The Young Man Washington

By Samuel Eliot Morison, 1932

This is Part Two of a Three-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

It is not necessary to suppose that young Washington read much Stoic philosophy, for he was no great reader at any time; but he must have absorbed it from constant social intercourse with the Fairfaxes of Belvoir, neighbors whom he saw constantly. At Belvoir lived George William Fairfax, eight years Washington’s senior, and his companion in surveying expeditions. Anne, the widow of Lawrence Washington, was Fairfax’s sister, and Sally, the lady with whom George Washington was so happy (and so miserable) as to fall in love, was his wife. Books were there, if he wanted them. North’s Plutarch was in every gentleman’s library, and it was Plutarch who wrote the popular life of Cato, Washington’s favorite character in history – not crabbed Cato the Censor, but Cato of pent-up Utica. At the age of seventeen, Washington himself owned an outline, in English, of the principle dialogues of Seneca the younger, “sharpest of all the Stoics.” The mere chapter headings are the moral axioms that Washington followed through life:

An Honest Man can never be outdone in Courtesy.

A Good man can never be Miserable,

nor a Wicked man Happy.

A Sensual Life is a Miserable Life.

Hope and Fear are the Bane of Human Life.

The Contempt of Death makes all the

Miseries of Life Easy to us.

And of the many passages that young Washington evidently took to heart, one may select this:

No man is born wise: but Wisdom and Virtue require a Tutor; though we can easily learn to be Vicious without a Master. It is Philosophy that gives us a Veneration for God; a Charity for our Neighbor; that teaches us our Duty to Heaven, and Exhorts us to an Agreement one with another. It unmasks things that are terrible to us, asswages our Lusts, refutes our Errors, restrains our Luxury, Reproves our avarice, and works strangely on tender Natures.

Washington read Addison’s tragedy Cato in company with his beloved; and if they did not act it together in private theatricals, George expressed the wish that they might. At Valley Forge, when the morale of the Army needed a stimulus, Washington caused Cato to be performed, and attended the performance. It was his favorite play, written, as Pope’s prologue says,

To make mankind in conscious virtue bold

Live o’er each scene, and be what they behold.

Portius, Cato’s son, whose “steddy temper”

Can look on guilt, rebellion, fraud, and Caesar

In the calm lights of mild Philosophy

declares (I, ii, 40-5):

I’ll animate the soldiers’ drooping courage

With love of freedom, and contempt of Life:

I’ll thunder in their ears their country’s cause

And try to rouse up all that’s Roman in ’em.

’Tis not in Mortals to Command Success

But we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll Deserve it.

From his camp with General Forbes’s army in the wilderness, Washington wrote to Sally Fairfax on September 25, 1758: “I should think our time more agreeably spent, believe me, in playing a part in Cato with the Company you mention, and myself doubly happy in being the Juba to such a Marcia as you must make.” Marcia was the worthy daughter of Cato, and Juba her lover, the young Numidian prince to whom Syphax says:

You have not read mankind, your youth admires

The throws and swellings of a Roman soul,

Cato’s bold flights, th’ extravagance of Virtue.

These last two lines sound the note that runs through all Washington’s correspondence in the dark hours of the Revolutionary struggle; and these same lines are almost the only literary quotations found in the vast body of Washington’s writings. Many years after, when perplexed and wearied by the political squabbles of his presidency and longing to retire to Mount Vernon, Washington quoted the last lines of Cato’s advice to Portius (IV, iv, 14-54):

Let me advise thee to retreat betimes

To thy paternal seat, the Sabine field,

Where the great Censor toil’d with his own hands,

And all our frugal Ancestors were blest

In humble virtues, and a rural life.

There live retired, pray for the peace of Rome:

Content thy self to be obscurely good.

When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway,

The post of honour is a private station.

And Juba had earlier said (I, iv, 49-58):

Turn up thy eyes to Cato!

There may’st thou see to what a godlike height

The Roman virtues lift up mortal man.

While good, and just, and anxious for his friends,

He’s still severely bent against himself;

Renouncing sleep, and rest, and food, and ease,

He strives with thirst and hunger, toil and heat;

And when his fortune sets before him all

The pomps and pleasures that his soul can wish,

His rigid virtue will accept of none.

So, here we have a young man of innate noble qualities, seeking a philosophy of life, thrown in contact during his most impressionable years with a great gentleman whom he admired, a young gentleman who was his best friend, and a young lady whom he loved, all three steeped in the Stoic tradition. What would you expect? Can it be a mere coincidence that this characterization of the emperor Antonius Pius by his adopted son Marcus Aurelius, the imperial Stoic, so perfectly fits the character of Washington?

Take heed lest thou become a Caesar indeed; lest the purple stain thy soul. For such things have been. Then keep thyself simple, good, pure, and serious; a friend to justice and the fear of God; kindly, affectionate, and strong to do the right. Reverence Heaven and succour man. Life is short; and earthly existence yields but one harvest, holiness of character and altruism of action. Be in everything a true disciple of Antonius. Emulate his constancy in all rational activity, his unvarying equability, his purity, his cheerfulness of countenance, his sweetness, his contempt for notoriety, and his eagerness to come at the root of the matter.

Remember how he would never dismiss any subject until he had gained a clear insight into it and grasped it thoroughly; how he bore with the injustice of his detractors and never retorted in kind; how he did nothing in haste, turned a deaf ear to the professional tale-bearers, and showed himself an acute judge of characters and actions, devoid of all reproachfulness, timidity, suspiciousness, and sophistry; how easily he was satisfied – for instance , with lodging, bed, clothing, food, and servants – how fond of work and how patient; capable, thanks to his frugal diet, of remaining at his post from morning till night, having apparently subjected even the operations of nature to his will; firm and constant in friendship, tolerant of the most outspoken criticism of his opinions, delighted if anyone one could make a better suggestion than himself, and, finally, deeply religious without any trace of superstition.

When Washington was twenty years old, his brother Lawrence died. George, next heir by their father’s will, stepped into his place as proprietor of Mount Vernon. At this stage of his life, George did not greatly enjoy the exacting task of running a great plantation; he thirsted for glory in war. But he soon began to enlarge and improve his holdings, and in the end came to love the land as nothing else. Late in life, when the First Citizen of the World, he wrote: “How much more delightful is the task of making improvements on the earth than all the vain-glory which can be acquired from ravaging it by the most uninterrupted career of conquests.” And again: “To see plants rise from the earth and flourish by the superior skill and bounty of the laborer fills a contemplative mind with ideas which are more easy to be conceived than expressed.” That was the way with all Washington’s ideas: they were more easily conceived and executed than expressed on paper. Ideas did not interest him, nor was he interested in himself. Hence the matter-of-fact objectiveness of his letters and diaries.

Nevertheless, it is clear from Washington’s diaries that farming was a great factor in his discipline. For the lot of a Virginia planter was not as romance has colored it. Slaves had to be driven, or they ate out your substance; overseers had to be watched, or they slacked and stole; accounts had to be balanced, or you became poorer every year. There were droughts, and insect pests, and strange maladies among the cattle. Washington’s life at Mount Vernon was one of constant experiment, unremitting labor, unwearying patience. It was a continual war against human error, insect enemies, and tradition. He might provide improved flails and a clean threshing floor in his new barn; when his back was turned the overseer would have the wheat out in the yard, to be trod into the muck by the cattle. His books prove that he was an eager and bold experimenter in that “new husbandry” of which Coke of Norfolk was the great exponent. There were slave blacksmiths, carpenters, and bricklayers; a cider press and a stillhouse, where excellent corn and rye whiskeys were made, and sold in barrels made by the slaves from plantation oak. Herring and shad fisheries in the Potomac provided food for the slaves; a grist mill turned Washington’s improved strain of wheat into flour, which was taken to market in his own schooner, which he could handle like any Down East skipper. Indeed it is in his husbandry that we can earliest discern those qualities that made Washington the first soldier and statesman of America. As landed proprietor no less than as commander in chief, he showed executive ability, the power of planning for a distant end, and a capacity for taking infinite pains. Neither drought nor defeat could turn him from a course that he discerned to be proper and right; but in farming as in war he learned from failure, and grew in stature from loss and adversity.

Not long after inheriting Mount Vernon, Washington had an opportunity to test what his brother had taught him of military tactics and the practice of arms. Drilling and tactics, like surveying, were a projection of Washington’s mathematical mind; like every born strategist he could see moving troops in his mind’s eye, march and deploy them and calculate the time to a minute. He devoured accounts of Frederick’s campaigns, and doubtless dreamt of directing a great battle on a grassy plain, a terrain he was destined never to fight on in this shaggy country. As one of the first landowners in the county, at twenty he was commissioned a major of militia. He then asked for, and obtained, the post of adjutant of militia for the county. The settlement of his brother’s affairs brought him into contact with Governor Dinwiddie, a shrewd Scot who knew a dependable young man when he saw one; and from this came his first great opportunity.

At twenty-one he was sent on a highly confidential and difficult 1000-mile reconnaissance through the back country from western Virginia to the Ohio, and almost to the shores of Lake Erie. This young man just past his majority showed a caution in wilderness work, a diplomatic skill in dealing with Indians, and a courtroom firmness in dealing with French commanders that would have done credit to a man twice his age. But on his next mission, one notes with a feeling of relief, youthful impetuosity prevailed. Unmindful that one must always let the enemy make the first aggression, our young lieutenant colonel fired the shot that began the Seven Years’ War.

A phrase of the young soldier’s blithe letter to his younger brother, “I heard the bullets whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound,” got into the papers, and gave sophisticated London a good laugh. Even King George II heard it and remarked, “He would not say so, if he had been used to hear many!” That time would come soon enough. Washington’s shot in the silent wilderness brought the French and Indians buzzing about his ears. He retired to Fort Necessity, which he had caused to be built in a large meadow, hoping to tempt the enemy to a pitched battle. But the enemy was very inconsiderate. He swarmed about the fort in such numbers that Washington was lucky to be allowed to capitulate and go home; for this was one of those wars that was not yet a war; it was not declared till two days after the fighting began. The enemy was so superior in numbers that nobody blamed Washington; and when General Braddock arrived with an army of regulars, he invited the young frontier leader to accompany his expedition into the wilderness.

There is no need for me to repeat the tale of Braddock’s defeat, except to say that the general’s stupidity and the colonel’s part in saving what could be saved have both been exaggerated. Parkman wrote in his classic “Montcalm and Wolfe”: “Braddock has been charged with marching blindly into an ambuscade; but it was not so. There was no ambuscade; and had there been one, he would have found it.” That is the truth of the matter; and whilst Washington’s behavior was creditable in every respect, he did not save Braddock’s army; the French and Indians were simply too busy despoiling the dead and wounded to pursue.

Shortly after Washington reached Alexandria, the annual electoral campaign began for members of the Virginia Assembly. In a political dispute the colonel said something insulting to a quick-tempered little fellow named Payne, who promptly knocked him down with a hickory stick. Soldiers rushed up to avenge Washington, who recovered just in time to tell them he was not hurt, and could take care of himself, thank you! The next day he wrote to Payne requesting an interview at a tavern. The little man arrived, expecting a demand for an apology, or a challenge. Instead, Washington apologized for the insult that had provoked the blow, hoped that Payne was satisfied, and offered his hand. Some of Washington’s biographers cannot imagine or understand such conduct. One of them brackets this episode with the cherry-tree yarn as “stories so silly and so foolishly impossible that they do not deserve an instant’s consideration.” Another explains Washington’s conduct as a result of his defeat at Fort Necessity: “Washington was crushed into such meekness at this time that…instead of retaliating or challenging the fellow to a duel, he apologized.” But the incident, which has been well substantiated, occurred after Braddock’s defeat, not Washington’s; and it was due to Stoical magnanimity, not Christian meekness. “It is the Part of a Great Mind to despise Injuries,” says Seneca the Younger, in the L’Estrange translation that Washington owned. The Payne affair was merely an early instance of what Washington was doing all his life: admitting he was wrong when he was convinced he was in the wrong, and doing the handsome thing in a gentlemanly manner. A man who took that attitude became impregnable to attack by politicians or anyone else. For a young man of twenty-three to take it meant that he had firm hold of a great philosophy.

During the next two years Washington had charge of the frontier defenses of Virginia, and a chain of thirty garrisoned stockades that followed the Shenandoah Valley and its outer bulwarks from Winchester to the North Carolina line. In the execution of this command he showed a prodigious physical activity, often riding thirty miles a day for several days over wilderness trails. His letters show a youthful touchiness about rank and recognition; he sorely tried the patience of Governor Dinwiddie, who, to Washington’s evident surprise, accepted a proffered resignation; but he was soon reappointed and took a leading part in General Forbes’s expedition against Fort Duquesne. It was merely to settle a question of precedence that Washington undertook a long journey to interview Governor Shirley, the commander in chief, at Boston. Two aides, and two servants clad in new London liveries of the Washington colors and mounted on horses with the Washington arms embroidered on their housings, accompanied their colonel; for George had a young man’s natural desire to make an impressive appearance. He stopped with great folk at Philadelphia and New York and gave generous tips to their servants. In New London the exhausted horses had to be left behind, and the colonel and suite proceeded by sea to Boston, where George ordered a new hat and uniform, a mass of silver lace, and two pair of gloves. But Washington never made the mistake of wearing splendid clothes on the wrong occasion. In the French and Indian War he wore a plain, neutral-colored uniform instead of royal scarlet, and dressed his soldiers as frontiersmen, in buckskin and moccasins, so that they carried no superfluous weight and offered no mark to the Indians.