Young Washington: A Living Portrait

Author, editor, and critic. RICHARD E. DANIELSON was for ten venrs the Editor of the Sportsman, and since 1940 has been President of The Atlantic Monthly Company. A lifelong student of George Washington, he gives us this thoughtful appraisal of the spacious, intimately detailed biography now being written by our foremost Southern historian. Douglas Southall Freeman, whose four-volume dejinitive life of Robert E. Lee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for the best American biography.

by RICHARD E. DANIELSON

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IF Douglas Southall Freeman had been writing history with a weather eye cocked at a maximum sale for his six-volume biography of Washington, he might have published Volumes III and IV as the first installment. Those projected volumes will cover Washington’s career from 1758 until the end of the War of the Revolution and will provide exactly the kind of material in which Mr. Freeman delights and excels. Heretofore, his natural inclinations have led him to survey the phases of history illuminated or darkened by the sharp crises of war, to tell the story of a battle or a campaign with lucid and fluent narrative, to study and analyze the men of action who led their troops to victory or to defeat rather than to follow the slow development of economic or political structures or to re-create the uninspiring figures of their builders.

but, fortunately for all of us, Mr. Freeman has wisely chosen in George Washington: A Biography to begin at the beginning with “Young Washington” (Vols. I and II, Scribner’s, $15.00). He is presenting — and explaining George Washington as a man and not a monument. It would be quite impossible to understand the General Washington of the Revolution, or the Father of His Country in the glorious autumn of his days, if we knew little or nothing of the kind of boy and youth he was, or if we were ignorant of the society in which he grew up, of the pressures and forces molding him during his formative years, or of the light in which his contemporaries and the older people with whom his lot was cast regarded him.
Four other historians have attempted “definitive” biographies of this extraordinary man, and innumerable commentators and storytellers have contributed their pittances — and yet the picture remains cloudy and confused. We have seen an aloof and lofty figure whose energies and actions were apparent, but the motives, the emotions, the passion behind them, remained veiled and obscure. We knew what he did but we did not know why he did it. Now, at last, if the promise of these preliminary and background volumes is made good—and barring accidents, one can be confident that it will be — we shall have a completed portrait of our greatest man. And for this all Americans should be grateful.
As a Virginian and a careful student of the history of the Old Dominion. Mr. Freeman explains with his customary accuracy and clarity many of the aspects of Colonial life in Virginia which have confused the general reader. The complex systems of landholding, whether under patent from the Crown or from “The Proprietaries” — the surviving holders of a patent issued by Charles II in exile to a group of his impoverished followers — are fully presented. He shows how it was possible to acquire great areas of land on easy terms, to develop these tracts or to trade and speculate with them, to found a family and create a fortune in a lifetime — it took two or three generations to become a member of the aristocracy. The eighteenth-century Englishman was, among other things, very likely to be acquisitive, if not mercenary.
To the aristocracy and to the strays and waifs of society, the British Empire in the seventeen hundreds offered unprecedented opportunities for acquiring wealth and advancement. Politics were riddled with corruption; “insiders” fattened on privileges and exploited the chances provided by their position and information. The wealth of India and the Colonies was there to be mercilessly exploited; the great families labored or at least conspired — to increase their wealth and honors and the nobodies took heart and thrilled to a wild surmise; they too might become somebodies.
In Virginia, wealth was land and slaves. Tobacco was the coin of the realm. Land could he acquired in immense tracts either to be worked and made productive or to be traded and bartered. Speculation in land was as active as land hunger was strong. Social prestige, ease of living, acceptance in an expanding society, followed the acquisition of a large landed estate and its successful exploitation.
Washington was born with the land hunger in him and he never lost it. He was a younger son of respectable but not wealthy parents; his family were not softened by the luxury of the tidewater aristocracy, but were hard-working, acquisitive, inveterate speculators in new lands; he grew up deeply impressed by the desirability of reaching the coveted position of the large landowner. The honorable acquirement of wealth, a secure fortune, and position seemed to him and to his contemporaries perhaps the first and compelling business of life.
But note the qualification “honorable.” George Washington was an acquisitive youth and man. He sought steadily to make a fortune, but besought at the same time, with a far more passionate ambition, to make a name. He was careful with money, demanding full value for services rendered, but he was not parsimonious or mean. He would play cards for moderate stakes or back a horse in moderation. He never gambled in the wild eighteenth-century tradition which risked a fortune on the turn of a card. He sought security and position consistently but he was willing and eager to earn them the hard way.
Mr. Freeman demonstrates from Washingtons letters and journal how fiercely the flames of ambition burned in the young Virginian. This was no cold self-seeker. The fire was there and it burst out at times. Less disciplined nalures are often consumed by such flames or, if they achieve great position, they arrive at their objectives seared and twisted - great men, if you like, but half monsters by the simple standards of honest men.
Washington was boundlessly ambitious, but his was an ambition always confined within the boundaries of “honor.” He constantly referred to “honor,” which meant two or perhaps three things to him. It meant, first, a strict adherence to his own code of conduct becoming to a gentleman. This was his private honor, and from early youth he drew up his code and disciplined himself to observe it in all strictness.
Secondly, honor meant to him the esteem in which he was held by the resl of the world. He was intensely sensitive to any criticism of his conduct which he felt unjustly reflected on the purity of his motives or the integrity of his actions or which rated his performance and position at a lower estimate than he felt they deserved. To demonstrate and prove that he had been misjudged he would proclaim at length the lofty and disinterested nature of his actions. This insistence on a due recognition of his deserts was often boyish, sometimes priggish, and always unmarred by any sense of humor. But, as a matter of fact, he stated the simple truth, with a very small margin of error arising from inevitable self-deception. It suffices to say that he was passionately jealous of this “honor” and would allow no infringement to go unchallenged.
There is a slight difference, at least in degree, in his third conception of “honor,”which might be implied in the term “honor and glory.” This was the bubble reputation sought at the cannon’s mouth. It was fame rather than esteem or the good opinion of mankind. He wanted, then, always to behave like a gentleman, to be esteemed and respected in the world in which ho lived, and he wanted Fame. There was nothing of the marble monument about the young Washington.

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HE MUST have been an exceedingly attractive young man. He stood six feet tall—an unusual height in that lime and place — and was strong without being awkward. He was a splendid and tireless horseman: thanks to the affectionate guidance of his half-brother, Lawrence, he had the usual accomplishments of a well-bred young gentleman. His amiability is frequently mentioned. Older men particularly were impressed by his underlying seriousness and a self-control unusual in a man of his age.

When Washington was only twenty-one, Lord Dinwiddie, the lovernor of Virginia, sent him as his representative to the French commander in the disputed frontier to present an ultimatum. At twentythree he was a colonel in command of all Colonial troops in Virgima; four years later he was an acting brigadier in Forbes’s army on its march to Fort Duquesne. He had also served, by invitation, as a volunteer aide to General Braddock in that unhappy man’s fatal venture in frontier warfare.
Washington fell a strong inclination to the military life, and the groat effort of his twenties was to acquire honor as a soldier. He was not altogether successful in this hope. He was esteemed and admired; he was the best officer in Virginia, but the greater part of his efforts had been confined to the seamy side of soldiering: recruiting unwilling cannon fodder who deserted as soon as they could; improvising with inadequate supplies, transportation, and funds; being constantly asked or ordered to do more than was humanly possible given the means at hand; obliged to make frequent and painful journeys from the frontier to the Capital and hack again empty-handed as often as not. He felt himself frustrated through no fault of his own, unfairly criticized, and, when British regular troops were involved, grossly humiliated by the fact that any half-pay captain holding the King’s commission outranked a colonel commanding the Virginia regiment a regiment which was not composed of militia.
If he learned little in the field of grand strategy and commanded troops in action only a few times, he did learn the common sense of campaigning in America. In fact he thought he knew more about this than did that excellent and unfortunate General