It is too bad that the most familiar image of George Washington is that on the dollar bill. It shows a man in his mid-sixties, rapidly aging in the presidency, seeming to hold himself together with an effort. His lips are a bit prim, his glance more than a bit sly. There is a prissiness almost flirtatious under his wig—though Washington, unlike other founders like Adams and Jefferson, never wore a wig. The Gilbert Stuart painting from which the engraver worked shows powdered hair—drifts of brushed powder are visible on Washington’s shoulders in some of the Stuart versions.
The dollar-bill Washington is very different from the one we glimpse repeatedly in David Hackett Fischer’s stunning recent book, Washington’s Crossing.1 Here, for instance, is Washington newly arrived in the North to take over fractious and feuding state militias at the beginning of the Revolution. Informed that a full-scale riot had broken out between surly seamen from Marblehead in Massachusetts and prickly Virginia riflemen, Washington rode at once to the scene, alone but for his attendant slave William Lee. Lee was a tall athletic man, almost as good a horseman as Washington, who had often ridden to hounds with him before the war. He would stay by his side in battles:
Washington acted quickly. A soldier from Massachusetts named Israel Trask watched him go about it. As the fighting spread through the camp, Washington appeared with his “colored servant, both on horseback.” Together the general and William Lee rode straight into the middle of the riot. Trask watched Washington with awe as “with the spring of a deer he leaped from his saddle, threw the reins of his bridle into the hands of his servant, and rushed into the thickest of the melee, with an iron grip seized two tall, brawny, athletic, savage-looking riflemen by the throat, keeping them at arm’s length, alternately shaking and talking to them.”
Talking was probably not the right word. The rioters stopped fighting, turned in amazement to watch Washington in action, then fled at “the top of their speed in all directions.” The trouble ended without courts, irons, or whips that were more terrible than death to a proud backsettler. In a few moments George Washington and William Lee had restored order in the army. Trask remarked that “hostile feelings between two of its best regiments” were “extinguished by one man.”
The militiamen had not known what kind of person would be leading them. They unexpectedly met John Wayne.
Or take this scene in the dark of Christmas morning in 1776. Washington’s men have wrestled horse and cannon by night over a Delaware River clogged with ice floes. They have miles still to march before reaching their target, Trenton. Sleet and rain obscure the way. Two men fall wearily and freeze to death. The horses are not roughshod for ice. The artillery guns slide down one side of ravines and are laboriously hauled up the other:
George Washington rode up and down the column urging his men forward. Suddenly the general’s horse slipped and started to fall on a steep and icy slope. “While passing a Slanting Slippery bank,” Lieutenant Bostwick remembered, “his excellency’s horse[‘s] hind feet both slip’d from under him.” The animal began to go down. Elisha Bostwick watched in fascination as Washington locked his fingers in the animal’s mane and hauled up its heavy head by brute force. He shifted its balance backward just enough to allow the horse to regain its hind footing on the treacherous road. Bostwick wrote that the general “seiz’d his horses Mane and the Horse recovered.” It was an extraordinary feat of strength, skill, and timing; and another reason why his soldiers stood in awe of this man.
Jefferson called Washington the best horseman he had ever seen. He rode to hounds twice a week before the war, and a witness said he “would rush, at full speed, through brake or tangled wood, in a style at which modern huntsmen would stand aghast.” He liked to take chances.
After Washington’s troops seized Trenton, they moved on to Princeton. On the road, the Pennsylvania Associators, a militia, ran into a hail of grapeshot. At first they faltered and broke, then began to form again:
In that critical moment Washington arrived on the field and took control of the battle. He rode among Cadwalader’s Associators and shouted, “Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly.” Washington led his men straight into the center of the battle, within thirty paces of the British line. He was mounted on a white horse, an easy mark for any British soldier, and yet none shot him.
The American troops were deeply moved by his courage. A young Philadelphia naval officer wrote afterward, “O, my Susan! It was a glorious day, and I would not have been absent from it for all the money I ever expect to be worth.” Most of all, he remembered Washington’s example. “I shall never forget what I felt at Princeton on his account, when I saw him brave all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging as it were by a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him. Believe me, I thought not of myself.”
Though Fischer’s book breaks off after the Princeton battle, we are given later glimpses of Washington in action by Joseph J. Ellis, in his wonderful new book, His Excellency. For the last battle, at Yorktown, siege trenches had to be dug:
While [they are] digging away in the mud, a stranger appears alongside [Sergeant] Martin’s squad in the trench and urges the troops to work quietly because British sentries were nearby, and if [they were] discovered and captured to avoid divulging valuable information. Martin thinks this is well-intentioned but useless advice, since, as he later puts it, “we knew as well as he did that Sappers and Miners were allowed no quarter,” meaning that they would be shot if discovered. Then a group of officers crawl into the trench and Martin hears them address the stranger as “His Excellency.” This prompts Martin to wonder why the commander in chief is so needlessly and casually exposing himself to danger. Washington apparently never gives the matter any thought. The next night he joins the squad again, this time carrying a pickaxe.
Time after time Washington risked his life, reckless as he had been at the hunt, despite the efforts of his staff to check him. Bullets flew about him and horses were shot from under him, not only in the Revolutionary War but in the French and Indian War. Since he also walked unharmed through units dying of smallpox (to which he was immune from a slight early exposure), a superstitious awe grew up around him, as if he could not be killed.
It would be interesting to know what Washington himself felt about his amazing luck in war. And perhaps we can know, now, with the combined help of Fred Anderson, the distinguished historian of the French and Indian War, and Joseph Ellis. The only autobiographical fragment Washington ever wrote was a four-thousand- word set of corrections and additions to an account of that war meant to be part of a biography of him by his secretary, David Humphreys. Anderson contributes an important essay to a facsimile edition of the fragment George Washington Remembers. He notices that Washington began his notes on the Humphreys manuscript with brief corrections or additions, but as he goes on he remembers more, and at more length, about four episodes in the war, each of them a situation in which he was almost killed.
He originally wrote three such accounts, then—as if seeing the pattern in what he was doing—went back and added in the margins a fourth one. In the first instance, a third of his men were killed and he had run out of usable ammunition. In the second, “he also had one horse killed, and two wounded under him—A ball through his hat—and several through his clothes, but escaped unhurt.” In the third, he “escaped almost certain destruction.” In the fourth, he “never was in more imminent danger by being between two fires, knocking up with his sword the presented pieces.” Anderson finds a great significance in the date of these unusually open comments from Washington. They were written in 1787 or 1788, when Washington’s friends were agitating for a stronger union and hoping that he would lead it. Washington, Anderson suspects, was reflecting that Providence had preserved him for some task still to be performed, after he thought his work had been completed in leading the Revolutionary army.
This point becomes more complex if we remember that Washington was, at this point, fifty-five or fifty-six years old. Ellis notes that almost all the men in Washington’s family died before the age of fifty, a fact that Washington brooded on when he said that he came from a short-lived line. Anderson thinks Washington was telling himself that he, like Napoleon, had a star of destiny. Ellis would suggest that he was persuading himself that he need not, as he had thought to this point, consider his life as over. Ellis also notes that Washington had, in his youth and prime, relied greatly on his extraordinary strength, athletic reflexes, and physique to impress others and to drive himself, so when these began to fade he was tempted to doubt his capacity for large new assignments. It was not false modesty that made him tell others he might not be up to the presidency. The same considerations made him, once in office, increasingly eager to resign it before his powers failed.
Washington’s willingness to take risks led him into rash actions in both the French and Indian War and the early stages of the Revolution. When these errors forced on him a Fabian strategy of attrition and strategic withdrawals, this went against all his instincts, and seemed to earn the galling accusations of dishonor or cowardice that were directed at him. Both Fischer and Ellis are excellent in describing the great effort of will that made Washington check his headlong ways, learn to consult others, and practice restraint on a heroic scale. His first task, he now realized, was to hold together his fraying, underfed, disconsolate army. That is why, unlike most officers on either side of the war, he never left his men when they went into winter quarters. He did not return to Mount Vernon for seven years. If he left his army, there would be none to return to. He was its glue, its ground, its reason for being, a role he could sustain only by denying himself.
Fischer traces the forging of Washington the warrior in great detail. He begins with the setbacks in New York, then builds to a climax in the Trenton-Princeton attacks that saved the army from complete collapse. Fischer is very skilled at making complex actions clear, a gift he displayed on a smaller scale in Paul Revere’s Ride (1994). Here he uses this skill to tell a deeper story of a man’s growth in character under the hardest of circumstances. Washington learned patience with things that had earlier infuriated him—for instance, the irresponsibility of militias. He acquired great skill in the use of war councils—a training that would show up in the way he dealt with his cabinet when he became president. He supported the authority of other officers, and learned the tricks of building morale in his men.
Fischer’s narrative moves swiftly and well, with the help of excellent maps and unusual illustrations, and it is supplemented with complete lists of the troops on either side, charts of matters like casualty rates, and a full appendix on the Washington historiography. But since it is a specialized study of only one period and aspect of Washington’s achievement, it is quite different from Ellis’s book, which follows his successful biog-
raphies of Adams and Jefferson.2 Ellis uses the same technique here that he did in those—less a straight narrative than a jumping from high point to high point, with lengthy reflections on each of the key moments. The reflections are sensible and innovative but highly repetitive. That mattered less in Founding Brothers (2000), which was entirely about key moments, not restricted to one person’s life. Here it will hamper those who like to reread a good book. Going through all its elegant variations the first time around seems already like rereading it.
Yet Ellis’s is not simply a good retelling of an old story. He brings new insights. One has already been mentioned, Washington’s fear that he did not have a long life to live. Another is the way Washington’s financial concerns led him to support American independence. Washington’s appetite for land is well known, as is the steely management of his holdings. He was a shrewd, even sharp, businessman. Ellis emphasizes his bitterness toward the British commercial agents he felt were cheating him, and his anger at the British government for trying to preserve the western lands exclusively for British veterans of the French and Indian War.
Independence always had a financial aspect for Washington. He resented his own dependence on the tobacco crop, with its attendant evils (soil depletion, fluctuating markets, and the agent system). He was, therefore, one of the first Tidewater plantation owners to diversify not only his crops but his other sources of income. Ellis shows how long he had planned to support himself from rentals of his western lands, but he underestimates the profits he would draw in time from his extensive fisheries (a matter treated in a recent Mount Vernon conference on Washington and the Potomac). As president, he supported Hamilton’s fiscal program out of his conviction that independence meant financial independence, for the nation as well as for his own holdings. For him, “credit” was both a financial and a moral term, both aspects of it interchangeable with “reputation” and “character.”
Ellis draws an instructive parallel between the Fabian tactics that were forced on him in the war and his recognition that he had to conduct a Fabian presidency. Henry Wiencek, in a good recent book on Washington’s growing moral repugnance toward slavery, thinks he should have freed his slaves while he was president.3 Ellis properly notes that this act, by arousing the fears and resentments of the South, would have undermined Washington’s first duty, to solidify the new and shaky national government. In the same way, he had to abandon a favorite project to create Native American “homelands” because it would require an extension of federal authority that would be violently resented.
The Jay Treaty, concluded with the British in 1794, is a good example of the incremental steps Washington felt compelled to take. Since the treaty recognized British commercial supremacy, Jefferson and others felt it was an attempt to undo the separation from the British monarch that the Revolution had effected. Washington knew that it secured three things immediately necessary—the avoidance of war when the young republic was still forming its ethos, the clearing of British forts from the west, and a lucrative trade for American merchants—giving the country the financial credit that was necessary to real independence. This would provide the basis for later attacks on British trade restrictions. “No treaty…so unpopular in its own day,” Ellis writes, “proved so beneficial over the stretch of time…. It was his most besieged and finest hour.”
Jefferson and others also attacked his Neutrality Act. But this avoided the ideological traps that threatened the nation—Hamilton’s Anglophilia and Jefferson’s Francophilia. Intellectuals have been dismissive of Washington because he was not one of them. But Ellis sees, as others like Edmund Morgan have, that Washington was a shrewd judge of men, a clear analyst of what was needed and could be done, and a person who did not let ego get in the way while framing policy:
Whatever minor missteps he had made along the way, his judgment on all the major political and military questions had invariably proved prescient, as if he had known where history was headed; or, perhaps, as if the future had felt compelled to align itself with his choices. He was that rarest of men: a supremely realistic visionary, a prudent prophet…. His genius was his judgment.
Ellis thinks Washington made only one great political mistake, and that did not occur until he had left the presidency. He succumbed for a while to Hamilton’s failed scheme to raise an army for fighting the French during Adams’s administration, “a somewhat sad, near-the-end exception to an impressive list of extraordinarily prescient judgments.”
Ellis is very good on Washington’s attitude toward slavery. While not discounting the moral obligation Washington assumed in freeing his own slaves at Martha’s death, he sees how considerations of financial independence played a great part in this as in all aspects of his life. He could free slaves where Jefferson could not, because he could meet the legal requirement of financial support for the old and sick after manumission. Jefferson was so chronically in debt that he did not really own his slaves by the end of his life—his creditors did. But financial considerations contributed to Washington’s thinking even before he wrote manumissions into his will. When he phased out tobacco production, slavery became “an inefficient labor system for the kind of diversified farming he had begun to practice at Mount Vernon.” He had by the end of his life over three hundred slaves, far more than he could use. Mount Vernon was becoming an old folks’ home for slaves, yet he could not raise money by selling them, because of the first moral stand he took.
He limited his options by deciding that he could not break up families when selling any slaves. This reduced at once the number that could be sold, since many of his slaves were married to the dower slaves brought him by marriage to Martha Custis, which could not be sold along with his since they were entailed to the Custis heirs. Others were married to neighboring slaves. Besides, buyers were more often interested in key personnel—a vigorous man in his prime, a still fertile woman—than in combinations that might have only one of these items, accompanied by less strong or useful members of the family. Once Washington made his initial moral commitment to preserving families, the financial incentive to free slaves that could not be sold helped foster his moral growth.
Washington’s death was marked, Ellis says, by a significant absence. The director of Mount Vernon, James Rees, tells me that members of the religious right complain that not enough is made of Washington’s religion in the displays and literature at his plantation. It is a firm tenet of many evangelicals that Washington was as godly as Jefferson was godless. The first president is their best display that this nation was born “under God.” But Washington never referred to Jesus or to Christ, rarely to God, most often to Providence. It is not surprising, then, that Ellis notes “a missing presence at the deathbed”:
There were no ministers in the room, no prayers uttered, no Christian rituals offering the solace of everlasting life. The inevitable renderings of Washington’s death by nineteenth-century artists often added religious symbols to the scene, frequently depicting his body ascending into heaven surrounded by a chorus of angels. The historical evidence suggests that Washington did not think much about heaven or angels; the only place he knew his body was going was into the ground, and as for his soul, its ultimate location was unknowable. He died as a Roman stoic rather than a Christian saint.
March 10, 2005
Oxford University Press, 2004; see the review by Edmund Morgan, The New York Review, May 27, 2004. ↩
Passionate Sage: John Adams and America’s Original Intentions (Norton, 1993) and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Knopf, 1997). ↩
Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), pp. 272–274. Since Wiencek underestimates the force of public opinion against manumission, he exaggerates the role of Martha Washington in opposing it. Martha is the villain of his book. ↩