Washington and His Companions Viewed Face to Face
THE following letter was copied directly from the original, which I discovered in the library of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, during a recent visit to London, when a commission from the New York Historical Society led me to devote some time to examining and partially indexing the twenty thousand or more manuscripts which constitute the so-called Lord Dorchester Papers.
This ill-arranged and uncatalogued collection of American manuscripts has thus far escaped scrutiny by historians. Nevertheless, it well deserves attention, including, as it does, the entire official and private correspondence of Sir Guy Carleton (afterward Lord Dorchester), the last British commander at New York, together with reports of the military and civil departments, inquisitions of spies and refugees, newspaper clippings, and vouchers of expenditures, both official and personal, — all of which were conveyed by Carleton to Canada, at the time of his evacuation of New York, on November 25, 1783.
The Dorchester Papers are divided into fifty-six parts, though with little reference to date or subject matter, and pasted into scrap-books. The document in question appears in the book numbered 45, and is unaccompanied by references of any kind, so far as I was able to discover. The writer was Christian Frederic Michaelis, of Hanover, physician and author, son of the Orientalist and biblical critic, John David Michaelis, and grandson of Christian Benedict Michaelis, professor of Hebrew at the University of Halle. From the records of this distinguished family we learn that Dr. Michaelis was born at Göttingen in 1754, pursued his studies at Coburg and Gottingen, and graduated from the University of Strasbourg in 1776, with the degree of doctor of medicine ; that he resided for some time in Paris and in England ; that in 1779 he was appointed chief of the Hessian Medical Staff in America, and in 1785 was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia. After the war he became professor of anatomy at the College of Cassel, and in 1786 was called to the same position in the Academy of Marburg, where he later received the appointment of chief professor of medicine, in which post he continued until his death, February 17, 1814, which was occasioned by overwork in his attendance at the Prussian General Hospital.
I also find, in an official list of Hessian troops present in North America in January, 1782, that the name of Dr. Michaelis appears as “ Head Physician to the General Hospital at New York ; ” and this office naturally afforded him ample opportunities for acquainting himself with the important events then transpiring in this country, and with the individuality of the leading participants. Like all spectators at that critical period in American affairs, he was keenly interested in the tripartite struggle for political supremacy, then at its height; and his reputation as an accurate observer evidently caused his letter, containing a detailed report of the situation as viewed from his standpoint, to be deemed worthy of the notice of the British commander-in-chief. He naturally sympathized with the cause of England ; but the value of his statements is emphasized by the fact that his report is not that of an advocate, expected to dress and color his testimony to serve a specific purpose, but merely a personal letter to an acquaintance, never intended for the public eye; in view of which no apology is demanded for its freedom of expression, which might otherwise seem unguarded.
With this explanation, I reproduce the entire letter, verbatim et literatim:
NEW-YORK, October 4, 1783.
DEAR SIR : Here are the observations I had an opportunity of making during a late trip out of the lines. I have suppressed only confidential intelligence ; a restriction which needs no apology to a man of your delicacy.
To avoid repetition I shall bring my remarks under certain heads. Forgive if I abuse of the permission of tiring you.
SIR GUY CARLETON. — No man stands higher in the estimation even of the most violent Whigs. Had he come sooner they say he would have made Tories of them all. His treatment of them in Canada, in which the dignity of a brittish Commander and the humanity of the man of feeling were so happily blended, laid the basis of that esteem which his later conduct encreased to such a degree that Washington himself is not more respected than Sir Guy. Even what they call his breach of the peace, his sending away those Negroes who came in under the sanction of proclamation, is not looked upon as the least bright part of his character. The only objection some individuals have against him, is his not giving up all the houses to their american owners.
There was a time when they were sanguine enough to flatter themselves Sir Guy would be brittish Ambassador at Philadelphia, and this was what many of the most violent Whigs who dread French influence, most devoutly wished for. The French respect him, fear him, and I believe hate him most cordially, and in this do justice both to his superior abilities and the darkness of their designs.
LORD CORNWALLIS. — Hated and despised by both the allied nations. The French call him “ the american traveller,” and the younger students of the Princetown Athens “ the infamous, rapacious Plunderer.” Marboir asked me publicly if there was any man in our Army who still looked upon Lord C. as a general.
GENERAL WASHINGTON. — Soon the Protector of America. A deep, endless ambition, too thinly veiled to escape the penetration of some of those who saw him constantly in the various scenes of this revolution, saw him behind the coulisse as well as upon the stage, makes the basis of the character of this man, who has for ever inscribed his name in the annals of the world, great, not by shining talents, but by a happy concurrence of circumstances, a good, usefull understanding, an unwearied, passive persevearance, the mediocrity of all his competitors, and the weakness or perfidy of his antagonists. Genius, it seems, is not the growth of this western world, and even when imported droops and dies under this unfavorable sky. May this be as it will, genius at least was not the lot of Washington. Without a spark of imagination, enthusiasm, or that torrent of talent that carries every thing before it, cold, deliberate, slow, patient, persevering, he now finds himself elevated to a pitch of grandeur he never dreamed of, and would not even now grasp at the supreme power if to obtain it he must as Cromwell surround the State house and tell them “begone! the Lord you seek has left this place ! ”
But no such exertion will be required. The nation is sick of Congress ; they speak of them with the utmost contempt; Congress themselves are tired of their situation, the unpopularity of which they feel even in the streets of Princetown, and which is neither lucrative, nor honorable, nor durable enough to attach them. I know that they all expect, and that most of them look for a revolution.
The revolution is near at hand, but I do not venture to affirm that it will affect all America. There is an opposition to it in Congress, a weak one, I believe, in number and power, though not in abilities, for I think Thomson is at the head of it. Besides, all the eastern provinces oppose it. But their joint endeavors cannot entirely prevent it. The Junto of Washington, Wederspun [Witherspoon], Plarboir, and the Cincinati, besides the clear majority in Congress, and I am confident a majority of the people at large will certainly carry the point.
CONGRESS. — Never was the Areopagus of America composed of men so little respectable either by their abilities, family or fortune. They are so conscious of it themselves that they retire from the eye of the traveller, to hide their weakness and poverty ; but none of them seems more fearful to expose the mock majesty of his public character by a knowledge of his private one than their President. [Dr. Boudinot, as it afterward appears.] Mr. Wilson, it is thought, will be nominated his successor, but will not accept of it. His ostensible reason for declining this office is his business; but his real one, perhaps, that he would lose his influence by becoming the speaker of this Senate, that is to say, the only man in it that never speaks at all. He is generally thought a french pensioneer and man of abilities.
Maryland is most likely to become the residence of Congress, as that State has made the largest offers ; this certainly must be an object with men half a dozen of whom used even at Philadelphia to live together, with their families, in a paltry boarding house. At Princetown they certainly will not remain. I heard the objection stated that Baltimore was too warm; but the answer was, “ by the time the weather grows warm Congress will sit no where.” The source of this conversation was a tavern.
Their High - Mindedness themselves acknowledge that they have no power at all, and that their situation is hard indeed, for being hated on account of their impotence. But they deny that the persecution of the Loyalists springs from this fountain; the majority of Congress is for this cruel measure.
DR. WETHERSPOON. - An account of the present face of things in America, would be very defective indeed if no mention was made of this political firebrand, who perhaps has not a less share in the revolution than Washington himself. He poisons the minds of his young students, and through them the Continent.
He is the intimate friend of the General; and had I no other arguments to support my ideas of Washington’s designs, I think his intimacy with a man of so different a character of his own (for Washington’s private one is perfectly amiable) would justify my suspicions.
The commencement was a favorable opportunity of conveying certain sentiments to the Public at large (for even women were present), which it now becomes important to make them familiar with. This farce was evidently introductory of the drama that is to follow. The great maxim which this commencement was to establish was the following : “A time may come in every repubic, and that may be the case with America, when Anarchy makes it the duty of the man who has the majority of the people with him, to take the helm into his own hands in order to save his country; and the person who opposes him deserves the utmost revenge of his nation, — deserves — to be sent to Nova Scotia. Vox populi, vox Dei !”
These were the very words of the Moderator, who decided on the question, was Brutus justifiable in killing Cæsar. Or they thought us all that heard them blockheads, or they were not afraid of avowing their designs. This was plainer English still than the confederation of the Cincinati.
When the young man, who with a great deal of passionate claquere, defended his favorite Brutus, extolled the virtues of the man who could stab even his father when attempting the liberties of his country, I thought I saw Washington’s face clouded; he did not dare to look the Orator in the face who stood just before him, but with downcast look seemed wishing to hide the impression which a subject that touched him so near, had, I thought, very visibly made in his countenance. But we are so apt to read in the face what we suppose passes in the heart, maybe that this was the case with me. But if ever what I expect should happen, I shall think that moment one of the most interesting ones of my life.
The orations of the younger boys were full of the coarsest invectives against brittish tirany. I will do Mr. Wetherspoon the justice to think he was not the author of them, for they were too poor indeed ; besides, they evidently conveyed different sentiments; there was one of them not unfavorable to liberal sentiments even toward Brittons. But upon the whole, it is but just to suppose that Wetherspoon had read them all.
The Minister of France was not pressent though expected. But I have a right to think that all or almost all the members of Congress and all the Cincinati there in the Neighborhood assisted at this Entertainment. The Cincinati sat together en corps.
THE FRENCH MINISTER AND FRENCH GOLD. - Of all the men France could have chosen, the most improper. One should think the Court of London had had the apointment of this French Minister, and that of Versailles the nomination of some of our Generals. Even if Mr. de la Luzene was possessed of all the abilities he wanted (and then he would be a most able man indeed), his petty national and nobility pride, and his former residence at the pragmatical court of Munichen, would have entirely disqualified him for his present station. What do you think of the savoir faire of a French Ambassador at Philadelphia who remained an entire stranger to many, and has afronted all the members of Congress on account of a punctiglio of etiquette ? who invites the Americans to his house, entertains them there with the condescendence of a French Lord of the Manor, who gives a feast to his tenants ? who leaves the supper table when the company are just seated, to pay a visit at half after ten at night to the charming Mile. Cr., and who by every look, word or action tells the inhabitants of America: Vous êtes de la canaille, et moi je suis Baron Francois ?
This picture is not too high colored; had you patience and I leisure I might finish it still higher, — but this I think is sufficient.
Marbois, the soul of that Embassy, possesses every talent the other wants, that of pleasing excepted. You plainly see the moment he enters the room, that he passed his life at the bar of Colmar. Stiff, formal, cold, polite, grave, he puts every body upon his guard, without being upon his own. A Frenchman is indiscreet because he is a Frenchman, but never more so than when the honour of his nation is at stake. Their grand aim was to prove that they had done all, and the Americans nothing. These they represented as an indolent, apathetic, stupid, happy set of beings. If we believe them, the Sun spent all his genial influence in the east to form the fiery Frenchman, before she reached their western Hemisphere. Incredible as their open contempt of the nation they protect seems to be, and impolitic as it is to make it the common subject of their conversation at table, yet I heard myself the maxim laid down there: “ Que leurs femmes sont des anges, et les hommes des bêtes.”
All this the Americans know full well, and gratefully return the compliment. The french interest extends not an inch further than their gold ; who is not paid to speak well of them detests them. The father trembles for his daughter, and the husband for his wife ; for such is the influence of french manners already that both have some reason to tremble. Some say they dread french Atheism, and it is their religion they fear for. But the fact is they do not ; for religion they have none. But a more just and more general complaint is that french luxury which begins to pervade all classes of people, will ruin a poor republic, whose exports are not one half of its imports. But this field is too wide, and I have already trespassed too long on your patience.
Give me leave only to add one word more, and that is that I am perfectly convinced that it would be very easy for a Brittish Ambassador to ruin the French interest in this country. I do not mean only that it would be easy for a Minister of Sir Guy’s talent. Infinitely less would do. Send a man of social turn who can stoop to conquer, but let this man be a man of rank; for pride is after all the bosom passion of the Americans. French stiffness and formality will be no match for brittish Hospitality, nor french gold for good old Madeira wine. If a Minister of this turn had an intelligent Secretary, Monsieur de la Luzerne would be undone.
I hope for your indulgence in treating on a subject so foreign to my pursuits, and in a language not my own. But your goodnature I know will be my advocate. Besides, I think my ignorance in political matters is rather an advantage to you. When I wish to get an account of any subject of natural history, I always chuse as ignorant a man as I can. He has no system, and sees neither through Linneas nor Buffon’s spectacles, but merely with his own unprejudiced eyes.
I have the honor to be, with great esteem, Dear Sir,
Your most obdt. bumble servant,
C. F. MICHAELIS.
The foregoing account of the commencement exercises at Princeton is fully confirmed by the official records of the college, which, through the courtesy of one of the present professors, I have been permitted to examine and compare with the statements left by Dr. Michaelis.
According to them, it appears that the commencement of 1783 was “a memorable occasion in the history of the college, rendered so by the presence of General Washington, of the National Congress, and of two foreign ministers.” The record continues as follows : “ Driven from Philadelphia by a turbulent corps of soldiers, Congress had assembled at Princeton, and they held their sessions in the library-room of the college, which was in the front projection, and on what is now the second or middle story of the building.” It also appears that, at the period in question, Dr. Elias Boudinot, a trustee of the college, was president of Congress; and it was partly out of compliment to him that the members adjourned and attended the commencement. We learn, moreover, from this source that the valedictorian of the day — referred to by Dr. Michaelis as “ the young man, who, with a great deal of passionate claquere, defended his favorite Brutus ” — was Ashbel Green, afterward Rev. Dr. Green, and the eighth president of the college, who held that office for a period of ten years, beginning with 1812. The exercises were held in the First Presbyterian Church, then the only one in Princeton; and at the close of his valedictory young Green made an address to Washington, which is described as having been “ received with manifest feeling.” Dr. Green further records the fact that the General met him the next day in the entry to the college, while on his way to a congressional committee-room, when he “ took me by the hand, walked with me a short time, flattered me a little, and desired me to present Ins best respects to my classmates, and his best wishes for their success in life.” Dr. Green adds, still referring to the same occasion, “ There has never been such an audience at a commencement before, and perhaps there never will be again.”