Topic: Katie Lebert

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.

 

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.

Connections to Local History: A Short Biography of Robert Forsyth

by Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
April 10, 2017

I grew up in Forsyth County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. Although I left Forsyth some time ago, I will always be interested in my home county’s history. So, it is a happy circumstance for me that my work here at The Washington Papers occasionally affords an opportunity to indulge that interest.

Recently, while researching the Judicial Act of 1789 through our project’s digital edition, I happened upon George Washington’s appointments for the positions created by the act. At the time, I was interested specifically in one appointee, John Jay. But since I had the document already pulled up, I thought I would go ahead and browse the list of appointees for the state of Georgia. One name in particular caught my eye: Robert Forsyth. Might this be the man who put the Forsyth in Forsyth County?

A simple search said no. He was, however, the father of John Forsyth, the man for whom my home county would be named. Curious, I dug a little deeper. And, boy, did the stories surrounding Robert Forsyth make it worth the effort!

Born in Scotland in 1754, Robert Forsyth relocated to Fredericksburg, Va., a few years before the outbreak of the American Revolution.1 During the war, he served in a variety of positions, including deputy quartermaster general, as well as captain and later major in Major Henry Lee’s Partisan Corps.2 He eventually settled into a position as deputy commissary of purchases for Virginia.3 The new role prompted Washington to write to Forsyth:

I am always sorry to lose a good officer or when the circumstances of his affairs render his resignation necessary—I feel myself however in this instance pleased that we are not to be deprived of your services, but that we are still to enjoy their usefulness in another line of the army—Under this idea I the more willingly at this time acquiesce in your resignation.4

(<a href="https://www.usmarshals.gov/history/firstmarshals/forsyth.htm">U.S. Marshals Service).</a>

After the Revolutionary War, Forsyth moved to Georgia with his wife, the former Fanny Johnson Houston, and their two children, Robert (b. 1778) and John (b. 1780).5 In 1789, Washington appointed Forsyth marshal for the state of Georgia—an appointment that would prove fateful.6

On Jan. 11, 1794, Forsyth tried to serve civil papers, “from a principle of decency,” to a man named Beverly Allen, “a methodist preacher whose character is as vile as it is possible.”7 Unsurprisingly, Allen did not welcome Forsyth’s arrival. Barricading himself in a locked room, Allen threatened to shoot if Forsyth did not leave. With a loaded gun aimed at the still-closed door, the preacher followed through on his promise. Beverly Allen shot and killed Major Robert Forsyth.8

Soon after being apprehended for killing Forsyth, Allen escaped jail and took refuge in the home of his brother. Thirty men surrounded the home and threatened to set it ablaze. Only after the house was engulfed in flames did Allen apparently emerge. The “allaccomplished [sic] villain” supposedly escaped jail once more, never to be apprehended again.9

And so, without justice, Forsyth’s family was left “to mourn his unhappy fate.”10 Robert Forsyth’s elder son would die just a few years later, but his younger son, John, would lead an auspicious life of his own account. His long political career included stints as a Georgia congressman and governor, U.S. minister to Spain, and secretary of state to presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren.11

Robert Forsyth’s legacy may not loom as large as that of his son, but his name still commands respect. He is remembered as the first U.S. marshal killed in the line of duty and was clearly beloved.12 A letter published in a newspaper following his death declared that Forsyth was so “highly revered” and such a “useful and pleasant member of society” that his “removal from this scene of things affords a most striking and instructive lesson of mortality.”13 Similarly, the stone on his grave informs all future visitors that Forsyth “left [an] impression on his Country and friends more durably engraved than this Monument.”14

Words of praise for Forsyth also reached George Washington as eager applicants lauded the man they hoped to replace through presidential appointment. One applicant for Forsyth’s vacant post went so far as to offer his potential earnings to a fund for the Forsyth family.15  Congress soon made a similar gesture when, on June 7, 1794, in “an act to make provision for the widow and orphan children of Robert Forsyth,” it granted $2,000 to Mrs. Forsyth “for the use of herself and the children.”16

Robert Forsyth is still recognized today. In 1981, the U.S. Marshals Service created an award in his honor, which commemorates “a U.S. Marshals Service employee who has demonstrated unusual courage, good judgment, and competence in hostile circumstances, or who has performed an act or service which saved the life of another person while endangering his/her own life.”17

 

Notes

  1. Forsyth de Fronsac, Memorial of the Family. Forsyth de Fronsac, Frédéric Gregory. Memorial of the Family of Forsyth de Fronsac. Boston, 1903, p. 35; Jeffries, History of the Family.    Jeffries, Jennie Forsyth. A History of the Forsyth Family. Indianapolis, 1920, pp. 49-50.
  2. “General Orders, 23 July 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-16-02-0150; “To George Washington from Major Henry Lee, Jr., 22 August 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-22-02-0174; Forsyth de Fronsac, Memorial of the Family, 35; Jeffries, History of the Family, 49.
  3. Greene Papers. Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976-2005, 4:362, 460.
  4. “From George Washington to Captain Robert Forsyth, 5 September 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-22-02-0280.
  5. Forsyth de Fronsac, Memorial of the Family, 35-6.
  6. “From George Washington to the United States Senate, 24 September 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0053.
  7. “Augusta, January 18,” The Augusta Chronicle and Gazette of the State (Augusta, Ga.), Jan. 18, 1794; “Extract of a Letter from Savannah, Jan. 29,” Columbian Gazetteer (New York), Feb. 13, 1794.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Georgia. Augusta, June 19,” The Medley or Newbedford Marine Journal (New Bedford, Mass.), Aug. 4, 1794; Ernst, Robert R., and George R. Stumpf.Deadly affrays: the violent deaths of the United States Marshals. Edited by Sharon A. Cunningham and Mark Boardman. Avon, Ind., 2006, pp. 93-4.
  10. “Extract of a Letter,” Columbian Gazetteer, Feb. 13, 1794.
  11. Forsyth de Fronsac, Memorial of the Family, 35-6; Jeffries, History of the Family, 50.
  12. “Northern District of Georgia History.” U.S. Marshals Service. Accessed April 5, 2017. https://www.usmarshals.gov/district/ga-n/general/history.htm.
  13. “Augusta, January 18,” The Augusta Chronicle, Jan. 18, 1794.
  14. “Northern District of Georgia History.” U.S. Marshals Service.
  15. “To George Washington from William Thompson, 22 January 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-15-02-0086.
    More humorously, another applicant digressed to share his opinions of Citizen Genet: “I need not attempt to give your Excellency the news of our Country as no doubt you have it Officially, I shall only observe the disquietude I am under to see a parcell of Blockheads around us with Cockades in their Hats.” (“To George Washington from James Hendricks, 15 January 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-15-02-0059).
  16. Stat. Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845. . . . 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67, 6:17.
  17. “Northern District of Georgia History.” U.S. Marshals Service.

A Mount Vernon Democracy: The Popularized Image of George Washington’s Home

By Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
December 10, 2016

More than just a man, George Washington is a symbol of our revolutionary spirit and democratic principles. Lydia Brandt, architectural historian and professor at the University of South Carolina, studies Mount Vernon, his home, to explore whether it holds similarly iconic status. In her new book, titled First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination, Brandt surveys Mount Vernon’s memory in the American imagination. Recently, she sat down with us to reflect on the results of her investigation.

Brandt’s interest in the subject was sparked when she began to notice replications of Mount Vernon. Soon after, friends affirmed her hunch, by finding Mount Vernon elsewhere: “People used to send me photos and postcards of buildings that looked like Mount Vernon.” But it was not until she began tracking all the various examples that she saw a pattern. The house had become a revered symbol, much like George Washington.

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Meeting Mr. Madison

by Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
October 7, 2016

“You have to have a little ham in you,” James Madison recently told me. Or rather Kyle Jenks, the living history interpreter who portrays James Madison, told me.

Jenks and I were having lunch in Gordonsville, Virginia, just a few miles away from Madison’s home, Montpelier. I had the pleasure of meeting with Jenks and Tom Pitz, who plays Thomas Jefferson, to learn more about first-person historic interpretation.

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A Lesson About Duty from General George Washington

By Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
June 4, 2016

Recently, someone contacted the Washington Papers for help with locating a specific document. They were looking for a letter in which George Washington explained why patriotism was not enough to win the Revolutionary War. Fair payment for the men who fought was also needed:

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Re-Engaged: Participating in the National Humanities Alliance’s Advocacy Day

By Katie Lebert, Communications Assistant
March 25, 2016

Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a Government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.
– George Washington’s Farewell Address, September 17, 1796 1

Last week, Research Assistant Kathryn Gehred and I attended the National Humanities Alliance’s Advocacy Day in Washington, DC. The annual two-day event teaches humanities projects across the United States how to advocate among policymakers for equal or increased funding of institutions, such as the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

The first day included panels and discussions about how the humanities benefit individuals. Since I am somewhat new to the Washington Papers, I was initially nervous about how I could contribute to Advocacy Day. However, the first day’s activities instantly appealed to the humanities major in me, and aligned with the curiosity and commitment to history that I experience working at the Papers.

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Bust of George Washinton

The Washington Papers and the Florence Gould Foundation Embark on a Partnership to Explore Early Franco-American Relations

Houdon Bust

George Washington. Sculpted by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1785.

France and the United States have a long tradition of friendship, forged in the course of two great 18th-century revolutions and tempered in the flames of two global wars in the 20th century. The Washington Papers project stands poised to record the origins of the Franco-American alliance with the editing and publication of the final 16 volumes of the Revolutionary War Series, covering the years from 1780 to 1783. These volumes will chronicle Rochambeau’s landing with a French expeditionary army in North America in the autumn of 1780; his strategic planning with Washington in the winter of 1780-1781; the Yorktown campaign of the summer and autumn of 1781; and finally, the protracted negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

The Washington Papers project is proud to announce a major new partnership with the Florence Gould Foundation, ensuring that these documents chronicling the most important period in the history of Franco-American relations are edited and published in time for the project’s completion in 2024. With the Gould Foundation’s major and ongoing financial support, the Washington Papers will hire an expert scholar whose time will be fully devoted to editing these documents as well as carrying on important research in French archives.

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The Spirit of Mount Vernon

By Katie Lebert, Communications Assistant
December 21, 2015

“No one in the Association receives any salary whatsoever. Their sole reward is having preserved Mount Vernon, ‘sacred to the memory of the Father of his Country.’

“In proof of the appreciation of the sacredness of the spot is the fact that during the [Civil] War no act of vandalism was committed there by either side. … The members of contending armies on approaching its precincts sounded a truce, and, stacking arms outside, trod the hallowed ground with reverent feet.”1

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