CASE 1—GETTING TO KNOW THE MAN BEHIND THE IMAGE

CASE 2—VIRGINIA ENVIRONMENT,PART I

CASE 3—VIRGINIA ENVIRONMENT, PART II

CASE 4—THE NORTHERN NECK

CASE 5—FAMILY BACKGROUND, PART I

CASE 6—FAMILY BACKGROUND, PART II

CASE 7—THE FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR, PART I

CASE 8—THE FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR, PART II

CASE 9—PLANTER, POLITICIAN, AND PATRIOT

CASE 10—THE MAN, PART I

CASE 11—THE MAN, PART II

CASE 12—THE MAN, PART III

CASE 13—THE MAN, PART IV

CASE 14—THE MAN, PART V

CASE 15—DEATH AND APOTHEOSIS

CASE 16—PRESERVING THE MEMORY

CLEMENTS LIBRARY

George Washington: getting to know the man behind the image

This website is a record of the exhibit, as it appeared in the display cases of the William L. Clements Library. Each page features an image of a single display case and its contents, with details of the artifacts and the accompanying text below. Please click on the images to view enlargements and use the "back" button on your browser to return.

Copyrights to the contents of this exhibit, both text and images, are held by the Clements Library. Permission for use and reproduction must be obtained in advance from the director of the Clements Library.

Case 9 —Planter, Politician, and Patriot

The years between 1759 and the coming of the Revolution would prove to be the most enjoyable and satisfying period of Washington's personal life. Resigning his military commission in November 1758, he returned to Virginia and married Martha Dandridge Custis, an attractive twenty-seven year old widow with two children and plenty of money!

While he was reserved in public, Washington could relax at Mount Vernon. He was king of the castle, benevolent ruler of his own domain. He reveled in domestic projects, family activities, and informal entertainment of guests at the dinner table, delighting in good food produced on his own farm, and good conversation. Washington took great pleasure in routine. He kept meticulous personal accounts. Planting crops and architectural improvements, and the like were made into exciting projects that were carefully planned, documented, and evaluated. Martha was the perfect companion and partner. She ran the household with exceptional care and efficiency, and she was unfailingly supportive and enthusiastic about all of George's undertakings. He idolized her and was a fond and indulgent parent to her children, and later her grandchildren.

 

In the 1760s and 1770s Washington threw himself with gusto into enlarging the Mount Vernon estate and mansion, improving farming operations, and all sorts of investment and public improvement projects, including the Dismal Swamp Canal, navigation of the Potomac and James Rivers, developing the town of Alexandria.

Washington did not play a major role on the world stage in this period between the wars, as he had previously, but he gained something precious for his next encounter with fame during the American Revolution. He had found emotional fulfillment at home. Maturity and patience replaced the intense ambition of youth.

By 1775, in his mind at least, he accepted military or political preferment out of a sense of duty, not ambition. It is telling that he refused to accept salaries either as commander of the army or President of the United States. He made it clear that he served because he wanted to, because he believed in the' cause, not because he had to. There probably was not a day during the war or his presidency that Washington would not have preferred being home at Mount Vernon.

Washington wrote this intriguing letter to Gen. Thomas Gage, Commander in Chief of the British army in America, in 1768. Officially, by the Proclamation of 1763, the British government had prohibited private treaties with the Indians or future settlement beyond the Allegheny Mountains. The Crown wanted to impose a degree of coordination and control over Indian affairs, western expansion, and frontier defense.

In the letter, Washington argues the superiority of the Virginia route over the road from Philadelphia to the Ohio Valley. He urges that Gage permit sufficient settlement along the way to protect the route and make possible rapid supply to western military posts.

Presumably Washington was making a case in behalf of Virginians interested in reviving the Ohio Company scheme. Was he also angling for an advisory role with the British Army? Perhaps a military commission or political appointment? The course of history might have taken a far different course had Gage responded enthusiastically. Whatever the motivation, the general essentially ignored Washington and his advice. Was this a slight George might have remembered, seven years later, when he and Gage commanded opposing armies at the Siege of Boston?

Anyone who studies Washington, sooner or later, begins to wonder how this man-seemingly the perfect Englishman in terms of background, temperament, and lifestyle--became a Patriot rather than a Tory? Even his adversaries, once the war began, found him to be the most admirable, the most English of men. The same question could be asked with regard to many of the wealthier, better-educated men who chose the American cause.

Ironically, it was probably this very quality-this "Englishness" of Washington--that helps to explain his commitment to the American cause. Washington considered himself to be as good and loyal a subject of the King as anyone in the home country, deserving of the same respect and treatment, the same political rights.

The French and Indian War had given Americans like George Washington an enhanced sense of their importance within the British Empire. They were not willing to be ignored, or to be treated like second-class citizens when the war was over.

Washington was not a Patrick Henry, not a John or Sam Adams, whose speeches and pamphlets prodded the colonies toward rebellion as the Revolutionary War crisis developed. He was not the rabble-rouser, not the firebrand, but in many ways he was equally important to the cause.

Here was a man, eminently sensible, with much to lose, who sincerely believed in the American cause and was willing to back it openly. In the House of Burgesses, he wholeheartedly supported the American position on each of the crises that arose between the Stamp Act in 1765 and the Boston Port Act of 1774. He put his signature on the Associations of 1769 (see the newspaper displayed here) and 1774, served in the Provincial Conventions, and he accepted successive appointments to the First and Second Continental Congresses (See printed items with red arrows).

 
At the first session of the Second Congress, on June 15, 1775, he was appointed Commander in Chief of the American Army. Washington's prior military career and his appearance and demeanor played a part in securing him the honor, but so did sectional politics. The New Englanders needed Southern support to drive the British Army out of Boston.

Congress could not possibly have fully realized what an ideal choice they had made. The newspaper displayed here publishes an address he made to Massachusetts officials at the time he took over command of the American forces besieging British-held Boston. It was humble, but it also demonstrated a level of political savvy worthy of a Boston Irish Congressman!