Read CHAPTER XII - CITIZEN AND OFFICE-HOLDER of The True George Washington [10th Ed.], free online book, by Paul Leicester Ford, on

Washington became a government servant before he became a voter, by receiving in 1749, or when he was seventeen years of age, the appointment of official surveyor of Culpepper County, the salary of which, according to Boucher, was about fifty pounds Virginia currency a year. The office was certainly not a very fat berth, for it required the holder to live in a frontier county, to travel at times, as Washington in his journal noted, over “ye worst Road that ever was trod by Man or Beast,” to sometimes lie on straw, which once “catch’d a Fire,” and we “was luckily Preserved by one of our Mens waking,” sometimes under a tent, which occasionally “was Carried quite of with ye Wind and” we “was obliged to Lie ye Latter part of ye night without covering,” and at other times driven from under the tent by smoke. Indeed, one period of surveying Washington described to a friend by writing,

“[Since] October Last I have not sleep’d above three Nights or four in a bed but after Walking a good deal all the Day lay down before the fire upon a Little Hay Straw Fodder or bearskin which-ever is to be had with Man Wife and Children like a Parcel of Dogs or Catts & happy’s he that gets the Birth nearest the fire there’s nothing would make it pass of tolerably but a good Reward a Dubbleloon is my constant gain every Day that the Weather will permit my going out and some time Six Pistoles the coldness of the Weather will not allow my making a long stay as the Lodging is rather too cold for the time of Year. I have never had my Cloths of but lay and sleep in them like a Negro except the few Nights I have lay’n in Frederick Town.”

In 1751, when he was nineteen, Washington bettered his lot by becoming adjutant of one of the four military districts of Virginia, with a salary of one hundred pounds and a far less toilsome occupation. This in turn led up to his military appointment in 1754, which he held almost continuously till 1759, when he resigned from the service.

Next to a position on the Virginia council, a seat in the House of Burgesses, or lower branch of the Legislature, was most sought, and this position had been held by Washington’s great-grandfather, father, and elder brother. It was only natural, therefore, that in becoming the head of the family George should desire the position. As early as 1755, while on the frontier, he wrote to his brother in charge of Mount Vernon inquiring about the election to be held in the county, and asking him to “come at Colo Fairfax’s intentions, and let me know whether he purposes to offer himself as a candidate.” “If he does not, I should be glad to take a poll, if I thought my chance tolerably good.” His friend Carlyle, Washington wrote, had “mentioned it to me in Williamsburg in a bantering way,” and he begged his brother to “discover Major Carlyle’s real sentiments on this head,” as also those of the other prominent men of the county, and especially of the clergymen. “Sound their pulse,” he wrote, “with an air of indifference and unconcern ... without disclosing much of mine.” “If they seem inclinable to promote my interest, and things should be drawing to a crisis, you may declare my intention and beg their assistance. If on the contrary you find them more inclined to favor some other, I would have the affair entirely dropped.” Apparently the county magnates disapproved, for Washington did not stand for the county.

In 1757 an election for burgesses was held in Frederick County, in which Washington then was (with his soldiers), and for which he offered himself as a candidate. The act was hardly a wise one, for, though he had saved Winchester and the surrounding country from being overrun by the Indians, he was not popular. Not merely was he held responsible for the massacres of outlying inhabitants, whom it was impossible to protect, but in this very defence he had given cause for ill-feeling. He himself confessed that he had several times “strained the law,” he had been forced to impress the horses and wagons of the district, and had in other ways so angered some of the people that they had threatened “to blow out my brains.” But he had been guilty of a far worse crime still in a political sense. Virginia elections were based on liquor, and Washington had written to the governor, representing “the great nuisance the number of tippling houses in Winchester are to the soldiers, who by this means, in spite of the utmost care and vigilance, are, so long as their pay holds, incessantly drunk and unfit for service,” and he wished that “the new commission for this county may have the intended effect,” for “the number of tippling houses kept here is a great grievance.” As already noted, the Virginia regiment was accused in the papers of drunkenness, and under the sting of that accusation Washington declared war on the publicans. He whipped his men when they became drunk, kept them away from the ordinaries, and even closed by force one tavern which was especially culpable. “Were it not too tedious,” he wrote the governor, “I cou’d give your Honor such instances of the villainous Behavior of those Tippling House-keepers, as wou’d astonish any person.”

The conduct was admirable, but it was not good politics, and as soon as he offered himself as a candidate, the saloon element, under the leadership of one Lindsay, whose family were tavern-keepers in Winchester for at least one hundred years, united to oppose him. Against the would-be burgess they set up one Captain Thomas Swearingen, whom Washington later described as “a man of great weight among the meaner class of people, and supposed by them to possess extensive knowledge.” As a result, the poll showed Swearingen elected by two hundred and seventy votes, and Washington defeated with but forty ballots.

This sharp experience in practical politics seems to have taught the young candidate a lesson, for when a new election came in 1758 he took a leaf from his enemy’s book, and fought them with their own weapons. The friendly aid of the county boss, Colonel John Wood, was secured, as also that of Gabriel Jones, a man of much local force and popularity. Scarcely less important were the sinews of war employed, told of in the following detailed account. A law at that time stood on the Virginia statutes forbidding all treating or giving of what were called “ticklers” to the voters, and declaring illegal all elections which were thus influenced. None the less, the voters of Frederick enjoyed at Washington’s charge

After the election was over, Washington wrote Wood that “I hope no Exception was taken to any that voted against me, but that all were alike treated, and all had enough. My only fear is that you spent with too sparing a hand.” It is hardly necessary to say that such methods reversed the former election; Washington secured three hundred and ten votes, and Swearingen received forty-five. What is more, so far from now threatening to blow out his brains, there was “a general applause and huzzaing for Colonel Washington.”

From this time until he took command of the army Washington was a burgess. Once again he was elected from Frederick County, and then, in 1765, he stood for Fairfax, in which Mount Vernon was located. Here he received two hundred and eight votes, his colleague getting but one hundred and forty-eight, and in the election of 1768 he received one hundred and eighty-five, and his colleague only one hundred and forty-two. Washington spent between forty and seventy-five pounds at each of these elections, and usually gave a ball to the voters on the night he was chosen. Some of the miscellaneous election expenses noted in his ledger are, “54 gallons of Strong Beer,” “52 Do. of Ale,” “L1.0.0. to Mr. John Muir for his fiddler,” and “For cakes at the Election L7.11.1.”

The first duty which fell to the new burgess was service on a committee to draught a law to prevent hogs from running at large in Winchester. He was very regular in his attendance; and though he took little part in the proceedings, yet in some way he made his influence felt, so that when the time came to elect deputies to the First Congress he stood third in order among the seven appointed to attend that body, and a year later, in the delegation to the Continental Congress, he stood second, Peyton Randolph receiving one more vote only, and all the other delegates less.

This distinction was due to the sound judgment of the man rather than to those qualities that are considered senatorial. Jefferson said, “I served with General Washington in the legislature of Virginia before the revolution, and, during it, with Dr. Franklin in Congress. I never heard either of them speak ten minutes at a time, nor to any but the main point which was to decide the question. They laid their shoulders to the great points, knowing that the little ones would follow of themselves.”

Through all his life Washington was no speechmaker. In 1758, by an order of the Assembly, Speaker Robinson was directed to return its thanks to Colonel Washington, on behalf of the colony, for the distinguished military services which he had rendered to the country. As soon as he took his seat in the House, the Speaker performed this duty in such glowing terms as quite overwhelmed him. Washington rose to express his acknowledgments for the honor, but was so disconcerted as to be unable to articulate a word distinctly. He blushed and faltered for a moment, when the Speaker relieved him from his embarrassment by saying, “Sit down, Mr. Washington, your modesty equals your valor, and that surpasses the power of any language that I possess.”

This stage-fright seems to have clung to him. When Adams hinted that Congress should “appoint a General,” and added, “I had no hesitation to declare that I had but one gentleman in my mind for that important command, and that was a gentleman whose skill and experience as an officer, whose independent fortune, great talents, and excellent universal character, would command the approbation of all America, and unite the cordial exertions of all the Colonies better than any other person in the Union,” he relates that “Mr. Washington who happened to sit near the door, as soon as he heard me allude to him, from his usual modesty, darted into the library-room.”

So, too, at his inauguration as President, Maclay noted that “this great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read [his speech], though it must be supposed he had often read it before,” and Fisher Ames wrote, “He addressed the two Houses in the Senate-chamber; it was a very touching scene and quite of a solemn kind. His aspect grave, almost to sadness; his modesty actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention,”

There can be little doubt that this non-speech-making ability was not merely the result of inaptitude, but was also a principle, for when his favorite nephew was elected a burgess, and made a well-thought-of speech in his first attempt, his uncle wrote him, “You have, I find, broke the ice. The only advice I will offer to you on the occasion (if you have a mind to command the attention of the House,) is to speak seldom, but to important subjects, except such as particularly relate to your constituents; and, in the former case, make yourself perfectly master of the subject. Never exceed a decent warmth, and submit your sentiments with diffidence. A dictatorial stile, though it may carry conviction, is always accompanied with disgust.” To a friend writing of this same speech he said, “with great pleasure I received the information respecting the commencement of my nephew’s political course. I hope he will not be so bouyed by the favorable impression it has made, as to become a babbler.”

Even more indicative of his own conceptions of senatorial conduct is advice given in a letter to Jack Custis, when the latter, too, achieved an election to the Assembly.

“I do not suppose,” he wrote, “that so young a senator as you are, little versed in political disquisitions, can yet have much influence in a populous assembly, composed of Gentln. of various talents and of different views. But it is in your power to be punctual in your attendance (and duty to the trust reposed in you exacts it of you), to hear dispassionately and determine coolly all great questions. To be disgusted at the decision of questions, because they are not consonant to your own ideas, and to withdraw ourselves from public assemblies, or to neglect our attendance at them, upon suspicion that there is a party formed, who are inimical to our cause, and to the true interest of our country, is wrong, because these things may originate in a difference of opinion; but, supposing the fact is otherwise, and that our suspicions are well founded, it is the indispensable duty of every patriot to counteract them by the most steady and uniform opposition.”

In the Continental Congress, Randolph states, “Washington was prominent, though silent. His looks bespoke a mind absorbed in meditation on his country’s fate; but a positive concert between him and Henry could not more effectually have exhibited him to view, than when Henry ridiculed the idea of peace ‘when there was no peace,’ and enlarged on the duty of preparing for war.” Very quickly his attendance on that body was ended by its appointing him general.

His political relations to the Congress have been touched upon elsewhere, but his attitude towards Great Britain is worth attention. Very early he had said, “At a time when our lordly masters in Great Britain will be satisfied with nothing less than the deprivation of American freedom, 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 s in defence of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends, is clearly my opinion.” When actual war ensued, he was among the first to begin to collect and drill a force, even while he wrote, “unhappy it is, though to reflect, that a brother’s sword has been sheathed in a brother’s breast, and that the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with blood or inhabited by slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?”

Not till early in 1776 did he become a convert to independence, and then only by such “flaming arguments as were exhibited at Falmouth and Norfolk,” which had been burned by the British. At one time, in 1776, he thought “the game will be pretty well up,” but “under a full persuasion of the justice of our cause, I cannot entertain an Idea, that it will finally sink, tho’ it may remain for some time under a cloud,” and even in this time of terrible discouragement he maintained that “nothing short of independence, it appears to me, can possibly do. A peace on other terms would, if I may be allowed the expression, be a peace of war.”

Pickering, who placed a low estimate on his military ability, said that, “upon the whole, I have no hesitation in saying that General Washington’s talents were much better adapted to the Presidency of the United States than to the command of their armies,” and this is probably true. The diplomatist Thornton said of the President, that if his “circumspection is accompanied by discernment and penetration, as I am informed it is, and as I should be inclined to believe from the judicious choice he has generally made of persons to fill public stations, he possesses the two great requisites of a statesman, the faculty of concealing his own sentiments and of discovering those of other men.”

To follow his course while President is outside of the scope of this work, but a few facts are worth noting. Allusion has already been made to his use of the appointing power, but how clearly he held it as a “public trust” is shown in a letter to his longtime friend Benjamin Harrison, who asked him for an office. “I will go to the chair,” he replied, “under no pre-engagement of any kind or nature whatsoever. But, when in it, to the best of my judgment, discharge the duties of the office with that impartiality and zeal for the public good, which ought never to suffer connection of blood or friendship to intermingle so as to have the least sway on the decision of a public nature.” This position was held to firmly. John Adams wrote an office-seeker, “I must caution you, my dear Sir, against having any dependence on my influence or that of any other person. No man, I believe, has influence with the President. He seeks information from all quarters, and judges more independently than any man I ever knew. It is of so much importance to the public that he should preserve this superiority, that I hope I shall never see the time that any man will have influence with him beyond the powers of reason and argument.”

Long after, when political strife was running high, Adams said, “Washington appointed a multitude of democrats and jacobins of the deepest die. I have been more cautious in this respect; but there is danger of proscribing under imputations of democracy, some of the ablest, most influential, and best characters in the Union.” In this he was quite correct, for the first President’s appointments were made with a view to destroy party and not create it, his object being to gather all the talent of the country in support of the national government, and he bore many things which personally were disagreeable in an endeavor to do this.

Twice during Washington’s terms he was forced to act counter to the public sentiment. The first time was when a strenuous attempt was made by the French minister to break through the neutrality that had been proclaimed, when, according to John Adams, “ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his house, and effect a revolution in the government, or compel it to declare in favor of the French revolution and against England.” The second time was when he signed the treaty of 1795 with Great Britain, which produced a popular outburst from one end of the country to the other. In neither case did Washington swerve an iota from what he thought right, writing, “these are unpleasant things, but they must be met with firmness.” Eventually the people always came back to their leader, and Jefferson sighed over the fact that “such is the popularity of the President that the people will support him in whatever he will do or will not do, without appealing to their own reason or to anything but their feelings towards him.”

It is not to be supposed from this that Washington was above considering the popular bent, or was lacking in political astuteness. John Adams asserted that “General Washington, one of the most attentive men in the world to the manner of doing things, owed a great proportion of his celebrity to this circumstance,” and frequently he is to be found considering the popularity or expediency of courses. In 1776 he said, “I have found it of importance and highly expedient to yield to many points in fact, without seeming to have done it, and this to avoid bringing on a too frequent discussion of matters which in a political view ought to be kept a little behind the curtain, and not to be made too much the subjects of disquisition. Time only can eradicate and overcome customs and prejudices of long standing they must be got the better of by slow and gradual advances.”

Elsewhere he wrote, “In a word, if a man cannot act in all respects as he would wish, he must do what appears best, under the circumstances he is in. This I aim at, however short I may fall of the end;” of a certain measure he thought, “it has, however, like many other things in which I have been involved, two edges, neither of which can be avoided without falling on the other;” and that even in small things he tried to be politic is shown in his journey through New England, when he accepted an invitation to a large public dinner at Portsmouth, and the next day, being at Exeter, he wrote in his diary, “a jealousy subsists between this town (where the Legislature alternately sits) and Portsmouth; which, had I known it in time, would have made it necessary to have accepted an invitation to a public dinner, but my arrangements having been otherwise made, I could not.”

Nor was Washington entirely lacking in finesse. He offered Patrick Henry a position after having first ascertained in a roundabout manner that it would be refused, and in many other ways showed that he understood good politics. Perhaps the neatest of his dodges was made when the French revolutionist Volney asked him for a general letter of introduction to the American people. This was not, for political and personal reasons, a thing Washington cared to give, yet he did not choose to refuse, so he wrote on a sheet of paper,

“C. Volney
needs no recommendation from
Geo. Washington.”

There is a very general belief that success in politics and truthfulness are incompatible, yet, as already shown, Washington prospered in politics, and the Rev. Mason L. Weems is authority for the popular statement that at six years of age George could not tell a lie. Whether this was so, or whether Mr. Weems was drawing on his imagination for his facts, it seems probable that Washington partially outgrew the disability in his more mature years.

When trying to win the Indians to the English cause in 1754, Washington in his journal states that he “let the young Indians who were in our camp know that the French wanted to kill the Half King,” a diplomatic statement he hardly believed, which the writer says “had its desired effect,” and which the French editor declared to be an “imposture.” In this same campaign he was forced to sign a capitulation which acknowledged that he had been guilty of assassination, and this raised such a storm in Virginia when it became known that Washington hastened to deny all knowledge of the charge having been contained among the articles, and alleged that it had not been made clear to him when the paper had been translated and read. On the contrary, another officer present at the reading states that he refused to “sign the Capitulation because they charged us with Assasination in it.”

In writing to an Indian agent in 1755, Washington was “greatly enraptured” at hearing of his approach, dwelt upon the man’s “hearty attachment to our glorious Cause” and his “Courage of which I have had very great proofs.” Inclosing a copy of the letter to the governor, Washington said, “the letter savors a little of flattery &c., &c., but this, I hope is justifiable on such an occasion.”

With his London agent there was a little difficulty in 1771, and Washington objected to a letter received “because there is one paragraph in particular in it ... which appears to me to contain an implication of my having deviated from the truth.” A more general charge was Charles Lee’s: “I aver that his Excellencies letter was from beginning to the end a most abominable lie.”

As a ruse de guerre Washington drew up for a spy in 1779 a series of false statements as to the position and number of his army for him to report to the British. And in preparation for the campaign of 1781 “much trouble was taken and finesse used to misguide and bewilder Sir Henry Clinton by making a deceptive provision of ovens, forage and boats in his neighborhood.” “Nor were less pains taken to deceive our own army,” and even “the highest military as well as civil officers” were deceived at this time, not merely that the secret should not leak out, but also “for the important purpose of inducing the eastern and middle states to make greater exertions.”

When travelling through the South in 1791, Washington entered in his diary, “Having suffered very much by the dust yesterday and finding that parties of Horse, & a number of other Gentlemen were intending to attend me part of the way to-day, I caused their enquiries respecting the time of my setting out, to be answered that, I should endeavor to do it before eight o’clock; but I did it a little after five, by which means I avoided the inconveniences above mentioned.”

Weld, in his “Travels in America,” published that “General Washington told me that he never was so much annoyed by the mosquitos in any part of America as in Skenesborough, for that they used to bite through the thickest boot.” When this anecdote appeared in print, good old Dr. Dwight, shocked at the taradiddle, and fearing its evil influence on Washington’s fame, spoiled the joke by explaining in a book that “a gentleman of great respectability, who was present when General Washington made the observation referred to, told me that he said, when describing those mosquitoes to Mr. Weld, that they ’bit through his stockings above the boots.’” Whoever invented the explanation should also have evolved a type of boots other than those worn by Washington, for unfortunately for the story Washington’s military boots went above his “small clothes,” giving not even an inch of stocking for either mosquito or explanation. In 1786, Washington declared that “I do not recollect that in the course of my life, I ever forfeited my word, or broke a promise made to any one,” and at another time he wrote, “I never say any thing of a Man that I have the smallest scruple of saying to him.”

From 1749 till 1784, and from 1789 till 1797, or a period of forty years, Washington filled offices of one kind or another, and when he died he still held a commission. Thus, excluding his boyhood, there were but seven years of his life in which he was not engaged in the public service. Even after his retirement from the Presidency he served on a grand jury, and before this he had several times acted as petit juror. In another way he was a good citizen, for when at Mount Vernon he invariably attended the election, rain or shine, though it was a ride of ten miles to the polling town.

Both his enemies and his friends bore evidence to his honesty. Jefferson said, “his integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity or friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was indeed in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man.” Pickering wrote that “to the excellency of his virtues I am not disposed to set any limits. All his views were upright, all his actions just” Hamilton asserted that “the General is a very honest Man;” and Tilghman spoke of him as “the honestest man that I believe ever adorned human nature.”