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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.