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George Washington
Washington Returns to Peace
by Thayer, William Roscoe

Nearly two years elapsed before the real settlement of the war. The English held New York City, Charleston, and Savannah, the strong garrisons. It seemed likely that they would have been glad to arrange the terms of peace sooner, but there was much inner turmoil at home. The men who, through thick and thin, had abetted the King in one plan after another to fight to the last ditch had nothing more to propose. Lord North, when he heard of the surrender of Yorktown, almost shrieked, "My God! It is all over; it is all over!" and was plunged in gloom. A new ministry had to be formed. Lord North had been succeeded by Rockingham, who died in July, 1782, and was followed by Shelburne, supposed to be rather liberal, but to share King George's desire to keep down the Whigs. Negotiations over the terms of peace were carried on with varying fortune for more than a year. John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin were the American Peace Commissioners. The preliminaries between Great Britain and America were signed on December 30, 1782, and with France and Spain nearly two months later. The Dutch held out still longer into 1783. Washington, at his Headquarters in Newburgh, New York, had been awaiting the news of peace, not lazily, but planning for a new campaign and meditating upon the various projects which might be undertaken. To him the news of the actual signing of the treaty came at the end of March. He replied at once to Theodorick Bland; a letter which gave his general views in regard to the needs and rights of the army before it should be disbanded:
It is now the bounden duty of every one to make the blessings thereof as diffusive as possible. Nothing would so effectually bring this to pass as the removal of those local prejudices which intrude upon and embarrass that great line of policy which alone can make us a free, happy and powerful People. Unless our Union can be fixed upon such a basis as to accomplish these, certain I am we have toiled, bled and spent our treasure to very little purpose.

We have now a National character to establish, and it is of the utmost importance to stamp favorable impressions upon it; let justice be then one of its characteristics, and gratitude another. Public creditors of every denomination will be comprehended in the first; the Army in a particular manner will have a claim to the latter; to say that no distinction can be made between the claims of public creditors is to declare that there is no difference in circumstances; or that the services of all men are equally alike. This Army is of near eight years' standing, six of which they have spent in the Field without any other shelter from the inclemency of the seasons than Tents, or such Houses as they could build for themselves without expense to the public. They have encountered hunger, cold and nakedness. They have fought many Battles and bled freely. They have lived without pay and in consequence of it, officers as well as men have subsisted upon their Rations.

They have often, very often, been reduced to the necessity of eating Salt Porke, or Beef not for a day, or a week only but months together without Vegetables or money to buy them; or a cloth to wipe on.

Many of them do better, and to dress as Officers have contracted heavy debts or spent their patrimonies. The first see the Doors of gaols open to receive them, whilst those of the latter are shut against them. Is there no discrimination then--no extra exertion to be made in favor of men in these peculiar circumstances, in the event of their military dissolution? Or, if no worse cometh of it, are they to be turned adrift soured and discontented, complaining of the ingratitude of their Country, and under the influence of these passions to become fit subjects for unfavorable impressions, and unhappy dissentions? For permit me to add, tho every man in the Army feels his distress--it is not every one that will reason to the cause of it.

I would not from the observations here made, be understood to mean that Congress should (because I know they cannot, nor does the army expect it) pay the full arrearages due to them till Continental or State funds are established for the purpose. They would, from what I can learn, go home contented--nay--thankful to receive what I have mentioned in a more public letter of this date, and in the manner there expressed. And surely this may be effected with proper exertions. Or what possibility was there of keeping the army together, if the war had continued, when the victualls, clothing, and other expenses of it were to have been added? Another thing, Sir, (as I mean to be frank and free in my communications on this subject,) I will not conceal from you--it is the dissimilarity in the payments to men in Civil and Military life. The first receive everything--the others get nothing but bare subsistence--they ask what this is owing to? and reasons have been assigned, which, say they, amount to this--that men in Civil life have stronger passions and better pretensions to indulge them, or less virtue and regard for their Country than us,--otherwise, as we are all contending for the same prize and equally interested in the attainment of it, why do we not bear the burthen equally?[Footnote: Ford, X, 203.]
The army was indeed the incubus of the Americans. They could not fight the war without it, but they had never succeeded in mastering the difficulties of maintaining and strengthening it. The system of a standing army was of course not to be thought of, and the uncertain recruits who took its place were mostly undisciplined and unreliable. When the exigencies became pressing, a new method was resorted to, and then the usual erosion of life in the field, the losses by casualties and sickness, caused the numbers to dwindle. Long ago the paymaster had ceased to pretend to pay off the men regularly so that there was now a large amount of back pay due them. Largely through Washington's patriotic exhortations had they kept fighting to the end; and, with peace upon them, they did not dare to disband because they feared that, if they left before they were paid, they would never be paid. Washington felt that, if thousands of discontented and even angry soldiers were allowed to go back to their homes without the means of taking up any work or business, great harm would be done. The love of country, which he believed to be most important to inculcate, would not only be checked but perverted. They already had too many reasons to feel aggrieved. Why should they, the men who risked their lives in battle and actually had starved or frozen in winter quarters, go unpaid, whereas every civilian who had a post under the Government lived at least safely and healthily and was paid with fair promptitude? They felt now that their best hope for justice lay in General Washington's interest in their behalf; and that interest of his seems now one of the noblest and wisest and most patriotic of his expressions.

Washington had need to be prepared for any emergency. Thus a body of officers deliberated not only a mutiny of the army, but a coup d'état, in which they planned to overthrow the flimsy Federation of the thirteen States and to set up a monarchy. They wrote to Washington announcing their intention and their belief that he would make an ideal monarch. He was amazed and chagrined. He replied in part as follows, to the Colonel who had written him:
I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address, which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs, that can befall my country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable. I must add, that no man possesses a more sincere wish to see ample justice done to the army than I do; and, as far as my powers and influence, in a constitutional way, extend, they shall be employed to the extent of my abilities to effect it, should there be any occasion. Let me conjure you, then, if you have any regard for your country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your mind and never communicate, as from yourself to any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.[Footnote: Sparks, 355.]
The turmoil of the army continued throughout the year and into the next. The so-called "Newburgh Address" set forth the quarrel of the soldiers and Washington's discreet reply. On April 19, 1783, the eighth anniversary of the first fighting at Concord, a proclamation was issued to the American army announcing the official end of all hostilities. In June Washington issued a circular letter to the Governors of the States, bidding them farewell and urging them to guard their precious country. Many of the American troops were allowed to go home on furlough. In company with Governor Clinton he went up the Hudson to Ticonderoga and then westward to Fort Schuyler. Being invited by Congress, which was then sitting at Annapolis, he journeyed thither. Before he left New York City arrangements were made for a formal farewell to his comrades in arms. I quote the description of it from Chief Justice Marshall's "Life of Washington":
This affecting interview took place on the 4th of December. At noon, the principal officers of the army assembled at Frances' tavern; soon after which, their beloved commander entered the room. His emotions were too strong to be concealed. Filling a glass, he turned to them and said, "with a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you; I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy, as your former ones have been glorious and honorable." Having drunk, he added, "I cannot come to each of you to take my leave, but shall be obliged to you, if each of you will come and take me by the hand." General Knox, being nearest, turned to him. Incapable of utterance, Washington grasped his hand, and embraced him. In the same affectionate manner, he took leave of each succeeding officer. In every eye was the tear of dignified sensibility; and not a word was articulated to interrupt the majestic silence and the tenderness of the scene. Leaving the room, he passed through the corps of light infantry, and walked to White hall, where a barge waited to convey him to Powles' hook (Paulus Hook). The whole company followed in mute and solemn procession, with dejected countenances, testifying feelings of delicious melancholy, which no language can describe. Having entered the barge, he turned to the company; and waving his hat, bade them a silent adieu. They paid him the same affectionate compliment, and after the barge had left them, returned in the same solemn manner to the place where they had assembled.[Footnote: Marshall, IV, 561.]
Marshall's description, simple but not commonplace, reminds one of Ville-Hardouin's pictures, so terse, so rich in color, of the Barons of France in the Fifth Crusade. The account once read, you can never forget that majestic, silent figure of Washington being rowed across to Paulus Hook with no sound but the dignified rhythm of the oars. Not a cheer, not a word!

His reception by Congress took place on Tuesday, the twenty-third of December, at twelve o'clock. Again I borrow from Chief Justice Marshall's account:
When the hour arrived for performing a ceremony so well calculated to recall to the mind the various interesting scenes which had passed since the commission now to be returned was granted, the gallery was crowded with spectators, and many respectable persons, among whom were the legislative and executive characters of the state, several general officers, and the consul general of France, were admitted on the floor of Congress.

The representatives of the sovereignty of the union remained seated and covered. The spectators were standing and uncovered. The General was introduced by the secretary and conducted to a chair. After a decent interval, silence was commanded, and a short pause ensued. The President (General Mifflin) then informed him that "the United States in Congress assembled were prepared to receive his communications." With a native dignity improved by the solemnity of the occasion, the General rose and delivered the following address:

"Mr. President:

"The great events on which my resignation depended, having at length taken place, I have now the honor of offering my sincere congratulations to Congress, and on presenting myself before them, to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the service of my country.

"Happy in the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States, of becoming a respectable nation, I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence; a diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which, however, was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our cause, the support of the supreme power of the union, and the patronage of heaven.

"The successful termination of the war has verified the most sanguine expectations; and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my countrymen, increases with every review of the momentous contest.

"While I repeat my obligations to the army in general, I should do injustice to my own feelings not to acknowledge in this place, the peculiar services and distinguished merits of the gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the war. It was impossible the choice of confidential officers to compose my family should have been more fortunate. Permit me, sir, to recommend in particular, those who have continued in the service to the present moment, as worthy of the favorable notice and patronage of Congress.

"I consider it as an indispensable duty to close this last act of my official life, by commending the interests of our dearest country, to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them to his holy keeping.

"Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life."

After advancing to the chair, and delivering his commission to the President, he returned to his place, and received standing, the answer of Congress which was delivered by the President. In the course of his remarks, General Mifflin said:

"Having defended the standard of liberty in this new world: having taught a new lesson useful to those who inflict, and to those who feel oppression, you retire from the great theatre of action, with the blessings of your fellow citizens; but the glory of your virtues will not terminate with your military command: it will continue to animate remotest ages."[Footnote: Marshall, IV, 563.]
The meeting then broke up, and Washington departed. He went that same afternoon to Virginia and reached Mount Vernon in the evening. We can imagine with what satisfaction and gratitude he, to whom home was the dearest place in the world, returned to the home he had seen only once by chance since the beginning of the Revolution, eight years before. Probably few of those who had risen to the highest station in their country said, and felt more honestly, that they were grateful at being allowed by Fate to retire from office, than did Washington. To be relieved of responsibility, free from the hourly spur, day and night, of planning and carrying out, of trying to find food for starving soldiers, of leading forlorn hopes against the truculent enemy, must have seemed to the weary and war-worn General like a call from the Hesperides. Men of his iron nature, and of his capacity for work and joy in it, do not, of course, really delight in idleness. They may think that they crave idleness, but in reality they crave the power of going on.

It took comparatively little effort for Washington to fall into his old way of life at Mount Vernon, although there, too, much was changed. Old buildings had fallen out of repair. There were new experiments to be tried, and the general purpose to be carried out of making Mount Vernon a model place in that part of the country. Whether he would or not, he was sought for almost daily by persons who came from all parts of the United States, and from overseas. Hospitality being not merely a duty, but a passion with him, he gladly received the strangers and learned much from them. From their accounts of their interviews we see that, although he was really the most natural of men, some of them treated him as if he were some strange creature--a holy white elephant of Siam, or the Grand Lama of Tibet. Age had brought its own deductions and reservations. It does not appear that parties rode to hounds after the fox any more at Mount Vernon. And then there were the irreparable gaps that could not be filled. At Belvoir, where his neighbors the Fairfaxes, friends of a lifetime, used to live, they lived no more. One of them, more than ninety years old, had turned his face to the wall on hearing of the surrender at Yorktown. Another had gone back to England to live out his life there, true to his Tory convictions.

Washington had sincerely believed, no doubt, that he was to spend the rest of his life in dignified leisure, and especially that he would mix no more in political or public worries; but he soon found that he had deceived himself. The army, until it officially disbanded at the end of 1783, caused him constant anxiety interspersed with fits of indignation over the indifference and inertia of the Congress, which showed no intention of being just to the soldiers. The reason for its attitude seems hard to state positively. May it be that the Congress, jealous since the war began of being ruled by the man on horseback, feared at its close to grant Washington's demands for it lest they should bring about the very thing they had feared and avoided--the creation of a military dictatorship under Washington? When Vergennes proposed to entrust to Washington a new subsidy from France, the Congress had taken umbrage and regarded such a proposal as an insult to the American Government. Should they admit that the Government itself was not sufficiently sound and trustworthy, and that, therefore, a private individual, even though he had been a leader of the Revolution, must be called into service?

From among persons pestered by this obsession, it was not surprising that the idea should spring up that Washington was at heart a believer in monarchy and that he might, when the opportunity favored, allow himself to be proclaimed king. Several years later he wrote to his trusted friend, John Jay:
I am told that even respectable characters speak of a monarchical form of government without horror. From thinking proceeds speaking; thence to acting is often but a single step. But how irrevocable and tremendous! What a triumph for our enemies to verify their predictions! What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find, that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious! Would to God, that wise measures may be taken in time to avert the consequences we have but too much reason to apprehend.[Footnote: Hapgood, 285.]
In the renewal of his life at Mount Vernon, Washington gave almost as much attention to the cultivation of friendship as to that of his estate. He pursued with great zest the career of planter-farmer. "I think," he wrote a friend, "with you, that the life of a husbandman of all others is the most delectable. It is honorable, it is amusing, and, with judicious management, it is profitable. 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."[Footnote: Hapgood, 288.]

The cultivation of his friendships he carried on by letters and by entertaining his friends as often as he could at Mount Vernon. To Benjamin Harrison he wrote: "My friendship is not in the least lessened by the difference, which has taken place in our political sentiments, nor is my regard for you diminished by the part you have acted."[Footnote: Ibid., 289.]

How constantly the flock of guests frequented Mount Vernon we can infer from this entry in his diary for June 30, 1785: "Dined with only Mrs. Washington which, I believe, is the first instance of it since my retirement from public life." To his young friend Lafayette he wrote without reserve in a vein of deep affection:
At length, my dear Marquis, I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac; and under the shadow of my own vine and my own fig-tree, free from the bustle of a camp, and the busy scenes of public life, I am solacing myself with those tranquil enjoyments, of which the soldier, who is ever in pursuit of fame, the statesman, whose watchful days and sleepless nights are spent in devising schemes to promote the welfare of his own, perhaps the ruin of other countries, as if this globe was insufficient for us all, and the courtier, who is always watching the countenance of his prince, in hopes of catching a gracious smile, can have very little conception. I have not only retired from all public employments, but I am retiring within myself, and shall be able to view the solitary walk, and tread the paths of private life, with heartful satisfaction. Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all; and this, my dear friend, being the order of my march, I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my fathers.[Footnote: Hapgood, 287.]
In September, 1784, he made a journey on horseback, with a pack-train to carry his tents and food, into the Northwestern country, which had especially interested him since the early days when Fort Duquesne was the goal of his wandering. He observed very closely and his mind was filled with large imaginings of what the future would see in the development of the Northwest. Since his youth he had never lost the conviction that an empire would spring up there; only make the waterways easy and safe and he felt sure that a very large commerce would result and with it the extension of civilization. In a memorial to the legislature he urged that Virginia was the best placed geographically of all the States to undertake the work of establishing connection with the States of the Northwest, and he suggested various details which, when acted upon later, proved to be, as Sparks remarked, "the first suggestion of the great system of internal improvements which has since been pursued in the United States."

On returning to Mount Vernon, he entertained Lafayette for the last time before he sailed for France. After he had gone, Washington wrote him this letter in which appears the affection of a friend and the reverie of an old man looking somewhat wistfully towards sunset, "and after that the dark":
In the moment of our separation, upon the road as I travelled, and every hour since, I have felt all that love, respect, and attachment for you, with which length of years, close connection, and your merits have inspired me. I often asked myself as our carriages separated, whether that was the last sight I ever should have of you? And, though I wished to say No, my fears answered Yes. I called to mind the days of my youth, and found they had long since fled to return no more; that I was now descending the hill I had been fifty-two years climbing, and that, though I was blest with a good constitution, I was of a short-lived family and might soon expect to be entombed in the mansion of my fathers. These thoughts darkened the shades, and gave a gloom to the picture, and consequently to my prospect of seeing you again.
We should not overlook the fact that Washington declined all gifts, including a donation from Virginia, for his services as General during the war. He had refused to take any pay, merely keeping a strict account of what he spent for the Government from 1775 to 1782. This amounted to over £15,000 and covered only sums actually disbursed by him for the army. Unlike Marlborough, Nelson, and Wellington, and other foreign chieftains on whom grateful countrymen conferred fortunes and high titles, Washington remains as the one great state-founder who literally gave his services to his country.

Sparks gives the following interesting account of the way in which Washington spent his days after his return to Mount Vernon:
His habits were uniform, and nearly the same as they had been previous to the war. He rose before the sun and employed himself in his study, writing letters or reading, till the hour of breakfast. When breakfast was over, his horse was ready at the door, and he rode to his farms and gave directions for the day to the managers and laborers. Horses were likewise prepared for his guests, whenever they chose to accompany him, or to amuse themselves by excursions into the country. Returning from his fields, and despatching such business as happened to be on hand, he went again to his study, and continued there till three o'clock, when he was summoned to dinner. The remainder of the day and the evening were devoted to company, or to recreation in the family circle. At ten he retired to rest. From these habits he seldom deviated, unless compelled to do so by particular circumstances.[Footnote: Sparks, 389, 390.]
This list does not include the item which Washington soon found the greatest of his burdens--letter-writing. His correspondence increased rapidly and to an enormous extent.
Many mistakenly think [he writes to Richard Henry Lee] that I am retired to ease, and to that kind of tranquility which would grow tiresome for want of employment; but at no period of my life, not in the eight years I served the public, have I been obliged to write so much myself, as I have done since my retirement.... It is not the letters from my friends which give me trouble, or add aught to my perplexity. It is references to old matters, with which I have nothing to do; applications which often cannot be complied with; inquiries which would require the pen of a historian to satisfy; letters of compliment as unmeaning perhaps as they are troublesome, but which must be attended to; and the commonplace business which employs my pen and my time often disagreeably. These, with company, deprive me of exercise, and unless I can obtain relief, must be productive of disagreeable consequences.[Footnote: Irving, IV, 466.]
When we remember that Washington used to write most of his letters himself, and that from boyhood his handwriting was beautifully neat, almost like copper-plate, in its precision and elegance, we shall understand what a task it must have been for him to keep up his correspondence. A little later he employed a young New Hampshire graduate of Harvard, Tobias Lear, who graduated in 1783, who served him as secretary until his death, and undoubtedly lightened the epistolary cares of the General. But Washington continued to carry on much of the letter-writing, especially the intimate, himself; and, like the Adamses and other statesmen of that period, he kept letter-books which contained the first drafts or copies of the letters sent.

Another source of annoyance, to which, however, he resigned himself as contentedly as he could, was the work of the artists who came to him to beg him to sit for his picture or statue. Of the painters the most eminent were Charles Peale and his son Rembrandt. Of the sculptors Houdon undoubtedly made the best life-sized statue--that which still adorns the Capitol at Richmond, Virginia--and from the time it was first exhibited has been regarded as the best, most lifelike. Another, sitting statue, was made for the State of North Carolina by the Italian, Canova, the most celebrated of the sculptors of that day. The artist shows a Roman costume, a favorite of his, unless, as in the case of Napoleon, he preferred complete nudity. This statue was much injured in a fire which nearly consumed the Capitol at Raleigh. The English sculptor, Chantrey, executed a third statue in which Washington was represented in military dress. This work used to be shown at the State House in Boston.

Of the many painted portraits of Washington, those by Gilbert Stuart have come to be accepted as authentic; especially the head in the painting which hung in the Boston Athenaeum as a pendant to that of Martha Washington, and is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. But as I remarked earlier, the fact that none of the painters indicate the very strong marks of smallpox (which he took on his trip to Barbados) on Washington's face creates a natural suspicion as to accuracy in detail of any of the portraits. Perhaps the divergence among them is not greater than that among those of Mary, Queen of Scots, and indicates only the marked incapacity of some of the painters who did them. We are certainly justified in saying that Washington's features varied considerably from his early prime to the days when he was President. We have come to talk about him as an old man because from the time when he was sixty years old he frequently used that expression himself; although, as he died at sixty-seven, he was never really "an old man." One wonders whether those who lived among pioneer conditions said and honestly believed that they were old at the time when, as we think, middle age would hardly have begun. Thus Abraham Lincoln writes of himself as a patriarch, and no doubt sincerely thought that he was, at a time when he had just reached forty. The two features in Washington's face about which the portraitists differ most are his nose and his mouth. In the early portrait by Charles Peale, his nose is slightly aquiline, but not at all so massive and conspicuous as in some of the later works. His mouth, and with it the expression of the lower part of his face, changed after he began to wear false teeth. Is it not fair to suppose that the effigies of Washington, made in later years and usually giving him a somewhat stiff and expansive grin, originated in the fact that his false set of teeth lacked perfect adjustment?

Thus Washington dropped into the ways of peace; working each day what would have been a long stint for a strong young man, and thinking, besides, more than most men thought of the needs and future of the country to which he had given liberty and independence. His chief anxiety henceforth was that the United States of America should not miss the great destiny for which he believed the Lord had prepared it.


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