Topic: George Washington

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.

The Washingtons at Winterthur

by Alicia K. Anderson, Assistant Editor
May 5, 2017

George Washington and “Columbia” amidst Azaleas. Postcard. 1960s. Courtesy, the Winterthur Library, Winterthur Archives.

As people flock to the historic Delaware estate to view woodland azaleas at the peak of their bloom and the subtler Virginia bluebells tucked away in carpets of white trillium, a recent visit to the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library gave this Washington editor a chance to ponder the collection’s flamboyant treasures and hidden gems in tribute to America’s original First Family.

Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont (1880–1969) had a passion not only for beautiful gardens but also for American decorative and fine arts that resulted in a world-class collection of 90,000 objects, many of which pay homage to George Washington and the Washington family. The collection offers a remarkable window into the 19th-century American culture of memory that made George Washington a national icon in households across the country.1 It also preserves rare items from the life and times of the man himself—and the woman who promoted his legacy.

Perhaps most notable in the collection are the John Trumbull portrait of Washington at Verplanck’s Point, New York, 1782, painted in 1790, and 60 pieces of the “Cincinnati” china service purchased by the Washingtons in 1786 that dwarf even the collection at Mount Vernon.

Courtesy, Winterthur Museum, Portrait, Washington at Verplanck’s Point by John Trumbull, 1790, New York, NY, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont, 1964.2201.

Washington sat at least 14 times for the Verplanck portrait, which Trumbull “intended to present to Mrs. Washington.”2 Martha would hang the painting—one of her favorite likenesses of her husband—in the New Room at Mount Vernon and bequeath it to her granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis Law, from whom it passed through the generations. Eventually, it was purchased by du Pont, who gave it to the museum in 1964.3

The Chinese export porcelain featuring the arms of the Society of the Cincinnati is displayed in Winterthur’s “China Hall” and was originally used by George and Martha at the presidential seats in New York and Philadelphia as well as at Mount Vernon. Part of a 302-piece dinner, breakfast, and tea set, Winterthur’s collection came to the museum in 1928, when du Pont bought it from Martha’s descendant, Mary Custis Lee.4

From object to provenance, the presence of Martha Washington at Winterthur is not to be overshadowed by that of her husband. “I was also much interested to hear about your Martha Washington sewing table,” H. F. du Pont wrote to his dealer Joe Kindig, Jr.5 Behind the scenes, Winterthur’s state-of-the-art conservation department once had the particular challenge of restoring an important Custis estate document from the ravages of mold (following its burial during the Civil War).6

A mourning brooch containing hair from George and Martha Washington is probably one of the most intriguing pieces in the Winterthur collection. Housing braided locks of blonde and salt-and-pepper hair cut by Martha for Elisabeth Stoughton Wolcott in 1797, the piece of jewelry is a tiny casket displaying, quite literally, the couple’s interwovenness.7

A pair of statues in the garden, however—”stove figures” dating to the mid-19th century, to be exact—leaves this editor questioning. The figure of George Washington is clearly identifiable, but the female form to his right is more mysterious. It has been suggested that she is most likely the symbolic figure of Columbia, but—no doubt from the direct pairing—she also has been attributed to Martha Washington.

The confusion lends its subject a delightful charm. Although the image of Martha Washington is hardly as iconic as her husband’s, it is this project’s hope that, with the forthcoming publication of The Papers of Martha Washington, the nation’s first First Lady will assume her rightful place.

Stereocard. May 1938. Courtesy, the Winterthur Library, Winterthur Archives.

With special thanks to the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in Winterthur, Delaware, and to their Assistant Curator of Education, Garden Programs, Erica K. Anderson, the author’s twin sister.

 

Notes

1. Du Pont and Winterthur are featured in Michael G. Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York, 1991).

2. GW’s diary entry for 8 July 1790.

3. Linda Eaton, “Washington, Warhol, and Winterthur: Unexpected Provenance in the Museum Collection,” Sept. 4, 2013.

4. Hilary Seitz, “Presidential Porcelain from Washington to Winterthur,” Jan. 7, 2015.

5. Jay E. Cantor, Winterthur (New York, 1985; new enl. ed., 1997), 150–51.

6. Lois Olcott Price, “Travels through Conservation,” Nov. 20, 2015.

7. Hilary Seitz, “Unveiling the Secrets and Treasures of the Museum,” May 19, 2014.

George Washington’s First Visit to Colonial Williamsburg

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
April 14, 2017

While Virginia was still a British colony, its capital, Williamsburg, presented a variety of amusements. Residents and visitors alike could enjoy a pint at the tavern after an evening of dancing, noise and excitement in the streets during a town fair, or the debut of a popular play at the local theatre. Modern Virginia residents and history buffs may find these pastimes familiar. While modern-day Colonial Williamsburg offers visitors a recreated past, George Washington experienced the original colonial city.

George Washington’s first recorded visit to Williamsburg came on the heels of his return from Barbados at the end of January, 1752 (according to the Julian or New Style calendar). Upon his ship’s landing at Yorktown, he traveled to Williamsburg to meet Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie.

A print of the Bodleian Plate, which depicts features of colonial Williamsburg, particularly architectural style. Courtesy of Cornell University Library.

In 1752, the capital of Virginia boasted fewer than 1,000 residents. The new capitol building was under construction after a 1747 fire, and well-known landmarks still recognizable to the twenty-first century eye were already standing: Bruton Parish church, the College of William & Mary, and the main street.

After what was likely his first theater experience in Barbados, George may have chosen to attend a performance in Williamsburg. A new theatre had been built in the Virginia capital just a few months before George’s visit. In an advertisement in the Aug. 29, 1751, Virginia Gazette, subscribers were asked to support building a playhouse for the Company of Comedians. And so the second theatre ever in Williamsburg was erected, with shows offered to the public by the middle of October 1751.

George arrived at an unusually quiet time in Williamsburg, as neither the courts nor the colonial assembly was in session. Court sessions, known as Public Times, were held in April, June, October, and December.1 During these months, the capital swarmed with visitors, doubling and possibly tripling the number of inhabitants. Virginians from all corners of the colony came together to enjoy amusements such as fairs with “a Side-play of Puppet shows, Contests in Beauty, Fiddling, and Dancing, with Foot Races from the College to the Capitol, Cudgellings, and Chases for Pigs to be caught by the Tails (which were soaped).”2 Taverns and inns were filled, merchants debuted fashions from London, and personal business was transacted. Slave auctions were also held.3

General Assembly meetings also increased the population of the capital and encouraged additional social events to entertain the visitors. A March 5, 1752, advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, for example, invited ladies and gentlemen to purchase tickets to a ball held at Henry Wetherburn’s every Tuesday while the General Assembly was in session.

While George missed these times of visitors and thus many of the associated popular amusements of Williamsburg in 1752, his meeting with Governor Dinwiddie resulted in a career gain that more than made up for the loss of recreation. In July 1752, the death of George’s brother Lawrence left several militia vacancies in Virginia. Perhaps owing to an encouraging meeting in Williamsburg, George requested a commission from Dinwiddie. He received that commission as major and adjutant of the militia, horse and foot, for the Southern District of Virginia, in December of that year. And thus George Washington’s military career began.

 

Notes

  1. James H. Soltow, “The Role of Williamsburg in the Virginia Economy, 1750-1775,” The William and Mary Quarterly 15, no. 4 (1958), 469.
  2. Rutherfoord Goodwin, A Brief and True Report for the Traveller Concerning Williamsburg in Virginia (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg, Inc., 1936), 49.
  3. Ibid, 48-52.

Correcting the Record: George Washington and the Hartford Conference, September 22, 1780

by Jeffrey Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
March 24, 2017

At a strategy conference in Hartford on September 22, 1780, with General Rochambeau and Admiral Ternay, George Washington replied to a question from the French commanders:

la Situation de l’amerique Rend absolument Necessaire que Ses allies lui pretent un Secours vigoureuse, et qu’a tant d’autres obligations, a tant d’autres preuves de Son genereux interest, Sa Majeste tres Chretienne ajoute celle s’aider les etats Unis en envoyant <encore> des vaisseaux, des hommes et de l’argennt.

Washington was requesting additional French reinforcements following Patriot defeats in the Southern states. He and the French commanders agreed to a strategy by which to win the war at Hartford.  Historians, however, have overlooked the Hartford conference because Benedict Arnold’s treason came to light a few days after it, and the few scholars who did study the conference misconstrued its principal document.

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Washington’s First Defeat

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
March 7, 2017

“Inclination as well as duty would have Induced me to give Congress the earliest Information of my removal and that of the Troops from Long Island & Its dependencies to this City the night before last, But the extreme fatigue whic<h> myself and Family have undergone as much from the Weather since the Engagement on the 27th rendered me & them entirely unfit to take pen in hand—Since Monday scarce any of us have been out of the Lines till our passage across the East River was effected Yesterday morning & for Forty Eight Hours preceding that I had hardly been of[f] my Horse and never closed my Eyes so that I was quite unfit to write or dictate till this Morning.

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More Than Meets the Eye

By Sarah Tran, Undergraduate Worker
January 24, 2017

The common adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is often adapted into tale, the most popular of which is “Beauty and the Beast.” The timeless story opens on an old beggar woman seeking shelter from the storm at a prince’s castle. The prince, though noble and handsome, is also cruel and unkind. He dismisses the ugly old beggar woman, unaware she is a powerful sorceress. The sorceress transforms into her beautiful self and warns the prince not to be deceived by outer appearance. To instill this lesson, she turns the prince into a horrific beast, placing a curse upon his castle that can only be broken when he finds someone who will reciprocate his love despite his beastly appearance. Following a period of prolonged self-reflection and caring for others, the prince finally breaks the curse. This tale has engaged audiences across the world, blossoming into a beloved romance and children’s bedtime story. But the theatricality of “Beauty and the Beast” might divert the audience from its moral.

While searching for newspaper articles about Martha Washington, I came across a similar story in the Alexandria Gazette.

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A Documentary Dilemma: Editing the Farewell Address

January 17, 2017

Senior Editor David Hoth’s guiding principle in documentary editing is to display the evidence without influencing a reader’s conclusions. His current focus, George Washington’s Farewell Address, complicates that principle. This document is included in Presidential Series volume 20 and arguably is one of Washington’s most significant contributions to the institution of the U.S. presidency. Hoth’s research into its preparation led him to suggest that we “cannot assume what has always been assumed” of this document.

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