In the mid-1750s, while coaching his younger brother Jack, George exhorted him to spend more time at Belvoir: “I should be glad to hear that you live in perfect harmony and good fellowship with the family at Belvoir, as it is in their power to be serviceable upon many occasions to us as young beginners . . . to that family I am under many obligations, particularly to the old gentleman.”
The Fairfax sponsorship lifted George above the mass of Virginia commoners and made the world of the highborn seem tantalizingly within reach.
With his mother having ruled out a seaman’s life, George opted to become a surveyor. Throughout his career, he would cherish real estate as an almost foolproof investment that always appreciated in value.
A patronizing streak in George later emerged when he derided some settlers as “a parcel of barbarians and an uncouth set of people.”20 Whatever his inner reservations about the frontier folk, George succeeded in handling them with uncommon finesse.
Throughout his life, he exhibited a faultless precision in dress, regarding a person’s apparel as the outward sign of inner order.
What strikes one most about the twenty-year-old George Washington was that his sudden remarkable standing in the world was the result not so much of a slow, agonizing progress as of a series of rapid, abrupt leaps that thrust him into the topmost echelons of Virginia society.
Washington’s hair was reddish brown, and contrary to a common belief, he never wore a wig. The illusion that he did so derived from the powder that he sprinkled on his hair with a puffball in later life. He wore his long hair tied up in a black ribbon, knotted at the nape, in an arrangement called a queue.
Washington’s weight fluctuated between 175 pounds as a young man and 210 and 220 during the war years. From the time of his youth, he was powerfully rough-hewn and endowed with matchless strength.
Never a superior orator, Washington spoke with a weak, breathy voice that only exacerbated the problem.
Even at this early age, Washington suffered from tooth decay, perhaps contributing to some self-consciousness. As Mercer noted, “His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth.”
On the British side, the impetus for this looming confrontation came from the huge royal grant to the Ohio Company. To encourage settlers and protect them from French encroachment, Lawrence Washington and his colleagues advocated establishing a fort and trading post at the Forks of the Ohio (the site of present-day Pittsburgh), which would act as the flash point of imperial conflict for many years. In 1752 the Marquis de Duquesne, governor general of French Canada, countered the British move by announcing plans to construct several forts between Lake Erie and the Ohio River system, buttressing French claims in a smooth crescent from Canada to the Mississippi. This aggressive move guaranteed a violent clash with British forces.
He was also supposed to wheedle them into providing an escort to the French commander at Fort Le Boeuf, just south of Lake Erie. Winning over the Indians was no easy matter, since the Ohio Country had long been their hunting grounds and they reacted warily to European interference.
To substantiate his case, Dinwiddie sent along Washington’s report, which was published in London in pamphlet form as The Journal of Major George Washington, giving the obscure young man instant renown in the British Empire. The slim volume helped kindle a spark that eventually led to the conflagration of the French and Indian War.
As it turned out, Washington did not overstate his worth, and Dinwiddie presented him with a commission as a lieutenant colonel. Almost twenty-two, Washington was emerging as a wunderkind to be reckoned with in the world of Virginia politics.
His letter to Jack lays out in remarkable detail his canny political style, which served him well for the rest of his life. He instructed his brother to canvass the opinions of prominent men in the county “with[ou]t disclosing much of mine; as I know your own good sense can furnish you with means enough without letting it proceed immediately from me.” If gentlemen seemed inclined to support him, “you then may declare my intentions and beg their assistance. If, on the contrary, you find them more inclined to favour some other, I w[oul]d have the affair entirely subside.”
Always fearful of failure, Washington wanted to push ahead only if he was armed with detailed knowledge and enjoyed a high likelihood of success.
He proved the latest victim of an epidemic exacting a frightful toll on Braddock’s forces: dysentery. This infection of the digestive system produces violent diarrhea, and Washington suffered cruelly from hemorrhoids. At first the stoic young aide tried to conceal the malady, but he soon found it so debilitating that he had to travel lying down in a covered wagon.
As at Fort Necessity, the French and their Indian allies practiced a terrifying form of frontier warfare that unnerved the British.
Washington oversaw Braddock’s burial, a task that fell to him by default as the only officer left standing to issue orders.
In Braddock’s crushing defeat, Washington had established an indelible image as a fearless young soldier who never flinched from danger and enjoyed a special intimacy with death.
Developing a mature instinct for power, Washington began to appreciate the value of diffidence, cultivating the astute politician’s capacity to be the master of events while seeming to be their humble servant.
In 1756 he decreed the death penalty for one Henry Campbell, whom he labeled “a most atrocious villain” who “richly merits an ignominious death.”10 Campbell had not only deserted but encouraged seven others to do so. Washington made a point of hanging people in public to deter others. His frontier experience only darkened his view of human nature, and he saw people as motivated more by force than by kindness.
He was so upset by men “incessantly drunk and unfit for service” that he ordered fifty lashes for any man caught drinking in Winchester gin shops.13 As an antidote to such behavior, Washington lobbied for the appointment of a regimental chaplain.
With a sovereign faith in leadership by example, Washington believed that courage and cowardice originated from the top of an army. As he wrote during the American Revolution: “This is the true secret . . . that wherever a regiment is well officered, the men have behaved well—when otherwise, ill—the [misconduct] or cowardly behavior always originating with the officers, who have set the example.”
At the same time Washington’s code of leadership stipulated that, for maximum effect, the commander should be cordial but not too familiar, producing respect instead of affection.
Carter had sired a dozen offspring in his previous marriage, and Martha, twenty-six, may have been intimidated by the prospect of being stepmother to this numerous brood. Carter faced stiff competition from Washington, a tall, handsome, young military hero with room both in his heart and in his home for a wife and two children. To a solitary, anxious widow, George Washington could only have appeared manly, rock-solid, and utterly fearless.
We cannot pinpoint the precise moment when George and Martha agreed to wed, but we do know that within weeks of their first meeting, George was transformed into a giddy man of fashion, urgently ordering expensive fabric for what must have been his wedding outfit.
Though such letters may give the unseemly impression of an overly lusty widow, it was then routine, as a matter of economic necessity, for the bereaved to remarry quickly. The prolonged mourning rituals that came with the Victorian era would have seemed like futile self-indulgence in the eighteenth century.
By marrying Martha Dandridge Custis, Washington swiftly achieved the social advancement for which he had struggled in the military. Almost overnight he was thrust into top-drawer Virginia society and could dispense with the servility that had sometimes marked his dealings with social superiors. Marriage to Martha brought under his control a small kingdom of real estate tended by dark-skinned human beings.
George and Martha Washington formed an oddly matched visual pair: she barely cleared five feet, and her hands and feet were as petite as George’s were famously huge. A portrait of Martha done shortly before Daniel died displays nothing especially soft or alluring to set a young man’s pulse racing.
In the eighteenth century, marriage was regarded more as a practical arrangement than as a vehicle for love, and the Washington marriage may never have been a torrid romance. But that aside, in selecting Martha Dandridge Custis, George Washington chose even better than he knew. She was the perfect foil to his mother: warm and sociable, always fun to be with, and favored with pleasing manners. She would give George the unstinting love and loyalty that Mary had withheld. By offering her husband such selfless devotion, she solidly anchored his life in an enduring marriage. Martha had the cheerfulness to lighten his sometimes somber personality and was the one person who dared to kid her “Old Man,” as she teasingly referred to him.
In every respect, Martha turned out to be an immense social asset to his career. She was the perfect hostess, with a ready smile, overflowing goodwill, and a genuine interest in her guests. With company, she was convivial and welcoming, where George tended to be more cordial and correct, and she worked her influence in a self-effacing style.
His feelings for Sally Fairfax belonged to that brand of impossible, unattainable love for an older married woman that has filled the amorous fantasies of ardent young men throughout history.
He seemed to be saying that their love, defeated by the practical circumstances of life, was simply not meant to be. She was married to a rich man, and he was about to marry a rich woman, and George Washington, for all his high-flown rhetoric, was an eminently practical young man, not cut out for doomed, quixotic affairs.
His advice to young relatives revealed that he had known the storms of passion as a young man but understood that they were fleeting and couldn’t form the foundation of a lasting relationship; one had to enter into a match based upon practical factors, such as personality, character, temperament, and money.
The marriage thrived even though Martha and George lacked children. Many theories have been advanced to explain this barren marriage.
That he wasn’t a biological father made it easier for him to be the allegorical father of a nation. It also retired any fears, when he was president, that the nation might revert to a monarchy, because he could have no interest in a hereditary crown.
Of a slave named Betty who worked as a spinner in the mansion, he complained that “a more lazy, deceitful and impudent hussy is not to be found in the United States.”29 He talked caustically about malingering slaves as if they were salaried workers who had failed to earn their wages—a blind spot he never entirely lost.
The most intriguing archaeological find has been the discovery of lead shot and gun flints, showing that Washington allowed selected slaves to keep firearms and hunt wild game in the woods. The remains of fifty-eight animal species have been identified in the slave cellar. The slaves could either eat the game or sell it to the master’s table.
That the slaves at Mount Vernon could move about without supervision runs counter to the common view of slavery as a system enforced only by the daily terror of whips and shackles. Like other major planters, Washington owned more slaves than his overseers could effectively monitor, and so the only way to control a captive population was to convince them that runaways would be severely punished.
The scholar Philip Morgan has computed that Washington had forty-seven runaway slaves over the years, or 7 percent of the total population.35 A year after his marriage Washington pursued a runaway named Boson and wound up paying a ten-shilling bounty to a slave from another plantation who recaptured him.
Unless they proved repeat offenders, Washington usually forgave runaways who were brought back to Mount Vernon. He accepted the return of the “sensible, judicious” Peros without reprisals, only to have him flee again in 1770.
George and Martha Washington worked in close proximity with their slaves and knew many of them individually. That George Washington acknowledged the humanity of some slaves is seen in his remarkably affectionate, long-standing relationship with his manservant William Lee.
A dark-skinned mulatto, Billy Lee was a short, compact, powerfully built young man with a gift for gab, a rich fund of anecdotes, and a wealth of opinions. A real dare-devil as a horseman, he shadowed Washington in every major activity of his life and was an indispensable asset during the foxhunting season. Billy Lee combined in his person the job of Washington’s valet, butler, and waiter. Whether Washington was trotting off to the House of Burgesses, the Continental Congress, or Valley Forge, Lee was the trusted aide in attendance.
Washington benefited from the unvarying regularity of his daily routine and found nothing monotonous about it. Like many thrifty farmers, he rose before sunrise and accomplished much work while others still slept. Prior to breakfast, he shuffled about in dressing gown and slippers and passed an hour or two in his library, reading and handling correspondence.
An active presence, he liked to demonstrate how things should be done, leading by example. One startled visitor expressed amazement that the master “often works with his men himself, strips off his coat and labors like a common man.”
He preferred a dinner of fish from the Potomac and typically ate with a hearty appetite. In this heavy-drinking era, he could polish off three or four glasses of an amber-colored wine known as Madeira without being thought a heavy drinker. The cloth was then removed, and Washington would lift his glass with his habitual toast to “All our friends.” He then retired to his library before a light supper. Before going to bed at nine o’clock, he would often read aloud to the family from the newspaper or from sermons on Sunday evenings or join in a game of cards or backgammon.
“You would be surprised to find what a uniform life he leads,” wrote John Hancock’s nephew after a visit to Mount Vernon. “Everything he does is by method of system . . . He keeps a journal where he records everything . . . he is a model of the highest perfection.”
Properly appareled on all occasions, he never allowed people to see him in a neglected state, much less undressed, and ordered clothes that gave him elegance with freedom of movement.
In the manner of European royalty, he never seemed to hurry. The impression fostered by his imposing physique, joined with his upright, virile carriage and natural aplomb, marked him out as a natural leader.
He was congenial without being deeply personal, friendly without being familiar, and perfected a cool sociability that distanced him from people even as it invited them closer. He never felt the urge to impress people.
He knew the value of silence, largely kept opinions to himself, and seldom committed a faux pas.
While Washington cultivated friendships throughout his life, he didn’t have many true intimates and his relationships were seldom of the candid or confessional type. His reserve, if not impenetrable, was by no means lightly surrendered. He was habitually cautious with new people and only gradually opened up as they passed a series of loyalty tests. “Be courteous to all but intimate with few,” he advised his nephew, “and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence. True friendship is a plant of slow growth.”
Although boasting was always foreign to Washington’s nature, after the Revolution he confided to David Humphreys that “he never met any man who could throw a stone to so great a distance as himself.”
Outwardly at least, his Christianity seemed rational, shorn of mysteries and miracles, and nowhere did he directly affirm the divinity of Jesus Christ.
One thing that hasn’t aroused dispute is the exemplary nature of Washington’s religious tolerance. He shuddered at the notion of exploiting religion for partisan purposes or showing favoritism for certain denominations. As president, when writing to Jewish, Baptist, Presbyterian, and other congregations—he officially saluted twenty-two major religious groups—he issued eloquent statements on religious tolerance. He was so devoid of spiritual bias that his tolerance even embraced atheism.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” he declared in his farewell address.
That Washington believed in the need for good works as well as faith can be seen in his extensive charity. George and Martha Washington never turned away beggars at their doorstep.
The Washingtons tried to practice anonymous charity even when it would have been politically expedient to advertise it loudly. Washington’s secretary, Tobias Lear, recorded hundreds of individuals, churches, and other charities that, unbeknownst to the public, benefited from presidential largesse.
Washington’s generosity toward friends, neighbors, and relatives could be quite breathtaking. With typical munificence, he paid for the education of several children of his friend Dr. Craik.
He therefore volunteered to donate twenty-five pounds per annum to educating the young man there. In making the offer, Washington told Ramsay, “No other return is expected or wished for . . . than that you will accept it with the same freedom and goodwill with which it is made and that you may not even consider it in the light of an obligation or mention it as such, for be assured that from me it will never be known.”32 The biographer Douglas Southall Freeman calls this lovely comment “the most generous sentence” that ever flowed from Washington’s pen.
Whether hiring overseers or appointing army officers, Washington insisted upon sobriety and saw no greater sign of weakness than a man’s inability to control his drinking. Alcoholism was a chronic problem that he had to combat among the hired help at Mount Vernon.
Great Britain was simply bad for local business, a fact that would soon foster the historical anomaly of a revolution inaugurated by affluent, conservative leaders. As potentates of vast estates, lords of every acre they saw, George Washington and other planters didn’t care to truckle to a distant, unseen power.
The young man who had worked so hard to ingratiate himself with his superiors in the British Army was suddenly breathing fire. Washington was always reluctant to sign on to any cause, because when he did so, his commitment was total.
Unlike the French Revolution, the American Revolution started with a series of measured protests by men schooled in self-government, a long, exhaustive search for a diplomatic solution, before moving toward open rebellion. Later on, nothing incensed Washington more than the notion that the colonists had proved unreasonable during the run-up to war.
A gregarious person, Martha Washington wanted a home crowded with people. With her husband preoccupied by business and politics, she took charge of her two children and enjoyed the demands of motherhood, one visitor noting that “her happiness is in exact proportion to the number of objects upon which she can dispense her benefits.”
Where Washington wrote about Patsy with unfeigned affection, with Jacky he always seemed to bite his tongue and resort to euphemisms. Something about Patsy’s sweet simplicity he found irresistible, whereas Jacky’s feckless nature was to him intolerable.
ON THE EVENING OF MAY 18 , 1772 , Jacky Custis returned to Mount Vernon with an unusual companion in tow, a thirty-one-year-old painter named Charles Willson Peale who lived in Annapolis and toted an introductory letter from the Reverend Jonathan Boucher. The handsome young stranger had relinquished a career as a saddle maker to specialize in portraits of affluent families.
After five years of torment, Patsy had gently slipped away. It was unusual for a person with epilepsy to die so peacefully, suggesting that Patsy may have had a heart problem or some other condition associated with her epilepsy. A private man who never flaunted his deep emotions, George Washington nonetheless gave way to a tremendous outpouring of grief. One observer remembered him kneeling by Patsy’s bed as he “solemnly recited the prayers for the dying, while tears rolled down his cheeks and his voice was often broken by sobs.”30 In a week of sweltering heat, the heartbroken Washingtons decided it was wise to bury Patsy on the family property the next day.
Beyond their obvious sadness, it is hard to overstate the impact that Patsy’s death would have on George and Martha Washington in the coming years. The sudden financial windfall, by relieving pressure on Washington, allowed him the luxury of participating in the American Revolution without financial worries.
Perhaps the most surprising resolution passed under Washington’s watchful eye was a plea to suspend the importation of slaves into Virginia, along with a fervent wish “to see an entire stop forever put to such a wicked, cruel, and unnatural trade.”10 It was the first time Washington had publicly registered his disgust with the system that formed the basis of his fortune.
As the old world emptied out, a new one was being born that August in Williamsburg, where the rebel burgesses, trained in self-government, reconstituted themselves as the Virginia Convention.
On Friday, August 5, 1774, George Washington’s life changed forever when he was elected one of seven Virginia delegates to the general congress that would meet in Philadelphia, to be known as the First Continental Congress.
When overwhelming British forces descended on Lexington Green on April 19, they were confronted by a small but doughty band of volunteers. The historic shots were fired, killing eight Americans and wounding ten more before the British, having lost only one horse, moved on to Concord. When the redcoats marched back to Boston, however, they were suddenly engulfed on all sides by armed farmers, known as Minute Men, who shot with deadly accuracy, shielded by trees, buildings, and fences. By the time the frantic British troops had scrambled back to town, 273 had been killed or wounded versus only 95 colonials.
For all his frontier experience, he was still a neophyte when it came to large-scale conflict. In the weeks before he left for the Second Continental Congress, the early leadership of the Continental Army began to coalesce on his doorstep, as if power were already shifting toward him.
Two miles from town they were embraced by a lively patriotic band and a spirited honor guard of foot and rifle companies, so that they streamed into Philadelphia enfolded in an extemporaneous parade. On the same day John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and John Adams rolled in from the north.
Held in the immediate aftermath of Lexington and Concord and favored with fine spring weather, the Second Continental Congress was supercharged with an atmosphere of high drama that made the first seem somnolent in comparison.
For this Congress the delegates met in a lofty ground-floor chamber of the red-brick State House, surmounted by a high steeple, today known as Independence Hall. In this gracious neoclassical setting, the president’s chair was flanked by fluted pilasters, and the doors were topped by pediments. Whereas the First Congress had dwelled on diplomatic niceties, this one turned briskly to matters of war.
Meeting in secret sessions, delegates heard reports that Great Britain had rebuffed conciliatory overtures from the earlier Congress and that more British troops were crossing the Atlantic. They also learned that Massachusetts was prepared to raise 13,600 soldiers, and that New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut would contribute troops in the same proportion; already patriotic militias and volunteers from across New England had congregated on the Cambridge Common outside Boston. There was no talk as yet of a commander in chief, for the simple reason that the Congress still regarded itself as representing a collection of colonies, not a sovereign nation.
A marginal figure at the earlier Congress, Washington was drafted onto nine committees and inserted into every cranny of decision making. Some of Washington’s committees dealt with purely military questions, such as how to defend New York, while others reflected his broad range of knowledge, such as how to print a new American currency.
The hallmark of Washington’s career was that he didn’t seek power but let it come to him.
As John Adams declared, “There is something charming to me in the conduct of Washington. A gentleman of one of the first fortunes upon the continent, leaving his delicious retirement, his family and friends, sacrificing his ease and hazarding all in the cause of his country.”
“When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.”
As Washington examined his army with care, he was dismayed to find no more than 14,500 men fit for service—far fewer than the 20,000 fighting Yankees he had expected to find.
Abigail Adams made the insightful comment that Washington “has a dignity which forbids familiarity, mixed with an easy affability which creates love and reverence.”
Washington’s public role threw up an invisible barrier that prevented true intimacy with all but a select handful of friends and family members.
Nathanael Greene had other qualities that recommended him to the commander in chief. Like Washington, he despised profanity, gambling, and excessive drinking among his men. Like Washington, he was temperamental, hypersensitive to criticism, and chary of his reputation, and he craved recognition.
This tactful man, with his tremendous political intuitions, wound up as George Washington’s favorite general. When Washington was later asked who should replace him in case of an accident, he replied unhesitatingly, “General Greene.”
Knox was genial and outgoing, savored food and drink, and enjoyed instant rapport with people. Good-humored and rubicund, with a ready laugh, he relished telling funny stories in his resonant voice while his blue eyes twinkled with merriment. There was something exceptionally winning about Henry Knox, and one French admirer concluded, “It is impossible to know [him] without esteeming him, or to see [him] without loving him.”50 For those who looked deeply, however, Henry Knox carried a private melancholy beneath all the hearty bonhomie.
Washington liked Knox’s imagination, candor, and enterprise and the way he shot cannon with his own hands. In artillery matters Washington trusted Knox’s judgment implicitly. In turn, Henry Knox rewarded Washington with unconditional devotion and delighted in calling him “Your Excellency,” which some saw as a little too fawning.
In the ultimate tribute to Knox, Washington later told John Adams, “I can say with truth, there is no man in the United States with whom I have been in habits of greater intimacy; no one whom I have loved more sincerely; nor any for whom I have had a greater friendship.”
In the end, the generals who succeeded in the Continental Army weren’t grizzled veterans, such as Horatio Gates and Charles Lee, but young, homegrown officers who were quite daring and stayed loyal to George Washington.
Despite his own hard-charging nature, Washington realized that, in view of the fragility of his army, it was sometimes better to miss a major opportunity than barge into a costly error.
By the end of November, a paltry 3,500 men had agreed to stay with the dwindling army. In a confidential letter to Joseph Reed, Washington succumbed to black despair, railing against the mercenary spirit of the New Englanders as they haggled for more money, better clothes, and more furloughs before reenlisting.
A black man, Peter Salem, had fought so heroically at Bunker Hill that he had been brought to Washington’s attention. Nonetheless at an October war council, Washington and his generals voted unanimously “to reject all slaves and by a great majority to reject Negroes altogether.”35 A month later Washington made this exclusionary policy explicit: “Neither Negroes, boys unable to bear arms, nor old men unfit to endure the fatigues of the campaign are to be enlisted.”36 By lumping healthy black soldiers with boys and old men, Washington insinuated that they were inferior and could be counted on only as a last resort.
On November 7 Lord Dunmore announced that slaves or indentured servants who had fled from their rebel masters could join his Royal Ethiopian Regiment and win their freedom. Eight hundred slaves soon flocked to his banner and were clad in British uniforms with the motto “Liberty to Slaves” stitched across them.37
Two weeks later the Congress ratified this extraordinary decision and allowed free blacks to reenlist. Plainly Washington had acted under duress. He urgently needed more men before enlistments expired at year’s end and feared that black soldiers might defect to the British. At the same time, he was forced to recognize the competence of black soldiers. Whatever his motivations, it was a water-shed moment in American history, opening the way for approximately five thousand blacks to serve in the Continental Army, making it the most integrated American fighting force before the Vietnam War. At various times, blacks would make up anywhere from 6 to 12 percent of Washington’s army.
As the year ended, only 9,650 men had signed up for the new army, less than half the number envisioned by Congress and scarcely a resounding affirmation of the patriotic spirit.
Within three months Paine’s astonishing work had sold 150,000 copies in a country of only three million people. Beyond its quotable prose, Common Sense benefited from perfect timing. It appeared just as Americans digested news of the Norfolk horror as well as George III’s October speech to Parliament in which he denounced the rebels as traitors and threatened to send foreign mercenaries to vanquish them.
Once his identity became known, Paine endeared himself to the troops by donating proceeds from his pamphlet to purchase woolen mittens for them. Within a year he was traveling as an aide-de-camp to Nathanael Greene and formed a close relationship with Washington.
More difficult to supervise were men frequenting the Holy Ground, the notorious red-light district near the Hudson River where up to five hundred prostitutes congregated nightly on land owned by Trinity Church. Venereal disease raced through several regiments, threatening to thin their ranks before the enemy arrived.
Lest this sound abstract, he underscored the practical significance for the average soldier, pointing out that each was “now in the service of a state possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit and advance him to the highest honors of a free country.”20 Among other things, Congress could now coin money and devise other lucrative incentives.
He was always careful to separate the personal from the political, the man from the mission.
Making a major statement about the peril of the American revolt, the Crown had enlisted seventy warships, a full half of the Royal Navy, to deliver an overwhelming blow against the Americans.
His army of only 10,500 men, 3,000 of them ailing, was sadly outnumbered and outgunned.
Though one-fourth of his men were sick, he wanted to evacuate the entire American army of 9,500 men across the East River that night, winding up the operation by dawn. He was willing to wager everything on this operation, perhaps because he had no other choice. Leaving nothing to chance, he decided that his troops would be kept ignorant and told only that they were changing positions.
Then with uncanny good fortune, a heavy fog rolled across the Brooklyn shore, screening evacuees from the stirring British. The fog lay so thick that one could “scarcely discern a man at six yards’ distance,” said Major Benjamin Tallmadge.
True to his word, Washington boarded the last boat in the nick of time: he could hear the British firing as it pushed into the water. The enemy had awakened, aghast, to discover that more than nine thousand men had traversed the East River. Not a single American died in this virtually flawless operation.
Dismayed by his officers’ behavior, Washington scouted for new talent and was impressed by the proficiency of a young artillery captain named Alexander Hamilton as the latter superintended earthworks construction at Harlem Heights. Washington “entered into conversation with him, invited him to his tent, and received an impression of his military talent,” wrote Hamilton’s son.
He wasn’t a man who rushed to forgive, but he didn’t hold grudges either.
As at Mount Vernon, Washington adhered to an unvarying daily routine. Arriving fully dressed, he breakfasted with his aides and parceled out letters to be answered, along with his preferred responses. He then reviewed his troops on horseback and expected to find the letters in finished form by the time of his noonday return.
Debilitated by never-ending bags of mail, Washington said he needed someone who could “comprehend at one view the diversity of matter which comes before me.”33 On March 1, 1777, that person appeared in the shape of Alexander Hamilton, the twenty-two-year-old boy wonder and artillery captain whose pyrotechnics at White Plains and the Raritan River had so impressed Washington. In the short, slim, and ingenious Hamilton, Washington encountered an ambition that could well have reminded him of his younger self.
Still, noticeable differences between the two men introduced tensions. Hamilton was more cerebral than Washington and less tolerant of human foibles, racing through life at a frenetic pace. Where Washington could usually subdue his strong emotions, Hamilton was often impetuous, with highly fallible judgment. For all his charm, he was much too proud and headstrong to be a surrogate son to George Washington or anyone else.
Hamilton revered Washington’s courage, patriotism, and integrity and never doubted that he was the indispensable figure in the war effort. Nevertheless, no man is a hero to his valet, and Hamilton left some candidly critical views of Washington. He regarded Washington as a general of only modest ability and quickly sensed the powerful emotions bottled up inside his overwrought boss, whom he often found snappish and difficult.
Never a man of lightning-fast intuitions or sudden epiphanies, he usually groped his way to firm and accurate conclusions. Equipped with keen powers of judgment rather than originality, he was at his best when reacting to options presented by others. Once he made up his mind, it was difficult to dislodge him from his opinion, so thoroughly had he plumbed things through to the bottom.
It’s worth noting that Washington didn’t see humans as passive actors and believed that God helped those who helped themselves: “Providence has done much for us in this contest,” he said later in the war, “but we must do something for ourselves, if we expect to go triumphantly through with it.”
Because Washington was childless and drew close to several aides, many biographers have been tempted to turn them into surrogate sons, but the only one who closely matched this description was the Marquis de Lafayette, who eagerly embraced the role.
Perhaps Washington doted on the young man because he dared to express emotions that he himself stifled, thawing his frosty reserve and opening an outlet for his suppressed emotions.
Thomas Jefferson traced Washington’s strengths and weaknesses as a general to a persistent mental trait. He prepared thoroughly for battles and did extremely well if everything went according to plan. “But if deranged during the course of the action,” Jefferson noted, “if any member of his plan was dislocated by sudden circumstances, he was slow in readjustment.”
Washington’s inestimable strength, whether as a general, a planter, or a politician, was prolonged deliberation and slow, mature decisions, but these were luxuries seldom permitted in the heat and confusion of battle.
The last time Washington had set eyes on Mount Vernon was May 4, 1775, when he departed for the Second Continental Congress, little realizing how his life would be turned topsy-turvy. To experience Mount Vernon anew after his long, itinerant military life must have been a heady sensation.
Within twenty-four hours Washington’s and Rochambeau’s entourages had arrived at Mount Vernon, ready to chart the Yorktown siege. For these battle-tested veterans, the mansion was a refreshing oasis. It was a tribute to Martha Washington’s talents that she could entertain in style amid wartime conditions.
At ten A.M. on October 17, 1781—the fourth anniversary of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga—a British officer appeared before the ramparts, flapping a white flag and bearing a missive from Cornwallis. The battlefield, pulverized by bombs, fell silent.
In the shadow of a redoubt near the river, the articles of surrender were signed at eleven A.M. on October 19. At two P.M. the French and American troops lined up on opposite sides of a lane stretching a half mile long. Baron von Closen noted the contrast between the “splendor” of the French soldiers, with their dress swords and polished boots, and the Americans “clad in small jackets of white cloth, dirty and ragged, and a number of them . . . almost barefoot.”
When O’Hara rode up to Rochambeau and proffered Cornwallis’s sword, the French general motioned toward Washington as the proper recipient. Washington had no intention of accepting the sword from Cornwallis’s deputy and, with his usual phlegm, asked O’Hara if he would be good enough to hand it to his American counterpart, General Lincoln. The British behavior at Yorktown, so graceless and uncouth, was the last time Americans had to suffer such condescension.
That evening, taking the high road, he threw a dinner for the French, British, and American general officers. Although Cornwallis was invited, he pleaded poor health and sent the sociable O’Hara in his stead.
Yorktown struck a stirring blow for American liberty with one exception: those slaves who had flocked to the British side to win their freedom were now restored to the thrall of their owners.
ON APRIL 18 , 1783 , Washington announced the cessation of hostilities between America and Great Britain and seemed to pinch himself with wonder as he evoked “the almost infinite variety of scenes thro[ugh] which we have passed with a mixture of pleasure, astonishment, and gratitude.”
Locating events in the wider sweep of history, he saw the American Revolution as favored by the Age of Enlightenment: “The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of ignorance and superstition, but at an epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period.”
When it came time for Washington to bid farewell to his officers, Fraunces Tavern seemed the ideal spot. The innkeeper, Samuel Fraunces, was a West Indian called Black Sam; his nickname probably refers to a swarthy complexion rather than African parentage.
Raising his glass with a shaking hand, Washington began to speak, his voice breaking with emotion: “With a heart filled with love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”
The officers, moved, lifted their glasses and drank in silence. Tears welled up in Washington’s eyes, as if he suddenly relived eight emotional years of sacrifice with these battle-tested men and was pained at the thought of parting from them. “I cannot come to each of you,” he said tenderly, “but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”14 The moment was legendary, not for any feat of oratory, but for the simple heartfelt emotion palpable in Washington’s words.
For nine years Mount Vernon had suffered terrible neglect, thinning his fortune. “I made no money from my estate during the nine years I was absent from it and brought none home with me,” he told his nephew Fielding Lewis, Jr.22 Great Britain exacted a high price from American farmers after the war by shutting West Indian markets that had once been open to the colonists.
In eighteenth-century Virginia, where roadside taverns were sparse and travelers could easily be stranded in transit, feeding and lodging travelers who showed up unannounced at one’s doorstep were considered necessary marks of hospitality. The polite Washington was victimized by this tradition as veterans and curiosity seekers descended on his home in massive numbers.
He never resolved the problem of the tremendous expenses he incurred in taking care of visitors. Not only did guests devour his food, but their horses freely ate his forage.
One of the sadder lines in Washington’s copious papers occurs in his diary entry for June 30, 1785, where he notes that he “dined with only Mrs. Washington, which I believe is the first instance of it since my retirement from public life.”
The visitors’ accounts during these years give many candid glimpses of Washington. Their impressions vary dramatically, suggesting that he reacted quite differently to people—so much so that, at times, he scarcely seemed the same person. He could be merry and convivial or, if he didn’t care for the guests, silent and morose.
Hunter recorded the clockwork regularity of Washington’s days as the latter followed a farmer’s routine of going to bed at nine, then rising with the sun.
During the next few years, as the Anglican Church distanced itself from its British roots and evolved into the Protestant Episcopal Church, Washington’s church attendance still remained intermittent.
The personal and professional relationship with Lear lasted much longer than that with the self-absorbed David Humphreys. Lear became yet another of the surrogate sons who supplied the absence of biological children for George and Martha Washington. The feeling was reciprocated, as can be seen in Lear’s praise of Martha Washington as “everything that is benevolent and good.
Less than a year after laying down his commission at Annapolis, the American Cincinnatus, badly strapped for cash, was reduced to a bill collector.
By October 4 Washington had completed his 680-mile trip, which proved his last visit to the Ohio Country. While the dispiriting journey had failed to satisfy his economic objectives, it sharpened his views of policies needed to develop the region. He saw how fickle were the loyalties of the western settlers and how easily they might be lured someday by a designing foreign power.
Then in 1782 a new law gave masters permission to free their own slaves, and hundreds manumitted at least a few. Influenced by the Revolution, antislavery societies sprang up across Virginia. In 1785 the Virginia legislature debated whether freed slaves should be permitted to stay in the state—something that might give their enslaved brethren seditious ideas—and abolitionist petitions were introduced. Washington became the target of a subtle but persistent campaign by abolitionists to enlist him in their cause.
The idea that abolition could be deferred to some future date when it would be carried out by cleanly incremental legislative steps was a common fantasy among the founders, since it shifted the burden onto later generations.
Though he probably never read it, Washington would have agreed with Adam Smith’s theory in The Wealth of Nations (1776) that slavery was a backward system because workers lacked economic incentives to improve performance.
There is also the problem that Washington was likely sterile, although the problem with having children may have come from Martha. Perhaps the most compelling evidence against Washington being West Ford’s father is that, in this abundantly documented life, not a single contemporary ever alluded to his having this mulatto child around him. Nor is there a single reference to Venus or West Ford in his voluminous papers.
Perhaps more consequential for America’s future was the demise of General Nathanael Greene at forty-three. Just as Washington and Greene had seen eye to eye on war-related matters, so they had viewed the country’s postwar turmoil with similar apprehension.
He also revealed to Washington in August 1784 that for two months he had experienced a “dangerous and disagree[able] pain” in his chest, which sounds like heart disease. In June 1786, while at his estate near Savannah, Georgia, he was seized at the table with a “violent pain in his eye and head,” followed by his death a few days later.
It seems likely that, had Greene lived, Washington would have chosen him as the first secretary of war in preference to Henry Knox. Greene died in such dire economic straits that Washington volunteered to pay for the education of his son, George Washington Greene.
Madison believed that Shays’s Rebellion “contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the constitution and prepared the public mind for a general reform” than all the defects of the Articles of Confederation combined .41 It made it almost certain that George Washington’s days as a Virginia planter were numbered.
Deep questioning was typical of Washington’s political style. Holding himself aloof, he had learned to set a high price on his participation, yielding only with reluctance. Whenever his reputation was at stake, he studied every side of a decision, analyzing how his actions would be perceived. Having learned to accumulate power by withholding his assent, he understood the influence of his mystique and kept people in suspense.
In his 1783 circular letter to the states, he had solemnly pledged that he would not reenter politics, a public vow that the honorable Washington took seriously. The mythology that he could not tell a lie had some basis in fact.
He was a casualty of his own greatness, which dictated a path in life from which he couldn’t deviate. Had he turned down the call to duty, he would have felt something incomplete in his grand mission to found the country, but he patently had to convince himself and the world of his purely disinterested motives. Now he could proceed as if summoned from self-imposed retirement by popular acclaim.
Guided by a fine sense of decorum, Washington made his first courtesy call on the venerable Benjamin Franklin, whom he had not seen since 1776, and his elderly host broke open a cask of dark beer to receive him. Washington had long revered Franklin as a “wise, a great and virtuous man.”
On a rainy Friday, May 25, the convention obtained its seven-state quorum and began to meet officially. It had been decided that Franklin would nominate Washington as president. When the ailing Franklin was grounded by heavy rain, he asked Robert Morris to nominate Washington in his stead.
The delegates appreciated Franklin’s magnanimous gesture, and Madison wrote that “the nomination came with particular grace from Pennsylvania, as Dr. Franklin alone could have been thought of as a competitor.” 51 After being seconded by John Rutledge, Washington was unanimously elected the convention president, while Major William Jackson, who had been on General Lincoln’s wartime staff, became its secretary.
Although highly intelligent, Washington lacked a philosophical mind that could originate constitutional ideas. John Adams once observed that the founding generation had “been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live,” but this particular brand of greatness eluded George Washington.
Still, with memories of the Revolution fresh, they reserved significant powers for Congress, endowing it, for instance, with the authority to declare war, thereby avoiding the British precedent of a monarch who retained this awesome power.
It struck him as “little short of a miracle,” he told Lafayette, that “delegates from so many different states . . . should unite in forming a system of national government so little liable to well-founded objections.”
For Washington, the beauty of the document was that it charted a path for its own evolution. Its very brevity and generality—it contained fewer than eight thousand words—meant it would be a constantly changing document, susceptible to shifting interpretations.
Eleven states approved the Constitution; Alexander Hamilton signed individually as the sole remaining delegate from New York. Rhode Island had boycotted the convention altogether.
Like other founders, he regarded any open interest in power as unbecoming to a gentleman. As a result, he preferred to be drawn reluctantly from private life by the irresistible summons of public service.
The public clamor for Washington to become president arose from his heroism, his disinterested patriotism, and his willingness to surrender his wartime command. Another, if minor, factor was his apparent sterility and lack of children, which made it seem that he had been divinely preserved in an immaculate state to become the Father of His Country.
In mid-January Henry Lee foresaw that even antifederalist electors would feel obliged to vote for Washington. Casting their votes on February 4, 1789, they vindicated Lee’s prediction: all 69 electors voted for Washington, making him the only president in American history to win unanimously.
As he rode closer, thirteen young girls, robed in spotless white, walked forward with flower-filled baskets, scattering petals at his feet. Astride his horse, tears standing in his eyes, he returned a deep bow and noted the “astonishing contrast between his former and actual situation at the same spot,” declaring he would never forget the present occasion.
America’s second-largest city, with a population of about thirty thousand, New York was a small, provincial town compared to European capitals. Lavishly appointed carriages sped through streets heaped with horse droppings and rubbish. Rich and robust, New York already had a raucous commercial spirit that grated on squeamish sensibilities.
Although Vice President Adams had arrived before Washington, the town did not endear itself to him on this trip either. Congress had failed to locate a residence for the new vice president, who lodged with John Jay for several weeks.
As he stepped through the door onto the balcony, a spontaneous roar surged from the multitude tightly squeezed into Wall and Broad streets and covering every roof in sight. This open-air ceremony would confirm the sovereignty of the citizens gathered below. Washington’s demeanor was stately, modest, and deeply affecting: he clapped one hand to his heart and bowed several times to the crowd.
Perhaps nothing underlined this improbable turn of events more than the extraordinary fact that while Washington had debated whether to become president that winter, on the other side of the ocean King George III had descended into madness.
Among members of Congress, James Madison stood in a class by himself in his advisory capacity to Washington. When he ran for Congress, Madison had consulted Washington about how to campaign without descending to crass electioneering. It is not surprising that Washington leaned on Madison early in his presidency, since nobody possessed a more nuanced grasp of the Constitution.
The final Senate recommendation was absurdly pretentious: “His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.”7 Sensitive to criticism that high-flown titles were reminiscent of monarchy, Washington gladly accepted the simpler form adopted by the House: “The President of the United States.”
The president was a punctual man, and, precisely at three, the folding doors of his dining room were flung open to guests; at three-fifteen, they were shut to further visitors. By the time guests arrived, Washington had struck a stately pose by the fireplace, encased in rigid protocol.
Washington never engaged in flirtatious looks, but he unquestionably paid special attention to women in attendance. “The company this evening was thin, especially of ladies,” he complained in his diary after one Friday soirée.27 Because the Washingtons rose early, Martha often terminated the gatherings before the allotted ten o’clock deadline, saying that she and the president had to go to bed.
That Washington’s hearing had deteriorated—not surprising after eight years of roaring cannon—may explain the gruesome conversational gaps that Maclay so freely mocked. Deafness can be an isolating experience, especially for a president.
An enduring mystery of Washington’s presidency is why he relegated John Adams to a minor role. A Washington biographer is struck by the paucity of letters exchanged between the two men; Adams was clearly excluded from the inner circle of advisers.
An envious man, Adams was secretly exasperated by Washington’s unprecedented success. Always brooding about history’s judgment, he dreaded that Washington and Franklin would dwarf him in the textbooks.
As the first president, Washington assembled a group of luminaries without equal in American history; his first cabinet more than made up in intellectual fire-power what it lacked in numbers.
Even before the inauguration, Washington had received anonymous warnings about Hamilton, previewing things to come. A poison-pen artist who styled himself “H.Z.” warned the president-elect to “beware of the artful designs and machinations of your late aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton, who, like Judas Iscariot, would, for the gratification of his boundless ambition, betray his lord and master.”
Whatever their wartime differences—and Hamilton was much too headstrong to admire anyone uncritically—the two men had worked together closely and productively during the first two phases of the American experiment, the Revolutionary War and the Constitutional Convention.
In Hamilton, Washington found a cabinet secretary of tireless virtuosity who would function as his unofficial prime minister. Taunted as an aspiring upstart by his enemies, Hamilton did not hide his intellectual lights under a bushel.
Where Washington had no compulsion to shine in company, Hamilton, who was charming, urbane, and debonair, wanted to be the most brilliant figure in every group, and he usually was.
However sophisticated Washington was as a businessman, he found public finance an esoteric subject and had to rely on Hamilton’s expertise, whereas he could question Knox on war matters or Jefferson on foreign affairs from personal experience.
Jefferson always revered Washington’s prudence, integrity, patriotism, and determination. “He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man,” he stated in later years.
Nor did he see Washington as especially deep or learned: “His time was employed in action chiefly, reading little, and that only in agriculture and English history.”25 He also found Washington leery of other people: “He was naturally distrustful of men and inclined to gloomy apprehensions.”
Jefferson faulted Randolph as a weak, wavering man, calling him “the poorest chameleon I ever saw, having no color of his own and reflecting that nearest him.”
Through his tolerant attitude, he created a protective canopy under which subordinates could argue freely, but once decisions were made, he wanted the administration to speak with one voice.
Politics gave him more time to deliberate than did warfare, and he made fewer mistakes as president than as a general on the battlefield.
Hamilton concurred that the president “consulted much, pondered much; resolved slowly, resolved surely.”45 By delaying decisions, he made sure that his better judgment prevailed over his temper. At the same time, once decisions were made, they “were seldom, if ever, to be shaken,” wrote John Marshall.46 Jefferson agreed, saying that Washington’s mind was “slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion.”47 Once a decision was made, Washington seldom retreated unless fresh evidence radically altered his view.
Jefferson did not rank Washington as a first-rate intellect on the order of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke, but he admitted that “no judgment was ever sounder.”
Washington once advised his adopted grandson that “where there is no occasion for expressing an opinion, it is best to be silent, for there is nothing more certain than that it is at all times more easy to make enemies than friends.”
He worried about committing an error more than missing a brilliant stroke. Washington also hated boasting.
With strangers or acquaintances, he addressed letters to “Sir.” As he warmed up, he wrote to them as “Dear Sir,” and when he grew very close, they were favored with “My Dear Sir.” He was no less artful in closing letters. If he went from signing “Humble Obedient Servant” to “Affectionate Obedient Servant,” the recipient had made a major leap forward in his emotions.
When Washington was sworn into office, North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet embraced the Constitution and stood apart from the new Union. A major stumbling block was the absence of a bill of rights attached to the Constitution.
A critical convert to adopting a bill of rights was James Madison, who had initially opposed the idea. While running for Congress in a strongly antifederalist district in Virginia, he had been forced to emphasize his commitment to such amendments.
In defending the Constitution, Washington had often invoked its amendment powers to appease critics. After the inauguration, Madison showed him a dozen amendments he had drafted; after being whittled down to ten, they were to achieve renown as the Bill of Rights.
By September 1789, under Madison’s guidance, Congress had approved the amendments and ordered Washington to send copies to the eleven state governors, as well as to the chief executives of North Carolina and Rhode Island. Even though the amendments were not approved by the states and formally adopted until December 15, 1791, North Carolina entered the Union in November 1789 and Rhode Island in May 1790, completing the reunification of the original thirteen states.
During this famous meal, in an apartment adorned with engravings of Washington, a grand deal was brokered. Jefferson and Madison agreed to aid passage of the assumption bill, while Hamilton promised to lobby the Pennsylvania delegation to endorse Philadelphia as the temporary capital and the Potomac as its final destination. For Hamilton, who favored New York as the capital, it was a bitter pill to swallow, but he viewed the assumption of state debt as the crux of federal power. Only belatedly did Jefferson, a states’ rights advocate, realize his colossal strategic error, grumbling to Washington that he had been royally “duped by Hamilton” and saying that “of all the errors of my political life, this has occasioned me the deepest regret.”
In July Congress approved the Residence Act, naming Philadelphia as the temporary capital for ten years, followed by a permanent move to a ten-mile-square federal district on the Potomac by December 1, 1800. There is no firm evidence that Washington was consulted about the dinner deal hatched by Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison.
In August 1791, inspired by the French Revolution, slaves in the French colony of St. Domingue (later Haiti) began a bloody rebellion that raged for a dozen years. Many slave owners fled to American seaboard cities, where they stoked dread among American masters that their slaves, too, would stage a bloody insurrection. In 1792 the House of Commons in London enacted its first ban on the slave trade, further fueling fears among slave owners that abolitionism might spread.
With their wiring, pins, and rough edges, such dentures rubbed painfully against the gums, forcing dentists to prescribe soothing ointments or opiate-based powders to alleviate discomfort. With or without the dentures, Washington had to endure constant misery.
Washington never overcame his dental tribulations and as late as December 1798 still protested that his new set “shoots beyond the gums” and “forces the lip out just under the nose.”6 Usually tightfisted, he gave Greenwood carte blanche to spend whatever it took to solve the problem.
AT THE TIME Philadelphia became the temporary capital, it ranked, with 45,000 inhabitants, as America’s largest city, overshadowing New York and Boston in size and sophistication. Its spacious brick abodes and broad thoroughfares, illumined by streetlamps at night, gave the city an orderly air, matched by a rich cultural life of theaters and newspapers. Among its intellectual ornaments were the American Philosophical Society and the Library Company, both founded under the aegis of Ben Franklin.
Unlike his fellow planters, who tended to regard banks and stock exchanges as sinister devices, Washington grasped the need for these instruments of modern finance. It was also a decisive moment legally for Washington, who had felt more bound than Hamilton by the literal words of the Constitution. With this stroke, he endorsed an expansive view of the presidency and made the Constitution a living, open-ended document. The importance of his decision is hard to overstate, for had Washington rigidly adhered to the letter of the Constitution, the federal government might have been stillborn.
In undertaking this lengthy trip, Washington had wanted to learn the state of public opinion directly rather than by hearsay. Most of all, he hoped to ascertain whether the South was as discontented as legend claimed. In his diary, he professed pleasure with what he saw, convinced that the people “appeared to be happy, contented and satisfied with the gen[era]l government under which they were placed. Where the case was otherwise, it was not difficult to trace the cause to some demagogue or speculating character.”
In writing to Catharine Macaulay Graham, he cited the “prosperity and tranquillity under the new government” and added that “while you in Europe are troubled with war and rumors of war, everyone here may sit under his own vine and none to molest or make him afraid.”
In September 1791 the overtures made by Hamilton, with Washington’s approval, resulted in a major breakthrough in Anglo-American relations, as George III named George Hammond as the first British minister to America. When Hammond and his secretary, Edward Thornton, arrived that autumn, they immediately sensed the amicable disposition of the treasury secretary and the implacable hostility of the secretary of state.
The early days of the French Revolution, so giddily triumphant, produced general rejoicing among Americans. In the spring and summer of 1789 they applauded the creation of the National Assembly and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, written by Lafayette with assistance from Jefferson. The Bastille’s downfall, however, displayed the bloody predilections of the Parisian mobs, who decapitated the prison governor and sported his head on a pike. Such grisly details seemed lost upon many Americans cheering the event. The day after the Bastille was stormed, Lafayette, who hoped for a “fusion between the royalty and the people,” was named head of the National Guard of Paris, further encouraging Americans to believe that their revolution had engendered a fitting sequel in France.
There was a note of quiet apprehension in Lafayette’s letters, a lonely whistling in the dark, as he recorded the wholesale destruction of the aristocracy, while hoping that liberty would somehow thrive in the resulting vacuum. Still wedded to replicating the American Revolution, he wrote in the slightly defensive tone of a man trying too hard to convince himself that all was well.
Nothing better illustrates the distance between the American and French revolutions than the fact that Lafayette, who was so at home in the Continental Army, seemed tragically out of place in France, naïvely pursuing the chimera of a constitutional monarchy among political cutthroats on the Paris streets.
In June 1791 King Louis XVI and the royal family fled Paris in disguise—the king dressed as a valet, the queen as the children’s governess—only to be stopped and arrested by Lafayette’s National Guard at Varennes, northeast of Paris. Although Lafayette duly informed the king and queen that the National Assembly had placed them under a full-time guard, he was nonetheless denounced as a traitor on the Paris streets, and Danton accused him of engineering the royal family’s escape.
In October 1791 Lafayette resigned from the National Guard and retreated to the rural serenity of his home, the Château Chavaniac. He sent Washington a letter that breathed contentment, as if his troubles had suddenly evaporated.
A portrait of L’Enfant shows a man with a coolly superior air. With an imagination shaped by the courts, palaces, and public works of Europe, L’Enfant would be hotheaded and autocratic in negotiating the intricacies of the new capital. Hypersensitive, with a touch of grandiosity, he was the perfect man to hatch a dream but not to implement it.
Town squares would be situated where diagonal avenues crossed. The kernel of the future Washington, D.C., lay in that conception. Striking a note of buoyant optimism that appealed to the president, L’Enfant wanted the city to be able to grow in size and beauty as “the wealth of the nation will permit it to pursue, at any period, however remote.”
In September Washington learned that the commissioners had indeed decided, without fanfare, to call the city Washington and the surrounding district Columbia, giving birth to Washington, D.C.
On February 27, 1792, bowing to the inevitable, Jefferson terminated L’Enfant’s services. Washington ended up feeling bitter toward L’Enfant for his imperious treatment of the commissioners. Nevertheless, the broad strokes of L’Enfant’s design for Washington, D.C., left their imprint on the city.
Before long the two factions took on revealing names. The Hamiltonian party called itself Federalists, implying that it alone supported the Constitution and national unity. It took a robust view of federal power and a strong executive branch, and it favored banks and manufacturing as well as agriculture. Elitist in its politics, it tended to doubt the wisdom of the common people, but it also included a large number of northerners opposed to slavery.
The Jeffersonians called themselves Republicans to suggest that they alone could save the Constitution from monarchical encroachments. They believed in limited federal power, a dominant Congress, states’ rights, and an agrarian nation free of the corrupting influence of banks, federal debt, and manufacturing. While led by slaveholders such as Jefferson and Madison, the Republicans credited the wisdom of the common people.
But now an exasperated Washington, fed up with conspiracy theories, squarely told Jefferson that “as to the idea of transforming this government into a monarchy, he did not believe there were ten men in the U.S. whose opinions were worth attention who entertained such a thought,”70 as Jefferson noted his words. This was tough language, tantamount to branding Jefferson a crackpot, and unlike anything Washington ever said to Hamilton. The secretary of state replied with stiff dignity: “I told him there were many more than he imagined . . . I told him that tho[ugh] the people were sound, there was a numerous sect who had monarchy in contemplation, that the Sec[retar]y of the Treasury was one of these.”71 Here the two men encountered a fundamental difference that could not be bridged.
ONCE HE DECIDED to serve a second term, George Washington was reelected by a unanimous 132 votes in the Electoral College. If one counted his selection as commander in chief, president of the Constitutional Convention, and president in his first term, he had compiled a string of four straight unanimous victories. Again inaction had been his most potent form of action, silence his most effective form of expression.
With a presidential victory assured for Washington, the Jeffersonians tried to register their disaffection and covertly chip away at his power by ousting John Adams as vice president. Purely as a matter of propriety, Washington never openly endorsed Adams, who retained office with 77 votes against a stiff challenge from Governor George Clinton of New York, a firm Jeffersonian, who garnered 50 votes.
A notable feature of that term would be an end to Washington’s special exemption from direct criticism. That winter the new landscape was previewed when Freneau took direct shots at Washington in the National Gazette, accusing him of aping royalty in his presidential etiquette.
On January 21, 1793, the former King Louis XVI, who had helped win American independence, was decapitated before a crowd of twenty thousand people intoxicated with a lust for revenge. After stuffing the king’s head between his legs, the executioner flung his remains into a rude cart piled with corpses, while bystanders dipped souvenirs into the royal blood pooled under the guillotine.
Persuaded that tales of French atrocities were propaganda exploited by Federalists, Jefferson became an apologist for the burgeoning horrors of the Jacobins. “I begin to consider them the true revolutionary spirit of the whole nation,” he told Madison.27 Madison also viewed the revolution through rose-colored spectacles.
Washington’s views on dissent were colored by his political philosophy. Along with other Federalists, he thought that officials, once elected, should apply their superior judgment and experience to make decisions on behalf of the populace.
As an extension of this view, Washington believed that voters, having once elected representatives, should lend them support. He found it difficult to execute the philosophical leap that voters reserved the right to a continuing critique of their elected officials. The Republicans, by contrast, wanted representatives to be continually responsive to voters and receptive to political criticism.
What is indisputable is that the Democratic-Republican Societies led to a much more raucous style of American politics. Instead of discussing politics politely at dinner tables or in smoky taverns, these groups were likely to take to the streets in mass rallies. These government critics also had fewer qualms about chastising their leaders. By the end of 1793 the diatribes against Washington no longer dwelled simply on his supposed imitation of the crowned heads of Europe. Now the opposition sought to debunk his entire life and tear to shreds the upright image he had so sedulously fostered. That December, the New-York Journal said that his early years had been marked by “gambling, reveling, horse racing and horse whipping,” that he was “infamously niggardly” in business matters, and that despite his feigned religious devotion, he was a “most horrid swearer and blasphemer.”68 For George Washington, American politics had become a strange and disorienting new world.
By mid-October 3,500 Philadelphians, or one-tenth of the population, had succumbed to yellow fever, leaving the city, in Washington’s words, “almost depopulated by removals and deaths.”
Engaging in fancy semantic footwork, Hamilton cracked open the legal logjam by saying that Washington could recommend that the government meet elsewhere, although he couldn’t order it. Hamilton favored Germantown, close to Philadelphia, as the optimal site, and it was duly chosen.
After renting the meager home of Isaac Franks, Washington had furniture carted out from Philadelphia. The sage of Monticello was reduced to sleeping in a bed tucked into the corner of a local tavern. As the weather cooled, the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia waned, although the city would still struggle for months to return to normal.
The White House cornerstone was laid on October 13, 1792. As in all matters pertaining to the capital, Washington wanted an elastic design that would accommodate future growth.
Washington’s strategy of building slowly and allowing for future expansion was an apt metaphor for his strategy for developing the entire country.
The cash-strapped Washington knew that the world reckoned him a much richer man than he really was. Mount Vernon’s glorified facade of wealth and grandeur covered up an operation that was, at best, only marginally profitable.
The anxious foreboding about slave revolts was immeasurably heightened by the massive slave revolt in the French colony of St. Domingue (modern-day Haiti), led by Toussaint Louverture starting in August 1791. This, the largest slave revolt in history, had led to thousands of deaths among rebel slaves and white masters, fomenting hysterical fears among American planters.
President Washington extended money and arms to the French government to combat the insurrection and also made a personal donation of $250 to relieve the affected white colonists.
In February 1794 France decided to free the slaves in its empire, partly to hold on to St. Domingue by appeasing the agitated black population.
After leaving office, Jefferson was demoted to a lower rung in Washington’s ever-shifting hierarchy of relationships. Their correspondence, however friendly, centered on mundane matters, such as crops and seeds, and Washington never again sought him out for policy advice. He dropped the salutation “My dear Sir” in favor of the cooler “Dear Sir.”
One of the first challenges for the new team was to figure out how to deal with the lawless North African, or “Barbary,” states—Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis—which plundered foreign vessels in the Mediterranean and enslaved their crews. Many European powers had grown resigned to paying “tribute”—a polite word for ransom money—to win the release of their crews.
The perceptive Morris saw that the violence was no incidental by-product of the revolution but fundamental to its spirit.
An essential difference between the American and French revolutions was that the American version allowed a search for many truths, while French zealots tried to impose a single sacred truth that allowed no deviation.
By July 1794 the revolutionary tribunal in Paris accelerated the tempo of its trials and issued nine hundred death sentences per month.20 Many victims of the Terror had been stalwart friends of the American Revolution. Pulled from his quarters in the middle of the night, Thomas Paine had been tossed into prison and stayed there for months.
He again advised the Indians to abandon traditional hunting and gathering and to imitate the civilization of white settlers by farming and ranching. He urged them to domesticate animals, to farm crops, and to encourage spinning and weaving among their women.
The chief locus of opposition to the whiskey tax arose in western Pennsylvania, where many farmers owned small stills and converted their grain into whiskey to make it more portable to seaboard markets.
In a major step, Washington had Alexander Hamilton assume the additional duties of secretary of war until Knox returned. It was a tough moment for Hamilton, too, since his wife was going through a difficult pregnancy and one of his sons lay desperately ill.
In sallying forth to command the troops, Washington, sixty-two, became the first and only American president ever to supervise troops in a combat situation. It irked him that Knox had not returned as promised, then compounded his misdemeanor by not bothering to write to him.
Knox’s absence magnified the power of Hamilton, who believed in an overwhelming demonstration of military strength. “Whenever the government appears in arms,” Hamilton proclaimed, “it ought to appear like a Hercules and inspire respect by the display of strength.”
Experiencing “the bustle of a camp” for the first time in a decade, Washington kept a relatively low profile and was eager to accentuate the role of the state governors and their militias.
On their way to Carlisle, the two had received disturbing reports of an unruly federal army that could not wait to wreak havoc on the western rebels. Rough, shrewd men from the Pennsylvania backwoods, Findley and Redick were realists and let Washington know that frontier settlers were now prepared to pay the whiskey tax.
In his sixth annual address to Congress, on November 19, he defended his conduct in western Pennsylvania and singled out “certain self-created societies” as having egged on the protesters and assumed a permanently threatening character to government authority.
Even as the Whiskey Rebellion deepened the bond between Washington and Hamilton, it appeared to dissolve the almost-twenty-year connection between Washington and Knox. Underscoring his displeasure with Knox, Washington sent him few letters that fall.
Bereft of trustworthy advisers that summer, Washington turned to John Adams more than before and praised the diplomatic acumen of his son, John Quincy, the precocious young minister to Holland. Washington held the young man’s talents in such high regard that he predicted that, before too long, John Quincy would be “found at the head of the Diplomatic Corps.”
Even the choice of a new chief justice to replace John Jay became the source of endless wrangling. Neither busy nor prestigious, the Supreme Court did not yet attract top legal minds. Perhaps for that reason, Hamilton turned down Washington’s invitation to become the new chief justice.
Washington delivered on his pledge to bring young Lafayette and his tutor into the household as long as Lafayette senior was imprisoned. Not surprisingly, Washington grew extremely fond of his young ward, whom he found “a modest, sensible, and deserving youth.”53 The boy was tall, kindly, and charming and delighted all who met him. Like his father before him, he made rapid strides in English, surpassing even his tutor.
Young Lafayette and Félix Frestel remained with the Washingtons until October 1797, when word arrived that Lafayette had been freed after five years in prison. The two young men decided to sail back to Europe with all due speed. In a touching farewell, George Washington Lafayette wrote to his godfather how grateful he was for his efforts to rescue his real father and how happy he had been to form a temporary part of his family.
Washington, who believed that Madison and his followers had “brought the Constitution to the brink of a precipice,” felt immense relief, intermingled with thinly veiled anger.11 After this wounding debate, an indignant Washington cut off further contact with Madison and never again invited him to Mount Vernon. Many Federalists predicted, prematurely as it happened, that James Madison had ruined his career.
Jefferson’s relationship with Washington also suffered from the momentous events of that spring. Where Jefferson had wanted Washington to stay on as president for a second term, he now dismissed him as the unwitting tool by which corrupt, elitist Federalists duped the common people.
Now that it was open season on Washington in the press, he took a pounding from yet another Revolutionary War hero. Thomas Paine believed that Washington had made no effort to free him after he was imprisoned in France as a British-born resident and a Girondin supporter who had opposed the execution of the king.
Not content to denigrate Washington’s military performance, Paine defamed him as an unfeeling man, lonely and isolated, who ruthlessly crushed anyone who crossed him. Among his associates, Paine contended, it was known that Washington “has no friendships; that he is incapable of forming any; [that] he can serve or desert a man or a cause with constitutional indifference.”
Trying to instill his own prudent habits, he told him to “select the most deserving only for your friendships, and, before this becomes intimate, weigh their dispositions and character well.”
He had long fathomed the peculiar dynamics of fame, the way fickle crowds respond first with adulation and then scorn to any form of hero worship. From partisan quarters, he was experiencing the rude comeuppance he had long known hovered in the background. Patrick Henry was shocked at his slanderous treatment: “If he whose character as our leader during the whole war . . . is so roughly handled in his old age, what may be expected of men of the common standard?”
In his farewell statement, he wanted Hamilton to refer to the earlier farewell address as irrefutable proof that, far from hiding megalomaniacal ambitions, he had longed to return home. While the words of this second farewell belonged to Hamilton, Washington defined its overarching themes and lent it his distinctive sound. He wanted the message written in a plain, unadorned style, presenting a timeless quality and avoiding references to specific personalities and events that had given rise to many observations.
An old hand at farewells, Washington, by design, rolled out of Philadelphia in his coach and headed for Mount Vernon, just as local citizens began to consume his address. He wished the words to speak for themselves, without any elaboration on his part. Washington never identified the document as his “farewell address,” a label pinned on it by others.
“The name of AMERICAN, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”
Instead of flattering the people, Washington challenged them to improve their performance as citizens. Most of all he appealed to Americans to cling to the Union, with the federal government as the true guarantor of liberty and independence.
The genius of the farewell address was that it could be read in strictly neutral terms or as disguised pokes at the Jeffersonians. This was especially true when Washington laid out his sweeping views on foreign policy, recycling many ideas advanced in promoting the Jay Treaty. Tacitly railing against Republican support for France, he expounded a foreign policy based on practical interests instead of political passions: “The nation which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave.”23 Sympathy with a foreign nation for purely ideological reasons, he said, could lead America into “the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.”
Restating his neutrality policy, he underlined the desirability of commercial rather than political ties with other nations: “ ’Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”
Whatever errors he had committed, he hoped that “my country will never cease to view them with indulgence and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service, with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”
Whatever his private reservations about slavery, President Washington had acted in accordance with the wishes of southern slaveholders. In February 1793 he signed the Fugitive Slave Act, enabling masters to cross state lines to recapture runaway slaves. He remained zealous in tracking down his own fugitive slaves, although like Jefferson, he didn’t care to call attention to such activities.
Ona Judge never returned to slavery or the South. In late December Joseph Whipple informed Washington that she would shortly get married, making a mockery of Washington’s scenario of a cunning Frenchman who had duped and impregnated her. That January she married a “colored sailor” named John Staines, and about a year later they had a daughter, the first of three children, proving that Judge had not been pregnant at the time of her flight.
For the most part, the speech was well received, although the lone congress-man from the new state of Tennessee, Andrew Jackson, who was enraged by the Jay Treaty, refused to salute the departing chief or join in the congressional response applauding him.
The 1796 election was the first contested presidential campaign in American history. With 71 electoral votes, Adams became the president, narrowly edging out Jefferson, with 68 votes. Since Jefferson nosed out Adams’s “running mate,” Thomas Pinckney, with 59 votes, he became vice president under rules governing the Electoral College at the time.
By 1814 Jefferson would arrive at a more balanced verdict on Washington: “On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great.”
When he returned to Mount Vernon, Washington planned to travel no more than twenty miles from home again, which would sever him forever from old friends.
Shortly before noon, dressed in a suit of solemn black, he marched alone to Congress Hall. As he approached the building and entered the House chamber, the cheers and applause of an immense multitude showered down on him.
After introducing Adams, Washington read a short farewell message, filling the silent hall with an overwhelming sense of sadness. The country was losing someone who had been its constant patriarch from the beginning. Adams said that the weeping in the galleries surpassed the sobbing of any audience at a tragic play.
Then, when strong nervous sobs broke loose, when tears covered the faces, then the great man was shaken. I never took my eyes from his face. Large drops came from his eyes.”19 It was one last proof, if any were now needed, of just how emotional the man of marble was beneath the surface.
Doubtless relieved that he was no longer the protagonist of the American drama, Washington ended the inauguration ceremony with an exquisite gesture: he insisted that President Adams and Vice President Jefferson exit the chamber before him, a perfect symbol that the nation’s most powerful man had now reverted to the humble status of a private citizen.
When Washington reached the hotel and turned around, the crowd saw that his face was again washed with tears. “No man ever saw him so moved,” said a second observer.22 In a very Washingtonian feat, he touched the crowd by simply staring at them in silence before disappearing into the hotel.
The letter confirms that by this point Washington’s relationship with Martha had settled into one of deep friendship, devoid of carnal desire or lusty romance.
those days of poor transportation, farewells left an especially melancholy aftertaste, since many friendships were ended irrevocably by sheer distance. “How many friends I have left behind,” Martha Washington wrote wistfully to Lucy Knox. “They fill my memory with sweet thoughts. Shall I ever see them again? Not likely, unless they shall come to me here, for the twilight is gathering around our lives.”
The presidential legacy he left behind in Philadelphia was a towering one. As Gordon Wood has observed, “The presidency is the powerful office it is in large part because of Washington’s initial behavior.”
Washington’s catalog of accomplishments was simply breathtaking. He had restored American credit and assumed state debt; created a bank, a mint, a coast guard, a customs service, and a diplomatic corps; introduced the first accounting, tax, and budgetary procedures; maintained peace at home and abroad; inaugurated a navy, bolstered the army, and shored up coastal defenses and infrastructure; proved that the country could regulate commerce and negotiate binding treaties; protected frontier settlers, subdued Indian uprisings, and established law and order amid rebellion, scrupulously adhering all the while to the letter of the Constitution. During his successful presidency, exports had soared, shipping had boomed, and state taxes had declined dramatically. Washington had also opened the Mississippi to commerce, negotiated treaties with the Barbary states, and forced the British to evacuate their northwestern forts. Most of all he had shown a disbelieving world that republican government could prosper without being spineless or disorderly or reverting to authoritarian rule. In surrendering the presidency after two terms and overseeing a smooth transition of power, Washington had demonstrated that the president was merely the servant of the people.
On July 31, 1797, when he invited Tobias Lear to dinner, Washington made this startling comment: “Unless someone pops in unexpectedly, Mrs. Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been done within the last twenty years by us—that is, to set down to dinner by ourselves.”
He acknowledged the many extraordinary events he had lived through, then abruptly declared that none of these events, “not all of them together, have been able to eradicate from my mind the recollection of those happy moments—the happiest of my life—which I have enjoyed in your company.”21 This unexpected line offered the ultimate romantic compliment: Washington had won a long war, founded a country, and created a new government, but such accomplishments paled beside the faded recollections of a youthful love affair. In its autumnal tone, the letter represented a farewell address of sorts.
In early March 1798 one of the commissioners, John Marshall, alerted Washington to the scandalous news that the French had tried to extort money from the American diplomats, in what would be billed as the XYZ Affair, named for the three nameless agents employed by Talleyrand to extract the payments.
As the United States abrogated its former treaties with France, American naval vessels were permitted to open fire on any French ships threatening American merchant vessels. The Quasi-War—or what President Adams called “the half war with France”—was now officially under way.
Whether to his dread or secret relief, Washington felt a powerful tide tugging him back into politics. On May 19 Hamilton sent him a provocative letter saying that the Jeffersonians were conspiring with the French to subvert the Constitution and convert America into “a province of France.”43 Hamilton recommended that Washington tour the southern states, “under some pretense of health,” to make speeches combating virulent pro-French feeling in the region.
He also foresaw no immediate threat of war or “formidable invasion” of America by France.46 Still, if war came, Washington thought the public would prefer “a man more in his prime.”47 Then just as it looked as if Washington, aged sixty-six, might slam the door shut on his political career forever, he nudged it open a crack. In the event of war, he declared, “I should like, previously, to know who would be my coadjutors and whether you would be disposed to take an active part, if arms are to be resorted to.”
In early July President Adams officially named Washington head of the new army, with the rank of lieutenant general and commander in chief. Before making this decision, Adams did not bother to consult Washington, who was thunderstruck to learn from the newspapers of his appointment and unanimous Senate confirmation.
Here lay the dilemma in a nutshell: neither Hamilton nor Washington would serve without Hamilton being the main deputy, while Adams found this intolerable. It would prove excruciatingly difficult to break this impasse between the former and current presidents.
In coaxing Marshall to stand for Congress, Washington pointed out that he himself had agreed “to surrender the sweets of retirement and again to enter the most arduous and perilous station which an individual could fill,” Marshall recalled.75 Unable to withstand such an appeal, Marshall agreed to become a candidate for Congress.
On October 9 President Adams sent Washington a conciliatory letter from his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. However furious he was inside, he wrote a nuanced message in which he was careful to affirm the president’s right to determine officer ranks but also promised that he would not override Washington’s judgment. Placated by this generosity, Washington emphasized to McHenry that he did not want knowledge of his confrontation with Adams to leak out, lest it injure the president.
In working sessions on the army, Washington seemed something of a figurehead. The vigorous Hamilton exercised the true authority, having beavered away at the task from a small office in lower Manhattan. The generals labored five hours daily, and Washington found the job of selecting officers for twelve new regiments an onerous task “of infinite more difficulty than I had any conception of.”
As the political atmosphere became ever more combative, Federalist overreaching arrived at its apex with passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which tried to squelch criticism of war measures that President Adams and his congressional allies had undertaken during the undeclared Quasi-War with France.
On another occasion, he endorsed a Sedition Act prosecution of William Duane of the Aurora, who had accused the Adams administration of being corrupted by the British government. Given the sheer number of lies that he thought were being peddled in the service of propaganda, Washington’s dismay was understandable. At the same time, his support for censorship is disappointing given his exemplary record as president in tolerating even irresponsible press tirades against his administration.
Five slave carpenters now labored over the President’s House, and future presidents who lived there, starting with Jefferson, would enjoy the residence in undisturbed possession of their human property.
For many decades, Washington, D.C., would qualify as a work in progress. George Washington never lived to see John Adams occupy a still-unfinished, sparsely furnished President’s House. As he had feared, congressmen complained about the incomplete Capitol and inadequate lodgings, and the huge Capitol dome was completed only during the Civil War.
Washington had never made Mount Vernon the thriving productive enterprise he wanted. In his last months, he kept saying that the “first wish” of his heart was to simplify and contract operations and live “exempt from cares.”
In some respects, Niemcewicz left an absurdly rosy picture of slave existence: “Either from habit, or from natural humor disposed to gaiety, I have never seen the blacks sad.”
By freeing his slaves, Washington accomplished something more glorious than any battlefield victory as a general or legislative act as a president. He did what no other founding father dared to do, although all proclaimed a theoretical revulsion at slavery.
Now he pledged his fifty shares of the Potomac River Company to the new university in the capital and his hundred shares of the James River Company to Liberty Hall Academy in western Virginia, which later became Washington and Lee University.
On December 12, he composed a last letter to Hamilton, applauding his plan for an American military academy. In a fitting finale to a patriotic life, he endorsed the concept wholeheartedly: “The establishment of an institution of this kind . . . has ever been considered by me as an object of primary importance to this country.”5 This was the last political letter that flowed from his prolific pen.
Washington’s last day was spent in a lovely but simple setting, a plain bedroom prettily decorated with a table, armchair, and dressing table. As he faced death, Washington’s indomitable poise was remarkable. With preternatural self-control, he had an overseer named George Rawlins bleed him before Dr. Craik arrived. When Rawlins blanched, Washington gently but firmly pressed him. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, and once Rawlins had sliced into the skin, making the blood run freely, he added, “The orifice is not large enough.”11 Martha showed better medical judgment and pleaded for a halt to the bleeding, but Washington urged Rawlins on, saying “More, more!” until nearly a pint of blood had been drained.12 A piece of moist flannel was wrapped around his throat while his feet were soaked in warm water.
After Dick and Brown left the room, Craik lingered by his old friend. “Doctor, I die hard,” Washington said, “but I am not afraid to go.”
Even in death, Washington never lapsed into self-absorption and remained singularly attuned to other people’s moods, showing the same sensitivity that had made him a uniquely effective political leader.
While retaining complete control of his faculties, as best we can tell, Washington never sought religious solace or offered any prayers as he lay dying.
Several times this most punctual of men asked what hour it was. Orchestrating matters until the very end, he had the presence of mind to take his own pulse and felt the life suddenly ebbing from his body. At that moment he perished. “The general’s hand fell from his wrist,” wrote Tobias Lear. “I took it in mine and put it into my bosom. Dr. Craik put his hands over his eyes.”
It was December 14, 1799. Washington had died at age sixty-seven, long-lived by the tragically short standards of the men in his family.
By 1804 all the northern states had enacted laws for terminating slavery, but it persisted in the South in an entrenched form.
No political figure felt more bereft than Alexander Hamilton, who owed so much to the older man’s steadfast patronage and understanding. “Perhaps no friend of his has more cause to lament on personal account than myself,” he told an associate, saying that Washington had been “an aegis very essential to me.”
A week later a huge, subdued funeral procession snaked from Congress Hall to the German Lutheran Church. There General Henry Lee delivered his famous funeral oration in which he eulogized Washington as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” while further noting that the deceased was “second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life.”
Abigail Adams justly rebelled at the idealized portrait: “Simple truth is his best, his greatest eulogy.”
A year after George Washington’s death, on January 1, 1801, Martha Washington signed an order freeing his slaves. Even this move did not entirely end her troubles, since at least one dower slave tried to escape by portraying himself as one of Washington’s freed slaves.