Virginia F. (Virginia Frances) Townsend.

Our presidents: or, The lives of twenty-three presidents of the United States online

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Copyright, 1888, by

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On the last day of April, 1889, our country will have had a
century of Presidents. Yet it is improbable that the majority
of Americans will, on that day, be aware that it is one of the
great dates of history. For it will then be a hundred years
since George Washington took the oath of office as first Presi-
dent of the United States.

The great historic scene, with all its circumstances and sur-
roundings, is familiar to us. We still see the tall, stately
figure, the grave, striking face, as Washington, " in his dress
of American manufacture," stood before the awed, breathless
crowds of that old New York, the chief actor in a drama
such as the world had never before witnessed.

It is evident that our first President must have taken his
oath of office with feelings which could never be wholly re-
flected by any of those who came after him.

Yet I think, if he could at that hour have looked down
the long line of his twenty-one successors, it would have glad-
dened his soul to know how many of these would make it their
supreme aim to serve their country so far as lay in them
with his own wise, far-seeing statesmanship, and his own simple,
patriotic devotion.

The man or woman to whose lot it shall fall to write the
biographies of the Presidents of a second century, will, it is
hoped, find as much worthy of honor and praise, as the author
of these brief sketches has found. It must also be true in that
far-off day, as in the present one, that " those who think best
of men judge them most truly."

V. F. T.



George Washington '

John Adams 2 4

Thomas Jefferson 59

James Madison I0 3

James Monroe I2 3

John Quincv Adams l 4 2

Andrew Jackson 1 1 I

Martin Van Euren 22 4

William Henry Harrison 2 3 2

John Tyler 2 4 :

James Knox Polk 2 4 8

Z achary Taylor 2 54

Millard Fillmore 2f> 3

Franklin Pierce 26 9

James Buchanan 2 75

Abraham Lincoln 2Sl

Andrew Johnson 37

Ulysses S. Grant 3*7

Rutherford Birchard Hayes 337

James Abram Garfield 344

Chester Alan Arthur 3& 1

Grover Cleveland 37

Benjamin Harrison 37i



It is not impossible that some persons who have heard
George Washington speak may be alive at this day.

As his death, however, took place a fortnight before the
close of the last century, it is doubtful whether any memory now
retains an echo of the voice which must have been heard, if at
all, in the far, dim morning of childhood.

But while it is true that George Washington died less than
ninety years ago, we know almost as little of his childhood as
we do of Shakspere's.

The few anecdotes which have floated down to us are of
doubtful authenticity. This fact appears the more singular
because he lived in a region where family traditions and records
are cherished with utmost pride and care.

One cannot help wishing that some neighbor might have
had a prescience of the future greatness of that young boy
who was playing in the Westmoreland meadows. If his stately
mother, Mary Ball Washington, had only kept a journal of
those early years of her first-born child ! Or if, long after, it
had occurred to the wife to take down from her husband's lips
some of the stories she, at least, must have heard ! For in that
happy, closing year of his life, when his soul was at peace, and
no sound of war was in the air, and the two sat around the fire-
side at Mount Vernon, the heart of the man must have been

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sometimes stirred with memories of his youth. Story and anec-
dote of one sort and another would be sure to follow. All these
would have been precious to later generations. But, at that
time, the pen work of American women was, with rare excep-
tions, limited to occasional family and friendly letters.

Every child knows the date of the birthday which gives him
his first holiday after New Year's. On the winter morning of
February 22, 1732, George Washington first saw the light in
the low, steep-roofed home which stood a story and a half high
on Bridge's Creek, and which was flanked at either end by
immense chimneys.

A little later his baby eyes were probably dazzled by the
flames in which that old roof-tree went down. His earliest
memories and associations must have centered about the home
on the Rappahannock, to which his family soon removed.

George Washington had been born into a good place. He
came of a stanch, vigorous, energetic English breed. The
atmosphere in which his childhood opened was a simple and
wholesome one.

All the influences about his early years must have been of a
pure, sound, elevating character. A home where the conscience
was so early appealed to, and the best instincts developed,
would not, as in so many instances, leave much for later years
to painfully and laboriously unlearn.

His early boyhood must have been a healthy, happy one,
crowded with hearty, robust activities and sports in the outdoor
world that lay so fair and vast about him ; the dark, solemn
wildernesses stretching away to unknown horizons, while the
great snow-daisied meadow which formed the scene of his
childish sports sloped down to the swift- glancing, brown-gleam-
ing Rappahannock.

When the boy reached his eleventh year death crossed the
threshold. At that time his father died. Through all his

George Washington.

busy, crowded life George Washington's memory must often
have reverted to the day when his mother sat a widow among
her group of young children, and looked on him, her first-born,
through her tear-dimmed eyes. He must have felt then the
boy always grave and thoughtful beyond his years a sudden
access of responsibility. His father's mantle had, in some way,
fallen on his young shoulders.

After this time the current of George Washington's life,
which thus far has flowed hidden and silent among his early
years, leaps out, a sparkling joyous current, into the sunshine.

George had two half-brothers the father having been twice
married. Laurence, the elder, wedded the young daughter of
the Fairfaxes. This brought the boy of eleven into family
relations with all that was most refined and elegant in the old
colonial society of Virginia.

The eldest of Augustine Washington's sons inherited the
fine qualities of his race ; he had the cultivated tastes and habits
acquired at Oxford, where, after the fashion of the time, he
had been sent as the eldest son to complete his education. He
was fourteen years the senior of George, who adored his splen-
did elder brother, accomplished by study, travel, and foreign
society. Laurence appears to have been worthy of this admira-
tion, and the young brother sought to form his own life and
character after the example constantly before him.

Laurence inherited from his father, who left large landed
estates, a noble domain on the banks of the Potomac. It was
called Hunting Creek ; but Laurence, in honor of the admiral
under whom he had served in the West Indies, named his estate
Mount Vernon, little dreaming of the world-wide celebrity it
was fated to attain.

At Belvoir, only a few miles distant, the Fairfaxes had their
home, which, in its luxurious appointments, as well as in its
domestic and social habits, must have greatly resembled an

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English country-seat of that day. The house was filled with
gay young Fairfaxes, and George, closely connected with their
elder sister, made frequent visits to Belvoir as well as to Mount
Vernon. He lived awhile, too, with Augustine, the younger
of the half-brothers, and attended Mr. Williams' school. This
was, no doubt, an improvement on the one to which he had
been first sent, kept by the sexton, where he had learned to
read and write, and had studied the rudiments of arithmetic.

George Washington was intended by his family for a Vir-
ginia planter ; his education was conducted with sole reference
to this fact. It was of the most practical kind. Nobody
appears to have thought of sending the eldest son of the second
wife of Augustine Washington to Oxford, to follow in the steps
of his half-brother. George learned early to draw up all varie-
ties of business documents. In this work he showed remark-
able skill and thoroughness. His exercise-books, written in a
large, bold hand, still remain, and are models of their kind.
What is more remarkable, and more precious still, as furnishing
a keynote to his character and temperament, are the hundred
and ten rules on morals and manners which the exercise-book

Some of these rules are of the most minute and painstaking
kind. They show a deep conscientiousness, and a patience,
thoroughness, and scrupulous regard for details, most unusual
in a boy of the writer's age. His rigid training was no doubt
partly responsible for this.

For there was a good deal of the stuff of a Roman matron
in that Virginia widow who was bringing up her young family on
the banks of the Rappahannock. The domestic manners were
formal and ceremonious, and would appear to our free-and-easy
life burdensome and absurd; but beneath all the formality,
beautiful and sterling virtues flourished vigorously.

Augustine Washington, the father of George, had given

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the highest proof of his confidence in his wife's character and
abilities, by appointing her guardian of their children.

George Washington was, in his early teens, a large-limbed,
powerful young fellow, with a grave, thoughtful face, with blue
eyes and brown hair. He was singularly quiet, shy, and keenly
observant. He had no brilliant conversational gifts, though he
had a quiet sense of humor. The thing about him most likely
to strike an observer was his immense enjoyment of all out-door
sports and games. He was a splendid athlete. In all exercises
which required long-breathing power, steady nerves, and well-
trained muscles, George Washington won the prize among his
young companions. Here he showed to much better advantage
than he did in the gay drawing-room at Belvoir, where his native
shyness often made the tall, grave, handsome youth silent and

Those who knew him best were quite aware that under the
silence and shyness were a strong will and a swift temper ; and
whatever confidence they may have had in his word, they were
not likely to regard him as a youthful saint.

The air about him at that time must have been heated with
war-tales. Indeed, his childhood had been filled with stories
of Indian ravages on the border, told probably in the long
winter evenings when the household sat about the fire, and the
flames roared in the big chimney.

Among the daisies of the old Westmoreland meadow he had,
a mere child, formed his companies and drilled his small
playfellows. Anybody who had watched their maneuvers
must have felt there was the making of a soldier in that young

But Mrs. Washington cherished other than military ambi-
tions for her son. The dearest wish of her heart was that he
should follow in the steps of his father, become the head of
the household, and a Virginia planter.

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This desire once briefly and reluctantly yielded to her son's
wishes, backed, no doubt, by Laurence's influence. The latter
inherited the martial spirit of his race. English naval officers,
with whom he had served in the West Indies, were frequent
guests at Mount Vernon. Here the talk could not fail to run
much upon military affairs. George, thrown at his impressible
age into this society, must have been greatly stirred by it.
His soul took fire. At fourteen it must always be borne in
mind that he looked and seemed older than his birthdays a
passion to enter the navy took possession of him. This was a
cruel frustration of all the mother's hopes. Everybody knows
the story of the consent won from her unwilling lips, and how,
at the last moment, when the midshipman's warrant had been
procured, and the trunk was on board the ship-of-war, her heart
failed her. She withdrew her consent. It must have been a
cruel blow to a boy of fourteen, his soul on fire with dreams of
future honor and glory to be won in his new career. But he
does not appear to have rebelled ; he was made of the same
stuff as his mother ; he returned to school ; he studied survey-
ing ; he took great delight in it, and soon became an admirable
scholar in this department-

When George Washington was sixteen a new figure comes
into the foreground of his life, the figure of one destined to
have a commanding influence on all the years of that opening
manhood. This was Lord Thomas Fairfax. He was a man of
singular character and history. He came to America to visit
his cousins at Belvoir, and to look over the immense landed
estates which he had inherited from his mother, and which
were under the care of his cousin, William Fairfax, Laurence
Washington's father-in-law.

The advent of the shrewd, eccentric old nobleman at Bel-
voir, with his knowledge of courts, of the army, of the world,
must have created a profound sensation. It could not have

George Washington.

been long before he and George Washington met. Lord Fair-
fax soon discovered that the tall, shy youth of sixteen had some
traits in common with his own. Each had the same delight in
the wide, free life of the fields and woods ; each had a passion,
too, for hunting the game to cover.

These common sympathies brought the polished English
nobleman and the shy Westmoreland youth much together.
Out of this friendship grew an event of vast consequence to
young Washington's future.

Immense tracts of Lord Fairfax's estate lay in the Shenan-
doah Valley, beyond the great walls of the Blue Ridge. No-
body knew their extent ; very few cared about it. Pioneers
from the northern colonies, especially from Pennsylvania,
attracted by the beauty and fertility of the land, established
themselves wherever they chose, in utter disregard of the own-
er's title.

Lord Fairfax at length resolved to have his estates surveyed.
He actually proposed that the boy of sixteen, with whom he
had hunted in the Virginia woods, should undertake this im-
mense task.

In March, 1748, the little party set out on its perilous jour-
ney into the primeval wildernesses. Washington was accom-
panied by young Fairfax, the brother of Laurence's wife and
six years George's senior. It is said that the young explorers
were much attached to each other.

If the trip was full of perils and hardships, it had also im-
mense fascinations for youth and health and courage. Washing-
ton now had his first taste of that frontier life of which he was
to have so varied an experience. He learned what keen
pleasure it was " to sleep on the hard ground, lying well
wrapped before a blazing fire, with no roof but the skies."

The small party which accompanied Washington did good
work at the surveying, in which he appears to have taken the

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lead. His diligent study served him well now Some days,
we read, he earned twenty dollars immense wages at that
time for a youth of sixteen.

But there was much rough experience to encounter. The
wild March storms often burst furiously upon the little
party. They were forced to swim their horses over rivers
swollen by freshets. At other times they hunted the game with
which the woods abounded, and, in one place, where the com-
pany had halted, the Indians came in suddenly from the war-
path. But they must have been friendly, for they treated the
pale-faces to a war-dance. A youth of sixteen would not be
likely to forget the weird, savage horror of that scene in the
primeval wilderness.

When he returned to Lord Fairfax, George Washington's
school-days were over. He had performed his task so well
that he soon afterward received a commission from the gov-
ernor as public surveyor.

The three following years were spent in congenial work.
This life of field and wilderness educated George Washington
for his future career as no books, no teachers could have done.
It laid the foundations of his splendid health ; it steadied his
nerves, until no roar of wild beast, no war-whoop of savages,
could shake their trained calmness ; it fitted him for all the
hardships and exigencies of the soldier's life ; it inured him
alike to summer's heat and winter's cold, while it made him
keen to detect any danger, and swift and brave to meet it.

But those three years were not all spent in the wilderness.
They were brightened by frequent visits to his mother, to
Mount Vernon, to Belvoir. The young surveyor also visited
Lord Fairfax in the cabin he had built in the Shenandoah Val-
ley, and pored over the volumes which the nobleman had
brought from England.

While Washington was busy with his government surveys,

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the events which were to form so thrilling a chapter in Ameri-
can history were coming to the front.

Two nations had long been bent on obtaining supremacy in
America. The English had planted their colonies along the
Atlantic coast and "guarded the front door of the American
continent." The French had held steadily to their plans of
building forts in the interior. They meant the chain should
be secure not a link missing from Canada to Louisiana.

Of course each nation had followed the bent of its own
genius in laying the foundations for its supremacy in America.
The English planted their farms and built their towns ; the
French raised forts and established trading-posts. Every year
the English pushed deeper into the lonely forests and stretched
their clearings farther to the west. One almost seems to catch
from that far-away time the ringing of the axe in the wilderness,
the hum of busy industry, and the old songs with which the
brave pioneers set to their work, resolved, with Anglo-Saxon
grit, that the fair land beyond the Alleghanies should be theirs
and their children's forever.

But another race, with all its old Gallic courage and shrewd-
ness, was there too. It had pre-empted the land, and it had
come to stay. It perceived with alarm and wrath that each
year the English clearings drew nearer to the French posts,
over which the Bourbon lilies waved in the great interior, west
of the Appalachian Range.

Then there were the Indians a foe that English and
French must alike count with. The savages regarded both the
white races with jealousy and rage that often flamed up in terri-
ble vengeance.

The pale-faces were to the tribes the foreign and hated
foe who had seized their ancient hunting grounds. But the
Indians sided sometimes with the French, sometimes with the
English, as interest or caprice dictated ; while frequent and

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bloody wars between the tribes weakened their numbers and
wasted their strength.

Meanwhile, the great aim of each race was to secure pos-
session of the Ohio Valley. Each, as we have seen, set about
achieving its purpose by characteristic methods. The French
steadily added to the number of their forts in the interior ; the
English organized the Ohio Company. Laurence Washington
was the head of this company. Events were marching rapidly.
It was evident that the immense area of the Ohio Valley was
to be the scene of a fierce struggle for dominion.

All this sounds strange and remote as the Wars of the Roses.
Yet these things happened, we have to tell ourselves, only in
the last century, and when that was just crossing its meridian.

The colonies now took the alarm. There was talk of war on
every side. Military drills suddenly became the fashion in the
quiet old Virginia towns. It was significant that at this time
George Washington began to study military treatises and take
lessons in sword exercise.

But all this was brought to a sudden close by the alarming
condition of Laurence Washington's health, impaired by his
life in the West Indies. He was forced at this juncture to
leave his young wife and daughter and go to Barbadoes for the
winter. His brother accompanied him.

This was the only time in which George Washington ever
set foot on any soil but his native one. During this absence
he had two experiences, widely unlike. He took the small-pox,
and always retained slight marks of it ; he visited the theater
for the first time.

But the invalid's health did not permanently rally ; he
barely reached Mount Vernon to die there in July, 175 -

George Washington's heart and hands must have been full
at this time. The youth of twenty was appointed one of the
executors of Laurence's estate, and in case the young daughter

George Washington. 1 1

died Mount Vernon was to revert to the brother, between
whom and her father had existed so close an affection. Wash-
ington now went to live at Mount Vernon. It was to be home
to him for the rest of his life.

The story of the years that followed is crowded with pict-
uresque events, and is full of breathless interest. It fires one's
heart to read of that time. But to dwell on it would be to
expand this sketch to a volume. To this period belongs that
expedition to the French out-posts which runs like a romance.
Washington accomplished the journey amid every conceivable
peril over ice-bound rivers, through frozen wildernesses. At
last the young American confronted the wily, polished French
officers in their own quarters, and amid their Indian allies.
He found himself forced to match his coolness, his inborn can-
dor, his untried sagacity, with veterans trained in camps, and
with treacherous savages. It was a wonder that he ever lived
to relate his return from the lonely out-post. " The terrible
hardships broke down even the strong pack-horses. Wash-
ington and Christopher Gist, the seasoned frontiersman who
accompanied him, were forced to alight, leave the rest of the
party to come on by slower stages, while the pair struck into
the snow-bound wilderness on foot. At one point in this jour-
ney the Indian guide, believing the white men in his power,
attempted to shoot them." Washington escaped all these dan-
gers to barely save himself from drowning when he slipped
from the raft of logs into the icy current of the Alleghany. It
seemed at that critical moment that the life which was yet to
prove so infinitely precious to his country was hardly worth a
pin's fee.

But he gained the settlements at last, much exhausted
though not permanently injured by that terrible journey. A
little later he reached the capital and laid the results of his
mission before the governor of the colony. He had executed his

1 2 Our Presidents.

delicate and trying task with astonishing tact and sagacity. From
that moment he was, we read, " the rising hope of Virginia."

A lowering May morning of 1754 forms an important date
in American history and in the life of George Washington.
At that time the first gun was fired in the long contest between
the English and French for possession of the Ohio Valley.
Washington was in that battle. Young Jumonville, the French
commander, was killed. The Americans won the victory, and
sent twenty-one prisoners to the colony.

''I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is
something charming in the sound," Washington is reported to
have written to his brother. The words do not sound like him,
but he was only twenty-two, and in the flush of his first victory.

He must have smiled grimly to himself when, on the follow-
ing 4th of July, he led his defeated and draggled little army
from Great Meadows. During these months he had seen
another side of war than the swift whistling of bullets. His
fiery temper had been tried by all sorts of vexations and dis-
appointments. These were largely the result of the incompe-
tency, jealousy, and obstinacy of the colonial government. He
was at last reduced to extremities ; his supplies had failed ; his
troops were starving.

The draggled little army marched bravely away drums
beating and colors flying from an enemy whose numbers
made it impossible to prolong the contest. George Washing-
ton's heart must have been very heavy on that 4th of July.
How little he could dream that date would yet be illuminated
with undying glory for himself and his country !

Twenty-two years from that time he was to draw his sword
under the old Cambridge elm in another and longer contest.

The history of the long struggle for possession of the Ohio

Online LibraryVirginia F. (Virginia Frances) TownsendOur presidents: or, The lives of twenty-three presidents of the United States → online text (page 1 of 29)