Washington, George

, commander in chief of the armies, and first president of the United States of America, was born Feb. 11, 1732, in the parish of Washington, Virginia. He was descended from an ancient family in Cheshire, of which a branch had been established in Virginia about the middle of the seventeenth century. No remarkable circumstances have transpired of his education or his early youth; and we should not indeed expect any marks of that disorderly prematureness of talent, which is so often fallacious, in a character whose distinguishing praise was to be regular and natural. His classical instruction was probably small, such as the private tutor of a Virginian country gentleman could at that period have imparted; and if his opportunities of information had been more favourable, the time was too short to profit by them. Before he was twenty he was appointed a major in the Colonial militia, and he had very early occasion to display those political and military talents, of which the exertions on a greater theatre have since made his name so famous throughout the world.

The plenipotentiaries who framed the treaty of Aix la Chapelle, by leaving the boundaries of the British and French territories in North America unfixed, had sown the seeds of a new war, at the moment when they concluded a peace. The limits of Canada and Louisiana, furnished a motive, or a pretext, for one of the most successful but one of the most bloody and wasteful wars in which Great Britain had ever been engaged. In the disputes which arose between the French and English officers on this subject, major Washington was employed by the | governor of Virginia, in a negotiation with the French governor of Fort du Quesne (now Pitsburgh); who threatened the English frontiers with a body of French and their Indian allies. He succeeded in averting the invasion; but hostilities becoming inevitable, he was in the next year appointed lieutenant colonel of a regiment raised by the colony for its own defence; to the command of which he soon after succeeded. The expedition of general Braddock followed in 1755; of which the fatal issue is too well known to require being described by us. Colonel Washington served in that expedition only as a volunteer; but such was the general confidence in his talents, that he may be said to have conducted the retreat. Several British officers lately alive, attested the calmness and intrepidity which he shewed in that difficult situation, and the voluntary obedience which was so cheerfully paid by the whole army to his superior mind. After having acted a distinguished part in a subsequent and more successful expedition to the Ohio, he was obliged by ill health, in 1758, to resign his military situation. The sixteen years which followed of the life of Washington, supply few materials for the biographer. Having married Mrs. Curtis, a Virginian lady of amiable character and respectable connections, he settled at his beautiful seat of Mount Vernon, of which we have had so many descriptions; where, with the exception of such attendance as was required by his duties as a magistrate and a member of the assembly, his time was occupied by his domestic enjoyments, and the cultivation of his estate, in a manner well suited to the tranquillity of his unambitious mind. At the end of this period he was called by the voice of his country from this state of calm and secure though unostentatious happiness.

For almost half a century symptoms of disaffection to the mother country had been so visible in the New England provinces, that as far back as 1734, the celebrated bishop Berkeley had predicted a total separation of North America from Great Britain. That prelate, when a private clergyman, had lived three years in Rhode-Island, and was an attentive and sagacious observer of the mariners and principles of the people, among whom he perceived the old leaven of their forefathers fermenting even then with great violence. The middle and southern provinces, however, were more loyal, and their influence, together with perpetual dread of the French before the peace of 1763, | put off the separation to a more distant day than that at which, we have reason to believe, the bishop expected it to take place. Virginia, the most loyal of all the colonies, had long been in the habit of calling itself, with a kind of proud pre-eminence, “his Majesty’s ancient dominion,” and it was with some difficulty that the disaffected party of New England could gain over that province, when the time arrived for effecting their long-meditated revolt. At last, however, they succeeded, and we find Mr. Washington a delegate from Virginia in the Congress, which met at Philadelphia Oct. 26, 1774. As no American united in so high a degree as he did, military experience with an estimable character, he was appointed to the command of the army which had assembled in the New England provinces, to hold in check the British army which was then encamped under general Gage at Boston.

At this period there is some reason to believe that neither general Washington nor his constituents entered heartily into the views of the New Englanders; but afraid lest their army, after shaking off the yoke of Great Britain, might give laws to the Continent, he took upon himself the command of that army in the month of July 1775. To detail his conduct in the years which followed, would be to relate the history of the American war. It may be said generally, that within a very short period after the declaration of independence, the affairs of America were in a condition so desperate, that perhaps nothing but the peculiar character of Washington’s genius could have retrieved them. Activity is the policy of invaders, and in the field of battle the superiority of a disciplined army is displayed. But delay was the wisdom of a country defended by undisciplined soldiers against an enemy who must be more exhausted by time than he could be weakened by defeat. It required the consummate prudence, the calm wisdom, the inflexible firmness, the moderate and well-balanced temper of Washington, to embrace such a plan of policy, and to persevere in it: to resist the temptations of enterprize; to fix the confidence of his soldiers without the attraction of victory; to support the spirit of the army and the people amidst those slow and cautious plans of defensive warfare which are more dispiriting than defeat itself; to contain his own ambition and the impetuosity of his troops; to endure temporary obscurity for the salvation of his country, and for the attainment of solid and immortal | glory; and to suffer even temporary reproach and obloquy, supported by the approbation of his own conscience and the applause of that small number of wise men whose praise is an earnest of the admiration and gratitude of posterity. Victorious generals easily acquire the confidence of their army. Theirs, however, is a confidence in the fortune of their general. That of Washington’s army was a confidence in his wisdom. Victory gives spirit to cowards, and even the agitations of defeat sometimes impart a courage of despair. Courage is inspired by success, and it may be stimulated to desperate exertion even by calamity, but it is generally palsied by inactivity. A system of cautious defence is the severest trial of human fortitude. By this test the firmness of Washington was tried.

It must not, however, be concealed, that some of the British commanders gave him advantages which he surely did not expect; and it has been thought that more than once they had it in their power to annihilate his army, merely by following up their victories. The issue of the contest is well known.

Much has been said by the American biographers of Washington, concerning his magnanimity during the ravages of a civil war, in which he acted so conspicuous a part; but, on the other hand, two instances have been mentioned in which he is thought to have been deficient in this great quality of a hero. Granting (it has been said) that duty required him to execute, as a spy, the accomplished major Andre, true magnanimity would have prevented him from insultingly erecting, in the view of that unfortunate officer, the gallows on which he was to be hung, several days before his execution. And when earl Cornwallis was overpowered by numbers, and obliged at York-town to surrender to the united armies of America and France, a magnanimous conqueror would not have claimed, contrary to the usage of civilized war, the sword from the hands of that gallant nobleman. On these two occasions, and on some others, the conduct of Washington agreed so ill with his general character, that he has been supposed to be influenced by the leaders of the French army. Cue thing is certain, that he was so little pleased either with his own conduct on particular occasions, or with the general principle of the American revolution, that he never could be forced to talk on the subject. An Italian nobleman, who visited him after the peace, had often | attempted, in vain, to turn the conversation to the events of the war. At length he thought he had found a favourable opportunity of effecting his purpose; they were riding together over the scene of an action where Washington’s conduct had been the subject of no small animadversion.

Count said to him, “Your conduct, sir, in this action has been criticized.Washington made no answer, but clapped spurs to his horse; after they had passed the field he turned to the Italian, and said, “Count, I observe that you wish me to speak of the war. It is a conversation which I always avoid. I rejoice at the establishment of the liberties of America. But the time of the struggle was a horrible period, in which the best men were compelled to do many things repugnant to their nature.

The conclusion of the American war permitted Washington to return to those domestic scenes, from which nothing but a sense of duty seems to have had the power to draw him. But he was not allowed long to enjoy this privacy. The supreme government of the United States, hastily thrown up, in a moment of turbulence and danger, as a temporary fortification against anarchy, proved utterly inadequate to the preservation of general tranquillity and permanent security. The confusions of civil war had given a taint to the morality of the people, which rendered the restraints of a just and vigorous government more indispensably necessary. Confiscation and paper money, the two greatest schools of rapacity and dishonesty in the world, had widely spread their poison among the Americans. One of their own writers tells us that the whole system of paper money was a system of public and private frauds. In this state of things, which threatened the dissolution of morality and government, good men saw the necessity of concentrating and invigorating the supreme authority. Under the influence of this conviction, a convention of delegates was assembled at Philadelphia, which strengthened the bands of the federal union, and bestowed on congress those powers which were necessary for the purposes of good government. Washington was the president of this convention, as he, in three years after, was elected president of the United States of America, under what was called “The New Constitution,” though it ought to have been called a reform of the republican government, as that republican government itself was only a reform of the ancient Colonial coustiuitioii under the British crown. None | of these changes extended so far as an attempt to newmodel the whole social and political system.

Events occurred during his chief magistracy, which convulsed the whole political world, and which tried most severely his moderation and prudence. The French revolution took place. Both friends and enemies have agreed in stating that Washington, from the beginning of that revolution, had no great confidence in its beneficial operation. He must indeed have desired the abolition of despotism, but he is not to be called the enemy of liberty, if he dreaded the substitution of a more oppressive despotism. It is extremely probable that his wary and practical understanding, instructed by the experience of popular commotions, augured little good from the daring speculations of inexperienced visionaries. The progress of the revolution was not adapted to cure his distrust, and when, in 1793, France, then groaning under the most intolerable and hideous tyranny, became engaged in war with almost all the governments of the civilized world, it is said to have been a matter of deliberation with the president of the United States, whether the republican envoy, or the agent of the French princes should be received in America as the diplomatic representative of France. But whatever might be his private feelings of repugnance and horror, his public conduct was influenced only by his public duties. As a virtuous man he must have abhorred the system of crimes which was established in France. But as the first magistrate of the American commonwealth, he was bound only to consider how far the interest and safety of the people whom he governed, were affected by the conduct of France. He saw that it was wise and necessary for America to preserve a good understanding and a beneficial intercourse with that great country, in whatever manner she was governed, as long as she abstained from committing injury against the United States. Guided by this just and simple principle, uninfluenced by the abhorrence of crimes which he felt, he received Mr. Genet,the minister of the French republic, and was soon shocked by the outrages which that minister committed, or instigated, or countenanced against the American government. The conduct of Washington was a model of firm and dignified moderation. Insults were offered to his authority in official papers, in anonymous libels, by incendiary declaimers, and by tumultuous meetings. The law of nations was trampled under foot. | His confidential ministers were seduced to betray him, and the deluded populace were so inflamed by the arts of their enemies that they broke out into insurrection. No vexation, however galling, could disturb the tranquillity of his mind, or make him deviate from the policy which his situation prescribed. With a more confirmed authority, and at the head of a longer established government, he might perhaps have thought greater vigour justifiable. But in his circumstances, he was sensible that the nerves of authority were not strong enough to bear being strained. Persuasion, always the most desirable instrument of government, was in his case the safest; yet he never overpassed the line which separates concession from meanness. He reached the utmost limits of moderation, without being betrayed into pusillanimity. He preserved external and internal peace by a system of mildness, without any of those virtual confessions of weakness, which so much dishonour and enfeeble supreme authority. During the whole of that arduous struggle, his personal character gave that strength to a new magistracy which in other countries arises from ancient habits of obedience and respect. The authority of his virtue was more efficacious for the preservation of America, than the legal powers of his office.

During this turbulent period he was re-elected to the office of president of the United States, which he held from April 1789 till September 1796. Probably no magistrate of any commonwealth, ancient or modern, ever occupied a place so painful and perilous. Certainly no man was ever called upon so often to sacrifice his virtuous feelings (he had no other sacrifices to make) to his public duty. Two circumstances of this sort deserve to be particularly noticed. In the spring of 1794 he sent an ambassador to Paris with credentials, addressed to his “dear friends, the citizens composing the committee of public safety of the French republic,” whom he prays God “to take under his holy protection.” Fortunately the American ambassador was spared the humiliation of presenting his credentials to those bloody tyrants. Their power was subverted, and a few of them had suffered the punishment of their crimes, which no punishment could expiate, before feis arrival at Paris.

Washington had another struggle of feeling and duty to encounter when he was compelled to suppress the insurrection in the western counties of Pennsylvania by force of | arms. But here hq had a consolation in the exercise of mefey, for the necessity of having recourse to arms. Never was there a revolt quelled with so little blood. Scarcely ever was the hasest dastard so tender of his own life, as this virtuous man was of the lives of his fellow citizens. The value of his clemency is enhanced by recollecting that he was neither without provocations to severity, nor without pretexts for it. His character and his office had been reviled in a manner almost unexampled among civilized nations. His authority had been insulted. His safety had been threatened. Of his personal and political enemies some might, perhaps, have been suspected of having instigated the insurrection; a greater number were thought to wish well to it; and very few shewed much zeal to suppress it. But neither resentment, nor fear, nor even policy itself, could extinguish the humanity of Washington. This seems to have been the only sacrifice which he was incapable of making to the interest of his country.

Throughout the whole course of his second presidency, the danger of America was great and imminent almost beyond example. The spirit of change indeed, at that period, shook all nations. But in other countries it had to encounter ancient and solidly established power. It had to tear up by the roots long habits of attachment in some nations for their government, of awe in others, of acquiescence and submission in all. But in America the government was new and weak. The people had scarce time to recover from the ideas and feelings of a recent civil war. In other countries the volcanic force must be of power to blow up the mountains, and to convulse the continents that held it down, before it could escape from the deep caverns in which it was imprisoned: in America it was covered only by the ashes of a late convulsion, or at most by a little thin soil, the produce of a few years’ quiet.

The government of America had none of those salutary prejudices to employ which in every other country were used with success to open the eyes of the people to the enormities of the French revolution. It had, on the contrary, to qontend with the prejudices of the people in the most moderate precautions against internal confusion, in the most measured and guarded resistance to the unparalleled insults and enormous encroachments of France. Without zealous support from the people, the American government was impotent. It required a considerable time, | and it cost an arduous and dubious struggle, to direct the popular spirit against a sister republic, established among a people to whose aid the Americans ascribed the establishment of their independence. It is probable, indeed, that no policy could have produced this effect, unless it had been powerfully aided by the crimes of the French government, which have proved the strongest allies of all established governments; which have produced such a general disposition to submit to any known tyranny, rather than rush into all the unknown and undefinable evils of civil confusion, with the horrible train of new and monstrous tyrannies of which it is usually the forerunner. Of these circumstances Washington availed himself with uncommon address. He employed the horror excked by the atrocities of the French revolution for the most honest and praiseworthy purposes; to preserve the internal quiet of his country; to assert the dignity, and to maintain the rights, of the commonwealth which he governed, against foreign enemies. He avoided war without incurring the imputation of pusillanimity. He cherished the detestation of Americans for anarchy, without weakening the spirit of civil liberty, and he maintained, and even consolidated, the authority of government, without abridging the privileges of the. people.

The resignation of Washington in 1796 was certainly a measure of prudence, but it may be doubted whether it was beneficial for his country, In the then unsettled state of public affairs. When he retired, he published a valedictory address to his countrymen, as he had before done when he quitted the command of the army in 1783. In these compositions the whole heart and soul of Washington are laid open. Other state papers have, perhaps, shewn more spirit and dignity, more eloquence, greater force of genius, and a more enlarged comprehension of mind. But none ever displayed more simplicity and ingenuousness, more moderation and sobriety, more good sense, more prudence, more honesty, more earnest affection for his country and for mankind, more profound reverence for virtue and religion; more ardent wishes for the happiness of his fellow-creatures, and more just and rational views of the means which alone can effectually promote that happiness.

From his resignation till the month of July 1798, he lived in retirement at Mount Vernon. At this latter pe r riod it became necessary for the United States to arm, | They had endured with a patience of which there is no example in the history of states, all the contumely and wrong which successive administrations in France had heaped upon them. Their ships were every where captured, their ministers were detained in a sort of imprisonment at Paris; while incendiaries, cloathed in the sacred character of ambassadors, scattered over their peaceful provinces the firebrands of sedition and civil war. An offer was made to terminate this long course of injustice, by a bribe to the French ministers. This offer was made by persons who appeared to be in the confidence of M. Talleyrand, who professed to act by his authority, but who have been since disavowed by him. In the mean time the United States resolved to arm by land and sea. The command of the army was bestowed on general Washington, which he accepted because he was convinced that “every thing we hold dear and sacred was seriously threatened;” though he had flattered himself “that he had quitted for ever the boundless field of public action, incessant trouble and high responsibility, in which he had long acted so conspicuous a part.” In this office he continued during the short period of his life which still remained. On Thursday the 12th December 1799, he was seized with an inflammation in his throat, which became considerably worse the next day; and of which, notwithstanding the efforts of his physicians, he died on Saturday the 14th of December 1799, in the sixty-eighth year of his age, and in the twenty-third year of the independence of the United States, of which he may be considered as the founder. The same calmness, simplicity, and regularity, which had uniformly marked his demeanour, did not forsake him in his dying moments. Even the perfectly well-ordered state of the most minute particulars of his private business, bore the stamp of that constant authority of prudence and practical reason over his actions, which was a distinguishing feature of his character. He died with those sentiments of piety, which had given vigour and consistency to his virtue, and adorned every part of his blameless and illustrious life. 1

1 Encycl. Brit. Supplement, by Dr. Gleig. Life of Washington, by Marshall.