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Washington and his Comrades: Chapter I

It is sometimes said of Washington that he was an English country gentleman. A gentleman he was, but with an experience and training quite unlike that of a gentleman in England. The young heir to an English estate might or might not go to a university. He could, like the young Charles James Fox, become a scholar, but like Fox, who knew some of the virtues and all the supposed gentlemanly vices, he might dissipate his energies in hunting, gambling, and cockfighting. He would almost certainly make the grand tour of Europe, and, if he had little Latin and less Greek, he was pretty certain to have some familiarity with Paris and a smattering of French. The eighteenth century was a period of magnificent living in England. The great landowner, then, as now, the magnate of his neighborhood, was likely to rear, if he did not inherit, one of those vast palaces which are today burdens so costly to the heirs of their builders. At the beginning of the century the nation to honor Marlborough for his victories could think of nothing better than to give him half a million pounds to build a palace. Even with the colossal wealth produced by modern industry we should be staggered at a residence costing millions of dollars. Yet the Duke of Devonshire rivaled at Chatsworth, and Lord Leicester at Holkham, Marlborough’s building at Blenheim, and many other costly palaces were erected during the following half century. Their owners sometimes built in order to surpass a neighbor in grandeur, and to this day great estates are encumbered by the debts thus incurred in vain show. The heir to such a property was reared in a pomp and luxury undreamed of by the frugal young planter of Virginia. Of working for a livelihood, in the sense in which Washington knew it, the young Englishman of great estate would never dream.

The Atlantic is a broad sea and even in our own day, when instant messages flash across it and man himself can fly from shore to shore in less than a score of hours, it is not easy for those on one strand to understand the thought of those on the other. Every community evolves its own spirit not easily to be apprehended by the onlooker. The state of society in America was vitally different from that in England. The plain living of Virginia was in sharp contrast with the magnificence and ease of England. It is true that we hear of plate and elaborate furniture, of servants in livery, and much drinking of Port and Madeira, among the Virginians: They had good horses. Driving, as often they did, with six in a carriage, they seemed to keep up regal style. Spaces were wide in a country where one great landowner, Lord Fairfax, held no less than five million acres. Houses lay isolated and remote and a gentleman dining out would sometimes drive his elaborate equipage from twenty to fifty miles. There was a tradition of lavish hospitality, of gallant men and fair women, and sometimes of hard and riotous living. Many of the houses were, however, in a state of decay, with leaking roofs, battered doors and windows and shabby furniture. To own land in Virginia did not mean to live in luxurious ease. Land brought in truth no very large income. It was easier to break new land than to fertilize that long in use. An acre yielded only eight or ten bushels of wheat. In England the land was more fruitful. One who was only a tenant on the estate of Coke of Norfolk died worth 150,000 pounds, and Coke himself had the income of a prince. When Washington died he was reputed one of the richest men in America and yet his estate was hardly equal to that of Coke’s tenant.

Washington was a good farmer, inventive and enterprising, but he had difficulties which ruined many of his neighbors. Today much of his infertile estate of Mount Vernon would hardly grow enough to pay the taxes. When Washington desired a gardener, or a bricklayer, or a carpenter, he usually had to buy him in the form of a convict, or of a negro slave, or of a white man indentured for a term of years. Such labor required eternal vigilance. The negro, himself property, had no respect for it in others. He stole when he could and worked only when the eyes of a master were upon him. If left in charge of plants or of stock he was likely to let them perish for lack of water. Washington’s losses of cattle, horses, and sheep from this cause were enormous. The neglected cattle gave so little milk that at one time Washington, with a hundred cows, had to buy his butter. Negroes feigned sickness for weeks at a time. A visitor noted that Washington spoke to his slaves with a stern harshness. No doubt it was necessary. The management of this intractable material brought training in command. If Washington could make negroes efficient and farming pay in Virginia, he need hardly be afraid to meet any other type of difficulty.

From the first he was satisfied that the colonies had before them a difficult struggle. Many still refused to believe that there was really a state of war. Lexington and Bunker Hill might be regarded as unfortunate accidents to be explained away in an era of good feeling when each side should acknowledge the merits of the other and apologize for its own faults. Washington had few illusions of this kind. He took the issue in a serious and even bitter spirit. He knew nothing of the Englishman at home for he had never set foot outside of the colonies except to visit Barbados with an invalid half-brother. Even then he noted that the “gentleman inhabitants” whose “hospitality and genteel behaviour” he admired were discontented with the tone of the officials sent out from England. From early life Washington had seen much of British officers in America. Some of them had been men of high birth and station who treated the young colonial officer with due courtesy. When, however, he had served on the staff of the unfortunate General Braddock in the calamitous campaign of 1755, he had been offended by the tone of that leader. Probably it was in these days that Washington first brooded over the contrasts between the Englishman and the Virginian. With obstinate complacency Braddock had disregarded Washington’s counsels of prudence. He showed arrogant confidence in his veteran troops and contempt for the amateur soldiers of whom Washington was one. In a wild country where rapid movement was the condition of success Braddock would halt, as Washington said, “to level every mole hill and to erect bridges over every brook.” His transport was poor and Washington, a lover of horses, chafed at what he called “vile management” of the horses by the British soldier. When anything went wrong Braddock blamed, not the ineffective work of his own men, but the supineness of Virginia. “He looks upon the country,” Washington wrote in wrath, “I believe, as void of honour and honesty.” The hour of trial came in the fight of July, 1755, when Braddock was defeated and killed on the march to the Ohio. Washington told his mother that in the fight the Virginian troops stood their ground and were nearly all killed but the boasted regulars “were struck with such a panic that they behaved with more cowardice than it is possible to conceive.” In the anger and resentment of this comment is found the spirit which made Washington a champion of the colonial cause from the first hour of disagreement.

That was a fatal day in March, 1765, when the British Parliament voted that it was just and necessary that a revenue be raised in America. Washington was uncompromising. After the tax on tea he derided “our lordly masters in Great Britain.” No man, he said, should scruple for a moment to take up arms against the threatened tyranny. He and his neighbors of Fairfax County, Virginia, took the trouble to tell the world by formal resolution on July 18, 1774, that they were descended not from a conquered but from a conquering people, that they claimed full equality with the people of Great Britain, and like them would make their own laws and impose their own taxes. They were not democrats; they had no theories of equality; but as “gentlemen and men of fortune” they would show to others the right path in the crisis which had arisen. In this resolution spoke the proud spirit of Washington; and, as he brooded over what was happening, anger fortified his pride. Of the Tories in Boston, some of them highly educated men, who with sorrow were walking in what was to them the hard path of duty, Washington could say later that “there never existed a more miserable set of beings than these wretched creatures.”

The age of Washington was one of bitter vehemence in political thought. In England the good Whig was taught that to deny Whig doctrine was blasphemy, that there was no truth or honesty on the other side, and that no one should trust a Tory; and usually the good Whig was true to the teaching he had received. In America there had hitherto been no national politics. Issues had been local and passions thus confined exploded all the more fiercely. Franklin spoke of George III as drinking long draughts of American blood and of the British people as so depraved and barbarous as to be the wickedest nation upon earth, inspired by bloody and insatiable malice and wickedness. To Washington George III was a tyrant, his ministers were scoundrels, and the British people were lost to every sense of virtue. The evil of it is that, for a posterity which listened to no other comment on the issues of the Revolution, such utterances, instead of being understood as passing expressions of party bitterness, were taken as the calm judgments of men held in reverence and awe. Posterity has agreed that there is nothing to be said for the coercing of the colonies so resolutely pressed by George III and his ministers. Posterity can also, however, understand that the struggle was not between undiluted virtue on the one side and undiluted vice on the other. Some eighty years after the American Revolution the Republic created by the Revolution endured the horrors of civil war rather than accept its own disruption. In 1776 even the most liberal Englishmen felt a similar passion for the continued unity of the British Empire. Time has reconciled all schools of thought to the unity lost in the case of the Empire and to the unity preserved in the case of the Republic, but on the losing side in each case good men fought with deep conviction.