General Washington, by Bradley T. Johnson, Chapter 4

Washington and Lee University

General Washington

By General Bradley T. Johnson



DURING the years prior to the breaking out of the rebellion, Washington devoted himself to his large estate on the Potomac, his servants, his crops, and his stock. The most curious disquisitions have been written and most extraordinary analyses been made as to the wonderful traits of this astonishing youth. He is a prig, or a phenomenon, according to the point of view and the medium through which he is examined. In one of his youthful letters, unfortunately preserved, reference is made to a “lowland beauty” to whom his adolescent fancy had turned; and half a dozen Virginian families still claim that their ancestress was the lowland beauty. He fell in love with Mary Bland, of Westmoreland; with Lucy Grimes, who afterward married “Light Horse Harry” Lee, and became the mother of Robert E. Lee—greatest of the line of Lees; with Mary Cary, of Vaucluse; with Betsey Fauntleroy, of Richmond County; and with Mary Phillipse, the heiress, of New York—not to mention the hundred other girls from Boston to Annapolis with whom the young Virginian colonel flirted and made love.

There is a portrait of Colonel Washington, painted by Charles Wilson Peale, at Mount Vernon, in 1772, as colonel of the Twenty-second Regiment, Virginia Militia. It is in the uniform of a Virginia colonel—blue coat, scarlet vest and breeches, and represents a young man. His smooth-shaven face and natural hair show a complexion as clean and clear as perfect health, happy surroundings, and good habits, with constant life in the open air, can give, and is as fine a specimen of manly beauty as is ever seen. The frontispiece to this volume is copied from Peale’s admirable portrait. The caricatures of Stuart and Trumbull, and the rest, when life had become a burden to escape the portrait painters, give no idea of the young Virginian of 1756–’72.

The Virginian way always has been to make love to every pretty girl with whom he was thrown. Young, handsome, with the second fortune in the province, and family as good as any—for Lord Fairfax’s Scotch barony did not outrank, in the estimation of the cavalier Virginians, the position in society and claim for respect of the descendant of that Colonel Washington who held Worcester for the king and for so long answered to every summons for surrender “at his Majestic’s pleasure”—with the first military reputation among the soldiers Virginia’s wars against the French and Indians had trained—with the grave, decorous manners of his generation, no man in Virginia would naturally be received by the matrons and maids who clustered at the country houses along the Potomac, the Rappahannock, the Pamunkey, and the James, with more cordial welcome than Colonel Washington, of Mount Vernon.

At Belvoir with the Fairfaxes, at Vaucluse with the Carys, at Eagle’s Nest with the Fitzhughs, at Stratford House with the Lees; with the Carters at Sabine Hall, and with the Fauntleroys in Richmond, then as now, a well-born and agreeable, handsome, rich, distinguished young gentleman was a welcome guest, and George Washington became the toast of the tide-water country. What wonder, then, that he fell in love with every pretty girl and told her so, in his visitings among his neighbors, and on his official journeys to and from Williamsburgh, when his habitual stopping places were at these very country houses, and his customary hostesses these girls and their mothers!

Washington was a man all over—a man with strong appetites, fierce temper, positive, belligerent, and aggressive. The quality in which he differed from almost all men was his absolutely perfect control over his passions and his mind. In his boyhood he appreciated the weak points of his character—his tendency to be moved by impulse and sudden tempests of emotion—and he set himself deliberately to work to correct these infirmities. His fortitude, his patience, his perseverance, his tenacity, were all the result of this introspection, and, taken with the severe physical training of his youth, in the woods with his horse and gun, in the forest with his hatchet and surveyor’s compass, fitted him for control over the wills of other men, and rendered him capable of dealing with great affairs, when the time called for those qualities. As soon as Fort Du Quesne fell he resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon. On January 6, 1759, he married Martha Dandridge Custis, the widow of Daniel Parke Custis, a Virginia gentleman of family and estate, and herself of a well-established Virginia family. Daniel Parke Custis was the grandson of John Parke.

By one of those curious turns of fortune, Mrs. Custis and her children—she had two by her first marriage—were possessed of the estate of the White House on the Pamunkey River, which had been originally granted to William Claiborne, once Secretary of the province, to whom it had been given for a great victory over the Pamunkey Indians. He had been expelled from his legal possession of Kent Island, in Maryland, by the Calverts, and for eight generations has been stigmatized as “rebel.” “Rebel” is one who has unsuccessfully resisted wrong. It always has been so, and always will be so. The defeated are always wrong, and there is no greater crime in the category of politics than failure. The estate of the White House passed from the Claibornes to the Parkes, to the Custises, to Washington’s stepchildren, and through them to the Lees, where it now vests.

The marriage took place at the little church near the White House, near Tunstall’s station on the York River Railroad, from which the site of the original White House may still be seen embowered in trees on the south bank of the Pamunkey. The wedding was attended by Governor Fauquier and all the gentry from Williamsburgh and the Northern Neck, with all the bravery of London coaches and new London liveries, and, as may well be imagined, was a social event of the first magnitude. After the wedding the newly wedded couple drove to Mount Vernon in their coach and four, bright with the Washington colors of red and white, and attended by a troop of friends—for a Virginian wedding is not a brief ceremonial; it is a prolonged festivity, and every relative, friend, and well-wisher is expected to enjoy the hospitalities of all the family within practicable distance.

A man on horseback would be sent ahead, from stopping place to stopping place, to notify the cousin, or the uncle, or the aunt, living on the route, that the party would be there at such a time. And so they went, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty kinspeople, with their horses, their dogs, and their servants, and with them came mirth and jollity, innocent and simple pleasures, enjoyed by healthy, robust natures, absolutely devoid of selfishness and intrigue.

By day and by night the girls enjoyed themselves in dancing and flirting, and the men were hunting the deer or the fox, or shooting the Virginian partridge, or the ducks, geese, and swans with which the waters were thronged. At night the younger men courted the girls and the older ones played cards, until the day wound up with a supper of game, fish, oysters, ham, turkey, beef and mutton home-raised, with plentiful bowls of punch, apple toddy, and eggnog in season. While these people drank freely and frequently, the life in the open air, the constant exercise indoors and out, prevented or cured excess, and drinking brought no ill effects, physically or morally. When the newly married couple were settled at Mount Vernon, they entertained, as was the custom of the country, frequently and generously. Colonel Washington understood that hospitality was one of the customs and the duties of his station, and he ordered his life to do his duty by his position, his wife, his servants, his property, and himself.

The management of a great estate of necessity must require organization and order. Everything must be done in the proper way and at the proper time, and a record must be kept of all the events of the little world—the microcosm of the plantation. Every marriage among the dependents must be duly recorded in the Almanac or the Farm Book; every birth must be put down; every increase or diminution of stock entered; all crops raised and all expenses accounted for, and a diary kept preserving a statement of diurnal transactions.

It has been the fashion to depict Washington as a young man of preternatural pomposity and gravity, of ponderous courtesy, and prodigious and elaborate manners. But he certainly was neither. He was a Virginian gentleman of his epoch, with all the characteristics of his day and generation. He loved a glass of wine, a game of cards, a pretty girl, a good horse, a fast run after the hounds, and a rattling rush through the woods after the deer—and he loved these animal pleasures intensely. He was grave and decorous in deportment—so was every gentleman; he was careful and painstaking about his property affairs—so were many heads of families. But he was absolutely and perfectly self-controlled. He never let go his hand on himself for an instant. Several times during his life the fiery temper got away from the hand of iron—as with the Connecticut colonels at New York, with Charles Lee at Monmouth or with Hamilton at Philadelphia; but generally the control of his strong nature was entirely unshaken.

The government of a plantation was like the discipline of a regiment. Without firmness, intelligence, and order everything goes to pieces; and what might with proper direction and control be made to accomplish useful purposes, becomes a broken, disarranged machine, with every part misfitting and out of order. The estate of Mount Vernon was no such mismanaged organization. Its master and mistress were both capable, courageous, and conscientious people, who did their duty most fairly and fully by themselves, their men-servants and their maid-servants, their oxen and their asses, and everything that was theirs.

Colonel Washington was the representative of Fairfax County in the House of Burgesses at Williamsburgh, and a vestryman of Truro Parish on the Potomac. As vestryman, he did his part toward overseeing the comfort of his neighbors by giving them good roads, and administering proper police regulations against the roaming of servants from plantations after nightfall.

When he attended the House of Burgesses, soon after his marriage, Mr. Speaker Robinson, says tradition, upon calling the House to order, took occasion to thank “the gentleman from Fairfax for his service to Virginia”; and the gentleman from Fairfax, rising in his seat to make his acknowledgements, was so overcome with bashfulness that he could not speak. Whereupon the Speaker called out, “Take your seat, Mr. Washington; your modesty excels your valor, and that exceeds the power of language to express.”

Like many of the demigod myths and fables of Washington, this story smacks of the incredible. In the first place, those people at that time, as now, were not inclined or partial to dramatic performances by themselves. Among the Virginians there has never been the slightest tendency toward gush. With the deepest feeling of love or resentment, of devotion or of hatred, they never make public demonstrations of them. Pickett’s men marched up the slope at Gettysburg without a cheer, right into the jaws of death.

And, further, the Speaker of the House of Burgesses was an experienced and well-read parliamentary lawyer, and he knew that for the Speaker to compliment or reprimand a member in his place was one of the highest prerogatives of the House, and could only be done by express authority of the House. When, therefore, the Speaker by order of the House presented its thanks to Colonel Washington, the dignified and becoming thing for Colonel Washington to do was to rise in his place, bow to the Speaker, and take his seat as he did. The idea of his attempting to “I answer back” originated in another latitude—never among Virginians.

Everywhere in Virginia he was of the first reputation and of the highest influence. One of the local stories is that, the parish requiring a new church, the question was much debated whether it should be located at a more central place, or the ancient one preserved. George Mason, one of the vestry, was ardent, enthusiastic, and eloquent in urging them to stand by the old landmarks, consecrated by the ashes of their worthy ancestors and sacred to all the memories of life, marriage, birth, and death.

Colonel Washington replied by producing a plat of the parish, drawn by himself with his well-known accuracy, on which every road was laid down and the house of every gentleman was marked, and which showed that the new location advocated by him was more convenient to every member of the parish, and that the old one was exceedingly inaccessible. The parochial meeting decided in favor of the new location and the plat. George Mason put on his hat and stalked out of the meeting, saying in not smothered tones, “That’s what gentlemen get for engaging in debate with a d—d surveyor!” But notwithstanding this little tiff, the owners of Gunston Hall and of Mount Vernon had the highest respect and warmest affection for each other.

Mason was much the older man, a scholar and a student rather than a man of affairs. He regarded his young neighbor, soldier-planter, manager of the Ohio Company, projector of the transcontinental water line by the Potomac, the Monongahela, the Ohio, and the Wabash to the Lakes, with the respect and admiration with which the man of ideas looks upon the man of affairs; while Washington revered the older man with the veneration with which the youth with life and the world before him regards the sage who lives in the past.

Mason was well known in the Dominion as a man with the highest ideals of duty and of character, of vigorous intellect, a student of men and books. He was the author of the Bill of Rights of Virginia, wherein, following the example of his ancestors in the Petition of Right and the Bill of Rights, he furnished the precedent for all American commonwealths up to this time. It is unfortunate for posterity that he refused to participate in Continental politics. Elected to Congress, he declined to accept the place; and although he served in the Constitutional Convention, he failed to procure acceptance of his ideas by that body, as experience has proved, greatly to the injury of posterity.

When, following the lead of Virginia and Massachusetts, committees of correspondence were formed all over the country, county committees were organized for the purpose of disseminating information and educating the people. The county meeting is the descendant of the folkmote, and is as old as the race. Whenever and wherever any attack has been made on the common right, the neighborhood meets in council for co-operation and organization. The county committees in England assumed the government of the counties in 1641–’45, disciplined the “disloyal,” and made the disaffected contribute to the support of the common cause against the king.

The very first movement of sedition and rebellion in America was made in the county committees and town meetings. In New England local government was administered by town meetings. In Virginia and the South it was by the vestries, which met every month for the purpose of regulating the police affairs of the parish.

The first step in rebellion was to substitute county committees for vestries, so that the whole posse comitatus, the entire power of the county, might be centralized and wielded by one authority. The meeting of Fairfax County was presided over by Colonel Washington, of Mount Vernon, and adopted a declaration of the right of the people of each province to govern themselves, a protest against the vindictive treatment of Massachusetts, and a recommendation that the Continental Congress should forward a petition and remonstrance to the king, and pray him to reflect “that from the king there was but one appeal.”

No gentleman of Washington’s position in the community could afford to threaten or bluster. The language of the vestries and county meetings in Maryland and Virginia was calm, clear, and positive. They said exactly what they intended to say—no more, no less—“From the king but one appeal.” What was that? The appeal which their ancestors had made against John, against Charles I, against James II—an appeal to the God of battle!

That was the alternative presented by the English on Chesapeake to the British beyond sea—an admission of the right to govern themselves as they saw fit, forever and forever, or war! Directly after the passage of the Fairfax resolutions, Colonel Washington set out for Williamsburg to attend to his duties in the House of Burgesses.

That body promptly backed the county meetings, called a Continental Congress to meet in Philadelphia, and chose six delegates to it, of whom Washington was one. In the discussion as to measures to be taken for the support of Massachusetts in the position she had taken, and the relief of Boston from the attack made on her liberties by the British, he said: “If need be, I will raise one thousand men, subsist them at my own expense, and march them to the relief of Boston.”

And he could have done so by the raising of his hand. “Rally to Colonel Washington!” would have been the slogan. Up the Potomac to Fort Cumberland, across the mountains to Fort Pitt, down the Ohio to the Kanawha, up the Kanawha to the Gauley, the word would have passed by fleet runners, and the hunters under Michael Cresap and Mordecai Gist would have flocked to him over the Blue Mountains, down the river valleys, up from tide water in Maryland and Virginia, and twenty days would have given him more than one thousand men such as General Morgan afterward led at Saratoga or Lord Stirling at Long Island. He was promptly in his place in Philadelphia at the opening of Congress.

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