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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Real George Washington

By Henry Cabot Lodge (1850–1924)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1850. Died in Cambridge, Mass., 1924. George Washington.—American Statesmen Series. 1889.]

TO no man in our history has greater injustice of a certain kind been done, or more misunderstanding been meted out, than to Washington, and although this sounds like the merest paradox, it is nevertheless true. From the hour when the door of the tomb at Mount Vernon closed behind his coffin to the present instant, the chorus of praise and eulogy has never ceased, but has swelled deeper and louder with each succeeding year. He has been set apart high above all other men, and reverenced with the unquestioning veneration accorded only to the leaders of mankind and the founders of nations; and in this very devotion lies one secret at least of the fact that, while all men have praised Washington, comparatively few have understood him. He has been lifted high up into a lonely greatness, and unconsciously put outside the range of human sympathy. He has been accepted as a being as nearly perfect as it is given to man to be, but our warm personal interest has been reserved for other and lesser men who seemed to be nearer to us in their virtues and their errors alike. Such isolation, lofty though it be, is perilous and leads to grievous misunderstandings. From it has come the widespread idea that Washington was cold, and as devoid of human sympathies as he was free from the common failings of humanity.

Of this there will be something to say presently, but meantime there is another more prolific source of error in regard to Washington to be considered. Men who are loudly proclaimed to be faultless always excite a certain kind of resentment. It is a dangerous eminence for any one to occupy. The temples of Greece are in ruins, and her marvellous literature is little more than a collection of fragments, but the feelings of the citizens who exiled Aristides because they were weary of hearing him called “just” exist still, unchanged and unchangeable. Washington has not only been called “just,” but he has had every other good quality attributed to him by countless biographers and eulogists with an almost painful iteration, and the natural result has followed. Many persons have felt the sense of fatigue which the Athenians expressed practically by their oyster shells, and have been led to cast doubts on Washington’s perfection as the only consolation for their own sense of injury. Then, again, Washington’s fame has been so overshadowing, and his greatness so immutable, that he has been very inconvenient to the admirers and the biographers of other distinguished men. From these two sources, from the general jealousy of the classic Greek variety, and the particular jealousy born of the necessities of some other hero, much adverse and misleading criticism has come. It has never been a safe or popular amusement to assail Washington directly, and this course usually has been shunned; but although the attacks have been veiled they have none the less existed, and they have been all the more dangerous because they were insidious.

In his lifetime Washington had his enemies and detractors in abundance…. Adverse contemporary criticism, however, is slight in amount and vague in character; it can be readily dismissed, and it has in no case weight enough to demand much consideration. Modern criticism of the same kind has been even less direct, but is much more serious and cannot be lightly passed over. It invariably proceeds by negations setting out with an apparently complete acceptance of Washington’s greatness, and then assailing him by telling us what he was not. Few persons who have not given this matter a careful study realize how far criticism of this sort has gone, and there is indeed no better way of learning what Washington really was than by examining the various negations which tell us what he was not.

Let us take the gravest first. It has been confidently asserted that Washington was not an American in anything but the technical sense. This idea is more diffused than, perhaps, would be generally supposed, and it has also been formally set down in print, in which we are more fortunate than in many other instances where the accusation has not got beyond the elusive condition of loose talk.

In that most noble poem, the “Commemoration Ode,” Mr. Lowell speaks of Lincoln as “the first American.” The poet’s winged words fly far, and find a resting-place in many minds. This idea has become widespread, and has recently found fuller expression in Mr. Clarence King’s prefatory note to the great life of Lincoln by Hay and Nicolay. Mr. King says: “Abraham Lincoln was the first American to reach the lonely height of immortal fame. Before him, within the narrow compass of our history, were but two preëminent names—Columbus the discoverer, and Washington the founder; the one an Italian seer, the other an English country gentleman. In a narrow sense, of course, Washington was an American…. For all that, he was English in his nature, habits, moral standards, and social theories; in short, in all points which, aside from mere geographical position, make up a man, he was as thorough-going a British colonial gentleman as one could find anywhere beneath the Union Jack. The genuine American of Lincoln’s type came later…. George Washington, an English commoner, vanquished George, an English king.”

In order to point his sentence and prove his first postulate, Mr. King is obliged not only to dispose of Washington, but to introduce Columbus, who never was imagined in the wildest fantasy to be an American, and to omit Franklin. The omission of itself is fatal to Mr. King’s case. Franklin has certainly a “preëminent name.” He has, too, “immortal fame,” although of course of a widely different character from that of either Washington or Lincoln, but he was a great man in the broad sense of a world-wide reputation. Yet no one has ever ventured to call Benjamin Franklin an Englishman. He was a colonial American, of course, but he was as intensely an American as any man who has lived on this continent before or since. A man of the people, he was American by the character of his genius, by his versatility, the vivacity of his intellect, and his mental dexterity. In his abilities, his virtues, and his defects he was an American, and so plainly one as to be beyond the reach of doubt or question. There were others of that period, too, who were as genuine Americans as Franklin or Lincoln…. But Franklin is enough. Unless one is prepared to set Franklin down as an Englishman, which would be as reasonable as to say that Daniel Webster was a fine example of the Slavic race, it must be admitted that it was possible for the thirteen colonies to produce in the eighteenth century a genuine American who won immortal fame. If they could produce one of one type, they could produce a second of another type, and there was, therefore, nothing inherently impossible in existing conditions to prevent Washington from being an American.

Lincoln was undoubtedly the first great American of his type, but that is not the only type of American. It is one which, as bodied forth in Abraham Lincoln, commands the love and veneration of the people of the United States, and the admiration of the world wherever his name is known. To the noble and towering greatness of his mind and character it does not add one hair’s breadth to say that he was the first American, or that he was of a common or uncommon type. Greatness like Lincoln’s is far beyond such qualifications, and least of all is it necessary to his fame to push Washington from his birthright. To say that George Washington, an English commoner, vanquished George, an English king, is clever and picturesque, but like many other pleasing antitheses it is painfully inaccurate. Allegiance does not make race or nationality. The Hindoos are subjects of Victoria, but they are not Englishmen.

Franklin shows that it was possible to produce a most genuine American of unquestioned greatness in the eighteenth century, and with all possible deference to Mr. Lowell and Mr. King, I venture the assertion that George Washington was as genuine an American as Lincoln or Franklin. He was an American of the eighteenth and not of the nineteenth century, but he was none the less an American. I will go further. Washington was not only an American of a pure and noble type, but he was the first thorough American in the broad, national sense, as distinct from the colonial American of his time.

After all, what is it to be an American? Surely it does not consist in the number of generations merely which separate the individual from his forefathers who first settled here. Washington was fourth in descent from the first American of his name, while Lincoln was in the sixth generation. This difference certainly constitutes no real distinction. There are people to-day, not many luckily, whose families have been here for two hundred and fifty years, and who are as utterly un-American as it is possible to be, while there are others, whose fathers were immigrants, who are as intensely American as any one can desire or imagine. In a new country, peopled in two hundred and fifty years by immigrants from the old world and their descendants, the process of Americanization is not limited by any hard and fast rules as to time and generations, but is altogether a matter of individual and race temperament. The production of the well-defined American types and of the fixed national characteristics which now exist has been going on during all that period, but in any special instance the type to which a given man belongs must be settled by special study and examination.

Washington belonged to the English-speaking race. So did Lincoln. Both sprang from the splendid stock which was formed during centuries from a mixture of the Celtic, Teutonic, Scandinavian, and Norman peoples, and which is known to the world as English. Both, so far as we can tell, had nothing but English blood, as it would be commonly called, in their veins, and both were of that part of the English race which emigrated to America, where it has been the principal factor in the development of the new people called Americans. They were men of English race, modified and changed in the fourth and sixth generations by the new country, the new conditions, and the new life, and by the contact and admixture of other races. Lincoln, a very great man, one who has reached “immortal fame,” was clearly an American of a type that the old world cannot show, or at least has not produced. The idea of many persons in regard to Washington seems to be, that he was a great man of a type which the old world, or, to be more exact, which England, had produced. One hears it often said that Washington was simply an American Hampden. Such a comparison is an easy method of description, nothing more. Hampden is memorable among men, not for his abilities, which there is no reason to suppose were very extraordinary, but for his devoted and unselfish patriotism, his courage, his honor, and his pure and lofty spirit. He embodied what his countrymen believe to be the moral qualities of their race in their finest flower, and no nation, be it said, could have a nobler ideal. Washington was conspicuous for the same qualities, exhibited in like fashion. Is there a single one of the essential attributes of Hampden that Lincoln also did not possess? Was he not an unselfish and devoted patriot, pure in heart, gentle of spirit, high of honor, brave, merciful, and temperate? Did he not lay down his life for his country in the box at Ford’s Theatre as ungrudgingly as Hampden offered his in the smoke of battle upon Chalgrove field? Surely we must answer yes. In other words, these three men all had the great moral attributes which are the characteristics of the English race in its highest and purest development on either side of the Atlantic. Yet no one has ever called Lincoln an American Hampden, simply because Hampden and Washington were men of ancient family, members of an aristocracy by birth, and Lincoln was not. This is the distinction between them; and how vain it is, in the light of their lives and deeds, which make all pedigrees and social ranks look so poor and worthless! The differences among them are trivial, the resemblances deep and lasting.

I have followed out this comparison because it illustrates perfectly the entirely superficial character of the reasons which have led men to speak of Washington as an English country gentleman. It has been said that he was English in his habits, moral standards, and social theories, which has an important sound, but which for the most part comes down to a question of dress and manners. He wore black velvet and powdered hair, knee-breeches and diamond buckles, which are certainly not American fashions to-day. But they were American fashions in the last century, and every man wore them who could afford to, no matter what his origin. Let it be remembered, however, that Washington also wore the hunting-shirt and fringed leggings of the backwoodsman, and that it was he who introduced this purely American dress into the army as a uniform.

His manners likewise were those of the century in which he lived, formal and stately, and of course colored by his own temperament. His moral standards were those of a high-minded, honorable man. Are we ready to say that they were not American? Did they differ in any vital point from those of Lincoln? His social theories were simple in the extreme. He neither overvalued nor underrated social conventions, for he knew that they were a part of the fabric of civilized society, not vitally important and yet not wholly trivial….

Once more, what is it to be an American? Putting aside all the outer shows of dress and manners, social customs and physical peculiarities, is it not to believe in America and in the American people? Is it not to have an abiding and moving faith in the future and in the destiny of America?—something above and beyond the patriotism and love which every man whose soul is not dead within him feels for the land of his birth? Is it not to be national and not sectional, independent and not colonial? Is it not to have a high conception of what this great new country should be, and to follow out that ideal with loyalty and truth?

Has any man in our history fulfilled these conditions more perfectly and completely than George Washington? Has any man ever lived who served the American people more faithfully, or with a higher and truer conception of the destiny and possibilities of the country?…

He was the first to rise above all colonial or state lines, and grasp firmly the conception of a nation to be formed from the thirteen jarring colonies. The necessity of national action in the army was of course at once apparent to him, although not to others; but he carried the same broad views into widely different fields, where at the time they wholly escaped notice. It was Washington, oppressed by a thousand cares, who in the early days of the Revolution saw the need of Federal courts for admiralty cases and for other purposes. It was he who suggested this scheme, years before any one even dreamed of the Constitution; and from the special committees of Congress, formed for this object in accordance with this advice, came, in the process of time, the Federal judiciary of the United States. Even in that early dawn of the Revolution, Washington had clear in his own mind the need of a continental system for war, diplomacy, finance, and law, and he worked steadily to bring this policy to fulfilment.

When the war was over, the thought that engaged his mind most was of the best means to give room for expansion, and to open up the unconquered continent to the forerunners of a mighty army of settlers. For this purpose all his projects for roads, canals, and surveys were formed and forced into public notice. He looked beyond the limits of the Atlantic colonies. His vision went far over the barriers of the Alleghanies; and where others saw thirteen infant States backed by the wilderness, he beheld the germs of a great empire. While striving thus to lay the West open to the march of the settler, he threw himself into the great struggle, where Hamilton and Madison, and all who “thought continentally,” were laboring for that union without which all else was worse than futile….

His personal impressiveness affected every one upon all occasions.

Mr. Rush, for instance, saw Washington go on one occasion to open Congress. He drove to the hall in a handsome carriage of his own, with his servants dressed in white liveries. When he had alighted he stopped on the step, and pausing faced round to wait for his secretary. The vast crowd looked at him in dead silence, and then, when he turned away, broke into wild cheering. At his second inauguration he was dressed in deep mourning for the death of his nephew. He took the oath of office in the Senate Chamber, and Major Forman, who was present, wrote in his diary: “Every eye was on him. When he said, ‘I, George Washington,’ my blood seemed to run cold, and every one seemed to start.” At the inauguration of Adams, another eye-witness wrote that Washington, dressed in black velvet, with a military hat and black cockade, was the central figure in the scene, and when he left the chamber the crowds followed him, cheering and shouting to the door of his own house.

There must have been something very impressive about a man who, with no pretensions to the art of the orator and with no touch of the charlatan, could so move and affect vast bodies of men by his presence alone. But the people, with the keen eye of affection, looked beyond the mere outward nobility of form. They saw the soldier who had given them victory, the great statesman who had led them out of confusion and faction to order and good government. Party newspapers might rave, but the instinct of the people was never at fault. They loved, trusted, and wellnigh worshipped Washington living, and they have honored and reverenced him with an unchanging fidelity since his death, nearly a century ago.

But little more remains to be said. Washington had his faults, for he was human; but they are not easy to point out, so perfect was his mastery of himself. He was intensely reserved and very silent, and these are the qualities which gave him the reputation in history of being distant and unsympathetic. In truth, he had not only warm affections and a generous heart, but there was a strong vein of sentiment in his composition. At the same time he was in no wise romantic, and the ruling element in his make-up was prose, good solid prose, and not poetry. He did not have the poetical and imaginative quality so strongly developed in Lincoln. Yet he was not devoid of imagination, although it was here that he was lacking, if anywhere. He saw facts, knew them, mastered and used them, and never gave much play to fancy; but as his business in life was with men and facts, this deficiency, if it was one, was of little moment. He was also a man of the strongest passions in every way, but he dominated them; they never ruled him. Vigorous animal passions were inevitable, of course, in a man of such a physical make-up as his. How far he gave way to them in his youth no one knows, but the scandals which many persons now desire to have printed, ostensibly for the sake of truth, are, so far as I have been able to learn, of entirely modern parentage. I have run many of them to earth; none have any contemporary authority, and they may be relegated to the dust-heaps. If he gave way to these propensities in his youth, the only conclusion that I have been able to come to is that he mastered them when he reached man’s estate.

He had, too, a fierce temper, and although he gradually subdued it, he would sometimes lose control of himself and burst out into a tempest of rage. When he did so he would use strong and even violent language, as he did at Kip’s landing and at Monmouth. Well-intentioned persons in their desire to make him a faultless being have argued at great length that Washington never swore, and but for their argument the matter would never have attracted much attention. He was anything but a profane man, but the evidence is beyond question that if deeply angered he would use a hearty English oath; and not seldom the action accompanied the word, as when he rode among the fleeing soldiers at Kip’s landing, striking them with his sword, and almost beside himself at their cowardice. Judge Marshall used to tell also of an occasion when Washington sent out an officer to cross a river and bring back some information about the enemy, on which the action of the morrow would depend. The officer was gone some time, came back, and found the General impatiently pacing his tent. On being asked what he had learned, he replied that the night was dark and stormy, the river full of ice, and that he had not been able to cross. Washington glared at him a moment, seized a large leaden inkstand from the table, hurled it at the offender’s head, and said with a fierce oath: “Be off, and send me a man!” The officer went, crossed the river, and brought back the information.

But although he would now and then give way to these tremendous bursts of anger, Washington was never unjust. As he said to one officer, “I never judge the propriety of actions by after events;” and in that sound philosophy is found the secret not only of much of his own success, but of the devotion of his officers and men. He might be angry with them, but he was never unfair. In truth, he was too generous to be unjust or even over-severe to any one, and there is not a line in all his writings which even suggests that he ever envied any man. So long as the work in hand was done, he cared not who had the glory, and he was perfectly magnanimous and perfectly at ease about his own reputation. He never showed the slightest anxiety to write his own memoirs, and he was not in the least alarmed when it was proposed to publish the memoirs of other people, like General Charles Lee, which would probably reflect upon him.

He had the same confidence in the judgment of posterity that he had in the future beyond the grave. He regarded death with entire calmness and even indifference not only when it came to him, but when in previous years it had threatened him. He loved life and tasted of it deeply, but the courage which never forsook him made him ready to face the inevitable at any moment with an unruffled spirit. In this he was helped by his religious faith, which was as simple as it was profound. He had been brought up in the Protestant Episcopal Church, and to that church he always adhered; for its splendid liturgy and stately forms appealed to him and satisfied him. He loved it too as the church of his home and his childhood. Yet he was as far as possible from being sectarian, and there is not a word of his which shows anything but the most entire liberality and toleration. He made no parade of his religion, for in this as in other things he was perfectly simple and sincere. He was tortured by no doubts or questionings, but believed always in an overruling Providence and in a merciful God, to whom he knelt and prayed in the day of darkness or in the hour of triumph with a supreme and child-like confidence….

For many years I have studied minutely the career of Washington, and with every step the greatness of the man has grown upon me, for analysis has failed to discover the act of his life which, under the conditions of the time, I could unhesitatingly pronounce to have been an error. Such has been my experience, and although my deductions may be wrong, they at least have been carefully and slowly made. I see in Washington a great soldier who fought a trying war to a successful end impossible without him; a great statesman who did more than all other men to lay the foundations of a republic which has endured in prosperity for more than a century. I find in him a marvellous judgment which was never at fault, a penetrating vision which beheld the future of America when it was dim to other eyes, a great intellectual force, a will of iron, an unyielding grasp of facts, and an unequalled strength of patriotic purpose. I see in him too a pure and high-minded gentleman of dauntless courage and stainless honor, simple and stately of manner, kind and generous of heart. Such he was in truth. The historian and the biographer may fail to do him justice, but the instinct of mankind will not fail. The real hero needs not books to give him worshippers. George Washington will always receive the love and reverence of men because they see embodied in him the noblest possibilities of humanity.