Most of the Library of America volume committed to George Washington’s writings are his letters, with some speeches and official documents thrown in. I am not quite sure how to go at Washington this week, but I know I do not want to get into the tedious founder bashing. Nevertheless, it is worth reminding ourselves that he was the richest U.S. President, with a net worth in current dollars of $525 million. Most of this wealth was inherited or stolen from the labor of slaves (of which his plantation has over 300 at the time of his death). He was doubtless a revolutionary. And while compared to someone like Toussaint L’ouverture or a Robespierre, he strikes us as decidedly pompish and boring. My impression of him when I studied him in college was that he was at best a dumb jock, with good connections and great interpersonal skills, allowing him to move up. While none of us can doubt the contribution of Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, or even Franklin to the development of the character of the nation, what was Washington’s intellectual contribution? Maybe I can learn something new reading this volume.
We start with this odious document “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” We can see immediately that Washington was firmly rooted in the aristocratic tradition of Europe. Whatever frontier spirit drove the settlement of the United States and its development in the colonial period, by the time we get to 15-year-old Washington (1747), it seems a distant at least as far as these rich planters were concerned. I suppose I could take a look at these writings as benevolently as possible and guess that Washington needed to continually remind himself of these important rules of conduct or we would expose his true character as a vulgar ruffian. In any case, it is a very class-conscious document, with many rules on how to treat the people above your rank and below your rank. A few have some universal merit such as “When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it” or “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.” (6,10) He takes on a profession at this time as a surveyor, essentially going into the big business of land speculation. (Still a great way for rich people to get richer.) Soon after this, he begins his military career just in time for the Seven Years’ War to break out, drawing the colonies into a global imperial conflict.
Washington seems to have been deeply interested in the alliances of the frontier Indians, negotiating with the Iroquois and suggesting to his superiors that they recruit the Cherokees and other Southern tribes into the war effort. In one letter to Robert Dinwiddie, Washington discussed his salary, insisting that his place in the military was that of a volunteer and that he was “indefferent” to pay. This again reflects his aristocratic leanings, seeing military service as more of a matter of honor and service than a career. Despite this, he comes and goes in the military during the war. Several of his war letters center on the problem of recruitment. “The spirit of Desertion was so remarkable in the Militia that it has a suprizing effect upon the Regiment, and encouraged many of the Soldiers to desert.” In the same letter, Washington recommends the execution of some deserters. It is worth examining at length just to get another window into this founder. “He deserted, and carried several men with him: and, upon the most solemn promises of good Behavior, was pardoned — But for this only reason–we had no power to hold General Courts martial and now he was instrumental in carrying off seven others; two only of whom were taken. For these reasons I hope your Honour will think him as worthy an Example against Desertion, as Lewis against Cowardice: whose execution I have delayed until the arrival of the Draughts. These Examples, and proper encouragement for good Behavior, will I hope, bring the Soldiers under proper Discipline.” (78) A later document suggests the pardon of James Thomas who along with Henry Campbell was charged with Desertion and sentenced to death. Campbell still seems to have been executed. Washington’s military letters continually complained about the lack of recruitment, low morale, and their inability to maintain troop strength. Since he has some similar troubles during the Revolution, I can only wonder if the problem was the imposition of an aristocratic military on a more democratic society. One final thing that comes through his letters from the Seven Year’s War is that Washington was very concerned with how his superiors saw him and his performance. He tried to explain his failures, stressed his honor and his commitment to service, and his willingness to learn from his errors. He sometimes sounded to me to be like an employee who has been written up by his boss a few too many times.
Other documents from the colonial period include advertisements from some of his slaves that ran away, letters regarding his marriage to Martha, and his business concerns in the early 1760s. We can guess that some of his opposition to the British that emerged in the 1760s was due to what he saw as unfairly costly imported goods and low prices for tobacco exports. As early as 1765 he was stating arguments in his letters suggesting that America would be better off manufacturing its own goods and trading them internally. “I am apt to think no Law or usage can compel us to barter our money or Staple Commodities for their Manufactories, if we can be supplied within ourselves upon the better Terms.” (177) Throughout the late colonial period, these documents suggest that Washington was not fully unaware of the issues at the heart of the colonial crisis but he remains mostly concerned with his private affairs and local development efforts (like the improvement of the Potomac navigation). The result of some of these efforts were tending toward independence, seeing the way to escape British debts as greater economic independence at home.
Let me end with his response to the outbreak of fighting in 1775. “Unhappy it is though to reflect, that a Brother’s Sword has been sheathed in a Brother’s breast, and that, the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood, or Inhabited by Slaves. Sad alternative!” (164) Unfortunately, due to planters like Washington, an incomplete revolution, and a Constitution defending slavery, this prediction would come true in a different context.