Prologue Magazine

Prologue: Selected Articles

Spring 1994, Vol. 26, No. 1

The Surprising George Washington, Part 3
By Richard Norton Smith
&copy 1994 by Richard Norton Smith

While most Americans think of him as a born aristocrat, he was in fact the eldest son of a second marriage, whose prospects were far from encouraging. Beyond the accident of birth, Washington's entire life would be a struggle, first to establish a sense of self independent of his vinegary mother, and then to subdue his volatile emotions.

"I wish I could say that he governs his temper," wrote Thomas, Lord Fairfax, to Mary Ball Washington in 1748. "He is subject to attacks of anger on provocation, sometimes without just cause." Time would cure his sixteen-year-old friend of the vice, predicted Fairfax, adding that young George was "a man who will go to school all his life." There was a fair element of prophecy in this, for while Washington's formal education consisted of a few months' tutoring in geography, composition, the science of numbers, and the arts of deportment, he would travel more extensively and meet a wider range of people than any American of his age. From each experience he gained something, and neither time nor the dulling incense of public adulation would dim his curiosity.

Yet Lord Fairfax was not entirely prescient, for the hot-tempered youth would never fully succeed in curbing his temper. According to his secretary Tobias Lear, few sounds on earth could compare with that of George Washington swearing a blue streak. And to Thomas Jefferson we owe the memorable scene of a redfaced chief executive throwing his hat on the floor before stomping on it.

Washington's career as a surveyor is another clue to his personality. The surveyor is an executive of nature, stamping order on chaos by fixing his name on previously unchartered territory. Not surprisingly, Washington's lifelong need for control expressed itself through a mastery of nearly everyone and everything around him. Did these same surveying skills also contribute to the emotional distance Washington put between himself and less-driven men, coolly taking their measure as if observing a misplaced tree or errant boulder?

Washington the surveyor As a surveyor, seventeen-year-old Washington foreshadowed his adult need for control and for creating order out of chaos. (NARA 148-GW-391)

The forest was Washington's first classroom, but hardly his only one. Consistent with Lord Fairfax's prediction, young Washington never stopped learning or putting his newfound knowledge to practical use. At an astonishingly early age he could ford a river, clothe a regiment, chart a mountain road, and charm a lawmaker. American historiography is periodically enlivened by the discovery that among the rights for which General Washington led a rebellion was that of making money. His faith was instilled early. While still a teenager, he pocketed five hundred acres of Virginia's Frederick County as a surveyor's fee. Over the next few years his land holdings tripled, providing a ticket of admission to the colonial gentry whose esteem he valued at least as much as their hospitable company.

As a soldier called to the colony's defense, Washington saw the darker side of human nature, the skulking militia, thieving speculators, and sunshine patriots who at a safe distance from the front fought the French and Indians with their tongues. More galling still, he had to endure the toplofty disdain of Britain's military establishment for the irregular colonials, who refused to dress or fight according to the Old World's time-honored standards. In the process, his insights into his fellow men deepened.

George Washington harbored none of the modern reformer's illusions about human perfectibility. Still, if he lived apart from most of his fellows, it was at a distance that lent surprising charity to his judgment. "It is to be regretted . . . that democratical states must always feel before they can see," he lamented in the wake of Daniel Shays's pitchfork rebellion in western Massachusetts. "It is that makes their governments slow, but the people will be right at last."

The people, yes, he seemed to be saying, based upon long and close observation of human nature, but hardly vox populi, vox Dei.

Milton said of Oliver Cromwell that he learned to govern himself before he could govern England. Washington was forced to defeat his own temper and impetuosity before he ever met a redcoat on the field of battle. Early in the Revolution, the commanding general was forever devising brash tactics that worked better on paper than in practice. As he grew in confidence, he held fewer councils of war, stifling the urge for assaults beyond his meager resources. He came to understand the conflict as a test of political endurance, and while he might lament missed opportunities, he played the fox more often than the lion.

"Nothing but disunion can hurt our cause," he argued in the spring of 1776, foreshadowing the strong central government that would dominate Washington's political thinking. "Men may speculate as they will," he wrote at an especially bleak moment in Continental affairs, "they may talk of patriotism; they may draw a few examples from current story . . . but whoever builds upon it as a sufficient basis for conducting a long and bloody war will find themselves deceived in the end. . . . For a time it may of itself push men to action, to bear much, to encounter difficulties, but it will not endure unassisted by interest."

In common with the other Founders, Washington faced a conundrum: How could a free society harmonize its competing interests? But he was better prepared than most, for with his intuitive grasp of the age-old clash between duty and advantage, he did not fear interest. Far from it. For what else but interest had led him to amass vast land holdings, not always through the nicest of methods, or pursue youthful fame and adult fortune with an ardor that would put twentieth-century candidates for office to shame?

But there were interests greater than self-interest, and causes nobler than personal advancement. Over time, private gain took a back seat to Washington's campaign for nationhood, rooted in the radical idea that men could be entrusted to govern themselves without the superintendency of an established church or divinely appointed monarch. At his best, Washington hoped to demonstrate by force of example that men could love their country no less than themselves.

This is as good a place as any to confront the burning question of whether George Washington ever told a lie. He not only told lies, he lived them. Indeed, no small part of his genius as a political leader was his ability to convince everyone, himself included, that he was no politician. Washington's capacity for self-deception did not end there. Painfully sensitive about his lack of formal education, he refused to write his war memoirs, telling an early biographer, "I had rather glide gently down the stream of life, leaving it to posterity to think and say what they please of me, than by any act of mine to have vanity or ostentation imputed to me."

This had a nice ring to it, but the fact remains that among Washington's earliest acts upon returning home after the Revolution was to unearth youthful letter books and correct misspellings and faulty grammar. Only after their intellectual sanitization would he permit his writings to be copied for posterity.

Nor was Washington bashful about manipulating the emotions of an audience when the good of his country was concerned. Politics is theater, and as America's first actor President, George Washington was both a symbol of continuity and instrument of change. Much of his dramatic flair had been perfected on a military stage. For example, at his greatest moment of wartime triumph, the victorious general forbade his soldiers from unseemly crowing over the defeated foe. "Posterity will huzzah for us," he explained, truthfully enough. Still later he staged an emotional confrontation with rebellious officers angry over Congress's failure to provide back pay or future pensions. Appeals to their patriotism having failed, the commanding general retrieved from his pocket a congressional message promising early redress of their grievances. He fumbled with the paper a few moments before again reaching into his coat to fetch a pair of eyeglasses. Begging the indulgence of his men, Washington explained to a stunned audience, "I have already grown gray in the service of my country. I am now going blind." Instantly, rebellion melted into tears. It was a galvanizing moment, a brilliant piece of theater and a narrow escape for republican government. Never mind that Washington had used glasses for years. Who, offered magic, insists on logic?

Sensitive as a tuning fork, Washington regularly inquired into what others said and thought of him. His uneasiness grew in the first year of his presidency, thanks to whispered complaints about the allegedly royalist trappings of the executive household. Democratic elements objected to the President's Tuesday afternoon levees, rigidly choreographed functions where bows substituted for handshakes and Washington did a convincing imitation of himself, dressed in black velvet ordered from Europe at five dollars a yard.

When the presidential bow came in for similar criticism, Washington's feelings were hurt. His greetings were bestowed indiscriminately, he protested: "would it not have been better to throw the veil of charity over them, ascribing their stiffness to the effects of age or to the unskillfulness of my teacher, than to pride and dignity of office, which God knows has no charms for me?"

This was no exaggeration. Washington submitted to the weekly audiences at the behest of advisers who warned him that familiarity was subversive of prestige and that even a republican monarch must cultivate a certain reserve. But in doing so he paid a heavy emotional price. Washington's adopted granddaughter recalled a man imprisoned by his own celebrity. At the end of a long day, the old man liked nothing better than to slip into a room where children were playing; their antics seemed to relax him. Yet no sooner did the youngsters realize they were in the presence of the looming figure called Great Washington than they froze. After a while, a visibly upset Washington turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.

For the President, there was no escaping the consequences of fame. Having carved the heroic statue of his own reputation, he could not easily climb down from the pedestal.

Apotheosis of Washington Even during his lifetime, the near-deification of Washington changed him from man to mythic being. (NARA 148-GW-583)

In a nation that as yet existed on paper only, without the bonding agents of tradition, class structure, or state religion, Washington was his country's greatest asset and its only glue. So in making appointments to the Supreme Court and other departments, the first President was careful to include candidates from across the geographical and ideological spectrum. And if it is any consolation to President Clinton, not even the Father of His Country got his way on everything. On one memorable occasion the Senate rejected Washington's nomination of South Carolina's John Rutledge to be chief justice of the Supreme Court on the grounds of insanity.

The Surprising George Washington, Part 1
The Surprising George Washington, Part 2
The Surprising George Washington, Part 4

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.