George Washington, Man of Letters
By Sarah Booth Conroy«back | home
The Revolutionary War won, George and Martha Washington hoped, as he often said, "to sit under our own vine and fig tree."
Life didn't work out quite like that -- as revealed in the final volumes (Nos. 5 and 6) of "The Papers of George Washington: Confederation Series" (covering 1787 and 1788), edited and annotated with great wit and erudition by W.W. Abbot. They're just in time, since tomorrow is Washington's 265th birthday (according to the Julian calendar).
In 1787 and 1788, between the Revolution and the first presidency, Mount Vernon's air was full of dust raised by the horses of couriers bringing intelligence to Gen. Washington. Gen. Henry Knox, later the first secretary of war, reported on Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts. The Marquis de Lafayette wrote that Queen Marie Antoinette dared not show herself in Paris.
Edmund Randolph of Richmond wrote, pleading with Washington to come to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Knox also wanted him to accept its presidency: "Our present federal government is indeed a name, a shadow without power or effect." And he promised Washington that if he served, it would "doubly entitle you to the glorious republican epithet -- The Father of Your Country."
Self-effacing, Washington declined for some time, but eventually presided over the convention. His letters from Philadelphia (none to his wife, Martha -- nobody knows what happened to those), give an intimate view of his personal life. His wife stayed at home, Washington wrote, to enjoy her two grandchildren.
Dorothy Twohig, overall editor of the Washington papers, finds these letters introspective. Written mostly to friends, they give "a different view of Washington's clarity of thought and expression," she said. "They're franker than when he feared being quoted and was more reticent."
In a letter to Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, who was putting down the rebellion in Massachusetts, Washington called the insurrection "appalling" and told Lincoln, "Your people are running mad."
Abbot, who says he's "lived with Washington for 20 years," notes that these papers show Washington was not, as some say, "a bad speller and careless writer." Abbot blames the leader's scribes, including his young nephew Howell Lewis. Lewis's "misspelled words, misreadings, omissions and bizarre punctuation disfigure and even distort the letter-book copies of many of GW's letters during these years," Abbot writes. Abbot wrote that even Lewis's mother called him "a boy of very Slender Education."
Some of the letters refer to debts owed Washington. Mary Ball Washington was one of multitudinous people owing and not likely to pay the general, her son. One tenants' group did offer horses in payment. Washington wrote his doctor James Craik, "I never felt the want of money so . . . since I was a boy of 15 years old."
At least Lafayette, though he had his own troubles in France, sent his former comrade "Asses who I hope will be less frigid than those of His Catholick Majesty," as the marquis put it. He also sent several golden pheasants, which unfortunately tended to die. Portraitist Charles Willson Peale was so enamored of the birds, dead or alive, that he asked Washington to ship him the bodies.
In one letter, Washington implores a man who'd sent him eight dogs to please send him descriptions so he'd know which was which. He also wrote several letters asking for help in finding Irish wolf dogs (now called wolfhounds), to no avail.
All sorts of people asked his help: Soldiers who hadn't been paid for their military service. People wanting loans or jobs. Jonas Phillips, a Philadelphia Jew, protested a Pennsylvania constitutional clause requiring public officials to swear the New Testament was divinely inspired. Fortunately, the new federal Constitution had already adopted a provision: "No religious test or qualification shall ever be annexed to any oath of office . . ."
Other letters in the collection show that Washington exchanged seeds with friends from all over world. He admonished his farm manager that something had to be done about one William Roberts, his miller, who had become "such an intolerable sot and when drunk so great a mad man." He ordered blankets for all his "people" (as he called his slaves and indentured workers). He sent directions on the installation of a new weather vane on Mount Vernon's cupola. And he wrote what the suspicious Chronicler considers an inordinate number of notes to Elizabeth Powel, saying he'd send his carriage for her.
In two years, Twohig said, the Packard Humanities Institute plans to issue a CD-ROM of all 135,000 known Washington papers, unfortunately without the fascinating annotations that explain and add so much. Meanwhile, the editors of the Washington papers worry about finding support to finish the massive, projected 85-volume project by 2017. Thirty-eight volumes in the five series of papers, plus his diaries, have been published by the University of Virginia, sponsored by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute.
Fortunately the project of telling the country's history in the words of its founders has its passionate devotees. Abbot, after retiring, has gone on to edit four volumes, including a new series on Washington's last years.
Mount Vernon is celebrating with free hoecakes on Saturday and Sunday. On Feb. 17, Presidents' Day, admission is free for the laying of a wreath given by President Clinton, music by the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps and military exercises by the Commander in Chief's Guard. On Washington's official Gregorian calendar birthday, Feb. 22, visitors named George will be admitted free. The Neighborhood Friends of Mount Vernon will give their annual Birthnight Supper and Ball on Sunday. For ball information, call 703-799-8659. For Mount Vernon events, call 703-780-2000.
© 1997 The Washington Post Company
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