Reconciliation of a Town Destroyer: The Presidency of George Washington
We created the heroic myth of George Washington. The statues, speeches, and ceremonies held in his honor, though they may be well deserved, are attempts to hide the fact that Washington was a human being and not a God. Washington’s life was riddled with regret and confusion. He played many roles in life, from a young and bold soldier to an externally strong but emotionally frail president. His presidency showed many signs of courage and many moments of hesitancy. The towering statues later erected in his image share only their appearance with Washington for he was truly much more complex than steel and stones. For every virtue, there lied three sins in his back closet. Washington’s presidency was one of hope: One for a new nation, and one for Washington’s redemption.
George Washington experienced a life of leading, fighting, and shouting. He witnessed and commanded several instances of Indian massacres while controlling slave plantations. Washington wrote to General John Sullivan in 1779 stating:
The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more (Ford 460).
This will later be known as Sullivan’s Expedition. Speaking of the Indian Country, Washington reminded Sullivan that his instructions were to, “……lay waste all the settlements around....to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country not be nearly overrun but destroyed” (Ford 461). It was these expeditions that would grant George Washington the title “Town Destroyer” by the Iroquois Indians.
By the age of 21, he owned over 1,500 acres worth of land. By 1774, he had over 135 slaves in his command on these properties. In Slavery at the Home of George Washington, Jean B. Lee writes, “Like most white southerners, Washington seems not to have questioned the institution of human bondage. Labor was a commodity…he spoke of his slaves in distant, impersonal terms”. One specific slave, William Lee, was considered one of the most recognizable African Americans of the times. He rode next to George Washington in practically all of the battles during the Revolution. Fritz Hirschfeld wrote in George Washington and Slavery, "If Billy Lee had been a white man, he would have had an honored place in American history because of his close proximity to George Washington during the most exciting periods of his career. But because he was a black servant, a humble slave, he has been virtually ignored by both black and white historians and biographers” (111). Once the American Revolution was over, Washington was one of the richest men in America.
When he became 57 years old, the Electoral College unanimously voted him the first president of the United States. His gun-toting, Indian corralling days had been gone for almost 30 years. On April 30, 1789 Washington announced in his inaugural address:
I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years--a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time.
The retreat he was summoned from was his plantation home Mount Vernon in Virginia. Jean B. Lee wrote, “…after returning home from the Continental Army in 1783, Washington devoted a tremendous amount of his own time and energy…to perfecting his estate aesthetically and to experimenting with the most advanced agricultural techniques of his day” (18). Like a happily retired old man, Washington would spend his days amongst his Georgia peach plants, Russian wheat fields, and South Carolina palmetto plants. “Agriculture has ever been amongst the most favourite [sic] amusements of my life,” Washington wrote to a friend in 1786, “though I never possessed much skill in the art” (Lee 20).
On April 14th 1789, Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the old Continental Congress, visited Washington at Mount Vernon. He delivered to him his formal certificate of election. In less than 15 days, he would have been sworn in as president. Why on earth would George Washington give up his Georgia peaches for the American presidency? Previous to his election, he wrote in a letter to Henry Knox,
I most heartily wish the choice to which you allude [election to the presidency] may not fall on me…I call to Heaven to witness this very act would be the greatest sacrifice of my personal feelings and wishes that I ever have been called upon to make. My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution…Heaven knows that no event can be less desired by me, and that no earthly consideration…could again bring me into public life (Osborn 205).
What was it that convinced him then, to take up the vital position? In his acceptance letter he said it was due to his “respect to the opinion of my fellow-citizens”. This could be the case if it were not for the fact he adamantly expresses his desire to not take the position several times. At his old age, he wanted to follow in the steps of the Roman emperor Cincinnatus , who he admired and emulated.
Could it possibly be that an aging George Washington saw the American presidency as an opportunity to reconcile with his past? Did he feel compelled to take the office in order to morally and spiritually cleanse himself, the same way a dying man repents his sins? Indeed, his thoughts have matured into an old man’s wisdom. Suddenly he was advocating the abolition of slavery. However, he did sign the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, making it a federal crime to assist a slave to escape, his private thoughts were elsewhere. One can easily see this as a brutal act against the slave, but by this time Washington’s mind was on the unity of the country. If he had to sacrifice a slave or two hundred to temporarily appease the states, he’d do it. As he grew older and approached his final days, his concepts of freedom transcended nationalism. Washington knew that freedom is a right deserved to all human beings. In his will, he stated, “Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will and desire, that all the slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom...And I do hereby expressly forbid the sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth of any Slave I may die possessed of”. These are the words of the man who demanded the vast death of a race of people. This is a man seeking redemption.
To guide him on his spiritual journey, he appointed disciples to aid him in this new step for the young country. This will later be known as the first organization of the United States Cabinet. He spread the executive power across many men, ranging from war duties to the postal service. Washington was setting the stage for a new kind of government. His family was from a nation of kings and queens. When a king dies and power is transferred, the entire nation had to readjust to the new figure head. Washington wanted to avoid this, fearing himself to be a new kind of king. He took many steps to distance himself from the image of the monarchial rule fresh in the consciousness of this new America. In fact, his first act in office was to establish a new branch of government, the Judicial System. The old and weary former general was busy setting up the house for his children when his time came.
When his people got out of hand, he feared that any insurgency (no matter how little) would spread through the land infecting all its citizens. In the case of the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington himself commanded an army to where the insurgency was taking place. As he sat there on his horse and stared on at his people shout, his tired look begged for unity. Perhaps the old Washington would have distantly commanded the slaughter of these men, in order for their cries not to be heard by the rest of the nation. Yet this Washington settled the rebellion with several arrests which he later pardoned (class notes, Strauss, 2007). He was only looking to prove to his country that it will defend itself and keep strong no matter what happens. Had he not been looking to set an example, the men he arrested would have remained in prison.
Even the very nation Washington fought against, Great Britain, felt the ethereal hand of Washington’s search for inner redemption and his coming to terms with his old age. Hundreds of British soldiers died at the command of George Washington during the Revolutionary War. By 1794, though, just 5 years before his death, Washington felt a need to make peace with the nation.
Great Britain demanded all debts held by the United States be paid if the new country wished them to leave their fort occupation in the U.S. Britain also stated that they were willing to capture any American ships trading with the French. The Americans protested. The Democratic-Republicans wanted war with the British. Eventually tensions with Great Britain escalated to the point that Washington ordered all American trading ships heading across the Atlantic to stop. The slate was set for war. Washington, on the other hand, saw no need for war or battle with his former enemies. He sent a diplomat over to Britain who eventually solved most of the problems between the two nations. War was averted. Indeed, a surprising act from a man who formulated a surprise attack on the British at Princeton in 1777.
Finally, in 1797 it all came to an end for George Washington. He went into the office to help seal a nation and morally and introspectively grew in the process. In his farewell speech in 1797, Washington spoke, “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports.” In March of that year, Washington returned to Mount Vernon, a place that had become a metaphor of his redemption. He arrived at his paradise. His last days were quiet, consisting of him renovating his home and spending much time farming. On December 14, 1799, Washington died of acute laryngitis and pneumonia. Tobias Lear, Washington’s personal secretary, would later report that his last words were, “Tis well” (Lossing). In these words, I see a man’s satisfaction for the way he closed his life. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once stated, “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself.” By 1799, Washington found that happiness which he achieved through the first presidency of the United States.
Ford, Worthington Chauncey. The Writings of George Washington. Volume 14
New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890.
Hirschfeld, Fritz. George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal.
University of Missouri Press, 1997.
Lee, Jean B. "Mount Vernon Plantation: A Model for the Republic."
Slavery at the Home of George Washington. Philip J. Shwarz.
University of Virginia Press, 2002. 13-38.
Lossing, Benson. "George Washington's Death." Our Country Vol. 2
January 1, 2006. Public Bookshelf. April 12, 2007 <http://www.publicbookshelf.com/public_html/Our_Country_vol_2/georgewas_bge.html>
Osborn, Lucretia Perry. Washington Speaks for Himself. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927
Washington, George. Inaugural Address. 1789.
Washington, George. Farewell Address. 1796.
Washington, George. "Last Will and Testament.” July 9th 1799.
PBS. April 12, 2007 <http://www.pbs.org/georgewashington/collection/other_last_will.html >.
 After Cincinnatus served as Roman Emperor, he rejected any further power and retreated to his farm.