Skip to main content

Rebels of ‘Seventy-Six


ISSUE:  Summer 1934

George Washington Himself. By John C. Fitzpatrick. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. $3.50. Private Affairs of George Washington. By Stephen Decatur, Jr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $5.00. Gouverneur Morris, Witness of Two Revolutions. By Daniel Walther. Translated by Eli-nore Denniston. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company. $3.00. Philip Vickers Fit hum: Journal, 1775-1776. Edited by Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Leonidas Dodson. Princeton; Princeton University Press, $3.50.

Acountry ruled by a democracy is a house governed by its nursery. Thus spake Bismarck. The Fathers of the Revolution were not giants. They were merely the natural leaders, the heads of the house, chosen in a crisis for nothing save their ability; and we see them as very great because those in the nursery are so little, They administered affairs according to their individual judgments, public opinion not having been organized as it was later, first by the parson, then by the shopkeeper. Freedom had not yet had time to make slaves of its leaders.

But for the Revolution, George Washington, according to a contemporary, would have been known only as the most industrious, the most silent, and the best dressed man of his neighborhood. If he were alive today, he would hardly be tempted to enter political life. If he were tempted, he would certainly not be encouraged to do so. Parson Weems long ago realized his lack of publicity value and tried to amend it by invention. Now, Dr. John C. Fitzpatrick, in “George Washington Himself,” undertakes to cut away all tradition. And Washington himself was an interesting, if not a colorful, personality. Despite his insistence on realism, Dr. Fitzpatrick does not greatly alter the traditional picture of Washington. A gentleman of the old school, of impressive appearance, of native dignity and reserve, cool in battle “like a bishop at his prayers,” and of a deep sense of personal and public responsibility—this is Washington as we have long known him, and he is still the same. The author devotes particular attention to those points which have been the subject of debate. Almost half the book deals with the years when Washington was in command of the Continental Army. Much stress is laid upon the handicaps under which the General conducted his campaigns and a good case is made for his military ability. If he was not a great general, he was certainly a great leader. He had an unparalleled political situation to face as well as military problems which were at times desperate, yet from the day Colonel Joshua Fry, of Albemarle, died on the march to Great Meadows— thus giving him his chance for military glory—to the capitulation at Yorktown, Washington made no serious mistake. Perhaps the most noteworthy trait of his conduct was his willingness to defer to the opinion of others. A council of war or a cabinet meeting was not a matter of mere form with him.

The author is unable to dispose so happily of Washington’s much discussed love affairs. When a very young man, Washington wrote to William Fauntleroy and proposed “as soon as I recover my strength to wait upon Miss Betsy, in hopes of a revocation of the former cruel sentence, and see if I can meet with any alteration in my favor.” Commenting upon this, the author says, “This badinage, for it could be nothing else, when written to a girl’s grandfather about a girl several years younger than Washington, is the lighter touch, the possession of which has been persistently denied him.” His defense of Washington in the case of Sally Cary Fairfax is hardly less clumsy. His plea is that “The Virginia gentleman of the Revolution was an upright, high-principled idealist, and to harbor a love for the wife of his best friend is unthinkable. Such things were simply not done.” Two pages before this statement, on the flimsiest evidence, he accuses Thomas Jefferson of contemptible trickery and forgery. One is led to wonder just how well Dr. Fitzpatrick understands the Virginia gentleman.

“Private Affairs of George Washington,” by Stephen Decatur, Jr., deals only with the first administration of the first President, and gives an intimate picture of the “Republican Court” in New York and Philadelphia. In 1785, Tobias Lear, a sharp-nosed young man from New Hampshire and a Harvard graduate, became private secretary to Washington, During the first years of Washington’s presidency, Lear retained this position and managed the financial details of the presidential household. He kept cash books and a ledger, and these, along with other papers, have descended to the Decatur family. It is from this material that the volume is made up. It consists of frequent quotations from the account books, followed by circumstantial explanations by the author. It should be dull reading, but it is not. One gets a vivid picture of the presidential household, with its servants, its stables, and its social regime. With fourteen horses, two chariots, four secretaries, fifteen white Servants and five slaves, it was a fairly extensive establishment, and the attention which Washington paid to the minutest details indicates that a man was, possibly, in those days still the head of his family.

The relations between the Washingtons and the moneyed aristocracy of Philadelphia led by the Binghams, the Will-ings, and the Morrises, merchants all, furnish some interesting contrasts between Virginian and Eastern society. It was several times remarked that the President was old-fashioned in his dress, and that Mrs. Washington made no attempt to keep up with the latest styles, as illustrated by the “rag-babies” sent periodically from Paris. She at first inclined to lead a retired life, but presently came to mingle rather informally with the wives of the government functionaries, never caring to cultivate the mercantile elite. Washington wished to lend dignity to his office, but he wished dignity with simplicity. His Northern advisers desired elaborate ceremonial. The frequent references to Martha as “Lady” Washington indicated the Northern tendency toward pretentiousness, whereas the Virginians were doubtless really shocked by Washington’s attempts to imitate the colonial governors whose regime he had known at Williamsburg. On the whole, Mr. Decatur has written a refreshing book, quite free from such generalizations as are here made.

The childless Washington took a fatherly interest in promising young men and befriended not a few. Perhaps first in his affection was the red-headed, nineteen-year-old French marquis whom he called Mr. Fayette and whose letters he filed under “F.” Another on whom he bestowed his friendship and affection was Gouverneur Morris, of a distinguished New York family, whose career Daniel Walther has traced in “Gouverneur Morris, Witness of Two Revolutions.” Witty, vivacious, an incorrigible aristocrat, with a Gallic strain predominant, he was the antithesis of Washington in almost every respect. He once made a wager with Alexander Hamilton that at the next public function he would brave Washington’s formidable dignity by placing his arm on the General’s shoulder and addressing him familiarly. When he proceeded to win the wager, Washington gave him a long, cold stare that he was never to forget. Despite his levity, he performed able service in the Continental Congress and the Federal Convention. With Gallic fluency, he addressed the Convention one hundred and seventy-three times! He furnished the ideas which Hamilton later used in establishing our monetary system; and the final form of the Constitution was, in large part, drafted by his hand. Yet Morris was never a democrat in principle. He did not believe even in equality before the law. To him such equality abolished all justice: “If punishment is a reparation, it crushes the poor and does not affect the rich. If it is physical punishment it degrades the prince but does not hurt the beggar.”

Dr. Walther, with the detachment of a foreigner, has given an objective picture of Morris which Americans rarely, if ever, achieve when writing of the Fathers. Morris claimed that facts in themselves are not history, but merely the skeleton of it. With penetration and skill, Dr. Walther has filled out the skeleton, but he shows lack of familiarity with Morris’s contemporaries on the American scene. Cadwall-ader Colden is “Cadweller” Colden; John Bartram is John “Partram.”

While Washington and his garrulous protege were in attendance on the Second Continental Congress, a young ministerial student from Princeton set out from New Jersey to preach to Scotch-Irishmen living in the great valleys of Virginia and Pennsylvania. He was Philip Vickers Fithian, who was to die during the siege of New York while he was yet in his twenties. He had been a tutor in the Carter family of Nomini Hall, Virginia; his journal of that period was published some years ago and is now well known. His recently published journal falls within the years 1775-76, and the greater part of it traces the wanderings of the young cleric from Natural Bridge in Virginia far up the Susquehanna Valley in Pennsylvania. With the colossal conceit of the very young, he consciously wrote for posterity. His journal is a rich source book for the frontier, as nothing was too trivial for him to record. He carved his name and that of his Beloved on a smooth beech tree in the wilderness. Beyond the Laurel Hill he noted that frontiersmen spoke of “The Wife.” Among pioneers on the fringes of civilization he observed a “high Singularity,”—the greatest “Plainness & Familiarity in Conversation; Every Man, in all Companies, with almost no Exception, Calls his Wife, Brother, Neighbour, or Acquaintance, by their proper Name of Sally, John, James, or Michael, without ever prefixing the customary Compliment of ‘My Dear,’ Sir, Mr., &c.” In Winchester he observed that if a preacher read his sermon, “he Dined where he had Breakfasted,” but if he preached without notes he was mobbed with invitations to dinner. At the Natural Bridge he heard that only three men had ever thrown a stone to the top of the arch: George Washington, Thomas Lewis, brother to General Andrew, and one other whose name he forgot. In western Pennsylvania he discovered that New Jersey men were not looked upon with favor. “I am here often much mortified,” he records, “with Observations upon People who have settled here from our Province—Generally they are upon the lowest Parts of Fortune’s Wheel, groveling in low Matters, & yet always, when the scurvyest Opportunity offers, they are feebly & meanly tricking their Neighbours—Taking all Liberties.—Seizing Opportunity in all her complex Foldings—Whereever I have been on Susquehanna, or here their Character is Mean Dishonest & Irreligious! A Jersey-Man & an impertinent, every-Way troublesome Scoundrell seem to be Words of nearly the same Meaning—! Sometimes, on these Accounts, I have thoughts of naming myself from a more dignified Colony.”

This jeremiad of the sensitive young clergyman is reminiscent of Washington’s first impressions of his New England army before Boston, quoted in his latest biography: “The People of this government have obtained a Character which they by no means deserved; their officers generally speaking are the most indifferent kind of People I ever saw. I have already broke one Colo, and five Captains for Cowardice and for drawing more Pay and Provisions than they had Men in their Companies; there is two more Colos. now under arrest and to be tried for the same offences; in short they are by no means such Troops, in any respect, as you are lead to believe of them from the accts. which are publshed.”

In New England the social gap which separated the leaders from the led was much narrower than in the Southern and Middle states, and this may account for the fact that that section furnished no Patriots whose personalities can compare with Washington or Gouverneur Morris. Morris declared to Lafayette that he was opposed to democracy precisely because of his love for liberty; he also declared, and firmly believed, that “there never has been and never will be any civilized society without an aristocracy.” A complementary axiom might well be stated thus: The greater the degree of democracy, the meaner the type of leader. For how can it be expected of an electorate, fed on the idea that all men actually are equal, that they should be able to distinguish between a Huey Long and a Gouverneur Morris, between a Warren G. Harding and a George Washington? The great men are not all dead, but unbridled competition rarely brings them to the top.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading