Visual History of the World

(CONTENTS)
 

 


HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION & CULTURE

From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Photography
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
Prehistory
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists

 




The Early Modern Period

16th - 18th century


 


The smooth transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is conventionally fixed on such events as the Reformation and the discovery of the "New World," which brought about the emergence of a new image of man and his world. Humanism, which spread out of Italy, also made an essential contribution to this with its promotion of a critical awareness of Christianity and the Church. The Reformation eventually broke the all-embracing power of the Church. After the Thirty Years' War, the concept of a universal empire was also nullified. The era of the nation-state began, bringing with it the desire to build up political and economic power far beyond Europe. The Americas, Africa, and Asia provided regions of expansion for the Europeans.
 



Proportions of the Human Figure by Leonardo da Vinci (drawing, ca. 1490)
is a prime example of the new approach of Renaissance
artists and scientists to the anatomy of the human body.

 

 


North America to the Founding
of Canada and the US
 


1497-1789
 

 

A race began between the British and the French for the colonization of North America. It ended with the British claiming the area of the later eastern United States and the French pushing north. Canada was eventually divided between the British and the French. In the northeast of the present-day United States, emigrating Puritans and private proprietors and companies founded the New England colonies. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they won cultural independence and political confidence and resisted taxation by the British motherland. The conflict escalated into a war lasting from 1775 to 1783, defined by the United States' Declaration of Independence in 1776, and resulting ultimately in a new constitution for a federal United States of America.

 


The War against the British and American Independence
 

Friction between London and the colonies led to the American War of Independence in 1775 and a formal declaration of independence in 1776. The Americans won the war in 1783 with French aid.

 

In September-October 1774, at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the delegates of the 13 British-American colonies decided not to accept any taxation without direct representation in Parliament and demanded the reinstatement of the Massachusetts constitution. London responded by sending troops to restore order in the colonies.
 
After the first hostilities, a second congress of colonists decided in May 1775 to establish a combined army, under the supreme command of 7 George Washington, later supported by the French 8 Marquis de Lafayette and the Prussian Baron von Steuben, who contributed to the professional organization of the army.
 


7 Washington crosses the Delaware be fore the Battle of Trenton, 1776

 


8 Washington and Marquis de Lafayette
 

 

Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette


French noble
Lafayette also spelled La Fayette
born Sept. 6, 1757, Chavaniac, Fr.
died May 20, 1834, Paris

Main
French aristocrat who fought with the American colonists against the British in the American Revolution. Later, by allying himself with the revolutionary bourgeoisie, he became one of the most powerful men in France during the first few years of the French Revolution.

Born into an ancient noble family, Lafayette had already inherited an immense fortune by the time he married the daughter of the influential duc d’Ayen in 1774. He joined the circle of young courtiers at the court of King Louis XVI but soon aspired to win glory as a soldier. Hence, in July 1777, 27 months after the outbreak of the American Revolution, he arrived in Philadelphia. Appointed a major general by the colonists, he quickly struck up a lasting friendship with the American commander in chief, George Washington. Lafayette fought with distinction at the Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 11, 1777, and, as a division commander, he conducted a masterly retreat from Barren Hill on May 28, 1778. Returning to France early in 1779, he helped persuade the government of Louis XVI to send a 6,000-man expeditionary army to aid the colonists. Lafayette arrived back in America in April 1780 and was immediately given command of an army in Virginia. After forcing the British commander Lord Charles Cornwallis to retreat across Virginia, Lafayette entrapped him at Yorktown in late July. A French fleet and several additional American armies joined the siege, and on October 19 Cornwallis surrendered. The British cause was lost. Lafayette was hailed as “the Hero of Two Worlds,” and on returning to France in 1782 he was promoted maréchal de camp (brigadier general). He became a citizen of several states on a visit to the United States in 1784.

During the next five years, Lafayette became a leader of the liberal aristocrats and an outspoken advocate of religious toleration and the abolition of the slave trade. Elected as a representative of the nobility to the States General that convened in May 1789, Lafayette supported the manoeuvres by which the bourgeois deputies of the Third Estate gained control of the States General and converted it into a revolutionary National Assembly. On July 11 he presented to the Assembly his draft of a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. After extensive revisions the document was adopted on August 27. Meanwhile on July 15, the day after a crowd stormed the Bastille, Lafayette had been elected commander of the newly formed national guard of Paris. His troops saved Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette from the fury of a crowd that invaded Versailles on October 6, and he then carried the royal family to Paris, where they became hostages of the Revolution.

For the next year, Lafayette’s popularity and influence were at their height. He supported measures that transferred power from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, but he feared that further democratization would encourage the lower classes to attack property rights. Hence, he became alarmed as republicans began to assail the new system of constitutional monarchy. When a crowd of petitioners gathered on the Champ de Mars in Paris (July 17, 1791) to demand the abdication of the King, Lafayette’s guards opened fire, killing or wounding about 50 demonstrators. The incident destroyed his popularity, and in October he resigned from the guard.

Appointed commander of the army at Metz in December 1791, Lafayette hoped to suppress the radical democrats (and perhaps rule in the King’s name) after France went to war with Austria in April 1792. His plans failed, and on Aug. 10, 1792, the monarchy was overthrown in a popular insurrection. Lafayette would have been tried for treason had he not defected (August 19) to the Austrians, who held him captive until 1797. When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799, Lafayette returned to France and settled down as a gentleman farmer. He sat in the Chamber of Deputies during most of the reign of King Louis XVIII (1814–24), and in 1824–25 he visited the United States, where he was received with wild adulation. In July 1830 he commanded the national guard that helped overthrow King Charles X and install Louis-Philippe on the throne. Lafayette retired six months later.

Encyclopaedia Britannica
 

 

In the meantime, independence was implemented politically: on July 4, 1776, the 13 colonies (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) adopted the 9, 10 Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia as an agreement between the people and government, emphasizing the freedom and equality of all humans.

 

 

Declaration of Independence

United States history
 
In U.S. history, document that was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, and that announced the separation of 13 North American British colonies from Great Britain. It explained why the Congress on July 2 “unanimously” by the votes of 12 colonies (with New York abstaining) had resolved that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States.” Accordingly, the day on which final separation was officially voted was July 2, although the 4th, the day on which the Declaration of Independence was adopted, has always been celebrated in the United States as the great national holiday—the Fourth of July, or Independence Day.

On April 19, 1775, when armed conflict began between Britain and the 13 colonies (the nucleus of the future United States), the Americans claimed that they sought only their rights within the British Empire. At that time few of the colonists consciously desired to separate from Britain. As the American Revolution proceeded during 1775–76 and Britain undertook to assert its sovereignty by means of large armed forces, making only a gesture toward conciliation, the majority of Americans increasingly came to believe that they must secure their rights outside the empire. The losses and restrictions that came from the war greatly widened the breach between the colonies and the mother country; moreover, it was necessary to assert independence in order to secure as much French aid as possible.

On April 12, 1776, the revolutionary convention of North Carolina specifically authorized its delegates in Congress to vote for independence. On May 15 the Virginia convention instructed its deputies to offer the motion, which was brought forward in the Congress by Richard Henry Lee on June 7. By that time the Congress had already taken long steps toward severing ties with Britain. It had denied Parliamentary sovereignty over the colonies as early as December 6, 1775, and it had declared on May 10, 1776, that the authority of the king ought to be “totally suppressed,” advising all the several colonies to establish governments of their own choice.

The passage of Lee’s resolution was delayed for several reasons. Some of the delegates had not yet received authorization to vote for separation; a few were opposed to taking the final step; and several men, among them John Dickinson, believed that the formation of a central government, together with attempts to secure foreign aid, should precede it. However, a committee consisting of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston was promptly chosen on June 11 to prepare a statement justifying the decision to assert independence, should it be taken. The document was prepared, and on July 1 nine delegations voted for separation, despite warm opposition on the part of Dickinson. On the following day at the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, with the New York delegation abstaining only because it lacked permission to act, the Lee resolution was voted on and endorsed. (The convention of New York gave its consent on July 9, and the New York delegates voted affirmatively on July 15.) On July 19 the Congress ordered the document to be engrossed as “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America.” It was accordingly put on parchment, probably by Timothy Matlack of Philadelphia. Members of the Congress present on August 2 affixed their signatures to this parchment copy on that day, and others later. The last signer was Thomas McKean of Delaware, whose name was not placed on the document before 1777.

The Declaration of Independence was written largely by Jefferson, who had displayed talent as a political philosopher and polemicist in his A Summary View of the Rights of British America, published in 1774. At the request of his fellow committee members he wrote the first draft. The members of the committee made a number of merely semantic changes, and they also expanded somewhat the list of charges against the king. The Congress made more substantial changes, deleting a condemnation of the British people, a reference to “Scotch & foreign mercenaries” (there were Scots in the Congress), and a denunciation of the African slave trade (this being offensive to some Southern and New England delegates).

It can be said, as John Adams did, that the declaration contained nothing really novel in its political philosophy, which was derived from John Locke, Algernon Sidney, and other English theorists. It may also be asserted that the argument offered was not without flaws in history and logic. Substantially abandoning contention on the basis of the rights of Englishmen, the declaration put forth the more fundamental doctrines of natural rights and of government under social contract. Claiming that Parliament never truly possessed sovereignty over the colonies and that the crown of right exercised it only under contract, the declaration contended that George III, with the support of a “pretended” legislature, had persistently violated the agreement between himself as governor and the Americans as the governed. A long list of accusations was offered toward proving this contention. The right and duty of revolution were then invoked.

Few will now claim that government arose among men as Locke and Jefferson said it did, and the social-contract theory has lost vogue among political scientists. It is likewise true, from a British viewpoint, that Parliament and crown could not be separated and that the history of the colonies after 1607 was not entirely consistent with the assertion that Parliament had never as of right possessed sovereignty over them. Furthermore, the specific charges brought against the king were partisan and not uniformly defensible, and the general accusation that he intended to establish an “absolute Despotism” is hardly warranted. It should be added that several of the heaviest specific complaints condemned actions of the British government taken after the beginning of hostilities.

The defects in the Declaration of Independence are not sufficient to force the conclusion that the document is unsound. On the contrary, it was in essence morally just and politically valid. If the right of revolution cannot be established on historical grounds, it nevertheless rests solidly upon ethical ones. The right of the colonists to government ultimately of their own choice is valid. Some of the phrases of the declaration have steadily exerted profound influence in the United States, especially the proclamation that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Although the meanings of these phrases, together with conclusions drawn from them, have been endlessly debated, the declaration has served to justify the extension of American political and social democracy.

The Declaration of Independence has also been a source of inspiration outside the United States. It encouraged Antonio de Nariño and Francisco de Miranda to strive toward overthrowing the Spanish empire in South America, and it was quoted with enthusiasm by the Marquis de Mirabeau during the French Revolution. It remains a great historical landmark in that it contained the first formal assertion by a whole people of their right to a government of their own choice. What Locke had contended for as an individual, the Americans proclaimed as a body politic; moreover, they made good the argument by force of arms.

Since 1952 the original parchment document of the Declaration of Independence has resided in the National Archives exhibition hall in Washington, D.C.

Encyclopaedia Britannica
 

 


9 Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, July 4, 1776

 

 


In Congress, July 4, 1776.

A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America,

In general Congress assembled.
 

When in the course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—-That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security. Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the Necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the Present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People; unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them, and formidable to Tyrants only.

He has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the People.

He has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and Amount and Payment of their Salaries.

He has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.

He has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislature.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World:

For imposing taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended Offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an arbitrary Government, and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rule in these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Powers to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.

He is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the Executioners of their Friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic Insurrections among us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.

Nor have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them from Time to Time of Attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable Jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native Justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our Connections and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and of Consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of the divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Signed by Order and in Behalf of the Congress,
John Hancock, President.

Attest.
Charles Thomson, Secretary.


New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton

Massachusetts:
John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery

Connecticut:
Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott

New York:
William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris

New Jersey:
Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark

Pennsylvania:
Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross

Delaware:
Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean

Maryland:
Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Virginia:
George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

North Carolina:
William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn

South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton

Georgia:
Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton
 

 

 


10 Signing of the Declaration of Independence by the 13 colonies of America, 1776
 

After this, the new states ratified republican constitutions. The badly armed and discordant, yet enthusiastic American troops achieved a major victory in October 1777, forcing the British troops to capitulate at Saratoga. With this, the American ambassador in Paris, 11 Benjamin Franklin, was able to negotiate an alliance with France in February 1778.


11 Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Siffred Duplessis.


With the help  of French naval units, Washington eventually cornered the previously victorious British southern army and in October 1781 forced it to 12 surrender.
 
The French brokered the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War with advantageous conditions for the colonists on August 3, 1783. London was forced to recognize the independence of the United States, and the entire territory east of the Mississippi River, south of the Great Lakes, and north of Florida fell to the newly founded nation.

Under the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, the states joined together in a loose league, in which the individual states had great autonomy. This was replaced in 1788 by a constitution that strengthened the federal government, and George Washington was elected the first president of the United States in 1789.


Bataille de Yorktown by Auguste Couder
In the center General George Washington, left the Marshal de Rochambeau and
Washington right behind, the Marquis de La Fayette. 

 


12 The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown on the October 19,1781

 

 


George Washington


George Washington by Gilbert Stuart Williamstown


Overview
president of United States
byname Father of His Country

born February 22 [February 11, Old Style], 1732, Westmoreland county, Virginia [U.S.]
died December 14, 1799, Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.

Overview
American Revolutionary commander-in-chief (1775–83) and first president of the U.S. (1789–97).

Born into a wealthy family, he was educated privately. In 1752 he inherited his brother’s estate at Mount Vernon, including 18 slaves; their ranks grew to 49 by 1760, though he disapproved of slavery. In the French and Indian War he was commissioned a colonel and sent to the Ohio Territory. After Edward Braddock was killed, Washington became commander of all Virginia forces, entrusted with defending the western frontier (1755–58). He resigned to manage his estate and in 1759 married Martha Dandridge Custis (1731–1802), a widow. He served in the House of Burgesses (1759–74), where he supported the colonists’ cause, and later in the Continental Congress (1774–75). In 1775 he was elected to command the Continental Army. In the ensuing American Revolution, he proved a brilliant commander and a stalwart leader, despite several defeats. With the war effectively ended by the capture of Yorktown (1781), he resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon (1783). He was a delegate to and presiding officer of the Constitutional Convention (1787) and helped secure ratification of the Constitution in Virginia. When the state electors met to select the first president (1789), Washington was the unanimous choice. He formed a cabinet to balance sectional and political differences but was committed to a strong central government. Elected to a second term, he followed a middle course between the political factions that later became the Federalist Party and the Democratic Party. He proclaimed a policy of neutrality in the war between Britain and France (1793) and sent troops to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion (1794). He declined to serve a third term (thereby setting a 144-year precedent) and retired in 1797 after delivering his “Farewell Address.” Known as the “father of his country,” he is universally regarded as one of the greatest figures in U.S. history.


Main
American general and commander in chief of the colonial armies in the American Revolution (1775–83) and subsequently first president of the United States
(1789–97). (For a discussion of the history and nature of the presidency, see presidency of the United States of America.)

Washington’s father, Augustine Washington, had gone to school in England, had tasted seafaring life, and then settled down to manage his growing Virginia estates. His mother was Mary Ball, whom Augustine, a widower, had married early the previous year. Washington’s paternal lineage had some distinction; an early forebear was described as a “gentleman,” Henry VIII later gave the family lands, and its members held various offices. But family fortunes fell with the Puritan revolution in England, and John Washington, grandfather of Augustine, migrated in 1657 to Virginia. The ancestral home at Sulgrave, Northamptonshire, is maintained as a Washington memorial. Little definite information exists on any of the line until Augustine. He was an energetic, ambitious man who acquired much land, built mills, took an interest in opening iron mines, and sent his two oldest sons to England for schooling. By his first wife, Jane Butler, he had four children; by his second wife, Mary Ball, he had six. Augustine died April 12, 1743.
 


Portrait of Washington, painted in 1772 by Charles Willson Peale


Childhood and youth
Little is known of George Washington’s early childhood, spent largely on the Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River, opposite Fredericksburg, Virginia. Mason L. Weems’s stories of the hatchet and cherry tree and of young Washington’s repugnance to fighting are apocryphal efforts to fill a manifest gap. He attended school irregularly from his 7th to his 15th year, first with the local church sexton and later with a schoolmaster named Williams. Some of his schoolboy papers survive. He was fairly well trained in practical mathematics—gauging, several types of mensuration, and such trigonometry as was useful in surveying. He studied geography, possibly had a little Latin, and certainly read some of The Spectator and other English classics. The copybook in which he transcribed at 14 a set of moral precepts, or Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, was carefully preserved. His best training, however, was given him by practical men and outdoor occupations, not by books. He mastered tobacco growing and stock raising, and early in his teens he was sufficiently familiar with surveying to plot the fields about him.

At his father’s death, the 11-year-old boy became the ward of his eldest half brother, Lawrence, a man of fine character who gave him wise and affectionate care. Lawrence inherited the beautiful estate of Little Hunting Creek, which had been granted to the original settler, John Washington, and which Augustine had done much since 1738 to develop. Lawrence married Anne (Nancy) Fairfax, daughter of Colonel William Fairfax, a cousin and agent of Lord Fairfax and one of the chief proprietors of the region. Lawrence also built a house and named the 2,500-acre (1,000-hectare) holding Mount Vernon in honour of the admiral under whom he had served in the siege of Cartagena. Living there chiefly with Lawrence (though he spent some time near Fredericksburg with his other half brother, Augustine, called Austin), George entered a more spacious and polite world. Anne Fairfax Washington was a woman of charm, grace, and culture; Lawrence had brought from his English school and naval service much knowledge and experience. A valued neighbour and relative, George William Fairfax, whose large estate, Belvoir, was about 4 miles (6 km) distant, and other relatives by marriage, the Carlyles of Alexandria, helped form George’s mind and manners.

The youth turned first to surveying as a profession. Lord Fairfax, a middle-aged bachelor who owned more than 5,000,000 acres (2,000,000 hectares) in northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, came to America in 1746 to live with his cousin George William at Belvoir and to look after his properties. Two years later he sent to the Shenandoah Valley a party to survey and plot his lands to make regular tenants of the squatters moving in from Pennsylvania. With the official surveyor of Prince William county in charge, Washington went along as assistant. The 16-year-old lad kept a disjointed diary of the trip, which shows skill in observation. He describes the discomfort of sleeping under “one thread Bear blanket with double its Weight of Vermin such as Lice Fleas & c”; an encounter with an Indian war party bearing a scalp; the Pennsylvania-German emigrants, “as ignorant a set of people as the Indians they would never speak English but when spoken to they speak all Dutch”; and the serving of roast wild turkey on “a Large Chip,” for “as for dishes we had none.”

The following year (1749), aided by Lord Fairfax, Washington received an appointment as official surveyor of Culpeper county, and for more than two years he was kept almost constantly busy. Surveying not only in Culpeper but also in Frederick and Augusta counties, he made journeys far beyond the Tidewater region into the western wilderness. The experience taught him resourcefulness and endurance and toughened him in both body and mind. Coupled with Lawrence’s ventures in land, it also gave him an interest in western development that endured throughout his life. He was always disposed to speculate in western holdings and to view favourably projects for colonizing the West, and he greatly resented the limitations that the crown in time laid on the westward movement. In 1752 Lord Fairfax determined to take up his final residence in the Shenandoah Valley and settled there in a log hunting lodge, which he called Greenway Court after a Kentish manor of his family’s. There Washington was sometimes entertained and had access to a small library that Fairfax had begun accumulating at Oxford.

The years 1751–52 marked a turning point in Washington’s life, for they placed him in control of Mount Vernon. Lawrence, stricken by tuberculosis, went to Barbados in 1751 for his health, taking George along. From this sole journey beyond the present borders of the United States, Washington returned with the light scars of an attack of smallpox. In July of the next year, Lawrence died, making George executor and residuary heir of his estate should his daughter, Sarah, die without issue. As she died within two months, Washington at age 20 became head of one of the best Virginia estates. He always thought farming the “most delectable” of pursuits. “It is honorable,” he wrote, “it is amusing, and, with superior judgment, it is profitable.” And, of all the spots for farming, he thought Mount Vernon the best. “No estate in United America,” he assured an English correspondent, “is more pleasantly situated than this.” His greatest pride in later days was to be regarded as the first farmer of the land.

He gradually increased the estate until it exceeded 8,000 acres (3,000 hectares). He enlarged the house in 1760 and made further enlargements and improvements on the house and its landscaping in 1784–86. He also tried to keep abreast of the latest scientific advances.

For the next 20 years the main background of Washington’s life was the work and society of Mount Vernon. He gave assiduous attention to the rotation of crops, fertilization of the soil, and the management of livestock. He had to manage the 18 slaves that came with the estate and others he bought later; by 1760 he had paid taxes on 49 slaves—though he strongly disapproved of the institution and hoped for some mode of abolishing it. At the time of his death, more than 300 slaves were housed in the quarters on his property. He had been unwilling to sell slaves lest families be broken up, even though the increase in their numbers placed a burden on him for their upkeep and gave him a larger force of workers than he required, especially after he gave up the cultivation of tobacco. In his will, he bequeathed the slaves in his possession to his wife and ordered that upon her death they be set free, declaring also that the young, the aged, and the infirm among them “shall be comfortably cloathed & fed by my heirs.” Still, this accounted for only about half the slaves on his property. The other half, owned by his wife, were entailed to the Custis estate, so that on her death they were destined to pass to her heirs. However, she freed all the slaves in 1800 after his death.

For diversion Washington was fond of riding, fox hunting, and dancing, of such theatrical performances as he could reach, and of duck hunting and sturgeon fishing. He liked billiards and cards and not only subscribed to racing associations but also ran his own horses in races. In all outdoor pursuits, from wrestling to colt breaking, he excelled. A friend of the 1750s describes him as “straight as an Indian, measuring six feet two inches in his stockings”; as very muscular and broad-shouldered but, though large-boned, weighing only 175 pounds; and as having long arms and legs. His penetrating blue-gray eyes were overhung by heavy brows, his nose was large and straight, and his mouth was large and firmly closed. “His movements and gestures are graceful, his walk majestic, and he is a splendid horseman.” He soon became prominent in community affairs, was an active member and later vestryman of the Episcopal church, and as early as 1755 expressed a desire to stand for the Virginia House of Burgesses.
 


Portrait of George Washington in military uniform,
painted by Rembrandt Peale



Prerevolutionary military and political career » Early military career
Traditions of John Washington’s feats as Indian fighter and Lawrence Washington’s talk of service days helped imbue George with military ambition. Just after Lawrence’s death, Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie appointed George adjutant for the southern district of Virginia at £100 a year (November 1752). In 1753 he became adjutant of the Northern Neck and Eastern Shore. Later that year, Dinwiddie found it necessary to warn the French to desist from their encroachments on Ohio Valley lands claimed by the crown. After sending one messenger who failed to reach the goal, he determined to dispatch Washington. On the day he received his orders, October 31, 1753, Washington set out for the French posts. His party consisted of a Dutchman to serve as interpreter, the expert scout Christopher Gist as guide, and four others, two of them experienced traders with the Indians. Theoretically, Great Britain and France were at peace. Actually, war impended, and Dinwiddie’s message was an ultimatum: the French must get out or be put out.

The journey proved rough, perilous, and futile. Washington’s party left what is now Cumberland, Maryland, in the middle of November and, despite wintry weather and impediments of the wilderness, reached Fort LeBoeuf, at what is now Waterford, Pennsylvania, 20 miles (32 km) south of Lake Erie, without delay. The French commander was courteous but adamant. As Washington reported, his officers “told me, That it was their absolute Design to take possession of the Ohio, and by God they would do it.” Eager to carry this alarming news back, Washington pushed off hurriedly with Gist. He was lucky to have gotten back alive. An Indian fired at them at 15 paces but missed. When they crossed the Allegheny River on a raft, Washington was jerked into the ice-filled stream but saved himself by catching one of the timbers. That night he almost froze in his wet clothing. He reached Williamsburg, Virginia, on January 16, 1754, where he hastily penned a record of the journey. Dinwiddie, who was labouring to convince the crown of the seriousness of the French threat, had it printed, and when he sent it to London, it was reprinted in three different forms.

The enterprising governor forthwith planned an expedition to hold the Ohio country. He made Joshua Fry colonel of a provincial regiment, appointed Washington lieutenant colonel, and set them to recruiting troops. Two agents of the Ohio Company, which Lawrence Washington and others had formed to develop lands on the upper Potomac and Ohio rivers, had begun building a fort at what later became Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dinwiddie, ready to launch into his own war, sent Washington with two companies to reinforce this post. In April 1754 the lieutenant colonel set out from Alexandria with about 160 men at his back. He marched to Cumberland only to learn that the French had anticipated the British blow; they had taken possession of the fort of the Ohio Company and had renamed it Fort Duquesne. Happily, the Indians of the area offered support. Washington therefore struggled cautiously forward to within about 40 miles (60 km) of the French position and erected his own post at Great Meadows, near what is now Confluence, Pennsylvania. From this base, he made a surprise attack (May 28, 1754) upon an advance detachment of 30 French, killing the commander, Coulon de Jumonville, and nine others and taking the rest prisoners. The French and Indian War had begun.

Washington at once received promotion to a full colonelcy and was reinforced, commanding a considerable body of Virginia and North Carolina troops, with Indian auxiliaries. But his attack soon brought the whole French force down upon him. They drove his 350 men into the Great Meadows fort (Fort Necessity) on July 3, besieged it with 700 men, and, after an all-day fight, compelled him to surrender. The construction of the fort had been a blunder, for it lay in a waterlogged creek bottom, was commanded on three sides by forested elevations approaching it closely, and was too far from Washington’s supports. The French agreed to let the disarmed colonials march back to Virginia with the honours of war, but they compelled Washington to promise that Virginia would not build another fort on the Ohio for a year and to sign a paper acknowledging responsibility for “l’assassinat” of de Jumonville, a word that Washington later explained he did not rightly understand. He returned to Virginia, chagrined but proud, to receive the thanks of the House of Burgesses and to find that his name had been mentioned in the London gazettes. His remark in a letter to his brother that “I have heard the bullets whistle; and believe me, there is something charming in the sound” was commented on humorously by the author Horace Walpole and sarcastically by King George II.

The arrival of General Edward Braddock and his army in Virginia in February 1755, as part of the triple plan of campaign that called for his advance on Fort Duquesne and in New York Governor William Shirley’s capture of Fort Niagara and Sir William Johnson’s capture of Crown Point, brought Washington new opportunities and responsibilities. He had resigned his commission in October 1754 in resentment of the slighting treatment and underpayment of colonial officers and particularly because of an untactful order of the British war office that provincial officers of whatever rank would be subordinate to any officer holding the king’s commission. But he ardently desired a part in the war; “my inclinations,” he wrote a friend, “are strongly bent to arms.” When Braddock showed appreciation of his merits and invited him to join the expedition as personal aide-de-camp, with the courtesy title of colonel, he therefore accepted. His self-reliance, decision, and masterfulness soon became apparent.

At table he had frequent disputes with Braddock, who, when contractors failed to deliver their supplies, attacked the colonials as supine and dishonest while Washington defended them warmly. His freedom of utterance is proof of Braddock’s esteem. Braddock accepted Washington’s unwise advice that he divide his army, leaving half of it to come up with the slow wagons and cattle train and taking the other half forward against Fort Duquesne at a rapid pace. Washington was ill with fever during June but joined the advance guard in a covered wagon on July 8, begged to lead the march on Fort Duquesne with his Virginians and Indian allies, and was by Braddock’s side when on July 9 the army was ambushed and bloodily defeated.

In this defeat Washington displayed the combination of coolness and determination, the alliance of unconquerable energy with complete poise, that was the secret of so many of his successes. So ill that he had to use a pillow instead of a saddle and that Braddock ordered his body servant to keep special watch over him, Washington was, nevertheless, everywhere at once. At first he followed Braddock as the general bravely tried to rally his men to push either forward or backward, the wisest course the circumstances permitted. Then he rode back to bring up the Virginians from the rear and rallied them with effect on the flank. To him was largely due the escape of the force. His exposure of his person was as reckless as Braddock’s, who was fatally wounded on his fifth horse; Washington had two horses shot out from under him and his clothes cut by four bullets without being hurt. He was at Braddock’s deathbed, helped bring the troops back, and was repaid by being appointed, in August 1755, while still only 23 years old, commander of all Virginia troops.

But no part of his later service was conspicuous. Finding that a Maryland captain who held a royal commission would not obey him, he rode north in February 1756 to Boston to have the question settled by the commander in chief in America, Governor Shirley, and, bearing a letter from Dinwiddie, had no difficulty in carrying his point. On his return he plunged into a multitude of vexations. He had to protect a weak, thinly settled frontier nearly 400 miles (650 km) in length with only some 700 ill-disciplined colonial troops, to cope with a legislature unwilling to support him, to meet attacks on the drunkenness and inefficiency of the soldiers, and to endure constant wilderness hardships. It is not strange that in 1757 his health failed and in the closing weeks of that year he was so ill of a “bloody flux” (dysentery) that his physician ordered him home to Mount Vernon.

In the spring of 1758 he had recovered sufficiently to return to duty as colonel in command of all Virginia troops. As part of the grand sweep of several armies organized by British statesman William Pitt, the Elder, General John Forbes led a new advance upon Fort Duquesne. Forbes resolved not to use Braddock’s road but to cut a new one west from Raystown, Pennsylvania. Washington disapproved of the route but played an important part in the movement. Late in the autumn the French evacuated and burned Fort Duquesne, and Forbes reared Fort Pitt on the site. Washington, who had just been elected to the House of Burgesses, was able to resign with the honorary rank of brigadier general.

Although his officers expressed regret at the “loss of such an excellent Commander, such a sincere Friend, and so affable a Companion,” he quit the service with a sense of frustration. He had thought the war excessively slow. The Virginia legislature had been niggardly in voting money; the Virginia recruits had come forward reluctantly and had proved of poor quality—Washington had hanged a few deserters and flogged others heavily. Virginia gave him less pay than other colonies offered their troops. Desiring a regular commission such as his half brother Lawrence had held, he applied in vain to the British commander in North America, Lord Loudoun, to make good a promise that Braddock had given him. Ambitious for both rank and honour, he showed a somewhat strident vigour in asserting his desires and in complaining when they were denied. He returned to Mount Vernon somewhat disillusioned.



George and Martha Washington


Prerevolutionary military and political career » Marriage and plantation life
Immediately on resigning his commission, Washington was married (January 6, 1759) to Martha Dandridge, the widow of Daniel Parke Custis. She was a few months older than he, was the mother of two children living and two dead, and possessed one of the considerable fortunes of Virginia. Washington had met her the previous March and had asked for her hand before his campaign with Forbes. Though it does not seem to have been a romantic love match, the marriage united two harmonious temperaments and proved happy. Martha was a good housewife, an amiable companion, and a dignified hostess. Like many well-born women of the era, she had little formal schooling, and Washington often helped her compose important letters.

Some estimates of the property brought to him by this marriage have been exaggerated, but it did include a number of slaves and about 15,000 acres (6,000 hectares), much of it valuable for its proximity to Williamsburg. More important to Washington were the two stepchildren, John Parke (“Jacky”) and Martha Parke (“Patsy”) Custis, who at the time of the marriage were six and four, respectively. He lavished great affection and care upon them, worried greatly over Jacky’s waywardness, and was overcome with grief when Patsy died just before the Revolution. Jacky died during the war, leaving four children. Washington adopted two of them, a boy and a girl, and even signed his letters to the boy as “your papa.” Himself childless, he thus had a real family.

From the time of his marriage Washington added to the care of Mount Vernon the supervision of the Custis estate at the White House on the York River. As his holdings expanded, they were divided into farms, each under its own overseer; but he minutely inspected operations every day and according to one visitor often pulled off his coat and performed ordinary labour. As he once wrote, “middling land under a man’s own eyes, is more profitable than rich land at a distance.” Until the eve of the Revolution he devoted himself to the duties and pleasures of a great landholder, varied by several weeks’ attendance every year in the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg. During 1760–74 he was also a justice of the peace for Fairfax county, sitting in court in Alexandria.

In no light does Washington appear more characteristically than as one of the richest, largest, and most industrious of Virginia planters. For six days a week he rose early and worked hard; on Sundays he irregularly attended Pohick Church (16 times in 1760), entertained company, wrote letters, made purchases and sales, and sometimes went fox hunting. In these years he took snuff and smoked a pipe; throughout life he liked Madeira wine and punch. Although wheat and tobacco were his staples, he practiced crop rotation on a three-year or five-year plan. He had his own water-powered flour mill, blacksmith shop, brick and charcoal kilns, carpenters, and masons. His fishery supplied shad, bass, herring, and other catches, salted as food for his slaves. Coopers, weavers, and his own shoemaker turned out barrels, cotton, linen, and woollen goods, and brogans for all needs. In short, his estates, in accordance with his orders to overseers to “buy nothing you can make yourselves,” were largely self-sufficient communities. But he did send large orders to England for farm implements, tools, paint, fine textiles, hardware, and agricultural books and hence was painfully aware of British commercial restrictions.

Washington was an innovative farmer and a responsible landowner. He experimented at breeding cattle, acquired at least one buffalo, with the hope of proving its utility as a meat animal, and kept stallions at stud. He also took pride in a peach and apple orchard.

His care of slaves was exemplary. He carefully clothed and fed them, engaged a doctor for them by the year, generally refused to sell them—“I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species”—and administered correction mildly. They showed so much attachment that few ran away.

He meanwhile played a prominent role in the social life of the Tidewater region. The members of the council and House of Burgesses, a roster of influential Virginians, were all friends. He visited the Byrds of Westover, the Lees of Stratford, the Carters of Shirley and Sabine Hall, and the Lewises of Warner Hall; Mount Vernon often was busy with guests in return. He liked house parties and afternoon tea on the Mount Vernon porch overlooking the grand Potomac; he was fond of picnics, barbecues, and clambakes; and throughout life he enjoyed dancing, frequently going to Alexandria for balls. Cards were a steady diversion, and his accounts record sums lost at them, the largest reaching nearly £10. His diary sometimes states that in bad weather he was “at home all day, over cards.” Billiards was a rival amusement. Not only the theatre, when available, but also concerts, cockfights, circuses, puppet shows, and exhibitions of animals received his patronage.

He insisted on the best clothes—coats, laced waistcoats, hats, coloured silk hose—bought in London. The Virginia of the Randolphs, Corbins, Harrisons, Tylers, Nicholases, and other prominent families had an aristocratic quality, and Washington liked to do things in a large way. It has been computed that in the seven years prior to 1775, Mount Vernon had 2,000 guests, most of whom stayed to dinner if not overnight.



George Washington



Prerevolutionary military and political career » Prerevolutionary politics
Washington’s contented life was interrupted by the rising storm in imperial affairs. The British ministry, facing a heavy postwar debt, high home taxes, and continued military costs in America, decided in 1764 to obtain revenue from the colonies. Up to that time, Washington, though regarded by associates, in Colonel John L. Peyton’s words, as “a young man of an extraordinary and exalted character,” had shown no signs of personal greatness and few signs of interest in state affairs. The Proclamation of 1763 interdicting settlement beyond the Alleghenies irked him, for he was interested in the Ohio Company, the Mississippi Company, and other speculative western ventures. He nevertheless played a silent part in the House of Burgesses and was a thoroughly loyal subject.

But he was present when Patrick Henry introduced his resolutions against the Stamp Act in May 1765 and shortly thereafter gave token of his adherence to the cause of the colonial Whigs against the Tory ministries of England. In 1768 he told George Mason at Mount Vernon that he would take his musket on his shoulder whenever his country called him. The next spring, on April 4, 1769, he sent Mason the Philadelphia nonimportation resolutions with a letter declaring that it was necessary to resist the strokes of “our lordly masters” in England; that, courteous remonstrances to Parliament having failed, he wholly endorsed the resort to commercial warfare; and that as a last resort no man should scruple to use arms in defense of liberty. When, the following May, the royal governor dissolved the House of Burgesses, he shared in the gathering at the Raleigh, North Carolina, tavern that drew up nonimportation resolutions, and he went further than most of his neighbours in adhering to them. At that time and later he believed with most Americans that peace need not be broken.

Late in 1770 he paid a land-hunting visit to Fort Pitt, where George Croghan was maturing his plans for the proposed 14th colony of Vandalia. Washington directed his agent to locate and survey 10,000 acres adjoining the Vandalia tract, and at one time he wished to share in certain of Croghan’s schemes. But the Boston Tea Party of December 1773 and the bursting of the Vandalia bubble at about the same time turned his eyes back to the East and the threatening state of Anglo-American relations. He was not a member of the Virginia committee of correspondence formed in 1773 to communicate with other colonies, but when the Virginia legislators, meeting irregularly again at the Raleigh tavern in May 1774, called for a Continental Congress, he was present and signed the resolutions. Moreover, he was a leading member of the first provincial convention or revolutionary legislature late that summer, and to that body he made a speech that was much praised for its pithy eloquence, declaring that “I will raise one thousand men, subsist them at my own expense, and march myself at their head for the relief of Boston.”

The Virginia provincial convention promptly elected Washington one of the seven delegates to the first Continental Congress. He was by this time known as a radical rather than a moderate, and in several letters of the time he opposed a continuance of petitions to the British crown, declaring that they would inevitably meet with a humiliating rejection. “Shall we after this whine and cry for relief when we have already tried it in vain?” he wrote. When the Congress met in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, he was in his seat in full uniform, and his participation in its councils marks the beginning of his national career.

His letters of the period show that, while still utterly opposed to the idea of independence, he was determined never to submit “to the loss of those valuable rights and privileges, which are essential to the happiness of every free State, and without which life, liberty, and property are rendered totally insecure.” If the ministry pushed matters to an extremity, he wrote, “more blood will be spilled on this occasion than ever before in American history.” Though he served on none of the committees, he was a useful member, his advice being sought on military matters and weight being attached to his advocacy of a nonexportation as well as nonimportation agreement. He also helped to secure approval of the Suffolk Resolves, which looked toward armed resistance as a last resort and did much to harden the king’s heart against America.

Returning to Virginia in November, he took command of the volunteer companies drilling there and served as chairman of the Committee of Safety in Fairfax county. Although the province contained many experienced officers and Colonel William Byrd of Westover had succeeded Washington as commander in chief, the unanimity with which the Virginia troops turned to Washington was a tribute to his reputation and personality; it was understood that Virginia expected him to be its general. He was elected to the second Continental Congress at the March 1775 session of the legislature and again set out for Philadelphia.



Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1795


Revolutionary leadership » Head of the colonial forces
The choice of Washington as commander in chief of the military forces of all the colonies followed immediately upon the first fighting, though it was by no means inevitable and was the product of partly artificial forces. The Virginia delegates differed upon his appointment. Edmund Pendleton was, according to John Adams, “very full and clear against it,” and Washington himself recommended General Andrew Lewis for the post. It was chiefly the fruit of a political bargain by which New England offered Virginia the chief command as its price for the adoption and support of the New England army. This army had gathered hastily and in force about Boston immediately after the clash of British troops and American minutemen at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. When the second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on May 10, one of its first tasks was to find a permanent leadership for this force. On June 15, Washington, whose military counsel had already proved invaluable on two committees, was nominated and chosen by unanimous vote. Beyond the considerations noted, he owed being chosen to the facts that Virginia stood with Massachusetts as one of the most powerful colonies; that his appointment would augment the zeal of the Southern people; that he had gained an enduring reputation in the Braddock campaign; and that his poise, sense, and resolution had impressed all the delegates. The scene of his election, with Washington darting modestly into an adjoining room and John Hancock flushing with jealous mortification, will always impress the historical imagination; so also will the scene of July 3, 1775, when, wheeling his horse under an elm in front of the troops paraded on Cambridge common, he drew his sword and took command of the army investing Boston. News of Bunker Hill had reached him before he was a day’s journey from Philadelphia, and he had expressed confidence of victory when told how the militia had fought. In accepting the command, he refused any payment beyond his expenses and called upon “every gentleman in the room” to bear witness that he disclaimed fitness for it. At once he showed characteristic decision and energy in organizing the raw volunteers, collecting provisions and munitions, and rallying Congress and the colonies to his support.

The first phase of Washington’s command covered the period from July 1775 to the British evacuation of Boston in March 1776. In those eight months he imparted discipline to the army, which at maximum strength slightly exceeded 20,000; he dealt with subordinates who, as John Adams said, quarrelled “like cats and dogs”; and he kept the siege vigorously alive. Having himself planned an invasion of Canada by Lake Champlain, to be entrusted to General Philip Schuyler, he heartily approved of Benedict Arnold’s proposal to march north along the Kennebec River in Maine and take Quebec. Giving Arnold 1,100 men, he instructed him to do everything possible to conciliate the Canadians. He was equally active in encouraging privateers to attack British commerce. As fast as means offered, he strengthened his army with ammunition and siege guns, having heavy artillery brought from Fort Ticonderoga, New York, over the frozen roads early in 1776. His position was at first precarious, for the Charles River pierced the centre of his lines investing Boston. If the British general, Sir William Howe, had moved his 20 veteran regiments boldly up the stream, he might have pierced Washington’s army and rolled either wing back to destruction. But all the generalship was on Washington’s side. Seeing that Dorchester Heights, just south of Boston, commanded the city and harbour and that Howe had unaccountably failed to occupy it, he seized it on the night of March 4, 1776, placing his Ticonderoga guns in position. The British naval commander declared that he could not remain if the Americans were not dislodged, and Howe, after a storm disrupted his plans for an assault, evacuated the city on March 17. He left 200 cannons and invaluable stores of small arms and munitions. After collecting his booty, Washington hurried south to take up the defense of New York.

Washington had won the first round, but there remained five years of the war, during which the American cause was repeatedly near complete disaster. It is unquestionable that Washington’s strength of character, his ability to hold the confidence of army and people and to diffuse his own courage among them, his unremitting activity, and his strong common sense constituted the chief factors in achieving American victory. He was not a great tactician: as Jefferson said later, he often “failed in the field”; he was sometimes guilty of grave military blunders, the chief being his assumption of a position on Long Island, New York, in 1776 that exposed his entire army to capture the moment it was defeated. At the outset he was painfully inexperienced, the wilderness fighting of the French war having done nothing to teach him the strategy of maneuvering whole armies. One of his chief faults was his tendency to subordinate his own judgment to that of the generals surrounding him; at every critical juncture, before Boston, before New York, before Philadelphia, and in New Jersey, he called a council of war and in almost every instance accepted its decision. Naturally bold and dashing, as he proved at Trenton, Princeton, and Germantown, he repeatedly adopted evasive and delaying tactics on the advice of his associates; however, he did succeed in keeping a strong army in existence and maintaining the flame of national spirit. When the auspicious moment arrived, he planned the rapid movements that ended the war.

One element of Washington’s strength was his sternness as a disciplinarian. The army was continually dwindling and refilling, politics largely governed the selection of officers by Congress and the states, and the ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-paid forces were often half-prostrated by sickness and ripe for mutiny. Troops from each of the three sections, New England, the middle states, and the South, showed a deplorable jealousy of the others. Washington was rigorous in breaking cowardly, inefficient, and dishonest men and boasted in front of Boston that he had “made a pretty good sort of slam among such kind of officers.” Deserters and plunderers were flogged, and Washington once erected a gallows 40 feet (12 metres) high, writing, “I am determined if I can be justified in the proceeding, to hang two or three on it, as an example to others.” At the same time, the commander in chief won the devotion of many of his men by his earnestness in demanding better treatment for them from Congress. He complained of their short rations, declaring once that they were forced to “eat every kind of horse food but hay.”

The darkest chapter in Washington’s military leadership was opened when, reaching New York in April 1776, he placed half his army, about 9,000 men, under Israel Putnam, on the perilous position of Brooklyn Heights, Long Island, where a British fleet in the East River might cut off their retreat. He spent a fortnight in May with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, then discussing the question of independence; though no record of his utterances exists, there can be no doubt that he advocated complete separation. His return to New York preceded but slightly the arrival of the British army under Howe, which made its main encampment on Staten Island until its whole strength of nearly 30,000 could be mobilized. On August 22, 1776, Howe moved about 20,000 men across to Gravesend Bay on Long Island. Four days later, sending the fleet under command of his brother Admiral Richard Howe to make a feint against New York City, he thrust a crushing force along feebly protected roads against the American flank. The patriots were outmaneuvered, defeated, and suffered a total loss of 5,000 men, of whom 2,000 were captured. Their whole position might have been carried by storm, but, fortunately for Washington, General Howe delayed. While the enemy lingered, Washington succeeded under cover of a dense fog in ferrying the remaining force across the East River to Manhattan, where he took up a fortified position. The British, suddenly landing on the lower part of the island, drove back the Americans in a clash marked by disgraceful cowardice on the part of troops from Connecticut and others. In a series of actions, Washington was forced northward, more than once in danger of capture, until the loss of his two Hudson River forts, one of them with 2,600 men, compelled him to retreat from White Plains across the river into New Jersey. He retired toward the Delaware River while his army melted away, until it seemed that armed resistance to the British was about to expire.



Depiction by John Trumbull of Washington resigning his commission as commander-in-chief.

General George Washington resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Army to the Congress, which was then meeting at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, on December 23, 1783. This action was of great significance in establishing of civilian rather than military rule, leading to republic rather than dictatorship. Washington stands with two aides-de-camp addressing the president of the Congress, Thomas Mifflin, and others, such as Elbridge Gerry, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison. Mrs. Washington and her three grandchildren are shown watching from the gallery, although they were not in fact present at the event.


Revolutionary leadership » The Trenton-Princeton campaign
It was at this darkest hour of the Revolution that Washington struck his brilliant blows at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, reviving the hopes and energies of the nation. Howe, believing that the American army soon would dissolve totally, retired to New York, leaving strong forces in Trenton and Burlington. Washington, at his camp west of the Delaware River, planned a simultaneous attack on both posts, using his whole command of 6,000 men. But his subordinates in charge of both wings failed him, and he was left on the night of December 25, 1776, to march on Trenton with about 2,400 men. With the help of Colonel John Glover’s regiment, which was comprised of fishermen and sailors from Marblehead, Massachusetts, Washington and his troops were ferried across the Delaware River. In the dead of night and amid a blinding snowstorm, they then marched 10 miles (16 km) downstream and in the early hours of the morning caught the enemy at Trenton unaware. In less than two hours and without the loss of a single man in battle, Washington’s troops defeated the Hessians, killed their commander (Johann Rall), and captured nearly 1,000 prisoners and arms and ammunition. This historic Christmas crossing proved to be a turning point in the war, and it was immortalized for posterity by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze in his famous 1851 painting of the event.

The immediate result of this American victory was that General Charles Cornwallis hastened with about 8,000 men to Trenton, where he found Washington strongly posted behind the Assunpink Creek, skirmished with him, and decided to wait overnight “to bag the old fox.” During the night, the wind shifted, the roads froze hard, and Washington was able to steal away from camp (leaving his fires deceptively burning), march around Cornwallis’s rear, and fall at daybreak upon the three British regiments at Princeton. These were put to flight with a loss of 500 men, and Washington escaped with more captured munitions to a strong position at Morristown, New Jersey. The effect of these victories heartened all Americans, brought recruits flocking to camp in the spring, and encouraged foreign sympathizers with the American cause.

Thus far the important successes had been won by Washington; then battlefield success fell to others, while he was left to face popular apathy, military cabals, and the disaffection of Congress. The year 1777 was marked by the British capture of Philadelphia and the surrender of British General John Burgoyne’s invading army to General Horatio Gates at Saratoga, New York, followed by intrigues to displace Washington from his command. Howe’s main British army of 18,000 left New York by sea on July 23, 1777, and landed on August 25 in Maryland, not far below Philadelphia. Washington, despite his inferiority of force—he had only 11,000 men, mostly militia and, in the marquis de Lafayette’s words, “badly armed and worse clothed”—risked a pitched battle on September 11 at the fords of Brandywine Creek, about 13 miles (21 km) north of Wilmington, Delaware. While part of the British force held the Americans engaged, General Cornwallis, with the rest, made a secret 17-mile (27-km) detour and fell with crushing effect on the American right and rear, the result being a complete defeat from which Washington was fortunate to extricate his army in fairly good order. For a time he hoped to hold the Schuylkill Fords, but the British passed them and on September 26 triumphantly marched into Philadelphia. Congress fled to the interior of Pennsylvania, and Washington, after an unsuccessful effort to repeat his stroke at Trenton against the British troops posted at Germantown, had to take up winter quarters at Valley Forge. His army, twice beaten, ill housed, and ill fed, with thousands of men “barefoot and otherwise naked,” was at the point of exhaustion; it could not keep the field, for inside of a month it would have disappeared. Under these circumstances, there is nothing that better proves the true fibre of Washington’s character and the courage of his soul than the unyielding persistence with which he held his strong position at Valley Forge through a winter of semistarvation, of justified grumbling by his men, of harsh public criticism, and of captious meddling by a Congress that was too weak to help him. In February Martha Washington arrived and helped to organize entertainment for the soldiers.

Washington’s enemies seized the moment of his greatest weakness to give vent to an antagonism that had been nourished by sectional jealousies of North against South, by the ambition of small rivals, and by baseless accusations that he showed favouritism to such foreigners as Lafayette. The intrigues of Thomas Conway, an Irish adventurer who had served in the French army and had become an American general, enlisted Thomas Mifflin, Charles Lee, Benjamin Rush, and others in an attempt to displace Washington. General Gates appears to have been a tool of rather than a party to the plot, expecting that the chief command would devolve upon himself. A faction of Congress sympathized with the movement and attempted to paralyze Washington by reorganizing the board of war, a body vested with the general superintendence of operations, of which Gates became the president; his chief of staff, James Wilkinson, the secretary; and Mifflin and Timothy Pickering, members. Washington was well aware of the hostility in congress, of the slanders spread by Rush and James Lovell of Massachusetts, and of the effect of forgeries published in the American press by adroit British agents. He realized the intense jealousy of many New Englanders, which made even John Adams write his wife that he was thankful Burgoyne had not been captured by Washington, who would then “have been deified. It is bad enough as it is.” But Washington decisively crushed the cabal: after the loose tongue of Wilkinson disclosed Conway’s treachery, Washington sent the general on November 9, 1777, proof of his knowledge of the whole affair.

With the conclusion of the French alliance in the spring of 1778, the aspect of the war was radically altered. The British army in Philadelphia, fearing that a French fleet would blockade the Delaware while the militia of New Jersey and Pennsylvania invested the city, hastily retreated upon New York City. Washington hoped to cut off part of the enemy and by a hurried march with six brigades interposed himself at the end of June between Sir Henry Clinton (who had succeeded Howe) and the New Jersey coast. The result was the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, where a shrewd strategic plan and vigorous assault were brought to naught by the treachery of Charles Lee. When Lee ruined the attack by a sudden order to retreat, Washington hurried forward, fiercely denounced him, and restored the line, but the golden opportunity had been lost. The British made good their march to Sandy Hook, and Washington took up his quarters at New Brunswick. Lee was arrested, court-martialed, and convicted on all three of the charges made against him; but instead of being shot, as he deserved, he was sentenced to a suspension from command for one year. The arrival of the French fleet under Admiral Charles-Hector Estaing on July 1778 completed the isolation of the British, and Clinton was thenceforth held to New York City and the surrounding area. Washington made his headquarters in the highlands of the Hudson and distributed his troops in cantonments around the city and in New Jersey.

The final decisive stroke of the war, the capture of Cornwallis at Yorktown, is to be credited chiefly to Washington’s vision. With the domestic situation intensely gloomy early in 1781, he was hampered by the feebleness of Congress, the popular discouragement, and the lack of prompt and strong support by the French fleet. A French army under the comte de Rochambeau had arrived to reinforce him in 1780, and Washington had pressed Admiral de Grasse to assist in an attack upon either Cornwallis in the south or Clinton in New York. In August the French admiral sent definite word that he preferred the Chesapeake, with its large area and deep water, as the scene of his operations; and within a week, on August 19, 1781, Washington marched south with his army, leaving General William Heath with 4,000 men to hold West Point. He hurried his troops through New Jersey, embarked them on transports in Delaware Bay, and landed them at Williamsburg, Virginia, where he had arrived on September 14. Cornwallis had retreated to Yorktown and entrenched his army of 7,000 British regulars. Their works were completely invested before the end of the month; the siege was pressed with vigour by the allied armies under Washington, consisting of 5,500 Continentals, 3,500 Virginia militia, and 5,000 French regulars; and on October 19 Cornwallis surrendered. By this campaign, probably the finest single display of Washington’s generalship, the war was brought to a virtual close.

Washington remained during the winter of 1781–82 with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, exhorting it to maintain its exertions for liberty and to settle the army’s claims for pay. He continued these exhortations after he joined his command at Newburgh on the Hudson in April 1782. He was astounded and angered when some loose camp suggestions found expression in a letter from Colonel Lewis Nicola offering a plan by which he should use the army to make himself king. He blasted the proposal with fierce condemnation. When the discontent of his unpaid men came to a head in the circulation of the “Newburgh Address” (an anonymously written grievance) early in 1783, he issued a general order censuring the paper and at a meeting of officers on March 15 read a speech admonishing the army to obey Congress and promising his best efforts for a redress of grievances. He was present at the entrance of the American army into New York on the day of the British evacuation, November 25, 1783, and on December 4 took leave of his closest officers in an affecting scene at Fraunces Tavern. Traveling south, on December 23, in a solemn ceremonial immortalized by the pen of William Makepeace Thackeray, he resigned his commission to the Continental Congress in the state senate chamber of Maryland in Annapolis and received the thanks of the nation. His accounts of personal expenditures during his service, kept with minute exactness in his own handwriting and totalling £24,700, without charge for salary, had been given the controller of the treasury to be discharged. Washington left Annapolis at sunrise of December 24 and before nightfall was at home in Mount Vernon.

In the next four years Washington found sufficient occupation in his estates, wishing to close his days as a gentleman farmer and to give to agriculture as much energy and thought as he had to the army. He enlarged the Mount Vernon house; he laid out the grounds anew, with sunken walls, or ha-has; and he embarked on experiments with mahogany, palmetto, pepper, and other foreign trees, and English grasses and grains. His farm manager during the Revolution, a distant relative named Lund Washington, retired in 1785 and was succeeded by a nephew, Major George Augustine Washington, who resided at Mount Vernon until his death in 1792. Washington’s losses during the war had been heavy, caused by neglect of his lands, stoppage of exportation, and depreciation of paper money, which cost him hardly less than $30,000. He then attempted successfully to repair his fortunes, his annual receipts from all his estates being from $10,000 to $15,000 a year. In 1784 he made a tour of nearly 700 miles (1,125 km) to view the wildlands he owned to the westward, Congress having made him a generous grant. As a national figure, he was constrained to offer hospitality to old army friends, visitors from other states and nations, diplomats, and Indian delegations, and he and his household seldom sat down to dinner alone.


Inauguration of George Washington



Presidency » Postrevolutionary politics
Viewing the chaotic political condition of the United States after 1783 with frank pessimism and declaring (May 18, 1786) that “something must be done, or the fabric must fall, for it is certainly tottering,” Washington repeatedly wrote his friends urging steps toward “an indissoluble union.” At first he believed that the Articles of Confederation might be amended. Later, especially after the shock of Shays’s Rebellion, he took the view that a more radical reform was necessary but doubted as late as the end of 1786 that the time was ripe. His progress toward adoption of the idea of a federal convention was, in fact, puzzlingly slow. Although John Jay assured him in March 1786 that breakup of the nation seemed near and opinion for a constitutional convention was crystallizing, Washington remained noncommittal. But, despite long hesitations, he earnestly supported the proposal for a federal impost, warning the states that their policy must decide “whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered a blessing or a curse.” And his numerous letters to the leading men of the country assisted greatly to form a sentiment favourable to a more perfect union. Some understanding being necessary between Virginia and Maryland regarding the navigation of the Potomac, commissioners from the two states had met at Mount Vernon in the spring of 1785; from this seed sprang the federal convention. Washington approved in advance the call for a gathering of all the states to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787 to “render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” But he was again hesitant about attending, partly because he felt tired and infirm, partly because of doubts about the outcome. Although he hoped to the last to be excused, he was chosen one of Virginia’s five delegates.

Washington arrived in Philadelphia on May 13, the day before the opening of the Constitutional Convention, and as soon as a quorum was obtained he was unanimously chosen its president. For four months he presided over the convention, breaking his silence only once upon a minor question of congressional apportionment. Although he said little in debate, no one did more outside the hall to insist on stern measures. “My wish is,” he wrote, “that the convention may adopt no temporizing expedients, but probe the defects of the Constitution to the bottom, and provide a radical cure.” His weight of character did more than any other single force to bring the convention to an agreement and obtain ratification of the instrument afterward. He did not believe it perfect, though his precise criticisms of it are unknown. But his support gave it victory in Virginia, where he sent copies to Patrick Henry and other leaders with a hint that the alternative to adoption was anarchy, declaring that “it or dis-union is before us to chuse from.” He received and personally circulated copies of The Federalist. When ratification was obtained, he wrote to leaders in the various states urging that men staunchly favourable to it be elected to Congress. For a time he sincerely believed that, the new framework completed, he would be allowed to retire again to privacy. But all eyes immediately turned to him for the first president. He alone commanded the respect of both the parties engendered by the struggle over ratification, and he alone would be able to give prestige to the republic throughout Europe. In no state was any other name considered. The electors chosen in the first days of 1789 cast a unanimous vote for him, and reluctantly—for his love of peace, his distrust of his own abilities, and his fear that his motives in advocating the new government might be misconstrued all made him unwilling—he accepted.

On April 16, after receiving congressional notification of the honour, he set out from Mount Vernon, reaching New York City in time to be inaugurated on April 30 (see primary source document: First Inaugural Address). His journey northward was a celebratory procession as people in every town and village through which he passed turned out to greet him, often with banners and speeches, and in some places with triumphal arches. He came across the Hudson River in a specially built barge decorated in red, white, and blue. The inaugural ceremony was performed on Wall Street, near the spot now marked by John Quincy Adams Ward’s statue of Washington. A great crowd broke into cheers as, standing on the balcony of Federal Hall, he took the oath administered by Chancellor Robert Livingston and retired indoors to read Congress his inaugural address. Washington was clad in a brown suit of American manufacture, but he wore white stockings and a sword after the fashion of European courts.

Martha was as reluctant as her husband to resume public life. But a month later she came from Mount Vernon to join him. She, too, was greeted wildly on her way. And when Washington crossed the Hudson to bring her to Manhattan, guns boomed in salute. The Washingtons, to considerable public criticism, traveled about in a coach-and-four like monarchs. Moreover, during his presidency, Washington did not shake hands, and he met his guests on state occasions while standing on a raised platform and displaying a sword on his hip. Slowly, feeling his way, Washington was defining the style of the first president of a country in the history of the world. The people, too, were adjusting to a government without a king. Even the question of how to address a president had to be discussed. It was decided that in a republic the simple salutation “Mr. President” would do.



Portrait of George Washington
by Gilbert Stuart, 1796


Presidency » The Washington administration
Washington’s administration of the government in the next eight years was marked by the caution, the methodical precision, and the sober judgment that had always characterized him. He regarded himself as standing aloof from party divisions and emphasized his position as president of the whole country by touring first through the Northern states and later through the Southern. A painstaking inquiry into all the problems confronting the new nation laid the basis for a series of judicious recommendations to Congress in his first message. In selecting the four members of his first cabinet—Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, Alexander Hamilton as secretary of treasury, Henry Knox as secretary of war, and Edmund Randolph as attorney general—Washington balanced the two parties evenly. But he leaned with especial weight upon Hamilton, who supported his scheme for the federal assumption of state debts, took his view that the bill establishing the Bank of the United States was constitutional, and in general favoured strengthening the authority of the federal government. Distressed when the inevitable clash between Jefferson and Hamilton arose, he tried to keep harmony, writing frankly to each and refusing to accept their resignations.

But when war was declared between France and England in 1793, he took Hamilton’s view that the United States should completely disregard the treaty of alliance with France and pursue a course of strict neutrality, while he acted decisively to stop the improper operations of the French minister, Edmond-Charles Genet. He had a firm belief that the United States must insist on its national identity, strength, and dignity. His object, he wrote, was to keep the country “free from political connections with every other country, to see them independent of all, and under the influence of none. In a word, I want an American character that the powers of Europe may be convinced that we act for ourselves, and not for others.” The sequel was the resignation of Jefferson at the close of 1793, the two men parting on good terms and Washington praising Jefferson’s “integrity and talents.” The suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 by federal troops whom Hamilton led in person and the dispatch of John Jay to conclude a treaty of commerce with Great Britain tended further to align Washington with the federalists. Although the general voice of the people compelled him to acquiesce reluctantly to a second term in 1792 and his election that year was again unanimous, during his last four years in office he suffered from a fierce personal and partisan animosity. This culminated when the publication of the terms of the Jay Treaty, which Washington signed in August 1795, provoked a bitter discussion, and the House of Representatives called upon the president for the instructions and correspondence relating to the treaty. These Washington, who had already clashed with the Senate on foreign affairs, refused to deliver, and, in the face of an acrimonious debate, he firmly maintained his position.

Early in his first term, Washington, who by education and natural inclination was minutely careful of the proprieties of life, established the rules of a virtual republican court. In both New York and Philadelphia he rented the best houses procurable, refusing to accept the hospitality of George Clinton, for he believed the head of the nation should be no man’s guest. He returned no calls and shook hands with no one, acknowledging salutations by a formal bow. He drove in a coach drawn by four or six smart horses, with outriders and lackeys in rich livery. He attended receptions dressed in a black velvet suit with gold buckles, with yellow gloves, powdered hair, a cocked hat with an ostrich plume in one hand, and a sword in a white leather scabbard. After being overwhelmed by callers, he announced that, except for a weekly levee open to all, persons desiring to see him had to make appointments in advance. On Friday afternoons the first lady held informal receptions, at which the president appeared. Although the presidents of the Continental Congress had made their tables partly public, Washington, who entertained largely, inviting members of Congress in rotation, insisted that his hospitality be private. He served good wines and the menus were elaborate, but such visitors as Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay complained that the atmosphere was too “solemn.” Indeed, his simple ceremony offended many of the more radical anti-federalists, who did not share his sense of its fitness and accused the president of conducting himself like a king. But his cold and reserved manner was caused by native diffidence rather than any excessive sense of dignity.



George Washington on his Death Bed


Presidency » Retirement
Earnestly desiring leisure, feeling a decline of his physical powers, and wincing under abuses of the opposition, Washington refused to yield to the general pressure for a third term. This refusal was blended with a testament of sagacious advice to his country in the Farewell Address (see original text) of September 19, 1796, written largely by Hamilton but remolded by Washington and expressing his ideas. Retiring in March 1797 to Mount Vernon, he devoted himself for the last two and a half years of his life to his family, farm operations, and care of his slaves. In 1798 his seclusion was briefly interrupted when the prospect of war with France caused his appointment as commander in chief of the provisional army, and he was much worried by the political quarrels over high commissions; but the war cloud passed away.

On December 12, 1799, after riding on horseback for several hours in cold and snow, he returned home exhausted and was attacked late the next day with quinsy or acute laryngitis. He was bled heavily four times and given gargles of “molasses, vinegar and butter,” and a blister of cantharides (a preparation of dried beetles) was placed on his throat, his strength meanwhile rapidly sinking. He faced the end with characteristic serenity, saying, “I die hard, but I am not afraid to go,” and later: “I feel myself going. I thank you for your attentions; but I pray you to take no more trouble about me. Let me go off quietly. I cannot last long.” After giving instructions to his secretary, Tobias Lear, about his burial, he died at 10:00 pm on December 14. The news of his death placed the entire country in mourning, and the sentiment of the country endorsed the famous words of Henry (“Light-Horse Harry”) Lee, embodied in resolutions that John Marshall introduced in the House of Representatives, that he was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” When the news reached Europe, the British channel fleet and the armies of Napoleon paid tribute to his memory, and many of the leaders of the time joined in according him a preeminent place among the heroes of history. His fellow citizens memorialized him forever by naming the newly created capital city of the young nation for him while he was still alive. Later, one of the states of union would bear his name—the only state named for an individual American. Moreover, counties in 32 states were given his name, and in time it also could be found in 121 postal addresses. The people of the United States have continued to glory in knowing him as “the father of his country,” an accolade he was pleased to accept, even though it pained him that he fathered no children of his own. For almost a century beginning in the 1770s, Washington was the uncontested giant in the American pantheon of greats, but only until Abraham Lincoln was enshrined there after another critical epoch in the life of the country.

Allan Nevins
Henry Graff

Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

 

 

Benjamin Franklin


Benjamin Franklin


American author, scientist, and statesman
also called Ben Franklin, pseudonym Richard Saunders

born Jan. 17 [Jan. 6, Old Style], 1706, Boston, Mass. [U.S.]
died April 17, 1790, Philadelphia, Pa., U.S.

Main
American printer and publisher, author, inventor and scientist, and diplomat. One of the foremost of the Founding Fathers, Franklin helped draft the Declaration of Independence and was one of its signers, represented the United States in France during the American Revolution, and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He made important contributions to science, especially in the understanding of electricity, and is remembered for the wit, wisdom, and elegance of his writing.

Early life (1706–23)
Franklin was born the 10th son of the 17 children of a man who made soap and candles, one of the lowliest of the artisan crafts. In an age that privileged the firstborn son, Franklin was, as he tartly noted in his Autobiography, “the youngest Son of the youngest Son for five Generations back.” He learned to read very early and had one year in grammar school and another under a private teacher, but his formal education ended at age 10. At 12 he was apprenticed to his brother James, a printer. His mastery of the printer’s trade, of which he was proud to the end of his life, was achieved between 1718 and 1723. In the same period he read tirelessly and taught himself to write effectively.

His first enthusiasm was for poetry, but, discouraged with the quality of his own, he gave it up. Prose was another matter. Young Franklin discovered a volume of The Spectator—featuring Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele’s famous periodical essays, which had appeared in England in 1711–12—and saw in it a means for improving his writing. He read these Spectator papers over and over, copied and recopied them, and then tried to recall them from memory. He even turned them into poetry and then back into prose. Franklin realized, as all the Founders did, that writing competently was such a rare talent in the 18th century that anyone who could do it well immediately attracted attention. “Prose writing” became, as he recalled in his Autobiography, “of great Use to me in the Course of my Life, and was a principal Means of my Advancement.”

In 1721 James Franklin founded a weekly newspaper, the New-England Courant, to which readers were invited to contribute. Benjamin, now 16, read and perhaps set in type these contributions and decided that he could do as well himself. In 1722 he wrote a series of 14 essays signed “Silence Dogood” in which he lampooned everything from funeral eulogies to the students of Harvard College. For one so young to assume the persona of a middle-aged woman was a remarkable feat, and Franklin took “exquisite Pleasure” in the fact that his brother and others became convinced that only a learned and ingenious wit could have written these essays.

Late in 1722 James Franklin got into trouble with the provincial authorities and was forbidden to print or publish the Courant. To keep the paper going, he discharged his younger brother from his original apprenticeship and made him the paper’s nominal publisher. New indentures were drawn up but not made public. Some months later, after a bitter quarrel, Benjamin secretly left home, sure that James would not “go to law” and reveal the subterfuge he had devised.


Youthful adventures (1723–26)
Failing to find work in New York City, Franklin at age 17 went on to Quaker-dominated Philadelphia, a much more open and religiously tolerant place than Puritan Boston. One of the most memorable scenes of the Autobiography is the description of his arrival on a Sunday morning, tired and hungry. Finding a bakery, he asked for three pennies’ worth of bread and got “three great Puffy Rolls.” Carrying one under each arm and munching on the third, he walked up Market Street past the door of the Read family, where stood Deborah, his future wife. She saw him and “thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward ridiculous Appearance.”

A few weeks later he was rooming at the Reads’ and employed as a printer. By the spring of 1724 he was enjoying the companionship of other young men with a taste for reading, and he was also being urged to set up in business for himself by the governor of Pennsylvania, Sir William Keith. At Keith’s suggestion, Franklin returned to Boston to try to raise the necessary capital. His father thought him too young for such a venture, so Keith offered to foot the bill himself and arranged Franklin’s passage to England so that he could choose his type and make connections with London stationers and booksellers. Franklin exchanged “some promises” about marriage with Deborah Read and, with a young friend, James Ralph, as his companion, sailed for London in November 1724, just over a year after arriving in Philadelphia. Not until his ship was well out at sea did he realize that Governor Keith had not delivered the letters of credit and introduction he had promised.

In London Franklin quickly found employment in his trade and was able to lend money to Ralph, who was trying to establish himself as a writer. The two young men enjoyed the theatre and the other pleasures of the city, including women. While in London, Franklin wrote A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain (1725), a Deistical pamphlet inspired by his having set type for William Wollaston’s moral tract, The Religion of Nature Delineated. Franklin argued in his essay that since human beings have no real freedom of choice, they are not morally responsible for their actions. This was perhaps a nice justification for his self-indulgent behaviour in London and his ignoring of Deborah, to whom he had written only once. He later repudiated the pamphlet, burning all but one of the copies still in his possession.

By 1726 Franklin was tiring of London. He considered becoming an itinerant teacher of swimming, but, when Thomas Denham, a Quaker merchant, offered him a clerkship in his store in Philadelphia with a prospect of fat commissions in the West Indian trade, he decided to return home.


Achievement of security and fame (1726–53)
Denham died, however, a few months after Franklin entered his store. The young man, now 20, returned to the printing trade and in 1728 was able to set up a partnership with a friend. Two years later he borrowed money to become sole proprietor.

His private life at this time was extremely complicated. Deborah Read had married, but her husband had deserted her and disappeared. One matchmaking venture failed because Franklin wanted a dowry of £100 to pay off his business debt. A strong sexual drive, “that hard-to-be-govern’d Passion of Youth,” was sending him to “low Women,” and he thought he very much needed to get married. His affection for Deborah having “revived,” he “took her to Wife” on Sept. 1, 1730. At this point Deborah may have been the only woman in Philadelphia who would have him, for he brought to the marriage an illegitimate son, William, just borne of a woman who has never been identified. Franklin’s common-law marriage lasted until Deborah’s death in 1774. They had a son, Franky, who died at age four, and a daughter, Sarah, who survived them both. William was brought up in the household and apparently did not get along well with Deborah.

Franklin and his partner’s first coup was securing the printing of Pennsylvania’s paper currency. Franklin helped get this business by writing A Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency (1729), and later he also became public printer of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Other moneymaking ventures included the Pennsylvania Gazette, published by Franklin from 1729 and generally acknowledged as among the best of the colonial newspapers, and Poor Richard’s almanac, printed annually from 1732 to 1757. Despite some failures, Franklin prospered. Indeed, he made enough to lend money with interest and to invest in rental properties in Philadelphia and many coastal towns. He had franchises or partnerships with printers in the Carolinas, New York, and the British West Indies. By the late 1740s he had become one of the wealthiest colonists in the northern part of the North American continent.

As he made money, he concocted a variety of projects for social improvement. In 1727 he organized the Junto, or Leather Apron Club, to debate questions of morals, politics, and natural philosophy and to exchange knowledge of business affairs. The need of Junto members for easier access to books led in 1731 to the organization of the Library Company of Philadelphia. Through the Junto, Franklin proposed a paid city watch, or police force. A paper read to the same group resulted in the organization of a volunteer fire company. In 1743 he sought an intercolonial version of the Junto, which led to the formation of the American Philosophical Society. In 1749 he published Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsilvania; in 1751 the Academy of Philadelphia, from which grew the University of Pennsylvania, was founded. He also became an enthusiastic member of the Freemasons and promoted their “enlightened” causes.

Although still a tradesman, he was picking up some political offices. He became clerk of the Pennsylvania legislature in 1736 and postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737. Prior to 1748, though, his most important political service was his part in organizing a militia for the defense of the colony against possible invasion by the French and the Spaniards, whose privateers were operating in the Delaware River.

In 1748 Franklin, at age 42, had become wealthy enough to retire from active business. He took off his leather apron and became a gentleman, a distinctive status in the 18th century. Since no busy artisan could be a gentleman, Franklin never again worked as a printer; instead, he became a silent partner in the printing firm of Franklin and Hall, realizing in the next 18 years an average profit of over £600 annually. He announced his new status as a gentleman by having his portrait painted in a velvet coat and a brown wig; he also acquired a coat of arms, bought several slaves, and moved to a new and more spacious house in “a more quiet Part of the Town.” Most important, as a gentleman and “master of [his] own time,” he decided to do what other gentlemen did—engage in what he termed “Philosophical Studies and Amusements.”

In the 1740s electricity was one of these curious amusements. It was introduced to Philadelphians by an electrical machine sent to the Library Company by one of Franklin’s English correspondents. In the winter of 1746–47, Franklin and three of his friends began to investigate electrical phenomena. Franklin sent piecemeal reports of his ideas and experiments to Peter Collinson, his Quaker correspondent in London. Since he did not know what European scientists might have already discovered, Franklin set forth his findings timidly. In 1751 Collinson had Franklin’s papers published in an 86-page book titled Experiments and Observations on Electricity. In the 18th century the book went through five English editions, three in French, and one each in Italian and German.

Franklin’s fame spread rapidly. The experiment he suggested to prove the identity of lightning and electricity was apparently first made in France before he tried the simpler but more dangerous expedient of flying a kite in a thunderstorm. But his other findings were original. He created the distinction between insulators and conductors. He invented a battery for storing electrical charges. He coined new English words for the new science of electricity—conductor, charge, discharge, condense, armature, electrify, and others. He showed that electricity was a single “fluid” with positive and negative or plus and minus charges and not, as traditionally thought, two kinds of fluids. And he demonstrated that the plus and minus charges, or states of electrification of bodies, had to occur in exactly equal amounts—a crucial scientific principle known today as the law of conservation of charge (see charge conservation).

Theodore Hornberger
Gordon S. Wood


Public service (1753–85)
Despite the success of his electrical experiments, Franklin never thought science was as important as public service. As a leisured gentleman, he soon became involved in more high-powered public offices. He became a member of the Philadelphia City Council in 1748, justice of the peace in 1749, and in 1751 a city alderman and a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. But he had his sights on being part of a larger arena, the British Empire, which he regarded as “the greatest Political Structure Human Wisdom ever yet erected.” In 1753 Franklin became a royal officeholder, deputy postmaster general, in charge of mail in all the northern colonies. Thereafter he began to think in intercolonial terms. In 1754 his “Plan of Union” for the colonies was adopted by the Albany Congress, which was convened at the beginning of the French and Indian War and included representatives from the Iroquois Confederacy. The plan called for the establishment of a general council, with representatives from the several colonies, to organize a common defense against the French. Neither the colonial legislatures nor the king’s advisers were ready for such union, however, and the plan failed. But Franklin had become acquainted with important imperial officials, and his ambition to succeed within the imperial hierarchy had been whetted.

In 1757 he went to England as the agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly in order to get the family of William Penn, the proprietors under the colony’s charter, to allow the colonial legislature to tax their ungranted lands. But Franklin and some of his allies in the assembly had a larger goal of persuading the British government to oust the Penn family as the proprietors of Pennsylvania and make that colony a royal province. Except for a two-year return to Philadelphia in 1762–64, Franklin spent the next 18 years living in London, most of the time in the apartment of Margaret Stevenson, a widow, and her daughter Polly at 36 Craven Street near Charing Cross. His son, William, now age 27, and two slaves accompanied him to London. Deborah and their daughter, Sally, age 14, remained in Philadelphia.

Before he left for London, Franklin decided to bring his Poor Richard’s almanac to an end. While at sea in 1757, he completed a 12-page preface for the final 1758 edition of the almanac titled “Father Abraham’s Speech” and later known as the The Way to Wealth. In this preface Father Abraham cites only those proverbs that concern hard work, thrift, and financial prudence. The Way to Wealth eventually became the most widely reprinted of all Franklin’s works, including the Autobiography.

This time Franklin’s experience in London was very different from his sojourn in 1724–26. London was the largest city in Europe and the centre of the burgeoning British Empire, and Franklin was famous; consequently, he met everyone else who was famous, including David Hume, Captain James Cook, Joseph Priestley, and John Pringle, who was physician to Lord Bute, the king’s chief minister. In 1759 Franklin received an honorary degree from the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, which led to his thereafter being called “Dr. Franklin.” Another honorary degree followed in 1762 from the University of Oxford. Everyone wanted to paint his portrait and make mezzotints for sale to the public. Franklin fell in love with the sophistication of London and England; by contrast, he disparaged the provinciality and vulgarity of America. He was very much the royalist, and he bragged of his connection with Lord Bute, which enabled him in 1762 to get his son, William, then age 31, appointed royal governor of New Jersey.

Reluctantly, Franklin had to go back to Pennsylvania in 1762 in order to look after his post office, but he promised his friends in London that he would soon return and perhaps stay forever in England. After touring the post offices up and down North America, a trip of 1,780 miles (2,900 km), he had to deal with an uprising of some Scotch-Irish settlers in the Paxton region of western Pennsylvania who were angry at the Quaker assembly’s unwillingness to finance military protection from the Indians on the frontier. After losing an election to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1764, Franklin could hardly wait to get back to London. Deborah stayed in Philadelphia, and Franklin never saw her again.

He soon had to face the problems arising from the Stamp Act of 1765, which created a firestorm of opposition in America. Like other colonial agents, Franklin opposed Parliament’s stamp tax, asserting that taxation ought to be the prerogative of the colonial legislatures. But once he saw that passage of the tax was inevitable, he sought to make the best of the situation. After all, he said, empires cost money. He ordered stamps for his printing firm in Philadelphia and procured for his friend John Hughes the stamp agency for Pennsylvania. In the process, he almost ruined his position in American public life and nearly cost Hughes his life.

Franklin was shocked by the mobs that effectively prevented enforcement of the Stamp Act everywhere in North America. He told Hughes to remain cool in the face of the mob. “A firm Loyalty to the Crown and faithful Adherence to the Government of this Nation…,” he said, “will always be the wisest Course for you and I to take, whatever may be the Madness of the Populace or their blind Leaders.” Only Franklin’s four-hour testimony before Parliament denouncing the act in 1766 saved his reputation in America. The experience shook Franklin, and his earlier confidence in the wisdom of British officials became punctuated by doubts and resentments. He began to feel what he called his “Americanness” as never before.

During the next four or five years Franklin sought to bridge the growing gulf between the colonies and the British government. Between 1765 and 1775 he wrote 126 newspaper pieces, most of which tried to explain each side to the other. But, as he said, the English thought him too American, while the Americans thought him too English. He had not, however, given up his ambition of acquiring a position in the imperial hierarchy. But in 1771 opposition by Lord Hillsborough, who had just been appointed head of the new American Department, left Franklin depressed and dispirited; in a mood of frustration, nostalgia, and defiance, he began writing his Autobiography, which eventually became one of the most widely read autobiographies ever published.

In recounting the first part of his life, up to age 25—the best part of the Autobiography, most critics agree—Franklin sought to soothe his wounds and justify his apparent failure in British politics. Most important, in this beginning part of his Autobiography, he in effect was telling the world (and his son) that, as a free man who had established himself against overwhelming odds as an independent and industrious artisan, he did not have to kowtow to some patronizing, privileged aristocrat.

When the signals from the British government shifted and Hillsborough was dismissed from the cabinet, Franklin dropped the writing of the Autobiography, which he would not resume until 1784 in France following the successful negotiation of the treaty establishing American independence. Franklin still thought he might be able to acquire an imperial office and work to hold the empire together. But he became involved in the affair of the Hutchinson letters—an affair that ultimately destroyed his position in England. In 1772 Franklin had sent back to Boston some letters written in the 1760s by Thomas Hutchinson, then lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, in which Hutchinson had made some indiscreet remarks about the need to abridge American liberties. Franklin naively thought that these letters would somehow throw blame for the imperial crisis on native officials such as Hutchinson and thus absolve the ministry in London of responsibility. This, Franklin believed, would allow his friends in the ministry, such as Lord Dartmouth, to settle the differences between the mother country and her colonies, with Franklin’s help.

The move backfired completely, and on Jan. 29, 1774, Franklin stood silent in an amphitheatre near Whitehall while being viciously attacked by the British solicitor-general before the Privy Council and the court, most of whom were hooting and laughing. Two days later he was fired as deputy postmaster. After some futile efforts at reconciliation, he sailed for America in March 1775.

Although upon his arrival in Philadelphia Franklin was immediately elected to the Second Continental Congress, some Americans remained suspicious of his real loyalties. He had been so long abroad that some thought he might be a British spy. He was delighted that the Congress in 1776 sent him back to Europe as the premier agent in a commission seeking military aid and diplomatic recognition from France. He played on the French aristocracy’s liberal sympathies for the oppressed Americans and extracted not only diplomatic recognition of the new republic but also loan after loan from an increasingly impoverished French government. His image as the democratic folk genius from the wilderness of America preceded him, and he exploited it brilliantly for the American cause. His face appeared everywhere—on medallions, on snuffboxes, on candy boxes, in rings, in statues, in prints; women even did their hair à la Franklin. Franklin played his role to perfection. In violation of all protocol, he dressed in a simple brown-and-white linen suit and wore a fur cap, no wig, and no sword to the court of Versailles, the most formal and elaborate court in all of Europe. And the French aristocracy and court loved it, caught up as they were with the idea of America.

Beset with the pain of gout and a kidney stone, and surrounded by spies and his sometimes clumsy fellow commissioners—especially Arthur Lee of Virginia and John Adams of Massachusetts, who disliked and mistrusted him—Franklin nonetheless succeeded marvelously. He first secured military and diplomatic alliances with France in 1778 and then played a crucial role in bringing about the final peace treaty with Britain in 1783 (see Peace of Paris). In violation of their instructions and the French alliance, the American peace commissioners signed a separate peace with Britain. It was left to Franklin to apologize to the comte de Vergennes, Louis XVI’s chief minister, which he did in a beautifully wrought diplomatic letter.

No wonder the eight years in France were the happiest of Franklin’s life. He was doing what he most yearned to do—shaping events on a world stage. At this point, in 1784, he resumed work on his Autobiography, writing the second part of it, which presumes human control over one’s life.


Last years (1785–90)
In 1785 Franklin reluctantly had to come to America to die, even though all his friends were in France. Although he feared he would be “a stranger in my own country,” he now knew that his destiny was linked to America.

His reception was not entirely welcoming. The family and friends of the Lees in Virginia and the Adamses in Massachusetts spread stories of his overweening love of France and his dissolute ways. The Congress treated him shabbily, ignoring his requests for some land in the West and a diplomatic appointment for his grandson. In 1788 he was reduced to petitioning the Congress with a pathetic “Sketch of the Services of B. Franklin to the United States,” which the Congress never answered. Just before his death in 1790, Franklin retaliated by signing a memorial requesting that the Congress abolish slavery in the United States. This memorandum provoked some congressmen into angry defenses of slavery, which Franklin exquisitely mocked in a newspaper piece published a month before he died.

Upon his death the Senate refused to go along with the House in declaring a month of mourning for Franklin. In contrast to the many expressions of French affection for Franklin, his fellow Americans gave him one public eulogy—and that was delivered by his inveterate enemy the Rev. William Smith, who passed over Franklin’s youth because it seemed embarrassing.

Following the publication of the Autobiography in 1794, Franklin’s youth was no longer embarrassing. In the succeeding decades, he became the hero of countless early 19th-century artisans and self-made businessmen who were seeking a justification of their rise and their moneymaking. They were the creators of the modern folksy image of Franklin, the man who came to personify the American dream.


Assessment
Franklin was not only the most famous American in the 18th century but also one of the most famous figures in the Western world of the 18th century; indeed, he is one of the most celebrated and influential Americans who has ever lived. Although one is apt to think of Franklin exclusively as an inventor, as an early version of Thomas Edison, which he was, his 18th-century fame came not simply from his many inventions but, more important, from his fundamental contributions to the science of electricity. If there had been a Nobel Prize for Physics in the 18th century, Franklin would have been a contender. Enhancing his fame was the fact that he was an American, a simple man from an obscure background who emerged from the wilds of America to dazzle the entire intellectual world. Most Europeans in the 18th century thought of America as a primitive, undeveloped place full of forests and savages and scarcely capable of producing enlightened thinkers. Yet Franklin’s electrical discoveries in the mid-18th century had surpassed the achievements of the most sophisticated scientists of Europe. Franklin became a living example of the natural untutored genius of the New World that was free from the encumbrances of a decadent and tired Old World—an image that he later parlayed into French support for the American Revolution.

Despite his great scientific achievements, however, Franklin always believed that public service was more important than science, and his political contributions to the formation of the United States were substantial. He had a hand in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, contributed to the drafting of the Articles of Confederation—America’s first national constitution—and was the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that wrote the Constitution of the United States of America in Philadelphia. More important, as diplomatic representative of the new American republic in France during the Revolution, he secured both diplomatic recognition and financial and military aid from the government of Louis XVI and was a crucial member of the commission that negotiated the treaty by which Great Britain recognized its former 13 colonies as a sovereign nation. Since no one else could have accomplished all that he did in France during the Revolution, he can quite plausibly be regarded as America’s greatest diplomat.

Equally significant perhaps were Franklin’s many contributions to the comfort and safety of daily life, especially in his adopted city of Philadelphia. No civic project was too large or too small for his interest. In addition to his lightning rod and his Franklin stove (a wood-burning stove that warmed American homes for more than 200 years), he invented bifocal glasses, the odometer, and the glass harmonica (armonica). He had ideas about everything—from the nature of the Gulf Stream to the cause of the common cold. He suggested the notions of matching grants and Daylight Saving Time. Almost single-handedly he helped to create a civic society for the inhabitants of Philadelphia. Moreover, he helped to establish new institutions that people now take for granted: a fire company, a library, an insurance company, an academy, and a hospital.

Probably Franklin’s most important invention was himself. He created so many personas in his newspaper writings and almanac and in his posthumously published Autobiography that it is difficult to know who he really was. Following his death in 1790, he became so identified during the 19th century with the persona of his Autobiography and the Poor Richard maxims of his almanac—e.g., “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”—that he acquired the image of the self-made moralist obsessed with the getting and saving of money. Consequently, many imaginative writers, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and D.H. Lawrence, attacked Franklin as a symbol of America’s middle-class moneymaking business values. Indeed, early in the 20th century the famous German sociologist Max Weber found Franklin to be the perfect exemplar of the “Protestant ethic” and the modern capitalistic spirit. Although Franklin did indeed become a wealthy tradesman by his early 40s, when he retired from his business, during his lifetime in the 18th century he was not identified as a self-made businessman or a budding capitalist. That image was a creation of the 19th century. But as long as America continues to be pictured as the land of enterprise and opportunity, where striving and hard work can lead to success, then that image of Franklin is the one that is likely to endure.

Gordon S. Wood

Encyclopaedia Britannica
 

 

 

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