Topic: George Washington

The Dispersal of George Washington’s Library

By William M. Ferraro, Senior Associate Editor
April 20, 2018

George Washington’s interest in books has attracted increasing scholarly attention. Mount Vernon pulled together a major exhibition in 2013 to mark the opening of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.1 Adrienne M. Harrison’s dissertation on Washington’s self-improvement through reading became a book published in 2015.2 Noted literary biographer Kevin J. Hayes has written a study with even greater range and depth. His book is now a finalist for the 2018 George Washington Prize.3 It has taken time for this scholarship to come forward because George Washington’s impressive library scattered after his death, and it was not his habit to muse about or ponder his reading in his diaries or correspondence. Sustained effort has been necessary to overcome the inaccurate perception that Washington had little curiosity and limited literary ability.4

Joseph R. Hawley, from James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, eds., Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, 7 vols (New York, 1888–1900).

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“One of the Severest Strokes that Could have been Meditated Against Us”: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, West Point, and British Strategy

By Jeffrey L. Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
April 6, 2018

Benedict Arnold infamously schemed with Maj. John André, the British adjutant general, to help Britain take West Point in 1780. Yet, how did Arnold actually plan to betray the 11 Continental and militia regiments under his command at or near West Point’s fortifications? The British, moreover, had grander goals in mind than capturing West Point on a kind of large-scale raid. Indeed, when George Washington came to West Point on Sept. 25 after discussing strategy with Lieutenant General Rochambeau at Hartford, he not only foiled Arnold’s design but a British gambit to win the war.

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The Most Difficult Days of the Patriot Cause: Examining the Events of Revolutionary War Series Volume 29

By Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor
March 16, 2018

Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, engraving. Image courtesy of New York Public Library.

The winter of 1780-81 was one of the most difficult periods of the American Revolution for the Patriots, though the weather was only indirectly related to the challenges they faced. Coming in the aftermath of American defeats at Savannah, Ga., and Charleston and Camden, S.C., this was undoubtedly a military low point for the Americans. News of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal and suspicions about Ethan Allen’s loyalties raised concerns about popular support for the Patriot cause and the morale of the fighting men. The seeming unlikelihood of the situation improving further dampened spirits. Nothing describes this situation more vividly than the correspondence between Nathanael Greene and George Washington during the late autumn of 1780.

Greene was appointed to replace Gen. Horatio Gates as commander of the southern department after Gates’s defeat at Camden. A skillful general, Greene had earned Washington’s trust and is remembered as one of Washington’s most valued officers. But as he made his way south to assume his new command, the burden of leading a large force of men under such desperate conditions began to weigh heavily on Greene.

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Another Look at Forgotten Biographies of George Washington: Henry Cabot Lodge’s George Washington

by William M. Ferraro, Senior Associate Editor
February 9, 2018

The seemingly endless flow of books on George Washington easily submerges notable past treatments. Bringing these forgotten gems to the surface is a worthwhile endeavor. This contribution to “Washington’s Quill” highlights Henry Cabot Lodge’s George Washington, a two-volume biography published in 1890.

Lodge is best known among historians as the isolationist senator from Massachusetts who frustrated President Woodrow Wilson’s plans for the League of Nations. Decades prior, however, he had gained a reputation as a historical writer and political journalist. He undertook his study of Washington in the mid-1880s for Houghton, Mifflin, and Company’s American Statesmen series after completing volumes on Alexander Hamilton and Daniel Webster.

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Washington and the Governors (Part II)

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
February 2, 2018

Washington faced some of his thorniest fights with state leaders over the deployment of Continental troops. He summed up his problem in a letter to his friend Gouverneur Morris:

When I endeavour to draw together the Continental troops for the most essential purposes I am embarrassed with complaints of the exhausted defenceless situation of particular states and find myself obliged either to resist solicitations made in such a manner and with such a degree of emphasis as scarcely to leave me a choice, or to sacrifice the most obvious principles of military propriety and risk the general safety.1

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Loose Ends: George Washington and “Philip Langfit”

By Jeffrey L. Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
January 26, 2018

When undertaking research, editors of The Papers of George Washington have occasionally discovered intriguing historical connections that are not included in the annotation. In some cases, the information is omitted because connections cannot be definitively tied together and therefore lack sufficient certitude to warrant inclusion.

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“With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you”: George Washington’s Farewell Toast

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
January 19, 2018

On December 4, 1783, an emotional George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental army, stood before his officers in the Long Room of Fraunces Tavern in New York. The Revolutionary War had ended three months earlier, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and the United States was an independent nation. On November 25, the remaining British troops had evacuated the last occupied city—New York. At the tavern, fighting back emotions, Washington broke the heavy silence with the raise of his wine glass. “With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you,” Washington toasted, as his eyes scanned the room. “I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable. I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”1 And with that, the General stepped back and waited for his men to approach him.

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Washington and the Governors (Part I)

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
November 10, 2017

In this blog post I pause my series on Washington’s letters announcing pivotal moments in the Revolutionary War to look at a key facet of his generalship.

“You will, upon the whole, find many advantages by cultivating a good understanding with the Civil Authority”1

On Feb. 3, 1780, Gen. George Washington sent this advice to Col. Stephen Moylan, commander of a Continental dragoon regiment, after issues had arisen with the Connecticut state government regarding the winter encampments of the cavalry in that state. Two weeks later, as the disputes between Moylan and Gov. Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., continued, Washington told the colonel, “It is always my wish to accommodate, where no great injury can result to the service.”2

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“The ablest of all our diplomatic Corps”: George Washington and John Quincy Adams

By Katie Blizzard, Communications Specialist
October 20, 2017

In 1789, while touring New England, George Washington stopped in Newburyport, Massachusetts. There, he met a bright young law student who would soon play a larger role both in Washington’s life and in the public arena: John Quincy Adams.

John Quincy Adams, the son of vice president John Adams, had long admired Washington. To the younger Adams’s delight, the citizens of Newburyport asked him to draft an address welcoming Washington to the small town. The result was poetic, expressing “sentiments of joy, resulting from principals perhaps less elevated but equally dear to their hearts; from the gratification of their affection in beholding personally among them, the friend, the benefactor, the father of his Country.” Over the course of Washington’s visit, Adams “had the honour” of interacting with the president several more times. The pair dined together within the same group twice, and Adams happily pointed out in a letter to his mother, Abigail Adams, that Washington had even remembered seeing him in New York.1

Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Their paths crossed again in 1793, when the younger man began publishing political essays. Under the pseudonym “Marcellus,” Adams argued that the nation should remain neutral in the current war between Britain and France. As “Columbus,” Adams warned about the danger of foreign intrigue. And under the name “Barneveldt,” he suggested that some executive powers, though not made explicit in the Constitution, are nevertheless important to the nation’s survival.2

According to historian Samuel Flagg Bemis, these essays not only captured Washington’s attention but also informed his Farewell Address.3 While it is difficult to define conclusively the influences behind the Farewell Address, both men supported neutrality and a strong federal government. So intrigued by an individual who echoed his own beliefs, Washington purportedly sought to uncover the identity of the essays’ author.4 If Washington did connect John Quincy Adams with his essays, that discovery may have played a role in his subsequent interest in the young man as a public servant. On May 29, 1794, a year after the political writings had been published, Washington nominated Adams to be U.S. minister to the Netherlands.5

Though the nomination surprised Adams, he did not think the nomination was a result of preferential treatment: “From the principles of the same nature which my father has always rigidly observed, I knew that no influence, nor even a request of any kind from him could have occasioned this intention of the President.”6 John Adams gleefully confirmed this was the case in his second letter to his son on the subject:

This Nomination, which is the Result of the Presidents own Observations and Reflections, is as politick, as it is unexpected. It will be a Proof that Sound Principles in Morals and Government, are cherished by the Executive of the United States and that Study, Science and Literature are recommendations which will not be overlook’d.7

Though John Quincy Adams had not intended to “solicit for any public office whatever,” he accepted the appointment.8 It should be noted that along with his agreement with the president on diplomatic issues, his fluency in both French and Dutch equipped him well for the position.

When Adams arrived in the Netherlands in December, the scene was not at all what he had expected. The country had been invaded by the French, resulting in the disruption of diplomatic business as well as mail service.9 Cut off from American news and unable to perform his duties beyond maintaining U.S. neutrality, Adams quickly became bored and frustrated. In letters to his father, he described his unhappiness.10 Worried that his son might abandon his post, John Adams wrote to George Washington, who responded with encouragement:

Mr J. Adams, your son, must not think of retiring from the walk he is now in: his prospects, if he continues in it, are fair: and I shall be much mistaken if, in as short a period as can well be expected, he is not found at the head of the Diplomatique Corps; let the government be administered by whomsoever the people may chuse.

The embarrassment into which he was thrown, by the unforeseen events which so soon took place in Holland, after he had received his first instructions, & had arrived in that country, have long since been removed; and he can be at no loss now, as to the course he is to pursue.11

Washington’s advice, to which the vice president would later allude in a letter to his son, presumably worked; John Quincy Adams remained a public servant for the remainder of Washington’s term in office.12 When John Adams was elected president, Washington wrote to him to underscore his continued confidence in John Quincy Adams:

[I]f my wishes would be of any avail, they shd go to you in a strong hope, that you will not withhold merited promotion from Mr Jno. Adams because he is your son. For without intending to compliment the father or the mother, or to censure any others, I give it as my decided opinion, that Mr Adams is the most valuable public character we have abroad; and that there remains no doubt in my mind that he will prove himself to be the ablest, of all our diplomatic Corps.13

 

Notes

  1. “John Quincy Adams to Abigail Adams, 5 December 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-08-02-0244. Also available in print: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 8, pp. 444–447.
  2. For a brief discussion of Adams’s 1793 writings, see Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundation of American Policy (New York: 1949), 36–38.
  3. Ibid.
  4. William H. Seward, Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams, Sixth President of the United States (Auburn: 1849), 53.
  5. “From George Washington to the United States Senate, 29 May 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-16-02-0132. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 16, pp. 156–57.
  6. “[Diary entry: June 3, 1794]” in David Waldstreicher, ed., John Quincy Adams, Diaries 1779-1821 (New York: 2017), 43.
  7. “John Adams to John Quincy Adams, 29 May 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-10-02-0123. Also available in print: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 10, pp. 197–99.
  8. “[Diary entry: June 3, 1794]” in David Waldstreicher, ed., John Quincy Adams, Diaries, 43.
  9. Paul C. Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (New York: 1997), 83–84.
  10. “To John Adams from John Quincy Adams, 4 May 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-1667. Nota Bene: This is an Early Access documentfrom The Adams Papers. It is not an authoritative final version.
  11. “From George Washington to John Adams, 20 August 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-18-02-0369. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 18, pp. 565–66.
  12. “John Adams to John Quincy Adams, 25 August 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-11-02-0009. Also available in print: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, 11, pp. 20–22.]
  13. “From George Washington to John Adams, 20 February 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-00316. Nota Bene: This is an Early Access document from The Papers of George Washington. It is not an authoritative final version.

Victory at Trenton

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
August 25, 2017

“The Hour of Victory,” painting by Edward Percy Moran (c. 1914). Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Photo by Mark Finkenstaedt.

“I have the pleasure of congratulating you upon the Success of an Enterprize, which I had formed against a Detachment of the Enemy lying in Trenton, and which was executed yesterday Morning.”

With these words, Washington announced to Congress his victory over three Hessian regiments posted at Trenton, N.J., on the morning of Dec. 26, 1776.1 For most of the previous two months the general and his army had gone from defeat to defeat, with the worst of these being the fall of Fort Washington (the subject of my last blog). Now, in one swift blow, Washington had restored his faltering reputation and lifted the army’s morale. With the British and Hessian forces in New Jersey and New York greatly outnumbering his own, Washington took a great risk in making his attack, but he felt he had to go on the offensive to restore confidence in the American cause and energize recruitment for the army.

In his report to Congress, the general outlined his attack. He had planned to assemble the army, which numbered between 2,500 and 3,000 men, at McKonkey’s Ferry on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River on the evening of December 25 and, after dark, cross them over to the New Jersey shore by midnight. His small army could then arrive in front of Trenton by dawn. “But,” Washington reported, “the quantity of Ice, made that Night, impeded the passage of Boats so much, that it was three OClock before the Artillery could all be got over, and near four, before the Troops took up their line of march.” He gave up hope of surprising the Hessians since the army could not reach the town before sunrise, “but as I was certain there was no making a Retreat without being discovered, and harassed on repassing the River, I determined to push on at all Events.”

Thereafter the attack proceeded swiftly. Washington formed the army into two divisions “one to march by the lower or River road, the other, by the upper or Pennington Road.” The general ordered each division, after pushing past the Hessian outpost guards, to march directly into Trenton and charge the enemy before they had time to form. “The upper division arrived at the Enemys advanced post, exactly at eight OClock, and in three Minutes after, I found from the fire on the lower Road that, that Division had also got up. The Out Guards made but small Opposition, tho’, for their Numbers, they behaved very well, keeping up a constant retreating fire from behind Houses. We presently saw their main Body formed, but from their Motions, they seem’d undetermined how to act.” The American troops quickly captured part of the Hessian artillery. When some of the Hessian troops attempted to escape by moving off on a road leading to Princeton, Washington “threw a Body of Troops in their Way which immediately checked them. Finding from our disposition, that they were surrounded, and that they must inevitably be cut to peices if they made any further Resistance, they agreed to lay down their Arms.”     Some of the Hessian soldiers made their escape before the Continentals fully surrounded the town, but Washington claimed the capture of 23 officers and 886 men.2 “Our Loss,” Washington noted, “is very trifling indeed, only two Officers and one or two privates wounded.”

“Plan of the operations of General Washington, against the Kings troops in New Jersey, from the 26th. of December, 1776, to the 3d. January 1777.” Map by William Faden (1777). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The general did not fail to praise his soldiers:

In justice to the Officers and Men, I must add, that their Behaviour upon this Occasion, reflects the highest honor upon them. The difficulty of passing the River in a very severe Night, and their March thro’ a violent Storm of Snow and Hail, did not in the least abate their Ardour. But when they came to the Charge, each seemed to vie with the other in pressing forward, and were I to give a preferance to any particular Corps, I should do great injustice to the others.

With only the force he brought over at McKonkey’s Ferry available for action (one division of Continentals and the Pennsylvania militia had been unable to cross due to the large quantity of ice in the river), Washington decided to forgo any further attacks as too risky. After arranging for the transport of the prisoners, Washington crossed his army back to the Pennsylvania side of the river to plan his next move. Despite Washington’s inability to continue his attack, the victory at Trenton nevertheless succeeded in clearing the British and Hessian posts on the Delaware River. Mount Holly, Bordentown, and Burlington were all evacuated.

After receiving this letter, the executive committee of Congress sent their congratulations to Washington:

We . . . rejoice in your Excellencys success at Trentown as we conceive it will have the most important publick consequences and because we think it will do justice in some degree to a Character we admire & which we have long wished to appear in the World with that Brilliancy that success always obtains & which the Members of Congress know you deserve, permit us to Congratulate you on this success & to suppose it is only the beginning of more important advantages . . . It appears to us that your attack on Trentown was totally unexpected, the Surprize compleat, & the Success beyond expectation.

Historian Chistopher Ward points out that Washington’s victory quickly became a turning point in the war: “The effect upon the American people was . . . instantaneous . . . From the depth of despair they rose to new confidence. From every direction came news of militiamen on the march to serve for two months, while the new Continental army was being organized.”3 Washington had achieved his objective.

This letter with full annotation appears in volume 7 of The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series. My next blog will focus on Washington’s Jan. 5, 1777, letter reporting his next victory at Princeton, N.J., a mere eight days after Trenton.

 

Notes

  1. The Hessian regiments, totaling about 1,500 men, were the Fusilier Regiment von Lossburg, the Fusilier Regiment von Knyphausen, and the Grenadiere Regiment von Rall. Also present were a Hessian artillery detachment, fifty Hessian jägers, and twenty British light dragoons.
  1. On the return of prisoners Washington submitted with this letter, the total number of prisoners taken was listed as 918.
  1. Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, 2 vols. (New York, 1952), 1:305.