The Wise Warrior

George Washington
George Washington; drawing by David Levine

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…

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