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George Washington: the Aloof American

ISSUE:  Summer 1976

THE king of England, George III, was fond of farming. His favorite diversion was to ride about his lands, chatting with the tenants about the crops, “Farmer George,” he called himself. His arch-opponent, George Washington, had the same fondness for farming. He too enjoyed riding about his lands and talking about the crops. Indeed there was nothing else he enjoyed quite so much. But there the likeness ceased. And among the many other matters that differentiated George Washington from George III none was more striking than his greater dignity and reserve. George Washington would never have taken the liberty of calling himself “Farmer George,” nor would he have allowed anyone else to do so. Even his close friends took care to keep their distance; and those who forgot to were apt to be brought up sharp.

A familiar anecdote, though perhaps apocryphal, well illustrates Washington’s customary posture toward himself and toward others. During the meeting of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 a group of Washington’s friends were remarking on his extraordinarily reserved and remote manner, even among his most intimate acquaintances. Gouverneur Morris, who was always full of boldness and wit, had the nerve to disagree. He could be as familiar with Washington, he said, as with any of his other friends. Alexander Hamilton called his bluff by offering to provide a supper and wine for a dozen of them if Morris would, at the next reception Washington gave, simply walk up to him, gently slap him on the shoulder, and say, “My dear General, how happy I am to see you look so well.” On the appointed evening a substantial number were already present when Morris arrived, walked up to Washington, bowed, shook hands, and then placed his left hand on Washington’s shoulder, and said, “My dear General, I am very happy to see you look so well.” The response was immediate and icy. Washington reached up and removed the hand, stepped back, and fixed his eye in silence on Morris, until Morris retreated abashed into the crowd. The company looked on in embarrassment, and no one ever tried it again.

It seems a most un-American reaction, not the sort of thing that Americans like to see in the men they honor, certainly not the sort of thing one would look for in the leader of a popular revolution today. Yet Americans then and since have honored George Washington far beyond any other man in their history. Moreover he earned the honor, and his dignity and reserve, the aloofness that still separates him from us, helped him to earn it.


How is part of the larger story of American independence, the story of how the American Revolution transformed some of the least lovable traits of a seemingly ordinary man into national assets. For besides his aloofness, Washington had other characteristics which at this distance appear less than admirable, but which served him and the nation well in the struggle for independence.

Perhaps the most conspicuous of these traits, conspicuous at least in his surviving correspondence, was an unabashed concern for his own economic interest. Although Washington was fair in his dealings and did not ask favor of any man, he kept a constant, wary, and often cold eye on making a profit, ever suspicious (and not always without reason) that other men were trying to take advantage of him. Like most Virginia planters, he complained that London merchants were giving him too little for his tobacco or charging him too much for the goods he bought from them. When he rented to tenants, he demanded to be paid punctually and dismissed men’s inability to meet their obligations as irresponsibility or knavery. If a man was so foolish as to try cheating him, he was capable of a fury that comes through vividly in his letters, as when he wrote to one associate that “all my concern is that I ever engag’d myself in behalf of so ungrateful and dirty a fellow as you are.”

In operating his plantation at Mount Vernon he inveighed endlessly against waste of time, waste of supplies, waste of money. “A penny saved is a penny got,” he would say, or “Many mickles make a muckle,” by which he apparently meant that many small savings would add up to a large one. Even in dealings with his mother he was watchful, for he thought she had extravagant tastes. He was ready to supply her real wants, he said, but found her “imaginary wants . . .indefinite and oftentimes insatiable.”

Even after he left Mount Vernon in order to win a war and found a nation, his intense absorption with his estate persisted, somehow curiously out of place now, and out of proportion to the historic events that he was grappling with. In the darkest hours of the war and later during some of the tensest national crises he took time to write to the managers of his plantation about making it show a profit. In early December 1776, for example, after fleeing across the Delaware with the remnants of his army, he sent home instructions to make do without buying linen for the slaves “as the price is too heavy to be borne with.” And while he was president, his weekly directives to his managers far exceeded in length the documents he prepared for his subordinates in government.

No detail was too small for his attention. In December 1792, while his cabinet was rent by the feud between Jefferson and Hamilton, he sent orders that Anthony’s sore toe, “should be examined and if it requires it something should be done to it, otherwise, as usual, it will serve him as a pretence to be in the house half the Winter.” Three months later, when Hamilton was under attack in the House of Representatives for alleged corruption in the Treasury Department, Washington was worried that Caroline “who was never celebrated for her honesty,” would steal some of the linen she had been entrusted with cutting. And shortly thereafter when war broke out in Europe and the cabinet was debating what attitude the United States should take toward the belligerents, the president professed himself to be “extremely anxious,” because he wanted some honey locust seed to be planted before it was too late, and he wanted his sheep to be washed before they were sheared. “Otherwise,” he feared, “I shall have a larger part of the Wool stolen if washed after it is sheared,”

As the quotations suggest, Washington was continually alert against theft, embezzlement, and shirking by his slaves. Slaves would not work, he warned his managers and overseers again and again, unless they were continually watched. And they would take every opportunity to steal. They would feign sickness to avoid work. They would stay up all night enjoying themselves and be too tired the next day to get anything done. They would use every pretext to take advantage of him, like Peter, who was charged with riding about the plantation to look after the stock, but, Washington suspected, was usually “in pursuit of other objects; either of traffic or amusement, more advancive of his own pleasures than my benefit.”

Washington’s opinion of his managers and overseers was hardly better. He hired a succession of them who never seemed able to satisfy him, In 1793, after a bad year, he got off a series of blistering letters to the overseers of the five farms into which Mount Vernon was divided. Hyland Crow, for example, was guilty of “insufferable neglect” in failing to get fields plowed before frost. “And look ye, Mr. Crow,” wrote the President, “I have too good reasons to believe that your running about, and entertaining company at home . . .is the cause of this, now, irremediable evil in the progress of my business,” And Thomas Green, in charge of the plantation’s carpenters, got a similar tongue lashing. “I know full well,” said Washington, “that to speak to you is of no more avail, than to speak to a bird that is flying over one’s head; first, because you are lost to all sense of shame, and to every feeling that ought to govern an honest man, who sets any store by his character; and secondly, because you have no more command of the people over whom you are placed, than I have over the beasts of the forists: for if they chuse to work they may; if they do not you have not influence enough to make them . . .”

And so it went. No one ever worked hard enough at Mount Vernon; and when the owner was there, he felt obliged to ride daily around the place (or so he told himself) in order to keep people at their jobs and to point out to his manager what was not being done right. When a manager took offense at the constant criticism, Washington assured him, “that I shall never relinquish the right of judging, in my own concerns . . . If I cannot remark upon my own business, passing every day under my eyes, without hurting your feelings, I must discontinue my rides, or become a cypher on my own Estate.”


A cipher Washington would not be and could not be. He would run his own affairs in his own interest. And he was very good at it. But if that was all he had done, we should never have heard of him, except perhaps as one of many prosperous Virginia planters, Fortunately it was not merely interest that moved him. Dearer by far to him was honor. Honor required a man to be assiduous and responsible in looking after his interests. But honor also required a man to look beyond his own profit, though where he looked and how far might be a question that different men would answer differently.

At the simplest, most superficial level Washington’s love of honor showed itself in a concern with outward appearances. His attachment to Mount Vernon, for example, did not stop at the desire to make a profit from it. He wanted the place and its surroundings to look right, to honor the owner by the way they looked; and this meant giving up the slovenly, though often profitable, agricultural practices of his neighbors, He stopped growing tobacco and turned to the rotation of cereal crops that were approved by the English agricultural reformers of the time. He tried, mostly in vain, to substitute handsome English hedgerows for the crude rail fences of Virginia. And he insisted that all weeds and brush be grubbed out of his plowed fields, not simply for the sake of productivity, but because the fields looked better that way. He would rather, he said, have one acre properly cleansed than five prepared in the usual way.

Similarly, as commander-in-chief, he wanted his soldiers to look well. Their uniforms must be kept in order and “well put on.” Otherwise, he said, there would be “little difference in appearance between a soldier in rags and a soldier in uniform.” Appearance mattered especially to him when French troops were coming: his army must not be dishonored by looking shabby or careless. Even the huts for winter quarters must be built of an identical size: “any hut not exactly conformable to the plan, or the least out of line, shall be pulled down and built again agreeable to the model and in it’s proper place.” And when Washington became president, he showed the same concern for appearances in furnishing his house and decorating his coach in a plain but elegant style that he thought was appropriate for the head of a republican government.

But a man who craved honor could not gain it simply by putting up a good appearance. This was only a shade removed from vanity, and Washington from the beginning betrayed none of the vanity of a John Adams. Indeed his concern with appearances included a horror of appearing vain. He would not assist would-be biographers for fear, he confessed to a friend, of having “vanity or ostentation imputed to me.” He would not even allow Arthur Young, the great English agricultural reformer with whom he corresponded, to publish extracts from the letters, for fear of seeming ostentatious or of giving occasion for some “officious tongue to use my name with indelicacy.”

But if Washington was not vain, his very fear of appearing so argues that he did care deeply about what people thought of him, Although honor was in part a private matter, a matter of maintaining one’s self-respect by doing right regardless of what the world demanded, it was also a matter of gaining the respect of others. Washington wanted respect, and he sought it first where men have often sought it, in arms.

The story of his youth is familiar, how his older brother Lawrence returned from the siege of Cartagena to fill young George with dreams of military glory. We see him at the age of 21 leading an expedition to the Ohio country and the next year another one, in which he fired the opening shots in the final struggle between France and Britain for the American continent. From the outset he made it plain that he was in search of honor: a letter penned at his camp in the Ohio country informed the governor of Virginia in words that Washington would later have eschewed as ostentatious, “the motives that lead me here were pure and noble. I had no view of acquisition, but that of Honour, by serving faithfully my King and Country.” Military honor seemed to Washington to be worth any sacrifice. “Who is there,” he asked, “that does not rather Envy, than regret a Death that gives birth to Honour and Glorious memory?”

But it was not necessary to die in order to win military honor. Armies were organized to express honor and respect every hour of the day, through the ascending scale of rank, from the lowliest private soldier up to the commander-in-chief. Officers often worried more about their rank than they did about the enemy. On his expedition against the French in 1754 Washington, along with other officers of the Virginia militia, was mortally offended by a captain in the British army who appeared on the scene and claimed to outrank all provincials, even those of a higher nominal grade. Washington later resigned his commission rather than submit to this kind of dishonor. Thereafter he sought in vain for a royal commission in the regular British army in order to avoid such embarrassment. Failing to obtain one, he served again with the provincial troops when the Virginia frontier needed protection and provincial command was urged upon him, because he thought “it wou’d reflect eternal dishonour upon me to refuse it.”

Washington continued to regard rank as a matter of high importance. Throughout the Revolutionary War he had to press upon Congress the need for the utmost care and regularity in promotions in order to avoid offending officers who felt that they had not been given the grade they deserved. And the last years of his life were complicated by a dispute with John Adams over the order of rank in the general staff of the army that Congress created to prepare for war with France. But Washington recognized that an officer had to earn the respect that his rank entitled him to. And one of his ways of earning it was by cultivating the aloofness which became so marked a characteristic of his later years.

He may have begun with a large measure of native reserve, but he nourished it deliberately, for he recognized that reserve was an asset when you were in command of others. Mount Vernon, like other large plantations, was a school where the owner learned that giving orders and having them carried out were two different things. Slaves were in theory completely subject to the will of their master or overseer; but they were men, and like other men they gave obedience to those who could command their respect. And respect, in Washington’s view, could not be won by familiarity. Familiarity bred contempt, whether in slaves or soldiers. Washington described the posture that he himself strove for in a letter of advice to a newly fledged Colonel in the Continental Army. “Be easy and condescending in your deportment to your officers, but not too familiar, lest you subject yourself to a want of that respect, which is necessary to support a proper command.” With regard to enlisted men it was necessary to keep a still greater distance. Officers were supposed to be gentlemen, and they were expected to enhance the respect due them as officers by the respect due them as gentlemen. To make an officer of a man who was not a gentleman, a man who was not considered?> socially superior by his men, would mean, Washington said, that they would “regard him no more than a broomstick, being mixed together as one common herd.” Fraternizing with private soldiers was “unofficer and ungentlemanlike behaviour,” cause for court martial in Washington’s army. The commander-in-chief, then, must be all the more a figure apart, a figure to be respected rather than loved, a figure like the George Washington on whom so much honor was to be heaped and who, though without ostentation, dearly cherished the accolades.

Interest and honor, in Washington’s view, were the springs that moved all men, including himself. And although the two might come in conflict and pull men in different directions, they need not do so. Often they were bound up together in curious ways. When Washington declared that he was seeking only honor in the Ohio country, he demonstrated that this was his motive by offering to serve without pay. But in making the offer he was trying to shame the Virginia assembly into giving provincial officers more pay. British officers got 22 shillings a day; Virginia was paying only 12 shillings 6 pence, and Virginia officers were accordingly resentful. But their resentment was not directed so much toward the pecuniary disadvantage as it was toward the implication that they were not as worthy as their British counterparts. It seemed so dishonorable not to be paid on the same scale that Washington would have preferred no pay at all. Interest and honor were intertwined.

Interest and honor were likely to be linked in all public service. In seeking honor a man sought the respect of others, of his family, of his social class, of his friends, his town, neighborhood, province, country. And people, however grouped, generally accorded respect to someone who served their interests. A man seldom looked for honor in promoting the interests of a group to which he did not belong. Consequently in serving the interests of others he might well be serving his own, especially if he took a large enough, long-range view.

How large a view Washington took before 1774 is not easy to assess, It certainly extended to the boundaries of Virginia, for he had served both in the colony’s military and in the House of Burgesses. But his quest for a royal military commission looks like a yearning for rank, not for a larger sphere of action. It seems unlikely that Washington, any more than John Adams, would have expanded his horizons beyond his own province, had the colonies’ quarrel with England not reached the boiling point. During the tumultuous decade before weapons replaced words Washington imbibed the ideas of republican liberty that animated the spokesmen for American independence. He cannot properly be counted as one of those spokesmen. But he was convinced, long before the fighting began, that the English government was lost in corruption and was determined “by every piece of Art and despotism to fix the shackles of slavery upon us.” When Virginians sent him to the Continental Congress to join other Americans in resisting that threat, his horizons, like those of John Adams, expanded in the vision of a national republic. For the rest of his life, instead of serving only a county or province, he would serve a whole new nation. Honor and interest would remain the springs that moved him. But the honor and interest of George Washington somehow became the honor and interest of America.


To announce to the world the independence of Americans required daring, perhaps more so for Washington than for any of the other founding fathers, and perhaps more than he or they could have realized at the time. In accepting command of the yet non-existent Continental Army in June 1775, Washington staked his honor on defeating in battle the world’s greatest military and naval power. And he staked it on behalf of a nation that was also as yet non-existent. For a year he commanded a rebel army, high in spirit and low on ammunition. By the time the great Declaration turned the rebellion into a war for independence, the nation was materializing, and it would have been reasonable to expect that those who had embraced independence would rush to defend it with their lives and fortunes. But few Americans were yet as ready as Washington to face the meaning of independence. Washington found that he was in command of an army continually in the process of dissolution and that he was under the direction of a Congress that grew increasingly short-sighted and timid, unwilling to take any steps that the fickle public might momentarily disapprove.

What was worse, the very cause in which he was embarked forbade him to take effective measures to remedy the situation. The republican liberty that Americans espoused required that the military be subject to the civil power, and Washington accepted the condition, even when the civil power became incompetent, irresponsible, and corrupt, even when he was obliged to share the blame for the errors of his Congressional masters. He aimed at honor in the eyes of the people, but as a republican he could not attain his goal by appealing to the people over the heads of their elected representatives.

The most he could do, while he tried to keep his army in being, was to point out to his masters, with unwearying patience, what experience had taught him but not them, namely that while men can be moved by honor, they could not be moved by it for long unless it marched hand-in-hand with interest. Washington had so fully identified his own interest and honor with the interest and honor of the new nation that he served without pay. But he knew that an entire army of men could not be sustained by honor alone. Enthusiasm for republican government would not alter human nature. Nor would it support a man’s wife and children. If Congress could not make it in the interest of men to join the army and stay in the army, whether as enlisted men or as officers, the army could not last. Men had to be paid and paid enough to make it worth their while to face the hardships of military life while their neighbors stayed home. Washington acknowledged that men would fly readily to arms to protect their rights—for a short time, as they turned out to drive the British from Concord and Lexington. “But after the first emotions are over,” Washington explained, “to expect, among such People, as compose the bulk of an Army, that they are influenced by any other principles than those of Interest, is to look for what never did, and I fear never will happen.” And he went on to give the results of his own appeals to men to remain in the army for the honor of it. “A soldier reasoned with upon the goodness of the cause he is engaged in, and the inestimable rights he is contending for, hears you with patience, and acknowledges the truth of your observations, but adds that it is of no more Importance to him than others. The Officer makes you the same reply, with this further remark, that his pay will not support him, and he cannot ruin himself and Family to serve his Country, when every Member of the community is equally Interested and benefitted by his labours.”

Washington was never able to persuade Congress to pay his officers what he thought they should get, nor was he able to persuade them to enlist men for long enough terms to give him the disciplined striking force that he needed to meet the British on equal terms. The result, as he continually lamented, was “that we have protracted the War, expended Millions, and tens of Millions of pounds which might have been saved, and have a new Army to raise and discipline once or twice a year and with which we can undertake nothing because we have nothing to build upon, as the men are slipping from us every day by means of their expiring enlistments.” For a man in search of honor it was difficult to bear. The public blamed him for not taking action against the enemy, and he was unable even to explain to them why he did not. To have done so would have been to explain to the enemy how weak he was and thus invite an attack he was not equipped to repel.

It hurt his sense of honor, too, to have to rely so heavily on the French. At the beginning of the war Washington had not expected much help from France. He thought that they would supply him with arms and ammunition in return for the trade they would gain, and in order to annoy the British. But he had not counted on military assistance and would have been happier to win without it. In the end French troops and the French navy were essential to his victory for the simple reason that the states would not field a large enough force themselves, even though he was persuaded that they could have done so.

The victory, nevertheless, was his. For eight years he presided over an army that would have dissolved without him. He put up with militia who came and went like the wind. He put up with officers, commissioned by Congress, who scarcely knew one end of a gun from the other. He put up with a horde of French volunteer geniuses who all expected to be generals. He led men who had no food, no shoes, no coats, and sometimes no weapons. He silenced one mutiny after another. He prevented his unpaid officers from seeking to overturn the delinquent government. And he did it all with the aloof dignity which earned the awesome respect of those he commanded, and earned him in victory the honor of the nation that had come into existence almost in spite of itself.


Washington valued his laurels. When he retired to private life at Mount Vernon, it was with a full consciousness that any further ventures in public life might only diminish the honor that was now his. Far better, after so many years’ service, to keep out of the political hurly burly, and this he longed to do. There remained, however, a threat that could not merely diminish but perhaps destroy both the honor he had won for himself and the independence he had won for Americans. That could be the consequence if the republic which he had fought to bring into being should itself dissolve.

The threat stemmed from the weakness of the central government. Washington had worried about it all through the war. By 1778 it had become evident to him that the states were sending lightweight men to Congress while the heavy-weights stayed at home. The result was that “party disputes and personal quarrels are the great business of the day whilst the momentous concerns of an empire. . . . are but secondary considerations . . .,” that “business of a trifling nature and personal concernment withdraws their attention from matters of great national moment.” He could not complain to the public, but he could to his friends in Virginia. “Where are our Men of abilities?” he asked George Mason. “Why do they not come forth to save their Country? let this voice my dear Sir call upon you, Jefferson and others.” “Where?” he demanded of Benjamin Harrison, “is Mason, Wythe, Jefferson, Nicholas, Pendleton, Nelson, and another I could name [meaning Harrison himself]?” They had all, it seemed, deserted Congress for Virginia.

Nor did the situation improve as the war dragged to a close, supported by French arms and French credit. While the state governments grew stronger, Congress seemed to hobble on crutches. All business, so far as Washington could see, was merely “attempted, for it is not done, by a timid kind of recommendation from Congress to the States.” By the time peace came he was convinced that a new constitution creating a more effective national government was necessary to replace the Articles of Confederation. But he was still a republican and knew that this would not be possible until the people of the United States felt, as he did, “that the honor, power and true Interest of this Country must be measured by a Continental scale; and that every departure therefrom weakens the Union, and may ultimately break the band, which holds us together.” To work for a more effective national government was, he believed, the duty of “every Man who wishes well to his Country, and will meet with my aid as far as it can be rendered in the private walks of life.”

To go beyond the private walks of life was more than his intention, and even there he was wary of becoming associated with any enterprise that might endanger his standing in the public mind. He was uneasy about his connection with the Society of the Cincinnati, the organization formed by the retired officers of his army. To his surprise it had drawn heavy public criticism as the entering wedge of aristocracy. Washington was so baffled by the criticism that he asked his friend Jefferson to explain it to him, which Jefferson did with his usual grace and tact. The principal trouble was that membership was to be hereditary; Washington therefore insisted that this aspect of the Society be abandoned. When some branches of the society declined to give it up, Washington determined not to serve as its president or attend its meetings, even though he thought the public jealousy wholly unwarranted.

Washington believed that as a private citizen pursuing his own interests he could still be working for the good of the nation. He engaged without a qualm in a scheme that would benefit him financially, while it bolstered American independence in a way that he thought was crucial. Before the Revolution he had begun investing heavily in lands in the Ohio country, where as a young man he had made his military debut. While war lasted, the country lay empty of white inhabitants save for a few hardy souls who dared brave the Indian raids organized by the English. With the coming of peace began a great folk exodus from the established regions of the East (mainly from Virginia) over the mountains into the empty West. Washington expected the stream to swell steadily with immigrants, who would leave the monarchical tyrannies of the Old World for the republican freedom of the New. “The bosom of America is open,” he declared, to “the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions, Let the poor, the needy and oppressed of the Earth, and those who want Land, resort to the fertile plains of our western country,. . .”

It was an axiom of the 18th century that the strength of a country lay in its people, and Washington like other Americans wanted the country to grow as rapidly as possible. His only reservation about immigrants from Europe was that they not settle in a group and thus “retain the Language, habits and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them.” It was important that they become Americans. It was even more important that all who trekked over the mountains, whether immigrants or natives, remain Americans either by inclination or by force and not slip under the dominion of England or Spain. Both countries had retained footholds in the West, and the rivers flowed relentlessly into the Mississippi toward Spanish territory. The easiest, cheapest mode of exporting whatever the people of the West produced would thus be to ship it downriver to New Orleans. Fortunately, as Washington saw it, the Spanish forbade such shipments, and the Continental Congress was in no position to secure the privilege for Americans, though settlers had no sooner arrived in the western country than they began to demand it.

Washington was persuaded that the West would gravitate to Spain and Britain unless the people there were bound to the East by the only ties that could bind men over the long run, ties of interest. The way to hold them in the nation was by building canals that would give settlers on the Ohio River a shorter water route to the East than the long float down the Mississippi. Washington accordingly devoted his energies to promoting two companies that would build canals from the Ohio and the Great Kanawha to the heads of navigation on the Potomac and the James. “The consequences to the Union,” he wrote to his friend James Warren, “in my judgment are immense . . .for unless we can connect the new States which are rising to our view in those regions, with those on the Atlantic by interest, (the only binding cement, and not otherwise to be effected but by opening such communications as will make it easier and cheaper for them to bring the product of their labour to our markets, instead of going to the Spaniards southerly, or the British northerly), they will be quite a distinct people; and ultimately may be very trouble-some neighbors to us.”

It did not bother Washington that in pressing for these canals he was furthering his own speculative interests as well as those of the nation. But he was embarrassed when the Virginia legislature, in chartering the companies to carry out his project, awarded him 150 shares in them. How would this be viewed by the world, he asked himself. Would it not “deprive me of the principal thing which is laudable in my conduct?” Honor and interest could apparently run together if the only benefit he received from the project was an increase in the value of his western lands, but honor would depart if he profited directly from the enterprise he had advocated. On the other hand, if he declined to accept the gift, would it not appear to be an act of ostentatious righteousness? He escaped the dilemma by accepting the shares but donating them to the support of a school in Virginia and to the foundation of a national university, another project designed to foster national feeling. The future leaders of the nation assembled there as students from all parts of the country would learn to shake off their local prejudices.

The canals were not completed in Washington’s lifetime and could not fulfill the political function he envisaged for them. Moreover, the union was threatened more by the impotence of Congress than by the disaffection of western settlers. By the terms of the peace treaty, the British outposts in the Northwest should have been given over to the United States, but the British continued to hold them. They were also doing their best to hasten the expected collapse of the republic by refusing to allow American ships in the ports they controlled in the West Indies and elsewhere in the world. Congress, with no authority to regulate American trade, was unable to retaliate.

The debility of Congress seems to have bothered Washington as much for its damage to the nation’s reputation abroad as for its depressing effects at home. To be unable to retaliate against the economic warfare of the country he had defeated in battle must render the nation “contemptable in the eyes of Europe.” Because he had identified his own honor so completely with that of the nation, the contempt of Europe touched him personally and deeply; and he felt the shame redoubled when the people of western Massachusetts broke out in rebellion and neither the state government nor the national government seemed able to cope with them. “For God’s sake,” he wrote to David Humphreys, “tell me what is the cause of all these commotions; do they proceed from licentiousness, British-influence disseminated by the tories, or real grievances which admit of redress? If the latter, why were they delayed till the public mind had become so much agitated? If the former why are not the powers of Government tried at once?” Europeans had said right along that a republican government was incapable of the energy needed to support itself in an area as large as the United States. Now the Americans seemed bent on exemplifying the criticism. “I am mortified beyond expression,” said Washington, “that in the moment of our acknowledged independence we should by our conduct verify the predictions of our transatlantic foe, and render ourselves ridiculous and contemptible in the eyes of all Europe.”

As the situation worsened, Washington argued among his friends for an extension of Congressional power, but at the same time he despaired of its doing much good, for “the members [of Congress] seem to be so much afraid of exerting those [powers] which they already have, that no opportunity is slipped of surrendering them, or referring the exercise of them, to the States individually.” By 1786 he was convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the country was fast verging toward anarchy and confusion, to a total dissolution of the union. He thought that the convention called to meet at Philadelphia to recommend changes in the national government offered the only hope of rescue, but it seemed so forlorn a hope that he was wary of attending it. When elected as a delegate, he delayed his acceptance to the last minute.

Washington was ready to do everything possible, he said, “to avert the humiliating and contemptible figure we are about to make in the annals of mankind.” He was alarmed to hear that otherwise respectable people were talking of a need for monarchical government, and he feared that his refusal to attend the convention might be interpreted “as dereliction to republicanism.” But on the other hand if the effort to save the republican union failed, the persons who made the effort “would return home chagrined at their ill success and disappointment.” “This would be a disagreeable circumstance for any one of them to be in,” he said, “but more particularly so for a person in my situation.” His situation was unique. It was he, after all, more than any other man, who had won independence for the nation. If the nation proved unworthy of it and incapable of sustaining it, the fault would not be his. He would still retain something of the honor he had gained in the struggle, even though it would be sadly diminished. But if he associated himself with a losing effort to save what he had won, he would reduce still further the significance of his achievement.

In the end, of course, he went and inevitably was elected to preside over the convention. The document it produced, whatever its defects, seemed to him the best that could be obtained and its acceptance the only alternative to anarchy. He would not plead in public for its adoption, but to his friends he made plain his total support of it and his opposition to proposals for amending it before it was put in operation. His friends in turn made plain that if it were adopted he would be called upon to serve as the first president.

Again in terms of honor and interest Washington weighed the risks of accepting office. His inclination was to stay at Mount Vernon, to make the place more profitable and keep it looking the way he wanted it to. To preside over the new government “would be to forego repose and domestic enjoyment, for trouble, perhaps for public obloquy.” There would be no honor in presiding over a fiasco, and he suspected that there was a sinister combination afoot among the Antifederalists to defeat the effective operation of the new government if they should be unsuccessful in preventing its adoption. But if he should be convinced, he told his friend Henry Lee, that “the good of my Country requires my reputation to be put in risque, regard for my own fame will not come in competition with an object of so much magnitude.” The good of the country did require Washington to take the risk,


The good of the country, perhaps its very survival, required above all that its citizens should respect its government, that they should not regard it with the contempt that the state legislatures had shown for the Continental Congress. And no one else but Washington could have given the presidency and the new government the stature they attained by his mere presence. His own honor was already so great that some of it could flow from him to the office he occupied.

Not least of the assets he brought to the task was the commanding dignity that he had won by his deliberately cultivated aloofness, the posture that demanded respect and honor from those below him, magnified now by men’s memories of his previous triumphs. There was no need for fancy titles. John Adams and the new Senate worried about how to address him, and to Washington’s annoyance Adams made himself ridiculous by arguing for the exalted forms of address employed for the kings of European countries. Washington carried so much dignity in his manner that he required no title to convey it. Though he would not have consented to “Farmer George,” he did not need “Your Highness.” He nevertheless took his usual pains to avoid familiarity. In Washington’s view, the president of the Continental Congress during the 1780’s, by opening his doors to all comers, had diminished what little authority the Articles of Confederation allowed him and thus brought the office into contempt. Washington would be less available to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who wished to gawk at him.

He would also keep his distance from the other branches of government. The absence of a strong executive branch had been one of the great weaknesses of the old government that the Constitution tried to remedy. But it was up to the new president to strengthen the new government by maintaining in full vigor all the powers that the Constitution assigned to his office. It was up to him to establish the separation of executive and legislative branches that the Constitution stipulated. That Washington succeeded is a matter of record.

While magnifying the role of the president in government was important to Washington, it seems to have come easily, one might say naturally, to him, and he actually concerned himself more with the international standing of the nation. Improving the strength and reputation of the United States in relation to other nations became his main focus. In this area his special view of human motives proved to be a special asset. His own concern with private interest and his conviction that this was the principal spring of human action had grown with time. And he saw, in the nations of the world, collections of men who had combined in their own interests and pledged their honor, as he had pledged his, to serve those interests. It was in vain, then, to appeal to the honor of any country against the interests of that country and of its people. Honor for a Frenchman lay in serving the interests of the French, as for an American it lay in serving the interests of Americans. Although Washington was convinced, like many men of his time, that the interests of different countries need not conflict, he was certain that no country would or ought to act against its own perceived interests. To expect any country to do so was folly; and it was criminal folly for any man charged with his country’s interests to trust another country with them, as for example Congress had done in instructing its envoys to be directed by the French court in the peace negotiations with England.

Washington had first demonstrated the acuity of his understanding of the role of national interest in foreign relations during the war, when Congress developed an enthusiasm for an expedition against Canada to be conducted by French troops. Since Canada was populated mainly by Frenchmen, it was thought that a French invasion would have a much better chance of success than the disastrous expedition that the colonists themselves had mounted in the early months of the war. In the treaty of alliance with the United States France had formally renounced any claim of its own on Canadian territory. If conquered, the area would belong to the United States. The prospect of French troops in Canada had nevertheless alarmed Washington. If the French wished to undertake the move, he was in no position to prevent them. Beggars could not be choosers. But he could plead.

He officially presented to Congress and to the French all the plausible tactical disadvantages he could think of against a Canadian expedition. Then in a confidential private letter to Henry Laurens, the President of the Continental Congress, he explained why the proposal disturbed him. It would mean, he said, “the introduction of a large body of French troops into Canada, and putting them in possession of the capital of that Province, attached to them by all the ties of blood, habits, manners, religion and former connexions of government. I fear this would be too great a temptation to be resisted by any power actuated by the common maxims of national policy.” He went on to list the economic and political benefits that France would gain by holding the province in violation of the treaty. It would not be difficult to find a plausible pretext; Canada need only be claimed as a security for American payment of the large debt owed to France. “Resentment, reproaches, and submission” would be the only recourse for the United States. And Washington went on to read a gentle lecture to the gullible members of Congress: “Men are very apt to run into extremes,” he said, “hatred to England may carry some into an excess of Confidence in France; especially when motives of gratitude are thrown into the scale. Men of this description would be unwilling to suppose France capable of acting so ungenerous a part. I am heartily disposed to entertain the most favourable sentiments of our new ally and to cherish them in others to a reasonable degree; but it is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest; and no prudent statesman or politician will venture to depart from it.”

Whether or not the French merited Washington’s wariness had not been put to the test in 1779, for they had not seen fit to undertake the expedition to Canada, though they toyed with the idea. Distrust of foreign attachments nevertheless took firm root beside Washington’s other political instincts, and during his years in command of the army and in retirement at Mount Vernon he had advocated a stronger national government, not merely to prevent internal dissolution but to keep the country from falling under the influence of one of the more energetic monarchies of the Old World. Early in 1788, when war clouds were gathering over Europe and the Constitution had not yet been ratified, he had written to Jefferson of his fear that the several states, uninhibited by any effective central direction, might be drawn into the European quarrels.

As president, Washington was at last able to exercise control over foreign relations, and in doing so he never swerved from the maxim of national interest that he had sought to impress upon Henry Laurens. That maxim, as he interpreted it, dictated that, apart from commercial transactions, the United States should have as little to do as possible with any other nation. The true interest of the United States consisted in staying clear of foreign alignments and supplying all sides with the products which its fertile lands could produce in abundance. If the United States could maintain a policy of strict neutrality, the endless wars of the European monarchs would serve both to advance the price of American products and to swell the stream of immigrants needed to fill the empty American West. Accordingly as the threatened European war became reality, it was Washington’s consistent policy to build the power of the United States by asking no favors of foreign countries and giving none. The aloofness which he associated with command was the proper posture to give power and respectability to a nation as well as an individual.

Although Washington anticipated commercial benefits from this policy of neutrality, he did not think it wise in negotiating treaties to take undue advantage of the bargaining position offered to the United States by the distresses of other countries. In his view, since he believed nations acted always according to their interest, a treaty was useful only so long as its provisions coincided with the interests of both countries. In 1791 he warned Gouverneur Morris, before he appointed him United States minister to France, that it would be useless to obtain favorable treaties from countries in distress, “For unless treaties are mutually beneficial to the Parties, it is in vain to hope for a continuance of them beyond the moment when the one which conceives itself to be over-reached is in a situation to break off the connexion.” The treaty with England that ended the Revolutionary War was a case in point, Although Washington complained when the British broke it by carrying off slaves and by refusing to turn over the Northwest posts, he had not really expected them to act differently. The Americans had obtained on paper an agreement that went beyond what their military power entitled them to, It was therefore to be expected that the agreement would be broken.

Washington’s foreign policy has sometimes been judged by the two treaties he signed, one regarded as a diplomatic triumph, the other as a defeat. But Washington himself did not set much store by either of them. In Jay’s Treaty with England the United States seemed to get much less than it might have, and Washington did not think the treaty a good one. But he thought it better than the uncertain conditions of trade that would have resulted from a refusal to ratify it. If it gave Americans less than they wanted, that was because they did not yet have the bargaining power to demand more—or so at least it seemed to Washington. In Pinckney’s Treaty with Spain, the United States got permission for settlers in the West to ship their goods through Spanish territory via the Mississippi. Although Washington in the 1780’s had thought contact between the Westerners and the Spanish undesirable, by the 1790’s he was ready to insist on the American right to navigate the Mississippi. But he did so only because it had become apparent that a failure to demand the right would alienate the Westerners from the national government more rapidly than the connection with Spanish New Orleans would. He had never doubted that the Westerners would ultimately get the right, because they were growing in numbers so rapidly that it would not be within the power of the light Spanish forces at New Orleans to deny them for long. Pinckney’s Treaty gave them only what they would have taken anyhow.

Thus treaties in Washington’s view were of little worth. If the interests of two nations happened to coincide, a treaty was scarcely necessary to bind them together. If their interests conflicted, no treaty would be sufficient to hold them. At best a treaty could only regularize and expedite friendly relations between two countries. At worst it might weaken a country by misleading unwary statesmen to act for the benefit of an ally without due regard to their own country’s interest.

The important thing, Washington believed, was for Americans to discern their own interest as a nation and to pursue it without trying to take advantage of other countries and without allowing other countries to take advantage of the United States. This was the message of his Farewell Address, both in the version drafted by James Madison in 1792 and in the much different final version drafted by Alexander Hamilton in 1796. He put it more succinctly himself in a letter to William Heath in 1797:

No policy, in my opinion, can be more clearly demonstrated, than that we should do justice to all but have no political connexions with any of the European Powers, beyond those which result from and serve to regulate our Commerce with them. Our own experience (if it has not already had this effect) will soon convince us that disinterested favours, or friendship from any Nation whatever, is too novel to be calculated on; and there will always be found a wide difference between the words and actions of any of them.

In staking his own honor on the pursuit of national interest, Washington did not come off unscathed. He had committed himself so closely to the nation and its government that every attack on government policies seemed to be an attack on him. And by the time he left office the attacks were coming thick and fast, including some that were openly directed at him, charging that he had deserted the republican faith and was squinting at monarchy. Although he professed to be unmoved by these diatribes, his friend Jefferson testified that “he feels these things more than any person I ever yet met with.” And because Jefferson himself was a critic of national policies, Washington could not dissociate Jefferson from the assaults.

Washington’s last years were saddened by this seeming repudiation of him, but his republican trust in the ordinary man remained unshaken. Less than a year before his death in 1799 he was still affirming that “the great mass of our Citizens require only to understand matters rightly, to form right decisions.” And so far as his own honor was concerned his faith was justified. The mass of citizens did not deny him in the end the full measure of honor that was due him, Nor did Jefferson, even though Jefferson thought it was the president rather than the people who needed to understand matters rightly. Fourteen years after Washington’s death Jefferson recalled how the president had often declared to him “that he considered our new Constitution as an experiment on the practicability of republican government, and with what dose of liberty man could be trusted for his own good; that he was determined the experiment should have a fair trial, and would lose the last drop of his blood in support of it.”

Although Jefferson feared that Washington’s emphatic assertion may have hidden a waning confidence in the experiment, there is no evidence that this was the case. To the end Washington cherished his honor, and to the end his honor demanded the preservation of the American republic, free of every foreign connection. That was the meaning of independence for Washington. He was even ready, perhaps a little too ready, to don his old uniform and command a new army in the war with France that seemed so imminent in 1798. When he died the next year, he could not have been sure that his republic would in fact sustain its independence. And had he lived another year he would have found little to cheer him in the election that elevated Jefferson to the presidency. But he need not have feared. The republic did survive and long preserved the aloofness from foreign quarrels that he had prescribed for it. His honor survived with it, and posterity has preserved his image in all the aloofness that he prescribed for himself. Although the mass of citizens have learned to look upon most of their other historical heroes with an affectionate familiarity, they have not presumed to do so with Washington. The good judgment that he was sure they possessed has prevented a posthumous repetition of the folly perpetrated by Gouverneur Morris. Americans honor the father of their country from a respectful distance. And that is surely the way Washington would have wanted it.


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