Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 33: Last Farewell; Final Duty; Legacy and Character (1796 to 1799) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 33: Last Farewell; Final Duty; Legacy and Character (1796 to 1799) - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Last Farewell; Final Duty; Legacy and Character (1796 to 1799)
Hostile measures of France.—Mr. Monroe recalled, and General Pinckney appointed to succeed him.—General Washington’s valedictory address.—The minister of France endeavors to influence the election of President.—The President’s speech to Congress.—He denies the authenticity of certain spurious letters, republished as his.—John Adams elected President, and Thomas Jefferson Vice-President.—General Washington retires to Mount Vernon.—Political situation of the United States.—The French government refuses to receive General Pinckney.—Congress convened.—President’s speech.—Three envoys extraordinary deputed to France.—Their treatment.—The United States prepare for war.—General Washington appointed commander-in-chief.—His death.—And character.
1796The confidential friends of the President had long known his fixed purpose to retire from office at the end of his second term, and the people generally suspected it. Those who dreaded a change of system in changing the person of the chief magistrate, manifested an earnest desire to avoid this hazard. But his resolution was to be shaken only by the obvious approach of a perilous crisis, which, endangering the safety of the nation, would make it unworthy of his character, and incompatible with his principles, to retreat from its service. In the apprehension that the co-operation of external and internal causes might bring about such a crisis, he had yielded to the representations of those who urged him to leave himself master of his conduct, by withholding a public declaration of his intention, until the propriety of affording a reasonable time to fix on a successor should require its disclosure. “If,” said Colonel Hamilton, in a letter of the 5th of July, “a storm gather, how can you retreat? This is a serious question.”
The suspense produced by this silence seemed to redouble the efforts of those who laboured to rob the Chief Magistrate of the affection of the people, and to attach odium to his political system. As passion alone can contend successfully with passion, they still sought, in the hate which America bore to Britain, and in her love of France, for the most powerful means with which to eradicateJune 1796 her love of Washington. Amongst the numerous artifices employed to effect this object, was the publication of those queries which had been submitted by the President to his cabinet, previous to the arrival of Mr. Genêt. This publication was intended to demonstrate the existence of a disposition in the Chief Magistrate, unfriendly to the French Republic. Some idea of the intemperance of the day may be formed from the conclusion of that number of a series of virulent essays in which these queries were inserted.
It is in these words:—“The foregoing queries were transmitted for consideration to the heads of departments, previously to a meeting to be held at the President’s house. The text needs no commentary. It has stamped upon its front, in characters brazen enough for idolatry to comprehend, perfidy and ingratitude. To doubt, in such a case, was dishonorable, to proclaim those doubts, treachery. For the honor of the American character and of human nature, it is to be lamented that the records of the United States exhibit such a stupendous monument of degeneracy. It will almost require the authenticity of holy writ to persuade posterity that it is not a libel ingeniously contrived to injure the reputation of the savior of his country.”
Of the numerous misrepresentations which were pressed upon the public, no one marked more strongly the depravity of that principle which justifies the means by the end, than the republication of forged letters, purporting to have been written by General Washington, in 1776.
They were originally published in 1777; and in them were interspersed, with domestic occurrences which might give them the semblance of verity, certain political sentiments favorable to Britain in the then existing contest.
But the fabricator of these papers missed his aims. In assigning the manner in which the possession of them was acquired, circumstances so notoriously untrue were stated, that at the time the meditated imposition deceived no person.
In the indefatigable search for testimony which might countenance the charge that the executive was hostile to France, and friendly to Britain, these letters were drawn from the oblivion into which they had sunk, and were republished as genuine. The silence with which the President treated this, as well as every other calumny, was construed into an acknowledgment of its truth; and the malignant commentators on this spurious text would not admit the possibility of its being apocryphal.
Those who labored incessantly to establish the favorite position that the executive was under other than French influence, reviewed every act of the administration connected with its foreign relations, and continued to censure every part of the system, with extreme bitterness. No opinion which had been advanced by Mr. Genêt was too extravagant to be approved. The ardent patriot cannot maintain the choicest rights of his country with more zeal than was manifested in supporting all the claims of the French Republic on the American government.
Whatever might be the real opinion of the Directory of France1 on the validity of its charges against the United States, they were too vehemently urged, and too powerfully espoused in America, to be abandoned at Paris. If at any time they were in part relinquished, they were soon resumed.
In the anxiety which was felt by the President to come to full and immediate explanation with the French Directory on the treaty with Great Britain, the American minister at Paris had been furnished, even before its ratification, and still more fully afterwards, with ample materials for the justification of his government. But, misconceiving the views of the administration, he reserved these representations until complaints should be made, and omitted to urge them while the Directory was deliberating on the course it should pursue. Meanwhile, his letters kept up the alarm with regard to the dispositions of France; and intelligence from the West Indies served to confirm it. The President received information that the special agents of the Directory in the islands were about to issue orders for the capture of all American vessels laden in whole or in part with provisions, and bound for any port within the dominions of the British crown.
Knowing well that the intentions of the executive had been at all times friendly to the French Republic, the President had relied with confidence on early and candid communications for the removal of any prejudices or misconceptions. That the Directory would be disappointed at the adjustment of those differences which threatened to embroil the United States with Great Britain, could not be doubted; but, as neither this adjustment, nor the arrangements connected with it, had furnished any real cause of complaint, he had cherished the hope that it would produce no serious consequences, if the proper means of prevention should be applied in time. He was therefore dissatisfied with delays which he had not expected; and seems to have believed that they originated in a want of zeal to justify a measure which neither the minister himself, nor his political friends, had ever approved. To ensure an earnest and active representation of the true sentiments of the executive, the President was inclined to depute an envoy extraordinary for the particular purpose, who should be united with the actual minister; but an objection, drawn from the constitution, was suggested to the measure. It was doubted whether the President could, in the recess of the Senate, appoint a minister when no vacancy existed. From respect to this construction of the constitution, the resolution was taken to appoint a successor to Colonel Monroe. The choice of a person calculated for this mission, was not without its difficulty. While a disposition friendly to the administration was indispensable, it was desirable that the person employed should have given no umbrage to the French government.
July 1796After some deliberation, the President selected General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, of South Carolina, for this critical and important service.2 In the early part of the French revolution, he had felt and expressed all the enthusiasm of his countrymen for the establishment of the republic; but, after the commencement of its contests with the United States, he stood aloof from both those political parties which divided America.
He was recommended to the President by an intimate knowledge of his worth; by a confidence in the sincerity of his personal attachment to the Chief Magistrate; by a conviction that his exertions to effect the objects of his mission would be ardent and sincere; and that, whatever might be his partialities for France, he possessed a high and delicate sense of national as well as individual honor, was jealous for the reputation of his country, and tenacious of its rights.
In July, immediately after the appointment of General Pinckney, letters were received from Colonel Monroe communicating the official complaints which had been made against the American government, in March, by Mr. de La Croix, the minister of exterior relations, with his answer to those complaints. He had effectually refuted the criminations of Mr. de La Croix; and the executive was satisfied with his answer. But the Directory had decided on their system, and it was not by reasoning that their decision was to be changed.
As the time for electing the Chief Magistrate approached, the anxiety of the public respecting the person in office seemed to increase. In states where the electors are chosen by the people, names of great political influence were offered for their approbation. The strong hold which Washington had taken of the affections of his countrymen, was, on this occasion, fully evinced. In districts where the opposition to his administration was most powerful, where all his measures were most loudly condemned, where those who approved his system possessed least influence, the men who appeared to control public opinion on every other subject, found themselves unable to move it on this. Even the most popular among the leaders of the opposition found themselves reduced to the necessity of surrendering their pretensions to a place in the electoral body, or of pledging themselves to vote for the actual President. The determination of his fellow-citizens had been unequivocally manifested, and it was believed to be apparent that the election would again be unanimous, when he announced his resolution to withdraw from the honors and the toils of office.
Sept. 1796Having long contemplated this event, and having wished to terminate his political course with an act which might be, at the same time, suitable to his own character, and permanently useful to his country, he had prepared a valedictory address for the occasion, in which, with the solicitude of a person, who, in bidding a final adieu to his friends, leaves his affections and his anxieties for their welfare behind him, he had made a last effort to impress upon his countrymen those great political truths which had been the guides of his administration, and could alone, in his opinion, form a sure and solid basis, for the happiness, the independence, and the liberty of the United States. This interesting paper contains precepts to which the American statesman cannot too frequently recur.3
The sentiments of veneration with which it was received were manifested in almost every part of the Union. Some of the state legislatures directed it to be inserted at large in their journals; and nearly all of them passed resolutions expressing their respect for the person of the President, their high sense of his exalted services, and the emotions with which they contemplated his retirement from office. Although the leaders of party might rejoice at this event, it produced solemn and anxious reflections in the great body even of those who belonged to the opposition.
The person in whom alone the voice of the people could be united, having declined a re-election, the two great parties brought forward their respective chiefs. Mr. John Adams and Mr. Thomas Pinckney were supported as President and Vice-President by the federalists; the whole force of the opposite party was exerted in favor of Mr. Jefferson.
Motives of vast influence were added, on this occasion, to those which usually impel men to a struggle to retain or acquire power. The continuance, or the change, not only of those principles on which the internal affairs of the United States had been administered, but of the conduct which had been observed towards foreign nations, was believed to depend on the choice of a Chief Magistrate.
In such a struggle, it was not to be expected that foreign powers could feel no concern. In November, on the eve of the election, while the parties were so balanced that neither scale could be perceived to preponderate, Mr. Adet addressed a letter to the Secretary of State, in which he recapitulated the numerous complaints which had been urged against the government, and reproached it, in terms of great asperity, with violating those treaties which had secured its independence, with ingratitude to France, and with partiality to England. These wrongs, which commenced with the “insidious” proclamation of neutrality, were said to be so aggravated by the treaty with Great Britain, that Mr. Adet announced the orders of the Directory to suspend his ministerial functions with the federal government. “But the cause,” he added, “which has so long restrained the just resentment of the Executive Directory from bursting forth, now tempered its effects. The name of America, notwithstanding the wrongs of its government, still excited sweet sensations in the hearts of Frenchmen; and the Executive Directory wished not to break with a people whom they loved to salute with the appellation of friend.” This suspension of his functions, therefore, was not to be regarded “as a rupture between France and the United States, but as a mark of just discontent which was to last until the government of the United States returned to sentiments and to measures more conformable to the interests of the alliance, and to the sworn friendship between the two nations.” “Let your government return to itself,” concluded Mr. Adet, “and you will still find in Frenchmen faithful friends, and generous allies.”
As if to remove any possible doubt respecting the purpose for which this extraordinary letter was written, a copy was transmitted, on the day of its date, to a printer for publication.4
This open and direct appeal of a foreign minister to the American people, in the critical moment of their election of a Chief Magistrate, did not effect its object. Reflecting men, even among those who had condemned the course of the administration, could not approve this interference in the internal affairs of the United States; and the opposite party resented it as an attempt to control the operations of the American people in the exercise of one of the highest acts of sovereignty, and to poison the fountain of their liberty and independence by mingling foreign intrigue with their elections.
1796On the 7th of December, the President, for the last time, met the national legislature in the Senate chamber. His address was comprehensive, temperate, and dignified. No personal consideration could restrain him from recommending those great national measures which he believed would be useful to his country, although open and extensive hostility had been avowed to them.
After presenting a full view of the situation of the United States, and the late transactions of the executive, he added, “To an active external commerce, the protection of a naval force is indispensable—this is manifest with regard to wars in which a state is itself a party—but besides this, it is in our own experience that the most sincere neutrality is not a sufficient guard against the depredations of nations at war. To secure respect to a neutral flag requires a naval force, organized and ready to vindicate it from insult or aggression—this may even prevent the necessity of going to war, by discouraging belligerent powers from committing such violations of the rights of the neutral party as may, first or last, leave no other option. From the best information I have been able to obtain, it would seem as if our trade to the Mediterranean, without a protecting force, will always be insecure, and our citizens exposed to the calamities from which numbers of them have but just been relieved.”
The speech next proceeded earnestly to recommend the establishment of national works for manufacturing such articles as were necessary for the defence of the country; and also for an institution which should grow up under the patronage of the public, and be devoted to the improvement of agriculture. The advantages of a military academy, and of a national university, were also urged; and the necessity of augmenting the compensation to the officers of the United States, in various instances, was explicitly stated.
Adverting to the dissatisfaction which had been expressed by one of the great powers of Europe, the President said, “It is with much pain and deep regret I mention that circumstances of a very unwelcome nature have lately occurred. Our trade has suffered, and is suffering, extensive injuries in the West Indies, from the cruisers and agents of the French republic; and communications have been received from its minister here, which indicate the danger of a farther disturbance of our commerce by its authority.”
After stating his constant and earnest endeavors to maintain cordial harmony, and a perfectly friendly understanding with that republic, and that his wish to maintain them remained unabated; he added, “In pursuing this course, however, I cannot forget what is due to the character of our government, and nation; or to a full and entire confidence in the good sense, patriotism, self-respect, and fortitude of my countrymen.”
After some other communications, the speech was concluded in the following terms:
“The situation in which I now stand, for the last time, in the midst of the representatives of the people of the United States, naturally recalls the period when the administration of the present form of government commenced; and I cannot omit the occasion to congratulate you and my country on the success of the experiment; nor to repeat my fervent supplications to the Supreme Ruler of the universe, and Sovereign Arbiter of nations, that his providential care may still be extended to the United States;—that the virtue and happiness of the people may be preserved; and that the government which they have instituted for their protection may be perpetual.”
The answer of the Senate embraced the various topics of the speech, and approved all the sentiments it contained.
It expressed the ardent attachment of that body to their Chief Magistrate, and its conviction that much of the public prosperity was to be ascribed to the virtue, firmness, and talents of his administration. After expressing the deep and sincere regret with which the official ratification of his intention to retire from the public employments of his country was received, the address proceeds to say, “The most effectual consolation that can offer for the loss we are about to sustain, arises from the animating reflection that the influence of your example will extend to your successors, and the United States thus continue to enjoy an able, upright, and energetic administration.”
In the House of Representatives, a committee of five had been appointed to prepare a respectful answer to the speech, three of whom were friends to the administration. Hoping that the disposition would be general to avow, in strong terms, their attachment to the person and character of the President, the committee united in reporting an answer which promised, in general terms, due attention to the various subjects recommended to their consideration, but was full and explicit in the expression of attachment to himself, and of approbation of his administration.
The unanimity which prevailed in the committee did not extend to the House.
After amplifying and strengthening the expressions of the report, which stated regret that any interruption should have taken place in the harmony which had subsisted between the United States and France, and modifying those which declared their hope for the restoration of that harmony, so as to avoid any implication that its rupture was exclusively ascribable to France, a motion was made by Mr. Giles to expunge all those paragraphs which expressed attachment to the person and character of the President, approbation of his administration, or regret at his retiring from office.
After a very animated debate, the motion to strike out was lost, and the answer was carried by a great majority.
Jan. 1797Early in the session, the President communicated to Congress the copy of a letter addressed by the Secretary of State to General Pinckney, containing a minute and comprehensive detail of all the points of controversy which had arisen between the United States and France, and defending the measures which had been adopted by America, with a clearness and a strength of argument believed to be irresistible. The letter was intended to enable General Pinckney to remove from the government of France all impressions unfavorable to the fairness of intention which had influenced the conduct of the United States; and to efface from the bosoms of the great body of the American people, all those unjust and injurious suspicions which had been entertained against their own administration. Should its immediate operation on the executive of France disappoint his hopes, the President persuaded himself that he could not mistake its influence in America; and he felt the most entire conviction, that the accusations made by the French Directory against the United States would cease, with the evidence that these accusations were supported by a great portion of the American people.
The letter and its accompanying documents were communicated to the public; but, unfortunately, their effect at home was not such as had been expected, and they were, consequently, inoperative abroad.
The measures recommended by the President in his speech at the opening of the session were not adopted; and neither the debates in Congress, nor the party publications with which the nation continued to be agitated, furnished reasonable ground for hope that the political intemperance which had prevailed from the establishment of the republican form of government in France, was about to be succeeded by a more conciliatory spirit.
It was impossible for the President to be absolutely insensible to the bitter invectives and malignant calumnies of which he had long been the object. Yet in one instance only did he depart from the rule he had prescribed for his conduct regarding them. ApprehendingMarch 3, 1797 permanent injury from the republication of certain spurious letters which have been already noticed, he, on the day which terminated his official character, addressed a letter to the Secretary of State, declaring them to be forgeries, and stating the circumstances under which they were published.
In February the votes for the first and second magistrate were opened and counted in the presence of both Houses; and the highest number appearing in favor of Mr. Adams, and the second in favor of Mr. Jefferson, the first was declared to be the President, and the second the Vice-President of the United States, for four years, to commence on the fourth day of the ensuing March.5
March 4, 1797After the solemnities of the occasion had been concluded, and General Washington had paid those respectful compliments to his successor which he believed to be equally due to the man and to the office, he hastened to that real felicity which awaited him at Mount Vernon.
The same marks of respect and affection which had on all great occasions been manifested by his fellow-citizens, still attended him. His endeavors to render his journey private were unavailing; and the gentlemen of the country through which he passed, were still ambitious of testifying their sentiments for the man who had, from the birth of the republic, been deemed the first of the American citizens. Long after his retirement, he continued to receive addresses from legislative bodies, and various classes of citizens, expressive of the high sense entertained of his services.
Notwithstanding the extraordinary popularity of the first President of the United States, scarcely has any important act of his administration escaped the most bitter invective.
On the real wisdom of the system which he pursued, every reader will decide for himself. Time will, in some measure, dissipate the prejudices and passions of the moment, and enable us to view objects through a medium which represents them truly.
Without taking a full view of measures which were reprobated by one party and applauded by the other, the reader may be requested to glance his eye at the situation of the United States in 1797, and to contrast it with their condition in 1788.
At home, a sound credit had been created; an immense floating debt had been funded in a manner perfectly satisfactory to the creditors; an ample revenue had been provided; those difficulties which a system of internal taxation, on its first introduction, is doomed to encounter, were completely removed; and the authority of government was firmly established. Funds for the gradual payment of the debt had been provided; a considerable part of it had been actually discharged; and that system which has operated its entire extinction, had been matured and adopted. The agricultural and commercial wealth of the nation had increased beyond all former example. The numerous tribes of warlike Indians, inhabiting those immense tracts which lie between the then cultivated country and the Mississippi, had been taught, by arms and by justice, to respect the United States, and to continue in peace. This desirable object having been accomplished, that humane system was established, for civilizing and furnishing them with those conveniences of life which improve their condition, and secure their attachment.
Abroad, the differences with Spain had been accommodated, and the free navigation of the Mississippi had been acquired, with the use of New Orleans as a place of deposit for three years, and afterwards, until some other equivalent place should be designated. Those causes of mutual exasperation which had threatened to involve the United States in war with the greatest maritime and commercial power in the world, had been removed; and the military posts which had been occupied within their territory from their existence as a nation, had been evacuated. Treaties had been formed with Algiers and with Tripoli, and no captures appear to have been made by Tunis; so that the Mediterranean was opened to American vessels.
This bright prospect was indeed shaded by the discontents of France. Those who have attended to the points of difference between the two nations, will assign the causes to which these discontents are to be ascribed, and will judge whether it was in the power of the President to have avoided them without surrendering the real independence of the nation, and the most invaluable of all rights—the right of self-government.
Such was the situation of the United States at the close of Washington’s administration. Their condition at its commencement will be recollected; and the contrast is too striking not to be observed.
That this beneficial change in the affairs of America is to be ascribed exclusively to the wisdom which guided the national councils, will not be pretended. That many of the causes which produced it originated with the government, and that their successful operation was facilitated, if not secured by the system which was adopted, can scarcely be denied. To estimate that system correctly, their real influence must be allowed to those strong prejudices and turbulent passions with which it was assailed.
Accustomed in the early part of his life to agricultural pursuits, and possessing a real taste for them, General Washington was particularly well qualified to enjoy, in retirement, that tranquil felicity which he had anticipated. A large estate in the management and improvement of which he engaged with ardor, an extensive correspondence, and the society of men and books, gave employment to every hour, and furnished ground for the hope that the evening of a life which had been devoted to the service of the public, would be as serene as its midday had been brilliant.
But the designs of France were soon manifested in a form too unequivocal and too dangerous to admit of even seeming indifference to them.
Dec. 1796The Executive Directory, after inspecting the letters of credence delivered by General Pinckney, announced to him their haughty determination “not to receive another minister from the United States, until after the redress of grievances demanded of the American government, which the French Republic had a right to expect from it.” This message was succeeded first by indecorous verbal communications, and afterwards by a written mandate to quit the territories of the republic.
This act of hostility was accompanied with another equally unequivocal. On giving to the recalled minister his audience of leave, the President of the Directory addressed a speech to him, in which terms of outrage to the government were mingled with expressions of affection for the people, so as to demonstrate the expectation of ruling the former by their influence over the latter, too clearly to be misunderstood. To complete this system of hostility, American vessels were captured wherever found, and condemned as prizes.
March 1797On receiving the despatches which communicated this serious state of things, the President issued his proclamation, requiring Congress to meet on the 15th day of May. The firm and dignifiedMay 1797 speech delivered by the chief magistrate at the commencement of the session, exhibited that sensibility which a high-minded and real American might be expected to feel, when representing to the national legislature the great and unprovoked outrages of a foreign government. He declared, however, his purpose to institute a fresh attempt at negotiation, and to continue his utmost endeavors to promote an accommodation on terms compatible with the “rights, duties, interests, and honor of the nation.” But, while he should be making these endeavors to adjust all differences with the French Republic, he earnestly recommended it to Congress to provide effectual measures of defence.
May–June 1797To carry into effect the pacific dispositions avowed in the speech, three envoys extraordinary were appointed, at the head of whom General Pinckney was placed.6 Their instructions conformed to the public language of the President.
For a considerable time, no certain intelligence reached the United States respecting the negotiation at Paris. At length, in the winter of 1798, letters were received from the American envoys, indicating an unfavorable state of things; and in the spring, despatches arrived, announcing the total failure of the mission.
Oct. 1797History will scarcely furnish the example of a nation, not absolutely degraded, which has received from a foreign power such open insult and undisguised contumely, as were, on this occasion, suffered by the United States, in the persons of their ministers.
It was insinuated that the American executive, by taking two of the three from that party which had supported the measures of their own government, had furnished just cause of umbrage. While the Directory, under slight pretexts, delayed to accredit them, they were assailed by persons exhibiting sufficient evidence of the source from which their powers were derived, who, in explicit terms, demanded money from the United States, as the condition which must precede, not only the reconciliation of America with France, but any negotiation on the differences between the two countries.
Though a decided negative was given to the demand made by these unofficial agents, they returned to the charge with wonderful perseverance, and used unwearied art to work upon the fears of the American ministers, for their country and for themselves. The immense power of France was painted in glowing colors; the humiliation of the house of Austria was stated, and the conquest of Britain was confidently anticipated. In the friendship of France alone, could America look for safety; and the fate of Venice was held up to warn her of the danger which awaited those who incurred the displeasure of the great republic.7 The ministers were assured that, if they believed their conduct would be approved in the United States, they were mistaken. The means which the Directory possessed in that country to excite odium against them were great, and would unquestionably be employed.
This degrading intercourse was at length terminated by the positive refusal of the envoys to hold any further communication with the persons employed in it.
Meanwhile, the Directory still refused to acknowledge the American ministers in their public character; and the Secretary of Exterior Relations, at unofficial visits, which they made him, renewed the demand for money which his agents had pressed unsuccessfully.
Jan. 1798Finding the objections to their reception in an official character insurmountable, the envoys addressed a letter to the Minister of Exterior Relations, in which they entered at large into the explanations committed to them by their government, and illustrated, by a variety of facts, the uniform friendliness of its conduct to France. But the Directory counted too confidently on its influence in America, to desist from its course. Notwithstanding the failure of this effort, the envoys continued, with a passiveness which must search for its apology in their solicitude to demonstrate8 the real views of the French Republic, to employ the only means in their power to avert the rupture which was threatened.9
During these transactions, occasion was repeatedly taken to insult the American government. Open war was waged by the cruisers of France on American commerce; and the flag of the United States was a sufficient justification for the capture and condemnation of any vessel over which it waved.
At length, when the demonstration had become complete, that the resolution of the American envoys was not less fixed than their conduct had been guarded and temperate, various attempts were made to induce two of them voluntarily to relinquish their station; on the failure of which, they were ordered to quit the territory of the republic. As if to aggravate this national insult, the third, who had been selected from the party friendly to France, was permitted to remain, and was invited to resume the discussions which had been interrupted.
April 1798The despatches communicating these events, were laid before Congress, and were ordered to be published. The indignation which they excited was warm and extensive. The attempt to degrade the United States into a tributary nation, was too obvious to be concealed; and the resentment produced, as well by this attempt as by the threats which accompanied it, was not confined to the federalists.
The disposition still existed, among the leaders of party, to justify France; but their efforts were, for the moment, unsuccessful; and it required the co-operation of other causes to re-establish the influence of those who made them.
Vigorous measures were adopted in Congress for retaliating the injuries which had been sustained, and for repelling those which were threatened. Among these was a regular army.
No sooner had a war become probable, than the eyes of all were directed to General Washington as the commander-in-chief. He alone could be seen at the head of a great military force without exciting jealousy; he alone could draw into public service, and arrange properly, the best military talents of the nation; and he more than any other could induce the utmost exertion of its physical strength.
Indignant at the unprovoked injuries which had been heaped upon the United States, and convinced that the conflict, should a war be really prosecuted by France with a view to conquest, would be extremely severe, and would require, on the part of America, a persevering exertion of all her force, he could not determine, should such a crisis arrive, to withhold those services which his country might demand.
In a letter of the 22d of June, respecting military preparations, the President said, “we must have your name, if you will in any case permit us to use it. There will be more efficacy in it than in many an army.”
A letter from the Secretary of War concludes with asking, “May we flatter ourselves that in a crisis so awful and important, you will accept the command of all our armies? I hope you will, because you alone can unite all hearts and all hands, if it is possible that they can be united.”10
July 1798In his letter to the President, after stating his views of the crisis, and the reluctance with which he should once more appear in any public station, General Washington said, “In case of actual invasion by a formidable force, I should not intrench myself under the cover of age and retirement, if my services should be required by my country to assist in repelling it. And if there be good cause to expect such an event, which certainly must be better known to the government than to private citizens, delay in preparing for it may be dangerous, improper, and not to be justified by prudence.” He could not, however, believe that France, when undeceived respecting the support she expected from the American people, would be so mad as to persist in waging unprovoked war against the United States.
To the Secretary of War he said, “the principle by which my conduct has been actuated through life would not suffer me, in any great emergency, to withhold any services I could render when required by my country;—especially in a case where its dearest rights are assailed by lawless ambition and intoxicated power, in contempt of every principle of justice, and in violation of solemn compact, and of laws which govern all civilized nations:—and this, too, with the obvious intent to sow thick the seeds of dissension for the purpose of subjugating our government, and destroying our independence and happiness.”
He proceeded to state the points on which his consent to take the command of the army must depend.
Before the reception of these letters, the President had nominated him to the chief command of all the armies raised or to be raised in the United States; and the Senate had unanimously advised and consented to his appointment.
July 4, 1798In the letter announcing this appointment, of which the Secretary of War was the bearer, the President said, “My reasons for this measure will be too well known to need any explanation to the public. Every friend and every enemy of America will comprehend them at first blush. To you, sir, I owe all the apology I can make. The urgent necessity I am in of your advice and assistance, indeed of your conduct and direction of the war, is all I can urge, and that is sufficient justification to myself and the world. I hope it will be so considered by yourself.”
The communications of General Washington with the Secretary of War were unreserved. They resulted in his acceptance of the command of the army, on condition that he should be permitted to select those in whom he could place confidence for the highest places in it—especially for the military staff; and that he should not be called into service until the country should be actually invaded.
From this period General Washington intermingled the cares and attentions of office with his agricultural pursuits. His solicitude respecting the organization of an army which he might possibly be required to lead against the most formidable enemy in the world, was too strong to admit of his being inattentive to its arrangements. Yet he never did believe that an invasion of the United States would actually take place. His conviction that the hostile measures adopted by the Directory, originated in the opinion that those measures would overthrow the administration, and place power in the hands of those who had uniformly supported all the pretensions of the French republic, remained unshaken. As a necessary consequence of this conviction, he was persuaded that the indignation which these aggressions had excited would effect a change of system.
Events soon demonstrated the correctness of this opinion. Although America, supplicating peace, had been spurned with contempt; although the Executive Directory had rejected with insult her repeated prayers to be permitted to make explanations, and had haughtily demanded a concession of their arrogant and unfounded claims, or large pecuniary advances, as a preliminary to negotiation, America in arms was treated with some respect. Indirect pacific overtures were made, and a willingness on the part of France to accommodate existing differences on reasonable terms, was communicated.
Feb. 1799The President, truly solicitous to restore harmony between the two nations, caught at the overtures thus indirectly made, and again appointed three Envoys Extraordinary and Ministers Plenipotentiary to the French republic. These gentlemen found the government in the hands of a man who entered into negotiations with them which terminated in the amicable adjustment of differences.
Dec. 1799General Washington did not live to witness the restoration of peace. On Friday, the 13th of December, while attending to some improvements on his estate, he was exposed to a light rain, by which his neck and hair became wet. Not apprehending danger from this circumstance, he passed the afternoon in the usual manner; but in the night was seized with an inflammatory affection of the wind-pipe. The disease commenced with a violent ague,11 accompanied with some pain in the upper and fore part of the throat, a sense of stricture in the same part, a cough, and a difficult deglutition,12 which were soon succeeded by fever, and a quick and laborious respiration.
Twelve or fourteen ounces of blood were taken from his arm, but he would not permit a messenger to be despatched for his family physician until the appearance of day. About eleven in the morning, Doctor Craik arrived;13 and, perceiving the extreme danger of the case, requested that two consulting physicians should be immediately sent for. The utmost exertions of medical skill were applied in vain. The powers of life were manifestly yielding to the force of the disorder; speaking became almost impracticable, respiration became more and more contracted and imperfect, until half-past eleven on Saturday night, when, retaining the full possessionDec. 14, 1799 of his intellect, he expired without a struggle.
During the short period of his illness, he economised his time in arranging those few concerns which required his attention; and anticipated his approaching dissolution with every demonstration of that equanimity for which his life was so uniformly and singularly conspicuous.
The deep and wide-spreading grief occasioned by this melancholy event, assembled a great concourse of people for the purpose of paying the last tribute of respect to the first of Americans. His body, attended by military honors, and the ceremonies of religion, was deposited in the family vault at Mount Vernon, on Wednesday the 18th of December.
At the seat of government, the intelligence of his death preceded that of his indisposition. On receiving it, both Houses of CongressDec. 19, 1799 adjourned. On the succeeding day, as soon as the orders were read, the House of Representatives passed several resolutions expressive of their deep feeling for the illustrious deceased, the last of which directed, “that a committee in conjunction with one from the Senate, be appointed to consider on the most suitable manner of paying honor to the memory of the man, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens.”14
Immediately after the passage of these resolutions, a written message was received from the President accompanying a letter from Mr. Lear,15 which he said, “will inform you that it had pleased divine providence to remove from this life, our illustrious fellow-citizen George Washington, by the purity of his life, and a long series of services to his country, rendered illustrious through the world. It remains for an affectionate and grateful people, in whose hearts he can never die, to pay suitable honor to his memory.”
The members of the House of Representatives waited on the President in pursuance of a resolution which had been passed, and the Senate addressed a letter to him condoling with him on the loss the nation had sustained, in terms expressing their deep sense of the worth of the deceased. The President reciprocated, in his communications to each House, the same deep-felt and affectionate respect “for the most illustrious and beloved personage America had ever produced.”
The halls of both Houses were shrouded in black, and the members wore mourning16 for the residue of the session.
The joint committee which had been appointed to devise the mode by which the nation should express its feelings on this melancholy occasion, reported the following resolutions:
“That a marble monument be erected by the United States at the city of Washington, and that the family of General Washington be requested to permit his body to be deposited under it; and that the monument be so designed as to commemorate the great events of his military and political life.
“That there be a funeral procession from Congress Hall to the German Lutheran Church, in memory of General Washington, on Thursday the 26th instant, and that an oration be prepared at the request of Congress, to be delivered before both Houses on that day; and that the President of the Senate, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, be desired to request one of the members of Congress to prepare and deliver the same.
“That it be recommended to the people of the United States to wear crape on the left arm as a mourning for thirty days.
“That the President of the United States be requested to direct a copy of these resolutions to be transmitted to Mrs. Washington, assuring her of the profound respect Congress will ever bear to her person and character, of their condolence on the late affecting dispensation of Providence, and entreating her assent to the interment of the remains of General Washington in the manner expressed in the first resolution.
“That the President be requested to issue his proclamation, notifying to the people throughout the United States the recommendation contained in the third resolution.”
These resolutions passed both Houses unanimously; and those which would admit of immediate execution were carried into effect. The whole nation appeared in mourning. The funeral procession was grand and solemn; and the eloquent oration, which was delivered by General Lee, was heard with profound attention and with deep interest.
Similar marks of affliction were exhibited throughout the United States. In every part of the continent funeral orations were delivered, and the best talents of the nation were devoted to an expression of its grief.
To the letter of the President which transmitted to Mrs. Washington the resolutions of Congress, that lady answered—“Taught by the great example which I have so long had before me, never to oppose my private wishes to the public will, I must consent to the request made by Congress, which you have had the goodness to transmit to me;—and in doing this, I need not, I cannot say what a sacrifice of individual feeling I make to a sense of public duty.”
The monument, however, has not been erected. That the great events of the political as well as military life of General Washington should be commemorated, could not be pleasing to those who had condemned, and who continued to condemn, the whole course of his administration. This resolution, although it passed unanimously, had many enemies. That party which had long constituted the opposition, and which, though the minority for the moment, nearly divided the House of Representatives, declared its preference for the Equestrian statue which had been voted by Congress at the close of the war. The division between a statue and a monument was so nearly equal, that the session passed away without appropriation for either. The public feeling soon subsided, and those who quickly recovered their ascendency over the public sentiment, employed their influence to draw odium on the men who favored a monument; to represent that measure as a part of a general system to waste the public money; and to impress the idea that the only proper monument to the memory of a meritorious citizen was that which the people would erect in their affections. A man who professed an opinion in favor of the monument was soon branded with the mark of an anti-republican.
General Washington was rather above the common size. His frame was robust, and his constitution vigorous. His figure created in the beholder the idea of strength united with manly gracefulness.
His manners were rather reserved than free; though on all proper occasions he could relax sufficiently to show how highly he was gratified by the charms of conversation, and the pleasures of society. His person and whole deportment exhibited an unaffected and indescribable dignity, unmingled with haughtiness, of which all who approached him were sensible; and the attachment of those who possessed his friendship and enjoyed his intimacy, though ardent, was always respectful.
His temper was humane, benevolent, and conciliatory; but there was a quickness in his sensibility to any thing apparently offensive, which experience had taught him to watch and to correct.
In the management of his private affairs, he exhibited an exact yet liberal economy. His funds were not wasted on capricious and ill-examined schemes, nor refused to beneficial, though costly improvements. They remained, therefore, competent to that expensive establishment which his reputation, added to a hospitable temper, had, in some measure, imposed upon him; and to those donations which real distress has a right to claim from opulence.
He had no pretensions to that vivacity which fascinates, or to that wit which dazzles, and frequently imposes on the understanding. More solid than brilliant, judgment rather than genius constituted the prominent feature of his character.
Without making ostentatious professions of religion, he was a sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man.
As a soldier, he was brave, enterprising, and cautious. That malignity which has sought to strip him of the higher qualities of a general, has conceded to him personal courage, and a firmness of resolution which danger could not appal, nor difficulties shake. But candor must allow him greater and higher endowments. If his military course does not abound with splendid achievements, it exhibits a series of judicious measures adapted to circumstances, which probably saved his country.
Placed, without having studied the theory, or being taught in the school of experience the practice of war, at the head of an undisciplined, ill-organized multitude, which was impatient of the restraints, and unacquainted with the ordinary duties of a camp, without the aid of officers possessing those lights which the commander-in-chief was yet to acquire, it would have been a miracle, indeed, had his conduct been absolutely faultless. But, possessing an energetic and distinguishing mind, on which the lessons of experience were never lost, his errors, if he committed any, were quickly repaired; and those measures which the state of things rendered advisable were seldom, if ever, neglected. Inferior to his adversary in the numbers, the equipment, and in the discipline of his troops, it is evidence of real merit that no decisive advantages were ever obtained over him, and that the opportunity to strike an important blow never passed away unused. He has been termed the American Fabius; but those who compare his actions with his means, will perceive as much of Marcellus as of Fabius in his character.17
In his civil administration as in his military career, ample and repeated proofs were exhibited of that practical good sense, and of that sound judgment, which is perhaps the most rare, and is certainly the most valuable quality of the human mind. Devoting himself to the duties of his station, and pursuing no object distinct from the public good, he was accustomed to contemplate at a distance those situations in which the United States might probably be placed; and to digest, before the occasion required action, the line of conduct which it would be proper to observe. Taught to distrust first impressions, he sought all the information which was attainable, and heard, without prejudice, all the reasons which could be urged for or against particular measures. His judgment was suspended until it became necessary to determine; and his decisions, thus maturely made, were seldom, if ever, to be shaken. His conduct, therefore, was systematic, and the great objects of his administration were steadily pursued.
Respecting, as the first magistrate in a free government must ever do, the real and deliberate sentiments of the people, their gusts of passion passed over without ruffling the smooth surface of his mind. Trusting to the reflecting good sense of the nation, he had the magnanimity to pursue its real interests in opposition to its temporary prejudices; and, in more instances than one, we find him committing his whole popularity to hazard, and pursuing steadily the course dictated by a sense of duty, in opposition to a torrent which would have overwhelmed a man of ordinary firmness.
In speculation, he was a real republican, devoted to the constitution of his country, and to that system of equal political rights on which it is founded. But, between a balanced republic and democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos. Real liberty, he thought, was to be preserved only by upholding the authority of the laws, and maintaining the energy of government. Scarcely did society present two characters which, in his opinion, less resembled each other than a patriot and a demagogue.
No man has ever appeared upon the theatre of human action whose integrity was more incorruptible, or whose principles were more perfectly free from the contamination of those selfish and unworthy passions which find their nourishment in the conflicts of party. His ends were always upright, and his means always pure. He exhibits the rare example of a politician to whom wiles were absolutely unknown. In him was fully exemplified the real distinction between wisdom and cunning, and the truth of the maxim that “honesty is the best policy.”
Neither the extraordinary partiality of the American people, the extravagant praises which were bestowed upon him, nor the inveterate opposition and malignant calumnies which he encountered, had any visible influence on his conduct. The cause is to be looked for in the texture of his mind.
In him, that innate and unassuming modesty which adulation would have offended, which the voluntary plaudits of millions could not betray into indiscretion, and which never obtruded upon others his claims to superior consideration, was happily blended with a high and correct sense of personal dignity, and with a just consciousness of that respect which is due to station. Without exertion, he could maintain the happy medium between that arrogance which wounds, and that facility which allows the office to be degraded in the person who fills it.
It is impossible to contemplate the great events which have occurred in the United States, under the auspices of Washington, without ascribing them, in some measure, to him. If we ask the causes of the prosperous issue of a war against the successful termination of which there were so many probabilities,—of the good which was produced, and the ill which was avoided during an administration fated to contend with the strongest prejudices that a combination of circumstances and of passions could produce? of the constant favor of the great mass of his fellow-citizens, and of the confidence which to the last moment of his life they reposed in him?—the answer will furnish a lesson well meriting the attention of those who are candidates for political fame.
Endowed by nature with a sound judgment, and an accurate discriminating mind, he feared not that laborious attention which made him perfectly master of those subjects on which he was to decide; and this essential quality was guided by an unvarying sense of moral right which would tolerate the employment of those means only that would bear the most rigid examination; by a fairness of intention which neither sought nor required disguise; and by a purity of virtue which was not only untainted, but unsuspected.
Note on Further Reading and Editorial Sources
[1. ]In August 1795 the National Convention authorized the third constitution of the Revolution, which vested the executive power in a five-man Directory, to be balanced by a bicameral legislature. The Convention dissolved itself in October, and the Directory—which gave its name to this period of the Revolution—ruled from October 1795 to November 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte engineered a coup with the aid of two of the Directors.
[2. ]Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825) of South Carolina, lawyer, Colonel (Brigadier General by brevet) in the Continental army, state legislator, prominent delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and prominent Federalist; between 1791 and 1795 he was offered and declined the command of the U.S. army, Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the secretaryships of War and State. Appointed U.S. ambassador to France in 1796, and special envoy to France (with Gerry and Marshall; see note 6 below) in 1797; appointed Major General of the U.S. army in command of the southern department, 1798–1800; Federalist candidate for vice president in 1800, and for president in 1804 and 1808.
[3. ]Washington’s Farewell Address was published on September 19, 1796, in Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser of Philadelphia, edited by David Claypoole. It is reprinted in appendix B, below.
[4. ]Though Marshall writes that ambassador Adet sent this letter and simultaneously published it in November, the date of the letter is October 27, 1796. It was published in the General Advertiser, better known as the Aurora, of Philadelphia, edited by Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin. The paper generally supported the Democratic-Republican party, publishing both the 1793 Cabinet papers regarding France and the forged letters of 1776 attributed to Washington, which Marshall earlier mentioned. In 1795 Bache’s Aurora had also published the secret text of the Jay Treaty and the accusations that Washington had overdrawn his salary (see chapter 32).
[5. ]The electors, having been already chosen in state elections either by the people or the legislature, cast their votes for President on December 7, 1796, and these were officially counted in the presence of the House and Senate on February 9, 1797. Thirteen candidates received votes, foremost among them being John Adams, Federalist, with seventy-one electoral votes; Thomas Jefferson, Democratic-Republican, sixty-eight; Thomas Pinckney, Federalist, fifty-nine; Aaron Burr, Democratic-Republican, thirty; Samuel Adams, fifteen; Oliver Ellsworth, eleven. See chapter 26, notes 11 and 12, on the electoral college prior to the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution (1804).
[6. ]Joining Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as special envoys were John Marshall (1755–1835) of Virginia (see Foreword, above), and Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814) of Massachusetts, merchant, revolutionary patriot, signer of the Declaration of Independence, Continental and Confederation Congressman, leading delegate and non-signer at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, U.S. Representative (1789–93; often supporting the Democratic-Republicans), special envoy to France (1797–98), Governor of Massachusetts (1810–12; known for the “Gerrymandered” redistricting of the state senate, favoring Democratic-Republicans), U.S. Vice President from 1812 until his death in 1814. Marshall does not identify himself or Gerry as envoys in the full Life, either, though he does remark in a subsequent footnote that “Two of them were of the party denominated federal; the third was arranged with the opposition” (II, p. 507, n. 1).
[7. ]The Hapsburgs of Austria sought an armistice with General Napoleon Bonaparte in March 1797 after suffering several defeats in the course of Napoleon’s Italian campaign; the Treaty of Campoformio was finally settled in late October of that year, just after the special American envoys had arrived in Paris. France declared war on the Republic of Venice in May 1797, occupied the city and its possessions with French troops, abolished the ruling (hereditary) aristocracy, and established a popular government; in the Treaty of Campoformio Bonaparte traded away Venice to the Austrians for other territories, and it ceased to be an independent state.
[8. ]To prove with the highest degree of certainty; Marshall apparently means, “to demonstrate to themselves” as well as to the American government and citizenry.
[9. ]This is the diplomatic crisis known as the “XYZ Affair,” after the labels President Adams gave in substitution of the names of the French agents (sent by the foreign minister, Talleyrand) who had sought a bribe from the Americans; see the Foreword, above.
[10. ]President Adams began his administration by carrying over the cabinet which concluded Washington’s second term: Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering; Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott, Jr.; Secretary of War, James McHenry; Attorney General, Charles Lee.
[11. ]An intermitting or fitful fever, with shivering fits succeeded by bouts of fever.
[12. ]The act of swallowing; from the French, deglutition.
[13. ]Dr. James Craik (1730–1814), of Scotland and Virginia, Washington’s friend and personal physician, who first met him on Braddock’s expedition in 1755; see chapter 1, note 10.
[14. ]Marshall’s account of this memorial in the full Life is more complete, yet even there he describes his own deeds in Congress on December 18 and 19, 1799, without identifying himself. It was Representative Marshall of Virginia who called the House to adjourn upon learning of Washington’s death, and the next day it was Marshall who, upon Lee’s request, presented to the House the resolutions which had been drafted by Representatives James Madison and Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee of Virginia. See Life of Washington, II, pp. 521–23, and Beveridge, Life of Marshall, II, pp. 440–45.
[15. ]Tobias Lear (1762–1816) of New Hampshire, Washington’s confidant and secretary from 1785 to 1793, and again from 1798 to 1799; later U.S. Consul to Santo Domingo and U.S. Consul-General at Algiers.
[16. ]Black or dark clothes worn as a sign of sorrow and bereavement.
[17. ]Quintus Fabius Maximus and Marcus Claudius Marcellus both opposed the invading Carthaginian general Hannibal in the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage (third century ). Fabius was given the surname “the delayer” for opposing Hannibal through skirmishes while avoiding pitched battles and was called “the Shield of Rome,” while Marcellus was called “the Sword of Rome”—daring, swift-moving, attacking Hannibal and defeating him on several occasions. See Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans.