The Young Man Washington

By Samuel Eliot Morison, 1932

This is Part Three of a Three-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

As a young officer he often became impatient with the frontier folk – their shortsighted selfishness in refusing to unite under his command, their lack of discipline and liability to panic, and the American militiaman’s propensity to offer unwanted advice and sulk if it was not taken. But he found something to like in them as he did in all men, and learned to work with and through them. Militiamen deserted Washington as they deserted other officers, despite the flogging of sundry and the hanging of a few to encourage the rest. Here is plenty of material for a disparaging biographer to describe Washington as a military martinet who had not even the merit of a notable victory; and some of the “debunkers,” who have never known what it is to command troops, have said just that. A sufficient reply to them, as well as striking proof of the amazing confidence, even veneration, that Washington inspired at an early age, is the “Humble Address” of the twenty-seven officers of his regiment, beseeching him to withdraw his resignation:


We your most obedient and affectionate Officers, beg leave to express our great Concern, at the disagreeable News we have received of your Determination to resign the Command of that Corps, in which we have under you long served…

In our earliest Infancy you took us under your Tuition, train’d us up in the Practice of that Discipline, which alone can constitute good Troops, from the punctual Observance of which you never suffer’d the least Deviation.

Your steady adherence to impartial Justice, your quick Discernment and invariable Regard to Merit…first heigten’d our natural Emulation, and, our Desire to excel…

Judge then, how sensibly we must be Affected with the loss of such an excellent Commander, such a sincere Friend, and so affable a Companion…

It gives us an additional Sorrow, when we reflect, to find, our unhappy Country will receive a loss, no less irreparable, than ourselves. Where will it meet a Man so experienc’d in military Affairs? One so renown’d for Patriotism, Courage and Conduct? Who has so great knowledge of the Enemy we have to deal with? Who so well acquainted with their Situation and Strength? Who so much respected by the Soldiery? Who in short so able to support the military Character of Virginia?…

We with the greatest Deference, presume to entreat you to suspend those Thoughts [of resigning] for another Year…In you we place the most implicit Confidence. Your Presence only will cause a steady Firmness and Vigor to actuate in every Breast, despising the greatest Dangers, and thinking light of Toils and Hardships, while lead on by the Man we know and Love…

Fully persuaded of this, we beg Leave to assure you, that as you have hitherto been the actuating Soul of the whole Corps, we shall at all times pay the most invariable Regard to your Will and Pleasure, and will always be happy to demonstrate by our Actions, with how much Respect and Esteem we are,


Your most affectionate and most obedient humble Servants

Fort Loudoun, Dec 31st 1758

[Followed by twenty-seven signatures]

There stands the young man Washington, reflected in the hearts of his fellows. As one reads this youthfully sincere composition of the officers’ mess at Fort Loudoun, one imagines it addressed to a white-whiskered colonel of fifty. Washington was just twenty-six.

A farewell to arms Washington was determined it must be. Fort Duquesne was won, and his presence at the front was no longer needed. Virginia, the colony that had received the first shock of the war, could justly count on British regulars and the northern colonies to carry it to a glorious conclusion on the Plains of Abraham.

In four years Washington had learned much from war. He found it necessary to discipline himself before he could handle men. He had learned that the interminable boredom of drill, arguing about supplies, and begging for transportation was ill rewarded by the music of whistling bullets; that war was simply hard, beastly work. The sufferings of the border people, the bloody shambles on the Monongahela, the frozen evidence of torture on the road to Fort Duquesne cured his youthful appetite for glory, completely. When Washington again drew his sword, in 1775, it was with great reluctance, and only because he believed, like Cato (II, v, 85), that:

The hand of fate is over us, and Heaven

Exacts severity from all our thoughts.

It is not now a time to talk of aught

But chains, or conquest; liberty, or death.

From one woman he learned perhaps as much as from war. Sally Cary, his fair tutor in Stocism and the love of his youth, was eighteen and married to his friend and neighbor George William Fairfax, when, at sixteen, he first met her. Beautiful, intelligent, and of gentle birth, Mrs. Fairfax took a more than sisterly interest in the callow young surveyor; and as near neighbors they saw much of each other. Cryptic jottings in his diary for 1748 show that he was already far gone in love. His pathetic letter to her from Fort Cumberland in 1755, begging for a reply to “make me happier than the day is long,” strikes a human note in the midst of his businesslike military correspondence. No letters from her to him have been preserved, but from the tone of his replies I gather that Sally was somewhat more of a tease than befitted Cato’s daughter. Whatever her sentiments may have been toward him, Washington’s letters leave no doubt that he was passionately in love with her; yet gentlemanly standards were then such that while her husband lived she could never be Washington’s wife, much less his mistress. What anguish he must have suffered, any young man can imagine. It was a situation that schooled the young soldier-lover in manners, moderation, and restraint – a test cast of his Stoical philosophy. His solution was notable for its common sense: when on a hurried visit to Williamsburg in the spring of 1758, to procure clothes for his ragged soldiers, he met, wooed, and won a housewifely little widow of twenty-seven named Martha Custis. She wanted a manager for her property and a stepfather for her children; he needed a housekeeper for Mount Vernon. It was mariage de convenance that developed into a marriage of affection. But Martha well knew that she was not George’s first or greatest love, nor was he hers.

Thirty years later, when Mrs. Fairfax was a poor and childless widow in London, crushing the memories of a Virginia springtime in her heart, there came a letter from Washington. The first Citizen of the World writes that the crowded events of the more than a quarter-century since they parted have not “been able to eradicate from my mind the recollection of those happy moments, the happiest in my life, which I have enjoyed in your company.” Martha Washington enclosed a letter under the same cover, in order to show that she, too, understood.

Let us neither distort nor exaggerate this relation, the most beautiful thing in Washington’s life. Washington saw no visions of Sally Fairfax in the battle smoke. He did not regard himself as her knightly champion, or any such romantic nonsense; Walter Scott had not yet revived the age of chivalry. Women occupied a small part in Washington’s thoughts, as in those of most men of action. No more than Cato did he indulge in worry or bitter thoughts about his ill fortune in love. Suppose, however, Washington had turned out a failure or shown some fault of character at a critical moment, instead of superbly meeting every test. Every yapping biographer of the last decade would have blamed the three members of this blameless triangle. Since he turned out otherwise, we can hardly fail to credit both women with an important share in the formation of Washington’s character. And who will deny that Washington attained his nearly perfect balance and serenity, not through self-indulgence but through restraint?

What of other women? – a subject that cannot be shirked in any honest account of the young man Washington. Many of you must have heard the story of that so-called letter of Washington’s inviting someone to Mount Vernon, and setting forth the charms of a certain slave girl. No investigator had ever managed to see this letter, or even found a person who has seen it. The nearest we get is to the man who knows a man who has seen it – but that man for some peculiar reason is always sick, dead, or nonexistent when you look for him, or else he refers to another man, who knows the man who knows the man that has it. John C. Fitzpatrick, who has spent much time on the trail of the seductive if mythical octoroon of Mount Vernon, believes that all stories of this sort were started by a spurious sentence in a letter from Benjamin Harrison to Washington, during the war, that was intercepted by the British and printed in England. Fortunately, the original, a plain letter of military information, has been preserved. But when it was given out for publication to The Gentleman’s Magazine (of all places), the editor interpolated a jocular bawdy description of “pretty little Kate the washerwoman’s daughter,” whose charms the commander in chief was invited to share. Of similar origin are the stories of Washington’s illegitimate children. Of course one cannot prove a negative to every rumor. I can only state my opinion that, in view of the fact that Washington fell deeply in love at sixteen, and remained in love with the same lady until his marriage; in view of his reputation under pitiless publicity, he led a clean life, in every sense of the word.

Plutarch wrote of Cato: “He had not taken to public life, like some others, casually or automatically or for the sake of fame or personal advantage. He chose it because it was the function proper to a good man.” That was why Washington allowed himself to be elected, in 1758, a representative to the Virginia Assembly, an office proper to a gentleman of action. He had no gift for speaking or for wire-pulling; he showed no talent or desire for political leadership. But he learned at first hand the strange behavior of homo sapiens in legislative assemblies. Everyone marvels at the long-suffering patience shown by Washington in his dealings with the Continental Congress during the war; few remember that he had been for many years a burgess of Virginia, and for several months a member of the very Congress to which he was responsible.

So at twenty-seven George Washington was not only a veteran colonel who had won the confidence and affection of his men, but a member of the Virginia Assembly, a great landowner, and a husband. His youth was over, and he had the means for a life of ease and competence; but the high example of antique virtue would not let him ignore another call to duty. When it came, his unruly nature had been disciplined by the land and the wilderness, by philosophy and a noble woman, and by his own indomitable will to become a fit instrument for a great cause. There were other colonial soldiers in 1775 who from better opportunity had gained more glory in the last war than he; but there was none who inspired so much confidence as this silent, capable man of forty-three. So when the political need of the moment required a Virginian, there was no question but that Colonel Washington should be commander in chief.

If he had failed, historians would have blamed the Continental Congress for a political appointment of a provincial colonel with an indifferent war record. If he had failed, the American Revolution would have been something worse than futile – a Rebellion of ’98 that would have soured the American character, made us another Ireland, with a long and distressful struggle for freedom ahead. If, like so many leaders of revolutions, he had achieved merely a personal triumph, or inoculated his country with ambition for glory, the world would have suffered from his success. His country could and almost did fail Washington; but Washington could not fail his country, or disappoint the expectations of his kind. A simple gentleman of Virginia with no extraordinary talents had so disciplined himself that he could lead an insubordinate and divided people into ordered liberty and enduring union.