Collier's New Encyclopedia (1921)/Washington, George

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Collier's New Encyclopedia
Washington, George
Edition of 1921; disclaimer. In the original, all the accompanying illustrations are in black and white.

WASHINGTON, GEORGE, an American statesman, military officer, and 1st President of the United States; born of English stock in Westmoreland co., Va., Feb. 22, 1732. His father died early, but his mother, Mary Ball, gave him an admirable training, which was continued later by his elder half-brother, Augustine. Of actual schooling he had little, save such as sufficed to make him a practical surveyor. He spelt badly, but was able to do accounts well; he wrote poor verses, but was careful to copy out 50 odd “rules of behavior”; he had as little of the true literary afflatus as any youth of genius could well have, but he tamed the wildest horses and dominated the most unruly of his schoolmates. In short, he was a young Virginian Cyrus, riding well, shooting well, and telling the truth. But if it was fortunate for his country that he escaped becoming an epic poet, it was equally fortunate that he gave up the idea of entering the English service as a midshipman on account of a dutiful regard for his mother's wishes. One can contemplate with pleasure the picture he presents as a 16-year-old explorer, surveying the lands of Lord Fairfax amid the wild passes of the Alleghenies. The youth who so bravely fronted all “moving accidents by flood and field,” who gained a reputation for sobriety and prudence both with the savage tribes he was forced to encounter and the official circles of Williamsburg, was doing precisely the work best fitted to prepare him for the higher labors of his manhood.

He rose rapidly, and in three years was made adjutant-general of militia in one of the border districts. But he was soon called away to accompany his invalid brother Lawrence on a voyage to the West Indies. This was destined to be his only experience of foreign travel; but he was by nature little capable of being tainted by provincialism. Returning to Virginia, he found his military charge renewed, and was given speedy opportunity for active service. He was dispatched by Governor Dinwiddie in the fall of 1753 on a mission to the French invaders of the Ohio region — a dangerous task, which others had declined, but which he accepted with alacrity. He braved the rigor of the season and the peril of the long and almost unknown way, and in about three months' time was back at Williamsburg with the French answer. Neither savages nor treacherous guides, nor ice-gorged rivers could prevail against so bold a heart or so keen an eye; nor could flattery at home undermine a nature so well balanced, a modesty so innate and pure. He was at once put in command of the temporary militia of the colony, and was subsequently made lieutenant-colonel of the augmented forces. His superior officer soon died, however, and he was left in full charge of the expedition to the Ohio. He acquitted himself admirably in the fight at Great Meadows, but was forced to capitulate shortly after, the result being honorable, and on the whole fortunate, considering the rashness of the enterprise.

The death of the French officer Jumonville in a preliminary skirmish led to a curious sort of reputation for the young colonial soldier, the future liberator of America being denounced as an assassin because of an absurd mistake by which the leader of a scouting party was converted into the bearer of a flag of truce. But while French censure could not hurt Washington, Dinwiddie's conduct with regard to the reorganization of the Virginian troops did; and after a manly remonstrance he resigned, showing in this matter, as well as in his subsequent refusal to submit to be outranked by officers holding royal commissions, that perfectly poised dignity of character for which he is probably more noted than any other great man in history. When Braddock, however, offered Washington a post as aide-de-camp which he could accept with honor, he was glad enough to march against the foe and to tender advice which no man in America was better fitted to give and no commanding officer less likely to profit by. The prudence of Washington as a counselor, as well as his intrepid conduct at Fort Duquesne, taught all discerning observers that he had in him the stuff of which not only good border soldiers but also great generals are made; and one of these observers, the eloquent preacher, Samuel Davies, was wise enough to predict that “that heroic youth, Colonel Washington,” would one day render his country some distinguished service. For a time his services were chiefly directed toward securing the safety of the Virginia borders, and he found leisure to make a visit to Boston on military business, as well as to fall in love.

His marriage with the widow, Martha Custis, took place in January, 1759, and those who are wont to accuse Washington of lacking sentiment may be advised to study carefully all that can be learned about the romantic affair. Military life seemed over for him, and he settled down as a gentleman farmer, serving his colony in the House of Burgesses, where he was formally thanked for his exertions in the public behalf, but was too modest to be able to reply; looking after the interests of his parishes in the local vestries, dispensing hospitality in true Virginian style, and superintending his estates in a thrifty fashion peculiarly his own; and last, but not least, keeping up his spirits and his health by frequent indulgence in the manly sport of fox hunting. At the age of 30 he was plainly the greatest soldier in the colonies, the man to whom all eyes would turn should any public danger impend; and if no danger came, he would nevertheless be one of the wealthiest and most prominent citizens of the “Ancient Dominion.” He had thus little to wish for except children. But if children did not come, his wife was destined to be filled with a higher love and more absorbing cares. He was to be the Father of his Country, From his seat at Mount Vernon, which he had been progressive enough to link with the rest of the world by a private wharf, he watched the clouds gathering in the political heavens, and he showed a statesmanly prescience in being almost the first American to perceive that a complete break with England was necessary to the peace and prosperity of the colonies.

He was no revolutionist, but neither was he afraid to trust the conclusions of his own mind; and if he was no orator, he was at least not the man to mince his words. Cæsar himself did not more thoroughly see the necessity for one-man rule at Rome than Washington saw the necessity for public independence in America. He declared at Williamsburg, in 1774, that he was ready to raise 1,000 men, support them at his own expense, and march them to the relief of Boston. A few weeks later he rode on horseback with Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendleton to attend the 1st Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He was, by the confession of Henry himself, easily the greatest man among the delegates. The 2d Congress saw him again in attendance, and ready to give his life for his country. But though he could brave death he could not face praise, and he left the chamber when John Adams nominated him to Commander-in-Chief of the Continental forces. The next day he accepted the post, while protesting his own unworthiness and refusing to accept any pay beyond a reimbursement of his expenses. No Roman of old ever came forward to save the State with purer intentions or with more favorable auguries of success. Though to weaker spirits the prospect was appalling, strong men drew happy omens, not from the flight of birds and the entrails of victims, but from the justice of the common cause and the character of Washington. Nor did they mistake, nor do we now mistake, when we assign the success of the Revolution to these two causes.

As one traces the weary years that elapsed between his taking command (July 3, 1775) and his laying down his office (Dec. 23, 1783), it is perceived clearly that under Providence the issue of the mighty struggle depended on him. Had he lost heart at the supineness and bickerings of the people at large, had he grown weary of correcting the blunders of incapable subordinates, had he disdained to control a fatuous Congress, or to put down a wretched cabal among his own officers, had his nerves given way at the sight of the sufferings at Valley Forge, had his spirit wavered at frequent defeat — in short, had he been anything but the noble patriot and great commander that he was, the course of history might have been changed, and the United States might have died in its birth and forever, or come into existence again years later and under far different auspices. But he was Washington — the noblest figure that any people has ever set in the forefront of its life and history. While he lived and fought on with his ragged troops, the Union was maintained in spite of all State squabbles; while he was in command, any alliance made with France must be one which America could accept with dignity; while his brave heart beat, repulse meant only fresh resolve, and hardship and suffering only more splendid rewards of triumph.

It is idle to deny that he was the soul of the Revolution, and it is equally idle to ask whether or not he was a great general. Whether he was, technically speaking, a master of the art of war, students of that art may decide; though it is as well to remind them that Frederick the Great praised his Trenton campaign as a masterpiece of strategy. But that he is worthy to rank with the supreme commanders of history, no man of sound judgment and capable imagination will deny. Not that he always won his battles, or won them in the most approved way; not that he flamed like a comet in the heavens, threatening desolation to the nations; not that he moved across the world's stage like a Karl or a Timor. His career does not enthrall us as does that of Alexander; it has not such tragic elements of inspiration and pathos as has that of Hannibal; it does not leave us breathless with admiration as does that of Cæsar; it does not exalt us and horrify us as does that of Napoleon. But it does give us that supreme sense of satisfaction which flows from the perception of harmony and proportion; it does thrill us with the intense and elevated joy which must ever follow the spectacle of great powers consciously working for the successful accomplishment of divine justice; it does fascinate us by means of those elements of sublimity and pathos that are never absent from the contemplation of a lonely but serene elevation above the common tide of humanity.

Nor are concrete evidences of his greatness as a soldier lacking. We remember the Berserker rashness and daring displayed at Fort Duquesne and at Monmouth, and we recall William the Conqueror at Hastings. We watch him at the crossing of the Delaware and at Valley Forge, and we recall Hannibal on the Alps. We observe him turning a ragged body of suspicious New Englanders into trained soldiers ready to die for him, and we recall no less a man than Cæsar. We see him put down the Conway cabal and reduce Congress to his bidding, and we recall Marlborough. We see him quell Lee with his fiery eye and biting words, and we somehow recall Cromwell. We watch him in his tent, brooding over the treason of Arnold and weighing the claims of mercy and justice in the case of André, and we recall only his own imperial self. Yes, Washington the general is a supremely great man, and those who deny the fact do so because they have not been able to survey his career from the proper point of view. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that to the trained student his greatness is even implicit in his proclamations to his soldiers from first to last.

He was no master of style, but certainly for directness and vigor of phrase, for patriotic purpose, for clear-sighted content, his circular letter to the governors of all the States (June 8, 1783) is unsurpassed among the political documents of the world. His entire correspondence from the time he retired from command of the army till he re-entered the service of his country as its first President, is a monument to his modesty, his magnanimity, his prudence, and his wisdom. Frederick the Great himself, resting from war that he might restore order and peace to the people, is no grander figure than this victorious American general, watching from Mount Vernon the fortunes of his country, and lending the weight of his counsel and his example to the sacred cause of union. He served this cause still further by presiding over the convention in 1787, and 1789 he entered on the presidency of the nation, assuming a new role for which he was admirably fitted and in which he was destined to achieve magnificent success.

To many persons Washington the statesman is harder to realize than Washington the general. This is probably a result of political partisanship. Men look back to those two great founders of parties, Jefferson and Hamilton, and forget the chief who dominated and controlled them. Washington really made Hamilton and he always used Jefferson when he needed him; it was thus perhaps in accordance with weak human nature that Hamilton should have been ungrateful to his memory, while Jefferson was impelled to pay him a tribute — noble in spite of its jealous touches. No fact in history is more clearly established than that Washington was the chief figure in his own administrations. He came to the chair of State with the best equipment possible, and he would have left it vacant forever had it been requisite to fill it with a successor who should be his equal. He had not the analytic mind of Hamilton nor the philosophic grasp of Jefferson, but his training for the duties of a statesman had been superior to theirs. He came of a race used to act and to command. From an early age he had to rely on himself, and so he attained to that self-discipline which is indispensable to a political leader. Circumstances determined that he should learn the lessons of life from men rather than from books; thus he stood in no danger of becoming a doctrinaire. His early experiences as a surveyor, a backwoodsman, and a soldier gave him a true sympathy with democracy, and hence enabled him to understand the only rational principle on which a stable government could be founded in America; while his good birth and training, and his position as a planter aristocrat, put him in touch with that English past from which it would have been impossible for the new nation to break entirely. Add to all this the fact that his nature was essentially straightforward and manly, and that he had not a conspicuous weakness, that his mind was clear and flexible, and if not quick, certainly not slow, and we surely have as well-equipped a statesman as the world's history can furnish.

Compared with him, how the other figures of the period, even the greatest, shrink and diminish! The spiritual dignity of his altruism sits not on Franklin; his breadth and catholic charity of judgment belong neither to Hamilton nor to Jefferson: and who would think of comparing with him the Madisons, the Jays, the Morrises, the Ameses, the Wilsons of the time, able and patriotic men though they all were. Dignity, steadfastness, uprightness, serenity, benignity, wisdom — these are the characteristics of Washington's statesmanship, whether we regard his firm policy of resistance to the insolence of revolutionary France, or his refusal to plunge his country into a second war with England, or his cordial acceptance of the financial measures of Hamilton, or his steady accentuation of the national principle, or his noble efforts to reconcile his cabinet, or his strong but humane policy toward the Indians, or his prompt crushing of the Whisky Rebellion, or finally, his progressive views on the subjects of slavery and national education, and his prophetic comprehension of the importance of the West. A perfect equipoise of powers, which taken separately would not be supreme, appears to be the characteristic mark of his rare variety of genius, which among men of action is illustrated in Alfred the Great, and among men of letters in Sophocles. It is to this class that Washington belongs — to the class of men whose balance of faculties is so serenely perfect as to constitute genius of perhaps the highest order. What shall we say of such a man, save that he was as great in peace as he was in war; that he was veritably the Father of his Country?

Washington became Commander-in-Chief of the American army on June 15, 1775, and for several years his history was that of the Revolutionary War, elsewhere recorded. Suffice it here to say that he created the American army; fought the English generals, Howe, Clinton, Burgoyne, and Comwallis, with various results; till, finally, he surrounded Cornwallis at Yorktown, and compelled him to capitulate. To his intrepidity, prudence, and moderation the United States is almost wholly indebted for the independence which was secured to it by the treaty of peace concluded in 1783. Soone after this event Washington resigned his commission to Congress, and in his address on that occasion the magnanimity of the hero was blended with the wisdom of the philosopher. He returned to his seat at Mount Vernon and, like Cincinnatus of old, he returned to his former and favorite pursuit of agriculture. The federation of the States having failed to afford an efficient government, Washington proposed conventions for commercial purposes, which led to the Convention of 1787, of which he was a member, which founded the present Federal Constitution, considered by him as the only security against anarchy and civil war. Under this Constitution he was chosen President, and inaugurated in New York, April 30, 1789. His government was marked by that well-tempered prudence which distinguished all his conduct. Having been re-elected as president, he held office till 1797, when he again retired to his estate at Mount Vernon. In 1797, when there arose a difficulty with France, threatening hostilities, he was appointed Lieutenant-General and Commander-in-Chief, a post which he accepted with extreme reluctance, but with that spirit of obedience to the call of duty which has been the governing rule of his life. On Dec. 12, 1799, he was exposed in the saddle, for several hours, to cold and snow, and attacked with acute laryngitis, for which he was repeatedly and largely bled, but sank rapidly, and died, Dec. 14.

Washington was childless, but most happy in his domestic relations. He was mourned even by his enemies and deserved the record: “First in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” The following estimate of the character and intellect of the great American patriot is from President Jefferson:

“His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke; and, as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion. Hence the common remark of his officers of the advantages he derived from councils of war, where, hearing all suggestions, he selected whatever was best; and certainly no general ever planned his battles more judiciously; but, if deranged during the course of action, if any member of his plan was disarranged by sudden circumstances, he was slow in readjustment. The consequence was that he often failed in the field, but rarely against an enemy in station, as at Boston and York. He was incapable of fear, meeting personal danger with the calmest concern. Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining, if he saw a doubt; but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was the most pure, his justice the most inflexible, I have ever known; no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was, indeed, in every sense of the word, a wise, a good, and a great man. His temper was naturally irritable and high-toned; but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendency over it * * * * His person was fine, his stature exactly what one could wish. Though in the circle of his friends, where he might be unreserved with safety, he took a free share in conversation, his colloquial talents were not above mediocrity, possessing neither copiousness of ideas nor fluency of words. In public, when called on for a sudden opinion, he was unready, short, and embarrassed. Yet he wrote readily, rather diffusely, in an easy and correct style. He read little, and that only on subjects of agriculture and English history.”


Collier's 1921 Washington George family.jpg
©Keystone View Company
WASHINGTON, MRS. WASHINGTON, AND HER CHILDREN AT MT. VERNON. A REPRODUCTION OF THE PAINTING BY EDWARD SAVAGE


Collier's 1921 Washington George - Martha Gilbert Stuart.jpg   Collier's 1921 Washington George - Gilbert Stuart.jpg
Photo, Paul Thompson Photo, Paul Thompson
MARTHA WASHINGTON, FROM THE PAINTING BY GILBERT STUART GEORGE WASHINGTON, FROM THE PAINTING BY GILBERT STUART


George Washington Before the Battle of Trenton John Trumbull.jpeg
©Keystone View Co.
WASHINGTON AT TRENTON. FROM THE PAINTING MADE BY TRUMBULL


Collier's 1921 Washington George ancestral home.jpg
©Keystone-Burton Holmes
SULGRAVE MANOR, ANCESTRAL HOME OF THE WASHINGTON FAMILY


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©Keystone View Company
PAGES OF THE CASH BOOK WASHINGTON KEPT IN HIS OWN HAND


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©Keystone View Company
THE CHAMBER OCCUPIED BY MARTHA WASHINGTON AFTER HER HUSBAND'S DEATH. THE WINDOW AFFORDED A VIEW OF HIS TOMB


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©Ewing Galloway
MOUNT VERNON, HOME OF GEORGE WASHINGTON


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©Ewing Galloway
TOMB OF GEORGE WASHINGTON AT MOUNT VERNON


Collier's 1921 Washington George monument.jpg
©Keystone View Company
THE WASHINGTON MONUMENT, SEEN BEYOND THE JAPANESE CHERRY TREES BESIDE THE POTOMAC