Thanks to my friend LP for sending me a copy of this. – Mike
HISTORY | The father of our country set a high standard for those who followed him in the presidency
by Marvin Olasky Posted 2/14/15, 09:03 am
In honor of Presidents Day on Monday, we bring you the chapter on George Washington from Marvin Olasky’s The American Leadership Tradition: Moral Vision from Washington to Clinton, originally published in 1999 and now out of print. —Mickey McLean
A portrait of George Washington in 1796 by Gilbert Stuart (circa 1821). | National Gallery of Art/Wikimedia CommonsDespite the “I cannot tell a lie” legends, few of young Washington’s neighbors saw him as a candidate for storybook sainthood. His life was a struggle to become a man of one piece, with private and public lives in harmony.
Born in 1732, Washington was homeschooled largely by his father and his older half brother, Lawrence. Like other children he copied into an exercise book maxims of behavior: “Spit not into the fire, nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it. Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth, napkin, fork, or knife.” But that was easy; adolescence was hard. When Washington was sixteen some of his friends called him the “stallion of the Potomac,” and his mentor, Lord Fairfax, warned the young ladies of Virginia, “George Washington is beginning to feel the sap rising, being in the spring of life, and is getting ready to be the prey of your sex, wherefore may the Lord help him.”
The sap was rising, but Washington over the next decade prayed regularly for self-control. When Washington was sixteen he wrote a sonnet to one young lady, Frances Alexander, which read in part,
Why should my poor restless heart
Stand to oppose thy might and power
At last surrender to cupid’s feathered dart. …
But when she did not surrender, he desisted. Washington’s self-control impressed Lord Fairfax, who concluded, “He is very grave for one of his age, and reserved in his intercourse, not a great talker at any time. His mind appears to me to act slowly, but, on the whole, to reach just conclusions, and he has an ardent wish to see the right of questions.”
Not until later did “George Washington slept here” signs become customary along the eastern seaboard, and no one knows whether Washington remained virginal. Women he courted, however, considered him a gentleman, although not a sufficiently highborn one to warrant engagement. At twenty Washington proposed marriage to a Virginia beauty, Betsy Fauntleroy, but she rejected him. Later he courted Mary Eliza Philipse, but she rejected him. He also admired passionately Sally Fairfax, a young woman married to his friend George William Fairfax. It appears that she also longed after him, but both respected her wedding ring sufficiently to hold off.
Washington first gained fame at age twenty-three, as an aide to General Edward Braddock in 1755 during the French and Indian War. That year Braddock’s 1,500 British soldiers were attacked by Indians and quickly descended into panic. Braddock was mortally wounded and every other mounted British regular officer also was hit. Washington, with two horses shot from under him, and four bullet holes in his clothing, remained uninjured. Able to lead the withdrawal of stunned survivors, he received wide commendation for his steadiness under fire. Washington was caustic about British soldiers who did not act honorably: “The dastardly behavior of those they call regulars exposed all others that were inclined to do their duty to almost certain death … they broke and ran as sheep pursued by dogs.”
When Washington returned from war, he wrote to Mrs. Fairfax that she had drawn him, “or rather I have drawn myself, into an honest confession of a single fact”: that she was “the object of my Love.” If Washington’s story were fiction, some nineteenth-century British novelist would have had Mr. Fairfax die in a shipwreck at this point. But in fact, he lived on, and Washington stopped his errant courtship, quickly after it began, by marrying the recently widowed Martha Custis. Never again is there a record of him coming close to acting in a way he knew to be dishonorable.
Martha Custis (five feet tall and plump) may have met George Washington (six feet two and muscular, with size 13 shoes) at a dance or party during the eight years she was married to Daniel Parke Custis. She and George Washington had heard of each other for years, but their first substantial meeting occurred on March 16, 1758, when she was eight months a widow. He proposed to her nine days later and they married ten months later, then lived happily together for forty-one years until death did them part. Martha had a four-year-son and two-year-old daughter from her previous marriage, and soon Washington’s orders for goods from London included items such as “six little books for children beginning to read” and “one fashionably dressed baby [doll].”
The wealthy widow carried with her six thousand acres and a hundred slaves, but she also brought a warm femininity that complemented well Washington’s rough spots. Her ability to make guests feel welcome was important to Washington, who liked to be hospitable but was not particularly convivial. Between 1768 and 1775 the Washingtons at Mount Vernon entertained about two thousand guests. During the Revolutionary War, Martha Washington frequently joined her husband and became not only a hostess for officers but also a mother to lonely soldiers. In 1797, Washington wrote to a friend one afternoon, “Unless someone pops in unexpectedly, Mrs. Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been done within the last 20 years by us, that is to set down to dinner by ourselves.”
They had no children together. They did have lots of dogs, with names like Drunkard, Sweetlips, and Truelove. George Washington may have been sterile, and therefore ready to be the father of a republican country and not a hereditary monarchy. Other men who did not have offspring (even when the likely physical cause lay within themselves) traded in wives for those they thought could do better. Washington did not. Nor did Washington follow the British practice of taking mistresses when his middle-aged wife sagged in places and grew plumper in others. Even during the Revolution, with other women readily available to a commanding presence, Washington wore around his neck a miniature portrait of his wife. He wrote to her, “I retain an unalterable affection for you which neither time nor distance can change.”
Trusting in providence
Martha Washington was hospitable to visitors and even more enthusiastically hospitable to God’s working in her. After breakfast,” every day of her adult life” according to a grandson, Martha went to her bedroom to read from the Bible and pray for an hour. Her husband was not so constant. Judging by the references he made, Washington knew the Bible, and he also carried out church duties as a vestryman from 1762 onwards, with the responsibility of handling parish collections. But he was reluctant to talk publicly about Christ and erratic about taking Communion in church, and that has led to historians’ speculation that he was a deist, believing that God had created the world but was no longer active in it.
Washington’s reasons for at times refraining from the Lord’s Supper are still a mystery. However, his talk and reports were full of discussion of Providence—the belief that God is powerfully active in the world, and that everything from the destiny of nations to the flight of sparrows, or bullets, is under God’s sovereign control. That comfort in and calm about Providence gave Washington the sense of security that calmed contentious legislators and soldiers. His willingness to think of the long term grew as he learned to say yes to whatever God willed.
This was particularly evident during the Revolutionary War, when defeats were frequent and victory rare. In 1776, Washington stated, “No man has a more perfect reliance on the all-wise and powerful dispensations of the Supreme Being than I have.” Bucking up his co-combatants, he declared in 1777, “A superintending Providence is ordering everything for the best. … in due time all will end well.” When developments were dark in 1778, he wrote, “Providence has heretofore taken us up when all other means and hope seemed to be departing from us; in this I will confide.” In 1779, as the war wore on, he bucked up himself: “I look upon every dispensation of Providence as designed to answer some valuable purpose, and I hope I shall always possess a sufficient degree of fortitude to bear without murmuring any stroke which may happen. …”
Similar quotations from throughout the war are readily available. But Washington always believed that as help came from God, gratitude expressed in obedience was due Him. Since God demanded that those engaged in immorality change their ways, private matters had public consequences: “Purity of morals [is] the only sure foundation of public happiness in any country.” When Washington frustrated the British, they tried to strike back by saying he was a moral hypocrite who enjoyed the “wonderful charms” of his female slaves. They supplied no evidence, and Washington responded by denouncing the “low dirty tricks” of the British.
A moral army
Washington’s sense of God in charge carried over to his thought about building a winning army. His hope was to upgrade the America militias to British efficiency while retaining a much higher moral standard. At a time when army camps were homes for blasphemy, Washington decried the “foolish and wicked practice, of profane cursing and swearing.” He insisted, “We can have little hopes of the blessing of Heaven on our arms, if we insult it by our impiety and folly.” He demanded the appointment of regimental chaplains and commanded his soldiers to “attend carefully upon religious exercises. The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger.”
Disunited as the new states were in many ways, they stood together in supporting Washington’s endeavors to contain vice. For example, the Virginia convention that turned the original colony into an independent state also concluded in 1776 that a commanding officer should “take such steps as to him appear most proper for preventing profane swearing, all manner of gaming, as well as every other vice and immorality among officers and soldiers under his command.” Some observers said Washington would lose men by insisting on tough standards, but he understood that the opposite was true. The task of British officers was to make their men compliant. The task of American officers was to show volunteers that the patriotic effort was virtually a holy cause. Only the totally committed could be relied on.
In practice, godly discipline won victories. After defeats in 1776 in and around New York City, Washington became an entrepreneurial general: learning the enemy’s vices, looking for an opening, using surprise. Washington had his men cross the Delaware River on Christmas night during a storm which the British thought would stop the best soldiers, let alone defeated Americans who were supposedly slouching off in dejection. Meanwhile, Johann Rall, commander of the mercenary Hessian forces encamped at Trenton, saw no reason to fortify his garrison or emphasize outposts. When a Tory farmer delivered a note to Rall saying the American army was about to attack him, Rall was intent on his card game and merely slipped the note into his pocket. The next morning Rall’s men were routed.
Washington’s dogged generalship, in comparison with British commanders’ sloth, again made a difference eight days after the Battle of Trenton, when Lord Charles Cornwallis’s army pinned Washington’s forces against the Delaware River. Cornwallis liked his relaxation and is reputed to have said, “We’ve got the old fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.” During the night the American army slipped around the British left flank and was able to rout a British regiment at Princeton.
Fish rotted from the head. The main British army at that point was commanded by General Sir William Howe, based in New York. He showed no interest in moving to attack, in part because he was absorbed in adultery with his mistress, Elizabeth Loring, the wife of a British commissary officer who sought promotion. In the words of one American general, “Howe shut his eyes, fought his battles, drank his bottle, had his little whore. …” Worried American Tories even circulated a song:
Awake, arouse, Sir Billy,
There’s forage on the plain.
Ah, leave your little filly,
And open the campaign.
But Howe waited.
And, taking the chain of command all the way back to London, the failure of many links becomes evident. John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty, was in charge of the naval war against American rebels. He was known for leaving his office to hit the gambling halls for twenty-four-hour stretches; servants brought him a hunk of meat stuck between two slices of bread, and the word “sandwich” was born.
Montagu was a key member of a social club known as the Mad Monks of Medmenham. Medmenham was a semi-ruined abbey that a leading British politician, Sir Francis Dashwood, had purchased in the 1750s and refurbished in pornographic splendor. Montagu loved Medmenham’s “garden of lust,” which featured shrubbery pruned to resemble a woman’s private parts. He loved the stained glass windows that contained indecent pictures of the Twelve Apostles, the chapel ceiling with a huge pornographic fresco, the library said to contain the country’s largest collection of pornographic books, and the London prostitutes who came to the abbey and dressed as nuns.
The other key British leader of the war effort, George Sackville (also known as Lord Germain), had different tastes. He was secretary of state in charge of the land war, much to the chagrin of generals who remembered that Sackville was court-martialed from the British army fighting in Germany in 1759. The official charge was cowardly refusal to advance during a battle, but the court-martial followed charges of sodomy as well.
Despite such a résumé, but with the help of other semi-closeted homosexuals, Sackville schemed his way to a political comeback. One London poet wrote about Sackville’s
lips that oft in blandishment obscene
Hath been employed.
Army officers called him the “buggering hero.” During the American Revolution, Sackville appointed two reputed homosexuals to key positions, as well as some financially corrupt individuals, in return for payoffs.
British depravity and strategic deprivation
Americans owed their victory at Saratoga, the biggest rebel triumph of the war’s first six years, to Sackville’s sexual preoccupations. The British plan for 1777 was to send one army south from Canada and Howe’s forces north from New York City, with a meeting up the Hudson River that would supposedly cut off New England from the other colonies. But Secretary of State Sackville faltered because of his desire to get into bed with a lover: He hurried off to a country weekend after signing the dispatches to be sent to Canada but not those to New York, and they never were sent. The eventual result: American forces swarmed against the British army that marched south from Canada and soon found itself facing failing supplies, no hope of help, and—surrender.
During the four years after Saratoga the poorly supplied American army had little good news and many bad months. At Valley Forge during the harsh winter of 1777-78 few soldiers had coats, half were without blankets, more than a third were without shoes, and some lacked other essentials for health amidst winter. One in every four soldiers who wintered at Valley Forge died there. The winter of 1779-80 in Morristown, New Jersey, was even worse. At one point hungry men surrounded by snow had rations only one-eighth of the normal amount. Finances also were a problem. Rarely during the war were Washington’s men paid on time or in full. In January 1781 some Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops mutinied and deserted.
Yet Washington would not give up. When he furloughed militia soldiers to go home to harvest crops, enough came back to hold the British at bay year after year. Washington, it turned out, was the ideal leader for an army of volunteers. He had perseverance and an integrity that made him so popular among his soldiers that some who wanted to leave stayed on so as to avoid disappointing him. And when others were depressed, Washington buoyed them with his faith that God would make the Revolution “ultimately” succeed.
“Ultimately” often seemed like an eternity as the war wore on. But as the most critical period of the war approached, the private lives of British leaders continued to affect military performance. Compare Washington’s passion for victory with the passions of Montagu, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Montagu was infatuated with his live-in lover, Martha Ray, but so was a young ensign, James Hackman. When Martha Ray refused to elope with Hackman he shot her in the face as she emerged from the theater. Montagu, informed of her death as the British were beginning the campaign that ended in their defeat at Yorktown, he flung himself on his bed and cried, “Leave me alone, I could have borne anything but this!”
Montagu’s womanizing also affected his relations with officials who reported to him. He made one mediocre officer, James Gambier, who had pimped for him and threatened blackmail, a rear admiral. Some talented officers resigned because, as Captain John Leveson-Gower put it, Montagu “never had any decency.” According to the Dictionary of National Biography, “many officers of character and ability … refused to accept a command while he remained at the admiralty.” While Montagu was paying attention to sexual rather than military affairs, those who were not dissipated stopped participating.
Secretary of State Sackville’s reputation for sexual and financial lust also deprived the British war effort of significant support. In 1779, Sackville was accused of pocketing state money. Both the war effort and the man leading it became increasingly unpopular in England; in the words of a contemporary opponent, “The most odious of tasks was assigned to the most odious of instruments.” Sackville was supposed to work closely with Montagu in coordinating the army and navy, so they oozed cordiality in public but privately spread the idea that each defeat was the other’s fault.
Contempt for Montagu became open as the war wore on. Charles Churchill described him best in Act Three of his play The Duellist: Montagu was
Too infamous to have a friend,
Too bad for bad men to commend.
He was frequently portrayed as mixing Admiralty business with personal interest. One satirist had Montagu saying “enchanting devil” while watching a young woman leave his office, and then immediately turn his attention back to the bribes he needed to sustain his sugar daddy habits: “I must now to business; and try to raise a sum, by advancing some worthless scoundrel over the head of a hundred men of merit.”
One such scoundrel, Sir George Rodney, an adulterer, gambler, and debtor, had the task in 1781 of providing naval support for General Charles Cornwallis, who was marching through the Carolinas and Virginia. Instead, Rodney concentrated on building his own fortune and his own adulterous résumé in the West Indies. Cornwallis himself received his job because he was Sackville’s “special favourite.” The British commanding general in New York, Sir Henry Clinton, who could have helped out, disliked Cornwallis because Sackville had made it clear that the overall command would go to Cornwallis as soon as he had had gained a military victory in the South.
Clinton did not want to help Cornwallis achieve that promotion. Clinton also was occupied (like his predecessor, General Howe) with a pretty mistress whose husband pimped her to the commander in exchange for promotion, and did not move out of New York with reinforcements until it was too late. One of his last acts upon leaving the city, however, was to give a copy of his will to his mistress. The corruption was thorough and extended into the ranks. British soldiers fought when they could not avoid it, but otherwise dedicated themselves to gambling, drinking, and cavorting with camp prostitutes.
Cornwallis, surrounded by American and French forces, surrendered his troops on October 19, 1781, after reporting that his supplies were depleted. American soldiers found in the British camp 144 cannon and mortars, thousands of big gun cartridges and 120 barrels of powder, 800 muskets and 266,000 musket cartridges, 73,000 pounds of flour, 60,000 pounds of bread, 75,000 pounds of pork, 30,000 bushels of peas, 1,250 gallons of liquor, and enough other military materials and foodstuffs to hold on for many more weeks. Clearly, the British at Yorktown did not have the will to win, and gave in as soon as they could semi-honorably do so.
Again, the difference between Britain’s leaders and George Washington, and between Britain’s forced fighters and America’s volunteers—including some foreign volunteers like the Marquis de Lafayette—was evident. Many Americans thanked Washington for establishing a virtuous army, and God for granting it victory. Immediately after the British surrender George Washington noted the “surprizing and particular interposition of Providence in our favour,” and ordered that “divine service shall be performed tomorrow in the different brigades and divisions.”
Becoming a happy nation
The war was not settled officially until 1783, two years after Yorktown, but Washington’s task was essentially completed. One nod from him, and Washington’s army (with support from many civilians) would have made him King George I of America. Washington refused, and emphasized instead the value of statesmen following in the steps of “the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion.” Otherwise, Washington observed, “we can never hope to be a Happy Nation.” Washington held that an American was in a desperate way if he could look in a mirror and not see a man of honor.
Washington always loved land—to explore it, to own it, to farm it. But the extent of the country that emerged from war was too great for even a well-traveled Virginian to grasp. Citizens of one state had little contact with those from another because travel was not only frequently painful but also lengthy. Four miles per hour was the average speed for a stagecoach between Maine and Maryland, if it did not break down. Travelers generally had to bounce over roads alternately furrowed and muddy. Stagecoaches typically by filled by persons and enough baggage to leave legs cramped and travelers sweating profusely in mid-summer heat or offering each other teeth-chattering serenades during freezing winter weather. Others rowed very ungently down streams that could quickly bring whitewater rapids.
Movies about that period tend to show neat homes and well-manicured lawns, but America in reality was a poor nation. Ornithologist Alexander Wilson, who traveled the country at the end of the century watching birds but also people, noted that New England displayed “wretched orchards; scarcely one grain-field in twenty miles; the taverns along the road dirty, and filled with loungers bawling about lawsuits and politics.” Wilson, an equal-opportunity critic, described North Carolina as a place where “the taverns are the most desolate and beggarly imaginable; bare, bleak, and dirty walls, one or two old broken chairs and a bench form all the furniture. … The house itself is raised upon props four or five feet, and the space below is left open for the hogs, with whose charming vocal performance the wearied traveler is serenaded the whole night long.”
Wilson liked birds better than people, but a French observer who was fond of the United States, the Duc de Liancourt, was surprised to see Americans scrupulous in some respects but not in others: “The people of the country are as astonished that one should object to sleeping two or three in the same bed and in dirty sheets, or to drink from the same dirty glass after half a score of others, as to see one neglect to wash one’s hands and face of a morning.” Foreign travelers were also surprised to see both churchgoing and rough-and-tumble fighting common in much of the country. Gouging, kicking, and even biting ears or other body parts were acceptable behavior in fights on which spectators laid large wagers.
None of that bothered Washington, but one pursuit did: the ownership of slaves. During the Revolution, Washington urged that slaves be enlisted with the offer of freedom if the Americans won. In Philadelphia early in 1779, with war offensives becalmed, he thought through his own situation and almost decided to extricate himself from the plantation economy by selling the Mount Vernon slaves and using the money for investment. In the end he stayed pat. He still hoped to return to the comforts of home after the war and realized that a lack of free farm labor would make operating Mount Vernon without slave labor impossible.
Thereafter, it seems that at least every seven years Washington contemplated the switch from slaveowner to employer. In 1786 he said that he was filled with “regret” about the institution of slavery and his role in it. He said “no man living wishes more sincerely than I do to see the abolition of it.” Again Washington wondered how to extricate himself personally. Morally, he objected to selling slaves, yet he was unwilling to take the huge economic loss involved in freeing them. Washington’s internal tension influenced his views on America’s future: Concluding that the slave system was both inefficient and wrong, he split from agrarians like Thomas Jefferson and looked favorably on the growth of manufacturing and cities. Washington’s admiration for a business economy grew alongside his moral uneasiness about the basis of the South’s plantation economy.
The Washington presidency
Washington knew that Americans were satisfied to be part of a loosely federal United States in which the government would take responsibility for foreign policy, while leaving domestic affairs almost entirely to state governments. He knew that anyone who ignored the realities of distance and travel that left states separated, and tried to set up a strong central government, would receive bruises like those incurred during a rough-and-tumble.
Nevertheless, when Washington received news of the Massachusetts uprising led by Daniel Shays in 1786 and 1787, he began to think that some form of government stronger than the Articles of Confederation might be needed. Washington’s friend (and former general) Henry Knox told him that the Shaysites demanded the cancellation of all debts and believed that “that the property of the United States … ought to be the common property of all.” Washington argued that the insurgency had to be stopped, or else “what security has a man for life, liberty, or property?” The Massachusetts government raised a strong militia and crushed the rebellion early in 1787, but a recognition of trouble moved Washington to support the call for a constitutional convention.
The Constitution that emerged from the famous meeting barely received passage, with federalists gaining close wins in several key states only because everyone knew that Washington would be the first president. His support for a new arrangement influenced not only adoption of the Constitution but also the document itself. As one Georgian wrote, the Constitutional Convention would not have given the executive branch powers so extensive “had not many of the members cast their ideas towards General Washington as President; and shaped their Ideas of the Powers to be given to a President, by their opinions of his Virtue.”
Washington received a unanimous vote from the Electoral College in 1789 and rode northward to the temporary capital, New York City, amid triumphal processions that could readily turn a politician’s head. Trenton was typical: Dozens of girls dressed in white, and older women as well, lined both sides of the road as Washington approached. “Welcome, mighty Chief!” they sang in a chorus composed for the occasion, and happily laid to rest afterwards:
Welcome to this grateful shore!
Virgins fair, and Matrons grave,
Those thy conquering arms did save,
Build for thee triumphant bowers
Strew, ye fair, his way with flowers.
Ships and salutes welcomed Washington to New York and made such an impression that he described in his diary “the decorations of the ships, the roar of cannon, and the loud acclamations of the people.”
How Washington reacted to such applause defined him as a statesman. He wrote that the acclamation “filled my mind with sensations as painful … as they are pleasing” because he knew how fickle a populace could be. He wrote that he could readily imagine “the reverse of the scene, which may be the case after all my labors. …” Washington believed he could be entrusted with power because he was not under his own authority but God’s. Americans knew that he expressed his trust in God and had not violated the trust of his wife, so they trusted him with power. But he worshipped neither the power nor the popularity, and so was willing to lose both if need be.
Washington’s personal life shaped the Constitution, and Washington began shaping the presidency even as he was sworn in. He added to the presidential oath of office words that were not part of it: “So help me God.” Every president since then has done the same. But not every president has spent a third of his inaugural address in a discussion of God’s Providence, and in “fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe.” And few presidents have had the presence of Washington, who possessed, in the words of one observer, Benjamin Latrobe, “something uncommonly commanding and majestic in his walk, his address, his figure, and his countenance.”
Yet Washington, as his term of office began, was far from an almighty president. The government struggled to come together in New York, a city in 1790 that boasted 33,000 inhabitants without a sound water supply or sanitation, and with little in the way of paved roads or police. Paths in Manhattan meandered and so did Congress; jealousies and fears among politicians entering Congress from north and south were great, and it often seemed that only confidence in Washington held things together. So much was his leadership prized, and so much was it understood that the safety of the young republic depended upon the self-restraint of those in power, that political leaders of all stripes were panicked when the president early in his first term was taken ill with pneumonia and seemed to be dying. Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend, “You cannot conceive of the public alarm on this occasion. It proves how much depends on his life.”
The constant flattery of Washington was enough to turn almost anyone’s head. The New Hampshire Recorder in 1790 offered this somewhat heretical ode:
Behold the matchless Washington
His glory hath eclips’d the sun;
The lustre of his rays so bright,
’Tis always day, there’s no more night.
The greatest sage upon the globe,
Well may he wear the imperial robe. …
And when he drops this earthly crown.
He’s one in Heaven’s high renown;
He’s deify’d, exalt him high,
He’s next unto the Trinity.
My language fails to tell his worth’
Unless in Heav’n he is the fourth.
At the height of such adulation Washington began attending Sabbath worship services regularly. He missed only one during the first twelve weeks of 1790, and on that day the weather was terrible. Washington was showing Americans who worshipped him a better object of worship.
The most vital domestic issue in Washington’s first term concerned the extent of federal power. Debate on the religious freedom segment of the First Amendment was typical. James Madison proposed sweeping wording: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship. …” But congressmen wanted assurance that state and local support of religion, and public displays of belief, would not be banned. Washington argued that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” and he did not want anyone to use the Constitution to cut into those supports. The amendment’s eventual wording was specific: “Congress shall make no law. …” Communities, states, and citizens were able to continue to encourage religious expression.
Avoiding foreign entanglements
With domestic basics settled, foreign policy issues became key. Secretary of State Jefferson and many others wanted to bring the United States into an alliance with revolutionary France. The alliance seemed natural. Both countries had done away with their kings—the French by cutting off Louis XVI’s head—and become republics. Both countries had a free and rambunctious press. (Many French journalists, not making a distinction between liberty and license, had quickly turned to the production of pornography.) France had come to the aid of the United States after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, and only the French navy made Yorktown possible. Many Americans wanted to say immediately, “Lafayette, we are here.”
Washington disagreed, because he understood quickly that the French Revolution as it developed was far different from the American. (When the French left seized power in the early 1790s, Lafayette barely escaped with his life). Washington refused to tie the United States to a France falling into “the highest paroxysm of disorder.” He accurately predicted “a crisis of sad confusion,” with French political leaders “ready to tear each other to pieces.” To keep the United States out of the war between England and France that broke out in 1793, he issued a Neutrality Proclamation that encouraged Americans to trade with both sides but ally themselves with neither.
Washington also emphasized military defense. In his annual address to Congress for 1793, he stressed that “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it.” Washington’s supporters in Congress beat back attempts to scuttle plans for an American navy. Congress appropriated funds for eight frigates, and Washington’s officials saw that the money was spent quickly and efficiently. “If we desire to secure peace,” Washington insisted, “it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.” He also emphasized the need for an army college to ensure the United States “an adequate stock of military knowledge.”
Washington’s willingness to make war infuriated those who thought it bliss to be alive in the days of a French Revolution that could do no wrong. Suddenly, parts of the populace turned on Washington. Thomas Paine called him “the patron of fraud” and “a hypocrite,” and then moved on to adjectives like “treacherous.” Benjamin Franklin Bache, Franklin’s grandson, called Washington “the source of all the misfortunes of our country.” The New York Journal made up charges that Washington was a man of “gambling, reveling, horseracing and horse whipping.” Had Washington’s enemies found any evidence of presidential sexual relations outside marriage, they might have howled him out of office, and America’s future would have been far different—but there was none. Nevertheless, as attacks rained on what had been his presidential parade, Washington yearned to retire. “I would rather be in my grave than in this place,” he once declared. “I would rather live out my days on the farm than be emperor of the world.”
Meanwhile, Washington’s thoughts about farming inevitably brought him back to the question of slavery. In 1793, Washington wrote to a British agricultural reformer that he would like to free his slaves and rent out most of Mount Vernon to skilled English tenant farmers, who would then hire the ex-slaves. That tenant plan had the advantage also of not leaving his ex-slaves “set adrift” and possibly starving, but Washington never carried through on it. A Polish visitor in 1798 observed that “Washington treats his slaves far more humanely than do his fellow citizens of Virginia.” Finally, Washington wrote a will by which all of the slaves he owned (Martha owned some personally) would be freed following his death.
After Washington left the presidency in 1797, he was able to ride through his plantation daily and express satisfaction with the opportunity to be “again seated under my Vine and Fig tree.” However, correspondence with political friends showed an uneasiness about the direction of the country and some personal yearning as well. Thomas Jefferson had become openly critical of Washington for refusing to embrace French ideals and supposedly supporting “monarchical and aristocratic” ways. In a denunciation that was printed in newspapers across the country and popularly assumed to refer to Washington, Jefferson attacked “apostates who have gone over to these [federalist] heresies, men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot of England.” Washington probably could have injured severely Jefferson’s presidential hopes by striking back publicly, but he held his fire.
Washington did try to renew contact with Sally Fairfax, recipient of his love letter four decades earlier. She and her husband had moved to England just before the Revolution, but in 1798 Washington wrote to Mrs. Fairfax and asked that she return to Virginia. He noted that over the years since her leaving “so many important events have occurred and such changes in man and things have taken place.” Yet, “none of which events however nor 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.” Mrs. Fairfax preserved Mr. Washington’s letter, but there is no record of a reply. She never did return. And Washington, despite some unrequited longing, never broke from a conclusion he had reached from comparing his life with that of some unmarried associates: “domestic felicity” was superior to “giddy rounds of promiscuous pleasure.”
Publicly, Washington continued to emphasize the thoughts of his farewell address in 1796: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” The fear of the Lord is the beginning of sound public policy, he declared: “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice?” Political works without faith were dead, Washington insisted, for there was no evidence “that morality can be maintained without religion.”
In December 1799 the sixty-seven-year-old Washington suddenly came down with what was probably either diphtheria or a virulent streptococcus infection. Doctors who followed the practice of the time—removing half a pint of blood from Washington, and then repeating the operation four times—merely weakened him. Given the state of medical knowledge then, none of the other likely treatments of that era would have worked either. With hand-wringing physicians surrounding him, and Martha sitting near the foot of his bed, Washington kept attempting to shift his body into a position that would allow him to breathe less painfully. His secretary, Tobias Lear, repeatedly helped to turn him, and Washington repeatedly said that he hoped he was not being too much trouble. Lear replied that he was eager to help, and Washington murmured, “Well, it is a debt we must pay to each other, and I hope when you want aid of this kind, you will get it.”
Washington then tried a sitting position, as the doctors applied poultices of wheat bran to his legs. “I die hard, but I am not afraid to go,” Washington said. “My breath cannot last long.” He told the doctors, “I feel myself going. I thank you for your attention. You had better not take any more trouble about me. …” Then a fear struck him: he had read several newspaper reports of men thought to be dead who were buried while still alive. Washington, gasping after each phrase, told Lear, “I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after am I dead. Do you understand me?” When Lear said, “Yes, sir,” Washington gave his last words: “’Tis well.”
Soon, a printed cotton kerchief sold in shops presented a deathbed scene and described Washington as having died “like a Christian and a Hero, calm and collected, without a groan and without a sigh.” The kerchief writer listed Washington’s “VIRTUES … Self command and Self denial, moderate in Prosperity, undaunted amid Danger, unbroken by adversity. … unperverted by great and general applause.” Samuel Adams made a prediction concerning Washington’s relationship to future presidents: “Perhaps the next and the next may inherit his Virtues, [but] the Time will come” when the worst takes over.
That time was long in coming because Washington remained the country’s gold standard for over a century, and Americans expected their presidents to be sober, upright, and proper both in their private and public dealings. Washington had been able to control his impulses and to show that he saw himself as under God’s control; Americans came to demand at least that appearance in their leaders. Much is masked concerning Washington’s interior. It seems that he acted in such a virtuous way primarily because he loved God, but his characteristic self-restraint in expression leaves an opening for those who say he primarily loved his reputation. Whatever the reason, the public result was magnificent: George Washington was not only the father of our country but also the father of high expectations concerning the presidency, expectations that each of his successors for many years tried to meet.;