S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

The youth of Washington : told in the form of an autobiography online

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3 T1S3 OODSaafl? D



autbor's Definitive ;i6J)ition











Copyright, 1904, by
The Century Co.

Published October, 1904

Ube «nicIiei;I>ocfcer press, tiew Uotrlt







"And if I have done well, and as is fitting the story, it is
that which I desired : but if slenderly and meanly, it is that
which I could attain unto."— 2 Maccabees xv. 38.



MY retirement from official duties as
President has enabled me to restore
order on my plantations, and in some degree
to repair the neglected buildings which are
fallen to decay. The constant coming of
guests— moved, I fear, more by curiosity
than by other reasons— is diminished owing
to snows, unusual at this period of the year.
Owing to these favouring conditions, I
have now some small leisure to reflect on
a life which has been too much one of action
and of public interests to admit, hitherto, of
that kind of retrospection which is natural,
and, as it seems to me, fitting in a man of my
years, who has little to look forward to and
much to look back upon.


My recent uneasiness lest I should be
called upon to conduct a war against our
old allies, the French, is much abated, and
I feel more free to consider my private
affairs. I am too far advanced in the vale
of life to bear much buffeting, and I have
satisfaction in the belief we have escaped
a new war for which the nation has not yet
the strength. For sure I am, if this coun-
try is preserved in tranquillity twenty years
longer, it may bid defiance in a just cause
to any powers whatever, such in that time
will be its power, wealth, and resources.

Increasing infirmity and too frequent
aches and ailments remind me that I am
nearing the awful moment when I must
bid adieu to sublunary things, and appear
before that Divine Being to whom alone
my country owes the success with which we
have been blessed. But the great Disposer
of events is also the Being who has formed
the instruments of his will and left them re-
sponsible to the arbitration of conscience.
Therefore I have of late spent much time in
considering my past life, and how it might
have been better or more successful, and in
thankfulness that it has escaped many pit-


My reflections have brought back to mind
a remark which seems to me just, made by
my aide, Colonel Tilghman, a man more
given to philosophic reflection than I have
been. He asked me if I did not think there
was something providential in the way each
period of my life had been an education for
that which followed it. I said that this idea
had at times presented itself to my mind,
and when I betrayed curiosity, he went on
to say that my very early education in self-
reliance and my training as a surveyor of
wild lands had fitted me for frontier war-
fare, that this in turn had prepared me
for action on a larger stage, and that
all through the greater war my necessities
called for constant dealing with political
questions, and with men who were not sol-
diers. He thought that this had in turn
educated me for the position to which
my countrymen summoned me at a later

As I was silent for a little, this gentleman,
who became my aide-de-camp in June, 1780,
and for whom I conceived a warm and last-
ing affection, thinking his remark might
have been considered a liberty, said as much,
excusing himself.


I replied that, so far from annoying me,
I found what he had to say interesting.

When, recently, these remarks of Colo-
nel Tilghman recurred to me, I felt that
they were correct, and dwelling upon them
at this remote time, my interest in the se-
quence of the events of my youthful life
assumed an importance which has led me
of late to endeavour, with the aid of my
diaries, to refresh my memories of a past
which had long ceased to engage my at-

I remember writing once that any recol-
lections of my later life, distinct from the
general history of the war, would rather
hurt my feelings than tickle my pride while
I lived. I do not think vanity is a trait of
my character. I would rather leave pos-
terity to think and say what they please of
me. Those who served with me in war and
peace will be judged as we become sub-
jects of history, and time may unfold more
than prudence ought to disclose. Concern-
ing this matter I wrote to Colonel Hum-
phreys that if I had talent for what he
desired me to do, I had not leisure to turn
my thoughts to commentaries. Conscious-
ness of a defective education, and want of
leisure, I thought, unfitted me for such an


undertaking. I did, however, answer cer-
tain questions put to me by Colonel Hum-
phreys concerning the Indian wars, but he
has, so far, made no use of these notes.

One of these considerations does not so
much apply at present, for I possess the
leisure, and in recording my early reminis-
cences I shall do so for myself alone, and
assuredly shall find no satisfaction in com-
ments on the conduct of other oJGficers who,
like myself, were honestly engaged in learn-
ing, and at the same time practising, a busi-
ness in which none of us had a large
experience. I shall confine my attention
to recalling the events of my youth, and
as I hate deception even where the imagi-
nation only is concerned, I shall try, for
my own satisfaction, to deal merely with
facts. General Hamilton, whose remarks
I have often just reason to remember, once
wrote me that no man had ever written a
true biography of himself, that he was apt
to blame himself excessively or to be too
much prone to self-defence. He went on
to state that an autobiography was written
either from vanity and to present the man
favourably to posterity, or because he de-
sired for his own pleasure in the study of
himself to recall the events of his career.


In the latter case there is no need of pub-

It is only in order to such self-examina-
tion as that to which he refers that I am
induced to set down the remembrances of
my earlier days, and because writing of
them will, I feel, enable me more surely to
bring them back to mind. I have no other

Whatever just ambitions I have had have
been fully gratified ; indeed, far beyond my
wishes. The great Searcher of hearts is my
witness that I have now no wish which
aspires beyond the humble and happy lot
of living and dying a private citizen on
my own farm. In my estimation, more
permanent and genuine happiness is to be
found in the sequestered walks of connubial
life, so long denied me in the war, than in
the more tumultuous and imposing scenes
of successful ambition. Nor can I complain.
I am retiring here within myself. Envious
of none, I am determined to be pleased with
all; and with heartfelt satisfaction, feeling
that my life has been on the whole happy, I
will move gently down the stream until I
sleep with my fathers.

There are indeed not many circumstances


in my life before the war which it now gives
me pain to recall. I could not truthfully say
this of that great contest, nor of the political
struggles of my service as President. Mr.
Adams, or perhaps Mr. Jefferson, once said
of me that I was a man too sensitive to con-
demnation. This I believe to be correct, but
I have not discovered that my ability to de-
cide was ever largely affected by either un-
reasonable blame or the bribes of flattery.

The treachery of men who professed for
me friendship, and the intrigues of those
who, like Conway, Lee, Gates, and Rush,
used ignoble means to weaken my authority
when it was of the utmost importance to our
common cause that it should be strength-
ened, were calculated to give pain chiefly
because they lessened my usefulness. Nor
am I ever willing to dwell upon the treason
of Arnold, which cost me the most painful
duty of the war, and lost to the country a
great soldier, who had not the virtue to
wait until, in the course of events, his ser-
vices would obtain their reward. It is, how-
ever, somewhat to be wondered at that in so
long a war, where hope did at times seem
to disappear, the catalogue of traitors was
so small. It is strange that there were not


more, for few men have virtue to withstand
the highest bidder. As to ill-natured and
unjust reflections on my conduct, I feel, and
have felt, everything that hurts the sensi-
bility of a gentleman, but to persevere in
one's duty and be silent is the best answer
to calumny.

Dr. Franklin has wisely said that no
examples are so useful to a man as those
which his own conduct affords, and that
he was right in his opinion I have reason
to believe. This I have observed to be true
of anger, to which I am, or was, subject.
I flatter myself that I have now learned to
command my temper, although it is still on
rare occasions likely to become mutinous. I
do not observe that mere abuse ever troubles
me long, but in the presence of cowardice
or ingratitude I am subject to fits of rage.

Arnold's treason distressed me, but the
treachery of one of my cabinet, Edmund
Randolph, the nephew and adopted son of
my dear friend Peyton Randolph, disturbed
my temper as nothing had done since the
misconduct of Lee at Monmouth. If in any
instance I was swayed by personal and pri-
vate feelings in the exercise of official
patronage and power, it was in the case of


Mr. Randolph; and this fact added to the
anger which his conduct excited.

I willingly turn from the remembrance
of ingratitude, a sin that my soul abhors.
It is a severe tax which all must occasion-
ally pay who are called to eminent stations
of trust, not only to be held up as con-
spicuous marks to the enmity of the public
adversaries of their country, but to the
malice of secret traitors, and the envious
intrigues of false friends and factions. But
all this is over. I willingly leave time and
my country to pronounce the verdict of

As I wrote what just now I have set down,
a remark of Mr. John Adams came into my
mind. He said it was difficult for a man to
write about himself without feeling that he
was all the time in the presence of an audi-
ence. This may be true of Mr. Adams, but
I am not aware that it is true of me.

The statement I shall now record of
myself and for myself might be made very
full as to events by the use of the details
of my diaries, but this I desire to avoid. My
intention is to deal chiefly with my own
youthful life and the influences which af-
fected it for good or for ill.


BEING without children to transmit my
name, I have taken no great interest in
learning much about my ancestors. I have,
indeed, been too much concerned with larger
matters. It is, however, far from my design
to believe that heraldry, coat-armour, etc.,
might not be rendered conducive to public
and private uses with us, or that they can
have any tendency unfriendly to the purest
spirit of republicanism ; nor does it seem to
me that pride in being come of gentry and
of dutiful and upright men is without its
value, if we draw from an honourable past
nourishment to sustain us in continuing to
be what our forefathers were. This also
should make men who have children the
more careful as to their own manner of life,
and as for myself, although denied this
great blessing, I may perhaps wisely have
been destined to feel that all my country-
men were to me something more than my



I have heard my half-brother Lawrence
say that he had learned from his elders
that my English ancestors were violent
Loyalists, especially one Sir Henry Wash-
ington, when the great struggle arose be-
tween the Parliament and the King in the
time of the Commonwealth.

I recall that, when a young man, I was
riding with my friend George Mason, and
when this matter arose, and he asked me
whether if I had lived in those days I should
have been for the crown or the commons, I
replied that if I had lived in that time I
could have answered him, but that I was not
enough informed concerning that period to
be able to state on which side I should have
been. Certainly I should have found it hard
to make war on the King.

I profess myself to be ignorant as to
much that concerns my ancestry. When too
young to have the smallest interest in the
matter, I heard my two half-brothers and
William Fairfax conversing on the subject
of the origin of my family. The brothers
were not very clear as to our descent, but
were of opinion that we came of the Wash-
ingtons of Sulgrave, originally of Lanca-
shire. In 1791 the Garter king-at-arms, Sir


Isaac Heard, wrote to me, sending a pedi-
gree of my family; but I had to confess it
was a subject to which I had given very lit-
tle attention; in fact, except as to our later
history, I could only say that we came from
Lancashire, Yorkshire, or some still more
northerly county.

Most of the early colonists of all classes
were too busy in fighting Indians and rais-
ing the means of living to concern them-
selves with the relatives left in England.
This indifference was not uncommon among
us, and was in those early days to be ex-
pected. It explains why we and other de-
scendants of settlers knew, and indeed
cared, too little about our ancestors.

I do not know what exactly was the sta-
tion of the father of the brothers who first
came over— John, my ancestor, and Law-
rence, his brother. It is of more moment
to me to know that my forefathers in this
country have been gentlemen, and have in
many positions of trust, both in civil employ
and in the military line, served the colonies
and, later, their country with faithfulness
and honour.

As concerns the question of ancestry and
a man's judging of himself by that alone.


I am much of Colonel Tilghman's opinion,

who once said to me, speaking of Mr. B ,

that when a man had to look back upon his
ancestors to make himself sure he was a gen-
tleman, he was but a poor sort of man, which
I conceive to be true.

My great-grandfather, John Washington,
the first emigrant of our name, was the son
of Lawrence and Amphilis, his wife. He
went first to the Barbados, but, not being
pleased, came later to Virginia; that is, in

It is certain that my great-grandfather
in some respects possessed qualities which
resembled those which I myself possess.
He was a man of great personal strength,
inclined to war, very resolute, and of a mas-
terful and very violent temper. He was
accused in 1675 of too severe treatment of
the Indians in the frontier wars against the
Susquehannocks, for which he was repri-
manded by Sir William Berkeley, but, it is
said, unjustly. He was a man had in es-
teem and most respectable, and held a seat
in the Assembly in 1670. He was also of a
nature greatly moved by injustice, for on his
voyage to Virginia a poor woman on board
the ship was hanged for a witch, and he


made great efforts, on being come ashore, to
have the master and crew punished. I find
in myself the same anger at injustice.

It is proper to add that there was current
in the colony a story that, on account of
his rigour with the Indians, he was called
by them Conocatorius, which, Englished,
means a Destroyer of Villages. The Half-
King, an Indian chief so called, hearing my
name when first we met, addressed me by
this title. There must have been among
these tribes a remembrance or tradition as
to the name, for certainly I never deserved
it, and that after so long a time it should
have been remembered appears to me

My great-grandfather's brother Law-
rence was engaged for a time in the mer-
cantile way, and at one time signed himself
as of Luton, County Bradford, merchant.
He made some voyages to Virginia and
home again before he settled in the colony,
and may have acquired land in England,
for, as I shall state later, he devised real
estate in the home country.

As I speak of the home country, I am
reminded that even after the War of Inde-
pendency the habit of speaking of England


as home prevailed with many, so strong
was the attachment to the mother country;
and, indeed, nothing but the folly of Great
Britain could have broken the bonds which
united us.

My great-grandfather, John Washing-
ton, brought with him a wife from England.
Her maiden name I do not know. She and
her two children died within a few years
of his landing. The brothers mention in
their wills property in England, but where
or exactly what it was they do not say. It
would seem, therefore, that it was not pov-
erty which drove my ancestor to emigrate.
That this property was not mere money,
the proceeds of tobacco, appears to be
shown by the will of my great-grandfather's
brother Lawrence, who devised to Mary, his
daughter, his whole estate in England, real
as well as personal.

My great-grandfather married secondly
the widow of Walter Broadhurst, daughter
of Nathaniel Pope of Appomattocks, gen-
tleman. My grandfather Lawrence was the
first born of this marriage. My great-
grandfather died in 1677. He was of that
importance as to have named for him the
parish in which he resided. The brothers


were not the only ones of the name who
came to Virginia. There was also a cousin,
Martha Washington. She emigrated to Vir-
ginia and married Nicholas Hayward of
Westmoreland. How it was that, being a
spinster, she came over alone, I am not in-
formed. She left her property to her cou-
sins John and Lawrence, and a gold twenty-
shilling piece to each, and to their sons
each a feather bed and furniture, and to
their heirs forever— which does appear to
me long for a bed to last.

There were also others, but if related I
have not felt concerned to inquire. They
spelled the name Vysington in certain
deeds, which I have heard was the ancient
manner of spelling it. Of them I know
nothing further. My great-grandfather left
a legacy to the rector of the lower church of
Washington parish, and ordered that a fu-
neral sermon be preached, which appears to
me, as Lord Fairfax said, to be a certain
way to secure being well spoken of, at least
once, after death. He also provided in his
will for a tablet of the Ten Commandments,
and also the king 's arms, to be set up in the
church of his parish.


He may have been led to come to Vir-
ginia by the fact that it had become for
men loyal to the crown and to the Church
of England a refuge such as the Puritans
sought in Massachusetts. We have ever
since been connected with that Church, nor
have I found reason to depart from it. At
times I have been a vestiyman, but this was
in those days also a civil office, having judi-
cial duties, such as charge of the schools and
of the poor of the parish.

My connection with the Church of my
fathers has varied in interest from time to
time, for, although I have at times partaken
of the sacrament and even fasted, I have
not always felt so inclined, although I have
with reasonable punctuality attended upon
the services. I have had all my life a dis-
inclination to converse on this subject, and
confess, as Dr. Franklin once remarked to
me, that ''silence is sometimes wisdom as
concerns a man 's creed. ' '

In considering so much of my family his-
tory as is known to me, I perceive that men
married at an early age and remained no
long time widowers. Also I observe that
many children died young, as was like


enough to happen on plantations remote
from physicians, and indeed these were few
in number and not as good as in the north-
em colonies.

I know less of my grandfather Lawrence
than of his father. He did not increase the
importance of the family, neither was he
inclined to public business. He was, as I
have understood, a quiet, thrifty man, and
no seeker of adventure by land or water.
He married Mildred Warner, by whom he
had children, and died leaving a competent
estate, but none to be compared with the
great lands accumulated by the Byrds or

I conceive him to have been a person of
moderate opinions concerning the Church
of England, and as one who may have con-
sidered the dissenting sects as ill used. This
I gather from a book given to me three
years ago by a gentleman of Philadelphia,
of the Society of Friends, who would have
had me to believe that my grandfather was
of that sect. This book is the life of one
John Fothergill, a Quaker preacher, who
says that in 1720 he ' ' held a meeting at Mat-
tocks, at Justice Washington's, a friendly
man, where the Love of God opened my


heart toward the people, much to my com-
fort and their satisfaction." I do not sup-
pose it to have meant more than that, as the
church could not be used by a dissenter, Jus-
tice Washington willingly gave the good
man the use of his own house.


MY father, Augustine, was born in 1694,
on the plantation known as Wake-
field, granted, in 1667, to his grandfather,
and lying between Bridges' and Pope's
creeks, in Westmoreland, on the north neck
between the Potomac and the Rappahan-
nock. My father, in his will, says: '' For-
asmuch as my several children in this my
will mentioned, being by several Ventures,
cannot inherit from one another," etc.

What he speaks of as his "Ventures"
were his two marriages. A venture does ap-
pear to me to be an appropriate name for
the uncertain state of matrimony. The first
"venture" was Jane Butler, who lies buried
at Wakefield. Of her four children two
survived— that is, my half-brothers Law-
rence and Augustine, whom we called Aus-
tin. I was the first child of my father's
second "venture," and my mother was
Mary Ball. I was born at Wakefield,^ on

1 This estate was bought by my father from his
brother John.



February 11 [0. S.], 1732, about ten in the
morning. I was baptized in the Pope's
Creek church, and had two godfathers and
one godmother, Mildred Gregory. Mr.
Beverly "WTiiting and Mr. Christopher
Brooks were my godfathers. I do not re-
call ever seeing Mr. Wliiting, although his
son, of the same name, I met in after years.
Of Mr. Brooks I know nothing, nor do I
know which one of the two gave me the
silver cups which it was then the custom for
the godfather to give to the godson. I still
have them. I was told by a silversmith in
Philadelphia that the cups are of Irish
make, and of about 1720. There were six of
these mugs, in order to be used for punch
when the child grew up.

The Balls were respectable, and came
out first as merchants. My maternal grand-
mother we know to have been Mary John-
son, of English birth, but of her family
nothing more. At a later time the older
planter families, both with us and in the
West Indies, paid more attention to their
ancestry, sometimes, it is to be feared, with
pretensions which had no just foundation.

Many assumed arms to which they were
not entitled, or, like Mr. J n, commis-


sioned an agent in London to purchase
some heraldic device, having Mr. Sterne's
word for it that "a coat of arms may be
purchased as cheap as any other coat."

I have had some reason to believe that
our friends did not regard my mother's
family, being in the mercantile line, as on
the same social level as our own. But, in
fact, we ourselves were not until a later
day considered as of the highest class of
Virginia gentry. Why this was I do not
fully know. It is certain, however, that
nowhere were aristocratic pretensions and
the distinctions of social rank more marked
than in Virginia. For a long time families
like the Lees, Byrds, Carys, Masons, etc.,
regarded themselves as superior to other
planter families, of as good or better

The lines of social rank among us I judge
to have been made early to depend on extent
of landed property, so that the owners of
these vast estates were like great nabobs,
and by having seats and control in the gov-

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Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellThe youth of Washington : told in the form of an autobiography → online text (page 1 of 13)