Richard Reinsch (00:18):
Welcome to Liberty Law Talk. I’m Richard Reinsch. Today we’re talking with Richard Brookhiser about George Washington and our present troubles. Richard Brookhiser, we’re glad to welcome him back to Liberty Law Talk. The last time he was on, we discussed the book he wrote on John Marshall, and he’s the author of numerous books on central figures in American history, on Marshall, Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, George Washington, among many others. Many of you will know him as a senior editor and writer for National Review, where I learned he’s been writing since 1977 when he graduated from Yale. He authors the column City Desk and Country Life. He’s the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and of a National Medal of the Humanities. Richard Brookhiser, thank you so much for joining us.
Richard Brookhiser (01:06):
Thank you, Richard, for having me again. Always a pleasure to talk about George Washington.
Richard Reinsch (01:11):
Great. Thank you. I was thinking about our podcast and it’s not just George Washington. Many figures, Ulysses S. Grant, one that comes to mind. Also figures who are abolitionists.
Richard Brookhiser (01:24):
Richard Reinsch (01:24):
Who you would not think their statues would be torn down or desecrated in various ways. The famous commemoration of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first Black regiment, was also; their memorial was desecrated in Boston recently. So a lot of this is happening and we can talk more about that. But it occurred to me, as we as conservatives, as unabashed patriots of America, have no problem defending these figures and we’re sort of puzzled as to why this is happening. Or I think we know why it’s happening, but it still puzzles us. Of course, this also presents trying to have a conversation with people who don’t want to have a conversation, obviously. But it occurs to me, maybe the emphasis is on the wrong foot, and we keep thinking about Washington and all of his contributions. But maybe from the standpoint of who we are in our present condition as Americans, are we worthy of a man like George Washington?
Richard Brookhiser (02:23):
Well, that depends on us, right?
Richard Reinsch (02:26):
Richard Brookhiser (02:26):
And that always has to be figured out in every generation. I think Washington did an awful lot, and we can go over the record. But he died in 1799, and he can’t live our lives for us. He could help make structures and precedents that will be helpful to us, and I believe he did that, but we have to make use of them or not. It’s up to us. History never gives guarantees.
Richard Reinsch (03:03):
When you hear the senator from Illinois, Tammy Duckworth, say now she’s open to a conversation of removing statues of George Washington from federal properties whenever other statues have been toppled, what comes to your mind there? Is there anything beyond just rage at America, or is there something specific about what George Washington represents regarding the founding?
Richard Brookhiser (03:30):
Well, Tammy Duckworth was injured in service to America, so rage against America is clearly not her only motive if it is one of her motives. The short, tart answer to her would be George Washington is the reason you have your job. It’s the reason that the senator from Illinois is you or some other elected person and not the illegitimate son of the Earl of whatever or the Oxford chum of the First Lord of Treasury.
The reason we have representative government and elections and self-rule is because of this Revolutionary generation. The most prominent figure in that generation was George Washington. So in a sense, he’s Tammy Duckworth’s employer, or at least he opened the door for Senator Duckworth and all the other 99 senators and every other elected person in America.
Now, we the voters can put whoever we like in those slots and sometimes we put bad people, sometimes we put stupid people, sometimes we put people who don’t know as much as they should know about history. But the reason that we have that option, that we have that choice, is because of this Revolutionary generation. And it was a revolution not just for this country; it was a revolution for the world. You can look at the history of the world for the last almost 250 years and see it as a struggle for self-rule. This encompasses a lot.
This encompasses political revolution. This includes de-colonization, the end of the imperial empire rule from Europe. It includes the fall of Communism. It includes the successful resistance to Nazism and fascism. You could even see it as the resistance to racism, because racism is a rebellion against stereotypes that are imposed and then structured, that are imposed on people because of their race. And it’s an assertion of the right to self-rule. That you have as much right to self-rule as someone with a different skin color or a different ethnic background or a different religion and so on. The gunpowder charge that set off all of these struggles for the last 200-plus years was lit in the 13 colonies at the end of the 18th century by our Revolutionary generation.
Richard Reinsch (06:28):
Thinking about, you say self-rule, self-government, and that, of course, is bound up inherently with moral rule and character and one’s ability to govern oneself. Can we talk about maybe Washington’s character some? How should we think about it? And did the character, was it something that forged an American character?
Richard Brookhiser (06:54):
Well, I should say that self-rule had better be bound up with character or it gets in a lot of trouble very soon. Many of these revolutions in this era that I talked about ended very badly. The first two that followed our revolution, it was the French Revolution, which began in 1789, and that was really a convulsion that lasted for a quarter of a century. One direct consequence of the French Revolution was the revolution in Haiti, called Santo Domingo before the revolution happened. But then Haiti became the second independent country in the Western Hemisphere and the first Black-ruled country in the world. Those two Revolutions had a lot of problems. There was a lot of chaos, a lot of extravagant shedding of blood, a lot of tyranny, new tyranny that was generated in place of the old forms of tyranny.
So yeah, a revolution is not a simple thing to pull off, and one of the things you have to have is good character, meaning you have to have control over your own passions and your own ambition. I think this was the quality of George Washington that maybe most impressed his contemporaries. I mean, there were lots of things about him that were impressive and start with his physical stature. He’s over six feet tall; he carries himself very well. He’s described by Thomas Jefferson, who was a very good horseman himself, as the greatest horseman of his age. Soldiers in the Continental Army always knew when there was a party of officers riding at a distance. They could pick out which one was the commander in chief. It was just obvious, so physically he stands out.
Politically, he is very shrewd. This is something that’s kind of hard to pick up in biographies because a lot of it he does behind the scenes. He takes very little open part in the struggle to ratify the Constitution, for instance, but it is clear that this is a document that he has endorsed. He’s working for it behind the scenes, and his presence hovers over the whole debate whether or not we should have a new Constitution being debated in 1787 and 1788.
He’s also impressive militarily. He’s not a flashy commander. He’s not like Napoleon, who will be a younger contemporary. But he figures out through trial and error what his strategy for coping with the British has to be. He finds the right strategy. He sticks to it. He works well with our French allies. And he achieves the victory, so that’s impressive. But I think the most impressive thing and the thing that most impressed the people around him observing him, working with him, was a sense of his control over his own passions and his own ambition. I mean, this is a man who becomes the most famous man in America, the most famous American in the world, and he goes home twice in his career. He goes home at the end of the war, and he goes home after two terms as president. How many other Revolutionary leaders, how many political leaders, do that so willingly?
Now, the list is rather short. But he does it and he does it not just once. He does it twice. I have to tell this story because it’s just so great who says it. When he announces in his farewell address, which was not a delivered speech. It was a published speech that was published in the newspapers. He never spoke it out loud. But he announces at the end of his second term that he’s not going to stand for office a third time. When the news of this comes to England, George III has a conversation with his favorite painter, a man named Benjamin West who was born in America but moved to England early in his life to perfect his art, and he eventually becomes the favorite painter of the king. So George III and West are talking about this, and George III says that Washington’s retirement from the presidency, he says, “This completes the whole. This makes him the most impressive man, the greatest man now living.” So that’s the tribute to George Washington from the other George, George III. I think it’s to George III’s credit that he could say that, but it’s also a very important observation to make, that Washington completes his career not only by doing what he does, but by not doing what he doesn’t do.
Richard Reinsch (12:13):
On that, this control of character and humility, there’s this Rules of Civility that Washington copies out by hand I think as a teenager, and it was over 100 rules of social etiquette, manners, mores, grace. Interesting, I mean, a interesting thing for a teenage boy to do now. I’m not sure then. But talk about that because that seems to me something that indicates he aspires to something more. He wants to learn some of these hard rules of how to interact with people who are better than him or higher-born or advanced. He wants to impress them. One of the things he thinks is, “Well, I’ve got to learn the rules of how to interact, and I need to commit them to memory.”
Richard Brookhiser (13:04):
Right. Absolutely. We have to remember that when he starts off in his life, I mean, he’s certainly fortunate in the sense that his father belongs to the gentry in colonial Virginia. This was not a poor background or even a middle-class background, but this was in the gentry class, the class of the people who would participate in ruling the colonies. But Washington’s father, Augustine Washington, was at the lower level of that class. He was coming up in the world, and then he died. He dies suddenly, which was common in Virginia. There was a lot of disease, a lot of early death. So Washington is left fatherless when he is a boy. His father had two marriages. The first wife dies and he married again.
Washington was the eldest son of the second marriage. His older half-brothers were both sent to England for some education, not college but pre-college schooling, and probably George would also have been sent there if his father had lived. His father didn’t live, so he doesn’t get to go. As far as we know, he might’ve had some one-room schooling in Virginia. He might also have had a teacher, a tutor, rather. There’s passing references to this and correspondence, but so far as we know, his formal education was very slight. Maybe only Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln have less, of all our presidents. So here he is. He’s got one foot in the door, so to speak. Maybe a couple of toes, but he’s not all the way inside. So how do you get inside? How do you get up in the world? His older half-brother has married into a very wealthy and fancy family, the Fairfaxes. The head of the family, who’s an English lord, he owns a chunk of Virginia which is the size of the colony of New Jersey.
This is the state of New Jersey. That’s the Fairfax grant. One job that young George gets through his family connection is to help survey this huge tract of land, which stretches over into the Shenandoah Valley and the mountains beyond. This takes him away from the Tidewater when he’s a young man. It’s one of his first experiences of the West. Unlike a lot of other American leaders, he’s always looking west. He’s not a merchant dealing with England looking east. He’s looking west into the back country.
But anyway, here he is and what’s he going to do with his life? So this little book, the Rules of Civility, that we’ve been talking about, someone at some point gave him this. Maybe it was penmanship: “Here, George. Copy these out. Now, there’s a hundred ton of these things. You rewrite them yourself.” We can tell from his copy that this is at least in part a penmanship exercise because the capital letters are very elaborate and it’s like a kid saying, “Oh, look. I can really do a nice capital P. Look at this.” But these rules, you have to say he’s paying attention to what the rules say. They’re called the Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. So this is how do you behave with other people. The first rule explains all the other ones; it sets the tone for all the others to follow. It says, “Every action done in company or conversation should be done with some sign of respect to those who are present.” In other words, here you are in the world, all these other people. You’re going to know some of them. Some of them are complete strangers; you’ll only meet them once. Some of them are your superiors; some of them are inferiors. But everything you do or say in their presence, you have to be aware of them, and you have to give them their proper respect. What’s interesting, this even includes condemned criminals. Because one of the rules says, “If you see a man punished for a crime, though you may be glad, always show pity to the suffering offender.”
So that’s even a counsel of a little hypocrisy. You may think, “Ah, he got his just desserts. Good. Keep him in the stock.” But no, you don’t show him that. You give him a nod: “Sorry. Sorry to see this,” something. Always show pity to the suffering offender. So even a condemned criminal is worth a little bit of your attention and a mite of your respect. So these rules are a lesson in awareness, in awareness of other people and also awareness of yourself, how you’re behaving among other people. Obviously, there’s a practical point to this. This helps you in society. It helps you in social gatherings. It tells you how to behave to Lord So-and-so, who may be or maybe not giving you some sort of position that you want. But it is also at the same time shaping your character. Because if you’re thinking about this, if you think about this consistently, you’re going to alter your own behavior. It’s like working from the outside in.
You control the way you walk, control the way you talk, control the way you dress, how you interact with people. This is like acting. This is like you are preparing the role of yourself as a person in society. You’re training yourself to act a certain way in society. That’s what the rules are supposed to do and that’s what they did for Washington.
Richard Reinsch (19:11):
Now, this just sounds horribly wrong to us, I think. Aren’t you supposed to be yourself?
Richard Brookhiser (19:19):
Right. No, that’s right. That’s right. Just some decades later, we’re going to get authenticity.
That’s going to come in. That comes in kind of end of the 18th century and then early 19th century big-time: what is yourself.
Richard Reinsch (19:33):
Richard Brookhiser (19:35):
Well, Transcendentalists, Romanticists, it takes many forms. But it’s a whole wave of that. And Washington is a little bit before that. We also have to say, Washington needs these rules because there’s some skills he doesn’t have. I mean, he’s not a storyteller. He’s not a joke teller. He’s not like Abraham Lincoln or Ben Franklin, somebody who has a million stories and can just entertain and distract with company. Though Washington apparently liked good stores. He liked to hear other people’s jokes, but he was not a teller of jokes himself. So there’s some deficiencies he has, some things he has to compensate for. This training begun with the Rules of Civility helps him overcome that.
Richard Reinsch (20:25):
He struggles with anger for most of his life, I’ve always read.
Richard Brookhiser (20:29):
Well, yes, he had a temper.
He had a temper. We forget this because you look at Mount Rushmore and you look at the quarter in your pocket and you look at the dollar bill in your wallet and these are not angry faces. These are kind of marble visages. But he did have a temper. People who worked closely with him knew that. And the interesting story about that is how rarely he let it loose. I mean, there was one occasion in the Revolution at the Battle of Monmouth. This was in summer of 1778. It was after the Valley Forge winter, which had been this terrible winter. The American Army was cooped up outside of Philadelphia, which the British had conquered. Lousy supply, poor food, terrible deficiencies and uniform clothing and all the rest of it. But during this winter, they’d drill and they trained.
This is when Baron von Steuben shows up, and he institutes a drill for these American soldiers so that they can maneuver in the field and respond to commands and fight more effectively. The Army learns this. They become proud of themselves for their new knowledge. Then when the British leave Philadelphia because France has entered the war and they have to reconstitute their forces, reconcentrate them. So they’re marching from Philadelphia back to New York. We’re following. We catch up with them at a place called Monmouth Court House in central New Jersey and there’s a battle. Well, the man in charge of the attack, it was supposed to be an attack on the British rearguard, was a general named Charles Lee.
He and Washington had hit it off at the beginning of the War. Lee was very charming, very amusing, very eccentric. He was an English officer who’d moved to America and sided with us. He had a lot of professional experience. He knew a lot. He impressed Washington early on, but he was just a loose cannon. As time passed, it became clear that that’s who he was. When you got beneath the surface, what you had was a loose cannon. At the beginning of this encounter, he comes upon the British rearguard, but then it turns out, “Oh, it’s not the rearguard. It’s the whole Army.” So he’s disconcerted. And Washington brings up the bulk of the American Army, and he sees the battle is just not going well. It’s all confused. And he loses it. He chews Lee out. One American general said, “He swore till the leaves shook on the trees. He swore like an angel from heaven. I have never in my life heard such wonderful swearing.” Well, now, this general who claims to have heard this was a mile away at the time, so he didn’t hear any swearing. But what he’s reflecting is what everybody who was there heard, their impression of this encounter. That Washington just, he uncorked it for once and just let Lee have it. Then he took over the battle himself and got a pretty good resolution from it. But so that was an occasion where his temper exploded.
But what’s noteworthy about that is that’s it. For in public, that is the only time that anyone can remember for eight and a half years of the Revolution and eight years of being president. Now, also when he’s president in his cabinet meetings, occasionally he loses his temper there. Cabinet meetings then, remember, are very small. There’s only the secretary of state, treasury secretary, secretary of war and there’s an attorney general. So there are only four guys plus you, the president. It’s a little group. And Thomas Jefferson, who kept notes, he has some notes of occasion when Washington did lose his temper in these small meetings. But again, he would cork himself back up, get back to the business at hand, not let his decision be distracted by whatever it was that had irritated him, and that this was all happening in private. I mean, this is not happening in public.
I think the most interesting comment on this, and it was made years after Washington had died by his vice president, John Adams, who becomes the second president after he steps down. But John Adams is an old man, old, old man. He’s writing another old patriot, Benjamin Rush, and they have a long exchange of letters. A couple of letters they’re writing about Washington. Who was he? What made him tick? Why was he so great? There’s one letter where Adams says, “Okay. I’m going to give you the reasons why Washington was great,” and he has, like, 10 of them. They’re kind of cranky. John Adams was a feisty guy and some of these are a little envious. He says, “Well, Washington was rich. I mean, he married a rich woman. He had a big fortune. Everybody likes rich people.” Another reason, he says, “Well, he’s a Virginian and in Virginia, all geese are swans.”
So that’s the New England Yankee getting that little dig in. But one of the things he says is Washington had the gift of silence. Adams says, “I esteem that as one of the greatest talents, the gift of silence.” Washington could just keep his feelings to himself. He was not putting them all out there. He would not be on Twitter.
Richard Reinsch (26:19):
That’s wise. Yeah.
Richard Brookhiser (26:21):
No way would he be on Twitter. Or if he would be tweeting, “Had a nice meeting this morning.”
“Very good presentation in Philadelphia. Excellent relations with friends.” That would be his Twitter feed. He had the gift of silence.
Richard Reinsch (26:41):
He knew his limits.
Richard Brookhiser (26:44):
Well, he knew his limits, and also, look, he’s the first president and he’s the most famous man in America. Anything he says people are going to run with it.
Richard Reinsch (26:53):
Richard Brookhiser (26:54):
And so unless he wants to say something, he has to not say anything. If it’s not necessary for him to speak, it’s necessary for him not to speak because that will just cause chatter and back and forth and “What does he mean?” and “Let’s do this,” and “Let’s react this way.” So he possesses the gift of silence.
Richard Reinsch (27:17):
I want to get more into Washington as general and Washington as statesman. Before we do that, I want to … because I think this also feeds directly into the troubles that we’re in and the framing of Washington. You mentioned at Mount Vernon and I’ve read about his devotion to agriculture and to being the most modern practitioner he could be of that. But it also brings to mind the slaves that he owned and those of Martha Washington and just a sense of this, the way it’s presented. I was recently in Barnes & Noble with my eight-year-old daughter. We were in the children’s section and there’s two racks of books in the history part of that. And there’s a book on Ona Judge, a slave of Martha’s, I think.
Who ran away and was pursued by Martha. She had people pursue her. The way the book was presenting it is there was something very wrong with this or she was running away for freedom. But, of course, what I’ve read is Martha Washington actually thought she had been abducted or seduced by someone, an older slave, and was trying to track her down for her own protection. But I … That and just Washington as a whole with regard to the slaves that he owned. I thought maybe we would talk about that some and also his Last Will and Testament, which I think has an interesting first sentence. But on the Ona Judge situation, your thoughts.
Richard Brookhiser (28:56):
Well, Ona Judge was one of Martha’s slaves and she escaped. She went to New Hampshire with a Frenchman.
Richard Reinsch (29:04):
Richard Brookhiser (29:05):
And Martha wanted her back, and Washington inquired with the customs official in whatever town it was. I think it might’ve been Portsmouth. “Is there any way to get her back?” And the customs collector said, “Not without an uproar,” because I think by this time, New Hampshire had either ended slavery or-
Richard Reinsch (29:29):
I think that’s right.
Richard Brookhiser (29:30):
… it had certainly begun the process of ending slavery.
Richard Reinsch (29:32):
Richard Brookhiser (29:34):
So Washington dropped it because he didn’t … An uproar was something he didn’t want. Now, did he pursued her in the first place? Well, it was his wife’s slave. People who are married can think over that. We don’t know all of the dynamics of what went on, but one can imagine. But another thing we know is what Washington finally does with his own slaves, which is only a few years after this. Ona Judge goes to New Hampshire when Washington is president. So Washington steps down March of 1797, and then he dies in December of 1799. So two years after he leaves the White House, some time during 1799, in the fall of ’99, he writes his Final Will and Testament. In that he spends a lot of time saying that all the slaves that he owns shall be free after the death of his wife. He specifies that none of his slaves may be taken out of the state on any pretext whatever. In other words, you can’t take them to Kentucky beforehand.
They all have to be free. He says that slaves that are too old to support themselves or too young should continue to be maintained by the estate, and he’s made provision for this. Slaves that are young should be trained for some useful occupation and be freed by the time they’re 25. And he gives immediate freedom to his personal servant slave, William Lee, and he says “for his services to me during the Revolution.” So it’s interesting. William Lee is the third person who is named in the will. Washington is the first: “I, George Washington … ” That’s how it begins. Martha’s the second one named. William Lee is the third, and he links him with the Revolution. I mean, William Lee was his slave servant for a long time. He could’ve linked him with all kinds of things or not linked him to anything at all. But he said, “for his services to me in the Revolution.”
So he’s noting in his will, “This man was involved in the Revolution. I was the commander in chief, but he was there. He was there at my side this whole time.” So he gets his immediate freedom if that’s what he wants. If he wants to stay enslaved, he can have that too if he likes because he’s old and crippled by this point. And he gives him an annuity. He should have $20 a year. Doesn’t sound like a lot. I mean, it wasn’t a huge amount. It was more than $20 then. There were also at Mount Vernon, and this is over 150 people we’re talking about, this is a large manumission. There’d been a bigger one in Virginia. There was a man named Robert Carter III who owned like 500 slaves who he was freeing. He was a religious convert; he became a Baptist, and then he became a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg and he freed 500 slaves.
But Washington’s 150-plus is a lot of people. Now, there’s an equal number at Mount Vernon who are not freed because they belong to the Custis family estate. We call them Martha’s slaves, but she only has a life interest in them because they were the property of her late first husband, the man she married before she married George. They will become the property of her children, who have all predeceased her, so therefore of her grandchildren. They end up being the property of George Washington Parke Custis, who is her grandson, and Washington has no power to free those slaves. They belong to the Custis family estate. So they stay in bondage and actually they’re not freed until just before the Emancipation Proclamation because the grandson frees them in his will, and it goes through the Virginia courts and then finally they’re freed at the end of 1863 by the Confederacy.
Richard Reinsch (34:24):
Richard Brookhiser (34:25):
Because that’s the terms of this man’s will. But so Washington’s slaves are freed, and I’ve actually, I’ve met some descendants of them. Some of the descendants still live in Alexandria, Virginia where Mount Vernon is. Some live in Maryland. Some live in the Philadelphia area, and I’m sure they’re scattered across country. But these are the main concentrations, and they have a reunion every year. They’ve been doing this for, oh, gee, it must be close to 85 years now. It’s called the Quander Family Reunion because their ancestress was one of the slaves named Nancy Quander. Because Washington, in his will he attached a list of all of these people who were to be freed, a list of all their names. So Nancy Quander is the one whose descendants are still around. So why did Washington do that?
He does that, I think, because he knows he has to do that. His life has been dedicated to liberation, liberty in America, to American self-rule, and how can that life be complete if he dies an owner of slaves? It can’t be. He has to fix this. This is the last thing he has to do. Now, I noticed there’s a columnist for the New York Times, Charles Blow, who’s written about this said, “Yeah, well, Washington only freed his slaves when he had no more use for them. It’s in his will. He had no more use for them.”
I thought, “Well, gee. When people die, we can’t just go in their houses and take everything because they have no more use for it.” Right?
Richard Reinsch (36:18):
Richard Brookhiser (36:19):
I mean, people leave wills. They do have use for things after they die. I mean, we can say it’s vanity and all the rest of it, and of course they’re dead; they’re not actually here. But people make provisions for it all the time. I mean, bequests to charities, to colleges. They do inheritances. I mean, they direct the disposition of their possessions after their death. So it’s not like, “Oh, yeah. Washington had no more use for them. So if he died, they could all have just walked away? Right?” Well, no, they couldn’t. They would’ve been the property of somebody, some of his heirs. But they weren’t because he said they should be freed. That would be my answer to Mr. Blow.
Richard Reinsch (37:11):
What do you make in the Last Will and Testament? He refers to himself as both citizen and president in this private act of the disposition of his property.
Richard Brookhiser (37:21):
Well, yeah, but he knows it’s going to be public.
I mean, this is not going to be a secret will. This is also going to be a public statement, and that’s how it’s taken. There was a sermon given in the first Black-owned, Black-run church in Philadelphia shortly after Washington died. The minister said that “He has removed the last possible blot on his reputation because the bread of oppression was hateful to him.” This is the Black leader of this congregation.
Richard Reinsch (37:53):
Yeah. Well, I was contrasting that with, in my mind too, Thomas Jefferson’s Last Will and Testament, which I don’t think makes any reference or recognition to his public status.
Richard Brookhiser (38:05):
Well, he couldn’t. He was broke.
Richard Reinsch (38:10):
Yeah, he was indebted.
Richard Brookhiser (38:10):
The only reason Washington is able to do this is because he’s an acquisitive man. I mean, he’s wanted to earn money all his life, and he has. He’s succeeded in it, and he’s managed it wisely and he hasn’t overspent it. He’s managed this even though the soil at Mount Vernon has run out. I mean, it’s been leached away by years of tobacco growing, which is very punishing to the soil. That’s why he switches from tobacco to wheat, and then he has all these properties and he buys land in Pennsylvania and what becomes Ohio and what becomes West Virginia. I mean, he’s a great big landowner. That’s his fortune. Mount Vernon is a white elephant. I mean, it’s beautiful; the house is lovely. But the property, if that’s all he had, he would’ve been in debt too.
But so Jefferson, who knows what Jefferson would’ve wanted to do if he had a free hand. But he didn’t have a free hand; he was in hock up to his eyeballs. And after he dies, everything gets sold off: the house, his slaves, the whole thing. That’s true of a lot of the great Virginians. I mean, it happened to Madison’s estate after he died. And Monroe had to leave Virginia while he was still alive. He had to move to New York and live with his daughter in New York. Washington plays his hand better and then therefore is able to do what he does. I mean, who does Jefferson free in his will? He frees the Hemings, very likely his own children. Madison freed nobody. Monroe freed his coachman, Peter Mark. And Washington frees over 150 people; that’s the record. Also one other thing before we leave this. Washington is the last America to command integrated units until the Korean War.
Richard Reinsch (40:04):
Richard Brookhiser (40:05):
In the Revolution. Now, this is not what he was thinking when he first becomes commander in chief. When he’s first picked by Congress and sent up to manage the siege of Boston and he discovers that some of the Massachusetts units there have Black soldiers, he doesn’t like it. He’s surprised by this and he says, “Eh, can we get rid of these guys?” But the officers tell him, “Well, no, we can’t. We need the men and they’re good men and is what we do up here.” Then Washington accepts that. I mean, this is an interesting comment on his style of leadership. He’s willing to learn, he’s willing to listen, he’s willing to grow.
By the time of, we mentioned the Battle of Monmouth, which is 1778, at that battle he’s commanding, he had 12,000 men at that battle. 800 of them are Black or Native American. I’ve seen a list of their names. Some New Jersey historical society published all the names of the men of color on the American side at the Battle of Monmouth. I remember one was Oliver Cromwell. One was Artillo Freeman. One was Cash Africa. I mean, these are names that the people themselves picked or perhaps had been picked for them when they were enslaved and then they retained them. No, I don’t know. We don’t have biographies of these men. We just have a list of their names. I’m sure everybody has seen the picture of Washington crossing the Delaware that was done in the 1850s. I mean, we’ve all seen it a million times. One of the oarsmen in that boat looks Black. I mean, he looks like a person of color. And that’s historically accurate because the unit that ferried those boats back and forth across the Delaware River before the Battle of Trenton was the 14th Massachusetts. They were sailors from Marblehead and there were Black and Native Americans who were sailors who lived in Marblehead and they were in this unit. That was the historically accurate detail that the artist, who was a 19th century German, put in the painting. Then the militia and the army become all white during Washington’s presidency, actually. There’s a Militia bill which defines the Militia as white men over 21. But during the Revolution, that was not the case.
Richard Reinsch (42:51):
I never knew that before. Thank you for sharing that. Washington as statesman, as the first president, what was most essential in his view to accomplish?
Richard Brookhiser (43:01):
Probably three things. One was to keep America afloat during a world that was sliding into a world war. Washington is inaugurated in April, 1789. That’s when he takes the oath in New York City for the first time, and the Bastille falls in July. So he’s got like three months of peace and then boom; French Revolution begins. It becomes a world war. It’s going to last long after he dies. It won’t end until the Battle of Waterloo. And we’re a little country on the edge of all this, and the contending powers surround us, by the way. Because the British are still in Canada. Spain still owns Florida and the whole Gulf Coast. They own the Louisiana Territory. They control New Orleans and the Mississippi River. France is still in the Caribbean. We are surrounded by colonial empires in a world that’s entering a world war, which is both a world war and it’s an ideological conflict. We have to just stay afloat during all this, so that’s problem number one. Problem number two, we’re broke.
Our debt is trading on the European money market at a quarter to a third of its value. It’s practically junk. American paper is just like junk. And why is that? It’s because we have been unable to pay off the debts that we ran up fighting the American Revolution. These are debts to American creditors, also to European creditors who loaned us money. We also have not been able to pay the soldiers who we thanked them for their service and sent them home and said, “Well, you’ll get half pay one of these days. Hold on to your certificate. We’ll pay it off one day.” So there’s that. That’s problem number two. And Washington assigns that problem to his treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, who has been on his staff during the War.
Washington could be his own secretary of war or his own secretary of state. He could’ve done both of those jobs himself. He couldn’t have been his own treasury secretary. But he knew who could be his treasury secretary, and he lets him take the lead and backs him up. That’s a very important quality of leadership: You know what you can do and you know what you can’t do, and when you know what you can’t do, you have to find someone who can do it. And then you have to trust them and back them up and that’s what Washington does.
Problem number three, which he is unable to solve, is how to deal with Native Americans. And here he’s working with his secretary of war, Henry Knox, and they hope that they can sign treaties with Native American tribe nations that still are living in the old southwest, what’s now Alabama and Mississippi and parts of western Georgia. There are tribes there that have sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. They can send a lot of warriors into the field. We don’t want them to be your permanent enemy. We want to find some way of living alongside them. Knox and Washington, their hope is that they can make treaties with these nations and have them have a kind of semi-independent existence within the boundaries of America. And this doesn’t work. This fails because there are just too many white people too eager to move west.
The federal government can’t keep them out. Impossible to hold the tide back. So this is something he wants to do that fails; it doesn’t work. But I would say that those are the three problems that he had to focus on.
Richard Reinsch (47:14):
You referenced earlier, I think, Washington’s lack of formal education. Certainly, his education compared to his contemporary statesmen would’ve been much deficient to theirs. Can we sketch out, though, from correspondence, from speeches, actions, a coherent political philosophical approach on Washington’s part?
Richard Brookhiser (47:38):
Yes, I think we can. There are times when he does that. He issues a circular to the states in 1783 as he’s getting ready to leave the job of commander in chief. In his mind, this is his farewell address. Now, he didn’t know that he’d come back and have to be president of the United States and then give another farewell address, which we call by that name. But there was a first one in 1783 and then there’s the famous one in December, 1796. In there he lays out some policy goals. He says that America should pay its debts. He says that America should have an independent standing in the world. It should not have permanent alliances or permanent antipathies with any nation. He says anyone who has either of those is a slave; they are a slave to their affections or to their dislikes. That’s a very loaded word to use in a country with a lot of slave owners, including you yourself. Also unity, national union. I mean, he tells in the second farewell address when he’s leaving the presidency, he says, “The name of American has become precious to you.”
He tries to explain that every part of the country benefits from this union. The North makes manufactured goods that the South needs to use. The South produces agricultural products that the North needs. Similarly with the East and the West. It is not at all clear to Washington’s generation that this country will hang together. Now, we think of the North/South split as the one that finally does split. But also East/West, I mean, that looked like a potential dividing line because the Appalachians were hard to cross in those days. If you’re a farmer and you live in Kentucky or the Ohio Valley, the easiest way for you to export a crop is to stick it on the Ohio River and send it down the Mississippi and hope the Spaniards let it go out in New Orleans. I mean, are you going to send it over the mountains to Philadelphia? That’s hugely slow and expensive. No, you don’t do it. You use the river route. So does that mean that the whole thing is going to split apart across that mountain chain? This is a real worry and Washington worries about it.
One thing he does is he tries to imagine: Maybe we an dig canals across the mountains. Maybe we can connect the Potomac to the Ohio. This is a kind of a fantasy that he and other Virginians have. It never really works, but the canal that works will be the Erie Canal across New York State, which is much flatter. But Washington, it’s the same problem. Washington is trying to think of it: How do we keep this country together East and West? So union is another thing that is on his mind and very important to him.
Richard Reinsch (50:47):
That was excellent. Richard Brookhiser, thank you so much for discussing George Washington’s life, biography, example for us. We really appreciate it.
Richard Brookhiser (50:58):
Okay. Thank you, Richard.
Richard Reinsch (51:00):
This is Richard Reinsch. You’ve been listening to another episode of Liberty Law Talk available at lawliberty.org.