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Jean Jules Jusserand (1855–1932). With Americans of Past and Present Days. 1916.


III. Washington and the French

WASHINGTON’S acquaintance with things French began early and was of a mixed nature. As a pupil of the French Huguenot Maryes, who kept a school at Fredericksburg, and did not teach him French, we find him carefully transcribing, in his elegant youthful hand, those famous “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” which have recently been proved to be French. Whether this French teaching given him by a Frenchman engraved itself in his mind or happened to match his natural disposition, or both, certain it is that he lived up to the best among those maxims, those, for example, and they are remarkably numerous, that deprecate jokes and railing at the expense of others, or those of a noble import advising the young man to be “no flatterer,” to “show no sign of choler in reproving, but to do it with sweetness and mildness,” those prescribing that his “recreations be manful, not sinful,” and giving him this advice of supreme importance, which Washington observed throughout life: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Another chance that Washington had to become acquainted with things French was through his reading, and was less favorable to them. An early note in his hand informs us that, about the year 1748, he, being then sixteen, had, “in the Spectator, read to No. 143.” All those numbers had been written by Steele and Addison at a period of French wars, at the moment when we were fighting “Monsieur Malbrouk.” Not a portrait of the French in those numbers that is not a caricature; they are a “ludicrous nation”; their women are “fantastical,” their men “vain and lively,” their fashions ridiculous; not even their wines find grace in the eyes of Steele, who could plead, it is true, that he was not without experience on the subject, and who declares that this “plaguy French claret” is greatly inferior to “a bottle or two of good, solid, edifying port.”

Washington was soon to learn more of French people, and was to find that they were something else than mere ludicrous and lively puppets.

A soldier born, with all that is necessary to prove a good one and to become an apt leader, having, as he himself wrote, “resolution to face what any man durst.” Washington rose rapidly in the ranks, becoming a colonel in 1754, at the age of twenty-two. He was three times sent, in his younger days, to observe, and check if he could, the progress of his future allies, in the Ohio and Monongahela Valleys. His journal and letters show him animated toward them with the spirit befitting a loyal subject of George II, none of his judgments on them being spoiled by any undue leniency.

On the first occasion he was simply ordered to hand to the commander of a French fort a letter from the governor of Virginia, and to ask him to withdraw as having “invaded the King of Great Britain’s territory.” To which the Frenchman, an old officer and Knight of Saint Louis, Mr. de Saint-Pierre, who shortly before had been leading an exploration in the extreme West, toward the Rockies, politely but firmly declined to assent, writing back to the governor: “I am here by the orders of my general, and I entreat you, sir, not to doubt but that I shall try to conform myself to them with all the exactness and resolution which must be expected from a good officer.” He has “much the air of a soldier,” Washington wrote of him.

Mr. de Saint-Pierre added, on his part, a word on the bearer of Governor Dinwiddie’s message, who was to be the bearer also of his answer, and in this we have the first French comment on Washington’s personality: “I made it my particular care to receive Mr. Washington with a distinction suitable to your dignity as well as to his own personal merit.—From the Fort on the Rivière-aux-Bœufs, December 15, 1753.” Having received plentiful supplies as a gift from the French, but entertaining the worst misgivings as to their “artifices,” the young officer began his return journey, during which, in spite of all trouble, he managed to pay a visit to Queen Aliquippa: “I made her a present,” he wrote, “of a match-coat and a bottle of rum, which latter was thought much the best present of the two.” On the 16th of January, 1754, he was back at Williamsburg, handed to the governor Mr. de Saint Pierre’s negative answer, and printed an account of his journey.

The second expedition, a military one, was marked next year by the sad and famous Jumonville incident and by the surrendering, to the brother of dead Jumonville, of Fort Necessity, where the subjects of King George and their youthful colonel, after a fight lasting from eleven in the morning till eight in the evening, had to capitulate, being permitted, however, by the French to withdraw with “full military honors, drum-beating, and taking with them one small piece of ordnance.” (July 3, 1754.) The fort and the rest of the artillery remained in the hands of the captors, as well as part of that diary which, although with interruptions, Washington was fond of keeping, whenever he could, his last entry being dated Friday, December 13, 1799, the day before his death. The part found at Fort Necessity—March 31 to June 27, 1754—was sent to Paris, translated into French, printed in 1756 by the royal government, and the text given in Washington’s writings is only a retranslation from the French, the original English not having been preserved.

The third occasion was the terrible campaign of 1755, which ended in Braddock’s death and the defeat of the English regulars on the Monongahela, not far from the newly built Fort Duquesne, later Pittsburgh (July 9). Contrary to expectation (there being “about three hundred French and Indians,” wrote Washington; “our numbers consisted of about thirteen hundred well-armed men, chiefly regulars”), the French won the day, nearly doing to death their future commander-in-chief. A rumor was even spread that he had actually succumbed after composing a “dying speech,” and Washington had to write to his brother John to assure him that he had had as yet no occasion for such a composition, though very near having had it: “By the all-powerful dispensation of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability and expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, although death was levelling my companions on every side of me. We have been most scandalously beaten.”

By an irony of fate, in this expedition against the French, in which George Washington acted as aide-de-camp to the English general, the means of transportation had been supplied by Post-master Benjamin Franklin.

The French were indubitably different from the airy fops of Addison’s Spectator, but they were as far as ever from commanding young Washington’s sympathy. It was part of his loyalism to hate them and to interpret for the worst anything they could do or say. The master of an ampler vocabulary than he is sometimes credited with, we find him writing to Richard Washington, in 1757, that the means by which the French maintain themselves in the Ohio Valley are—“hellish.”

A few years later the tone is greatly altered, not yet toward the French, but toward the British Government and King. In sad, solemn words, full already of the spirit of the Washington of history, he warns his friend and neighbor George Mason, the one who was to draw the first Constitution of Virginia, of the great crisis now looming: “American freedom” is at stake; “it seems highly necessary that something should be done to avert the stroke and maintain the liberty which we have derived from our ancestors. But the manner of doing it, to answer the purpose effectually, is the point in question.

“That no man should scruple or hesitate a moment to use a-ms [sic] in defense of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends, is clearly my opinion. Yet a-ms, I would beg leave to add, should be the last resource, the dernier resort.” Absolutely firm, absolutely moderate, such was Washington to continue to the end of the impending struggle, and, indeed, of his days. The life of the great Washington was now beginning.