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vigor and energy, I think the game is our own."

Again he wrote in July: "Sir Guy Carleton is using every art to
soothe and lull our people into a state of security. Admiral Digby
is capturing all our vessels, and suffocating as fast as possible in
prison-ships all our seamen who will not enlist into the service of
his Britannic Majesty; and Haldimand, with his savage allies, is
scalping and burning on the frontiers." Facts always were the object
of Washington's first regard, and while gentlemen on all sides were
talking of peace, war was going on, and he could not understand the
supineness which would permit our seamen to be suffocated, and our
borderers scalped, because some people thought the war ought to be and
practically was over. While the other side was fighting, he wished to
be fighting too. A month later he wrote to Greene: "From the former
infatuation, duplicity, and perverse system of British policy, I
confess I am induced to doubt everything, to suspect everything." He
could say heartily with the Trojan priest, "Quicquid id est timeo
Danaos et dona ferentes." Yet again, a month later still, when the
negotiations were really going forward in Paris, he wrote to McHenry:
"If we are wise, let us prepare for the worst. There is nothing which
will so soon produce a speedy and honorable peace as a state of
preparation for war; and we must either do this, or lay our account to
patch up an inglorious peace, after all the toil, blood, and treasure
we have spent."

No man had done and given so much as Washington, and at the same
time no other man had his love of thoroughness, and his indomitable
fighting temper. He found few sympathizers, his words fell upon deaf
ears, and he was left to struggle on and maintain his ground as best
he might, without any substantial backing. As it turned out, England
was more severely wounded than he dared to hope, and her desire for
peace was real. But Washington's distrust and the active policy which
he urged were, in the conditions of the moment, perfectly sound,
both in a military and a political point of view. It made no real
difference, however, whether he was right or wrong in his opinion.
He could not get what he wanted, and he was obliged to drag through
another year, fettered in his military movements, and oppressed with
anxiety for the future. He longed to drive the British from New York,
and was forced to content himself, as so often before, with keeping
his army in existence. It was a trying time, and fruitful in nothing
but anxious forebodings. All the fighting was confined to skirmishes
of outposts, and his days were consumed in vain efforts to obtain help
from the States, while he watched with painful eagerness the current
of events in Europe, down which the fortunes of his country were
feebly drifting.

Among the petty incidents of the year there was one which, in its
effects, gained an international importance, which has left a deep
stain upon the English arms, and which touched Washington deeply.
Captain Huddy, an American officer, was captured in a skirmish and
carried to New York, where he was placed in confinement. Thence he
was taken on April 12 by a party of Tories in the British service,
commanded by Captain Lippencott, and hanged in the broad light of day
on the heights near Middletown. Testimony and affidavits to the
fact, which was never questioned, were duly gathered and laid before
Washington. The deed was one of wanton barbarity, for which it would
be difficult to find a parallel in the annals of modern warfare.
The authors of this brutal murder, to our shame be it said, were of
American birth, but they were fighting for the crown and wore the
British uniform. England, which for generations has deafened the
world with paeans of praise for her own love of fair play and for
her generous humanity, stepped in here and threw the mantle of her
protection over these cowardly hangmen. It has not been uncommon for
wild North American savages to deliver up criminals to the vengeance
of the law, but English ministers and officers condoned the murder of
Huddy, and sheltered his murderers.

When the case was laid before Washington it stirred him to the deepest
wrath. He submitted the facts to twenty-five of his general officers,
who unanimously advised what he was himself determined upon, instant
retaliation. He wrote at once to Sir Guy Carleton, and informed him
that unless the murderers were given up he should be compelled to
retaliate. Carleton replied that a court-martial was ordered, and some
attempt was made to recriminate; but Washington pressed on in the path
he had marked out, and had an English officer selected by lot and held
in close confinement to await the action of the enemy. These sharp
measures brought the British, as nothing else could have done, to some
sense of the enormity of the crime that had been committed. Sir Guy
Carleton wrote in remonstrance, and Washington replied: "Ever since
the commencement of this unnatural war my conduct has borne invariable
testimony against those inhuman excesses, which, in too many
instances, have marked its progress. With respect to a late
transaction, to which I presume your excellency alludes, I have
already expressed my resolution, a resolution formed on the most
mature deliberation, and from which I shall not recede." The
affair dragged along, purposely protracted by the British, and the
court-martial on a technical point acquitted Lippencott. Sir Guy
Carleton, however, who really was deeply indignant at the outrage,
wrote, expressing his abhorrence, disavowed Lippencott, and promised
a further inquiry. This placed Washington in a very trying position,
more especially as his humanity was touched by the situation of the
unlucky hostage. The fatal lot had fallen upon a mere boy, Captain
Asgill, who was both amiable and popular, and Washington was beset
with appeals in his behalf, for Lady Asgill moved heaven and earth to
save her son. She interested the French court, and Vergennes made a
special request that Asgill should be released. Even Washington's own
officers, notably Hamilton, sought to influence him, and begged him to
recede. In these difficult circumstances, which were enhanced by the
fact that contrary to his orders to select an unconditional prisoner,
the lot had fallen on a Yorktown prisoner protected by the terms
of the capitulation,[1] he hesitated, and asked instructions from
Congress. He wrote to Duane in September: "While retaliation was
apparently necessary, however disagreeable in itself, I had no
repugnance to the measure. But when the end proposed by it is answered
by a disavowal of the act, by a dissolution of the board of refugees,
and by a promise (whether with or without meaning to comply with it, I
shall not determine) that further inquisition should be made into the
matter, I thought it incumbent upon me, before I proceeded any farther
in the matter, to have the sense of Congress, who had most explicitly
approved and impliedly indeed ordered retaliation to take place. To
this hour I am held in darkness."

[Footnote 1: MS, letter to Lincoln.]

He did not long remain in doubt. The fact was that the public, as is
commonly the case, had forgotten the original crime and saw only the
misery of the man who was to pay the just penalty, and who was, in
this instance, an innocent and vicarious sufferer. It was difficult
to refuse Vergennes, and Congress, glad of the excuse and anxious to
oblige their allies, ordered the release of Asgill. That Washington,
touched by the unhappy condition of his prisoner, did not feel
relieved by the result, it would be absurd to suppose. But he was by
no means satisfied, for the murderous wrong that had been done rankled
in his breast. He wrote to Vergennes: "Captain Asgill has been
released, and is at perfect liberty to return to the arms of an
affectionate parent, whose pathetic address to your Excellency could
not fail of interesting every feeling heart in her behalf. I have no
right to assume any particular merit from the lenient manner in which
this disagreeable affair has terminated."

There is a perfect honesty about this which is very wholesome. He had
been freely charged with cruelty, and had regarded the accusation with
indifference. Now, when it was easy for him to have taken the glory
of mercy by simply keeping silent, he took pains to avow that the
leniency was not due to him. He was not satisfied, and no one should
believe that he was, even if the admission seemed to justify the
charge of cruelty. If he erred at all it was in not executing some
British officer at the very start, unless Lippencott had been given up
within a limited time. As it was, after delay was once permitted, it
is hard to see how he could have acted otherwise than he did, but
Washington was not in the habit of receding from a fixed purpose, and
being obliged to do so in this case troubled him, for he knew that he
did well to be angry. But the frankness of the avowal to Vergennes is
a good example of his entire honesty and absolute moral fearlessness.

The matter, however, which most filled his heart and mind during these
weary days of waiting and doubt was the condition and the future of
his soldiers. To those persons who have suspected or suggested that
Washington was cold-blooded and unmindful of others, the letters he
wrote in regard to the soldiers may be commended. The man whose heart
was wrung by the sufferings of the poor people on the Virginian
frontier, in the days of the old French war, never in fact changed
his nature. Fierce in fight, passionate and hot when his anger was
stirred, his love and sympathy were keen and strong toward his army.
His heart went out to the brave men who had followed him, loved him,
and never swerved in their loyalty to him and to their country.
Washington's affection for his men, and their devotion to him, had
saved the cause of American independence more often than strategy or
daring. Now, when the war was practically over, his influence with
both officers and soldiers was destined to be put to its severest
tests.

The people of the American colonies were self-governing in the
extremest sense, that is, they were accustomed to very little
government interference of any sort. They were also poor and entirely
unused to war. Suddenly they found themselves plunged into a bitter
and protracted conflict with the most powerful of civilized nations.
In the first flush of excitement, patriotic enthusiasm supplied many
defects; but as time wore on, and year after year passed, and the
whole social and political fabric was shaken, the moral tone of the
people relaxed. In such a struggle, coming upon an unprepared people
of the habits and in the circumstances of the colonists, this
relaxation was inevitable. It was likewise inevitable that, as the war
continued, there should be in both national and state governments, and
in all directions, many shortcomings and many lamentable errors. But
for the treatment accorded the army, no such excuse can be made, and
no sufficient explanation can be offered. There was throughout the
colonies an inborn and a carefully cultivated dread of standing armies
and military power. But this very natural feeling was turned most
unreasonably against our own army, and carried in that direction to
the verge of insanity. This jealousy of military power indeed pursued
Washington from the beginning to the end of the Revolution. It cropped
out as soon as he was appointed, and came up in one form or another
whenever he was obliged to take strong measures. Even at the very end,
after he had borne the cause through to triumph, Congress was driven
almost to frenzy because Vergennes proposed to commit the disposition
of a French subsidy to the commander-in-chief.

If this feeling could show itself toward Washington, it is easy to
imagine that it was not restrained toward his officers and men, and
the treatment of the soldiers by Congress and by the States was not
only ungrateful to the last degree, but was utterly unpardonable.
Again and again the menace of immediate ruin and the stern demands of
Washington alone extorted the most grudging concessions, and saved the
army from dissolution. The soldiers had every reason to think that
nothing but personal fear could obtain the barest consideration from
the civil power. In this frame of mind, they saw the war which they
had fought and won drawing to a close with no prospect of either
provision or reward for them, and every indication that they would be
disbanded when they were no longer needed, and left in many cases
to beggary and want. In the inaction consequent upon the victory at
Yorktown, they had ample time to reflect upon these facts, and their
reflections were of such a nature that the situation soon became
dangerous. Washington, who had struggled in season and out of season
for justice to the soldiers, labored more zealously than ever during
all this period, aided vigorously by Hamilton, who was now in
Congress. Still nothing was done, and in October, 1782, he wrote to
the Secretary of War in words warm with indignant feeling: "While I
premise that no one I have seen or heard of appears opposed to the
principle of reducing the army as circumstances may require, yet I
cannot help fearing the result of the measure in contemplation, under
present circumstances, when I see such a number of men, goaded by a
thousand stings of reflection on the past and of anticipation on the
future, about to be turned into the world, soured by penury and what
they call the ingratitude of the public, involved in debts, without
one farthing of money to carry them home after having spent the flower
of their days, and many of them their patrimonies, in establishing the
freedom and independence of their country, and suffered everything
that human nature is capable of enduring on this side of death.... You
may rely upon it, the patriotism and long-suffering of this army
are almost exhausted, and that there never was so great a spirit of
discontent as at this instant. While in the field I think it may be
kept from breaking into acts of outrage; but when we retire into
winter-quarters, unless the storm is previously dissipated, I cannot
be at ease respecting the consequences. It is high time for a peace."

These were grave words, coming from such a man as Washington, but they
passed unheeded. Congress and the States went blandly along as if
everything was all right, and as if the army had no grievances. But
the soldiers thought differently. "Dissatisfactions rose to a great
and alarming height, and combinations among officers to resign at
given periods in a body were beginning to take place." The outlook
was so threatening that Washington, who had intended to go to Mount
Vernon, remained in camp, and by management and tact thwarted these
combinations and converted these dangerous movements into an address
to Congress from the officers, asking for half-pay, arrearages, and
some other equally proper concessions. Still Congress did not stir.
Some indefinite resolutions were passed, but nothing was done as to
the commutation of half-pay into a fixed sum, and after such a display
of indifference the dissatisfaction increased rapidly, and the army
became more and more restless. In March a call was issued for a
meeting of officers, and an anonymous address, written with
much skill, - the work, as afterwards appeared, of Major John
Armstrong, - was published at the same time. The address was well
calculated to inflame the passions of the troops; it advised a resort
to force, and was scattered broadcast through the camp. The army was
now in a ferment, and the situation was full of peril. A weak man
would have held his peace; a rash one would have tried to suppress the
meeting. Washington did neither, but quietly took control of the whole
movement himself. In general orders he censured the call and the
address as irregular, and then appointed a time and place for the
meeting. Another anonymous address thereupon appeared, quieter in
tone, but congratulating the army on the recognition accorded by the
commander-in-chief.

When the officers assembled, Washington arose with a manuscript in
his hand, and as he took out his glasses said, simply, "You see,
gentlemen, I have grown both blind and gray in your service." His
address was brief, calm, and strong. The clear, vigorous sentences
were charged with meaning and with deep feeling. He exhorted them one
and all, both officers and men, to remain loyal and obedient, true
to their glorious past and to their country. He appealed to their
patriotism, and promised them that which they had always had, his
own earnest support in obtaining justice from Congress. When he had
finished he quietly withdrew. The officers were deeply moved by
his words, and his influence prevailed. Resolutions were passed,
reiterating the demands of the army, but professing entire faith in
the government. This time Congress listened, and the measures granting
half-pay in commutation and certain other requests were passed. Thus
this very serious danger was averted, not by the reluctant action of
Congress, but by the wisdom and strength of the general, who was loved
by his soldiers after a fashion that few conquerors could boast.

Underlying all these general discontents, there was, besides, a
well-defined movement, which saw a solution of all difficulties and a
redress of all wrongs in a radical change of the form of government,
and in the elevation of Washington to supreme power. This party was
satisfied that the existing system was a failure, and that it was
not and could not be made either strong, honest, or respectable. The
obvious relief was in some kind of monarchy, with a large infusion of
the one-man power; and it followed, as a matter of course, that the
one man could be no other than the commander-in-chief. In May, 1782,
when the feeling in the army had risen very high, this party of reform
brought their ideas before Washington through an old and respected
friend of his, Colonel Nicola. The colonel set forth very clearly the
failure and shortcomings of the existing government, argued in favor
of the substitution of something much stronger, and wound up by
hinting very plainly that his correspondent was the man for the crisis
and the proper savior of society. The letter was forcible and well
written, and Colonel Nicola was a man of character and standing. It
could not be passed over lightly or in silence, and Washington replied
as follows: -

"With a mixture of surprise and astonishment, I have read with
attention the sentiments you have submitted to my perusal. Be assured,
sir, no occurrence in the course of the war has given me more painful
sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing
in the army as you have expressed, and [which] I must view with
abhorrence and reprehend with severity. For the present, the
communication of them will rest in my own bosom, unless some further
agitation of the matter shall make a disclosure necessary. I am
much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given
encouragement to an address which seems to me big with the greatest
mischiefs that can befall my country. If I am not deceived in the
knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your
schemes are more disagreeable. At the same time, in justice to my own
feelings, I must add that no man possesses a more sincere wish to
see justice done to the army than I do; and as far as my power and
influence in a constitutional way extend, they shall be employed to
the utmost of my abilities to effect it, should there be any occasion.
Let me conjure you, then, if you have any regard for your country,
concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these
thoughts from your mind, and never communicate, as from yourself or
any one else, a sentiment of the like nature."

This simple but exceedingly plain letter checked the whole movement
at once; but the feeling of hostility to the existing system of
government and of confidence in Washington increased steadily through
the summer and winter. When the next spring had come round, and the
"Newburgh addresses" had been published, the excitement was at fever
heat. All the army needed was a leader. It was as easy for Washington
to have grasped supreme power then, as it would have been for Cæsar
to have taken the crown from Antony upon the Lupercal. He repelled
Nicola's suggestion with quiet reproof, and took the actual movement,
when it reared its head, into his own hands and turned it into other
channels. This incident has been passed over altogether too carelessly
by historians and biographers. It has generally been used merely to
show the general nobility of Washington's sentiments, and no proper
stress has been laid upon the facts of the time which gave birth to
such an idea and such a proposition. It would have been a perfectly
feasible thing at that particular moment to have altered the frame of
government and placed the successful soldier in possession of supreme
power. The notion of kingly government was, of course, entirely
familiar to everybody, and had in itself nothing repulsive. The
confederation was disintegrated, the States were demoralized, and the
whole social and political life was weakened. The army was the one
coherent, active, and thoroughly organized body in the country. Six
years of war had turned them from militia into seasoned veterans, and
they stood armed and angry, ready to respond to the call of the great
leader to whom they were entirely devoted. When the English troops
were once withdrawn, there was nothing on the continent that could
have stood against them. If they had moved, they would have been
everywhere supported by their old comrades who had returned to the
ranks of civil life, by all the large class who wanted peace and order
in the quickest and surest way, and by the timid and tired generally.
There would have been in fact no serious opposition, probably because
there would have been no means of sustaining it.

The absolute feebleness of the general government was shown a few
weeks later, when a recently recruited regiment of Pennsylvania troops
mutinied, and obliged Congress to leave Philadelphia, unable either to
defend themselves or procure defense from the State. This mutiny was
put down suddenly and effectively by Washington, very wroth at the
insubordination of raw troops, who had neither fought nor suffered.
Yet even such mutineers as these would have succeeded in a large
measure, had it not been for Washington, and one can easily imagine
from this incident the result of disciplined and well-planned action
on the part of the army led by their great chief. In that hour of
debility and relaxation, a military seizure of the government and
the erection of some form of monarchy would not have been difficult.
Whether such a change would have lasted is another question, but there
is no reason to doubt that at the moment it might have been effected.
Washington, however, not only refused to have anything to do with the
scheme, but he used the personal loyalty which might have raised him
to supreme power to check all dangerous movements and put in motion
the splendid and unselfish patriotism for which the army was
conspicuous, and which underlay all their irritations and discontents.

The obvious view of Washington's action in this crisis as a remarkable
exhibition of patriotism is at best somewhat superficial. In a man in
any way less great, the letter of refusal to Nicola and the treatment
of the opportunity presented at the time of the Newburgh addresses
would have been fine in a high degree. In Washington they were not so
extraordinary, for the situation offered him no temptation. Carlyle
was led to think slightingly of Washington, one may believe, because
he did not seize the tottering government with a strong hand, and
bring order out of chaos on the instant. But this is a woeful
misunderstanding of the man. To put aside a crown for love of country
is noble, but to look down upon such an opportunity indicates a much
greater loftiness and strength of mind. Washington was wholly free
from the vulgar ambition of the usurper, and the desire of mere
personal aggrandizement found no place in his nature. His ruling
passion was the passion for success, and for thorough and complete
success. What he could not bear was the least shadow of failure. To
have fought such a war to a victorious finish, and then turned it to
his own advantage, would have been to him failure of the meanest
kind. He fought to free the colonies from England, and make them


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Online LibraryHenry Cabot LodgeGeorge Washington, Volume I → online text (page 20 of 26)