George Washington : The American Revolution – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XI : American Founders by John Lord
Preliminary Chapter : The American Idea
Benjamin Franklin : Diplomacy
George Washington : The American Revolution
Alexander Hamilton : American Constitution
John Adams : Constructive Statesmanship
Thomas Jefferson : Popular Sovereignty
John Marshall : The United States Supreme Court
John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XI : American Founders
Washington’s origin and family
His early life
Friendship with Lord Fairfax
Washington as surveyor
Aide to General Braddock
Member of the House of Burgesses
Marriage, and life at Mount Vernon
Member of the Continental Congress
General-in-chief of the American armies
His peculiarities as general
Organization of the army
Defence of Boston
British evacuation of Boston
Washington in New York
Retreat from New York
In New Jersey
Forlorn condition of the army
Arrival at the Delaware
The battle of Trenton
Intrenchment at Morristown
Expulsion of the British from New Jersey
The gloomy winter of 1777
Washington defends Philadelphia
Battle of Germantown
Surrender of Burgoyne
Intrigues of Gates
Winter at Valley Forge
British evacuation of Philadelphia
Battle of Monmouth
Washington at White Plains
Military operations at the South
His surrender at Yorktown
Close of the war
Washington at Mount Vernon
Washington as president
Establishment of United States Bank
Rivalries and dissensions between Hamilton and Jefferson
Retirement of Washington
Death, character, and services
George Washington : The American Revolution
One might shrink from writing on such a subject as General Washington were it not desirable to keep his memory and deeds perpetually fresh in the minds of the people of this great country, of which he is called the Father,–doubtless the most august name in our history, and one of the grandest in the history of the world.
Washington was not, like Franklin, of humble origin; neither can he strictly be classed with those aristocrats who inherited vast landed estates in Virginia during the eighteenth century, and who were ambitious of keeping up the style of living common to wealthy country gentlemen in England at that time. And yet the biographers of Washington trace his family to the knights and squires who held manors by grant of kings and nobles of England, centuries ago. About the middle of the seventeenth century John and Lawrence Washington, two brothers, of a younger branch of the family, both Cavaliers who had adhered to the fortunes of Charles I., emigrated to Virginia, and purchased extensive estates in Westmoreland County, between the Potomac and the Rappahannock rivers. The grandson of one of these brothers was the father of our hero, and was the owner of a moderate plantation on Bridges Creek, from which he removed, shortly after the birth of his son, George, in 1732, to an estate in Stafford County, opposite Fredericksburg.
It was here that the early years of Washington were passed, in sports and pleasures peculiar to the sons of planters. His education was not entirely neglected, but beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic, his youthful attainments were small. In general knowledge he was far behind the sons of wealthy farmers in New England at that time,–certainly far behind Franklin when a mere apprentice to a printer. But he wrote a fair, neat, legible hand, and kept accounts with accuracy. His half-brother Lawrence had married a relative of Lord Fairfax, who had settled in Virginia on the restoration of Charles II. Lawrence was also the owner of the estate of Mount Vernon, on the Potomac,–the wealthiest member of his family, and a prominent member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Through this fortunate brother, George became intimate with the best families in Virginia. His associates were gentlemen of position, with whom he hunted and feasted, and with whose sisters he danced, it is said, with uncommon grace.
In person, young Washington was tall,–over six feet and two inches,–his manners easy and dignified, his countenance urbane and intelligent, his health perfect, his habits temperate, his morals irreproachable, and his sentiments lofty. He was a model in all athletic exercises and all manly sports,–strong, muscular, and inured to exposure and fatigue. He was quick and impetuous in temper, a tendency which he early learned to control. He was sullied with none of the vices then so common with the sons of planters, and his character extorted admiration and esteem.
Such a young man of course became a favorite in society. His most marked peculiarities were good sense and the faculty of seeing things as they are without exaggeration. He was truthful, practical, straight-forward, and conscientious, with an uncommon insight into men, and a power of inspiring confidence. I do not read that he was brilliant in conversation, although he had a keen relish for the charms of society, or that he was in any sense learned or original. He had not the qualities to shine as an orator, or a lawyer, or a literary man; neither in any of the learned professions would he have sunk below mediocrity, being industrious, clear-headed, sagacious, and able to avail himself of the labors and merits of others. As his letters show, he became a thoroughly well-informed man. In surveying, farming, stock-raising, and military matters he read the best authorities, often sending to London for them. He steadily fitted himself for his life as a country gentleman of Virginia, and doubtless aspired to sit in the House of Burgesses. He never claimed to be a genius, and was always modest and unassuming, with all his self-respect and natural dignity.
In the middle of the eighteenth century the cultivation of tobacco, to which the wealth and enterprise of Virginia were directed, was not as lucrative as it had been, and among the planters, aristocratic as they were in sentiments and habits, there were many who found it difficult to make two ends meet, and some, however disdainful of manual labor, were compelled to be as economical and saving as New England farmers. Their sons found it necessary to enter the learned professions or become men of business, since they could not all own plantations. Washington, whose family was neither rich nor poor, prepared himself for the work of a surveyor, for which he was admirably fitted, by his hardihood, enterprise, and industry.
Lord Fairfax, who had become greatly interested in the youth and had made him a frequent companion, giving him the inestimable advantage of familiar intercourse with a thoroughbred gentleman of varied accomplishments, in 1748 sent this sixteen-year-old lad to survey his vast estates in the unexplored lands at the base of the Alleghany Mountains. During this rough expedition young Washington was exposed to the hostilities of unfriendly Indians and the fatigues and hardships of the primeval wilderness; but his work was thoroughly and accurately performed, and his courage, boldness, and fidelity attracted the notice of men of influence and rank. Through the influence of his friend Lord Fairfax he was appointed a public surveyor, and for three years he steadfastly pursued this laborious profession.
A voyage to Barbadoes in 1751 cultivated his habits of clear observation, and in 1752 his brother’s death imposed on him the responsibility of the estates and the daughter left to his care by his brother Lawrence.
Young Washington had already, through the influence of his brother, been appointed major and adjutant-general of one of the military districts of Virginia. The depredations of the French and Indians on the border had grown into dangerous aggression, and in 1753 Major Washington was sent as a commissioner through the wilderness to the French headquarters in Ohio, to remonstrate. His admirable conduct on this occasion resulted in his appointment as lieutenant-colonel of the Virginia regiment of six companies sent to the Ohio frontier; and in this campaign Washington gained new laurels, surprising and defeating the French. His native and acquired powers and his varied experience in Indian warfare now marked him out as a suitable aide to the British General Braddock, who, early in 1755, arrived with two regiments of English soldiers to operate against the French and Indians. This was the beginning of the memorable Seven Years’ War.
Washington was now a young man of twenty-three, full of manly vigor and the spirit of adventure, brave as a lion,–a natural fighter, but prudent and far-seeing. He fortunately and almost alone escaped being wounded in the disastrous campaign which the British general lost through his own obstinacy and self-confidence, by taking no advice from those used to Indian warfare. Braddock insisted upon fighting foes concealed behind trees, as if he were in the open field. After the English general’s inglorious defeat and death, Washington continued in active service as commander of the Virginia forces for two years, until toil, exposure, and hardship produced an illness which compelled him to withdraw for several months from active service. When at the close of the war he returned to private life, Colonel Washington had won a name as the most efficient commander in the whole conflict, displaying marvellous resources in the constant perils to which he was exposed. Among his exploits was the capture of Port Duquesne, now Pittsburgh, in 1758, which terminated the French domination of the Ohio, and opened up Western Pennsylvania to enterprising immigrants. For his rare services this young man of twenty-six received the thanks of the House of Burgesses, of which he had been elected a member at the close of the war. When he entered that body to take his place, the welcome extended to him was so overwhelming that he stood silent and abashed. But the venerable Speaker of the House exclaimed, “Sit down, Mr. Washington; your modesty equals your valor, and that surpasses the power of any language I possess.”
Meanwhile, Mount Vernon, a domain which extended ten miles along the Potomac River, fell into Washington’s possession by the death of his brother Lawrence’s daughter, which made him one of the richest planters in Virginia. And his fortunes were still further advanced by his marriage in 1759 with the richest woman in the region, Martha, the widow of Daniel Parke Custis. This lady esteemed his character as much as Kadijah revered Mohammed, to say nothing of her admiration for his manly beauty and military renown. His style of life as the lord of Mount Vernon was almost baronial. He had a chariot and four, with black postilions in livery, for the use of his wife, while he himself always appeared on horseback, the finest rider in Virginia. His house was filled with aristocratic visitors. He had his stud of the highest breed, his fox hounds, and all the luxuries of a prosperous country gentleman. His kitchens, his smoke-houses, his stables, his stewards, his tobacco-sheds, his fields of wheat and corn, his hundred cows, his vast poultry-yards, his barges, all indicated great wealth, and that generous hospitality which is now a tradition. His time was passed in overseeing his large estate, and in out-of-door sports, following the hounds or fishing, exchanging visits with prominent Virginia families, amusing himself with card-playing, dancing, and the social frivolities of the day. But he neglected no serious affairs; his farm, his stock, the sale of his produce, were all admirably conducted and on a plane of widely recognized honor and integrity. He took great interest in the State at large, explored on foot the Dismal Swamp and projected its draining, made several expeditions up the Potomac and over the mountains, laying out routes for new roads to the Ohio country, gained much influence in the House of Burgesses, and was among the foremost in discussing privately and publicly the relations of the Colonies with the Mother Country.
Thus nine years were passed, in luxury, in friendship, and in the pleasures of a happy, useful life. What a contrast this life was to that of Samuel Adams in Boston at the same time,–a man too poor to keep a single servant, or to appear in a decent suit of clothes, yet all the while the leader of the Massachusetts bar and legislature and the most brilliant orator in the land!
When the Stamp Act was passed by the infatuated Parliament of Great Britain, Washington was probably the richest man in the country, but as patriotic as Patrick Henry. He deprecated a resort to arms, and desired a reconciliation with England, but was ready to abandon his luxurious life, and buckle on his sword in defence of American liberties. As a member of the first general Congress, although no orator, his voice was heard in favor of freedom at any loss or hazard. He was chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, and did much to organize the defensive operations set on foot. When the battle of Lexington was fought, and it became clear that only the sword could settle the difficulties, Washington, at the nomination of John Adams in the Second Congress, was unanimously chosen commander-in-chief of the American armies. With frank acknowledgment of a doubt whether his abilities and experience were equal to the great trust, and yet without reluctance, he accepted the high and responsible command, pledging the exertion of all his powers, under Providence, to lead the country through its trials and difficulties. He declined all pay for his services, asking only that Congress would discharge his expenses, of which he would “keep an exact account.” And this he did, to the penny.
Doubtless, no man in the Colonies was better fitted for this exalted post. His wealth, his military experience, his social position, his political influence, and his stainless character, exciting veneration without envy, marked out Washington as the leader of the American forces. On the whole, he was the foremost man in all the land for the work to be done. In his youth he had been dashing, adventurous, and courageous almost to rashness; but when the vast responsibilities of general-in-chief in a life-and-death struggle weighed upon his mind his character seemed to be modified, and he became cautious, reticent, prudent, distant, and exceedingly dignified. He allowed no familiarity from the most beloved of his friends and the most faithful of his generals. He stood out apart from men, cold and reserved in manner, though capable of the warmest affections. He seemed conscious of his mission and its obligations, resolved to act from the severest sense of duty, fearless of praise or blame, though not indifferent to either. He had no jealousy of his subordinates. He selected, so far as he was allowed by Congress, the best men for their particular duties, and with almost unerring instinct. So far as he had confidants, they were Greene, the ablest of his generals, and Hamilton, the wisest of his counsellors,–ostensibly his aide-de-camp, but in reality his private secretary, the officer to whom all great men in high position are obliged to confide their political secrets.
Washington was “the embodiment of both virtue and power” in the eyes of his countrymen, who gave him their confidence, and never took it back in the darkest days of their calamities. On the whole, in spite of calumny and envy, no benefactor was ever more fully trusted,–supremely fortunate even amid gloom and public duties. This confidence he strove to merit, as his highest reward.
Such was Washington when, at the age of forty-three, he arrived at Cambridge in Massachusetts, to take command of the American army, a few days after the battle of Bunker Hill, on the 17th June, 1775.
Although the English had been final victors at Bunker Hill, the American militia, behind their intrenchments, under Prescott, had repulsed twice their number of the best soldiers of Europe, and retired at last only for want of ammunition. Washington was far from being discouraged by the defeat. His question and comment show his feeling: “Did the militia fight? Then the liberties of the country are safe.” It was his first aim to expel the enemy from Boston, where they were practically surrounded by the hastily collected militia of New England, full of enthusiasm and confidence in the triumph of their cause. But these forces had been injudiciously placed; they were not properly intrenched; they were imperfectly supplied with arms, ammunition, military stores, uniforms, and everything necessary for an army. There was no commissary department, nor was any department provided with adequate resources. The soldiers were inexperienced, raw sons of farmers and mechanics, led by officers who knew but little of scientific warfare, and numbered less than fifteen thousand effective men. They were undisciplined and full of sectional jealousies, electing, for the most part, their own officers, who were too dependent upon their favor to enforce discipline.
Washington’s first task, therefore, was to bring order out of confusion; to change the disposition of the forces; to have their positions adequately fortified; to effect military discipline, and subordination of men to their officers; to cultivate a large and general patriotism, which should override all distinctions between the Colonies. This work went on rapidly; but the lack of supplies became distressing. At the close of July the men had but nine rounds of ammunition each, and more was nowhere to be procured. It was necessary to send messengers into almost every town to beg for powder, and there were few mills in the country to manufacture it.
As the winter approached a new trouble appeared. The brief enlistment terms of many of the men were expiring, and, wearied and discouraged, without proper food or clothing, these men withdrew from the army, and the regiments rapidly decreased in numbers. Recruiting and re-enlisting in the face of such conditions became almost impossible; yet Washington’s steady persistence, his letters to Congress, his masterly hold on the siege of the British in Boston, his appeals for men and ammunition, were actually successful. His army was kept up by new and renewed material. Privateers, sent out by him upon the sea, secured valuable supplies. Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller, whom he had made colonel of artillery and despatched to New York and Ticonderoga, returned to the camps with heavy cannon and ammunition.
The right wing of the American army was stationed at Roxbury, under General Artemas Ward, and the left wing, under Major-General Charles Lee and Brigadier-Generals Greene and Sullivan, at Prospect Hill. The headquarters of Washington were in the centre, at Cambridge, with Generals Putnam and Heath. Lee was not allied with the great Virginia family of that name. He was an Englishman by birth, somewhat of a military adventurer. Conceited, vain, and disobedient, he afterwards came near wrecking the cause which he had ambitiously embraced. Ward was a native of Massachusetts, a worthy man, but not distinguished for military capacity. Putnam was a gallant hero, taken from the plough, but more fitted to head small expeditions than for patient labor in siege operations, or for commanding a great body of troops.
Meanwhile the British troops, some fifteen thousand veterans, had remained inactive in Boston, under Sir William Howe, who had succeeded Gage, unwilling or unable to disperse the militia who surrounded them, or to prevent the fortification of point after point about the city by the Americans. It became difficult to get provisions. The land side was cut off by the American forces, and the supply-ships from the sea were often wrecked or captured by Washington’s privateers. At length the British began to think of evacuating Boston and going to a more important point, since they had ships and the control of the harbor. No progress had been made thus far in the conquest of New England, for it was thought unwise to penetrate into the interior with the forces at command, against the army of Washington with a devoted population to furnish him provisions. Howe could undoubtedly have held the New England capital, but it was not a great strategic point. What was it to occupy a city at the extreme end of the continent, when the British government expected to hear that the whole country was overrun? At last Washington felt strong enough to use his eight months’ preparations for a sudden blow. He seized the heights commanding the city and his intention became evident. The active movements of the Americans towards an attack precipitated Howe’s half-formed plan for evacuating the city, and in a single day he and his army sailed away, on March 17, 1776.
Washington made no effort to prevent the embarkation of the British troops, since it freed New England, not again to be the theatre of military operations during the war. It was something to deliver the most populous part of the country from English domination and drive a superior army out of Massachusetts. The wonder is that the disciplined troops under the British generals, with guns and ammunition and ships, should not have dispersed in a few weeks the foes they affected to despise. But Washington had fought the long battle of patience and sagacity until he was ready to strike. Then by one bold, sudden move he held the enemy at his mercy. Howe was out-generalled, and the American remained master of the field. Washington had accomplished his errand in New England. He received the thanks of the Congress, and with his little army proceeded to New York, where matters urgently demanded attention.
To my mind the most encouraging part of the Revolutionary struggle, until the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga, was that period of eight months when the British were cooped up in Boston, surrounded by the Americans, who had plenty of provisions even if they were deficient in military stores; when the Yankees were stimulated to enthusiasm by every influence which could be brought to bear upon them by their families, at no great distance from the seat of war, and when no great calamity had as yet overtaken them.
But here everything like success for two years disappeared, and a gloomy cloud hung over the land, portentous of disasters and dismay. Evils thickened, entirely unexpected, which brought out what was greatest in the character and genius of Washington; for he now was the mainstay of hope. The first patriotic gush of enthusiasm had passed away. War, under the most favorable circumstances, is no play; but under great difficulties, has a dismal and rugged look before which delusions rapidly disappear. England was preparing new and much larger forces. She was vexed, but not discouraged, having unlimited resources for war,–money, credit, and military experience. She proceeded to hire the services of seventeen thousand Hessian and other German troops. All Europe looked upon the contest as hopeless on the part of a scattered population, without credit, or money, or military stores, or a settled army, or experienced generals, or a central power. Washington saw on every hand dissensions, jealousies, abortive attempts to raise men, a Congress without power and without prestige, State legislatures inefficient and timid, desertions without number and without redress, men returning to their farms either disgusted or feeling that there was no longer a pressing need of their services.
There were, moreover, jealousies among his generals, and suppressed hostility to him, as an aristocrat, a slaveholder, and an Episcopalian.
As soon as Boston was evacuated General Howe sailed for Halifax, to meet his brother, Admiral Howe, with reinforcements for New York. Washington divined his purpose and made all haste. When he reached New York, on the 13th of April, he found even greater difficulties to contend with than had annoyed him in Boston: raw troops, undisciplined and undrilled, a hostile Tory population, conspiracies to take his life, sectional jealousies,–and always a divided Congress, and the want of experienced generals. There was nothing of that inspiring enthusiasm which animated the New England farmers after the battle of Bunker Hill.
Washington held New York, and the British fleet were masters of the Bay. He might have withdrawn his forces in safety, but so important a place could not be abandoned without a struggle. Therefore, although he had but eight thousand effective men, he fortified as well as he could the heights on Manhattan Island, to the north, and on Long Island, to the south and east, and held his place.
Meantime Washington was laboring to strengthen his army, to suppress the mischievous powers of the Tories, to procure the establishment by Congress of a War Office and some permanent army organization, to quiet jealousies among his troops, and to provide for their wants. In June, Sir William Howe arrived in New York harbor and landed forces on Staten Island, his brother the admiral being not far behind. News of disaster from a bold but futile expedition to Canada in the North, and of the coming from the South of Sir Henry Clinton, beaten off from Charleston, made the clouds thicken, when on July 2 the Congress resolved that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States,” and on July 4 adopted the formal Declaration of Independence,–an immense relief to the heart and mind of Washington, and one which he joyfully proclaimed to his army.
Even then, however, and although his forces had been reinforced to fifteen thousand serviceable troops and five thousand of raw militia, there was reason to fear that the British, with their thirty-five thousand men and strong naval force, would surround and capture the whole American array. At last they did outflank the American forces on Long Island, and, pouring in upon them a vastly superior force, defeated them with great slaughter.
While the British waited at night for their ships to come up, Washington with admirable quickness seized the single chance of escape, and under cover of a fog withdrew his nine thousand men from Long Island and landed them in New York once more.
This retreat of Washington, when he was to all appearances in the power of the English generals, was masterly. In two short weeks thereafter the British had sent ships and troops up both the Hudson and East rivers, and New York was no longer tenable to Washington. He made his way up the Harlem River, where he was joined by Putnam, who also had contrived to escape with four thousand men, and strongly intrenched himself at King’s Bridge.
Washington waited a few days at Harlem Plains planning a descent on Long Island, and resolved on making a desperate stand. Meanwhile Howe, in his ships, passed the forts on the Hudson and landed at Throg’s Neck, on the Sound, with a view of attacking the American intrenchments in the rear and cutting them off from New England. A brief delay on Howe’s part enabled Washington to withdraw to a still stronger position on the hills; whereupon Howe retired to Dobbs’ Ferry, unable to entrap with his larger forces the wary Washington, but having now the complete command of the lower Hudson.
There were, however, two strong fortresses on the Hudson which Congress was anxious to retain at any cost, a few miles above New York,–Fort Washington, on Manhattan Island, and Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the river. These forts Howe resolved to capture. The commander-in-chief was in favor of evacuating them, but Greene, who commanded at Fort Washington, thought he was strong enough to defend it. He made a noble defence, but was overwhelmed by vastly superior forces and was compelled to surrender it, with more than two thousand men. And, as Lord Cornwallis with six thousand men then crossed the Hudson, Washington rapidly retreated into New Jersey with a dispirited army, that included the little garrison of Fort Lee which had escaped in safety; and even this small army was fast becoming smaller, from expiring enlistments and other causes. General Lee, with a considerable division at North Castle, N.J., was ordered to rejoin his commander, but, apparently from ambition for independent command, disobeyed the order. From that moment Washington distrusted Lee, who henceforth was his bête noir, who foiled his plans and was jealous of his ascendency. Lee’s obstinacy was punished by his being overtaken and captured by the enemy.
Then followed a most gloomy period. We see Washington, with only the shadow of an army, compelled to retreat southward in New Jersey, hotly pursued by the well-equipped British,–almost a fugitive, like David fleeing from the hand of Saul. He dared not risk an engagement against greatly superior forces in pursuit, triumphant and confident of success, while his followers were half-clad, without shoes, hungry, homesick, and forlorn. So confident was Howe of crushing the only army opposed to him, that he neglected opportunities and made mistakes. At last the remnant of Lee’s troops, commanded by Sullivan and Gates, joined Washington; but even with this reinforcement, giving him barely three thousand men, he could not face the enemy, more than double the number of his inexperienced soldiers. The only thing to do was to put the Delaware between himself and Howe’s army. But it was already winter, and the Delaware was full of ice. Cornwallis, a general of great ability, felt sure that the dispirited men who still adhered to Washington could not possibly escape him; so he lingered in his march,–a fatal confidence, for, when he arrived at the Delaware, Washington was already safely encamped on the opposite bank; nor could he pursue, since all the boats on the river for seventy miles were either destroyed or in the hands of Washington. This successful retreat from the Hudson over the Delaware was another exhibition of high military qualities,–caution, quick perception, and prompt action.
Washington had now the nucleus of an army and could not be dislodged by the enemy, whose force was only about double his own. Howe was apparently satisfied with driving the American forces out of New Jersey, and, retaining his hold at certain points, sent the bulk of his army back to New York.
The aim of Washington was now to expel the British troops from New Jersey. It was almost a forlorn hope, but he never despaired. His condition was not more hopeless than that of William the Silent when he encountered the overwhelming armies of Spain. Always beaten, the heroic Prince of Orange still held out when Holland was completely overrun. But the United States were not overrun. New England was practically safe, although the British held Newport; and all the country south of the Delaware was free from them. The perplexities and discouragements of Washington were great indeed, while he stubbornly held the field with a beggarly makeshift for an army and sturdily continued his appeals to Congress and to the country for men, arms, and clothing; yet only New York City and New Jersey were really in the possession of the enemy. It was one thing for England to occupy a few cities, and quite another to conquer a continent; hence Congress and the leaders of the rebellion never lost hope. So long as there were men left in peaceable possession of their farms from Maine to Georgia, and these men accustomed to fire-arms and resolved on freedom, there was no real cause of despair. The perplexing and discouraging things were that the men preferred the safety and comfort of their homes to the dangers and hardships of the camp, and that there was no money in the treasury to pay the troops, nor credit on which to raise it. Hence desertions, raggedness, discontent, suffering; but not despair,–even in the breast of Washington, who realized the difficulties as none else did. Men would not enlist unless they were paid and fed, clothed and properly armed. Had there been an overwhelming danger they probably would have rallied, as the Dutch did when they opened their dikes, or as the Greeks rallied in their late Revolution, when fortress after fortress fell into the hands of the Turks, and as the American militia did in successive localities threatened by the British,–notably in New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York, when they swarmed about Burgoyne and captured him at Saratoga. But this was by no means the same as enlisting for a long period in a general army.
I mention these things, not to discredit the bravery and patriotism of the Revolutionary soldiers. They made noble sacrifices and they fought gallantly, but they did not rise above local patriotism and sustain the Continental cause. Yet at no time, even when Washington with his small army was flying before Cornwallis across New Jersey, were there grounds of despair. There were discouragements, difficulties, and vexations; and these could be traced chiefly to the want of a strong central government. The government was divided against itself, without money or credit,–in short, a mere advisory board of civilians, half the time opposed to the plans of the commander-in-chief. But when Washington had been driven beyond the Delaware, when Philadelphia, where Congress was sitting, was in danger, then dictatorial powers were virtually conferred on Washington,–“the most unlimited authority” was the phrase used,–and he had scope to act as he saw fit.
Washington was, it is true, at times accused of incompetency, and traitors slandered him, but Congress stood by him and the country had confidence in him; as well it might, since, while he had not gained great victories, and even perhaps had made military mistakes, he had delivered Boston, had rescued the remnant of his army from the clutches of Howe and Cornwallis, and had devoted himself by day and night to labors which should never have been demanded of him, in keeping Congress up to the mark, as well as in his arduous duties in the field,–evincing great prudence, sagacity, watchfulness, and energy. He had proved himself at least to be a Fabius, if he was not a Hannibal. But a Hannibal is not possible without an army, and a steady-handed Fabius was the need of the times. The Caesars of the world are few, and most of them have been unfaithful to their trust, but no one doubted the integrity and patriotism of Washington. Rival generals may have disliked his austere dignity and proud self-consciousness, but the people and the soldiers adored him; and while his general policy was, and had to be, a defensive one, everybody knew that he would fight if he had any hope of success. No one in the army was braver than he, as proved not only by his early warfare against the French and Indians, but also by his whole career after he was selected for the chief command, whenever a fair fighting opportunity was presented, as seen in the following instance.
With his small army on the right bank of the Delaware, toilsomely increased to about four thousand men, he now meditated offensive operations against the unsuspecting British, who had but just chased him out of New Jersey. Accordingly, with unexpected audacity, on Christmas night he recrossed the Delaware, marched nine miles and attacked the British troops posted at Trenton. It was not a formal battle, but a raid, and proved successful. The enemy, amazed, retreated; then with fresh reinforcements they turned upon Washington; he evaded them, and on January 3, 1777, made a fierce attack on their lines at Princeton, attended with the same success, utterly routing the British. These were small victories, but they encouraged the troops, aroused the New Jersey men to enthusiasm, and alarmed Cornwallis, who retreated northward to New Brunswick, to save his military stores. In a few days the English retained only that town, Amboy, and Paulus Hook, in all New Jersey. Thus in three weeks, in the midst of winter, Washington had won two fights, taken two thousand prisoners, and was as strong as he was before he crossed the Hudson,–and the winter of 1777 opened with hope in the Revolutionary ranks.
Washington then intrenched himself at Morristown and watched the forces of the English generals; and for six months nothing of consequence was done by either side. It became evident that Washington could not be conquered except by large reinforcements to the army of Howe. Another campaign was a necessity, to the disgust and humiliation of the British government and the wrath of George III. The Declaration of Independence, thus far, had not proved mere rhetoric.
The expulsion of the British troops from New Jersey by inferior forces was regarded in Europe as a great achievement, and enabled Franklin at Paris to secure substantial but at first secret aid from the French Government. National independence now seemed to be a probability, and perhaps a certainty. It was undoubtedly a great encouragement to the struggling States. The more foresighted of British statesmen saw now the hopelessness of a conflict which had lasted nearly two years, and in which nothing more substantial had been gained by the English generals than the occupation of New York and a few towns on the coast, while the Americans had gained military experience and considerable prestige. The whole civilized world pronounced Washington to be both a hero and a patriot.
But the English government, with singular obstinacy, under the lash of George III., resolved to make renewed efforts, to send to America all the forces which could be raised, at a vast expense, and to plan a campaign which should bring the rebels to obedience. The plan was to send an army by way of Canada to take the fortresses on Lake Champlain, and then to descend the Hudson, and co-operate with Howe in cutting off New England from the rest of the country; in fact, dividing the land in twain,–a plan seemingly feasible. It would be possible to conquer each section, east and south of New York, in detail, with victorious and overwhelming forces. This was the great danger that menaced the States and caused the deepest solicitude.
So soon as the designs of the British government were known, it became the aim and duty of the commander-in-chief to guard against them. The military preparations of Congress were utterly inadequate for the crisis, in spite of the constant and urgent expostulations of Washington. There was, as yet, 110 regular army, and the militia shamefully deserted. There was even a prejudice against a standing army, and the militia of every State were jealous of the militia of other States. Congress passed resolutions, and a large force was created on paper. Popular enthusiasm was passing away in the absence of immediate dangers; so that, despite the glorious success in New Jersey, the winter of 1777 was passed gloomily, and in the spring new perils arose. But for the negligence of General Howe, the well-planned British expedition from the North might have succeeded. It was under the command of an able and experienced veteran, General Burgoyne. There was apparently nothing to prevent the junction of the forces of Howe and Burgoyne but the fortress of West Point, which commanded the Hudson River. To oppose this movement Benedict Arnold–“the bravest of the brave,” as he was called, like Marshal Ney–was selected, assisted by General Schuyler, a high-minded gentleman and patriot, but as a soldier more respectable than able, and Horatio Gates, a soldier of fortune, who was jealous of Washington, and who, like Lee, made great pretensions,–both Englishmen by birth. The spring and summer resulted in many reverses in the North, where Schuyler was unable to cope with Burgoyne; and had Howe promptly co-operated, that campaign would have been a great triumph for the British.
It was the object of Howe to deceive Washington, if possible, and hence he sent a large part of his army on board the fleet at New York, under the command of Cornwallis, as if Boston were his destination. He intended, however, to capture Philadelphia, the seat of the “rebel Congress,” with his main force, while other troops were to co-operate with Burgoyne. Washington, divining the intentions of Howe, with his ragged army crossed the Delaware once more, at the end of July, this time to protect Philadelphia, leaving Arnold and Schuyler to watch Burgoyne, and Putnam to defend the Hudson. When, late in August, Howe landed his forces below Philadelphia, Washington made up his mind to risk a battle, and chose a good position on the heights near the Brandywine; but in the engagement of September 11 was defeated, through the negligence of Sullivan to guard the fords above against the overwhelming forces of Cornwallis, who was in immediate command. Still, he rallied his army with the view of fighting again. The battle of Germantown, October 4, resulted in American defeat and the occupation by the British of Philadelphia,–a place desirable only for comfortable winter quarters. When Franklin heard of it he coolly remarked that the British had not taken Philadelphia, but Philadelphia had taken them, since seventeen thousand veterans were here kept out of the field, when they were needed most on the banks of the Hudson, to join Burgoyne, now on his way to Lake Champlain.
This diversion of the main army of Howe to occupy Philadelphia was the great British blunder of the war. It enabled the Vermont and New Hampshire militia to throw obstacles in the march of Burgoyne, who became entangled in the forests of northern New York, with his flank and rear exposed to the sharpshooters of the enemy, fully alive to the dangers which menaced them. Sluggish as they were, and averse to enlistment, the New England troops always rallied when pressing necessity stared them in the face, and fought with tenacious courage. Although Burgoyne had taken Ticonderoga, on Lake Champlain, as was to be expected, he was, after a most trying campaign, at last surrounded at Saratoga, and on October 17 was compelled to surrender to the militia he despised. It was not the generalship of the American commander which led to this crushing disaster, but the obstacles of nature, utilized by the hardy American volunteers. Gates, who had superseded Schuyler in the command of the Northern department, claimed the chief merit of the capture of the British army, nearly ten thousand strong; but this claim is now generally disputed, and the success of the campaign is ascribed to Arnold, while that of the final fighting and success is given to Arnold together with Morgan and his Virginia riflemen, whom Washington had sent from his own small force.
The moral and political effect of the surrender of Burgoyne was greater than the military result. The independence of the United States was now assured, not only in the minds of American statesmen, but to European intelligence. The French Government then openly came out with its promised aid, and money was more easily raised.
The influence of Washington in securing the capture of Burgoyne was indirect, although the general plan of campaign and the arousing of the Northern militia had been outlined by him to General Schuyler. He had his hands full in watching Howe’s forces at Philadelphia. His defeat at Germantown, the result of accident which he could not prevent, compelled him to retreat to Valley Forge, on the Schuylkill, about nine miles from Philadelphia. There he took up his quarters in the winter of 1777-78. The sufferings of the army in that distressing winter are among the best-known events of the whole war. At Valley Forge the trials of Washington culminated. His army was reduced to three thousand men, incapable of offensive operations, without suitable clothing, food, or shelter.
“As the poor soldiers,” says Fiske, in his brilliant history, “marched on the 17th of December to their winter quarters, the route could be traced on the snow by the blood which oozed from bare, frost-bitten feet. For want of blankets many were fain to sit up all night by fires. Cold and hunger daily added to the sick list, and men died for want of straw to put between them and the frozen ground.”
Gates, instead of marching to the relief of Washington before Philadelphia, as he was ordered, kept his victorious troops idle at Saratoga; and it was only by the extraordinary tact of Alexander Hamilton, the youthful aide, secretary, and counsellor of Washington, who had been sent North for the purpose, that the return of Morgan with his Virginia riflemen was secured. Congress was shaken by the intrigues of Gates, who sought to supplant the commander-in-chief, and who had won to his support both Morgan and Richard Henry Lee.
At this crisis, Baron Steuben, a Prussian officer who had served under Frederic the Great, arrived at the headquarters of Washington. Some say that he was a mere martinet, but he was exceedingly useful in drilling the American troops, working from morning till night, both patient and laborious. From that time Washington had regular troops, on which he could rely, few in number, but loyal and true. La Fayette also was present in his camp, chivalrous and magnanimous, rendering efficient aid; and there too was Nathaniel Greene of Rhode Island, who had made but one great mistake in his military career, the most able of Washington’s generals. With the aid of these trusted lieutenants, Washington was able to keep his little army together, as the nucleus of a greater one, and wait for opportunities, for he loved to fight when he saw a chance of success.
And now it may be said that the desertions which had crippled Washington, the reluctance to enlist on the part of the farmers, and the tardy response to his calls for money, probably were owing to the general sense of security after the surrender of Burgoyne. It was felt that the cause of liberty was already won. With this feeling men were slow to enlist when they were not sure of their pay, and it was at this period that money was most difficult to be raised. Had there been a strong central government, and not a mere league of States, some Moses would have “smitten the rock of finance,” as Hamilton subsequently did, and Chase in the war of the Southern Rebellion, and abundant streams would have gushed forth in the shape of national bonds, certain to be redeemed, sooner or later, in solid gold and silver, and which could have been readily negotiated by the leading bankers of the world. The real difficulty with which Congress and Washington had to contend was a financial one. There were men enough to enlist in the army if they had been promptly paid. Yet, on the other hand, England, with ample means and lavish promises, was able to induce only about three thousand Tories out of all the American population to enlist in her armies in America during the whole war.
By patience unparalleled and efforts unceasing, Washington slowly wrought upon Congress to sustain him in building up a “Continental” army, in place of the shifting bodies of militia. With Steuben as inspector-general and Greene as quartermaster, the new levies as they came in were disciplined and equipped; and in spite of the conspiracies and cabals formed against him by ambitious subordinates,–which enlisted the aid of many influential men even in Congress, but which came to nought before the solid character and steady front of the man who was really carrying the whole war upon his own shoulders,–Washington emerged from the frightful winter at Valley Forge and entered the spring of 1778 with greater resources at his command than he had ever had before.
In January, 1778, France acknowledged the independence of the United States of America and entered into treaty with them. In the spring Sir William Howe resigned, and Sir Henry Clinton succeeded him in command. After wintering in Philadelphia, the British commander discovered that he could do nothing with his troops shut up in a luxurious city, while Washington was watching him in a strongly intrenched position a few miles distant, and with constantly increasing forces now trained to war; and moreover, a French fleet with reinforcements was now looked for. So he evacuated the Quaker City on the 18th of June, 1778, and began his march to New York, followed by Washington with an army now equal to his own. On the 28th of June Cornwallis was encamped near Monmouth, N.J., where was fought the most brilliant battle of the war, which Washington nearly lost, nevertheless, by the disobedience of Lee, his second in command, at a critical moment. Boiling with rage, the commander-in-chief rode up to Lee and demanded why he had disobeyed orders. Then, it is said, with a tremendous oath he sent the marplot to the rear, and Lee’s military career ignominiously ended. Four years after, this military adventurer, who had given so much trouble, died in a mean tavern in Philadelphia, disgraced, unpitied, and forlorn.
The battle of Monmouth did not prevent the orderly retreat of the British to New York, when Washington resumed his old post at White Plains, east of the Hudson in Westchester County, whence he had some hopes of moving on New York, with the aid of the French fleet under the Count d’Estaing. But the big French ships could not cross the bar, so the fleet sailed for Newport with a view of recapturing that town and repossessing Rhode Island. Washington sent Greene and La Fayette thither with reinforcements for Sullivan, who was in command. The enterprise failed from an unexpected storm in November, which compelled the French admiral to sail to Boston to refit, after which he proceeded to the West Indies. It would appear that the French, thus far, sought to embarrass the English rather than to assist the Americans. The only good that resulted from the appearance of D’Estaing at Newport was the withdrawal of the British troops to New York.
It is singular that the positions of the opposing armies were very much as they had been two years before. The headquarters of Washington were at White Plains, on the Hudson, and those of Clinton at New York, commanding the harbor and the neighboring heights. Neither army was strong enough for offensive operations with any reasonable hope of success, and the commanding generals seem to have acted on the maxim that “discretion is the better part of valor.” Both armies had been strongly reinforced, and the opposing generals did little else than fortify their positions and watch each other. A year passed in virtual inaction on both sides, except that the British carried on a series of devastating predatory raids in New England along the coast of Long Island Sound, in New York State (with the savage aid of the Indians), in New Jersey, and in the South,–there making a more formal movement and seizing the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. No battles of any account were fought. There was some skirmishing, but no important military movements were made on either side. Washington, in December, 1778, removed his headquarters to Middlebrook, N.J., his forces being distributed in a series of camps from the Delaware north and east to Rhode Island. The winter he passed in patient vigilance; he wrote expostulating letters to Congress, and even went personally to Philadelphia to labor with its members. Meanwhile Clinton was taking his ease, to the disgust of the British government.
There was a cavilling, criticising spirit among the different parties in America; for there were many who did not comprehend the situation, and who were disappointed that nothing decisive was done. Washington was infinitely annoyed at the stream of detraction which flowed from discontented officers, and civilians in power, but held his soul in patience, rarely taking any notice of the innumerable slanders and hostile insinuations. He held together his army, now chiefly composed of veterans, and nearly as numerous as the troops of the enemy. One thing he saw clearly,–that the maintenance of an army in the field, held together by discipline, was of more importance, from a military point of view, than the occupation of a large city or annoying raids of destruction. While he was well intrenched in a strong position, and therefore safe, the British had the command of the Hudson, and ships-of-war could ascend the river unmolested as far as West Point, which was still held by the Americans and was impregnable. Outside of New York the British did not possess a strong fortress in the country, at least in the interior, except on Lake Champlain,–not one in New England. West Point, therefore, was a great eyesore to the English generals and admirals. Its possession would be of incalculable advantage in case any expedition was sent to the North.
And the enemy came very near getting possession of this important fortress, not by force, but by treachery. Benedict Arnold, disappointed in his military prospects, alienated from his cause, overwhelmed with debts, and utterly discontented and demoralized, had asked to be ordered from Philadelphia and put in command of West Point. He was sent there in August, 1780. He was a capable and brave man; he had the confidence of Washington, in spite of his defects of character, and moreover he had rendered important services. In an evil hour he lost his head and listened to the voice of the tempter, and having succeeded in getting himself put in charge of the stronghold of the Hudson, he secretly negotiated with Clinton for its surrender.
Everybody is familiar with the details of that infamy, which is inexplicable on any other ground than partial insanity. No matter what may be said in extenuation, Arnold committed the greatest crime known to civilized nations. He contrived to escape the just doom which awaited him, and, from having become traitor, even proceeded to enter the active service of the enemy and to raise his hand against the country which, but for these crimes, would have held him in honorable remembrance. The heart of English-speaking nations has ever been moved to compassion for the unfortunate fate of the messenger who conducted the treasonable correspondence between Arnold and Clinton,–one of the most accomplished officers in the British army, Major André. No influence–not even his deeply moved sympathy–could induce Washington to interfere with the decision of the court-martial that André should be hanged as a spy, so dangerous did the commander deem the attempted treachery. The English have erected to the unfortunate officer a monument in Westminster Abbey.
The contemplated surrender of West Point to the enemy suggests the demoralization which the war had already produced, and which was deplored by no one more bitterly than by Washington himself. “If I were called upon,” he writes, “to draw a picture of the times and of men, from what I have seen, heard, and in part know, I should in one word say that idleness, dissipation, and extravagance seem to have laid fast hold of most of them; that speculation, peculation, and an insatiable thirst for riches seem to have got the better of every other consideration…; that party disputes and personal quarrels are the great business of the day; whilst the momentous concerns of an empire, an accumulating debt, ruined finances, depreciated money, and want of credit … are but secondary considerations.”
All war produces naturally and logically this demoralization, especially in countries under a republican government. Profanity, drunkenness, and general recklessness as to money matters were everywhere prevailing vices; and this demoralization was, in the eyes of Washington, more to be dreaded than any external dangers that had thus far caused alarm and distress. “I have,” wrote he, “seen without despondency even for a moment, the hours which America has styled her gloomy ones; but I have beheld no day since the commencement of hostilities that I have thought her liberties were in such imminent danger as at present.”
“He had faced,” says Henry Cabot Lodge, in his interesting life of Washington, “the enemy, the bleak winters, raw soldiers, and all the difficulties of impecunious government, with a cheerful courage that never failed. But the spectacle of wide-spread popular demoralization, of selfish scramble for plunder, and of feeble administration at the centre of government, weighed upon him heavily.” And all this at the period of the French alliance, which it was thought would soon end the war. Indeed, hostilities were practically over at the North, and hence the public lassitude. Nearly two years had passed without an important battle.
When Clinton saw that no hope remained of subduing the Americans, the British government should have made peace and recognized the independence of the States. But the obstinacy of the king of England was phenomenal, and his ministers were infatuated. They could not reconcile themselves to the greatness of their loss. Their hatred of the rebels was too bitter for reason to conquer. Hitherto the contest had not been bloody nor cruel. Few atrocities had been committed, except by the rancorous Tories, who slaughtered and burned without pity, and by the Indians who were paid by the British government. Prisoners, on the whole, had been humanely treated by both the contending armies, although the British prison-ships of New York and their “thousand martyrs” have left a dark shadow on the annals of the time. Neither in Boston nor New York nor Philadelphia had the inhabitants uttered loud complaints against the soldiers who had successively occupied their houses, and who had lived as comfortably and peaceably as soldiers in English garrison towns. Some villages had been burned, but few people had been massacred. More inhumanity was exhibited by both Greeks and Turks in the Greek Revolution in one month than by the forces engaged during the whole American war. The prime minister of England, Lord North, was the most amiable and gentle of men. The brothers Howe would fain have carried the olive-branch in one hand while they bore arms in the other. It seemed to be the policy of England to do nothing which would inflame animosities, and prevent the speedy restoration of peace. Spies of course were hanged, and traitors were shot, in accordance with the uniform rules of war. I do not read of a bloodthirsty English general in the whole course of the war, like those Russian generals who overwhelmed the Poles; nor did the English generals seem to be really in earnest, or they would have been bolder in their operations, and would not have been contented to be shut up for two years in New York when they were not besieged.
At length Clinton saw he must do something to satisfy the government at home, and the government felt that a severer policy should be introduced into warlike operations. Clinton perceived that he could not penetrate into New England, even if he could occupy the maritime cities. He could not ascend the Hudson. He could not retain New Jersey. But the South was open to his armies, and had not been seriously invaded.
As Washington personally was not engaged in the military operations at the South, I can make only a passing allusion to them. It is not my object to write a history of the war, but merely to sketch it so far as Washington was directly concerned. The South was left, in the main, to defend itself against the raids which the British generals made in its defenceless territories, and these were destructive and cruel. But Gates was sent to cope with Cornwallis and Tarleton. Washington himself could not leave his position near New York, as he had to watch Clinton, defend the Hudson, and make journeys to Philadelphia to urge Congress to more vigorous measures. Congress, however, was helpless and the State governments were inactive.
In the meantime, early in May, 1780, Charleston, S.C., was abandoned to the enemy,–General Lincoln, who commanded, finding it indefensible. In September the news came North of the battle of Camden and the defeat of Gates, who showed an incompetency equal to his self-sufficiency, and Congress was obliged to remove him. Through Washington’s influence, in December, 1780, Greene was appointed to succeed him; had the chief’s advice been followed earlier he would have been sent originally instead of Gates. Greene turned the tide, and began those masterly operations which led to the final expulsion of the English from the South, and, under the guiding mind and firm hand of Washington, to the surrender of Cornwallis.
On January 17, 1781, Morgan won a brilliant victory at Cowpens, S.C., which seriously embarrassed Cornwallis; and then succeeded a vigorous campaign between Cornwallis and Greene for several months, over the Carolinas and the borders of Virginia. The losses of the British were so great, even when they had the advantage, that Cornwallis turned his face to the North, with a view of transferring the seat of war to Chesapeake Bay. Washington then sent all the troops he could spare to Virginia, under La Fayette. He was further aided by the French fleet, under De Grasse, whom he persuaded to sail to the Chesapeake. La Fayette here did good service, following closely the retreating army. Clinton failed to reinforce Cornwallis, some say from jealousy, so that the latter felt obliged to fortify himself at Yorktown. Washington, who had been planning an attack on New York, now continued his apparent preparations, to deceive Clinton, but crossed the Hudson on the 23d of August, to co-operate with the French fleet and three thousand French troops in Virginia, to support La Fayette. He rapidly moved his available force by swift marches across New Jersey to Elkton, Maryland, at the head of Chesapeake Bay. The Northern troops were brought down the Chesapeake in transports, gathered by great exertions, and on September 28 landed at Williamsburg, on the Yorktown Peninsula. Cornwallis was now hemmed in by the combined French and American armies. Had he possessed the control of the sea he might have escaped, but as the fleet commanded the Chesapeake this was impossible. He had well fortified himself, however, and on the 5th of October the siege of Yorktown began, followed on the 14th by an assault. On the 19th of October, 1781, Cornwallis was compelled to surrender, with seven thousand troops. The besieging army numbered about five thousand French and eleven thousand Americans. The success of Washington was owing to the rapidity of his movements, and the influence which, with La Fayette, he brought to bear for the retention at this critical time and place of the fleet of the Count de Grasse, who was disposed to sail to the West Indies, as D’Estaing had done the year before. Washington’s keen perception of the military situation, energetic promptness of action, and his diplomatic tact and address in this whole affair were remarkable.
The surrender of Cornwallis virtually closed the war. The swift concentration of forces from North and South was due to Washington’s foresight and splendid energy, while its success was mainly due to the French, without whose aid the campaign could not have been concluded.
The moral and political effect of this “crowning mercy” was prodigious. In England it broke up the ministry of Lord North, and made the English nation eager for peace, although it was a year or two before hostilities ceased, and it was not until September 3, 1783, that the treaty was signed which Franklin, Adams, and Jay had so adroitly negotiated. The English king would have continued the contest against all hope, encouraged by the possession of New York and Charleston, but his personal government practically ceased with the acknowledgment of American independence.
The trials of Washington, however, did not end with the great victory at Yorktown. There was a serious mutiny in the army which required all his tact to quell, arising from the neglect of Congress to pay the troops. There was greater looseness of morals throughout the country than has been generally dreamed of. I apprehend that farmers and mechanics were more profane, and drank, per capita, more cider and rum for twenty years succeeding the war than at any other period in our history. It was then that it was intimated to Washington, in a letter from his friend Colonel Louis Nicola, that the state of the country and the impotence of Congress made it desirable that he should seize the government, and, supported by the army, turn all the confusion into order,–which probably would have been easy for him to do, and which would have been justified by most historical writers. But Washington repelled the idea with indignation, both for himself and the army; and not only on this occasion but on others when disaffection was rife, he utilized his own popularity to arouse anew the loyalty of the sorely tried patriots, his companions in arms. Many are the precedents of usurpation on the part of successful generals, and few indeed are those who have voluntarily abdicated power from lofty and patriotic motives. It was this virtual abdication which made so profound an impression on the European world,–even more profound than was created by the military skill which Washington displayed in the long war of seven years. It was a rare instance of magnanimity and absence of ambition which was not without its influence on the destinies of America, making it almost impossible for any future general to retain power after his work was done, and setting a proud and unique example of the superiority of moral excellence over genius and power.
Washington is venerated not so much for his military genius and success in bringing the war to a triumphant conclusion, as for his patriotism and disinterestedness, since such moral worth as his is much rarer and more extraordinary than military fame. Fortunately, his devotion to the ultimate welfare of the country, universally conceded, was supreme wisdom on his part, not only for the land he loved but for himself, and has given him a name which is above every other name in the history of modern times. He was tested, and he turned from the temptation with abhorrence. He might, and he might not, have succeeded in retaining supreme power,–the culmination of human ambition; but he neither sought nor desired it. It was reward enough for him to have the consciousness of virtue, and enjoy the gratitude of his countrymen.
Washington at last persuaded Congress to do justice to the officers and men who had sacrificed so much for their country’s independence; in spite of the probability of peace, he was tireless in continuing preparations for effective war. He was of great service to Congress in arranging for the disbandment of the army after the preliminary treaty of peace in March, 1783, and guided by wise counsel the earlier legislation affecting civil matters in the States and on the frontiers. The general army was disbanded November 3; on November 25 the British evacuated New York and the American authorities took possession; on December 4 Washington bade farewell to his assembled officers, and on the 23d he resigned his commission to Congress,–a patriotic and memorable scene. And then he turned to the placidities of domestic life in his home at Mount Vernon.
But this life and this home, so dear to his heart, it was not long permitted him to enjoy. On the formation and adoption of the Federal Constitution, in 1789, he was unanimously chosen to be the first president of the United States.
In a preceding lecture I have already presented the brilliant constellation of statesmen who assembled at Philadelphia to construct the fabric of American liberties. Washington was one of them, but this great work was not even largely his. On June 8, 1783, he had addressed a letter to the governors of all the States, concerning the essential elements of the well-being of the United States, which showed the early, careful, and sound thought he had given to the matter of what he termed “an indissoluable union of the States under one Federal head.” But he was not a great talker, or a great writer, or a pre-eminently great political genius. He was a general and administrator rather than an original constructive statesman whose work involved a profound knowledge of law and history. No one man could have done that work; it was the result of the collected wisdom and experience of the nation,–of the deliberations of the foremost intellects from the different States,–such men as Hamilton, Madison, Wilson, Rutledge, Dickinson, Ellsworth, and others. Jefferson and Adams were absent on diplomatic missions. Franklin was old and gouty. Even Washington did little more than preside over the convention; but he stimulated its members, with imposing dignity and the constant exercise of his pre-eminent personal influence, to union and conciliation.
So I turn to consider the administrations of President Washington, the policy of which, in the main, was the rule of the succeeding presidents,–of Adams and “the Virginia dynasty.”
The cabinet which he selected was able and illustrious; especially so were its brightest stars,–Jefferson as Secretary of State, and Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, to whose opinions the President generally yielded. It was unfortunate that these two great men liked each other so little, and were so jealous of each other’s ascendency. But their political ideas diverged in many important points. Hamilton was the champion of Federalism, and Jefferson of States’ Rights; the one, politically, was an aristocrat, and the other, though born on a plantation, was a democrat. Washington had to use all his tact to keep these statesmen from an open rupture. Their mutual hostility saddened and perplexed him. He had selected them as the best men for their respective posts, and in this had made no mistake; but their opposing opinions prevented that cabinet unity so essential in government, and possibly crippled Washington himself. This great country has produced no administration comprising four greater men than President Washington, the general who had led its armies in a desperate war; Vice-President John Adams, the orator who most eloquently defined national rights; Jefferson, the diplomatist who managed foreign relations on the basis of perpetual peace; and Hamilton, the financier who “struck the rock from which flowed the abundant streams of national credit.” General Knox, Secretary of War, had not the intellectual calibre of Hamilton and Jefferson, but had proved himself an able soldier and was devoted to his chief. Edmund Randolph, the Attorney-General, was a leading lawyer in Virginia, and belonged to one of its prominent families.
Outside the cabinet, the judiciary had to be filled, and Washington made choice of John Jay as chief-justice of the Supreme Court,–a most admirable appointment,–and associated with him the great lawyers, Wilson of Pennsylvania, Cushing of Massachusetts, Blair of Virginia, Iredell of North Carolina, and Rutledge of South Carolina,–all of whom were distinguished, and all selected for their abilities, without regard to their political opinions.
It is singular that, as this country has advanced in culture and population, the men who have occupied the highest positions have been inferior in genius and fame,–selected, not because they were great, but because they were “available,” that is, because they had few enemies, and were supposed to be willing to become the tools of ambitious and scheming politicians, intriguing for party interests and greedy for the spoils of office. Fortunately, or providentially, some of these men have disappointed those who elevated them, and have unexpectedly developed in office both uncommon executive power and still rarer integrity,–reminding us of those popes who have reigned more like foxes and lions than like the asses that before their elevation sometimes they were thought to be.
Trifling as it may seem, the first measure of the new government pertained to the etiquette to be observed at receptions, dinners, etc., in which there was more pomp and ceremony than at the present time. Washington himself made a greater public display, with his chariot and four, than any succeeding president. His receptions were stately. The President stood with dignity, clad in his velvet coat, never shaking hands with any one, however high his rank. He walked between the rows of visitors, pretty much as Napoleon did at the Tuileries, saying a few words to each; but people of station were more stately and aristocratic in those times than at the present day, even in New England towns. Washington himself was an old-school gentleman of the most formal sort, and, although benevolent in aspect and kindly in manner, was more tenacious of his dignity than great men usually are. This had been notable throughout the war. His most intimate friends and daily associates, his most prominent and trusted generals, patriotic but hot-headed complainants, turbulent malcontents,–all alike found him courteous and considerate, yet hedged about with an impassive dignity that no one ever dared to violate. A superb horseman, a powerful and active swordsman, an unfailing marksman with rifle or pistol, he never made a display of these qualities; but there are many anecdotes of such prowess in sudden emergencies as caused him to be idolized by his companions in arms, while yet their manifestations of feeling were repressed by the veneration imposed upon all by his lofty personal dignity.
Thus also as President. It was no new access of official pomposity, but the man’s natural bearing, that maintained a lofty reserve at these public receptions. Possibly, too, he may have felt the necessity of maintaining the prerogative of the Federal head of all these independent, but now united, States. Hence, on his visit to Boston, soon after his inauguration, he was offended with John Hancock, then governor of Massachusetts, for neglecting to call on him, as etiquette certainly demanded. The pompous, overrated old merchant, rich and luxurious, though a genuine patriot, perhaps thought that Washington would first call on him, as governor of the State; perhaps he was withheld from his official duty by an attack of the gout; but at last he saw the necessity, and was borne on men’s shoulders into the presence of the President.
In considering the vital points in the administration of Washington the reader will not expect to find any of the spirited and exciting elements of the Revolutionary period. The organization and ordering of governmental policies is not romantic, but hard, patient, persevering work. All questions were yet unsettled,–at least in domestic matters, such as finance, tariffs, and revenue. One thing is clear enough, that the national debt and the State debts and the foreign debt altogether amounted to about seventy-five million dollars, the interest on which was unpaid by reason of a depleted treasury and want of credit, which produced great financial embarrassments. Then there were grave Indian hostilities demanding a large military force to suppress them, and there was no money to pay the troops. And when Congress finally agreed, in the face of great opposition, to adopt the plans of Hamilton and raise a revenue by excise on distilled spirits, manufactured chiefly in Pennsylvania, there was a rebellion among the stubborn and warlike Scotch-Irish, who were the principal distillers of whiskey, which required the whole force of the government to put down.
In the matter of revenue, involving the most important of all the problems to be solved, Washington adopted the views of Hamilton, and contented himself with recommending them to Congress,–a body utterly inexperienced, and ignorant of the principles of political economy. Nothing was so unpopular as taxation in any form, and yet without it the government could not be carried on. The Southern States wanted an unrestricted commerce, amounting to “free trade,” that they might get all manufactured articles at the smallest possible price; and these came chiefly from abroad. All import duties were an abomination to them, and yet without these a national revenue could not be raised. It is true that Washington had recommended the encouragement of domestic manufactures, the dependence of country on foreigners for nearly all supplies having been one of the chief difficulties of the war, but the great idea of “protection” had not become a mooted point in national legislation.
Hamilton had further proposed a bank, but this also met with great opposition in Congress among the anti-Federalists and the partisans of Jefferson, fearful and jealous of a moneyed power. In the end the measures which Hamilton suggested were generally adopted, and the good results were beginning to be seen, but the financial position of the country for several years after the formation of the Federal government was embarrassing, if not alarming.
Again, there was no national capital, and Congress, which had begun its labors in New York, could not agree upon the site, which was finally adopted only by a sort of compromise,–the South accepting the financial scheme of Hamilton if the capital should be located in Southern territory. All the great national issues pertaining to domestic legislation were in embryo, and no settled policy was possible amid so many sectional jealousies.
It was no small task for Washington to steer the ship of state among these breakers. No other man in the nation could have done so well as he, for he was conciliatory and patient, ever ready to listen to reason and get light from any quarter, modest in his recommendations, knowing well that his training had not been in the schools of political economy. His good sense and sterling character enabled him to surmount the difficulties of his situation, which was anything but a bed of roses.
In the infancy of the republic the foreign relations of the government were deemed more important and excited more interest than internal affairs, and in the management of foreign affairs Jefferson displayed great abilities, which Washington appreciated as much as he did the financial genius of Hamilton. In one thing the President and his Secretary of State were in full accord,–in keeping aloof from the labyrinth of European politics, and maintaining friendly intercourse with all nations. With a peace policy only would commerce thrive and industries be developed, Both Washington and Jefferson were broad-minded enough to see the future greatness of the country, and embraced the most liberal views. Hence the foreign envoys were quietly given to understand that the members of the American government were to be treated with the respect due to the representatives of a free and constantly expanding country, which in time would be as powerful as either England or France.
It was seen, moreover, that both France and England would take every possible advantage of the new republic, and would seek to retain a foothold in the unexplored territories of the Northwest, as well as to gain all they could in commercial transactions. England especially sought to hamper our trade with the West India Islands, and treated our envoys with insolence and coldness. The French sought to entangle the United States in their own revolution, with which most Americans sympathized until its atrocities filled them with horror and disgust. The English impressed American seamen into their naval service without a shadow of justice or good faith.
In 1795 Jay succeeded in making a treaty with the English government, which was ratified because it was the best he could get, not because it was all that he wished. It bore hard on the cities of the Atlantic coast that had commercial dealings with the West India Islands, and led to popular discontent, and bitter animosity towards England, finally culminating in the war of 1812. The French were equally irritating, and unreasonable in their expectations. The Directory in 1793 sent an arrogant and insulting envoy to the seat of government “Citizen Genet,” as he was called, tried to engage the United States in the French war against England. Although Washington promptly proclaimed neutrality as the American policy, Genet gave no end of trouble and vexation. This upstart paid no attention to the laws, no respect to the constituted authorities, insulted governors and cabinet-ministers alike, insisted on dealing with Congress directly instead of through the Secretary of State, issued letters of marque for privateers against English commerce, and defied the government. He did all that he could to embroil the country in war with Great Britain; and there was a marked division of sentiment among the people,–the new Democratic-Republican societies, in imitation of the French Jacobin clubs, being potent disseminators of democratic doctrine and sympathy with the French uprising against despotism. The forbearance of Washington, in suffering the irascible and boastful Genet to ride rough-shod over his own cabinet, was extraordinary. In ordinary times the man would have been summarily expelled from the country. At last his insults could no longer be endured and his recall was demanded; but he did not return to France, and, strange to say, settled down as a peaceful citizen in New York. The lenient treatment of this insulting foreigner arose from the reluctance of Washington to loosen the ties which bound the country to France, and from gratitude for the services she had rendered in the war, whatever may have been the motives that had influenced that government to yield assistance.
Washington, who had consented in 1794 to serve a second term as president, now began to weary of the cares of office. The quarrel between Hamilton and Jefferson, leading to the formation of the two great political parties which, under different names, have since divided the nation; the whiskey rebellion in Pennsylvania, which required the whole strength of the government to subdue; the Indian atrocities in the Northwest, resulting in the unfortunate expedition of St. Clair; the opposition to the financial schemes of the Secretary of the Treasury to restore the credit of the country; and the still greater popular disaffection toward Jay’s treaty with Great Britain,–these and other annoyances made him long for the quiet life of Mount Vernon; and he would have resigned the presidency in disgust but for patriotic motives and the urgent remonstrances of his cabinet. Faithful to his trust, he patiently labored on. If his administration was not dashingly brilliant, any more than his career as a general, he was beset with difficulties and discouragements which no man could have surmounted more gloriously than he: and when his eight years of service had expired he had the satisfaction to see that the country was at peace with all the world; that his policy of non-interference with European politics was appreciated; that no more dangers were to be feared from the Indians; that the country was being opened for settlers westward to the Ohio River; that the navigation of the Mississippi was free to the Gulf of Mexico; that canals and internal improvements were binding together the different States and introducing general prosperity; that financial difficulties had vanished; and that the independence and assured growth of the nation was no longer a matter of doubt in any European State.
Nothing could induce Washington to serve beyond his second term. He could easily have been again elected, if he wished, but he longed for rest and the pursuits of agricultural life. So he wrote his Farewell Address to the American people, exhorting them to union and harmony,–a document filled with noble sentiments for the meditation of all future generations. Like all his other writings, it is pregnant with moral wisdom and elevated patriotism, and in language is clear, forcible, and to the point. He did not aim to advance new ideas or brilliant theories, but rather to enforce old and important truths which would reach the heart as well as satisfy the head. The burden of his song in this, and in all his letters and messages and proclamations, is union and devotion to public interests, unswayed by passion or prejudice.
On the 3d of March, 1797, the President gave his farewell dinner to the most distinguished men of the time, and as soon as possible after the inauguration of his successor, John Adams, he set out for his plantation on the banks of the Potomac, where he spent his remaining days in dignity and quiet hospitalities, amid universal regrets that his public career was ended.
Even in his retirement, when there seemed to be imminent danger of war with France, soon after his return to his home, he was ready to buckle on his sword once more; but the troubles were not so serious as had been feared, and soon blew over. They had arisen from the venality and rapacity of Talleyrand, French minister of Foreign affairs, who demanded a bribe from the American commissioners of two-and-a-half millions as the price of his friendly services in securing favorable settlements. Their scornful reply, and the prompt preparations in America for war, brought the Directory to terms. When the crisis was past Washington resumed the care of his large estates, which had become dilapidated during the fifteen years of his public life. His retreat was invaded by great numbers, who wished to see so illustrious a man, but no one was turned away from his hospitable mansion.
In December, 1799, Washington caught cold from imprudent exposure, and died on the 14th day of the month after a short illness,–not what we should call a very old man. His life might probably have been saved but that, according to the universal custom, he was bled, which took away his vital forces. On the 16th of December he was buried quietly and without parade in the family vault at Mount Vernon, and the whole nation mourned for him as the Israelites mourned for Samuel of old, whom he closely resembled in character and services.
It would be useless to dwell upon the traits of character which made George Washington a national benefactor and a national idol. But one inquiry is often made, when he is seriously discussed,–whether or no he may be regarded as a man of genius. It is difficult to define genius, which seems to me to be either an abnormal development of particular faculties of mind, or an inspired insight into elemental truths so original and profound that its discoveries pass for revelations. Such genius as this is remarkably rare, I can recall but one statesman in our history who had extraordinary creative power, and this was Hamilton. In the history of modern times we scarcely can enumerate more than a dozen statesmen, a dozen generals, and the same number of poets, philosophers, theologians, historians, and artists who have had this creative power and this divine insight. Washington did not belong to that class of intellects. But he had what is as rare as transcendent genius,–he had a transcendent character, united with a marvellous balance of intellectual qualities, each in itself of a high grade, which gave him almost unerring judgment and remarkable influence over other minds, securing veneration. As a man he had his faults, but they were so few and so small that they seem to be but spots upon a sun. These have been forgotten; and as the ages roll on mankind will see naught but the lustre of his virtues and the greatness of his services.
The best and latest work on Washington is that of the Hon. Henry Cabot Lodge, and leaves little more to be said; Marshall’s Washington has long been a standard; Botta’s History of the Revolutionary War; Bancroft’s United States; McMaster’s History of the American People. In connection read the standard lives of Franklin, John Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Jay, Marshall, La Fayette, and Greene, with Washington’s writings. John Fiske has written an admirable book on Washington’s military career; indeed his historical series on the early history of America and the United States are both brilliant and trustworthy. Of the numerous orations on Washington, perhaps the best is that of Edward Everett.