Front Page Titles (by Subject) FORGED LETTER. TO JOHN PARKE CUSTIS. - The Writings of George Washington, vol. IV (1776)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
FORGED LETTER. TO JOHN PARKE CUSTIS. - George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, vol. IV (1776) 
The Writings of George Washington, collected and edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1889). Vol. IV (1776).
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
18 June, 1776.
My Very Dear Jack,
You have exceedingly obliged me by your letter which I received by yesterday’s post. It discovers an attention to the great affairs now carrying on, and an information concerning them, which I own to you, I had not given you credit for. Your youth and inexperience pleaded your excuse; and though you gave me no opportunity to praise you for any active exertions, I paid you no ordinary compliments, in my own mind, for your modesty in forbearing to meddle with things which it was no reproach to you to confess, were out of your reach. Considering your rank, fortune and education, whenever it is proper for you to come forward on the theatre, it must not be any underpart that you act. You are, therefore, certainly in the right to decline taking any part at all, till you are fit for a first and leading character. And you have my full and perfect approbation of your resolution to persist in your purpose, for the present, not to accept of any rank, civil or military. I see your anxiety, lest the present opportunity for signalizing your just love for your country should, by your unnecessary caution, be suffered to slip by you, unimproved. Your ardor is commendable; and far be it from me to discourage in you a spirit I so much love. But, whilst you retain these honorable principles, there is little danger of your wanting opportunities to call them forth into action. The momentous enterprize in which your country is engaged, is not to be accomplished in this or that year. If, in no longer a period than the siege of Troy, we bring all our mighty schemes to bear, it will be the greatest work that ever was perfected in so little a time. You have set your heart, you tell me on a military employment. This is the usual bent of young men; and, as it was my own, it will be with an ill grace, that I reprehend it in you. But, with the experience that I have had of it, I should be wanting in that love and esteem I owe you, should I hesitate to tell you that, as your father, there is not a profession you could have chosen in which I should not more cordially have concurred with you. Yet, I love arms; I am married to my sword, as well as to your amiable mother; and herein is my witness, that I am in earnest when I say death alone shall divorce me from either. I am not so blindly devoted, however, to my profession, as not to see by how frail a tenure I hold the little reputation I have in it. As a statesman, as a senator, it is in the general, sufficient that you mean well, that you are careful to qualify yourself to form a right judgment of the true interests of your country, and that, with the honest impartiality of a free man, you have still exerted, your best endeavors to promote those interests. But, with a soldier, success alone is merit; and there is nothing that can atone for the want of it. The world is a worse judge of military matters than any other. It would astonish you, to find, on a minute comparison, how very little difference there was in the skill and spirit which guided Braddock and Wolfe in the last actions of their lives. But, how different has been their fate!—I think, I am not without some talents for the line of life which has fallen to my lot. But, opposed as I must be by men, probably, of infinitely superior skill, and encompassed moreover with such hosts of other difficulties and discouragements as I am, it is not mine to command success, and when either my contemporaries, or future historians, shall sit in judgment on my conduct, if, haply, ill-fortune should overtake me, seeing our miscarriages only, and having neither curiosity nor ability to investigate the thousand causes which led to them, am I not too well warranted in concluding, that they will be attributed to mismanagement? Have I not then reason to wish that your choice had fallen on the quieter but not less important calling of a private gentleman, in which as a senator, you might have given proof of your abilities, in a way, in which fortune would not have had so great a share? But notwithstanding all this, and if after all, you be irrevocably determined to try your fortune in the field, and you can gain your mother’s and your wife’s consent, I here give it you under my hand, that you shall not want mine. Most certainly there cannot be a more honorable employment: and if, (which Heaven avert) Fortune should declare against you, my consolation will be, that I can assure myself, you will deserve to be successful. I will on the opening of the next campaign, procure you an appointment to the command of a regiment, either here, or in the southern wing. And if my opinion may have any weight with you, you will for many reasons, prefer the being stationed in some of the southern states. There is no fear of its being an inactive station. I have little expectation that this year will close with aught considerably decisive on either side: and if our enemies be able to hold out another campaign, it is most likely their policy will be, by means of their naval superiority, to carry on a kind of an incursive war, by making unexpected descents in different and distant places. Meanwhile, permit me to press you to persevere in your attention to military matters. The manual exercise, which you were so justly diligent to learn, whilst I was with you, is but the A. B. C. of your profession.
Neither will you profit so much as you might reasonably expect, from the study of those authors, who have written professedly on the art of war. This is like the learning the game of Whist by reading Hoyle. I have been witness to the mischievious effects of it. A man, book-learned only, does very well in the still scenes of marchings and encampments. But when, in the various bustles of actual war, a cause arises, as must often be the case, not described in his books, he is utterly at a loss. I would not, however, have you to understand me as if I meant to discourage your reading these books at all; so far from it, I would have you read them very often, and make yourself acquainted with the subject, as much as you can in theory. My caution meant only to guard you against placing too much reliance on them. Their best commentators, next to your own experience, will be, the historians of Greece and Rome; which it is your happiness to be able to read in the originals. But, the main and most essential qualification is an high sense of honor, an elevation of sentiment and a certain dignified stile of behavior that distinguishes, or should distinguish, a soldier from every other man. It is a shame indeed, if he who undertakes to command others, has not first learned to command himself. I will not endure any thing mean or sordid either in your principles, or your manners; having determined, if it were left with me, to be as strict and rigorous in these particulars, as were the knights of old, when a candidate was to be invested with the orders of chivalry. I cannot dissociate the ideas between a soldier and a gentleman; and however common it may be to give that last appellation to persons of every character, it yet conveys to me an idea of worth I want words to express. I am not solicitous to pay you compliments, even by implication; but, I may certainly be permitted to say, that if I had not known you to be a gentlemen, you never should have had my consent to your becoming a soldier.
Your observations on this important contest are just and accurate, and discover a reach of thought, and a penetration beyond what I had expected of you. What you say on the subject of independency is perfectly judicious, and, no doubt, highly worthy of all our most serious consideration. Yet, I have a presentiment, that it will take place, and speedily. Open and unreserved as my conduct towards you has ever been, I have no reluctance to confess to you, that the measure is diametrically opposite to my judgment; for I have not yet despaired of an honorable reconciliation; and whilst I can entertain but an hope of that, both interest and inclination lead me to prefer it to every thing else upon earth. Human affairs are oddly ordered: To obtain what you most wish for, you must often make use of means you the least approve of.
As in bargaining, to obtain a fair and equal price, you must frequently ask more than you wish to take. I do not really wish for independence. I hope there are few who do; but, I have never heard the reasonings of those, who have proved that, if we did not declare for it we should fail to obtain the constitutional subordination to which we are entitled, fairly refuted. I would not have you, therefore, hastily conclude that if, in this struggle, we fall short of every thing we have claimed; we are worsted; perhaps, the very worst thing that could befal us, is that we should gain all. I do assure you that, in my opinion, the next misfortune to that of being thrust from our just rank in the order of freemen, would be the giving us up, and leaving us to ourselves. But, this Great Britain will never do, voluntarily: for, if even she does, whatever may become of us, from that moment she may date the commencement of her own downfall.
I am exceedingly happy in the becoming moderation which you observe and endeavor to introduce towards the unhappy men whose political creeds differ from ours. But for this blot in her scutcheon, thrown on her by two many of her rash and unworthy advocates, by a contrary conduct, this effort of America would have done her honor, even though she had failed. I am shocked at the instances of intolerance I daily hear of, and have no power to prevent. But, like the other evils of war, it is a calamity that unavoidably grows out of such a convulsion; and one might as well hope to stem the fury of a torrent, as to give laws to an outraged people. It is, however, the duty of every true friend to liberty, by every gentle and conciliatory means in his power to restrain it. And, I am happy to find this sentiment daily becoming more general amongst us. All things considered, I cannot but think, it not a little to our honor that things have not been carried to still a greater heighth in this way.
Remember me affectionately to Nelly, and tell her, that though I should be most happy to see her, I may not hope for that happiness speedily; as the din of arms, I imagine, would be but unpleasing entertainment to her; and I have little prospect of any leisure, at least before we go into winter quarters. I hope Mr. Calvert, and all the family are well; I beg to be remembered to them, I will write to your mother in a few days. You are very good in leaving her alone as little as may be. Continue to write to me frequently, freely, and fully; the hearing of my dearest friends and family’s welfare being the only true happiness I have any chance to enjoy amidst the perpetual hurry in which I live.
I am my dear Jack,
Your very affectionate Friend and Father,
[1 ]New York, June 24, 1776. Last Tuesday an elegant entertainment was given by our Provincial Congress, to his Excellency General Washington, and his suite, the General and Staff Officers, and the commanding officers of the different regiments in and near this city, when the following toasts were drank.