Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Character of George Washington

George Washington began at an early age to work to improve his character.  At age 16 he copied out by hand “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and in Conversation.”  These rules of civility, totaling 110, are based upon a set composed by French Jesuits in 1595.  Upon review, they may seem outdated and even silly (particularly in our modern Hollywood and Facebook culture, where it sometimes seems that civility and decent behavior are all a thing of the past), but at their core they have to do with good manners, modesty, morality, and respect for others.  

Here are a few:
6th – “Sleep not when others speak…”
7th – “Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out your chamber half dress’d.”
9th – “Spit not in the fire…”
15th – “Keep your nails clean and short, also your hands and teeth clean yet without showing any great concern for them.

Now some more serious ones:
22nd – “Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.”
40th – “Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.”
48th – “Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than precepts.”
82nd – “Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.”
89th – “Speak not evil of the absent for it is unjust.”

And finally,
108th – “When you speak of God or his attributes, let it be seriously & with reverence. Honor & obey your natural parents although they be poor.”
109th – “Let your recreations be manful not sinful.”
110th – “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Of course, we cannot assume that just because young George wrote down these rules (most likely for a schoolmaster), that he followed all of them.  But as so many have studied and reviewed his life’s conduct in private as well as in public, it appears that he took this academic exercise most seriously to heart.  Parson Weems got this right in his biography of Washington, when he wrote that it was “no wonder every body honoured him who honoured everybody.” [1]

In his moral biography of Washington, Richard Brookhiser asserts that Washington was obsessed with what today we would call his reputation or public image but was then known in the 18th century as ''character.'' From his youth, he sought dignified fame and military glory. He achieved both. But he did so, just as we must do, by learning from his mistakes and through diligence and great self-discipline.

In this vein, as one commentator has written, “Underneath everything lay Washington's desire for a good reputation. Some acts were simply dishonorable, some bad manners, and others merely stupid. A gentleman who wanted respect avoided all three as best he could. The preventives were called honesty and courage, courtesy and civility, and the combination of reading, intelligent observation, and fore-thought. One avoided thoughtless words and promises by saying little, drinking less, and by an unwavering politeness to friends and enemies alike. This was not easy for Washington, for he was a sensitive man who possessed a fiery temper and he had an exquisite vocabulary of unprintable words which could be effectively employed on the proper occasions. All the more reason for his exercising his famous self-control.”[2]

Washington’s character as a young military officer was tested in the French and Indian War.  As Brookhiser writes, this war was “the final struggle between Britain and France for control of the Continent, and Washington took part in some of its most dramatic moments; indeed, he had fired the first shots in it.  …Before the war began, Washington, a major in the militia with training as a surveyor, made a 300-mile trip into the Pennsylvania wilderness to scout out French intentions, keeping a journal...  He was only 21 years old.  [A year later] he went back into the woods at the head of a small force [as a British officer] where he attacked a party of French.  “I heard the bullet’s whistle,” he wrote a younger brother, “and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound…” 

Washington …[had] expected to drive the French to Montreal; instead, they surrounded him and forced him to surrender.  Britain’s agent for Indian affairs felt the young officer had been “too ambitious of acquiring all the honour,” and hence overly impetuous.”  [Some even felt he was responsible for the war that proceeded from that initial conflict]. But, the colonial consensus was that Washington had been outnumbered by enemies who had been up to no good.”

“[Later] In 1755, Washington witnessed a far greater defeat, when an army led by British General Edward Braddock was cut to pieces outside Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh.  Washington, who was serving as Braddock’s aide, had two horses shot out from under him, led a remnant of men to safety, and buried his slain commander. …Washington spent three more years commanding the Virginia militia on the frontier, angling for a better assignment and seeking to maintain the discipline of his troops.”[3]

So, it seems on the one hand that during the French and Indian Washington failed to observe the very rules of civility that had assisted him in his social and military rise.  On author writes, "There is something unlikable about the George Washington of [this period]. He seems a trifle raw …too ready to complain, too nakedly concerned with promotion."[4]  But on the other hand, Washington grew in stature because he faced his failures, and in turn recognized and persisted in overcoming his own errors. And, there was no question that he was exceedingly brave in the face of danger and incredibly tough in battle.

Through time, occupied by diligent study, self-reflection and self-discipline Washington managed to bridle his temper and his ambition for personal fame and to place the interests of his countrymen above self. 

Also important to remember, is his courtship and marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis.  She was not only a beautiful, but a very wealthy widow of Virginia.  Martha fell in love and George found her quite attractive. (That she had a good disposition and inherited wealth were an added bonus to the relationship). He had had a crush on a pretty neighbor, Sally Fairfax, but when she married another, he knew he must find a suitable wife for himself.

Martha married George on January 6, 1759. The marriage changed George from being a comfortably well-off, country gentleman-soldier to becoming one of Virginia’s wealthiest landowners. He had resigned his commission in the militia and so, George, Martha, and her two children, Jacky (age 4), and Patsy (age 2), moved into the enlarged and remodeled Mt. Vernon. Her influence on Washington was lasting.

The next decade thrust Washington into the events that led to America’s war for Independence. His civility and modesty was exhibited when he accepted his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in 1775.  He told Congress that if “some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it be remembered by every gentlemen in the room, that this day I declare…that I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”[5] 

During the Revolutionary War, and after, Washington grew in stature and wisdom. The ultimate growth and development of his character is probably best described by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the following in a letter fourteen years after Washington’s death:

“I think I knew General Washington intimately and thoroughly; and were I called on to delineate his character, it should be in terms like these.

His mind was great and powerful… and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. …He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern. Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed.

His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known. …He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man. …His person, you know, was fine, his stature exactly what one would wish, his deportment easy, erect and noble; the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback…. 

On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points Indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great…

For his was the singular destiny and merit, of leading the armies of his country successfully through an arduous war, for the establishment of its independence; of conducting its councils through the birth of a [new] government… and of scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example. . . .

We knew his honesty …

I felt on his death, with my countrymen, that ‘verily a great man hath fallen this day in Israel.’”[6]




[1]  Mason L. Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (J.P. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1918), p. 272.
[2]  Monmouth College Book Review of Richard Brookhiser, Rediscovering George Washington: Founding Father, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996), http://department.monm.edu/history/urban/reviews/brookhiser.htm.
[3] Richard Brookhiser, Rediscovering George Washington: Founding Father, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996), pp. 22-23 (cited as Brookhiser).
[4]  Id. Guthrie, citing Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington: Man and Monument (Boston, 1958), p. 58.
[5]  James Thomas Flexner, George Washington, (Boston, 1965-72), vol. I, p. 341 (cited as JTF).
[6] Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Walter Jones, January 2, 1814, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, Washington D.C., 1903) (cited as “ME”), 14:48-52.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The True Secret and Grand Recipe for Felicity

There are many personal letters that could be referenced in regard to Jefferson’s sentiments on the subjects of virtue and morality. A compilation of quotes from such letters found online at “Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government” under the heading “Moral Principles” totals over seventy-five (75) separate references.[1] However, let us focus on one letter in particular.  Thomas Jefferson wrote this letter to his daughter to Martha ("Patsy") Jefferson on May 21, 1787 from France:

"I write to you, my dear Patsy, from the Canal of Languedoc [pictured above] on which I am at present sailing, as I have been for a week past, cloudless skies above, limpid waters below, and find on each hand a row of nightingales in full chorus. …I expect to be at Paris about the middle of next month. By that time we may begin to expect our dear Polly. It will be a circumstance of inexpressible comfort to me to have you both with me once more. The object most interesting to me for the residue of my life, will be to see you both developing daily those principles of virtue and goodness which will make you valuable to others and happy in yourselves, and acquiring those talents and that degree of science which will guard you at all times against ennui, the most dangerous poison of life. A mind always employed is always happy. This is the true secret, the grand recipe for felicity." [2]

Thomas Jefferson affectionately conveys to Patsy that the “grand recipe for felicity” or happiness, and the object most dear to him for the rest of his life, will be to witness her keeping her mind cheerfully employed and developing daily “principles of virtue and goodness.” As Elizabeth Langhorne has so eloquently observed in her biography “Monticello: A Family Story,” that while his daughter Mary (or “Polly”) passed away at age 25, Jefferson remained most devoted to Patsy throughout his life (and she to him).  Langhorne writes that foremost to Jefferson’s “comforts of a beloved family … of course, was the presence of Martha, who was her father’s housekeeper, his hostess, and his intimate companion.”[3]  

After all has been said, this was Jefferson’s dream for his family at Monticello, to establish and maintain a home, just as Palladio had envisioned: “The ancient sages commonly used to retire to such places, where being oftentimes visited by their virtuous friends and relations, having houses, gardens, fountains …and above all their virtue, they could easily attain to as much happiness as can be attained here below.”[4] Thomas Jefferson’s lifelong pursuit may be defined by his statement that, “Happiness is the aim of life. Virtue is the foundation of happiness.”[5] 


[1] http://famguardian.org/Subjects/Politics/ThomasJefferson/jeff0200.htm
[2] Jefferson, Writings (The Library of America, New York, 2001), pp. 896-97 [emphasis added].
[3] Elizabeth Langhorne, Monticello: A Family Story (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1987), p. 163. Martha Jefferson Randolph served as "first lady" with her father from 1802-3 and 1805-6 in the U.S. President's House, later known as the White House. After Jefferson's retirement, Martha and her children spent their time primarily at Monticello, even while her husband, Thomas Mann Randolph, was serving as Virginia's governor (see Monticello Online). 
[4] Langhorne, p. 4 [emphasis added].  Jefferson owned “The Architecture of A. Palladio; in Four Books.” (2 vols. London, 1742), and they were the primary source of inspiration for his design of Monticello and the University of Virginia.
[5] Thomas Jefferson to William Short, October 31, 1819, ME 15:219-224.  

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Jefferson and Slavery

"Throughout his entire life, Thomas Jefferson was a consistent opponent of slavery. Calling it a “moral depravity”1 and a “hideous blot,”2 he believed that slavery presented the greatest threat to the survival of the new American nation.3 Jefferson also thought that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, which decreed that everyone had a right to personal liberty.4  These views were radical in a world where unfree labor was the norm.
At the time of the American Revolution, Jefferson was actively involved in legislation that he hoped would result in slavery’s abolition.5 In 1778, he drafted a Virginia law that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans.6  In 1784, he proposed an ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest territories.7 But Jefferson always maintained that the decision to emancipate slaves would have to be part of a democratic process; abolition would be stymied until slaveowners consented to free their human property together in a large-scale act of emancipation.  To Jefferson, it was anti-democratic and contrary to the principles of the American Revolution for the federal government to enact abolition or for only a few planters to free their slaves.8
Although Jefferson continued to advocate for abolition, the reality was that slavery was becoming more entrenched.  The slave population in Virginia skyrocketed from 292,627 in 1790 to 469,757 in 1830.  Jefferson had assumed that the abolition of the slave trade would weaken slavery and hasten its end.  Instead, slavery became more widespread and profitable.  In an attempt to erode Virginians’ support for slavery, he discouraged the cultivation of crops heavily dependent on slave labor—specifically tobacco—and encouraged the introduction of crops that needed little or no slave labor—wheat, sugar maples, short-grained rice, olive trees, and wine grapes.9 But by the 1800s, Virginia’s most valuable commodity and export was neither crops nor land, but slaves.
Jefferson’s belief in the necessity of ending slavery never changed.  From the mid-1770s until his death, he advocated the same plan of gradual emancipation. First, the transatlantic slave trade would be abolished.10  Second, slaveowners would “improve” slavery’s most violent features, by bettering (Jefferson used the term “ameliorating”) living conditions and moderating physical punishment.11  Third, all born into slavery after a certain date would be declared free, followed by total abolition.12  Like others of his day, he supported the removal of newly freed slaves from the United States.13 The unintended effect of Jefferson’s plan was that his goal of “improving” slavery as a step towards ending it was used as an argument for its perpetuation.  Pro-slavery advocates after Jefferson’s death argued that if slavery could be “improved,” abolition was unnecessary.
Jefferson’s belief in the necessity of abolition was intertwined with his racial beliefs.  He thought that white Americans and enslaved blacks constituted two “separate nations” who could not live together peacefully in the same country.14  Jefferson’s belief that blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children,”15 coupled with slaves’ presumed resentment of their former owners, made their removal from the United States an integral part of Jefferson’s emancipation scheme.  Influenced by the Haitian Revolution and an aborted rebellion in Virginia in 1800, Jefferson believed that American slaves’ deportation—whether to Africa or the West Indies—was an essential followup to emancipation.16
Jefferson wrote that maintaining slavery was like holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”17 He thought that his cherished federal union, the world’s first democratic experiment, would be destroyed by slavery.  To emancipate slaves on American soil, Jefferson thought, would result in a large-scale race war that would be as brutal and deadly as the slave revolt in Haiti in 1791.  But he also believed that to keep slaves in bondage, with part of America in favor of abolition and part of America in favor of perpetuating slavery, could only result in a civil war that would destroy the union.  Jefferson’s latter prediction was correct: in 1861, the contest over slavery sparked a bloody civil war and the creation of two nations—Union and Confederacy—in the place of one."
- Lucia Stanton, 2008
FURTHER SOURCES
  • 1.Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, September 10, 1814, in PTJ:RS, 7:652. 
  • 2.Jefferson to William Short, September 8, 1823, Thomas Jefferson PapersEarl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary. 
  • 3.Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. 
  • 4.Notes, ed. Peden, 163. The 1832 edition is available online. See Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston: Lilly and Wait, 1832), 170.
  • 5.Virginia Constitution, Second Draft by Jefferson [before June 13, 1776], in PTJ, 1:353. 
  • 6.Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, January 6-July 29, 1821, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.  See also 51. A Bill concerning Slaves, June 18, 1779, in PTJ, 2:470-73. 
  • 7.Report of the Committee, March 1, 1784, in PTJ, 6:604. 
  • 8.Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. 
  • 9.See, e.g., Jefferson to Benjamin Vaughan, June 27, 1790, in PTJ, 16:579. 
  • 10.See Draft of Instructions to the Virginia Delegates in the Continental Congress (MS Text of A Summary View, &c.), [July 1774], in PTJ, 1:130. 
  • 11.See Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, February 18, 1793, in PTJ, 25:230. Transcriptionavailable at Founders Online. See also Jefferson to John Strode, June 5, 1805, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
  • 12.See Jefferson’s Draft of a Constitution for Virginia, [May–June 1783], in PTJ, 6:298.
  • 13.Notes, ed. Peden, 138. The 1832 edition is available online. See Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston: Lilly and Wait, 1832), 144.
  • 14.Ibid.
  • 15.Jefferson to Edward Coles, August 25, 1814, in PTJ:RS, 7:604.  [Note:  in the 18th century scientists began to include behavioral or psychological traits in their reported observations- which often had derogatory or demeaning implications – and often assumed that those behavioral or psychological traits were related to their race, and therefore, innate and unchangeable.   As taxonomy grew, scientists began to assume that the human species could be divided into distinct subgroups. One’s “race” necessarily implied that one group had certain character qualities and physical dispositions that differentiated it from other human populations. Society gave different values to those differentiations, which essentially created a gap between races by deeming one race superior or inferior to another race].
  • 16.Jefferson to Jared Sparks, February 4, 1824, Catalog–Christie’s, American and European Manuscripts and Printed Books. 
  • 17.Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library.