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 11 The Man, Part II

While the cherry tree story of Parson Weems's biography was undoubtedly fabricated by the author as a moral lesson for young readers, it deals with a quality-personal honesty-that had an unusually significant role in Washington's value system. He was uncompromising, one might even say fanatical about it.

He saw it as the essence of personal character. A man who was careless and dishonest in even the smallest financial transaction, or who told even a small lie, could never be trusted again. Washington insisted upon the same degree of honesty in the army at command level, in the Federal government, and in his subordinates. He set a very vigorous standard for both the army and the Federal government in their formative years. This high level of personal ethics became institutionalized at the very beginning of our history, due in considerable degree to Washington's personal example.

 

 

Washington had a reputation, in his private life, for being careful with his money. He paid debts immediately in cash and expected others to do the same. Richard Parkinson was an Englishman, a farmer, and a neighbor near the end of the former President's life. In A Tour in America, in 1798, 1799, and 1800 (London, 1805) he relates some of the local stories about Washington's "correctness" in even the smallest transactions.

 

 

 

This March 1792 letter was written to a John Lewis, who apparently had purchased land in North Carolina with or from Washington. The President had learned that Lewis had sold it, been paid, and was about to move to Kentucky. To Washington, it was not simply a matter of money but of personal character. Payment had been "the condition" of their agreement, the terms of which had been defined by Lewis himself. Washington demanded and expected payment.

 

 

In this 1781 letter to nephew Lund, who helped manage his private affairs at Mount Vernon, Washington comments on a person with whom he had exchanged land. The letter provides an insight into his business philosophy: "If Mr. Triplet has got as much land as he has given, and you have paid him the cash difference with a proper allowance for the depreciation since the bargain was made, I am at a loss to discover the ground of his complaint-and if men will complain without cause, it is a matter of no great moment. It always was, and now is my wish to do him justice, and if there is anything lacking in it, delay not to give him full measure of justice because I had rather exceed than fall short."

 

Plan for the City of Washington.

Upon leaving office after his second term as President, Washington says, in this 1799 letter to William Thornton, "it was with a determination not to intermeddle in any public matter which did not immediately concern me."

Thornton was one of the Commissioners responsible for planning and establishment of the future Federal Capitol at Washington. Congress had accepted the monumental plan of l'Enfant in the early 1790s, and there were now pressures being exerted to modify it. Commercial and investment interests coveted some of the choice real estate earmarked for public spaces. The Commissioners 'Yere tempted by the income it would produce. Thornton requested Washington's private opinion.

Washington argues in the letter that there should be no departure from the original plan. Why? In part because he had a core belief that decisions once made should not be revisited without "imperious necessity." In part because selfish private interests should never take precedence over the "public good."

"But the primary, and to my mind unanswerable one, is, that after the original plan (with some alterations) had been adopted; ordered to be engraved and published; and was transmitted to.. .our public Agents abroad, for the purpose of inviting purchasers; that it would, for reasons too obvious and cogent to require illustration, be deceptious to layoff Lots for private purposes. . . "

 

The success or failure of an army frequently depends upon the quality of the intelligence it receives regarding the enemy. Both armies developed many sources of information. The two letters displayed here, from Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge, relate to spies in occupied New York City, who smuggled intelligence out of the city by letters written in secret ink supplied by Washington himself.

As a person who thrived upon detail, Washington was "a natural" at espionage. He personally recruited informants, many of whom reported directly to him personally, unknown to even his closest advisors or to each other. As much as any computer enthusiast today, he understood that information was power-that one vital fact about the enemy, or one credible bit of misinformation passed to the enemy could win the war.

Unfortunately for Washington, both of these letters were captured by the British, fatally compromising one particular source of information.