Today in history, February 22, 1732

George Washington, first President of the United States, was born.

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(All quotes from George Washington’s letters below I got from my copy of the Library of America’s compilation of his writings)

Thomas Jefferson on George Washington:

The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.

In May, 1754, Washington wrote a letter home to his brother, after his first experience of battle in the French and Indian War:

I heard Bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming in the Sound.

In November, 1754, George Washington wrote:

My inclinations are strongly bent to arms.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, in a letter written to a friend in 1774

Does it not appear as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness that there is a regular, systematic plan to fix the right and practice of taxation upon us? Ought we not, then, to put our virtue and fortitude to the severest tests?

One of the things I love about Washington is that his progression to Revolutionary was gradual, and began with practical matters, like being taxed, and having his autonomy as a farmer taken away from him (the British regulated where he could buy parts, taxing him to death, etc.) His was not a high-flung “all men are created equal” mindset, like Thomas Jefferson’s … He began with the unfairness and humiliation of his status as someone who is being occupied and bossed around. It took all kinds to make that revolution. If we had just had Thomas Jefferson, we would have been in trouble. But we needed Thomas Jefferson to put the ideals into words, for the ages. But it was the mixture of personalities and mindsets that made it a success. Very important. John Adams countered Jefferson. Hamilton countered Washington and Jefferson. Ben Franklin gave it a glitter and notoriety. Madison was the brainiac lawyer. John Jay, Samuel Adams … all with their area of expertise, their interests and passions. Thank God we had a good mix.

But Washington was the giant. A man who walked away from power even when it was offered to him? Had such a man ever lived before? George III didn’t think so.


In 1755, Washington wrote a complaining letter to his friend Robert Dinwiddie:

We cannot conceive that because we are Americans, we shou’d therefore be deprived of the Benefits Common to British Subjects.

In 1758, Washington wrote a couple of letters to Sally Fairfax, a woman he was in love with – his first love – someone he never really recovered from (letters to her at the end of his life suggest that):

‘Tis true, I profess myself a Votary to Love – I acknowledge that a Lady is in the Case – and further I confess that this Lady is known to you. – Yes Madam, as well as she is to one, who is too sensible of her Charms to deny the Power, whose Influence he feels and must ever Submit to. I feel the force of her amiable beauties in the recollection of a thousand tender passages that I coud wish to obliterate, till I am bid to revive them. – but experience alas! Sadly reminds me how Impossible this is. – and evinces an opinion which I have long entertained, that there is a Destiny, which has the Sovereign Controul of our Actions – not to be resisted by the Strongest efforts of Human Nature.

The World has no business to know the object of my Love, declard in this manner to you – you when I want to conceal it – One thing, above all things in this World I wish to know, and only one person of your Acquaintance can solve me that, or guess my meaning. – but adieu to this, till happier times, if I shall ever see them …

Excerpt from Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington:

All of which is to suggest that Washington did not need to read books by radical Whig writers or receive an education in political theory from George Mason in order to regard the British military occupation of Massachusetts in 1774 as the latest installment in a long-standing pattern. His own ideological origins did not derive primarily from books but from his own experience with what he had come to regard as the imperiousness of the British Empire. Mason probably helped him to develop a more expansive vocabulary to express his thoughts and feelings, but the thoughts, and even more so the feelings, had been brewing inside him for more than twenty years. At the psychological nub of it all lay an utter loathing for any form of dependency, a sense of his own significance, and a deep distrust of any authority beyond his direct control.

Martha Washington wrote a letter to a relative on the eve of her husband’s departure to the Convention in 1774:

I foresee consequences; dark days and darker nights; domestic happiness suspended; social enjoyments abandoned; property of every kind put in jeopardy by war, perhaps; neighbors and friends at variance, and eternal separations on earth possible. But what are all these evils when compared with the fate of which the Port Bill may be only a threat? My mind is made up; my heart is in the cause. George is right; he is always right. God has promised to protect the righteous, and I will trust him.

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PATRICK HENRY, on his return home from the first Continental Congress in 1774 was asked whom he thought was the foremost man in the group:

“Colonel Washington is unquestionably the greatest man on that floor.”

Abigail Adams first met Washington in 1774, and wrote to her husband:

You had prepared me to entertain a favorable opinion of him, but I thought the half was not told me. Dignity with ease and complacency, the gentleman and the soldier look agreeably blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feature of his face.

When George Washington was elected (unanimously) by the First Continental Congress to be Commander in Chief (this was in June, 1775) – here was the brief acceptance he made:

“Lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room, that I this day declare, with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command.”

In a 1775 letter to his brother-in-law, Burwell Bassett:

I am now Imbarked on a tempestuous Ocean from whence, perhaps, no friendly harbour is to be found … It is an honour I wished to avoid … I can answer but for three things, a firm belief of the justice of our Cause – close attention to the prosecution of it – and the strictest Integrity – If these cannot supply the places of Ability & Experience, the cause will suffer & more than probably my character along with it, as reputation derives its principal support from success.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, writing to Martha on June 18, 1775, following his nomination as commander in chief

My Dearest:
I now sit down to write to you on a subject which fills me with inexpressible concern, and this concern is greatly aggravated and increased when I reflect upon the uneasiness I know it will give you. It has been determined in Congress that the whole army raised for the defence of the American cause shall be put under my care, and that it is necessary for me to proceed immediately to Boston to take upon me the command of it.

You may believe me, my dear Patsy, when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavour in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity, and that I should enjoy more real happiness in one month with you at home than I have the most distant prospect of finding abroad, if my stay were to be seven times seven years.

But as it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this service, I shall hope that my undertaking is designed to answer some good purpose.

George Washington describes here what a general expects in his aides:

The variegated and important duties of the aids of a commander in chief or the commander of a separate army require experienced officers, men of judgment and men of business, ready pens to execute them properly and with dispatch. A great deal more is required of them than attending him at a parade or delivering verbal orders here and there, or copying a written one. They ought, if I may be allowed to use the expression, to possess the Soul of the General, and from a single idea given to them, to convey his meaning in the clearest and fullest manner.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, letter to Joseph Reed, early December, 1775, after a disappointing recruiting drive

I have oftentimes thought how much happier I should have been if, instead of accepting the command under such circumstances, I had taken my musket on my shoulder and entered the ranks; or, if I could have justified the measure to posterity and my own conscience, had retired to the back country and lived in a wigwam. If I shall be able to rise superior to these and many other difficulties which might be enumerated, I shall most religiously believe that the finger of Providence is in it to blind the eyes of our enemies, for surely if we get well through this month it must be for want of their knowing the disadvantages which we labor under.

On August 1, 1777, Washington invited the newly arrived Marquis de Lafayette to witness a review of the troops. The American troops marched by, ragged, disheveled, shabby. Here is what the two men were reported to say to one another:

Washington: We are rather embarrassed to show ourselves to an officer who has just left the army of France.

Lafayette: I am here, sir, to learn and not to teach.

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GEORGE WASHINGTON, on the self-sacrifice of his soldiers during the hard winter of 1777:

To see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lay on, without shoes, by which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet, and almost as often without provisions as with; marching through frost and snow, and at Christmas taking up their winter quarters within a day’s march of the enemy, without a house or hut to cover them till they could be built, and submitting to it without a murmur, is a mark of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralleled.

In 1779, George Washington wrote:

Men are very apt to run into extremes; hatred to England may carry some into excessive Confidence in France …; I am heartily disposed to entertain the most favourable sentiments of our new ally and to cherish them in others to a reasonable degree; but it is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest; and no prudent statesman or politician will venture to depart from it.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, letter of May 31, 1780, describing one of the things he was learning through the war – his frustration with Congress was constant, sometimes titanic rage (when he gets mad, boy, look out), other times just a nagging persistent annoyance.

Certain I am unless Congress speak in a more decisive tone, unless they are invested with powers by the several States competent to the great purposes of the war, or assume them as a matter of right, and they and the States respectively act with more energy than they hitherto have done, that our cause is lost. One State will comply with a requisition of Congress, another neglects to do it; a third executes it by halves; and all differ either in the manner, the matter, or so much in point of time, that we are always working up hill; and, while such a system as the present one or rather want of one prevails, we shall ever be unable to apply our strength or resources to any advantage.

Excerpt from Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington:

One incident near the end of the war provides a clue to the transformation in his character wrought by the intense experience of serving so long as the singular embodiment of commitment to the cause. In 1781, Lund Washington reported that a British warship had anchored in the Potomac near Mount Vernon, presumably with orders to ravage Washington’s estate. When the British captain offered assurances that he harbored no hostile intentions, Lund sent out a boatload of provisions to express his gratitude for the captain’s admirable restraint. When Washington learned of this incident he berated Lund: “It would have been a less painful circumstance to me, to have heard, that in consequence of your non-compliance with their request, they had burnt my House, and laid the Plantation to ruins.”

And here is a story – (perhaps it’s a rumor – but I love it nonetheless) of Benjamin Franklin’s response to the news of the surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. He was, of course, in Paris at the time, setting the world on fire with his homespun wisdom, bacchanalian propensities, chess-playing abilities – and the vision he presented to the world of what liberty, American-style, looked like. An international celebrity.

Word came to France of the decisive American victory, and the complete surrender to George Washington in Yorktown. Franklin attended a diplomatic dinner shortly thereafter – and, of course, everyone was discussing the British defeat.

The French foreign minister stood, and toasted Louis XVI: “To his Majesty, Louis the Sixteenth, who, like the moon, fills the earth with a soft, benevolent glow.”

The British ambassador rose and said, “To George the Third, who, like the sun at noonday, spreads his light and illumines the world.”

Franklin rose and countered, “I cannot give you the sun or the moon, but I give you George Washington, General of the armies of the United States, who, like Joshua of old, commanded both the sun and the moon to stand still, and both obeyed.”

Excerpt from Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington:

After Yorktown, moreover, new life was breathed into these old fears, since Washington’s insistence on maintaining the Continental army at full strength during a time when the majority of the citizenry believed, correctly it turned out, that the war was over only intensified fears that he intended to become the American Cromwell … Such loose talk triggered the fear that the infant American republic was about to be murdered in its infancy by the same kind of military dictatorship that had destroyed the Roman and English republics in their formative phases. And since these were the only two significant efforts to establish republican governments in recorded history, the pattern did not bode well.

Washington was fully aware of this pattern, and therefore recognized the need to make explicit statements of his intention to defy it. In May 1782 a young officer at the Newburgh encampment, Lewis Nicola, put in writing what many officers were whispering behind the scenes: that the Continental Congress’s erratic conduct of the war had exposed the weakness of all republics and the certain disaster that would befall postwar America unless Washington declared himself king … Washington responded with a stern lecture to “banish these thoughts from your Mind,” and denounced the scheme as “big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country.” When word of Washington’s response leaked out to the world, no less an expert on the subject than George III was heard to say that, if Washington resisted the monarchical mantle and retired, as he always said he would, he would be “the greatest man in the world”.

While George III’s judgment as a student of history has never met the highest standards, his opinion on this matter merits our attention, for it underlines the truly exceptional character of Washington’s refusal to regard himself as the indispensable steward of the American Revolution. Oliver Cromwell had not surrendered power after the English Revolution. Napoleon, Lenin, Mao, and Castro did not step aside to leave their respective revolutionary settlements to others in subsequent centuries. We need to linger over this moment to ask what was different about Washington, or what was different about the political conditions created by the American Revolution, that allowed him to resist temptations that other revolutionary leaders before and since found irresistible.

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GEORGE WASHINGTON, letter of (unwelcome) advice sent to governors of the 13 states, 1783, as the army began to disband.

Americans are now sole lords and proprietors of a vast tract of continent comprehending all the various soils and climates of the world and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life – Heaven has crowned all other blessings, by giving a fairer opportunity for political happiness, than any other nation has been favored with – This is the time of their political probation; this is the moment when the eyes of the whole world are turned upon them; this is the moment to establish or ruin their national character forever; this is the favorable moment to give such a tone to our federal government as will enable it to answer the ends of its institution; or this may be the ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the Union, annihilating the cement of the Confederation and exposing us to become the sport of European politics, which may play one state against another, to prevent their growing importance and to serve their own interested purposes. For, according to the system of policy the states shall adopt at this moment, they will stand or fall; and by their confirmation or lapse it is yet to be decided whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered a blessing or a curse – a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn millions be involved.

[He states that there are 4 requirements for the new America]

First. An indissoluble union of the states under one federal head. Secondly. A sacred regard to public justice (that is, the payment of debts). Thirdly. The adoption of a proper peace establishment (that is, an army and a navy). Fourthly. The prevalence of that pacific and friendly disposition among the people of the Union, which will influence them to forget their local prejudices and policies; to make those mutual concessions, which are requisite to the general prosperity; and, in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community. These are the pillars on which the glorious future of our independency and national character must be supported.

Then there was the Newburgh Conspiracy, in March 1783, when a group of congressmen aligned with officers in the army threatened a military coup for various reasons. The new federal government was barely formed, there was no constitution yet – and the states were vying for powerful positions. It’s important to remember just how tenuous all of this was at the time. It wasn’t a smooth clear path full of Revolutionary-Era virtue and certainty, although there are bozos who claim that it was like that. They need to read their history books. Washington heard of the plot, and decided to address it headon. Now. One of the things I love about this story is that Washington – while he obviously said time and time again that he was uncomfortable with being a “symbol” (and I believe him) – he also realized that it was pointless to fight against it, and when he needed to USE that symbolic stature to get something done that he wanted, he had no problem with playing that card. This is a highly theatrical moment, described vividly by every person who was there, who left an account, and they all say the same thing. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Perhaps it’s my theatrical background, but I cannot believe that Washington was unaware of the effect he wanted to have, and that he did not USE that gesture described so vividly in a conscious manner. There is a way, you know, to be FALSE and TRUE at the same time. Any actor can tell you that. You are playing make-believe, you are pretending to be someone else – so that’s the FALSE part – but your reactions and gestures all come from a very TRUE place, and many an actor will tell you that they feel MORE true when they are acting than when they are just out and about as a regular civilian. So that’s my interpretation of Washington’s big gesture here. It was certainly planned, and so that is FALSE … but it was also organic and came from a true place. It was chosen for the EFFECT it would have. Washington was a celebrity. He knew that. He hated it. But he used it when convenient. Anyway, I’m going on and on but this is just one of my favorite moments of his life – I love its theatricality – and I also just wish I had been there. But so many people described the moment that I do feel like I can live it vicariously. Like Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” speech, where people record his gestures, his pantomime, the tenor of his voice. I have imagined myself there.

So Washington gets wind of this dangerous conspiracy, to basically take over, and undermine Washington’s authority – not to mention the authority of the baby federal government.

Excerpt from Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington:

For obvious reasons, the secret conversations within the officers’ corps never found their way into the historical record, making all efforts to recover the shifting factions in the plot educated guesses at best. We can be sure that the crisis came to a head on March 11, when the dissident officers scheduled a meeting to coordinate their strategy. Washington countermanded the order for a meeting, saying only he could issue such an order, then scheduled a session for all officers on March 16.

He spent the preceding day drafting, in his own hand, the most impressive speech he ever wrote. Beyond the verbal felicities and classic cadences, the speech established a direct link between his own honor and reputation and the abiding goals of the American Revolution. His central message was that any attempted coup by the army was simultaneously a repudiation of the principles for which they had all been fighting and an assault on his own integrity. Whereas Cromwell and later Napoleon made themselves synonymous with the revolution in order to justify the assumption of dictatorial power, Washington made himself synonymous with the American Revolution in order to declare that it was incompatible with dictatorial power.

On March 16, 1783, George Washington made the following speech to his group of officers:

Gentlemen:
By an anonymous summons, an attempt has been made to convene you together; how inconsistent with the rules of propriety, how unmilitary, and how subversive of all order and discipline, let the good sense of the army decide…

Thus much, gentlemen, I have thought it incumbent on me to observe to you, to show upon what principles I opposed the irregular and hasty meeting which was proposed to have been held on Tuesday last – and not because I wanted a disposition to give you every opportunity consistent with your own honor, and the dignity of the army, to make known your grievances. If my conduct heretofore has not evinced to you that I have been a faithful friend to the army, my declaration of it at this time would be equally unavailing and improper. But as I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common country. As I have never left your side one moment, but when called from you on public duty. As I have been the constant companion and witness of your distresses, and not among the last to feel and acknowledge your merits. As I have ever considered my own military reputation as inseparably connected with that of the army. As my heart has ever expanded with joy, when I have heard its praises, and my indignation has arisen, when the mouth of detraction has been opened against it, it can scarcely be supposed, at this late stage of the war, that I am indifferent to its interests.

But how are they to be promoted? The way is plain, says the anonymous addresser. If war continues, remove into the unsettled country, there establish yourselves, and leave an ungrateful country to defend itself. But who are they to defend? Our wives, our children, our farms, and other property which we leave behind us. Or, in this state of hostile separation, are we to take the two first (the latter cannot be removed) to perish in a wilderness, with hunger, cold, and nakedness? If peace takes place, never sheathe your swords, says he, until you have obtained full and ample justice; this dreadful alternative, of either deserting our country in the extremest hour of her distress or turning our arms against it (which is the apparent object, unless Congress can be compelled into instant compliance), has something so shocking in it that humanity revolts at the idea. My God! What can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures? Can he be a friend to the army? Can he be a friend to this country? Rather, is he not an insidious foe? Some emissary, perhaps, from New York, plotting the ruin of both, by sowing the seeds of discord and separation between the civil and military powers of the continent? And what a compliment does he pay to our understandings when he recommends measures in either alternative, impracticable in their nature?

I cannot, in justice to my own belief, and what I have great reason to conceive is the intention of Congress, conclude this address, without giving it as my decided opinion, that that honorable body entertain exalted sentiments of the services of the army; and, from a full conviction of its merits and sufferings, will do it complete justice. That their endeavors to discover and establish funds for this purpose have been unwearied, and will not cease till they have succeeded, I have not a doubt. But, like all other large bodies, where there is a variety of different interests to reconcile, their deliberations are slow. Why, then, should we distrust them? And, in consequence of that distrust, adopt measures which may cast a shade over that glory which has been so justly acquired; and tarnish the reputation of an army which is celebrated through all Europe, for its fortitude and patriotism? And for what is this done? To bring the object we seek nearer? No! most certainly, in my opinion, it will cast it at a greater distance.

For myself (and I take no merit in giving the assurance, being induced to it from principles of gratitude, veracity, and justice), a grateful sense of the confidence you have ever placed in me, a recollection of the cheerful assistance and prompt obedience I have experienced from you, under every vicissitude of fortune, and the sincere affection I feel for an army I have so long had the honor to command will oblige me to declare, in this public and solemn manner, that, in the attainment of complete justice for all your toils and dangers, and in the gratification of every wish, so far as may be done consistently with the great duty I owe my country and those powers we are bound to respect, you may freely command my services to the utmost of my abilities.

While I give you these assurances, and pledge myself in the most unequivocal manner to exert whatever ability I am possessed of in your favor, let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained; let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress; that, previous to your dissolution as an army, they will cause all your accounts to be fairly liquidated, as directed in their resolutions, which were published to you two days ago, and that they will adopt the most effectual measures in their power to render ample justice to you, for your faithful and meritorious services. And let me conjure you, in the name of our common country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.

By thus determining and thus acting, you will pursue the plain and direct road to the attainment of your wishes. You will defeat the insidious designs of our enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret artifice. You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings. And you will, by the dignity of your conduct, afford occasion for posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to mankind, “Had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.”

I hope you made it through that whole thing. It is rather extraordinary. BUT the most extraordinary thing is the “improvised” moment that came directly BEFORE he made that speech. It was the GESTURE that ended the coup, not his words. Or perhaps a mixture of both. But never ever underestimate the power of gesture.

Here is Joseph Ellis again on the moment in question:

Washington has just entered the New Building at Newburgh, a large auditorium recently built by the troops and also called The Temple. About 500 officers are present in the audience. Horatio Gates is chairing the meeting, a rich irony since Gates is most probably complicitous in the plot to stage a military coup that Washington has come to quash. Everything has been scripted and orchestrated beforehand. Washington’s aides fan out into the audience to prompt applause for the general’s most crucial lines. Washington walks slowly to the podium and reaches inside his jacket to pull out his prepared remarks. Then he pauses – the gesture is almost certainly planned – and pulls from his waistcoat a pair of spectacles recently sent to him by David Rittenhouse, the Philadelphia scientist. No one has ever seen Washington wear spectacles before on public occasions. He looks out to his assembled officers while adjusting the new glasses and says: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.” Several officers began to sob. The speech itself is anti-climactic. All thoughts of a military coup die at that moment.

On November 25, 1783: George Washington “took back” New York.

The peace treaty had been signed a year before, France had pledged support and recognition of the new United States, but the redcoats remained in New York, waiting for their written orders from London. George Washington vowed that he would not go home, he would not break up his army, until every last redcoat had left.

Nov. 25 was that momentous day – the day the American troops marched back into town, after the departure of the British.

The exhausted army marched the long way downtown, through what was now a war-ravaged New York City. People lined the streets, throwing laurels in front of Washington’s horse, screaming, crying … a huge display of emotion and reverence that made the typically humble Washington feel uncomfortable.

A woman in the crowd that day wrote the following in her diary:

We had been accustomed for a long time to military display in all the finish and finery of [British] garrison life. The troops just leaving us were as if equipped for a show and with their scarlet uniforms and burnished arms made a brilliant display. The troops that marched in, on the contrary, were ill-clad and weather-beaten and made a forlorn appearance. But then, they were our troops and as I looked at them and thought upon all they had done and suffered for us, my heart and my eyes were full.

GEORGE WASHINGTON’S MOTHER to Lafayette, 1784:

“I am not surprised at what George has done, for he was always a good boy.”

George Washington wrote the following on the eve of his inauguration in 1789:

It is said that every man has his portion of ambition. I may have mine, I suppose, as well as the rest, but if I know my own heart, my ambition would not lead me into public life; my only ambition is to do my duty in this world as well as I am capable of performing it, and to merit the good opinion of all good men.

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Washington’s first inaugural address

David McCullough describes, in his book on John Adams, the first inauguration day:

On the day of his inauguration, Thursday, April 30 1789, Washington rode to Federal Hall in a canary-yellow carriage pulled by six white horses and followed by a long column of New York militia in full dress. The air was sharp, the sun shone brightly, and with all work stopped in the city, the crowds along his route were the largest ever seen. It was as if all New York had turned out and more besides. “Many persons in the crowd,” reported the Gazette of the United States “were heard to say they should now die contented – nothing being wanted to complete their happiness – but the sight of the savior of his country.”

In the Senate Chamber were gathered the members of both houses of Congress, the Vice President, and sundry officials and diplomatic agents, all of whom rose when Washington made his entrance, looking solemn and stately. His hair powdered, he wore a dress sword, white silk stockings, shoes with silver buckles, and a suit of the same brown Hartford broadcloth that Adams, too, was wearing for the occasion. They might have been dressed as twins, except that Washington’s metal buttons had eagles on them.

It was Adams who formally welcomed the General and escorted him to the dais. For an awkward moment Adams appeared to be in some difficulty, as though he had forgotten what he was supposed to say. then, addressing Washington, he declared that the Senate and House of Representatives were ready to attend him for the oath of office as required by the Constitution. Washington said he was ready. Adams bowed and led the way to the outer balcony, in full view of the throng in the streets. People were cheering and waving from below, and from windows and rooftops as far as the eye could see. Washington bowed once, then a second time.

Fourteen years earlier, it had been Adams who called on the Continental Congress to make the tall Virginian commander-in-chief of the army. Now he stood at Washington’s side as Washington, his right hand on the Bible, repeated the oath of office as read by Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, who had also been a member of the Continental Congress.

In a low voice Washington solemnly swore to execute the office of the President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Then, as not specified in the Constitution, he added, “So help me God”, and kissed the Bible, thereby establishing his own first presidential tradition.

“It is done,” Livingston said, and, turning to the crowd, cried out, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States.”

George Washington said:

Men may speculate as they will, 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 long time it may of itself push men to action, to bear much, to encounter difficulties, but it will not endure unassisted by Interest.

On August 17, 1790, George Washington visited Newport Rhode Island – and visited the Jewish congregation of the Touro Synagogue (which still stands – gorgeous building. We went on a field trip there in grade school). The congregation presented an address to George Washington, welcoming him to Newport, and to their synagogue. A couple of days later George Washington wrote an eloquent response. Both the address as well as Washington’s response were printed in all of the “national” newspapers at the time.

August 21st, 1790
To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.

Gentleman.

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation.

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

He expresses there my own issues with the concept of “tolerance”, with his “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Mitchell and I have bitched about that very thing before, only in not so beautiful language. Don’t condescend to TOLERATE me. Don’t “indulge” me, from your height of belonging, because that means that it is only by YOUR grace that I am tolerated. I don’t care if you TOLERATE me or not, it makes no difference to me your opinion of my character and my lifestyle. I am protected by the laws of the land, and as long as I abide by those laws, then it doesn’t matter in the slightest what you think of me. Good for you, George, for putting that into words. The Jewish people, as long as they were good citizens, had nothing to fear. It was not up to one group of people to decide to ‘tolerate’ them or not. They were citizens of the land, and therefore protected.

This is why John Adams said he wanted the new nation to be a nation “of laws, not men.” Because men are fickle and subject to emotion and temptation. They may “tolerate” you one day and hate you the next. As long as we are a nation “of laws, not men” … then that will not matter. Yes, there will be growth pains, as we saw in the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, and as we continue to see in the gay / lesbian / transgender movement. Nothing is perfect. Thank God. Perfection means stasis, a perfect way to describe a totalitarian top-down state. We are not that. We are ruled by “laws, not men”, so the Jewish synagogue in Newport was protected by the law, regardless of the anti-Semitism they may have faced around them.

Now I will wait for someone to pipe up “but Washington had slaves!”

Yes. He had slaves. You know why? Because he was a man of HIS time, not our own. It was a grave sin on the society at the time, and many – including Washington – were tormented by the contradiction. It was so interwoven with their own prosperity that many could not see a way out of it. But to discount everything he said because he happened to live THEN not NOW, and was therefore subject to the prejudices of his time, is ridiculous. It’s also a shame. Because if you take that view – then you cut yourself off from the wisdom of the ages.

george-washington-picture.jpg

From Joseph Ellis’ book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation:

First, it is crucial to recognize that Washington’s extraordinary reputation rested less on his prudent exercise of power than on his dramatic flair at surrendering it. He was, in fact, a veritable virtuoso of exits. Almost everyone regarded his retirement of 1796 as a repeat performance of his resignation as commander of the Continental Army in 1783. Back then, faced with a restive and unpaid remnant of the victorious army quartered in Newburgh, New York, he had suddenly appeared at a meeting of officers who were contemplating insurrection; the murky plot involved marching on the Congress and then seizing a tract of land for themselves in the West, all presumably with Washington as their leader.

He summarily rejected their offer to become the American Caesar and denounced the entire scheme as treason to the cause for which they had fought. Then, in a melodramatic gesture that immediately became famous, he pulled a pair of glasses out of his pocket: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles,” he declared rhetorically, “for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in service to my country.” Upon learning that Washington intended to reject the mantle of emperor, no less an authority than George III allegedly observed, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” True to his word, on December 22, 1783, Washington surrendered his commission to the Congress, then meeting in Annapolis: “Having now finished the work assigned me,” he announced, “I now retire from the great theatre of action.” In so doing, he became the supreme example of the leader who could be trusted with power because he was so ready to give it up.

Excerpt from Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington, on the final days of Washington’s presidency:

The last days were spent hosting dinners and dances in his honor. The ceremonials culminated with the [John] Adams inauguration, where, somewhat to Adams’s irritation, more attention was paid to the outgoing than incoming president. Adams reported to Abigail that he thought he heard Washington murmuring under his breath at the end of the ceremony: “Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest.” But the story is probably apocryphal. Washington’s diary entry for the day was typically flat and unrevealing: “Much such a day as yesterday in all respects. Mercury at 41.” The public man was already receding into the proverbial mists. The private man could not wait to get those new dentures and place himself beneath those vines and fig trees.

Washington said, at one point, to the doctor, during his final illness in 1799:

“Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go.”

death-george-washington.jpg
Washington on his death bed

George Washington’s last words:

“I feel myself going. I thank you for your attentions; but I pray you to take no more trouble about me. Let me go off quietly. I cannot last long.”

Henry Lee said, in eulogy:

First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Mark Twain wrote in 1871:

I have a higher and greater standard of principle [than George Washington]. Washington could not lie. I can lie but I won’t.

Gouverneur Morris said, upon the death of George Washington:

It is a question, previous to the first meeting, what course shall be pursued. Men of decided temper, who, devoted to the public, overlooked prudential considerations, thought a form of government should be framed entirely new. But cautious men, with whom popularity was an object, deemed it fit to consult and comply with the wishes of the people. AMERICANS! — let the opinion then delivered by the greatest and best of men, be ever present to your remembrance. He was collected within himself. His countenance had more than usual solemnity — His eye was fixed, and seemed to look into futurity. ‘It is (said he)too probable that no plan we propose will be adopted. Perhaps another dreadful conflict is to be sustained. If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.’–this was the patriot voice of WASHINGTON; and this the constant tenor of his conduct.

My father said, in regards to Washington being our first President:

“We were so lucky.”

And below, a video in praise of “George Washington’s awesome-ness”: Did you know he weighed “a fucking ton”? Well, he did.

On that note, happy birthday, Mr. Washington!

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13 Responses to Today in history, February 22, 1732

  1. Mr. Bingley says:

    Daughter and I were talking about Washington yesterday. I said it was a gift from God that we had him at that time.

    Daughter said “George Washington was God.”

  2. red says:

    I suppose we’re really lucky that Washington didn’t think he was God. We were so fortunate that we had a man of such rectitude and self-control (although the aides who were subjected to his horrible temper probably didn’t see him as self-controlled) – but in terms of his willingness to walk away from the seat of power when his time was up.

    It was SUCH a symbolic moment – new in the history of politics – and it floored everyone (I love the quote from George III – and Napoleon said something along the same lines – as in: “they wanted you to stay President and you said No??? What the hell??”

  3. red says:

    By the way, Bingley, I still laugh sometimes at your story (told a long time ago) of your experience at college and how people would reference “Mr. Jefferson”, as though he was in the next room. Love it!!!

  4. Mr. Bingley says:

    Hehehe, ah, Mr. Jefferson! We lived and breathed in the very rooms he did so his spirit was everywhere.

    But I must confess that too many years’ acquaintance with you has seduced me to the Dark Side of Hamilton…

    (although in fact my conversion began earlier: when my Bride and I were choosing our china some twenty-odd years ago we winnowed it down to two Lenox patterns: Jefferson and Hamilton. And I grudgingly had to admit that I liked Hamilton better. It was actually a painful decision for me.)

  5. red says:

    HAHAHAHA

    I had a similar situation – growing up so near Boston, and literally feeling as though we were related to the Adams family. My uncle lived right down the street from the Adams household, so we’d drive by there on Thanksgiving, and I’d hear, “That’s John and Abigail’s house …” So, you know, I figured: we knew them or something.

    I grew up, too, thinking Hamilton was evil. Nobody hated him more than Adams (although, well, I suppose Aaron Burr hated him the most, right??)

  6. george says:

    Sheila,
    The subjects of your posts are all, in their turn, my favorite. You do well in reminding us that we are blessed with giants in all fields – and my favorite giant in the Anerican/political/historical field is Washington. I’m very nearly incensed that he has been demoted to President’s Day and his reputation has to wallow in the confusion that convenience brought about.

    From this article, By George, IT IS Washington’s Birthday:

    Dan Heflin Kuykendall (R-Tennessee): “If we do this, 10 years from now our schoolchildren will not know or care when George Washington was born. They will know that in the middle of February they will have a 3-day weekend for some reason. This will come.”

    Thanks, as always, for allowing me to blow off a little steam.

  7. george says:

    I meant for ‘By George, IT IS Washington’s Birthday’ to show up as this link on the history of Presidents’ Day.

    For anyone interested:
    http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2004/winter/gw-birthday-1.html

  8. red says:

    I fixed your link – something is REALLY wrong with my server today. It keeps dropping the connection.

    George – providing a place for intelligent people to blow off steam is one of the best byproducts of my blog!!

    Washington is even more amazing to me when you realize that it all very well might NOT have happened. It wasn’t a done deal. He was a farmer, a soldier, and he had a hectoring awful mother (who drives me insane – I want to tell her to just back off, lady, learn some boundaries). He, in many ways, created himself – and he was the right person at the right time. He did not disappoint.

    I love the anecdote about him, as a teenager, copying out the rules from a book of etiquette into a notebook. He wanted to be proper, formal, he wanted to always be correct in his manners – it wasn’t easy for him – There is speculation that his overwhelming proper-ness in all situations probably came from an understanding that his temper was truly something awful – he needed to really WORK to keep it under control. I admire that about him, that he understood he needed to counteract that, when necessary.

    He was also, apparently, an exquisite dancer.

    Dude had it all!!

  9. red says:

    I also think that Martha Washington is pretty under-rated as far as First Ladies go. Abigail Adams usually gets all the press. But Martha was a formidable woman, who stood by her husband – sacrificing her own personal domestic happiness for the greater good. A smart cookie, and someone who stood between George and his bossy emasculating mother- in a way that gave him some SPACE. I like Martha a lot. She was a good partner to this sometimes difficult man.

  10. Jeff says:

    I dunno, Sheila – any more posts like this one, and I’m worried that your boyfriend Alexander is going to get jealous.

    But in the meantime – awesome job, as always!

  11. red says:

    Jeff – it’s even worse because I missed his birthday this year because I was on Block Island.

    I can feel the rage simmering at me from literally down the block where he bit the dust.

  12. Sharon Ferguson says:

    Am having so much fun giving my daughter a better awareness of George Washington…am bookmarking your post here for her to read!

  13. John de Sieyes says:

    I’ve but one suggestion in three parts to offer Sheila: question far more… quote far less…and read far older texts. It was not until 1974 that Washington was placed in the pantheon of The Founders, and for good reason. This is not to detract from the man, it is simply fact and facts are stubborn things.

    For aversion to lasting political advantage, give me Washington.
    For knowledge of other social torts and reformulation into a cohesive legal challenge (Aperio/Constituo/Affirme), give me Jefferson.
    For choosing Liberty over a form of Divine Right (becoming a priest of any sort), and for sheer force of will, give me Adams.
    For Awareness, Inventiveness and Cleverness, give me Franklin.

    And may God damn Hamilton.

    A good start Sheila, but one must always…Go, go further, go further still.

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