Topic: George Washington

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

These two statements crystallize Washington’s philosophy in dealing with the governors. Such an attitude, which I view as diplomacy, was a vital but often overlooked aspect of his generalship. He needed the states to man and supply his army. The American commander proved very adept at diplomatic relations: Washington usually—but not always—received strong support from the state executives. Yet, for more than a year, he had been deeply concerned about failing leadership in Congress and the states, as well as a decline in zeal for the American cause among the people. This anxiety underlaid his dealings with the states. In a gloomy and angry “picture of the times—& of Men,” as he called it, sent to a Virginia friend in December 1778,3 the general confessed to feeling “more real distress” on account of the “distressed, ruinous,—& deplorable” state of affairs than at any other time since the start of the Revolution. Five months later, his view had not changed. The country’s affairs, he confessed to New York congressman Gouverneur Morris, remained in a “very disagreeable train.”

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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.

“More Dangerous to the United States than the Late Treachery at West-Point”: Ethan Allen, Vermont’s Benedict Arnold

By Jeff Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
August 11, 2017

An engraving of a statue of Ethan Allen. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Treason is a central theme in volume 28 of The Washington Papers’ Revolutionary War Series. In a letter dated Sept. 26, 1780, George Washington informed Lieutenant General Rochambeau, who led the French forces at Rhode Island that “General Arnold, who has sullied his former glory by the blackest treason, has escaped to the enemy. This is an event that occasions me equal regret and mortification; but traitors are the growth of every country, and . . . it is more to be wondered at, that the catalogue is so small, than that there have been found a few.”1 Washington expected to add the renowned Vermont militia commander Ethan Allen to that catalog, however, when he told Gov. George Clinton of New York in early November “that I have given discretionary powers to seize and secure a certain person, should it appear upon further investigation necessary.”2

Fort Ticonderoga had famously fallen in May 1775 to Allen and Benedict Arnold. By the late 1770s, Allen, like Arnold, had become dissatisfied with Congress due to New York’s continued claim to Vermont, which was still commonly called the New Hampshire Grants. In mid-October 1780, British forces stationed in Quebec invaded the northern frontiers of New York and Vermont. The Vermont Republic still had not been admitted to the United States despite having declared independence in 1777. Congressman Philip Schuyler, Col. William Malcom, and other prominent New Yorkers recalled how Allen’s Green Mountain Boys militia had forcibly resisted New York’s authority from 1770 to 1775. They now suspected a grand scheme on Britain’s part to sever New England from New York through the treachery of Allen and Arnold. As Clinton informed Washington in an Oct. 14 letter: “It is a little remarkable that we had not the least Intelligence from the Grants of the approach of the Enemy tho’ they passed their settlements in Boats on the way. . . . This Enterprize of the Enemy is probably the effects of arnolds Treason. . . .”3 And Washington concurred in his reply of Oct. 16 that “I do not think it at all improbable that the movements of the Enemy, at this advanced season of the year, may have been upon a plan concerted to take advantage of the success of arnolds treachery.”4

A commemorative plaque at Fort Ticonderoga.

Having reported in an Oct. 18 letter to GW that “There has [been] but very little assisstance derived from the Grants on this Occassion—which cannot at present be accounted for,” Malcom wrote Washington again on the 29th that “I am Suspicious that there will be bad news from the north-parts of the State—towards the Grants <ere> long—my information although pretty good are not sufficent to accuse.”5  Clinton soon wrote Washington a letter in which he cited “the very extraordinary Conduct of Colo. allen and the Jealousies it has occasioned” in accepting a ceasefire with the British on Vermont’s behalf in order to negotiate prisoner exchanges.6  Schuyler had also sent Washington a copy of a letter he had received from Col. Alexander Webster of the New York militia. In the letter, Webster questioned Allen’s motives in asking the British to extend a similar offer to New York.  Suspecting that Allen’s overture was a feint to help disguise his treason, Webster stated: “I make no doubt but at first sight It will appear that the Grants have left us to ourselves either to stand or fall.”7  And Washington instructed Brig. Gen. James Clinton, the governor’s brother, on Nov. 6 as follows: “From some circumstances there is reason to apprehend Treachery in the Northern Quarter. . . . upon a further investigation if it should appear necessary to secure a certain person, you are to concert measures for having him apprehended suddenly and sent down the Country under a proper guard. You need not be cautioned against lisping the most distant hint of this business.”8

Allen would not be arrested upon further investigation, even though his Vermont political foe Joseph Marsh had warned Washington that “a negociation is on foot for a separate peace for the new State, which we have heard has been threatned if Congress should not acknowledge the independence of Vermont and admit them to union.” Marsh had added that “the consequences of such negotiation may be speedily fatal to the settlements contiguous to Connecticut river and more dangerous to the united States than the late treachery at West-point.”9 Allen actually was engaged in secret negotiations with Frederick Haldimand, the British commander in Quebec, to make Vermont a British province if rebuffed by Congress.10 The negotiations, however, came to naught in 1783, and Allen did not live to see Vermont become the 14th state in 1791 under President Washington.

 

Notes

1. GW to Rochambeau, 26 Sept. 1780 (LS, CtY-BR: Rochambeau Papers and Rochambeau Family Cartographic Archive).

2. GW to George Clinton, 6 Nov. 1780 (LS, N-Ar: George Clinton Papers).

3. George Clinton to GW, 14 Oct. 1780 (LS, DLC:GW).

4. GW to George Clinton, 16 Oct. 1780 (LS, CSmH). See GW to Thomas Jefferson, 10 Oct. 1780 (Df, DLC:G); and GW to Samuel Huntington, 21 Oct. 1780 (Df, DLC:GW).

5. William Malcom to GW, 18 Oct. 1780 (ALS, DLC:GW); and William Malcom to GW, 29 Oct. 1780 (ALS, DLC:GW).

6. George Clinton to GW, 3 Nov. 1780 (LS, DLC:GW).

7. Alexander Webster to Philip Schuyler, c.31 Oct. 1780, enclosed in Schuyler to GW, 31 Oct. 1780.  See Webster to John Williams, c.31 Oct. 1780, also enclosed in Schuyler to GW, 31 Oct. 1780.

8. GW to James Clinton, 6 Nov. 1780 (LS, NHi: George and Martha Washington Papers).

9. Joseph Marsh to GW, 3 Nov. 1780 (ALS, DLC:GW).

10. See John J. Duffy and H. Nicholas Muller III, Inventing Ethan Allen (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2014), 167-68.

Visualizing George Washington’s Voyage to Barbados

by Erica Cavanaugh, Research Editor
August 3, 2017

In anticipation of the upcoming edition of the diary George Washington kept during his trip to Barbados, I worked with editors Lynn A. Price and Alicia K. Anderson to create an interactive map of Washington’s voyage. The map not only illustrates the ship’s progress and landing but also describes the weather encountered and the food eaten during the journey. Such details are revealed by selecting from the various elements included on the map. Users can customize the display by toggling the selection of these elements on the legend or by zooming in and out on the map.

Washington’s voyage began prior to September 28, 1751, in the Chesapeake Bay (indicated by a red circle on the map). From there, a green line maps the latitude and longitude as recorded in Washington’s ship log from September 28 to October 30. At the end of the journey’s first leg, 19-year-old George Washington’s calculations placed the ship to the east of Barbados by about 450 nautical miles, as illustrated on the map, but the ship was actually about 10 miles west of the island. An icon in the shape of a pineapple marks his final destination. When selected, a map of the island is displayed, indicating where Washington’s ship landed.

Along the green line are four ship icons that reference notable points of Washington’s passage. When clicked, each ship icon displays an excerpt from the diary, highlighting common themes of his voyage. For example, the entry from October 6, 1751, discusses the food consumed on the journey. Throughout the diary, Washington was interested in the various types of fish he saw, at times detailing how they were caught, brought aboard the ship, and dressed. Another entry, dated October 19, 1751, discusses the stormy weather and a nearby hurricane.

The map also includes illustrations of the Bermuda Triangle and the North Equatorial Current. While it is unlikely that Washington’s voyage took him through the Bermuda Triangle, his brother Lawrence probably sailed through it when he traveled from Barbados to Bermuda, searching for relief from his illness. It is likely, however, that the North Equatorial Current and trade winds (not illustrated) would have impacted the brothers’ journeys to and from Barbados.

Developed with help from the Center for Digital Editing, this interactive map was created using Leaflet, an open-source JavaScript library for mobile-friendly interactive maps, and MapBox, an open-source mapping tool for creating custom-designed maps. To plot the points from George Washington’s ship log, the latitude and longitude were converted from degrees, minutes, and seconds to decimal points. A map from the Department of Geography at Hunter College was referenced to plot the North Equatorial Current. Public domain images were used for the ship and pineapple icons. The map of Barbados is courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Map Collection.

You can view and explore the interactive map of Barbados here.

 

 

George Washington and the Storming of the Bastille (Part II)

by Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
July 28, 2017

Gouverneur Morris, engraving by Alonzo Chappel (1863). Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

In the fall of 1789, George Washington was inundated with information regarding the storming of the Bastille. He received five letters about a revolution occurring in France; most of these letters enclosed articles from international papers. He also received official intelligence through the U.S. minister to France, Thomas Jefferson. And American newspapers began publishing information about the event as early as Sept. 25.1 By early October, Washington likely knew a good deal about the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Washington’s first order of business concerning France, however, was responding to Louis XVI’s news that his eldest son had died.2 On Oct. 9, the same day he wrote his condolences to the French king, Washington noted in his diary the news that the comte de Moustier, French minister to the United States, would return to France for reasons of health and private business. The diary entry additionally included the minister’s announcement, as ordered by the French court, “[t]hat his Majesty was pleased at the Alteration which had taken place in our Government and congratulated this Country on the choice they had made of a Presidt.”3 For Washington, it seemed, matters with France were business as usual.

Another four to five days would pass before he turned his attention to the storming of the Bastille.4 As mentioned in part one of this blog post series, three of Washington’s letters repeated the same noncommittal sentiment regarding the revolutionary event.5 In a letter to close friend Lafayette, discussion of the Bastille was just as brief and unrevealing:

The revolution, which has taken place with you, is of such magnitude and of so momentous a nature that we hardly yet dare to form a conjecture about it. We however trust, and fervently pray that its consequences may prove happy to a nation, in whose fate we have so much cause to be interested and that its influence may be felt with pleasure by future generations.6

Washington remained tight-lipped on the matter until Oct. 13, when he wrote to Gouverneur Morris, who was in France on private business.7  While allowing that the fledgling revolution was “of so wonderful a nature that the mind can hardly realise the fact,” Washington continued to employ the diplomatic equivocation he illustrated in other letters on the subject. He cautioned that the revolution likely was far from over and that more bloodshed and drama would come: “I fear though [France] has gone triumphantly through the first paroxysm, it is not the last it has to encounter before matters are finally settled.” In fact, he believed more bloodshed and drama were yet to come:

In a word the revolution is of too great magnitude to be effected in so short a space, and with the loss of so little blood—The mortification of the King, the intrigues of the Queen, and the discontents of the Princes, and the Noblesse will foment divisions, if possible, in the national assembly, and avail themselves of every faux pas in the formation of the constitution if they do not give a more open, active opposition.

Having led a revolution himself, Washington had firsthand experience with political upheaval. Given French involvement in that effort, Washington likely drew connections between the budding revolution in France and the one he had led in fathering America.  And so, like a parent with his child, Washington used that insight to advise rather than criticize:

To these the licentiousness of the People on one hand and sanguinary punishments on the other will alarm the best disposed friends to the measure, and contribute not a little to the overthrow of their object—Great temperance, firmness, and foresight are necessary in the movements of that Body. To forbear running from one extreme to another is no easy matter, and should this be the case, rocks and shelves not visible at present may wreck the vessel.

On that note, he concluded his response. In the space of three short paragraphs, Washington had settled his thoughts on the outbreak of the French Revolution. Indeed, while his post-script acknowledges receipt of Morris’s foreboding letter of July 31, which had only just come to hand, Washington did not amend his letter or elaborate on his thoughts further.

Because Washington was known for being a judicious leader, his limited response to the storming of the Bastille feels unsatisfying. As the man who led one revolution with the help of a nation now undergoing one, these were the only thoughts he had to spare? After seeing how sensitively aware he was of the revolution’s impending outbreak, it felt like there should be more to the story.

Washington swearing the oath of office, still image. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

On the other hand, Washington had a lot on his mind in October 1789 besides the changing nature of a government more than 2,000 miles away. Having been inaugurated only six months earlier, he was still setting up his administration. In fact, on the same day that he penned the above letter to Morris, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson offering the post of secretary of state.8 And aside from trying to fill a variety of positions, Washington had to remain alert to other matters, such as tensions erupting on the frontier.9

In addition to the demands of his job, Washington was recovering from an illness that had left him largely incapacitated for the first few months of his presidency.10 He also was planning to leave on Oct. 15 for a tour of the northern states.11 So, perhaps to him, five letters on one topic unrelated to these domestic issues seemed five too many.

Washington scholars offer additional explanations for his controlled response. Biographer Ron Chernow proposes that the unfolding revolution did not concern Americans because they not only expected it, they welcomed it.12 Louis Martin Sears, author of George Washington and the French Revolution, offers (and strangely so, in my opinion) that besides a preoccupation with his presidential duties, Washington was unconcerned by the “depravity” described, due to a distaste for the French:

Certainly Washington was not the man to defend the French against Morris’ asseverations. His affections for Lafayette, Rochambeau, and numerous other individual Frenchmen never erased entirely his youthful hatred for the victors at Monongahela and the instigators of massacres uncounted along America’s wilderness frontier.13

In contrast to Sears, Chernow suggests that Morris’s logical perspective led Washington to act dispassionately. Doing so would allow him to avoid a snap judgment about what was likely to be a turbulent revolution.14 Sears instead proposes that it was Rochambeau’s “soldierly account” that probably tempered Washington’s judgment.15 At any rate, both historians conclude that Washington’s network of informants advocated objectivity.

I think it most likely, however, that it was a combination of Washington’s presidential duties and his natural inclination to judicious leadership that resulted in his cool response. His reaction only foreshadowed his future approach to foreign diplomacy. As Sears concisely writes, “That Washington received rather than gave goes almost without saying. His [preference] not to compromise relations with ‘our good Friends and Very Great and Good Allies.’ Decorum utterly forbade, and Washington was [a] perfect master of punctilio.”16

 

Notes

  1. To George Washington from Richard Claiborne, 23 July 1789,” “To George Washington from John Brown Cutting, 25 July 1789,” “To George Washington from Edward Newenham, 24-27 July 1789,” and “To George Washington from John Mason, 4 August 1789.” All letters are also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 3; “Siege of the Bastille” Herald of Freedom (published as The Herald of Freedom, and the Federal Advertiser), Sept. 25, 1789.
  2. “From George Washington to Louis XVI, 9 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0105. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  3. “[Diary entry: 9 October 1789],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-05-02-0005-0002-0009. Also available in print: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 5.
  4. See part one of the blog series, “Washington and the Storming of the Bastille (I),” n. 1.
  5. See part one of the blog series, “Washington and the Storming of the Bastille (I).”
  6. From George Washington to Lafayette, 14 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0129. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  7. “From George Washington to Gouverneur Morris, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0125. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  8. “From George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0123. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  9. See correspondence between Washington and Henry Knox during the summer of 1789 for information about the conflict among the Georgians, the Creek, and the Choctaw.
  10. For instance, in a letter to Bushrod Washington on July 27, 1789, George Washington wrote, “Among the first acts of recommencing business (after lying six weeks on my right side) is that of writing you this letter. . . .” “From George Washington to Bushrod Washington, 27 July 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-03-02-0189. For more information, see James McHenry to George Washington, June 28, 1789, n.1.
  11. “[Diary entry: 15 October 1789],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-05-02-0005-0002-0015. Also available in print: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 5.
  12. Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York, 2010), 658-9.
  13. “Washington to Morris, 13 October 1789;” Louis Martin Sears, George Washington and the French Revolution (Detroit, 1960), 49.
  14. Chernow, Washington, 659.
  15. Sears, Washington and the French Revolution, 45, 47.
  16. Sears, Washington and the French Revolution, 56.

George Washington and the Storming of the Bastille (Part I)

By Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
July 14, 2017

The Storming of the Bastille. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

On July 14, 1789, French commoners took to the streets of Paris. They had recently raided the Hôtel des Invalides for weapons and were now turning to find ammunition, a large store of which had just been delivered to the Bastille, a prison that housed political dissidents. Quickly, they swarmed it, demanding admittance. By midday, the attackers, who had steadily grown in number, became impatient and stormed the fortress. Gunfire erupted, resulting in the deaths of 98 attackers and one defender. Overwhelmed by the mob, the facility’s military governor, Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, was forced to surrender. The gate was opened, and the few prisoners inside were released. Launay was captured and taken to the Hôtel de Ville to be tried, but was later murdered. In a final effort to seal its newfound power, the mob erected Launay’s head on a stick.

Thousands of miles away sat George Washington, only a month and a half into his presidency. He would not learn of the events in France until September, and he would not acknowledge them until October 13/14.1 When he finally did, Washington only briefly discussed the revolutionary activity. His first responses are limited to five letters, three of which recycle the same uninterested reaction:

The Revolution, announced by the intelligence from France, must be interesting to the Nations of the World in general, and is certainly of the greatest importance to the Country in which it has happened. I am persuaded I express the sentiments of my fellow-citizens, when I offer an earnest prayer that it may terminate in the permanent honor and happiness of your Government and People.2

In the only letter in which he addressed the topic with more than one paragraph, his conclusion remained calm and measured: “I declared to you in the beginning that I had little to say. I have got beyond the second page, and find I have a good deal to add; but that no time or paper may be wasted in a useless preface I will come to the point.”3

So, why did Washington appear unconcerned by the violent outburst that occurred in the capital of America’s greatest ally, France? In order to answer that question, this first part of a two-part series will look at Washington’s knowledge and sense of the French political spirit leading up to the revolutionary outbreak on July 14, 1789.

Nearly a decade before, Washington had predicted that France’s financial involvement in the American Revolution would result in a higher taxes, “which the People in France are not in a condition to endure for any duration.”4 He continued, “When this necessity commences, France makes war on Ruinous terms.”5

Years later, on October 9, 1787, the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington’s good friend and protégé, confirmed Washington’s prediction. Onerous taxes, combined with the republican ideals learned from participation in the American Revolution, had precipitated restlessness in the masses: “The affairs of france are still in an Unsettled Situation—a large deficiency is to be filled up with taxes, and the Nation are tired to pay what they Have not Voted. The ideas of liberty Have Been, since the American Revolution, spreading very fast.”6

“View of the Bastile before its destruction in July 1789.” Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

A year later, Washington reiterated his prediction in a now-famous letter to James Madison. Often quoted for its poetic introduction (“Liberty when it begins to take root is a plant of rapid growth”), the letter includes Washington’s assertion that “[t]he checks [the king] endeavors to give it … will, more than probably, kindle a flame which may not easily be extinguished; tho’ for a while it may be smothered by the Armies at his command.”7

While Washington believed revolution in France was inevitable, he could not anticipate when exactly it would break out. As early as January 1789, Rochambeau wrote Washington with evidence of unrestrained discontent in France. In his letter, he warned Washington that conversations among the three estates of France—the nobles, clergy, and general public—were becoming worrisome, foretelling drama yet to come: “We come out, my Dear General, of an assembly of chief men Where We treated the Wearisome preface of a Drama Which is to become of a great concern and of Which We must Expect a fine unravelling.”8

Gouverneur Morris, who was then in France on business, gave more detailed reports. On April 29, 1789, he sent a lengthy assessment of the French revolutionaries’ supposed predilection toward corruption and immorality:

A hundred Anecdotes and an hundred thousand Examples are required to shew the extreme Rottenness of every Member. … It is however from such crumbling Matter that the great Edifice of Freedom is to be erected here. Perhaps like the Stratum of Rock which is spread under the whole Surface of their Country, it may harden when exposed to the Air; but it seems quite as likely that it will fall and crush the Builders. I own to you that I am not without such Apprehensions, for there is one fatal Principle which pervades all Ranks: It is a perfect Indifference to the Violation of Engagements. Inconstancy is so mingled in the Blood, Marrow, and very Essence of this People, that when a Man of high Rank and Importance laughs to Day at what he seriously asserted Yesterday, it is considered as in the natural order of things. Consistency is the Phenomenon. Judge then what would be the Value of an Association, should such a thing be proposed and even adopted.9

Despite his “apprehensions,” Morris did not repudiate the French revolutionaries. Indeed, before describing these cultural difficulties, he extolled the significance of the French Revolution to American interests and the general cause of liberty:

We have I think every Reason to wish that the Patriots may be successful. The generous Wish which a free People must form to disseminate Freedom, the grateful Emotion which rejoices in the Happiness of a Benefactor, and a strong personal Interest as well in the Liberty as in the Power of this Country, all conspire to make us far from indifferent Spectators. I say that we have an Interest in the Liberty of France. The Leaders here are our Friends, many of them have imbibed their Principles in America, and all have been fired by our Example. Their Opponents are by no Means rejoiced at the Success of our Revolution, and many of them are disposed to form Connections of the strictest Kind with Great Britain.10

Morris wrote his next letter on July 31, two weeks after the storming of the Bastille. Skipping over the event that bore out his earlier assessment of the French revolutionaries’ capriciousness, he discussed its consequences. He reported that the country was so much in the hands of the common masses that the French monarch was considering abdicating his seat and fleeing to Spain.11 Believing the revolutionaries were moving much too quickly, and with little political experience or judgment, he was concerned about the form the new constitution would take: “I tremble for the Constitution. They have all that romantic Spirit, & all those romantic Ideas of Government, which happily for America, we were cured of before it was too late.”12

These are only a few of the many letters circulating within Washington’s social network that reveal the perspectives of the political climate in France. They excite the reader with promise of violence and imminent upheaval. But Washington’s responses to the events unfolding were few in number and unhurried in their reply. So, what could have contributed to such a reaction? We’ll discuss in the next part of this blog series.

 

Notes

  1. Washington’s letters to Armand, D’Estaing, Morris, and Rochambeau are dated October 13; his diary entry for October 14, however, notes that he “[w]rote several Letters to France” that day. “[Diary entry: 14 October 1789],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-05-02-0005-0002-0014. Also available in print: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 5.
  2. “From George Washington to Armand, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0124; “From George Washington to D’Estaing, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0119; “From George Washington to Rochambeau, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0127. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  3. “From George Washington to Gouverneur Morris, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0125. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  4. “From George Washington to Joseph Jones, 22 July 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-02623. To be published: Papers of George Washington Revolutionary War Series, vol. 27.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “To George Washington from Lafayette, 9 October 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-05-02-0332. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 5.
  7. “From George Washington to James Madison, 2 March 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-06-02-0115 . Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 6.
  8. “To George Washington from Rochambeau, 31 January 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-01-02-0202. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 1.
  9. “To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris, 29 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-02-02-0125. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 2.
  10. Ibid.
  11. “To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris, 31 July 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-03-02-0206. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 3.
  12. Ibid.

 

Book Review: Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

by Jeffrey L. Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
June 8, 2017

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution recently won the George Washington Prize. The author of numerous and highly readable books about American history, Philbrick contends that Benedict Arnold and George Washington were actually quite similar. Both were up-and-comers who craved fame and fortune.

According to Philbrick, Connecticut’s Arnold and Virginia’s Washington were highly ambitious men whose childhood experiences left them with chips on their shoulders. They coveted not just respect but renown, which they acquired by risking their lives in battle. But Philbrick also claims that Arnold was the superior military commander, contrasting Arnold’s supposedly decisive role in such Patriot successes as Valcour Bay and Saratoga to Washington’s loss of New York City in 1776 and Philadelphia in 1777. And Philbrick even suggests that Washington may well have ended up like Arnold if he had been robbed of credit for his victories as happened to Arnold after Saratoga. While Arnold (being his “usual daredevil self”) was crippled by two shots to his left leg in that 1777 battle, he was eclipsed by Horatio Gates.1 Consequently, Gates replaced Arnold as the favorite of a New England-based Continental Congress faction that distrusted landed Patriot grandees like Philip Schuyler, Henry Laurens, and Washington himself.

Philbrick claims Arnold actually aspired to join the landed gentry but felt—largely without cause—that he had been snubbed by wealthy Patriot landholders who had long since embraced Washington. While at newly liberated Philadelphia in 1778, moreover, Arnold came to be embraced by British-friendly merchant families as the city’s lenient military governor. Young Margaret Shippen, who belonged to one such family, had befriended the British adjutant general John André before the Patriots reclaimed the city. But she married Arnold in 1779, expecting him to meet her considerable expenses. As a result, Arnold’s erstwhile congressional supporters subjected him to a “merciless witch hunt” by accusing him of mostly false corruption charges.2 Washington was forced in 1780 to reprimand Arnold, who had faced a court martial even while British officers were praising him as the most formidable Patriot commander.3 And so Arnold resolved to collude with André in order to betray his new command of West Point to the British, whom he now regarded as his sole hope for wealth and military fame.

Philbrick paints a fascinating and even rather sympathetic portrait of Arnold’s “self-serving derring-do,” which might have enabled Arnold to “become one of the immortal heroes of the Revolution” had he been able to have, like Washington, “applied his talents to a pursuit that while fulfilling his desire to serve his country also lined his pockets . . . .”4 Yet while Philbrick allows that Washington mastered his emotions and developed a sense of grand strategy to a greater degree than Arnold during the war, he goes too far in depicting Arnold as an impressive general.  Philbrick therefore concludes that “Washington was not a good battlefield thinker” and consistently “out-generaled,” intimating that he was not among the “few officers in either the American or British army who possessed [Arnold’s] talent for almost instantly assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy.”5  And Philbrick lauds Arnold’s costly Valcour Bay exploits in October 1776, for “while Washington’s army to the south continued to suffer setback after setback, Arnold had shown that it was possible to stand up and fight.”6

Philbrick, however, ends his comparison of Arnold and Washington right before the former entered British service in October 1780 to fight the Patriots in Virginia. And by February 1781, as General Nathanael Greene learned, Arnold had put himself in a position to be captured because Washington had sent troops under “the Marquis De la Fayette and made a proposal for a cooperation in Chesapeak Bay against Arnold, with the whole of the French fleet and a part of their land force.”7 Lafayette informed Washington on March 25 that he had “Directed that Arnold Be Circumscribed Within His works on Both Sides of the Dismal Swamp.” But he bemoaned a day later that “The Return of the British fleet with vessels that Must Be transports from New York is a Circumstance which destroys Every Prospect of an operation Against Arnold,” who would have been doomed if the French navy had managed to complete Washington’s projected encirclement.8

One can perhaps see, then, why Americans at the time had considerably less respect for Arnold’s character and competence than Philbrick has. As Benjamin Franklin wrote Lafayette from Paris in May 1781:

Your Friends have heard of your being gone against the Traitor Arnold, and are anxious to hear of your Success, and that you have brought him to Justice. Enclos’d is a Copy of a Letter from his Agent in England, by which the Price of his Treason may be nearly guess’d at. Judas sold only one Man, Arnold three Millions; Judas got for his one Man 30 Pieces of Silver, Arnold not a halfpenny a Head. A miserable Bargainer: Especially when one considers the Quantity of Infamy he has acquir’d to himself, & entail’d on his Family.9

 

Notes

1. Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (New York: Viking, 2016), 97.

2. Ibid., 234.

3. See General Orders, 6 April 1780, in the forthcoming twenty-fifth volume of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series.

4. Philbrick, Valiant Ambition, 52, 216, 68.

5. Ibid., 139.

6. Ibid., 165, 56.

7. “From George Washington to Nathanael Greene, 27 February 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05023.

8. “To George Washington from Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, 25 March 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05203; and “To George Washington from Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, 26 March 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05214.

9. “From Benjamin Franklin to the Marquis de Lafayette, 14 May 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-35-02-0042.

George Washington: Muse, Patron, and Lover of the Arts

by Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
May 31, 2017

That Washington was not a Schollar is certain. That he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread, for his Station and reputation is equally past dispute. He had derived little no Knowledge from Reading; none from Travel, except in the United States, and excepting one Trip in his youth to one of the West India Islands and directly back again. From Conversation in publick and private, he had improved considerably and by Reflection in his Closet, a good deal. He was indeed a thoughtful Man.1

They say you crave what you cannot have. This was true for George Washington when it came to a formal education in the arts and sciences. Though his older half-brothers benefitted from schooling in England as adolescents, George did not. His father, Augustine Washington, died when George was only 11 years old, making it financially difficult for him to attend school. Although he was privately tutored in the following years, George Washington developed an insecurity about his lack of education and writing skills, which in turn motivated his words and actions, both public and private.2

Washington believed that books were useful to soldiers in their development of military acuity and discipline. Once, when his corps misbehaved, he suggested reading as an occupational necessity:

Remember, that it is the actions, and not the commission, that make the Officer—and that there is more expected from him than the Title. Do not forget, that there ought to be a time appropriated to attain this knowledge; as well as to indulge pleasure. And as we now have no opportunities to improve from example; let us read, for this desirable end. There is Blands and other Treatises which will give the wished-for information.3

Washington attended to the education of his adopted children and grandchildren as well, by providing them with books and tutors. Concerned that his stepson John Parke “Jacky” Custis did not appreciate his schooling, Washington advised Jacky’s instructor to more strongly divert the young man’s attentions from frivolities and back to his studies.4 To Washington’s alarm, his exhortations went unheeded. The Reverend Jonathan Boucher, Jacky’s tutor, complained:

In Truth, it is one of the worst Symptoms that I know of in Him, that He does not much like Books: & yet I have been endeavouring to allure Him to it, by every Artifice I cou’d think of. I hop’d that Cargo of Books wou’d have done it.5

When neither Jacky nor Martha acquiesced to Washington’s plea that Jacky complete his college education, Washington gave in, “contrary to [his] judgement.”6 Indeed, for Washington, a well-rounded education was necessary to render Jacky “useful to society.”7

George Washington’s honorary degree from Harvard College. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. See Washington’s other honorary degrees by visiting their online collection of George Washington’s papers.

Such a belief reflected the 18th-century enlightenment idea that reason was the foundation of knowledge. Putting this into practice, then, required a commitment to intellectual self-improvement.

For the adult Washington, that meant reading. Consequently, he sought to amass a large and diverse library. Benefitting from the additions of the Custis estate, the Mount Vernon library boasted more than 1200 books at its largest size.8 Along with such reference tomes as A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, The World displayed; or a Curious Collection of Voyages and Travels and Cadmus: or, a Treatise on the Elements of Written Language, Washington collected works of history like The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and novels including The History and Adventures of Don Quixote.9

In leading a young nation, Washington’s passion for education shines brightest. He frequently advocated for the establishment of a national university for the arts and sciences. The subject was so important to him that he included it in his undelivered first inaugural address (see paragraph 62), his first annual address to Congress, and his Farewell Address. He believed that such an institution was crucial to the cultivation of American values and to an understanding of the principles that governed democratic society.10

Though Washington would not see the establishment of such an institution in his lifetime, he personally invested in its future. In his last will and testament, Washington set aside money for a national university as well as for a school for orphan children.11

Educational institutions and organizations honored Washington by bestowing on him honorary degrees.12 For a man so enamored with the arts and sciences, it is even more fitting that his life would be celebrated in verse. A living muse, Washington was the subject of numerous songs and poems, among them one by renowned poet Phillis Wheatley.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,

Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,

With gold unfading, Washington! be thine.13

 

Notes

  1. “From John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 22 April 1812,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5777. [This is an Early Access document from The Adams Papers. It is not an authoritative final version.]
  2. David Humphreys, The Life of General Washington (Athens, Ga., 2006), 6.
  3. “Address, 8 January 1756,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-02-02-0271. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 2: 256–58.
  4. “From George Washington to Jonathan Boucher, 16 December 1770,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-08-02-0280. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 8: 411–12.
  5. “To George Washington from Jonathan Boucher, 18 December 1770,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-08-02-0282. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 8: 413–17.
  6. “From George Washington to Myles Cooper, 15 December 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0306. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 9: 406–7.
  7. “From George Washington to Benedict Calvert, 3 April 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0158. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 9: 209–11.
  8. Amanda C. Issac, Take Note!: George Washington the Reader (2013).
  9. Ibid. See also Mount Vernon’s catalogue of George Washington’s Library: http://www.librarything.com/catalog/GeorgeWashington.
  10. “From George Washington to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 8 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0361. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 4: 543–49.
  11. “George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, 9 July 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0404-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series 4: 479–511.
  12. “From George Washington to the President and Faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, 20 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-02-02-0080. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 2: 86–87.
  13. “Enclosure: Poem by Phillis Wheatley, 26 October 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0222-0002. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2: 242–44.

Washington’s Worst Defeat

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
May 25, 2017

Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

“This is a most unfortunate affair and has given me great Mortification as we have lost not only two thousand Men that were there, but a good deal of Artillery, & some of the best Arms we had.” So wrote General George Washington to his brother John Augustine Washington in November 1776 about the loss of Fort Washington.1 The fall of the bastion, with its garrison of 2,900 officers and men, on Nov. 16, 1776, was Washington’s worst defeat (excluding Charleston, S.C., in 1780, where he was too distant from the scene of action to affect the outcome). Fort Washington was located along the Hudson River on a high bluff in the northern part of Manhattan Island. Along with Fort Lee directly across the river in New Jersey, it formed the chief defense against a British naval advance up the river. Most American officers considered Fort Washington virtually impregnable.

At the time of the fort’s fall, Washington and his main army were in retreat across New Jersey, after having been driven out of lower New York by General Sir William Howe and his British army. But the American general, believing he should throw every possible obstruction in the way of British conquest of New York and New Jersey, decided to retain a garrison in the fort.2

When Washington evacuated the rest of his army from Manhattan Island, he left a garrison of 1,200 men in Fort Washington and gave orders to the garrison’s colonel “to defend the post to the last Extremity.” However, given the fort’s isolation and its vulnerability to an attack by Howe’s whole force, he later modified those orders to give discretion to Major General Nathanael Greene, the area commander, “to retain or evacuate the post as he should think best.”3

The British attacked the post with four corps on Nov. 16. The American troops defending the fort’s outer works were spread too thin, and their lines were quickly penetrated, although they inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers. The British and Hessians pushed the Continentals and militia back into the fort. Surrounded with no hope of relief, they soon had to surrender. Washington nearly became a casualty when he decided to visit Fort Washington during the early part of the engagement. Greene, writing on the 17th, explained to a fellow officer that on

Yesterday morning General Washington, General Putnam, General Mercer, and myself went to the Island to determine what was best to be done, but Just at the instant we stept on board the Boat the Enemy made their appearance on the Hill where the monday action was, and began a severe Cannonade with several field pieces. Our Guards soon fled, the Enemy advanced up to the second lines. This was done while we were crossing the River and geting upon the Hill. The Enemy made several marches to the right and to the left, I suppose to reconnoiter the fortifications and lines. There we all stood in a very awkward situation; as the disposition was made and the Enemy advancing we durst not attempt to make any new disposition—indeed we saw nothing amiss. We all urged his Excellency to come off. I offerd to stay. General Putnam did the same and so did General Mercer, but his Excellency thought it best for us all to come off together, which we did about half an hour before the Enemy surrounded the fort.4

The fall of the fort embarrassed Washington, and many, including at least one of his staff officers, questioned his military judgment.5

In his letter to his brother, Washington cast the blame for the fort’s fall on Greene. Washington had arrived “a day or two before it surrendered,” but had not, he asserted, come in time to take measures to save Fort Washington. “And what adds to my Mortification,” he wrote,

is, that this Post . . . was held contrary to my Wishes & opinion; as I conceived it to be a dangerous one: but being determind on by a full Council of General Officers, & receiving a resolution of Congress strongly expressive of their desires, that the Channel of the River (which we had been labouring to stop a long while at this place) might be obstructed, if possible; & knowing that this could not be done unless there were Batteries to protect the Obstruction I did not care to give an absolute Order for withdrawing the Garrison till I could get round & see the Situation of things & then it became too late as the Fort was Invested. I had given it . . . as my opinion to Genl Greene under whose care it was, that it would be best to evacuate the place—but—as the order was discretionary, & his opinion differed from mine, it unhappily was delayed too long, to my great grief.

By implying that he had no time to decide whether to evacuate or defend the fort, Washington misled his brother. The commander in chief had in fact arrived at Fort Lee on Nov. 13; the enemy did not attack the fort until three days later. He had ample time to make a decision. Despite his own convictions, he failed to reverse Greene’s decision to continue defending the fort.

In his official letter to Congress explaining the defeat, Washington cast himself almost as a bystander to the events. He became involved only after the British had commenced their assault. The blame again appeared to fall on Greene.6 But his own irresolution was the main reason for the defeat. Even in a private letter to his brother, he could not bring himself to mention his indecision and hesitation.

Washington’s failure to take responsibility for the defeat at Fort Washington was not one of his finest moments. I believe it stemmed from his insecure position at that time. For more on this defeat and Washington’s later account of the fort’s fall, which I believe shows his maturation as a general, see my article “Washington’s Belated Admission,” published by the Journal of the American Revolution on April 23, 2014. In my next blog post, I will look at one of the most pivotal moments of the war: Washington’s victory at Trenton, N.J., on Dec. 26, 1776, and his letter to John Hancock of the next day reporting the triumph.
 

Notes

1. “From George Washington to John Augustine Washington, Nov. 6–19, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0070. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 7:102–6.

2. “From George Washington to Joseph Reed, Aug. 22, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-22-02-0175.  Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 22:224–27

3. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Nov. 16, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0118. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 7:162–69.

4. “From Nathanael Greene to Henry Knox, Nov. 17, 1776,” in The Papers of Nathanael Greene, 1:351–52.

5. “From Joseph Reed to Charles Lee, Nov. 21, 1776,” in [Charles Lee] The Lee Papers. 4 vols. (New York, 1872–75; in Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 4–7), 4:376–77.

6. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Nov. 16, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0118. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 7:162–69.