Topic: Politics

Did Martha Washington Really Hate Thomas Jefferson?

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Editor
May 18, 2018

Towards the end of her life, Martha Washington harbored no warm feelings for Thomas Jefferson. A guest at Mount Vernon in 1802 wrote that “she spoke of the election of Mr. Jefferson, whom she considered as one of the most detestable of mankind, as the greatest misfortune our country had ever experienced.”1 Connecticut governor John Cotton Smith wrote that “next to the loss of her husband,” Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 visit to Mount Vernon was “the most painful occurrence of her life.”2 Martha Washington’s granddaughter Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis did not care for Jefferson either. She joked after Jefferson’s election that perhaps now the world was ready for the apocalypse.3 Those familiar with the election of 1800 probably have a fair understanding of why Martha Washington felt this way; tensions between Jefferson and the Washington family had been building for some time. But it can still be somewhat shocking to see Martha Washington—who exists in much of the American imagination as a kind of benevolent, grandmotherly figure—be so sharp-tongued.

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George Washington and Parades in the Early American Republic

by Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor
May 14, 2018

Parades, feasts, and festivals were, in the words of historian Simon Newman, “essential components of early national popular political culture.” In the late eighteenth century, these activities allowed regular Americans to participate in politics to a greater extent than ever before. 1 In the nineteenth century, the public pageantry of parades became a more official and hierarchical (and more white and male) component of political party organization. However, in the 1780s and 1790s, participation in public political celebrations usually included a broad and diverse collection of citizens.

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Washington and the Governors (Part III)

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
April 13, 2018

In this post, I continue my survey of George Washington’s relations with the state governors. A more complicated example of the contending interests involved in Washington’s relations with the governors than those I examined in my most recent post occurred when Washington sought increased militia support from Pennsylvania for the expedition against the Iroquois. The ensuing quarrel shows an important contrast in the different concerns of the general and the governors. The political context is crucial for understanding the controversy. The Pennsylvania government was operating under a contested constitution adopted in 1776 that gave the frontier counties increased representation in the unicameral assembly. Two political factions had developed around the constitutional question. The Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council and its president Joseph Reed were members of the more radical Whig Society. They were opposed by the Republican Society moderates led by Philadelphia merchants like Robert Morris. In May, riots led by militiamen supporting the radical cause would break out in Philadelphia.

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A Doomed Monument: Giuseppe Ceracchi in the U.S.A.

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Editor
March 23, 2018

In 1783, Congress passed an arguably frivolous resolution to construct a large copper equestrian statue of George Washington in the as-yet-unplanned federal city. Progress on the resolution was slow; more pressing issues (writing a constitution, for one) faced the young nation. But while a statue of Washington may not have been first priority, Congress largely agreed that symbolism and statuary serve an important role in nation-building. As founders such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton tenaciously fought for their separate visions of the United States to take shape, it became clear that the location, design, and artist designated for the George Washington sculpture required careful thought.

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Washington and the Governors (Part II)

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

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

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

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Washington and the Governors (Part I)

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

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

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

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

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When the Patriots Went to War at Sea

by Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor
October 11, 2017

The 18th-century British navy ruled the waves, and George Washington’s Continental forces could not have hoped to win the Revolutionary War against such a power without the help of the French navy. Overshadowed in this narrative are Continental efforts to develop a fleet.

In April 1778, Continental Navy sloop of war Ranger captured British HMS Drake off the coast of Ireland. Image painted by Arthur N. Disney. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command (NH 81541-KN).

A nominal Continental navy was formed in 1775, but privateers sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause proved more effective. Financed by private citizens and authorized by various states, these vessels preyed on vulnerable British ships and distracted imperial officials. The celebrated victory of John Paul Jones in the Bonhomme Richard over the Serapis on Sept. 23, 1779, boosted Continental navy credibility and public morale. Certainly with undue optimism, the Continental government set about building a 74-gun warship, America.  It was not completed, however, until 1782, when the war was winding down.

Early in the war, several states had tried to fill the vacuum by employing their own navies, apart from the privateers they authorized. Advocates for a true Continental navy–among them John Adams of Massachusetts, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, Samuel Chase of Maryland, and William Gadsden of South Carolina–generally represented states with significant sea-trade communities. Delegates from other states saw warship building as a wasteful extravagance, and too risky based on America’s long odds of success at sea.

Adams described a heated congressional debate on Oct. 5, 1775, over whether to send vessels to harass British armed ships. Advocates cited “the great Advantages of distressing the Ennemy, supplying ourselves, and beginning a System of maritime and naval Opperations,” while opponents characterized plans for American warships as “the most wild, visionary mad project that had ever been imagined. . . . an Infant, taking a mad Bull by his horns.”  Ultimately, the delegates set into motion events that would culminate in the establishment of the Continental navy.2

When George Washington had assumed command of Continental forces in July 1775, he stood among those who believed that challenging British maritime supremacy would prove fruitless while draining resources and manpower from the land war. He modified his views after gaining a better sense of the threat the British posed by sea, as well as of the opportunities to disrupt the long British supply lines that ran between Great Britain and the states.  On Oct. 5, 1775, the same day as the congressional debate over sending Continental ships to harass the British, he wrote to John Hancock, then president of Congress, that he had “directed 3 Vessels to be equipped in order to cut off the supplies” and concluded that with “the Number of Vessels hourly arriving it may become an object of some importance” to capture as many British supply ships as possible.3

Just a week later, Washington wrote again to Hancock about his hopes for capturing British ships: “Nothing shall be omitted to secure Success: a fortunate Capture of an Ordnance Ship would give new Life to the Camp, & and an immediate Turn to the Issue of this Campaign.”4 And only 10 days after that optimistic letter, Washington relayed to Hancock the extreme danger of letting British ships go unchallenged, describing British naval actions at Falmouth, Mass., as “an Outrage exceeding in Barbarity & Cruelty every hostile Act practised among civilized Nations.” Washington wrote that this would happen again if not prevented by fortifications and armed vessels: “it appears the same Desolation is meditatd upon all the Towns on the Coast.”5

For these two immediate reasons, then–the promise of captured weapons and other supplies (and the consequent loss of them to the British), and the fears of British attack by sea–Congress and George Washington initiated aggressive naval operations. Challenges to Continental naval efforts remained complex, and I anticipate exploring these complications in later blog posts. Still, it is important to know that even before the French navy’s decisive entry into the war, Continental ships were crucial to the Revolutionary cause.

 

Notes

  1. L. H. Butterfield, et al., eds. The Adams Papers, The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), 3:342–44.
  2. Ibid., 3:343, n. 9. See also note 6 to “From George Washington to Joseph Reed, Jan. 4, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-03-02-0016. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 3:23–27.
  3. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Oct. 5, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0098-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2:98–103.
  4. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Oct. 12, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0140-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2:146–50.
  5. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Oct. 24, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0210-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2:227–28).

 

 

“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.

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.