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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By George Washington (1732–1799)

THE FAREWELL ADDRESS of Washington is infused with that quality of his character which appealed most forcibly to his contemporaries, and which has governed posterity’s estimate of him: entire and consistent devotion to a fixed ideal, the fruit of a genius for patriotism. In the light of this genius alone can the greatness of Washington be understood and appreciated; seen out of its circle he is merely a colonial country gentleman of indifferent education. As a boy he composed a set of rules of conduct, such as any well-mannered boy might lay down for his guidance. It ends however with these significant words: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” Washington’s country was his conscience. Not many men are intelligent patriots, since the heat of the heart confuses the judgment; nor are many consistent patriots, since the successful servant is perilously near the office of master. The pre-eminence of Washington is founded upon his intelligence and consistency in conducting “one of the greatest revolutions of this or of any time,” in serving his country as President, in retiring from office so soon as he perceived that his services were no longer essential. The Farewell Address will remain one of the most significant and important of historical documents, because it embodies the very essence of a sober and faithful patriotism.

The life of Washington proves how much can be effected by single-mindedness in the pursuit of an ideal. His contemporaries who met him during the Revolution, or during his terms of office, seemed at a loss to account for his greatness; as if the man were constantly hiding behind his services. “Something of stillness envelops the actions of Washington,” Chateaubriand wrote. Many accounts of his personal appearance remain: few exact impressions of his personality. His letters and his diaries throw little light upon him, neither do they discover the secret of his extraordinary power. The Farewell Address is perhaps the most truthful portrait of him which remains. He was born in Virginia on February 22d, 1732, of a family which had come from England about the middle of the seventeenth century. Of his early life little is known, save a few apocryphal stories. His education was elementary: he was brought up on his father’s plantation, leading a free out-of-door life; he emerged into clear view first as a surveyor of the lands of Lord Fairfax, father-in-law of his half-brother Lawrence. Four years later, when he was about twenty years of age, he became heir to the family property of Mount Vernon. In 1753 Lieutenant-Governor Dinwiddie appointed him commander of the northern military district of Virginia. The French and Indian War breaking out in the same year, Washington was sent by the Governor to warn the French away from the new forts in western Pennsylvania. The intelligence and clear judgment which he displayed in the execution of this commission led to his being appointed, in 1755, commander-in-chief of all the Virginia forces, with the task of defending a frontier of three hundred and fifty miles with seven hundred and fifty men. In Braddock’s campaign he came rapidly to the front as an officer of extraordinary coolness, courage, and military skill. At the close of this war he married Martha Dandridge, the widow of Daniel Parke Custis, and settled down to twenty years of retirement in Virginia. In 1774 the Virginia convention appointed him one of seven delegates to the Continental Congress; at which Congress, on the motion of John Adams, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the colonies. On July 2d of the same year he took command of the army at Cambridge, Massachusetts. From that time on he was engaged in a series of brilliant campaigns, which ended only when the object of the war had been fully attained. James Thacher, a surgeon in the Revolution, who kept a military diary, has left this description of Washington the general:—

  • “The personal appearance of our commander-in-chief is that of a perfect gentleman and accomplished warrior. He is remarkably tall,—full six feet,—erect and well-proportioned. The strength and proportion of his joints and muscles appear to be commensurate with the pre-eminent powers of his mind. The serenity of his countenance, and majestic gracefulness of his deportment, impart a strong impression of that dignity and grandeur which are peculiar characteristics; and no one can stand in his presence without feeling the ascendency of his mind, and associating with his countenance the idea of wisdom, philanthropy, magnanimity, and patriotism. There is a fine symmetry in the features of his face indicative of a benign and dignified spirit. His nose is straight, and his eyes inclined to blue. He wears his hair in a becoming cue, and from his forehead it is turned back, and powdered in a manner which adds to the military air of his appearance. He displays a native gravity, but devoid of all appearance of ostentation. His uniform dress is a blue coat with two brilliant epaulets, buff-colored under clothes, and a three-cornered hat with a black cockade. He is constantly equipped with an elegant small-sword, boots and spurs, in readiness to mount his noble charger.”
  • In 1783 Washington resigned his commission, and went again into retirement, until his election to the Presidency in 1787. After serving two terms, he spent the remainder of his life upon his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. He died in 1799.

    “I felt on his death, with my countrymen,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “Verily a great man hath fallen in Israel.”

    Washington Irving said of him: “The character of Washington may want some of those poetical elements which dazzle and delight the multitude; but it possessed fewer inequalities, and a rarer union of virtues, than perhaps ever fall to the lot of one man.”