the child.

Jack Custis was given in charge of the Reverend Jonathan Boucher, an Anglican clergyman, apparently well-meaning, who agreed with Washington’s general view that the boy’s training “should make him fit for more useful purposes than horse-racing.” In spite of Washington’s carefully reasoned plans, the youth of the young man prevailed over the reason of his stepfather. Jack found dogs, horses, and guns, and consideration of dress more interesting and more important than his stepfather’s theories of education. Washington wrote to Parson Boucher, the teacher:

Had he begun, or rather pursued his study of the Greek language, I should have thought it no bad acquisition; … To be acquainted with the French Tongue is become a part of polite education; and to a man who has the prospect of mixing in a large circle, absolutely necessary. Without arithmetic, the common affairs of life are not to be managed with success. The study of Geometry, and the mathematics (with due regard to the limits of it) is equally advantageous. The principles of Philosophy, Moral, Natural, etc. I should think a very desirable knowledge for a gentleman.[1]

[Footnote 1: W.C. Ford, _George Washington_ (1900), I, 136-37.]

There was nothing abstract in young Jack Custis’s practical response to his stepfather’s reasoning; he fell in love with Miss Nelly Calvert and asked her to marry him. Washington was forced to plead with the young lady that the youth was too young for marriage by several years, and that he must finish his education. Apparently she acquiesced without making a scene. She accepted a postponement of the engagement, and Custis was enrolled among the students of King’s College (subsequently Columbia) in New York City. Even then, his passion for an education did not develop as his parents hoped. He left the college in the course of a few months. Throughout John Custis’s perversities, and as long as he lived, Washington’s kindness and real affection never wavered. Although he had now taught himself to practice complete self-control, he could treat with consideration the young who had it not.

By nature Washington was a man of business. He wished to see things grow, not so much for the actual increase in value which that indicated, as because increase seemed to be a proof of proper methods. Not content, therefore, with rounding out his holdings at Mount Vernon and Mrs. Washington’s estate at the White House, he sought investment in the unsettled lands on the Ohio and in Florida, and on the Mississippi. It proved to be a long time before the advance of settlement in the latter regions made his investments worth much, and during the decade after his marriage in 1759, we must think of him as a man of great energy and calm judgment who was bent not only on making Mount Vernon a model country place on the outside, but a civilized home within. In its furnishings and appointments it did not fall behind the manors of the Virginia men of fashion and of wealth in that part of the country. Before Washington left the army, he recognized that his education had been irregular and inadequate, and he set himself to make good his defects by studying and reading for himself. There were no public libraries, but some of the gentlemen made collections of books. They learned of new publications in England from journals which were few in number and incomplete. Doubtless advertising went by word of mouth. The lists of things desired which Washington sent out to his agents, Robert Cary and Company, once a year or oftener, usually contained the titles of many books, chiefly on architecture, and he was especially intent on keeping up with new methods and experiments in farming. Thus, among the orders in May, 1759, among a request for “Desert Glasses and Stand for Sweetmeats Jellies, etc.; 50 lbs. Spirma Citi Candles; stockings etc.,” he asks for “the newest and most approved Treatise of Agriculture–besides this, send me a Small piece in Octavo–called a New System of Agriculture, or a Speedy Way to Grow Rich; Longley’s Book of Gardening; Gibson upon Horses, the latest Edition in Quarto.” This same invoice contains directions for “the Busts–one of Alexander the Great, another of Charles XII, of Sweden, and a fourth of the King of Prussia (Frederick the Great); also of Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough, but somewhat smaller.” Do these celebrities represent Washington’s heroes in 1759?

As time went on, his commissions for books were less restricted to agriculture, and comprised also works on history, biography, and government.

But although incessant activity devoted to various kinds of work was a characteristic of Washington’s life at Mount Vernon, his attention to social duties and pleasures was hardly less important. He aimed to be a country gentleman of influence, and he knew that he could achieve this only by doing his share of the bountiful hospitality which was expected of such a personage. Virginia at that time possessed no large cities or towns with hotels. When the gentry travelled, they put up overnight at the houses of other gentry, and thus, in spite of very restricted means of transportation, the inhabitants of one part of the country exchanged ideas with those of another. In this way also the members of the upper class circulated among themselves and acquired a solidarity which otherwise would hardly have been possible. We are told that Mount Vernon was always full of guests; some of these being casual strangers travelling through, and others being invited friends and acquaintances on a visit. There were frequent balls and parties when neighbors from far and near joined in some entertainment at the great mansion. There were the hunt balls which Washington himself particularly enjoyed, hunting being his favorite sport. Fairfax County, where Mount Vernon lay, and its neighboring counties, Fauquier and Prince William, abounded in foxes, and the land was not too difficult for the hunters, who copied as far as possible the dress and customs of the foxhunters in England. Possibly there might be a meeting at Mount Vernon of the local politicians. At least once a year Washington and his wife–“Lady,” as the somewhat florid Virginians called her–went off to Williamsburg to attend the session of the House of Burgesses. Washington seldom missed going to the horse-races, one of the chief functions of the year, not only for jockeys and sporting men, but for the fashionable world of the aristocracy. Thanks to his carefulness and honesty in keeping his accounts, we have his own record of the amounts he spent at cards–never large amounts, nor indicative of the gamester’s passion.

Thus Washington passed the first ten years of his married life. A stranger meeting him at that time might have little suspected that here was the future founder of a nation, one who would prove himself the greatest of Americans, if not the greatest of men. But if you had spent a day with Washington, and watched him at work, or listened to his few but decisive words, or seen his benign but forcible smile, you would have said to yourself–“This man is equal to any fate that destiny may allot to him.”



Meanwhile the course of events was leading toward a new and unexpected goal. Chief Justice Marshall said, as I have quoted, that 1763, the end of the French-Indian War, marked the greatest friendship and harmony between the Colonies and England. The reason is plain. In their incessant struggles with the French and the Indians, the Colonists had discovered a real champion and protector. That protector, England, had found that she must really protect the Colonies unless she was willing to see them fall into the hands of her rival, France. Putting forth her strength, she crushed France in America, and remained virtually in control not only of the Colonies and territory from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, but also of British America. In these respects the Colonies and the Mother Country seemed destined to be bound more closely together; but the very spirit by which Britain had conquered France in America, and France in India, and had made England paramount throughout the world, prevented the further fusion, moral, social, and political, of the Colonies with the Mother Country.

That spirit was the Imperial Spirit, which Plassey and Quebec had called to life. The narrow Hanoverian King, who now ruled England, could not himself have devised the British Empire, but when the Empire crystallized, George III rightly surmised that, however it had come about, it meant a large increase in power for him. The Colonies and Dependencies were to be governed like conquered provinces. Evidently, the Hindus of Bengal could hardly be treated in the same fashion as were the Colonists of Massachusetts or Virginia. The Bengalese knew that there was no bond of language or of race between them and their conquerors, whereas American Colonists knew that they and the British sprang from the same race and spoke the same language. One of the first realizations that came to the British Imperialists was that the ownership of the conquered people or state warranted the conquerors in enriching themselves from the conquered. But while this might do very well in India, and be accepted there as a matter of course, it would be most ill-judged in the American Colonies, for the Colonists were not a foreign nor a conquered people. They originally held grants of land from the British Crown, but they had worked that land themselves and settled the wilderness by their own efforts, and had a right to whatever they might earn.

The Tory ideals, which took possession of the British Government when Lord Bute succeeded to William Pitt in power, were soon applied to England’s relations to the American Colonies. The Seven Years’ War left England heavily in debt. She needed larger revenues, and being now swayed by Imperialism, she easily found reasons for taxing the Colonies. In 1765 she passed the Stamp Act which caused so much bad feeling that in less than a year she decided to repeal it, but new duties on paper, glass, tea, and other commodities were imposed instead. In the North, Massachusetts took the lead in opposing what the Colonists regarded as the unconstitutional acts of the Crown. The patriotic lawyer of Boston, James Otis, shook the Colony with his eloquence against the illegal encroachments and actual tyranny of the English. Other popular orators of equal eminence, John and Samuel Adams and Josiah Quincy, fanned the flames of discontent. Even the most radical did not yet whisper the terrible word Revolution, or suggest that they aspired to independence. They simply demanded their “rights” which the arrogant and testy British Tories had shattered and were withholding from them. At the outset rebels seldom admit that their rebellion aims at new acquisitions, but only at the recovery of the old.

Next to Massachusetts, Virginia was the most vigorous of the Colonies in protesting against British usurpation of power, which would deprive them of their liberty. Although Virginia had no capital city like Boston, in which the chief political leaders might gather and discuss and plan, and mobs might assemble and equip with physical force the impulses of popular indignation, the Old Dominion had means, just as the Highland clans or the Arab tribes had, of keeping in touch with each other. Patrick Henry, a young Virginia lawyer of sturdy Scotch descent, by his flaming eloquence was easily first among the spokesmen of the rights of the Colonists in Virginia. In the “Parsons Cause,” a lawsuit which might have passed quickly into oblivion had he not seen the vital implications concerned in it, he denied the right of the King to veto an act of the Virginia Assembly, which had been passed for the good of the people of Virginia. In the course of the trial he declared, “Government was a conditional compact between the King, stipulating protection on the one hand, and the people, stipulating obedience and support on the other,” and he asserted that a violation of these covenants by either party discharged the other party from its obligations. Doctrines as outspoken as these uttered in court, whether right or wrong, indicated that the attorney who uttered them, and the judge who listened, and the audience who applauded, were not blind worshippers of the illegal rapacity of the Crown.

Patrick Henry was the most spectacular of the early champions of the Colonists in Virginia, but many others of them agreed with him. Among these the weightiest was the silent George Washington. He said little, but his opinions passed from mouth to mouth, and convinced many. In 1765 he wrote to Francis Dandridge, an uncle of Mrs. Washington:

The Stamp Act imposed on the colonies by the Parliament of Great Britain, engrosses the conversation of the speculative part of the colonists, who look upon this unconstitutional method of taxation, as a direful attack upon their liberties, and loudly exclaim against the violation. What may be the result of this, and of some other (I think I may add) ill-judged measures, I will not undertake to determine; but this I may venture to affirm, that the advantage accruing to the mother country will fall greatly short of the expectations of the ministry; for certain it is, that an whole substance does already in a manner flow to Great Britain, and that whatsoever contributes to lessen our importations must be hurtful to their manufacturers. And the eyes of our people, already beginning to open, will perceive, that many luxuries, which we lavish our substance in Great Britain for, can well be dispensed with, whilst the necessaries of life are (mostly) to be had within ourselves. This, consequently, will introduce frugality, and be a necessary stimulation to industry. If Great Britain, therefore, loads her manufacturies with heavy taxes, will it not facilitate these measures? They will not compel us, I think, to give our money for their exports, whether we will or not; and certain I am, none of their traders will part from them without a valuable consideration. Where then, is the utility of the restrictions? As to the Stamp Act, taken in a single view, one and the first bad consequence attending it, I take to be this, our courts of judicature must inevitably be shut up; for it is impossible, (or next of kin to it), under our present circumstances, that the act of Parliament can be complied with, were we ever so willing to enforce the execution; for, not to say, which alone would be sufficient, that we have not money to pay the stamps, there are many other cogent reasons, to prevent it; and if a stop be put to our judicial proceedings, I fancy the merchants of Great Britain, trading to the colonies, will not be among the last to wish for a repeal of it.[1]

[Footnote 1: Ford, II, 209-10.]

This passage would suffice, were there not many similar which might be quoted, to prove that Washington was from the start a loyal American. A legend which circulated during his lifetime, and must have been fabricated by his enemies, for I find no evidence to support it either in his letters or in other trustworthy testimony, insinuated that he was British at heart and threw his lot in with the Colonists only when war could not be averted. In 1770 the merchants of Philadelphia drew up an agreement in which they pledged themselves to practise non-importation of British goods sent to America. Washington’s wise neighbor and friend, George Mason, drafted a plan of association of similar purport to be laid before the Virginia Burgesses. But Lord Botetourt, the new Royal Governor, deemed some of these resolutions dangerous to the prerogative of the King, and dissolved the Assembly. The Burgesses, however, met at Anthony Hay’s house and adopted Mason’s Association. Washington, who was one of the signers of the Association, wrote to his agents in London: “I am fully determined to adhere religiously to it.”

Five years had now elapsed since the British Tories attempted to fix on the Colonies the Stamp Act, and although they had withdrawn that hateful law, the relations between the Mother Country and the Colonists had not improved. Far from it. The English issued a series of irritating provisions which convinced the Colonists that the Government had no real desire to be friendly, and that, on the contrary, it intended to make no distinction between them and the other conquered provinces of the Crown. Then and always, the English forgot that the Colonists were men of their own stock, equally stubborn in their devotion to principles, and probably more accessible to scruples of conscience. So they were not likely to be frightened into subjection. The governing class in England was in a state of mind which has darkened its judgment more than once; the state of mind which, when it encounters an obstacle to its plans, regards that obstacle as an enemy, and remarks in language brutally frank, though not wholly elegant: “We will lick him first and then decide who is right.” In 1770 King George III, who fretted at all seasons at the slowness with which he was able to break down the ascendency of the Whigs, manipulated the Government so as to make Lord North Prime Minister. Lord North was a servant, one might say a lackey, after the King’s own heart. He abandoned lifelong traditions, principles, fleeting whims, prejudices even, in order to keep up with the King’s wish of the moment. After Lord North became Prime Minister, the likelihood of a peaceful settlement between the crown and the Colonies lessened. He ran ahead of the King in his desire to serve the King’s wishes, and George III, by this time, was wrought up by the persistent tenacity of the Whigs–he wished them dead, but they would not die–and he was angered by the insolence of the Colonists who showed that they would not shrink from forcibly resisting the King’s command. On both sides of the Atlantic a vehement and most enlightening debate over constitutional and legal fundamentals still went on. Although the King had packed Parliament, not all the oratory poured out at Westminster favored the King. On the contrary, the three chief masters of British eloquence at that time, and in all time–Edmund Burke, William Pitt, and Charles James Fox–spoke on the side of the Colonists. Reading the magnificent arguments of Burke to-day, we ask ourselves how any group in Parliament could have withstood them. But there comes a moment in every vital discussion when arguments and logic fail to convince. Passions deeper than logic controlled motives and actions. The Colonists contended that in proclaiming “no taxation without representation,” they were appealing to a principle of Anglo-Saxon liberty inherent in their race. When King George, or any one else, denied this principle, he denied an essential without which Anglo-Saxon polity could not survive, but neither King George nor Lord North accepted the premises. If they had condescended to reply at all, they might have sung the hymn of their successors a hundred years later:

“We don’t want to fight,
But by jingo! if we do,
We’ve got the men, we’ve got the ships, We’ve got the money too.”

Meanwhile, the Virginia Planter watched the course of events, pursued his daily business regularly, attended the House of Burgesses when it was in session, said little, but thought much. He did not break out into invective or patriotic appeals. No doubt many of his acquaintances thought him lukewarm in spirit and non-committal; but persons who knew him well knew what his decision must be. As early as April 5, 1769, he wrote his friend, George Mason:

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 should be done to avert the stroke, and maintain the liberty, which we have derived from our ancestors. But the manner of doing it, to answer the purpose effectually, is the point in question.

That no man should scruple, or hesitate a moment, to use a–ms in defence of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends, is clearly my opinion. Yet a–ms, I would beg leave to add, should be the last resource, the dernier resort. Addresses to the throne, and remonstrances to Parliament, we have already, it is said, proved the inefficiency of. How far, then, their attention to our rights and privileges is to be awakened or alarmed, by starving their trade and manufacturers, remains to be tried.[1]

[Footnote 1: Ford, II, 263-64.]

Thus wrote the Silent Member six years before the outbreak of hostilities, and he did not then display any doubt either of his patriotism, or of the course which every patriot must take. To his intimates he spoke with point-blank candor. Years later, George Mason wrote to him:

I never forgot your declaration, when I had last the pleasure of being at your house in 1768, that you were ready to take your musket upon your shoulder whenever your country called upon you.

Some writers point out that Washington excelled rather as a critic of concrete plans than of constitutional and legal aspects. Perhaps this is true. Assuredly he had no formal legal training. There were many other men in Massachusetts, in Virginia, and in some of the other Colonies, who could and did analyze minutely the Colonists’ protest against taxation without representation, and the British rebuttal thereof; but Washington’s strength lay in his primal wisdom, the wisdom which is based not on conventions, even though they be laws and constitutions, but on a knowledge of the ways in which men will react toward each other in their primitive, natural relations. In this respect he was one of the wisest among the statesmen.

He does not seem to have joined in such clandestine methods as those of the Committees of Correspondence, which Samuel Adams and some of the most radical patriots in the Bay State had organized, but he said in the Virginia Convention, in 1774: “I will raise one thousand men, subsist them at my own expense and march myself at their head for the relief of Boston.”[1] The ardor of Washington’s offer matched the increasing anger of the Colonists. Lord North, abetted by the British Parliament, had continued to exasperate them by passing new bills which could have produced under the best circumstances only a comparatively small revenue. One of these imposed a tax on tea. The Colonists not only refused to buy it, but to have it landed. In Boston a large crowd gathered and listened to much fiery speech-making. Suddenly, a body of fifty men disguised as Mohawk Indians rushed down to the wharves, rowed out to the three vessels in which a large consignment of tea had been sent across the ocean, hoisted it out of the holds to the decks and scattered the contents of three hundred and forty chests in Boston Harbor.

[Footnote 1: _John Adams’s Diary_, August 31, 1774, quoting Lynch.]

The Boston Tea Party was as sensational as if it had sprang from the brain of a Paris Jacobin in the French Revolution. It created excitement among the American Colonists from Portsmouth to Charleston. Six more of the Colonies enrolled Committees of Correspondence, Pennsylvania alone refusing to join. In every quarter American patriots felt exalted. In England the reverse effects were signalized with equal vehemence. The Mock Indians were denounced as incendiaries, and the town meetings were condemned as “nurseries of sedition.” Parliament passed four penal laws, the first of which punished Boston by transferring its port to Salem and closing its harbor. The second law suspended the charter of the Province and added several new and tyrannical powers to the British Governor and to Crown officials.

On September 5, 1774, the first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. Except Georgia, every Colony sent delegates to it. The election of those delegates was in several cases irregular, because the body which chose them was not the Legislature but some temporary body of the patriots. Nevertheless, the Congress numbered some of the men who were actually and have remained in history, the great engineers of the American Revolution. Samuel Adams and John Adams went from Massachusetts; John Jay and Philip Livingston from New York; Roger Sherman from Connecticut; Thomas Mifflin and Edward Biddle from Pennsylvania; Thomas McKean from Delaware; George Washington, Patrick Henry, Peyton Randolph, Edmund Pendleton, and Richard H. Lee from Virginia; and Edward and John Rutledge from South Carolina. Although the Congress was made up of these men and of others like them, the petitions adopted by it and the work done, not to mention the freshets of oratory, were astonishingly mild. Probably many of the delegates would have preferred to use fiery tongues. Samuel Adams, for instance, though “prematurely gray, palsied in hand, and trembling in voice,” must have had difficulty in restraining himself. He wrote as viciously as he spoke. “Damn that Adams,” said one of his enemies. “Every dip of his pen stings like a horned snake.” Patrick Henry, being asked when he returned home, “Who is the greatest man in Congress,” replied: “If you speak of eloquence, Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina is by far the greatest orator; but if you speak of solid information and sound judgment, Colonel Washington is unquestionably the greatest man on that floor.” The rumor had it that Washington said, he wished to God the Liberties of America were to be determined by a single Combat between himself and George. One other saying of his at this time is worth reporting, although it cannot be satisfactorily verified. “_More blood will be spilled on this occasion_, if the ministry are determined to push matters to extremity, _than history has ever yet furnished instances of_ in the annals of North America.” The language and tone of the “Summary View”–a pamphlet which Thomas Jefferson had issued shortly before–probably chimed with the emotions of most of the delegates. They adopted (October 14, 1774) the “Declaration of Rights,” which may not have seemed belligerent enough for the Radicals, but really leaves little unsaid. A week later Congress agreed to an “Association,” an instrument for regulating, by preventing, trade with the English. Having provided for the assembling of a second Congress, the first adjourned.

As a symbol, the First Congress has an integral importance in the growth of American Independence. It marked the first time that the American Colonies had acted together for their collective interests. It served notice on King George and Lord North that it repudiated the claims of the British Parliament to govern the Colonies. It implied that it would repel by force every attempt of the British to exercise an authority which the Colonists refused to recognize. In a very real sense the Congress thus delivered an ultimatum. The winter of 1774/5 saw preparations being pushed on both sides. General Thomas Gage, the British Commander-in-Chief stationed at Boston, had also thrust upon him the civil government of that town. He had some five thousand British troops in Boston, and several men-of-war in the harbor. There were no overt acts, but the speed with which, on more than one occasion, large bodies of Colonial farmers assembled and went swinging through the country to rescue some place, which it was falsely reported the British were attacking, showed the nervous tension under which the Americans were living. As the enthusiasm of the Patriots increased, that of the Loyalists increased also. Among the latter were many of the rich and aristocratic inhabitants, and, of course, most of the office-holders. Until the actual outbreak of hostilities they upheld the King’s cause with more chivalry than discretion, and then they migrated to Nova Scotia and to England, and bore the penalty of confiscation and the corroding distress of exile. In England during this winter, Pitt and Burke had defended the Colonies and the Whig minority had supported them. Even Lord North used conciliatory suggestions, but with him conciliation meant that the Colonies should withdraw all their offensive demands and kneel before the Crown in penitent humiliation before a new understanding could be thought of.

Meanwhile Colonel Washington was in Virginia running his plantations to the best of his ability and with his mind made up. He wrote to his friend Bryan Fairfax (July 20, 1774):

As I see nothing, on the one hand, to induce a belief that the Parliament would embrace a favorable opportunity of repealing acts, which they go on with great rapidity to pass, and in order to enforce their tyrannical system; and on the other, I observe, or think I observe, that government is pursuing a regular plan at the expense of law and justice to overthrow our constitutional rights and liberties, how can I expect any redress from a measure, which has been ineffectually tried already? For, Sir, what is it we are contending against? Is it against paying the duty of three pence per pound on tea because burthensome? No, it is the right only, we have all along disputed, and to this end we have already petitioned his Majesty in as humble and dutiful manner as subjects could do[1]….

And has not General Gage’s conduct since his arrival, (in stopping the address of his Council, and publishing a proclamation more becoming a Turkish bashaw, than an English governor, declaring it treason to associate in any manner by which the commerce of Great Britain is to be affected) exhibited an unexampled testimony of the most despotic system of tyranny, that ever was practised in a free government? In short, what further proofs are wanted to satisfy one of the designs of the ministry, than their own acts, which are uniform and plainly tending to the same point, nay, if I mistake not, avowedly to fix the right of taxation? What hope then from petitioning, when they tell us, that now or never is the time to fix the matter? Shall we after this, whine and cry for relief, when we have already tried it in vain? Or shall we supinely sit and see one province after another fall a prey to despotism?[2]

[Footnote 1: Ford, II, 421-22.]

[Footnote 2: _Ibid_., 423-24.]

In the early autumn Washington wrote to Captain Robert MacKenzie, who was serving in the Regular British Army with Gage at Boston:

I think I can announce it as a fact, that it is not the wish or intent of that government, (Massachusetts) or any other upon this continent, separately or collectively, to set up for independence; but this you may at the same time rely on, that none of them will ever submit to the loss of these valuable rights and privileges, which are essential to the happiness of every free state, and without which, life, liberty, and property are rendered totally insecure.[1]

[Footnote 1: _Ibid_., 443.]

In the following spring the battles of Lexington and Concord, on April 19th, began the war of the American Revolution. A few weeks later, a Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. The delegates to it, understanding that they must prepare for war, proceeded to elect a Commander-in-Chief. There was some jealousy between the men of Virginia and those of Massachusetts. The former seemed to think that the latter assumed the first position, and indeed, most of the angry gestures had been made in Boston, and Boston had been the special object of British punishment. Still, with what may seem unexpected self-effacement, they did not press strongly for the choice of a Massachusetts man as Commander-in-Chief. On June 15, 1775, Congress having resolved “that a general be appointed to command all the continental forces raised or to be raised for the defence of American liberty,” proceeded to a choice, and the ballots being taken, George Washington, Esq., was unanimously elected. On the next day the President of the Congress, Mr. John Hancock, formally announced the election to Colonel Washington, who replied:

Mr. President, though I am truly sensible of the high honor done me in this appointment, yet I feel great distress from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important trust. However, as the Congress desire it, I will enter upon the momentous duty and exert every power I possess in the service and for the support of the glorious cause. I beg they will accept my most cordial thanks for this distinguished testimony of their approbation. But lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room, that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.

As to pay, Sir, I beg leave to assure the Congress, that as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept this arduous employment at the expense of my domestic ease and happiness, I do not wish to make any profit from it. I will keep an exact account of my expenses. Those I doubt not they will discharge, and that is all I desire.[1]

[Footnote 1: Ford, II, 477-78-79, 480-81.]

Accompanied by Lee and Schuyler and a brilliant escort, he set forth on June 21st for Boston. Before they had gone twenty miles a messenger bringing news of the Battle of Bunker Hill crossed them. “Did the Militia fight?” Washington asked. On being told that they did, he said: “Then the liberties of the country are safe.” Then he pushed on, stopping long enough in New York to appoint General Schuyler military commander of that Colony, and so through Connecticut to the old Bay State. There, at Cambridge, he found the crowd awaiting him and some of the Colonial troops. On the edge of the Common, under a large elm tree broad of spread, he took command of the first American army. It was the second of July, 1775.



Thus began what seems to us now an impossible war. Although it had been brooding for ten years, since the Stamp Act, which showed that the ties of blood and of tradition meant nothing to the British Tories, now that it had come, the Colonists may well have asked themselves what it meant. Probably, if the Colonists had taken a poll on that fine July morning in 1775, not one in five of them would have admitted that he was going to war to secure Independence, but all would have protested that they would die if need be to recover their freedom, the old British freedom, which came down to them from Runnymede and should not be wrested from them.

A British Tory, at the same time, might have replied: “We fight, we cannot do less, in order to discipline and punish these wretches who assume to deny the jurisdiction of the British Crown and to rebel against the authority of the British Parliament.” A few years before, an English general had boasted that with an army of five thousand troops he would undertake a march from Canada, through the Colonies, straight to the Gulf of Mexico. And Colonel George Washington, who had seen something of the quality of the British regulars, remarked that with a thousand seasoned Virginians he would engage to block the five thousand wherever he met them. The test was now to be made.

The first thing that strikes us is the great extent of the field of war. From the farthest settlements in the northeast, in what is now Maine, to the border villages in Georgia was about fifteen hundred miles; but mere distance did not represent the difficulty of the journey. Between Boston and Baltimore ran a carriage road, not always kept in good repair. Most of the other stretches had to be traversed on horseback. The country along the seaboard was generally well supplied with food, but the supply was nowhere near large enough to furnish regular permanent subsistence for an army. A lack of munitions seriously threatened the Colonists’ ability to fight at all, but the discovery of lead in Virginia made good this deficiency until the year 1781, when the lead mine was exhausted.

More important than material concerns, however, was the diversity in origin and customs among the Colonists themselves. The total population numbered in 1775 nearly two and one half million souls. Of these, the slaves formed about 500,000. The three largest Colonies, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania contained 900,000 inhabitants, of which a little more than one half were slaves. Pennsylvania, the third Colony, had a total of 300,000, mostly white, while South Carolina had 200,000, of whom only 65,000 were white. Connecticut, on the other hand, had 200,000 with scarcely any blacks. The result was a very mottled population. The New Englanders had already begun to practise manufacturing, and they continued to raise under normal conditions sufficient food for their subsistence. South of the Mason and Dixon line, however, slave labor prevailed and the three great staples–tobacco, indigo, and rice–were the principal crops. Where these did not grow, the natives got along as best they could on scanty common crops, and by raising a few sheep and hogs. As the war proceeded, it taught with more and more force the inherent wastefulness of slave labor in the South. It was inefficient, costly, and unreliable.

The Battle of Bunker Hill was at once hailed as a Patriot victory, but the rejoicing was premature, for the Americans had been forced to retreat, giving up the position they had bravely defended. Nevertheless, the opinion prevailed that they had won a real victory by withstanding through many hours of a bloody fight some of the best of the British regiments.

Washington took command of the American army at Cambridge, he was faced with the great task of organizing it and of forming a plan of campaign. The Congress had taken over the charge of the army at Boston, and the events had so shaped themselves that the first thing for Washington to do was to drive out the British troops. To accomplish this he planned to seal up all the entrances into the town by land so that food could not be smuggled in. The British had a considerable fleet in Boston Harbor, and they had to rely upon it to bring provisions and to keep in touch with the world outside.

Washington had his headquarters at the Craigie House in Cambridge, some half a mile from Harvard Square and the College. He was now forty-three years old, a man of commanding presence, six feet three inches tall, broad-shouldered but slender, without any signs of the stoutness of middle age. His hands and feet were large. His head was somewhat small. The blue-gray eyes, set rather far apart, looked out from heavy eyebrows with an expression of attentiveness. The most marked feature was the nose, which was fairly large and straight and vigorous. The mouth shut firmly, as it usually does where decision is the dominant trait. The lips were flat. His color was pale but healthy, and rarely flushed, even under great provocation.

All that had gone before seemed to be strangely blended in his appearance. The surveyor lad; the Indian fighter and officer; the planter; the foxhunter; the Burgess; you could detect them all. But underlying them all was the permanent Washington, deferent, plain of speech, direct, yet slow in forming or expressing an opinion. Most men, after they had been with him awhile, felt a sense of his majesty grow upon them, a sense that he was made of common flesh like them, but of something uncommon besides, something very high and very precious.

Washington found that he had sixteen thousand troops under his command near Boston. Of these two thirds came from Massachusetts, and Connecticut halved the rest. During July Congress added three thousand men from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. They lacked everything. In order to give them some uniformity in dress, Washington suggested hunting-shirts, which he said “would have a happier tendency to unite the men and abolish those Provincial Distinctions which lead to jealousy and dissatisfaction.” Among higher officers, jealousy, which they made no attempt to dissemble or to disguise, was common. Two of the highest posts went to Englishmen who proved themselves not only technically unfit, but suspiciously near disloyalty. One of these was Charles Lee, who thought the major-generalship to which Congress appointed him beneath his notice; the other was also an Englishman, Horatio Gates, Adjutant-General. A third, Thomas, when about to retire in pique, received from Washington the following rebuke:

In the usual contests of empire and ambition, the conscience of a soldier has so little share, that he may very properly insist upon his claims of rank, and extend his pretensions even to punctilio;–but in such a cause as this, when the object is neither glory nor extent of territory, but a defense of all that is dear and valuable in private and public life, surely every post ought to be deemed honorable in which a man can serve his country.[1]

[Footnote 1: Ford, _George Washington_, I, 175.]

Besides the complaints which reached Washington from all sides, he had also to listen to the advice of military amateurs. Some of these had never been in a battle and knew nothing about warfare except from reading, but they were not on this account the most taciturn. Many urged strongly that an expedition be sent against Canada, a design which Washington opposed. His wisdom was justified when Richard Montgomery, with about fifteen hundred men, took Montreal–November 12, 1775–and after waiting several weeks formed a junction with Benedict Arnold near Quebec, which they attacked in a blinding snowstorm, December 31, 1775. Arnold had marched up the Kennebec River and through the Maine wilderness with fifteen hundred men, which were reduced to five hundred before they came into action with Montgomery’s much dwindled force. The commander of Quebec repulsed them and sent them flying southward as fast as the rigors of the winter and the difficulties of the wilderness permitted.

By the end of July, meanwhile, Washington had brought something like order into the undisciplined and untrained masses who formed his army, but now another lack threatened him: a lack of gunpowder. The cartridge boxes of his soldiers contained on an average only nine charges of ball and gunpowder apiece, hardly enough to engage in battle for more than ten minutes. Washington sent an urgent appeal to every town, and hearing that a ship at Bermuda had a cargo of gunpowder, American ships were despatched thither to secure it. In such straits did the army of the United Colonies go forth to war. By avoiding battles and other causes for using munitions, they not only kept their original supply, but added to it as fast as their appeals were listened to. Washington kept his lines around Boston firm. In the autumn General Gage was replaced, as British Commander-in-Chief, by Sir William Howe, whose brother Richard, Lord Howe, became Admiral of the Fleet. But the Howes knew no way to break the strangle hold of the Americans. How Washington contrived to create the impression that he was master of the situation is one of the mysteries of his campaigning, because, although he had succeeded in making soldiers of the raw recruits and in enforcing subordination, they were still a very skittish body. They enlisted for short terms of service, and even before their term was completed, they began to hanker to go home. This caused not only inconvenience, but real difficulty. Still, Washington steadily pushed on, and in March, 1776, by a brilliant manoeuvre at Dorchester Heights, he secured a position from which his cannons could bombard every British ship in Boston Harbor. On the 17th of March all those ships, together with the garrison of eight thousand, and with two thousand fugitive Loyalists, sailed off to Halifax. Boston has been free from foreign enemies from that day to this.



Howe’s retreat from Boston freed Massachusetts and, indeed, all New England from British troops. It also gave Washington the clue to his own next move. He was a real soldier and therefore his instinct told him that his next objective must be the enemy’s army. Accordingly he prepared to move his own troops to New York. He passed through Providence, Norwich, and New London, reaching New York on April 13th. Congress was then sitting in Philadelphia and he was requested to visit it.

He spent a fortnight during May in Philadelphia where he had conferences with men of all kinds and seems to have been particularly impressed, not to say shocked, by the lack of harmony which he discovered. The members of the Congress, although they were ostensibly devoting themselves to the common affairs of the United Colonies, were really intriguing each for the interests of his special colony or section. Washington thought this an ominous sign, as indeed it was, for since the moment when he joined the Revolution he threw off all local affiliation. He did his utmost to perform his duty, clinging as long as he could to the hope that there would be no final break with England. Throughout the winter, however, from almost every part of the country the demands of the Colonists for independence became louder and more urgent and these he heard repeated and discussed during his visit to the Congress. On May 31st he wrote his brother John Augustine Washington:

Things have come to that pass now, as to convince us, that we have nothing more to expect from the justice of Great Britain; also, that she is capable of the most delusive acts; for I am satisfied, that no commissioners ever were designed, except Hessians and other foreigners; and that the idea was only to deceive and throw us off our guard. The first has been too effectually accomplished, as many members of Congress, in short, the representation of whole provinces, are still feeding themselves upon the dainty food of reconciliation; and though they will not allow, that the expectation of it has any influence upon their judgment, (with respect to their preparations for defence,) it is but too obvious, that it has an operation upon every part of their conduct, and is a clog to their proceedings. It is not in the nature of things to be otherwise; for no man, that entertains a hope of seeing this dispute speedily and equitably adjusted by commissioners, will go to the same expense and run the same hazards to prepare for the worst event, as he who believes that he must conquer, or submit to unconditional terms, and its concomitants, such as confiscation, hanging, etc. etc.[1]

[Footnote 1: Ford, iv, 106.]

The Hessians to whom Washington alludes were German mercenaries hired by the King of England from two or three of the princelings of Germany. These Hessians turned a dishonest penny by fighting in behalf of a cause in which they took no immediate interest or even knew what it was about. During the course of the Revolution there were thirty thousand Hessians in the British armies in America, and, as their owners, the German princelings, received L5 apiece for them it was a profitable arrangement for those phlegmatic, corpulent, and braggart personages. The Americans complained that the Hessians were brutal and tricky fighters; but in reality they merely carried out the ideals of their German Fatherland which remained behind the rest of Europe in its ideals of what was fitting in war. Being uncivilized, they could not be expected to follow the practice of civilized warfare.

When Washington returned to his headquarters in New York, he left the Congress in Philadelphia simmering over the question of Independence. Almost simultaneously with Washington’s return came the British fleet under Howe, which passed Sandy Hook and sailed up New York Harbor. He brought an army of twenty-five thousand men. Washington’s force was nominally nineteen thousand men, but it was reduced to not more than ten thousand by the detachment of several thousand to guard Boston and of several thousand more to take part in the struggle in Canada, besides thirty-six hundred sick. The Colonists clung as if by obsession to their project of capturing Quebec. The death of Montgomery and the discomfiture of Benedict Arnold, which really gave a quietus to the success of the expedition, did not suffice to crush it. Only too evident was it that Quebec could be taken. Canada would fall permanently into American control, and cease to be a constant menace and the recruiting ground for new expeditions against the central Colonies.

August was drawing to a close when the two armies were in a position to begin fighting. The British, who had originally camped upon Staten Island where Nature provided them with a shelter from attack, had now moved across the bay to Long Island. There General Sullivan, having lost eleven or twelve hundred men, was caught between two fires and compelled to surrender with the two thousand or more of his army which remained after the attack of the British. Washington watched the disaster from Brooklyn, but was unable to detach any regiments to bring aid to Sullivan, as it now became clear to him that his whole army on Long Island might easily be cut off. He decided to retreat from the island. This he did on August 29th, having commandeered every boat that he could find. He ferried his entire force across to the New York side with such secrecy and silence that the British did not notice that they were gone. A heavy fog, which settled over the water during the night, greatly aided the adventure. The result of the Battle of Long Island gave the British great exultation and correspondingly depressed the Americans. On the preceding fourth of July they had declared their Independence; they were no longer Colonies but independent States bound together by a common interest. They felt all the more keenly that in this first battle after their Independence they should be so ignominiously defeated. They might have taken much comfort in the thought that had Howe surprised them on their midnight retreat across the river, he might have captured most of the American army and probably have ended the war. Washington’s disaster sprang not from his incompetence, but from his inadequate resources. The British outnumbered him more than two to one and they had control of the water; an advantage which he could not offset. One important fact should not be forgotten: New York, both City and State, had been notoriously Loyalist–that is, pro-British–ever since the troubles between the Colonists and the British grew angry. Governor Tryon, the Governor of the State, made no secret of his British preferences; indeed, they were not preferences at all, but downright British acts.

Having won the Battle of Long Island, Lord Howe thought the time favorable for acting in his capacity as a peacemaker, because he had come over with authority to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the Colonists’ quarrel. He appealed, therefore, to the Congress of Philadelphia, which appointed a committee of three–Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge to confer with Lord Howe. The conference, which exhibited the shrewd quality of John Adams and of Franklin, the politeness of Rutledge, and the studied urbanity of Lord Howe, simply showed that there was no common ground on which they could come to an agreement. The American Commissioners returned to Philadelphia and Lord Howe to New York City and there were no further attempts at peacemaking.

Having brought his men to New York, Washington may well have debated what to do next. The general opinion seemed to be that New York must be defended at all costs. Whether Washington approved of this plan, I find it hard to say. Perhaps he felt that if the American army could hold its own on Manhattan for several weeks, it would be put into better discipline and prepared either to risk a battle with the British, or to retreat across the Hudson toward New Jersey. He decided that for the moment at least he would station his army on the heights of Harlem. From the house of Colonel Morris, where he made his headquarters, he wrote on September 4, 1776, to the President of the Congress: “We are now, as it were, upon the eve of another dissolution of our army.” The term of service of most of the soldiers under Washington would expire at the end of the year, and he devoted the greater part of the letter to showing up the evils of the military system existing in the American army.

A soldier [he said] reasoned with upon the goodness of the cause he is engaged in, and the inestimable rights he is contending for, hears you with patience, and acknowledges the truth of your observations, but adds that it is of no more importance to him than to others. The officer makes you the same reply, with this further remark, that his pay will not support him and he cannot ruin himself and family to serve his country, when every member of the community is equally interested, and benefited by his labors. The few, therefore, who act upon principles of disinterestedness, comparatively speaking, are no more than a drop in the ocean.

It becomes evident to me then, that, as this contest is not likely to be the work of a day, as the war must be carried on systematically, and to do it you must have good officers, there are in my judgment no other possible means to obtain them but by establishing your army upon a permanent footing and giving your officers good pay. This will induce gentlemen and men of character to engage; and, till the bulk of your officers is composed of such persons as are actuated by principles of honor and a spirit of enterprise, you have little to expect from them.[1]

[Footnote 1: Ford, IV, 440.]

Washington proceeds to argue that the soldiers ought not to be engaged for a shorter time than the duration of the war, that they ought to have better pay and the offer of a hundred or a hundred and fifty acres of land. Officers’ pay should be increased in proportion. “Why a captain in the Continental service should receive no more than five shillings currency per day for performing the same duties that an officer of the same rank in the British service receives ten shillings for, I never could conceive.” He further speaks strongly against the employment of militia–“to place any dependence upon [it] is assuredly resting upon a broken staff.”

Washington wrote thus frankly to the Congress which seems to have read his doleful reports without really being stimulated, as it ought to