The Life of George Washington By David Ramsay Chapter 13 Part 2

Chapter 13, Part 2: Reflections on Washington's Life and Death

To this address, the President returned the following answer:

"I receive with the most respectful and affectionate sentiments, in this impressive address, the obliging expressions of your regret for the loss our country has sustained in the death of her most esteemed, beloved, and admired citizen.

"In the multitude of my thoughts and recollections on this melancholy event, you will permit me to say, that I have seen him in the days of adversity, in some of the scenes of his deepest distress, and most trying perplexities. I have also attended him in his highest elevation, and most prosperous felicity, with uniform admiration of his wisdom. moderation, and constancy.

"Among all our original associates in that memorable league of this continent, in 1774, which first expressed the sovereign will of a free nation in America, he was the only one remaining in the general government. Although with a constitution more enfeebled than his, at an age when he thought it necessary to prepare for retirement, I feel myself alone bereaved of my last brother, yet I derive a strong consolation from the unanimous disposition which appears in all ages and classes, to mingle their sorrows with mine, on the common calamity to the world.

"The life of our Washington cannot suffer by a comparison with those of other countries, who have been celebrated and exalted by fame. The attributes and decorations of royalty, could only have served to eclipse the majesty of those virtues which made him, from being a modest citizen, a more resplendent luminary. Misfortune, had he lived, could hereafter have sullied his glory only with those superficial minds who, believing that character and actions are marked by success alone, rarely deserve to enjoy it. Malice could never blast his honour, and envy made him a singular exception to her universal rule. For himself, he had lived long enough to life and to glory; for his fellow-citizens, if their prayers could have been answered, he would have been immortal; for me, his departure is at a most unfortunate moment. Trusting, however, in the wise and righteous dominion of Providence over the passions of man and the results of their actions, as well as over their lives, nothing remains for me but humble resignation.

"His example is now complete; and it will teach wisdom and virtue to magistrates, citizens, and men, not only in the present age, but in future generations, as long as our history shall be read. If a Trajan found a Pliny, a Marcus Aurelius can never want biographers, eulogists, or historians."

The committee of both houses appointed to devise the mode by which the nation should express its grief, reported the following resolutions, which were unanimously adopted.

"Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That a marble monument be erected by the United States at the capitol of 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.

"And be it further resolved, that there be a funeral procession from Congress-Hall, to the German Lutheran church, in memory of Gen. George Washington, on Thursday the 26th instant, and that an oration be prepared at the request of Congress, to be delivered before both houses 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.

"And be it further resolved, that it be recommended to the people of the United States, to wear crape on their left arm, as mourning, for thirty days.

"And be it further resolved, 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 for 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 Gen. Washington in the manner expressed in the first resolution."

To the letter of President Adams, which transmitted to Mrs. Washington the resolution of Congress that she should be requested to permit the remains of Gen. Washington to be deposited under a marble monument, to be erected in the city of Washington, she replied very much in the style and manner of her departed husband, and in the following words —

"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 honours paid to Washington at the seat of government, were but a small part of the whole. Throughout the United States, the citizens generally expressed, in a variety of ways, bot their grief and their gratitude. Their heart-felt distress resembled the agony of a large and affectionate family, when a bereaved wife and orphan children mingle their tears for the loss of a husband and father.

The people, from the impulse of their own minds, before they knew of similar intentions of their fellow-citizens, or of the resolution of Congress for a general mourning, assembled and passed resolutions, expressive of their high sense of the great worth of the deceased, and their grateful recollection of his important services. Orations were delivered, sermons preached, and elegies written, on the melancholy occasion. The best talents of the nation were employed, both in prose and verse. In writing and speaking, to express the national grief, and to celebrate the deeds of the departed father of the country.

In addition to the public honours which, in the preceding pages, have been mentioned as conferred on Washington in his life time, there were others of a private nature which flowed from the hearts of the people, and which neither wealth nor power could command. An infinity of children were called by his name. This was often done by people in the humble walks of life, who had never seen nor expected to see him; and who could have no expectations of favour from him. Villages, towns, cities, districts, counties, seminaries of learning, and other public institutions, were called Washington, in such numbers, and in such a variety of places, that the name no longer answered the end of distinction, unless some local or appropriating circumstances were added to the common appellation. Adventurous mariners, who discovered islands or countries in unexplored regions, availing themselves of the privilege of discoverers, planed the name of the American Chief in the remotest corners of the globe.

The person of George Washington was uncommonly tall. Mountain air, abundant exercise in the open country, the wholesome toils of the chase, and the delightful scenes of rural life, expanded his limbs to an unusual, but graceful and well-proportioned size. His exterior suggested to every beholder the idea of strength, united with manly gracefulness. His form was noble, and his port majestic. No man could approach him but with respect. His frame was robust, his constitution vigorous, and he was capable of enduring great fatigue. His passions were naturally strong; with them was his first contest, and over them his first victory. Before he undertook to command others, he had thoroughly learned to command himself.

The powers of his mind were more solid than brilliant. Judgment was his forte. To vivacity, wit, and the sallies of a lively imagination, he made no pretensions. His faculties resembled those of Aristotle, Bacon, Locke, and Newton; but were very unlike those of Voltaire. Possessed of a large proportion of common sense, directed by a sound practical judgment, he was better fitted for the exalted stations to which he was called, than many others, who, to a greater brilliancy of parts, frequently add the eccentricities of genius.

Truth and utility were his objects. He steadily pursued, and generally attained them. With this view he thought much, and closely examined every subject on which he was to decide, in all its relations. Neither passion, party, spirit, pride, prejudice, ambition, nor interest, influenced his deliberations. In making up his mind on great occasions, many of which occurred in which the fate of the army or nation seemed involved, he sought for information from all quarters, revolved the subject by night and by day and examined it in every point of view. [In a letter to Gen. Knox, written after the termination of the revolutionary war, Washington observed — "Strange as it may seem, it is nevertheless true, that it was not until lately I could get the better of my usual custom of ruminating as soon as I awoke in the morning, on the business of the ensuing day; and of my surprise at finding, after revolving many things in my mind, that I was no longer a public man, or had any thing to do with public transactions."] Guided by these lights, and influenced by an honest and good heart, he was imperceptibly led to decisions which were wise and judicious.

Perhaps no man ever lived who was so often called upon to form a judgment in cases of real difficulty, and who so often formed a right one. Engaged in the busy scenes of life, he knew human nature, and the most proper methods of accomplishing proposed objects. Of a thousand propositions he knew to distinguish the best, and to select among a thousand the individual most fitted for his purpose.

As a military man, he possessed personal courage, and a firmness which neither danger nor difficulties could shake. His perseverance overcame every obstacle; his moderation conciliated all opposition; his genius supplied every resource. He knew how to conquer by delay, and deserved true praise by despising unmerited censure. Inferior to his adversary in the numbers, the equipment, and discipline of his troops, no great advantage was ever obtained over him, and no opportunity to strike an important blow was ever neglected. In the most ardent moments of the contest, his prudent firmness proved the salvation of his country.

The whole range of history does not present a character on which we can dwell with such entire unmixed admiration. His qualities were so happily blended, and so nicely harmonized, that the result was a great and perfect whole.

The integrity of Washington was incorruptible. His principles were free from the contamination of selfish and unworthy passions. His real and avowed motives were the same. His ends were always upright, and his means pure. He was a statesman without guile, and his professions, both to his fellow-citizens and to foreign nations, were always sincere. No circumstances ever induced him to use duplicity. He was an example of the distinction which exists between wisdom and cunning; and his manly, open conduct, was an illustration of the soundness of the maxim — "that honesty is the best policy."

The learning of Washington was of a particular kind. He overstepped the tedious forms of the schools, and by the force of a correct taste and sound judgment, seized on the great ends of learning, without the assistance of those means which have been contrived to prepare less active minds for public business. By a careful study of the English language; by reading good models of fine writing, and above all, by the aid of a vigorous mind; he made himself master of a pure, elegant, and classical style. His composition was all nerve; full of correct and manly ideas, which were expressed in precise and forcible language. His answer to the innumerable addresses which on all public occasions poured in upon him, were promptly made, handsomely expressed, and always contained something appropriate. His letters to Congress; his addresses to that body on the acceptance and resignation of his commission; his general orders as Commander in Chief; his messages and speeches as President; and above all, his two farewell addresses to the people of the United States, will remain lasting monuments of the goodness of his heart, of the wisdom of his head, and of the eloquence of his pen.

The powers of his mind were in some respects peculiar. He was a great, practical, self-taught genius; with a head to devise, and a hand to execute, projects of the first magnitude and greatest utility.

There are few men of any kind, and still fewer the world calls great, who have not some of their virtues eclipsed by corresponding vices. But this was not the case of Gen. Washington. He had religion without austerity, dignity without pride, modesty without diffidence, courage without rashness, politeness without affectation, affability without familiarity. His private character, as well as his public one, will bear the strictest scrutiny. He was punctual in all his engagements; upright and honest in his dealings; temperate in his enjoyments; liberal and hospitable to an eminent degree; a lover of order; systematical and methodical in all his arrangements. He was the friend of morality and religion; steadily attended on public worship; encouraged and strengthened the hands of the clergy. In all his public acts, he made the most respectful mention of Providence; and, in a word, carried the spirit of piety with him both in his private life and public administration.

Washington had to form soldiers of freemen, many of whom had extravagant ideas of their personal rights. He had often to mediate between a starving army, and a high-spirited yeomanry. So great were the necessities of the soldiers under his immediate command, that he was obliged to send out detachments to seize on the property of the farmers at the point of the bayonet. The language of the soldier was — "Give me clothing, give me food, or I cannot fight, I cannot live." The language of the farmer was — "Protect my property." In this choice of difficulties, Gen. Washington not only kept his army together, but conducted with so much prudence as to command the approbation both of the army and of the citizens. He was also dependent for much of his support on the concurrence of thirteen distinct, unconnected legislatures. Animosities prevailed between his southern and northern troops, and there were strong jealousies between the states from which they respectively came. To harmonize these clashing interests, to make uniform arrangements from such discordant sources and materials, required no common share of address. Yet so great was the effect of the modest unassuming manners of Gen. Washington, that he retained the affection of all his troops, and of all the states.

He also possessed equanimity in an eminent degree. One even tenour marked the greatness of his mind, in all the variety of scenes through which he passed. In the most trying situations he never despaired, nor was he ever depressed. He was the same when retreating through Jersey from before a victorious enemy with the remains of his broken army, as when marching in triumph into Yorktown, over its demolished fortifications. The honours and applause he received from his grateful countrymen, would have made almost any other man giddy; but on him they had no mischievous effect. He exacted none of those attentions; but when forced upon him, he received them as favours, with the politeness of a well-bred man. He was great in deserving them, but much greater in not being elated with them.

The patriotism of Washington was of the most ardent kind, and without alloy. He was very different from those noisy patriots, who, with love of country in their mouths, and hell in their hearts, lay their schemes for aggrandizing themselves at every hazard; but he was one of those who love their country in sincerity, and who hold themselves bound to consecrate all their talents to its service. Numerous were the difficulties with which he had to contend — Great were the dangers he had to encounter — Various were the toils and services in which he had to share; but to all difficulties and dangers he rose superior. To all toils and services he cheerfully submitted for his country's good.

In principle, Washington was a federal-republican, and a republican-federalist. Liberty and law, the rights of man, and the control of government were equally dear to him; and in his opinion, equally necessary to political happiness. He was devoted to that system of equal political rights on which the constitution of his country was founded; but thought that real liberty could only be maintained by preserving the authority of the laws, and giving tone and energy to government. He conceived there was an immense difference between a balanced republic and a tumultuous democracy, or a faction calling themselves the people; and a still greater between a patriot and a demagogue. He highly respected the deliberate sentiments of the people, but their sudden ebullitions made no impression on his well balanced mind. Trusting for support to the sober second thoughts of the nation, he had the magnanimity to pursue its real interests, in opposition to prevailing prejudices. He placed a proper value on popular favour, but could never stoop to gain it by sacrifice of duty, by artifice, or flattery. In critical times he committed his well earned popularity to hazard, and steadily pursued the line of conduct which was dictated by a sense of duty, against an opposing popular torrent.

While war raged in Europe, the hostile nations would scarce endure a neutral. America was in great danger of being drawn by force or intrigue into the vortex. Strong parties in the United States rendered the danger more imminent; and it required a temperate, but inflexible government, to prevent the evil. In this trying state of things, Washington was not be moved from the true interests of his country. His object was America, and her interest was to remain in peace.

Faction at home, and intrigue and menace from abroad, endeavoured to shake him, but in vain; he remained firm and immoveable in the storm that surrounded him. Foreign intrigue was defeated, and foreign insolence was repressed by his address and vigour; while domestic faction, dashing against him, broke itself to pieces. He met the injustice both of Britain and France by negociation, rather than by war, but maintained towards both, that firm attitude which was proper for the magistrate of a free state. He commanded their respect, and preserved the tranquillity of his country. In his public character, he knew no nation but as friends in peace, as enemies in war. Towards one he forgot ancient animosities, when the recollection of them opposed the interests of his country. Towards another, he renounced a fantastic gratitude, when it was claimed only to involve his nation in war.

With Washington it was an invariable maxim of policy, to secure his country against the injustice of foreign nations, by being in a position to command their respect, and punish their aggressions. The defence of our commerce, the fortification of the ports, and the organization of a military force, were objects to which he paid particular attention. To the gradual formation of an American army, he was friendly; and also to military institutions, which are calculated to qualify the youth of the country for its defence. War he deprecated as a great evil, inferior only to the loss of honour and character; but thought it was most easily avoided by being ready for it, while, by the practice of universal justice, none could have any real ground of complaint.

In foreign transactions, his usual policy was to cultivate peace with all the world; to observe treaties with pure and absolute faith; to check every deviation from the line of impartiality; to explain what was misapprehended, and to correct what was injurious; and then to insist upon justice being done to the nation over which he presided. In controversies with foreign nations, it was his favourite maxim so to conduct towards them, "as to put them in the wrong."

In his transactions with the Indian tribes, Washington was guided by justice, humanity, and benevolence. His authority and influence were exerted to restrain the licentious white contiguous settlers, from injuring their red neighbors. To supply their wants, and prevent impositions, he strongly urged the erection of trading houses in their settlements, from which they were furnished by government with goods at first cost. The unprincipled were restrained from preying on their ignorance, by excluding all but licensed persons, with good characters, from trading with them. All this was done to pave the way for their civilization.

When Washington commenced his civil administration, the United States were without any efficient government. After they had adopted one of their choice, and placed him at its head, he determined that it should be respected. By his firmness order soon took place. There was one exception. The western counties of Pennsylvania rose in arms to resist the law for raising a revenue, by an excise on domestic distilled ardent spirits.

On this occasion, the fixed resolution of Washington was, that whatever expense it might cost, whatever inconvenience it might occasion, the people must be taught obedience, and the authority of the laws re-established. To secure this object, peculiarly important in the infancy of the new government, he ordered out, and put himself at the head, of an ample force, calculated to render resistance desperate, and thereby to save the lives of his fellow-citizens.

In consequence of such decided measures, the insurgents dispersed, and peace and order were restored without bloodshed. The necessity of subordination was impressed on the citizens, and the firmness of Washington's personal character was communicated to the government.

Having accomplished every object for which he re-entered public life, he gave for the second time, the rare example of voluntarily descending from the first station in the Universe — the head of a free people, placed there by their unanimous suffrage. To the pride of resigning his soul was superior. To its labours he submitted only for his country.

Rulers of the world! Learn from Washington wherein true glory consists — Restrain your ambition — Consider your power as an obligation to do good — Let the world have peace, and prepare for yourselves, the enjoyment of that ecstatic pleasure which will result from devoting all your energies to the advancement of human happiness.

Citizens of the United States! While with grateful hearts you recollect the virtues of your Washington, carry your thoughts one step farther. On a review of his life, and of all the circumstances of the times in which he lived, you must be convinced, that a kind of Providence in its beneficence raised him, and endowed him with extraordinary virtues, to be to you an instrument of great good. None but such a man could have carried you successfully through the revolutionary times which tried men's souls, and ended in the establishment of your independence. None but such a man could have braced up your government after it had become so contemptible, from the imbecility of the federal system. None but such a man could have saved your country from being plunged into war, either with the greatest naval power in Europe, or with that which is most formidable by land, in consequence of your animosity against the one, and your partiality in favour of the other.

Youths of the United States! Learn from Washington what may be done by an industrious improvement of your talents, and the cultivation of your moral powers. Without any extraordinary advantages from birth, fortune, patronage, or even of education, he, by virtue and industry, attained the highest seat in the temple of fame. You cannot all be commanders of armies, or chief magistrates; but you may all resemble him in the virtues of private and domestic life, in which he excelled, and in which he most delighted. Equally industrious with his plough as his sword, he esteemed idleness and inutility as the greatest disgrace of man, whose powers attain perfection only by constant and vigorous action.

Washington, in private life, was as amiable as virtuous; and as great as he appeared sublime, on the public theatre of the world. He lived in the discharge of all the civil, social, and domestic offices of life. He was temperate in his desires, and faithful to his duties. For more than forty happy wedded love, his high example strengthened the tone of public manners. He had more real enjoyment in the bosom of his family, than in the pride of military command, or in the pomp of sovereign power.

On the whole, his life affords the brightest model for imitation, not only to warriors and statesmen, but to private citizens; for his character was a constellation of all the talents and virtues which dignify or adorn human nature.

"We ne'er shall look upon his like again." — Shakespeare

The End.