A review of George Washington: A Biography in Seven Volumes (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948-54) by Douglas Southall Freeman
This is the definitive George Washington biography and is for the serious reader. The life of Washington is in chronological order. Think of this book as reading, rather than watching, a TV series about Washington.
If you decide to commit the time to read it do not pass over the page notes. If you do you will miss a wealth of information. From the page notes I learned of three unique books: one dealing with his journey from Mount Vernon to New York for his first inauguration, one dealing with his Southern tour in 1791, and one dealing with the eulogies to Washington after his death.
Washington’s great-grandfather, John Washington, immigrated in 1656 from Sulgrave, England to the British Colony of Virginia where he accumulated 5,000 acres of land, including Little Hunting Creek on the Potomac River. George Washington was born 22 February 1732 at Popes Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and was the first of six children of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington. His father was a justice of the peace and a prominent public figure who had three additional children from his first marriage to Jane Butler. The family moved to Little Hunting Creek, then to Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. When Augustine died in 1743, Washington inherited Ferry Farm; his older half-brother Lawrence inherited Little Hunting Creek and renamed it Mount Vernon. Washington inherited Mount Vernon in 1761 after the death of Lawrence’s widow.
In volume one you’ll find a section, 120 pages, about Virginia in the youth of Washington. I found it interesting and informative. It was like a book within a book, a bonus. Washington did not have the formal education that his older brothers received, but he did learn surveying.
Washington often visited Mount Vernon and Belvoir, the plantation that belonged to Lawrence’s father-in-law William Fairfax, which fueled ambition for the lifestyle of the planter aristocracy. Fairfax became Washington’s patron and surrogate father, and Washington spent a month in 1748 with a team surveying Fairfax’s Shenandoah Valley property. He received a surveyor’s license the following year; Fairfax appointed him surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia, and he thus familiarized himself with the frontier region. He resigned from the job in 1750 and had bought almost 1,500 acres in the Valley, and he owned 2,315 acres by 1752.
Lawrence’s service as adjutant general of the Virginia militia inspired Washington to seek a commission, and Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie appointed him as a major in December 1752 and as commander of one of the four militia districts. The British and French were competing for control of the Ohio Valley at the time, the British building forts along the Ohio River and the French doing likewise, between Lake Erie and the Ohio River.
In October 1753, Dinwiddie appointed Washington as a special envoy to demand that the French vacate territory which the British had claimed. Dinwiddie also appointed him to make peace with the Iroquois Confederacy and to gather intelligence about the French forces. Washington met with Half-King Tanacharison and other Iroquois chiefs at Logstown to secure their promise of support against the French, and his party reached the Ohio River in November. Washington completed the precarious mission in 77 days in difficult winter conditions and achieved a measure of distinction.
In French-Indian War, during The Battle of the Wilderness on 9 July 1755, the French and their Indian allies ambushed the British army. The British suffered two-thirds casualties, including the mortally wounded General Braddock. Washington rallied the survivors and formed a rear guard, which allowed the remnants of the force to disengage and retreat, and during the engagement had two horses shot from under him, and his hat and coat were bullet-pierced. Many people, myself included, are in the camp that Divine Intervention saved him.
The Virginia Regiment was reconstituted in August 1755, and Dinwiddie appointed Washington its commander with the colonial rank of colonel. Under Washington, the Virginia Regiment defended 300 miles of frontier against 20 Indian attacks in 10 months. He increased the professionalism of the regiment as it increased from 300 to 1,000 men, and Virginia’s frontier population suffered less than other colonies.
In 1758 Washington resigned his commission. On 6 January 6 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, the widow of wealthy plantation owner Daniel Parke Custis. He became one of Virginia’s wealthiest men and increased his social standing. As a respected military hero and large landowner, Washington was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. He represented Frederick County from 1758 until 1761 and Fairfax County from 1761 until 1775.
George Washington is the personification of the American Revolution. In New York in 1776 he had a mortar shell land six feet in front of him that didn’t explode. The crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night in 1776 was brilliant and saved the Colonies from losing the war. During the war Washington exhibited great organizational skills. Washington kept the army going despite difficulties and intrigue: The Conway Cabal, lack of men to fill the ranks, clothing and equipping the army (at one point in the war many soldiers were literally naked), paying the soldiers, to name just a few. It amazes me that one man had all that on his shoulders and yet saw it through.
Benjamin Franklin nominated Washington to preside over the Constitutional Convention, and he was unanimously elected to serve as president general. Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia introduced Madison’s Virginia Plan on the third day of the convention. It called for an entirely new constitution and a sovereign national government, which Washington highly recommended. Washington despaired of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of the convention. Nevertheless, he lent his prestige to the goodwill and work of the other delegates.
Washington was the unanimous choice to be our first president. Washington was the first Unites States president to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation, doing so on 26 November 1789. “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.”
His presidency dealt with major problems. Great Britain refused to relinquish its forts in the American West, and Barbary pirates preyed on American merchant ships in the Mediterranean at a time when the United States did not even have a navy.
Washington had to contend with the British military occupation in the Northwest frontier and their concerted efforts to incite hostile Indian tribes to attack American settlers. The Northwest tribes allied with the British Army to resist American expansion, and killed 1,500 settlers between 1783 and 1790.
Washington decided that “The Government of the United States are determined that their Administration of Indian Affairs shall be directed entirely by the great principles of Justice and humanity”, and provided that their land interests should be negotiated by treaties.
During his second term, in March 1794, he signed the Naval Act which founded the U.S. Navy, and he commissioned the first six federal frigates to combat Barbary pirates. He also kept the United States neutral in the French Revolutionary Wars between Great Britain and France which began in April 1792.
With Washington it was always about what is best for the country. He did not accept any pay as Commander-In-Chief during the Revolution, nor his two terms as president.
Even though Washington’s Birthday was not an official holiday until 1879, it was celebrated like a holiday by Americans after the Revolution. He was special.
What made Washington so special? Washington himself said he was always about doing the right thing. It’s a good way to conduct one’s life. Integrity, virtue and selfless are the three words I would use to describe Washington. He would have preferred to have stayed at Mount Vernon in 1775, but his country called and needed him so he became the leader of the army. He had no desire to be president, but put the interest of the country over his preference of staying at Mount Vernon. He planned to only serve one term, and was looking forward to going home to Mount Vernon, but again put the interest of the country over his own.
How punctuations of sound and of silence had marked George Washington’s life! At 16 he had touched the frontier and had learned by listening as well as by looking, to know the wilderness. Soon he learned . . .the staccato of rain . .. the sentry’s alarm . . .; the whistle of bullets . . . the beat of the drum . . . the incessant shrieks of savages . . . the clattering of round shot . . . the exultant roar of American mortars . .. Salute and salutation, huzzas and hurrahs, he had heard and acknowledged with complete composure. But none of those in the crowd that followed along a Philadelphia Street in March,1797, saw that his eyes were wet with tears as he silently bowed to their silent veneration.
Washington believed in God and understood that God controls things. After the Fourth of July celebration in 1799 he wrote a will even though he was in good health. Why? Because he was 67 and knew that his three score and ten was near (Psalm 90:10).
These were the words from Henry Lee’s eulogy which were to become famous:
First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere – uniform, dignified and commanding – his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting….Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues….Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.
Perhaps the surpassing delineation of Washington’s character was fashioned some fifteen years after his death by Thomas Jefferson when he wrote:
His mind was great and powerful, without being of the first order; his penetration strong, though not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, but little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion….Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining when he saw a doubt, but once decided, going through with his purpose whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives or interest or consanguinity, of friendship, or hatred being able to bias his decision. He was indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good and a great man….On the whole his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature, and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance….
This book is the most comprehensive study of Washington and the best place to check for specific activities, military movements, and decisions.
After reading this book I would not recommend buying the abridged version of the book by Richard Harwell. It’s only 780 pages. I can’t imagine gutting 81% of the book.