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George Washington was born at Bridge's Creek, in Westmoreland County, Va., on February 22, 1732. The first of the family who settled in Virginia came from Northampton, but their ancestors are believed to have been from Lancashire, while the ancient stock of the family is traced to the De Wessyngtons of Durham. George Washington's father, Augustine, who died, after a sudden illness, in 1743, was twice married. At his death he left two surviving sons by the first marriage, and by the second, four sons (of whom George was the eldest) and a daughter. The mother of George Washington survived to see her son President. Augustine Washington left all his children in a state of comparative independence; to his eldest son by the first marriage he left an estate (afterward called Mount Vernon) of twenty-five hundred acres and shares in iron works situated in Virginia and Maryland; to the second, an estate in Westmoreland. Confiding in the prudence of his widow, he directed that the proceeds of all the property of her children should be at her disposal till they should respectively come of age; to George were left the lands and mansion occupied by his father at his decease; to each of the other sons, an estate of six or seven hundred acres; a suitable provision was made for the daughter.
The surrender of Cornwallis to Washington.
At the time he attained his nineteenth year the frontiers were threatened with Indian depredations and French encroachments. To meet this danger the province was divided into military districts, to each of which an adjutant-general with the rank of major was appointed. George Washington was commissioned to one of these districts, with a salary of £150 per annum. There were many provincial officers (his brother among the number) in Virginia, who had served in the expedition against Carthagena and in the West Indies. Under them he studied military exercises and tactics, entering with alacrity and zeal into the duties of his office. These pursuits were varied by a voyage to Barbadoes, and a residence of some months in that colony, in company with his brother Lawrence, who was sent there by his physicians to seek relief from a pulmonary complaint. Fragments of the journal kept by George Washington on this excursion have been preserved; they evince an interest in a wide range of subjects, and habits of minute observation. At sea the log-book was daily copied, and the application of his favorite mathematics to navigation studied; in the island, the soil, agricultural products, modes of culture, fruits, commerce, military force, fortifications, manners of the inhabitants, municipal regulations and government, all were noted in this journal. Lawrence Washington died in July, 1752, leaving a wife and infant daughter, and upon George, although the youngest executor, devolved the whole management of the property, in which he had a residuary interest. The affairs of the estate were extensive and complicated, and engrossed much of his time and thoughts for several months. His public duties were not, however, neglected. Soon after the arrival of Governor Dinwiddie the number of military divisions was reduced to four and the northern division allotted to Washington. It included several counties, which he had visited at stated intervals, to train and instruct the military officers, inspect the men, arms, and accoutrements, and establish a uniform system of manœuvres and discipline.
In 1753 the French in Canada pushed troops across the lakes, and at the same time bodies of armed men ascended from New Orleans to form a junction with them, and establish themselves on the upper waters of the Ohio. Governor Dinwiddie resolved to send a commissioner to confer with the French officer in command, and inquire by what authority he occupied a territory claimed by the British. This charge required a man of discretion, accustomed to travel in the woods, and familiar with Indian manners. Washington was selected, notwithstanding his youth, as possessed of these requisites. He set out from Williamsburg on October 31, 1753, and returned on January 16, 1754. He discovered that a permanent settlement was contemplated by the French within the British territory, and notwithstanding the vigilance of the garrison, he contrived to bring back with him a plan of their fort on a branch of French Creek, fifteen miles south of Lake Erie, and an accurate description of its form, size, construction, cannon, and barracks.
In March, 1754, the military establishment of the colony was increased to six companies. Colonel Fry, an Englishman of scientific acquirements and gentlemanly manners, was placed at the head of them, and Washington was appointed second in command. His first campaign was a trying but useful school to him. He was pushed forward, with three small companies, to occupy the outposts of the Ohio, in front of a superior French force, and unsupported by his commanding officer. Relying upon his own resources and the friendship of the Indians, Washington pushed boldly on. On May 27th he encountered and defeated a detachment of the French army under M. De Jumonville, who fell in the action. Soon after Colonel Fry died suddenly, and the chief command devolved upon Washington. Innis, the commander of the North Carolina troops, was, it is true, placed over his head, but the new commander never took the field. An ill-timed parsimony had occasioned disgust among the soldiers, but Washington remained unshaken. Anticipating that a strong detachment would be sent against him from Fort Duquesne as soon as Jumonville's defeat was known there, he intrenched himself on the Great Meadows. The advance of the French in force obliged him to retreat, but this operation he performed in a manner that elicited a vote of thanks from the House of Burgesses. In 1755 Colonel Washington acceded to the request of General Braddock to take part in the campaign as one of his military family, retaining his former rank. When privately consulted by Braddock, "I urged him," wrote Washington, "in the warmest terms I was able, to push forward, if he even did it with a small but chosen band, with such artillery and light stores as were necessary, leaving the heavy artillery and baggage to follow with the rear division by slow and easy marches." This advice prevailed. Washington was, however, attacked by a violent fever, in consequence of which he was only able to rejoin the army on the evening before the battle of the Monongahela. In that fatal affair he exposed himself with the most reckless bravery, and when the soldiers were finally put to rout, hastened to the rear division to order up horses and wagons for the wounded. The panic-stricken army dispersed on all sides, and Washington retired to Mount Vernon, which had now, by the death of his brother's daughter without issue, become his own property. His bravery was universally admitted, and it was known that latterly his prudent counsels had been disregarded.
In the autumn of the same year he was appointed to reorganize the provincial troops. He retained the command of them till the close of the campaign of 1758. The tardiness and irresolution of provincial assemblies and governors compelled him to act during much of this time upon the defensive; but to the necessity hence imposed upon him of projecting a chain of defensive forts for the Ohio frontier, he was indebted for that mastery of this kind of war, which afterward availed him so much. Till 1758 the Virginia troops remained on the footing of militia; and Washington having had ample opportunities to convince himself of the utter worthlessness of a militia in time of war, in the beginning of that year prevailed upon the Government to organize them on the same footing as the royal forces. At the same time that Washington's experience was extending, his sentiments of allegiance were weakened by the reluctance with which the claims of the provincial officers were admitted, and the unreserved preference uniformly given to the officers of the regular army. At the close of 1758 he resigned his commission and retired into private life.
On January 6, 1759, he married Mrs. Martha Custis, a young widow with two children. "Mr. Custis," says Mr. Sparke, "had left large landed estates, and £45,000 sterling in money. One-third of this property she held in her own right; the other two-thirds being equally divided between her two children." Washington had a considerable fortune of his own at the time of his marriage, consisting of the estate at Mount Vernon, and large tracts of land which he had selected during his surveying expeditions and obtained grants of at different times. He now devoted himself to the management of this extensive property, and to the guardianship of Mrs. Washington's children, and till the commencement of 1763 was, in appearance at least, principally occupied with these private matters. He found time, however, for public civil duties. He had been elected a member of the House of Burgesses before he resigned his commission, and although there were commonly two, and sometimes three sessions in every year, he was punctual in his attendance from beginning to end of each. During the period of his service in the Legislature he frequently attended on such theatrical exhibitions as were then presented in America, and lived on terms of intimacy with the most eminent men of Virginia. At Mount Vernon he practised on a large scale the hospitality for which the Southern planters have ever been distinguished. His chief diversion in the country was the chase. He exported the produce of his estates to London, Liverpool, and Bristol, and imported everything required for his property, and domestic establishment. His industry was equal to his enterprise; his day-books, ledgers and letter-books were all kept by himself and he drew up his own contracts and deeds. In the House of Burgesses he seldom spoke, but nothing escaped his notice, and his opinion was eagerly sought and followed. He assumed trusts at the solicitation of friends, and was much in request as an arbitrator. He was, probably without being himself aware of it, establishing a wide and strong influence, which no person suspected till the time arrived for exercising it.
On March 4, 1773, Lord Dunmore prorogued the intractable House of Burgesses. Washington had been a close observer of every previous movement in his country, though it was not in his nature to play the agitator. He had expressed his disapprobation of the Stamp Act in unqualified terms. The non-importation agreement, drawn up by George Mason in 1769, was presented to the members of the dissolved House of Burgesses by Washington. In 1773 he supported the resolutions instituting a committee of correspondence and recommending the legislatures of the other colonies to do the same. He represented Fairfax County in the Convention which met at Williamsburg, in August, 1774, and was appointed by it one of the six Virginian delegates to the first General Congress. On his return from Congress he was virtually placed in command of the Virginian Independent Companies. In the spring of 1775 he devised a plan for the more complete military organization of Virginia; and on June 15th of that year, he was elected commander-in-chief of the continental army by Congress.
The portion of Washington's life which we have hitherto been passing in review, may be considered as his probationary period—the time during which he was training himself for the great business of his life. His subsequent career naturally subdivides itself into two periods—that of his military command and that of his presidency. In the former we have Washington the soldier; in the latter, Washington the statesman. His avocations from 1748 to 1775 were as good a school as can well be conceived for acquiring the accomplishments of either character. His early intimacy and connection with the Fairfax family had taught him to look on society with the eyes of the class which takes a part in government. His familiarity with applied mathematics and his experience as a surveyor on the wild frontier lands, had made him master of that most important branch of knowledge for a commander—the topography of the country. His experience as a parade officer, as a partisan on the frontier, and as the commander of considerable bodies of disciplined troops, had taught him the principles both of the war of detail and the war of large masses. On the other hand, his punctual habits of business, his familiarity with the details both of agriculture and commerce, and the experience he had acquired as trustee, arbitrator, and member of the House of Burgesses, were so many preparatory studies for the duties of a statesman. He commenced his great task of first liberating and then governing a nation, with all the advantages of this varied experience, in his forty-third year, an age at which the physical vigor is undiminished, and the intellect fully ripe. He persevered in it, with a brief interval of repose, for upward of twenty years, with almost uniform success, and with an exemption from the faults of great leaders unparalleled in history.
Washington was elected commander-in-chief on June 15, 1775; he resigned his commission into the hands of the President of Congress on December 23, 1783. His intermediate record as a general, and as the steadfast and undismayed leader of an apparently hopeless struggle, we pass over here. It is the entire history of the American Revolution.
We must also pass briefly over the interval which separates the epoch of Washington the soldier from that of Washington the statesman—the few years which elapsed between the resignation of his command in 1783, and his election as first President of the United States, in February, 1789. It was for him no period of idleness. In addition to a liberal increase of hospitality at Mount Vernon, and indefatigable attention to the management of his large estates, he actively promoted in his own State, plans of internal navigation, acts for encouraging education, and plans for the civilization of the Indians. He also acted as delegate from Virginia to the Convention which framed the first constitution of the United States. We now turn to contemplate him as president.
Washington left Mount Vernon for New York, which was then the seat of Congress, on April 16, 1789. His journey was a triumphal procession. He took the oath of office on April 30th, with religious services, processions, and other solemnities.
The new president's first step was to request elaborate reports from the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, the Secretary of War, and the Commissioners of the Treasury. The reports he read, and condensed with his own hand, particularly those of the Treasury board. The voluminous official correspondence in the public archives, from the time of the treaty of peace till the time he entered on the presidency, he read, abridged, and studied, with the view of fixing in his mind every important point that had been discussed, and the history of what had been done.
His arrangements for the transaction of business and the reception of visitors were characterized by the same spirit of order which had marked him when a boy and when at the head of the army. Every Tuesday, between the hours of three and four, he was prepared to receive such persons as chose to call. Every Friday afternoon the rooms were open in like manner for visits to Mrs. Washington. He accepted no invitations to dinner, but invited to his own table foreign ministers, officers of the government, and others, in such numbers as his domestic establishment could accommodate. The rest of the week-days were devoted to business appointments. No visits were received on Sunday, or promiscuous company admitted; he attended church regularly, and the rest of that day was his own.
The organization of the executive departments was decreed by act of Congress during the first session. They were the Departments of Foreign Affairs (afterward called the Department of State, and including both foreign and domestic affairs), of the Treasury, and of War. It devolved upon the president to select proper persons to fill the several offices. Jefferson was appointed Secretary of State; Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury; and Knox, Secretary of War. Randolph had the post of Attorney-General. Jay was made Chief-Justice. After making these appointments he undertook a tour through the Eastern States, and returned to be present at the opening of Congress, in January, 1790.
In his opening speech he recommended to the attention of the Legislature a provision for the common defence; laws for naturalizing foreigners; a uniform system of currency, weights, and measures; the encouragement of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures; the promotion of science and literature; and an effective system for the support of the public credit. The last topic gave rise to protracted and vehement debates. At last Hamilton's plan for funding all the domestic debts was carried by a small majority in both Houses of Congress. The president suppressed his sentiments on the subject while it was under debate in Congress, but he approved the act for funding the public debt, and was from conviction a decided friend to the measure. It now became apparent to the most unreflecting that two great parties were in the process of formation, the one jealous of anything that might encroach upon democratic principles; the other distrustful of the power of institutions so simple as those of the United States to preserve tranquillity and the cohesion of the state. Jefferson was the head of the Democratic, Hamilton of what was afterward called the Federalist party. Washington endeavored to reconcile these ardent and incompatible spirits. His own views were more in accordance with those of Hamilton; but he knew Jefferson's value as a statesman, and he felt the importance of the president remaining independent of either party. The two secretaries, however, continued to diverge in their political course, and ultimately their differences settled into personal enmity.
The president's term of office was drawing to a close, and an anxious wish began to prevail that he should allow himself to be elected for a second term. Jefferson, Hamilton, and Randolph—who did not exactly coincide with either—all shared in this anxiety, and each wrote a long letter to Washington, assigning reasons for his allowing himself to be re-elected. He yielded; and on March 4, 1793, he took the oath of office in the senate chamber.
The first question that came before the cabinet after the re-election, rendered more decided the differences which already existed. The European parties, of which the court of England and the French republic were the representatives, were eager to draw the United States into the vortex of their struggle. The president and his cabinet were unanimous in their determination to preserve neutrality, but the aristocratic and democratic sections of the cabinet could not refrain from displaying their respective biases and their jealousy of each other. Foreign affairs were mingled with domestic politics, and the Democratic and Federalist parties became avowedly organized. Washington was for a time allowed to keep aloof from the contest—not for a long time. A circumstance insignificant in itself increased the bitterness of the contest out of doors. Democratic societies had been formed on the model of the Jacobin clubs of France. Washington regarded them with alarm, and the unmeasured expression of his sentiments on this head subjected him to a share in the attacks made upon the party accused of undue fondness for England and English institutions.
Advices from the American minister in London representing that the British cabinet was disposed to settle the differences between the two countries amicably, Washington nominated Mr. Jay to the Senate as Envoy-extraordinary to the court of Great Britain. The nomination, though strenuously opposed by the Democratic party, was confirmed in the Senate by a majority of two to one. The treaty negotiated by Jay was received at the seat of government in March, 1795, soon after the session of Congress closed. The president summoned the Senate to meet in June to ratify it. The treaty was ratified. Before the treaty was signed by the president it was surreptitiously published. It was vehemently condemned, and public meetings against it were held to intimidate the executive. The president, nevertheless, signed the treaty on August 18th. When Congress met in March, 1796, a resolution was carried by a large majority in the House of Representatives, requesting the president to lay before the house the instructions to Mr. Jay, the correspondence, and other documents relating to the negotiations. Washington declined to furnish the papers; a vehement debate ensued, but in the end the hostile majority yielded to the exigency of the case and united in passing laws for the fulfilment of the treaty.
The two houses of Congress met again in December. Washington had published on September 15th his farewell address to the United States. He now delivered his last speech to Congress, and took occasion to urge upon that body the gradual increase of the navy, a provision for the encouragement of agriculture and manufactures, the establishment of a national university, and of a military academy. Little was done during the session; public attention was engrossed by the presidential election. Adams, the Federalist candidate, had the highest number of votes; Jefferson, the Democratic candidate (who was consequently declared vice-president), the next. Washington's commanding character and isolation from party, had preserved this degree of strength to the holders of his own political views. He was present as a spectator at the installation of his successor, and immediately afterward returned to Mount Vernon.
He survived till December 14, 1799, but except when summoned in May, 1798, to take the command of the provincial army, on the prospect of a war with France, did not again engage in public business.
The character of Washington is one of simple and substantial greatness. His passions were vehement but concentrated, and thoroughly under control. An irresistible strength of will was combined with a singularly well-balanced mind, with much sagacity, much benevolence, much love of justice. Without possessing what may be called genius, Washington was endowed with a rare quickness of perception and soundness of judgment, and an eager desire of knowledge. His extremely methodical habits enabled him to find time for everything, and were linked with a talent for organization. During the War of Independence he was the defensive force of America; wanting him, it would almost appear as if the democratic mass must have resolved itself into its elements. To place Washington as a warrior on a footing with the Cæsars, Napoleons, and Wellingtons, would be absurd. He lost more battles than he gained. But he kept an army together and kept up resistance to the enemy, under more adverse circumstances than any other general ever did. His services as a statesman were similar in kind. He upheld the organization of the American state during the first eight years of its existence, amid the storms of Jacobinical controversy, and gave it time to consolidate. No other American but himself could have done this, for of all the American leaders he was the only one whom men felt differed from themselves. The rest were soldiers or civilians, Federalists or Democrats; but he was Washington. The awe and reverence felt for him were blended with affection for his kindly qualities, and except for a brief period toward the close of his second presidential term, there has been but one sentiment entertained toward him throughout the Union—that of reverential love. His was one of those rare natures which greatness follows without their striving for it.
The following extract is from a letter written by him to his adopted daughter, Nellie Custis, on the subject of love:
"Love is said to be an involuntary passion, and it is therefore contended that it cannot be resisted. This is true in part only, for like all things else, when nourished and supplied plentifully with aliment it is rapid in progress; but let these be withdrawn and it may be stifled in its birth or much stunted in its growth. For example: a woman (the same may be said of the other sex) all beautiful and accomplished, will, while her hand and heart are undisposed of, turn the heads and set the circle in which she moves on fire. Let her marry, and what is the consequence? The madness ceases and all is quiet again. Why? Not because there is any diminution in the charm of the lady, but because there is an end of hope. Hence it follows that love may, and therefore ought to be, under the guidance of reason, for although we cannot avoid first impressions, we may assuredly place them under guard; and my motives for treating on this subject are to show you, while you remain Eleanor Parke Custis, spinster, and retain the resolution to love with moderation, the propriety of adhering to the latter resolution, at least until you have secured your game, or the way by which it may be accomplished.
"When the fire is beginning to kindle, and your heart growing warm, propound these questions to it: Who is this invader? Have I a competent knowledge of him? Is he a man of good character; a man of sense? For, be assured, a sensible woman can never be happy with a fool. What has been his walk in life? Is he a gambler, a spendthrift, or drunkard? Is his fortune sufficient to maintain me in the manner I have been accustomed to live, and my sisters do live? and is he one to whom my friends can have no reasonable objection? If these interrogatories can be satisfactorily answered there will remain but one more to be asked; that, however, is an important one: Have I sufficient ground to conclude that his affections are engaged by me? Without this the heart of sensibility will struggle against a passion that is not reciprocated—delicacy, custom, or call it by what epithet you will, having precluded all advances on your part. The declaration, without the most indirect invitation of yours, must proceed from the man, to render it permanent and valuable, and nothing short of good sense, and an easy, unaffected conduct can draw the line between prudery and coquetry. It would be no great departure from truth to say that it rarely happens otherwise than that a thorough-paced coquette dies in celibacy, as a punishment for her attempts to mislead others by encouraging looks, words, or actions, given for no other purpose than to draw men on to make overtures that they may be rejected.... Every blessing, among which a good husband when you want one, is bestowed on you by yours affectionately."
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