Skip to main content


ISSUE:  Summer 1977
The Diaries of George Washington. Volume I, 1748—65; Volume II, 1766-70. Edited by Donald Jackson. Virginia. $15.00 per volume.

WE have here the first fruits of a harvest begun in 1968, the bringing in of George Washington’s papers for a monumental edition which will exceed in completeness and accuracy of annotation that assembled by J. C. Fitzpatrick these 40 years since. As the gathering of the sheaves goes on, it has been decided by the editors to issue first in six volumes Washington’s Diaries, a step emulating Fitzpatrick’s publication of a four-volume edition in 1925. The increase in bulk does not reflect, however, any substantial addition to the canon. Thanks to the generosity of Bushrod Washington, John Marshall, and Jared Sparks, who distributed snippets of the Founding Father in their charge like bits of the true cross, the corpus of the diaries remains much the same as issued by Fitzpatrick—indeed parts continue to disappear. What we have added here is a minor diary for 1762, Washington’s record of the weather in full, and a few fragments.

The most substantial additions therefore are editorial. By means of his introduction, numerous footnotes, and considerable illustrative material, Professor Donald Jackson and his associates add informative bulk and color to the often meagre record. Names are not only identified, but are fitted into the complicated family relationships characteristic of Tidewater life, a world whose reach beyond the Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies during Washington’s lifetime is clarified by a number of maps. Equally important, the agrarian emphasis of Washington’s life during these early years is given added point by including illustrations from the books of animal husbandry and agriculture known to have been owned or read by the patriot-farmer of the Potomac. The total effect is to decorate and enliven pages well known for their dullness, for whatever else he was, the Champion of the Revolutionary War and the first president of the United States was not an inspired keeper of a diary. Were it not for his fame in other fields, we may doubt if the documents here set out in such style would ever have found their way into print—to say nothing of the three different editions (including this) in which they have appeared.

Except for those parts of the diaries which were issued as books in their own time—the journals of Washington’s missions, diplomatic and military, into the Ohio Valley—there is virtually nothing in these two volumes which throws particular light on his subsequent career. Nor do we learn much about his private life. Where an earlier Virginian diarist, William Byrd of Westover, set down with relish his amatory adventures at home and abroad, George Washington solemnly records the covering of mares by his imported stallion and the lining of bitches by hunting hounds (and assorted spaniels). Except when she is ill, we hear very little of “Mrs. Washington,” and the increasing attacks of epilepsy which took the life of little Patsy Custis are recorded only indirectly by the visits of doctors to the home. As for the political activities of the young Virginian burgess during a period of mounting tension between Crown and Colony, these are rendered by footnotes chiefly, his own account of visits to Williamsburg being limited to purchases made and rooms and meals paid for.

Even Professor Jackson admits to the dullness of this mere data, which quickens into life only when Washington takes to the field of war—or land speculation. Yet dull is also the word for iron raw from the foundry, and that is most certainly what we have here. The effect of reading these journals through in several sittings (which Jackson cautions against) is of remorseless progress, not of Hogarth’s Rake but of an ideal Provincial Squire, who begins with earnest efforts at agrarian improvements and moves toward fox hunting and improving his breed of hound, and in the background as it were we can see an ever widening vista, as Mount Vernon gives way to the Ohio Valley and Williamsburg. There is throughout a massive demonstration of patient endeavor, of repetitious advance, whether in acquiring a tract of land adjacent to his plantation, pursuing his errand to the French commandant in the Ohio Valley (his Message to Garcia), or improving the quality of his manure. If we learn very little of Washington’s private particulars, we obtain a very full general outline of his ruling passions, the very qualities which, when armed with steel, will win America for Americans.

It is instructive to compare these volumes with the matching years covered by the diaries of young John Adams, who was by contrast a journal-keeper of the highest order. Adams’s diaries make wonderful reading not only because of the wealth of gossip and long passages of confession and introspection, but because the man himself is such a study in vacillating resolves. It is Mercury next to Apollo (or a satire on Hyperion), and where Adams comes across as marvelously human, a chattering, envious, preening yet brilliant caricature of Ambition, Washington emerges as something of a calculating machine, adding up weights of hogs butchered and hemp gathered, a stolid, solid emblem of Property (and Propriety). Adams is the quintessential politician, Washington the proprietor. They have in common an interest in agriculture—which in Adams’s case leaps up (in overalls and straw hat) when he acquires some patrimonial acreage—but where Adams is an enthusiast for reform, Washington is a practitioner. Adams may quote his Horace, but as a farmer he is strictly from Sterne, while Washington in surveying his Potomac acreage is only a dollar’s throw from the Sabine farm. Adams is all impulsiveness and projects, Washington does the job; Adams writes newspaper articles encouraging the raising of hemp, Washington raises hemp.

“I will make me a Common Place Book of Agriculture,” writes Adams, “and Place Wheat, Rye, Corn, and Pease, Beans . . .” but the sentence remains unfinished, the book never made (I: 88). By contrast, Washington’s diaries are a veritable laboratory log of experiments in manures and fruit tree graftings.”My thoughts have taken a sudden Turn to Husbandry,” Adams writes in 1762, and in a single page records a hectic spasm of “Ploughing up Acre after Acre and Planting, pruning Apple Trees, mending Fences, carting Dung . . .digging stones, clearing Bushes, Pruning Trees, building Wall to redeem Posts and Rails . . .digging stumps and Roots, cutting Ditches,” etc., etc., the sort of activity that is strung out for years in Washington’s diaries (I: 229). But soon enough Adams’s thoughts have taken as quick a return to Boston and the Bar, where they will for the most part remain. In 1770, the last year covered by these volumes, Washington left off supervising the construction of a mill-race on his property to travel to the Ohio Valley for the purpose of claiming lands due him and other veterans of the war, and that business over, he returned to supervise the completion of his millrace. His diary records that the wheels of Washington’s mill turned slowly, but we may be sure they ground exceeding fine.”Town-eater” he was called by the Indians, and though he took his time with each mouthful, as at Trenton, it was well calculated to improve his digestion.

We value Adams’s diaries because of his excessive self-consciousness, an almost romantic absorption with the first-person (most) singular.”My little mare,” he records in one of his pastoral interludes, “had . . .leapfed] out of a bare Pasture into a neighboring Lott of mowing Ground, and had filled herself, with Grass and Water. These are important Materials for History no doubt. My Biographer will scarcely introduce my little Mare, and her Adventures in quest of Feed and Water” (I: 355). Adams is plainly writing for such a biographer, and the false modesty squeaks like a pinched mouse. On the same date, July 1, 1770, George Washington spent the day at home with guests (the weather was “lowering”), but on the 2nd we find him “prosecuting my wheat Harvest” and on the 5th “Stately A Hound Bitch was lind by Jowler,” entries made with an eye only to future yield not putative biographers. Yet it is of such stuff that patrician farmers are made, and if as a diarist George Washington is mostly stone, it is because, as the statue by Houdon proves, he was meant for marble.

Washington’s letters permit a much more complex (though carefully managed) image, but what we have here, as Professor Donald Jackson tells us in his graceful introduction, is a kind of quick study, a slim continuity extending (when the diaries are fully published) from Washington’s young manhood down to his last days at Mount Vernon, and like so much that came from his pen (and sword), the lines are nothing if not classical. In the rare instances when his famous temper is manifested, it comes through as indignation over ill usage in one of his many land dealings (retribution for which he pushed to the limits of the law) or as wry observations concerning the laziness of workers and the ineptness of overseers. Adams devotes pages to the faults of himself and others, but Washington chiefly records improvements, directly where his real estate is concerned, obliquely concerning his own personal progress.

Most certainly Adams’s disputatious (and litigious) character was an essential component of his own participation in the quarrels with Parliament that became a revolution, and his legal knowledge contributed greatly to the cause, yet it was Washington finally who gave us the land we call our own. Adams and Washington were one where the Townshend Acts were concerned, but their earlier like their later careers are mostly divergent, the Boston lawyer a Cicero become Cato, the Virginian squire a Cincinnatus assuming the profile of Caesar. It is typical of young Adams that during the 1760’s he gave hardly a thought to the war against the French in Canada, and it is equally characteristic of young Washington that he in effect started the war—and then Ajax-like abandoned it. For it was the youthful officer’s impulsive streak, hot temper mingled with pride, that resulted in the ambush that led to the Fort Necessity defeat, a quality which likewise contributed to his decision to retire from the war after Forbes’s victory over the French in the Ohio Valley, in part because he felt that Provincial officers were not accorded proper respect—and pay. Yet he went home also because Virginia’s frontier had been secured, and though we may smile at the fledgling’s ruffled feathers, they are such as make an imperial eagle, his efforts on Virginia’s behalf soon expanding to the breadth of a new nation. Washington’s early military career was not particularly promising, but he was for native Americans hero enough, and with maturity his earlier impulsiveness took on the quality of sterner stuff. And it is in his diaries of his several errands into the Ohio Valley that the latent champion is most clearly detected, the diaries being records of adversity that provided a test of character which would be repeated throughout the first battles of the Revolution, an early tempering of the qualities evinced at Valley Forge.

In contrast to the ornateness of Adams’s pasquinades and philippics, Washington’s journal accounts of his diplomatic and military missions is neat and spare, as in Caesar’s Commentaries taking their life from events, not style. In this as in so much that he did, Washington’s was a Roman way, and from his earliest known diary, the account of a surveying trip in 1748 into the Shenandoah Valley, the record is always one of building empire, whether Great Britain’s, Virginia’s, or his own. As his Ohio adventures provide the most interesting portions of these two volumes, they also demonstrate the connection between the Virginian gentleman and the Indian fighter, between the plantation owner and the speculator in western lands. It is a continuity that will characterize the nature and growth of an embryonic nation, and though George the Farmer—the Georgos— is a dull chap when compared to Washington the Soldier, still the campaigns succeeded by composts are integral to an emerging American myth. As American mythos, moreover, it is like Washington himself of sturdy English stock, a branch from the patronymic rural saint of Great Britain, who gave sustenance also to the third George, the Farmer King. So the French and Indian War gave way (as it literally paved the road) for American empire to come, a Republic conceived on the Roman plan.

These two volumes and the four to follow may be seen then as a neoclassical porch, neat columns supporting a pediment and giving way to greatness beyond, literary equivalent to those villas along that gateway to vast empire, the Potomac. They are set out in an appropriate manner, being most decorous as well as decorative books, and as an entrance to the works of Washington they are also a capstone of a kind to the work of the editor, Donald Jackson. How fitting it is that the man who has given us definitive editions of Fremont’s Expeditions and the letters to do with the Lewis and Clark exploration should commence his larger task with the Washington of the Diaries, who is first and foremost the Washington of the West, as Founding Father the farmer-soldier who may be pictured as by Trumbull on a prospect overlooking a wilder river scene. Behind him as his shadow (and ours) stands the inevitable Loyal Slave, reminding us of Surveyor-Soldier-Farmers yet to come, for whom the Ohio (and the Potomac) will be the strategic rim of a circle to be broken, enclosing a neoclassical dream soon no longer to be.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading