Henry Cabot Lodge.

George Washington (Volume 1) online

. (page 3 of 22)
Online LibraryHenry Cabot LodgeGeorge Washington (Volume 1) → online text (page 3 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

covered anywhere has been dragged forth into the
light, and has had all that was known about him
duly recorded and set down. By scanning family
trees and pedigrees, and picking up stray bits of
information here and there, we can learn in a rude
and general fashion what manner of men those
were who claimed descent from AVilliam of Hert-
burn, and who bore the name of Washington in
the mother-country. As Mr. Galton passes a hun-
dred faces before the same highly sensitized plate,

1676 (Force's Hist. Tracts, i.), is addressed "to Mr. C. H., at
Yardly, in Northamptonshire, ' ' probably Yardly-Hastings, about
eight miles from Northampton, and consequently very near Sul-
grave Manor. At the beginning (p. 1) the writer refers to the com-
mander of the Virginians in the first campaign against the Indians
as ' ' one Colonel Washington (him whom you have sometimes seen
at your house)." This suggests very strongly that John Washing-
ton, the first Virginian of the name, was of Northamptonshire,
and that he came from, or lived in the neighborhood of, Sulgrave
Manor, and therefore belonged to that family. Had he lived all
his life in Yorkshire it is not probable that Mr. C. H. would have
seen him much at his house in Yardly. [Since the publication of
these volumes, the researches of Mr. Waters have proved Wash-
ington's descent from the Sulgrave family and therefore the cor-
rectness of the theory advanced in the text.]


and gets a photograph wliich is a likeness of no one
of his subjects, and yet resembles them all, so we
may turn the camera of history upon these Wash-
ingtons, as they flash up for a moment from the
dim past, and hope to get what Professor Huxley
calls a " generic " picture of the race, even if the
outlines be somewhat blurred and indistinct.

In the North of England, in the region conquered
first by Saxons and then by Danes, lies the little
village of Washington. It came into the possession
of Sir William de Hertburn, and belonged to him
at the time of the Bolden Book in 1183. Soon
after, he or his descendants took the name of De
Wessyngton, and there they remained for two
centuries, knights of the palatinate, holding their
lands by a military tenure, fighting in all the wars,
and taking part in tournaments with becoming
splendor. By the beginning of the fifteenth cen-
tury the line of feudal knights of the palatinate
was extinct, and the manor passed from the family
by the marriage of Dionisia de Wessyngton. But
the main stock had in the mean time thrown out
many offshoots, which had taken firm root in other
parts of England. We hear of several who came
in various ways to eminence. There was the learned
and vigorous prior of Durham, John De Wessyng-
ton, probably one of the original family, and the
name appears in various places after his time in
records and on monuments, indicating a flourishing
and increasing race. Lawrence Washington, in the
sixteenth century, was the mayor of Northampton,
and received from King Henry VIII. the manor of


Sulgrave in 1538. In the next century we find
traces of Robert Washington of the Adwick family,
a rich merchant of Leeds, and of his son Joseph
Washington, a learned lawyer and author, of Gray's
Inn. About the same time we hear of Richard
Washington and Philip Washington holding high
places at University College, Oxford. The Sulgrave
branch, however, was the most numerous and pros-
perous. From the mayor of Northampton were
descended Sir William Washington, who married
the half-sister of George Yilliers, Duke of Bucking-
ham ; Sir Henry Washington, who made a desper-
ate defence of Worcester against the forces of the
Parliament in 1646 ; Lieutenant - Colonel James
Washington, who fell at the siege of Pontefract,
fighting for King Charles ; another James, of a
later time, who was implicated in Monmouth's re-
bellion, fled to Holland and became the progenitor
of a flourishing and successful family, which has
spread to Germany and there been ennobled ; Sir
Lawrence Washington, of Garsdon, whose grand-
daughter married Robert Shirley, Baron Ferrers ;
and others of less note, but all men of property and
standing. They seem to have been a successful,
thrifty race, owning lands and estates, wise magis-
trates and good soldiers, marrying well, and in-
creasing their wealth and strength from generation
to generation. They were of Norman stock, knights
and gentlemen in the full sense of the word before
the French Revolution, and we can detect in them
here and there a marked strain of the old Norse


blood, carrying with it across the centuries the wild
Berserker spirit which made the adventurous North-
men for centuries the terror of Europe. They were
a strong race evidently, these Washingtons, whom
we see now only by glimpses through the mists of
time, not brilliant apparently, never winning the
very highest fortune, having their failures and re-
verses no doubt, but on the whole prudent, bold
men, always important in their several stations,
ready to fight and ready to work, and as a rule
successful in that which they set themselves to do.

In 1658 the two brothers, John and Lawrence,
appeared in Virginia. They seem to have been
men of substance, for they purchased lands and
established themselves at Bridges Creek, in West-
moreland County. With this brief statement, Law-
rence disappears, leaving us nothing further than
the knowledge that he had numerous descendants.
John, with whom we are more concerned, figures
at once in the colonial records of Maryland. He
made complaint to the Maryland authorities, soon
after his arrival, against Edward Prescott, mer-
chant, and captain of the ship in which he had come
over, for hanging a woman during the voyage for
witchcraft. We have a letter of his, explaining that
he could not appear at the first trial because he was
about to baptize his son, and had bidden the neigh-
bors and gossips to the feast. A little incident
this, dug out of the musty records, but it shows us
an active, generous man, intolerant of oppression,
public-spirited and hospitable, social, and friendly


in his new relations. He soon after was called to
mourn the death of his English wife and of two
children, but he speedily consoled himself by taking
a second wife, Anne Pope, by whom he had three
children, Lawrence, John, and Anne. According
to the Virginian tradition, John Washington the
elder was a surveyor, and made a location of lands
which was set aside because they had been assigned
to the Indians. It is quite apparent that he was
a forehanded person who acquired property and
impressed himself upon his neighbors. In 1667,
when he had been but ten years in the colony, he
was chosen to the House of Burgesses ; and eight
years later he was made a colonel and sent with
a thousand men to join the Marylanders in destroy-
ing the " Susquehannocks," at the " Piscataway "
fort, on account of some murdering begun by an-
other tribe. As a feat of arms, the expedition
was not a very brilliant affair. The Virginians
and Marylanders killed half a dozen Indian chiefs
during a parley, and then invested the fort. After
repulsing several sorties, they stupidly allowed the
Indians to escape in the night and carry murder
and pillage through the outlying settlements, light-
ing up first the flames of savage war and then
the fiercer fire of domestic insurrection. In the
next year we hear again of John Washington in
the House of Burgesses, when Sir William Berke-
ley assailed his troops for the murder of the Indians
during the parley. Popular feeling, however, was
clearly with the colonel, for nothing was done and


the matter dropped. At that point, too, in 1676,
John Washington disappears from sight, and we
know only that as his will was proved in 1677, he
must have died soon after the scene with Berkeley.
He was buried in the family vault at Bridges
Creek, and left a good estate to be divided among
his children. The colonel was evidently both a
prudent and popular man, and quite disposed to
bustle about in the world in which he found him-
self. He acquired lands, came to the front at once
as a leader although a new-comer in the country,
was evidently a fighting man as is shown by his
selection to command the Virginian forces, and was
honored by his neighbors, who gave his name to
the parish in which he dwelt. Then he died and
his son Lawrence reigned in his stead, and became
by his wife, Mildred Warner, the father of John,
Augustine and Mildred Washington.

This second son, Augustine, farmer and planter
like his forefathers, married first Jane Butler, by
whom he had three sons and a daughter, arid sec-
ond, Mary Ball, by whom he had four sons and two
daughters. The eldest child of these second nup-
tials was named George, and was born on Feb-
ruary 11 (O. S.), 1732, at Bridges Creek. The
house in which this event occurred was a plain,
wooden farmhouse of the primitive Virginian pat-
tern, with four rooms on the ground floor, an attic
story with a long, sloping roof, and a massive brick
chimney. Three years after George Washington's
birth it is said to have been burned, and the family


for this or some other reason removed to another
estate in what is now Stafford County. The second
house was like the first, and stood on rising ground
looking across a meadow to the Rappahannock,
and beyond the river to the village of Fredericks-
burg, which was nearly opj)osite. Here, in 1743,
Augustine Washington died somewhat suddenly, at
the age of forty-nine, from an attack of gout
brought on by exposure in the rain, and was bur-
ied with his fathers in the old vault at Bridges
Creek. Here, too, the boyhood of Washington
was passed, and therefore it becomes necessary to
look about us and see what we can learn of this
important period of his life.

We know nothing about his father, except that
he was kindly and affectionate, attached to his wife
and children, and apparently absorbed in the care
of his estates. On his death the children came
wholly under the maternal influence and direction.
Much has been written about the " mother of Wash-
ington," but as a matter of fact, although she lived
to an advanced age, we know scarcely more about
her than we do about her husband. She was of gen-
tle birth, and possessed a vigorous character and a
good deal of business capacity. The advantages of
education were given in but slight measure to the
Virginian ladies of her time, and Mrs. Washing-
ton offered no exception to the general rule. Her
reading was confined to a small number of volumes,
chiefly of a devotional character, her favorite appar-
ently being Hale's " Moral and Divine Contempla-
tions." She evidently knew no language but her


own, and her spelling was extremely bad even in
that age of uncertain orthography. Certain quali-
ties, however, are clear to us even now through all
the dimness. We can see that Mary Washington
was gifted with strong sense, and had the power
of conducting business matters providently and ex-
actly. She was an imperious woman, of strong will,
ruling her kingdom alone. Above all she was very
dignified, very silent, and very sober-minded. That
she was affectionate and loving cannot be doubted,
for she retained to the last a profound hold upon
the reverential devotion of her son, and yet as he
rose steadily to the pinnacle of human greatness,
she could only say that " George had been a good
boy, and she was sure he would do his duty." Not
a brilliant woman evidently, not one suited to shine
in courts, conduct intrigues, or adorn literature, yet
able to transmit moral qualities to her oldest son,
which, mingled with those of the Washingtons, were
of infinite value in the foundation of a great Re-
public. She found herself a widow at an early age,
with a family of young children to educate and
support. Her means were narrow, for although
Auo'ustine Washino-ton was able to leave what was
called a landed estate to each son, it was little more
than idle capital, and the income in ready money
was by no means so evident as the acres.

Many are the myths, and deplorably few the
facts, that have come down to us in regard to
Washington's boyhood. For the former we are
indebted to the illustrious Weems, and to that per-


sonage a few more words must be devoted. Weems
has been held up to the present age in various ways,
usually, it must be confessed, of an unflattering
nature, and " mendacious " is the adjective most
commonly applied to him. There has been in
reality a good deal of needless confusion about
Weems and his book, for he was not a complex
character, and neither he nor his writings are diffi-
cult to value or understand. By profession a clergy-
man or preacher, by nature an adventurer, Weems
loved notoriety, money, and a wandering life. So
he wrote books which he correctly believed would
be popular, and sold them not only through the
regular channels, but by peddling them himself as
he travelled about the country. In this way he
gratified all his propensities, and no doubt derived
from life a good deal of simple pleasure. Chance
brought him near Washington in the closing days,
and his commercial instinct told him that here was
the subject of all others for his pen and his mar-
ket. He accordingly produced the biography which
had so much success. Judged solely as literature,
the book is beneath contempt. The style is turgid,
overloaded, and at times silly. The statements are
loose, the mode of narration confused and incohe-
rent, and the moralizing is flat and commonplace
to the last degree. Yet there was a certain sin-
cerity of feeling underneath all the bombast and
platitudes, and this saved the book. The biography
did not go, and was not intended to go, into the
hands of the polite society of the great eastern


towns. It was meant for the farmers, the pioneers,
and the backwoodsmen of the country. It went
into their homes, and passed with them beyond the
Alleghanies and out to the plains and valleys of
the great West. The very defects of the book
helped it to success among the simple, hard-work-
ing, hard-fighting race engaged in the conquest of
the American continent. To them its heavy and
tawdry style, its staring morals, and its real patri-
otism all seemed eminently befitting the national
hero, and thus Weems created the Washington of
the popular fancy. The idea grew up with the
country, and became so ingrained in the popular
thought that finally everybody was affected by
it, and even the most stately and solemn of the
Washington biographers adopted the unsupported
tales of the itinerant parson and book-peddler.

In regard to the public life of Washington,
Weems took the facts known to every one, and
drawn for the most part from the gazettes. He
then dressed them up in his own peculiar fashion
and gave them to the world. All this, forming of
course nine tenths of his book, has passed, despite
its success, into oblivion. The remaining tenth
described Washington's boyhood until his four-
teenth or fifteenth year, and this, which is the work
of the author's imagination, has lived. Weems,
having set himself up as absolutely the only author-
ity as to this period, has been implicitly followed,
and has thus come to demand serious consideration.
Until Weems is weighed and disposed of, we can-


not even begin an attempt to get at the real Wash^

Weems was not a cold-blooded liar, a mere forger
of anecdotes. He was simply a man destitute of
historical sense, training, or morals, ready to take
the slenderest fact and work it up for the purposes
of the market until it became almost as impossible
to reduce it to its original dimensions as it was for
the fisherman to get the Afrit back into his jar.
In a word, Weems was an approved mythmaker.
No better example can be given than the way in
which he described himself. It is believed that he
preached once, and possibly oftener, to a congrega-
tion which numbered Washington among its mem-
bers. Thereupon he published himself in his book
as the rector of Mount Vernon parish. There was,
to begin with, no such parish. There was Truro
parish, in which was a church called indifferently
Pohick or Mount Vernon church. Of this church
Washington was a vestryman until 1785, when he
joined the church at Alexandria. The Rev. Lee
Massey was the clergyman of the Mount Vernon
church, and the church at Alexandria had nothing
to do with Mount Vernon. There never was, more-
over, such a person as the rector of Mount Vernon
parish, but it was the Weems way of treating his
appearance before the great man, and of deceiving
the world with the notion of an intimacy- which the
title implied.

Weems, of course, had no difficulty with the
public life, but in describing the boyhood he was


thrown on his own resources, and out of them he
evolved the cherry-tree, the refusal to fight or per-
mit fighting among the boys at school, and the
initials in the garden. This last story is to the
effect that Augustine Washington planted seeds in
such a manner that when thoy sprouted they formed
on the earth the initials of liis son's name, and the
boy being much delighted thereby, the father ex-
plained to him that it was the work of the Creator,
and thus inculcated a profound belief in God.
This tale is taken bodily from Dr. Beattie's bio-
graphical sketch of his son, published in England
in 1799, and may be dismissed at once. As to the
other two more familiar anecdotes there is not a
scintilla of evidence that they had any foundation,
and with them may be included the colt story, told
by Mr. Custis, a simple variation of the cherry-tree
theme, which is Washington's early love of truth.
Weems says that his stories were told him by a
lady, and " a good old gentleman," who remem-
bered the incidents, while Mr. Custis gives no au-
thority for his minute account of a trivial event
over a century old when he wrote. To a writer
who invented the rector of Mount Vernon, the fur-
ther invention of a couple of Boswells would be a
trifle. I say Boswells advisedly, for these stories
are told with the utmost minuteness, and the con-
versations between Washington and his father are
given as if from a stenographic report. How Mr.
Custis, usually so accurate, came to be so far in-
fected with the Weems myth as to tell the colt story


after the Weems manner, cannot now be deter-
mined. There can be no doubt that Washington,
like most healthy boys, got into a good deal of mis-
chief, and it is not at all impossible that he injured
fruit-trees and confessed that he had done so. It
may be accepted as certain that he rode and mas-
tered many unbroken thoroughbred colts, and it
is possible that one of them burst a blood-vessel in
the process and died, and that the boy promptly
|( told his mother of the accident. But this is the
utmost credit which these two anecdotes can claim.
Even so much as this cannot be said of certain other
improving tales of like nature. That Washington
lectured his playmates on the wickedness of fight-
ing, and in the year 1754 allowed himself to be
knocked down in the presence of his soldiers, and
thereupon begged his assailant's pardon for having
spoken roughly to him, are stories so silly and so
foolishly impossible that they do not deserve an
instant's consideration.

There is nothing intrinsically impossible in either
the cherry-tree or the colt incident, nor would there
be in a hundred others which might be readily
invented. The real point is that these stories, as
told by Weems and Mr. Custis, are on their face
hopelessly and ridiculously false. They are so, not
merely because they have no vestige of evidence to
support them, but because they are in every word
and line the offspring of a period more than fifty
years later. No English-speaking people, certainly
no Virginians, ever thought or behaved or talked in


1740 like the personages in Weems's stories, what-
ever they may have done in 1790, or at the begin-
ning of the next century. These precious anecdotes
belong to the age of Miss Edgeworth and Hannah
More and Jane Taylor. They are engaging speci-
mens of the " Harry and Lucy " and " Purple Jar "
morality, and accurately reflect the pale didacticism
which became fashionable in England at the close
of the last century. They are as untrue to nature
and to fact at the period to which they are assigned
as would be efforts to depict Augustine Washington
and his wife in the dress of the French revolution
discussing the propriety of worshipping the God-
dess of Reason.

To enter into any serious historical criticism of
these stories would be to break a butterfly. So
much as this even has been said only because these
wretched fables have gone throughout the world,
and it is time that they were swept away into the
dust-heaps of history. They represent Mr. and
Mrs. Washington as affected and priggish people,
given to cheap moralizing, and, what is far worse,
they have served to place Washington himself in
a ridiculous light to an age which has outgrown
the educational foibles of seventy-five years ago.
Augustine Washington and his wife were a gentle-
man and lady of the eighteenth century, living in
Virginia. So far as we know without guessing or
conjecture, they were simple, honest, and straight-
forward, devoted to the care of their family and
estate, and doing their duty sensibly and after the


fashion of their time. Their son, to whom the
greatest wrong has been done, not only never did
anything common or mean, but from the begin-
ning to the end of his life he was never for an in-
stant ridiculous or affected, and he was as utterly
removed from canting or priggishness as any hu-
man being could well be. Let us therefore consign
the Weems stories and their offspring to the limbo
of historical rubbish, and try to learn what the
plain facts tell us of the boy Washington.

Unfortunately these same facts are at first very
few, so few that they tell us hardly anything. We
know when and where Washington was born ; and
how, when he was little more than three years old,^
he was taken from Bridges Creek to the banks of
the Rappahannock. There he was placed under the
charge of one Hobby, the sexton of the parish, to
learn his alphabet and his pothooks ; and when
that worthy man's store of learning was exhausted
he was sent back to Bridges Creek, soon after his
father's death, to live with his half-brother Augus-
tine, and obtain the benefits of a school kept by a
Mr. Williams. There he received what would now
be called a fair common-school education, wholly
destitute of any instruction in languages, ancient
or modern, but apparently with some mathematical
training. "^

That he studied faithfully cannot be doubted,
and we know, too, that he matured early, and was

1 There is a conflict about the period of this removal (see
above, p. 37). Tradition places it in 1735, but the Rev. Mr.
McGuire lUeligious Opinions of Washington) puts it in 1739.


a tall, active, and muscular boy. Pie could outwalk
and outrun and outride any of his companions.
As he could no doubt have thrashed any of them
too, he was, in virtue of these qualities, which are
respected everywhere by all wholesome minds, and
especially by boys, a leader among his school-fel-
lows. We know further that he was honest and
true, and a lad of unusual promise, not because of
the goody-goody anecdotes of the myth-makers, but
because he was liked and trusted by such men as
his brother Lawrence and Lord Fairfax.

There he was, at all events, in his fourteenth
year, a big, strong, hearty boy, offering a serious
problem to his mother, who was struggling along
with many acres, little money, and five children.
Mrs. Washington's chief desire naturally was to
put George in the way of getting a living, which
no doubt seemed far more important than getting
an education, and, as he was a sober-minded boy,
the same idea was probably profoundly impressed
on his own mind also. This condition of domestic
affairs led to the first attempt to give Washington
a start in life, which has been given to us until
very lately in a somewhat decorated form. The
fact is, that in casting about for something to do, it
occurred to some one, very likely to the boy him-
self, that it would be a fine idea to go to sea. His

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryHenry Cabot LodgeGeorge Washington (Volume 1) → online text (page 3 of 22)