Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
1077 of 1105



WASHINGTON, George, president of the United States 1789-97, was born in Westmoreland county, Va., Feb. 22, 1732, and died at Mt. Vernon, Va., Dec. 14, 1799. In youth he became a land surveyor, and in the French and Indian war he was advanced to the grade of colonel and commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces, distinguishing himself in Braddock's defeat. In 1759 he married Martha, widow of John Parke Custis; and the care of her extensive property occupied him thereafter, though he was for fifteen years a silent member of the house of burgesses of his colony. He was a delegate to the continental congress in 1774-5, and the general anxiety to keep Virginia steady in resistance to the crown induced his appointment as commander-in-chief of the American forces, June 15, 1775. Whatever the motives may have been that governed his appointment, he very rapidly proved his extraordinary fitness for the place, and became the great and central figure of the revolution. The character of no other public man of the time can so successfully submit to microscopic examination. There seems to have been nothing little in him. Great in defeat, he was greater still in success, and the crowning event of his military career was his surrender of his commission to congress at the close of the war. (For the events of the war see the biographies cited below.)


—After resigning his commission, he retired to Mount Vernon, to put his private affairs in order, and to pursue the line of investments in western lands to which he had been attracted during his early military life. In politics he was most interested in the evident and dismal failure of the confederacy. (See CONFEDERATION, ARTICLES OF.) During the revolution he had been the trusted adviser of congress and the state governors, and his correspondence with former political and military associates throughout the country now becomes voluminous. Every conscious step toward the formation of a new government was submitted to his inspection and approval, and when the time was ripe he was almost forced into becoming a delegate to, and president of, the convention of 1787. In that body he said little, but in each case his suggestion was final. On the subsequent question of ratification his influence was still greater. Multitudes of voters, particularly in the northern states, who would have hesitated to accept the legal arguments of the "Federalist," and similar publications on either side, supported the new constitution blindly by reason of their confidence in Washington's sound judgment, their certainty that he would not recommend a scheme of government which he thought to be of evil tendency, and the evident fact that the office of president had been cut to his measure by the convention. Here, as in the revolution, there was no getting on without him; and it is as certain as anything can be that the existence of such a character, from 1775 until 1790, changed the whole course of the history of the western continent, and thus of the world.


—In the elections of 1789 and 1792 all the electors voted for him, and he became president. (See ELECTORAL VOTES, I., II.) No succeeding president has received this national compliment of a unanimous vote, the one who came nearest to it, Monroe, being probably the one who least deserved it. The events of Washington's administrations are elsewhere detailed. (See JUDICIARY; CAPITAL, NATIONAL; BANK CONTROVERSIES, II.; EXCISE; APPORTIONMENT; GENET, CITIZEN; DEMOCRATIC CLUBS; JAY'S TREATY; WHISKY INSURRECTION; FAREWELL ADDRESS; X Y Z MISSION; FEDERAL PARTY, I.; DEMOCRATIC PARTY, I., II.) He entered office with the impossible expectation that parties would be eliminated from his government; but his underlying consciousness that parties already existed is shown in his careful division of his cabinet offices between Hamilton and Knox on one side, and Jefferson and Randolph on the other. His expectation was of course disappointed; the companionship of Hamilton and Jefferson in the cabinet was, to use the latter's own comparison, like that of two game-cocks in a pit. As Washington was by nature a sincere, though unconscious, federalist, the progress of party division drove the democratic leaders into opposition, and before the end of the second term all possibility, or even desirability, of further keeping the peace between the two parties was at an end. One party had overcome the prejudices of the people by help of Washington's name, and controlled the government by the continuance of the same help. The other party would have been more than human if it had not been impatient at finding Washington always in the way of its attacks upon its opponent. Its leaders successfully restrained themselves in prospect of his approaching retirement; but their impatience is shown by such symptoms as Jefferson's letter to Mazzei, though Jefferson always denied any intention to attack the president personally. The more violent members attacked Washington in plain terms, even accusing him of drawing more than his salary, publishing forged letters to show his desire to submit to the king during the revolution, and calling him the "step-father of his country." Their malice undoubtedly embittered the closing years of his second term, and yet it was only one of the symptoms which showed that the time was past when he was absolutely necessary, and that, having successfully and strongly built the stage, he must now leave it clear for the actors. The firmness of his hold upon the national heart is proved by the venom of the impatient and yet helpless politicians. He might have died in the office if he had wished it: even after his final decision to retire, two electors obstinately voted for him for a third term in 1796.


—Washington was slow of judgment, and anxious to see all sides of a case and to get all possible opinions upon it, but when he had formed an opinion or a judgment, it was his own, and he seldom changed it. Most of the state papers which pass as Washington's were originally written by other hands, though none of them were given to the world until they had been revised, digested and reproduced by him and made thoroughly his own. His letters, however, are his own; and though their editor has pushed his province of correcting them to an extreme, no editing can conceal the essential nature of the writer as shown in them. The strong judgment, the good sense, the calmness and patience, the consciousness of strength and of the ability to control the strength, the absolute freedom from self-seeking in any form, make his letters a monument which will always justify the instinctive popular estimate of him. Other men have surpassed him in particular phases of character and ability; but, in all phases together, his letters will show that he was the greatest man the earth has yet seen.


—A bibliography of Washingtoniana would be altogether too voluminous for our space. The list of books, tracts and medals relating to his death alone fills two volumes, as collected by F. B. Hough in 1865. Among the lives may be mentioned Marshall's, Irving's, Sparks', A. Bancroft's, Lossing's, Ramsay's and Everett's; Custis' Private Memoirs of Washington; and Rush's Washington in Domestic Life. See also, Sparks' Writings of Washington; 1 Statesman's Manual (for his messages); Gibbs' Memoirs of the Administrations of Washington and Adams; Trescott's Diplomatic History of the Administrations of Washington and Adams; Thacher's Life and Military Journal of Washington; Griswold's Republican Court; 2 Pitkin's United States; 3-5 Hildreth's United States; 1 Schouler's United States. There is a forcible pen-portrait of Washington at pp. 77 and 114-126 of Schouler as cited above; and in fiction Thackeray has attempted the same thing in The Virginians.


1077 of 1105

Return to top