March 20, 1779 – George Washington Writes About the Issue of Arming Slaves to Aid in the American Revolution

On this day in history, George Washington sent a letter to Henry Laurens, serving at that time as President of the Continental Congress. Laurens was a slaveholder, while his son John, one of Washington’s aides-de-camp, was famously opposed to slavery. In fact, John pointed out, “We Americans at least in the Southern Colonies, cannot contend with a good Grace, for Liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our Slaves.”

A 1780 miniature portrait of Laurens, by Charles Willson Peale

John Laurens wanted to form a Black regiment to fight in the war, and sent a letter to Washington to that effect on March 16, 1779. The elder Laurens was against the idea, and had claimed in a letter to his son in 1776:

I told you in my last that I was going to Georgia. . . My negroes there, are all to a man, are strongly attached to me — so are all of mine in this country [South Carolina]; hitherto not one of them has attempted to desert; on the contrary, those who are more exposed hold themselves always ready to fly from the enemy in case of a sudden descent…You know, my dear son, I abhor slavery. I was born in a country where slavery had been established by British kings and parliaments, as well as by the laws of that country ages before my existence. I found the Christian religion and slavery growing under the same authority and cultivation. I nevertheless disliked it…I am not the man who enslaved them; they are indebted to English for that favour; nevertheless I am devising means for manumitting many of them, and for cutting off the entail of slavery. Great powers oppose me — the laws and customs of my country, my own and the avarice of my countrymen.”

(The elder Laurens was one of many founding fathers who claimed they hated slavery, but, well, that’s just the hand we were dealt, and besides, the slaves need us. . . )

Laurens depicted by Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1781 or 1784

In any event, in this letter to the father, Henry Laurens, Washington averred:

The policy of our arming Slaves is in my opinion a moot point, unless the enemy set the example, for should we begin to form Battalions of them I have not the smallest doubt (if the war is to be prosecuted) of their following us in it, and justifying the measure upon our own ground. The upshot then must be who can Arm fastest—and where are our Arms? besides I am not clear that a descrimination will not render Slavery more irksome to those who remain in it—Most of the good and evil things of this life are judged of by comparison, and I fear comparison in this Case will be productive of Much discontent in those who are held in servitude—but as this is a subject that has never employed much of my thoughts, these are no more than the first crude Ideas that have struck me upon the occasion.”

You can read Washington’s entire letter here.

January 6, 1777 – George Washington Orders All Forces Coming Through Philadelphia to Be Inoculated Against Smallpox

Disease, especially highly contagious smallpox, was as much of an enemy of the American Patriots as were the British. General George Washington had been exposed to the disease in 1751, when traveling with his older brother to Barbados. He contracted smallpox but survived, albeit with the telltale facial pockmarks. Thus he was immune but when the disease swept through the American colonies, he knew many would succumb to it.

As National Geographic Magazine reports, inoculation against smallpox dated back to ancient China, but it was considered a controversial procedure in colonial America. In Washington’s home state of Virginia, it was even illegal.

Benjamin Franklin, a devotee of science, was among colonists championing smallpox inoculation

At first he tried insisting on isolating those who caught the virus, but that aspiration did not play out in practice.

When American troops who marched on Quebec, their commanding officer, Major General John Thomas, failed to follow Washington’s strict protocols, and he and one-third to half of his 10,000 soldiers died from smallpox. The force was soundly defeated. On June 26, 1776, John Adams wrote his wife Abigail:

Our Misfortunes in Canada, are enough to melt an Heart of Stone. The Small Pox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians together. This was the Cause of our precipitate Retreat from Quebec, this the Cause of our Disgraces at the Cedars. — I dont mean that this was all. There has been Want, approaching to Famine, as well as Pestilence. And these Discouragements seem to have so disheartened our Officers, that none of them seem to Act with Prudence and Firmness.”

Washington decided stronger action was necessary. On this day in history, General Washington wrote to Dr. William Shippen Jr. that he had “determined that the troops shall be inoculated.” He noted that while there may be some inconveniences and some disadvantages to the vaccine, “yet I trust in its consequences will have the most happy effects.”

He added:

You will spare no pains to carry them through the disorder with the utmost expedition, and to have them cleansed from the infection when recovered, that they may proceed to Camp with as little injury as possible to the Country through which they pass.”

You can access the text of the letter here.

General George Washington

By the end of 1777, some 40,000 soldiers had been vaccinated.

As the Library of Congress observes,

American independence must be partially attributed to a strategy for which history has given the infamous general little credit: his controversial medical actions. Traditionally, the Battle of Saratoga is credited with tipping the revolutionary scales. Yet the health of the Continental regulars involved in battle was a product of the ambitious initiative Washington began earlier that year at Morristown, close on the heels of the victorious Battle of Princeton. Among the Continental regulars in the American Revolution, 90 percent of deaths were caused by disease, and Variola the small pox virus was the most vicious of them all.”

Vaccination is indeed an American tradition, or was….

December 22, 1777 – Letter from George Washington to Henry Laurens, Begging for Better Support from Congress or “This Army Must Dissolve.”

Henry Laurens served as President of the Continental Congress from November 1, 1777 to December 9, 1778. (His oldest son, John Laurens, was an aide-de-camp to George Washington and a colonel in the Continental Army.)

*Inscription (upper left corner): Hon: Henry Laurens, / Pres: of the American Congress. / (Painted 1781. while in the Tower.) via Wikipedia

Washington corresponded regularly with Congress both to convey progress made by the Army and to make requests for items upon which the Army’s success depended; namely, food, clothes, equipment, and wages for the soldiers.

In this letter, Washington bemoaned the lack of food provisions, writing:

I do not know from what cause this alarming deficiency, or rather total failure of Supplies arises: But unless more vigorous exertions and better regulations take place in that line and immediately, This Army must dissolve.”

He pointed out that an Army without food cannot march or fight, averring “had a body of the Enemy crossed Schuylkill this morning, as I had reason to expect from the intelligence I received at Four oClock last night, the Divisions which I ordered to be in readiness to march & meet them could not have moved.”

He added: “It would give me infinite pleasure to afford protection to every Individual and to every Spot of Ground in the whole of the United States. Nothing is more my wish—But this is not possible with our present force.”

As usual, he added that if the Army were not adequately supplied, he could not be responsible for the [deleterious] consequences.

You can read the text of the entire letter here.

General George Washington

The next day, he sent an addendum to strengthen his case:

Full as I was in my representation of matters in the Commissary’s department yesterday, fresh and more powerful reasons oblige me to add, that I am now convinced beyond a doubt, that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place in that line this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things. Starve—dissolve—or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can. rest assured, Sir, this is not an exaggerated picture, and that I have abundant reason to support what I say.”

This letter is accessible here.

December 14, 1799 – The Death of George Washington

Catching a cold was a dangerous thing to do in the days before modern medicine.

On the morning of December 12, George Washington went out riding on his horse, as he generally did, to check up on his farm. Snow began to fall and turned to cold rain, and the General caught a cold.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

The next morning he was worse, and Martha sent for Tobias Lear, the manager of Washington’s plantation, and for doctors. In the meantime, Washington sent for his clerk, Albin Rawlins, who was experienced in bleeding sick slaves. Rawlins made an incision on Washington’s arm, and the bleeding began. The first doctor arrived, and bled him again, and when his regular physician, Dr. Craik, came, he also bled Washington. They tried to bleed him a fourth time, but he had already lost more than five pints of blood, and was dehydrated and almost in shock.

The doctors, at a loss as to why Washington was not improving after all that bleeding, then administered a mix of mercurous choride and tartar emetic, both now known to be poisonous. Washington was then able to add severe cramping and diarrhea to his list of complaints. By four o’clock that afternoon, Washington was asking that the wills from his desk be brought to him. He asked Martha to burn one, and to put the other away for safekeeping. He told Tobias Lear “I find I am going” and insisted that Lear promise that his body would not be put into the burial vault “in less than two days after I am dead.” (…just in case…) Shortly after midnight, he was gone.

Washington could not free his slaves upon his own death, because his and those from Martha’s dower were now intermixed by marriage, but he did provide for them to be freed upon Martha’s death. Martha became rather anxious about her own safety as the slaves became acquainted with the terms of her husband’s will, and freed them all herself a year after Washington died. (For more details on the slaves the Washingtons owned, and what became of them, an excellent source is the online site of “The Papers of George Washington,” working to publish comprehensive letterpress and digital editions of Washington’s correspondence, such as this list of slaves from 1799.)

You can read about these and other personal details of Washington’s life in the book The Unexpected George Washington: His Private Life by Harlow Giles Unger.

This book is of interest to flesh out the plethora of mostly political portraits of Washington. In Washington’s private life, he was extremely conscious of appearances, obsessed with details, driven by land acquisition, and was a caring if smothering parent to the many “strays” he and Martha accumulated. He and Martha both loved acquiring and displaying the trappings of elegance; often his political forays were preceded by shopping trips. Washington also was a first-rate innovator in agricultural technology, and frequently bonded with others on the basis of shared interests in animal breeding and/or plant cultivation.

A very few political stories are included, but they are notable, such as Washington’s institution of decision-making by agreement of the whole cabinet rather than allowing various department heads to exercise their portfolios. Unger points out how this came about from Washington’s frustration over the infighting between Hamilton and Jefferson. Unger also argues (following John Adams) that it was mainly the outbreak of yellow fever in New York that prevented a French-inspired revolution against the new nation. (Jay Winik in his book The Great Upheaval also noted the very strong effect the French Revolution had on this country.)

I wouldn’t make this the only book one reads about Washington, but if you’re into details about the daily lives of the Founding Fathers, this book published by Wiley in 2006 fills the bill.

September 7, 1783 – George Washington Advocates Peaceful Resolution of Indian Affairs

James Duane (1733-1797) was a member of the Continental Congress from New York, representing Congress as an Indian Commissioner.

On this day in history, George Washington sent a letter to Duane in response to papers submitted by Duane to Washington relating to Indian Affairs.

James Duane

Washington made a number of points. First, he castigated the “speculators” and “avaricious Men” among the colonists who wanted to take land from Native Americans, especially combined with their reluctance to contribute monetarily in support of the Government. (Washington, it should be noted, had been one of these land grabbers earlier in his life.)

He also noted with displeasure that many Native Americans supported the British in the war for independence.

Nevertheless, he said:

. . . as we prefer Peace to a state of Warfare, as we consider them as a deluded People; as we perswade ourselves that they are convinced, from experience, of their error in taking up the Hatchet against us, and that their true Interest and safety must now depend upon our friendship. As the Country, is large enough to contain us all; and as we are disposed to be kind to them and to partake of their Trade, we will from these considerations and from motives of Compn, draw a veil over what is past and establish a boundary line between them and us beyond which we will endeavor to restrain our People from Hunting or Settling, and within which they shall not come, but for the purposes of Trading, Treating, or other business unexceptionable in its nature.”

He added that [non-Native] Americans should:

. . . endeavor to impress the Indians with an idea of the generosity of our disposition to accommodate them, and with the necessity we are under, of providing for our Warriors, our Young People who are growing up, and strangers who are coming from other Countries to live among us. and if they should make a point of it, or appear dissatisfied at the line we may find it necessary to establish, compensation should be made them for their claims within it.”

In other words, the new Americans were being more than generous regarding the people whose land they stole, and we should only compensate them if they make an issue of it.

George Washington

He makes clear that his main concern is to avoid another war by trying to expel Native Americans from what they saw as their own country. But he didn’t think that situation would arise: “That they would compromise for a part of it I have very little doubt, and that it would be the cheapest way of coming at it, I have no doubt at all.”

He suggested that New York make it a felony for any person to breach the boundary “between them and us.” Washington explained his concern:

. . . that the settling, or rather overspreading the Western Country will take place, by a parcel of Banditti, who will bid defiance to all Authority while they are skimming and disposing of the Cream of the Country at the expence of many suffering Officers and Soldiers who have fought and bled to obtain it, and are now waiting the decision of Congress to point them to the promised reward of their past dangers and toils, or a renewal of Hostilities with the Indians, brought about more than probably, by this very means.”

That is, those who fought for American Independence had a right to the land, as opposed to random “Banditti,” and certainly as opposed to Indians. (Calling them “Native Americans” would be acknowledging an unwelcome truth. Rather, Washington contends they are savages comparable to wolves, as seen in the close of his letter):

. . . .for I repeat it, again, and I am clear in my opinion, that policy and oeconomy point very strongly to the expediency of being upon good terms with the Indians, and the propriety of purchasing their Lands in preference to attempting to drive them by force of arms out of their Country; which as we have already experienced is like driving the Wild Beasts of the Forest which will return us soon as the pursuit is at an end and fall perhaps on those that are left there; when the gradual extension of our Settlements will as certainly cause the Savage as the Wolf to retire; both being beasts of prey tho’ they differ in shape. In a word there is nothing to be obtained by an Indian War but the Soil they live on and this can be had by purchase at less expence, and without that bloodshed, and those distresses which helpless Women and Children are made partakers of in all kinds of disputes with them.”

You can read the entire letter here.

June 8, 1783 – George Washington Exhorts America to Live Up To Its Promise

Winning the War of Independence was just the first step for America becoming a nation. State governments still balked at ceding either power or money to the federal government. As the Mt. Vernon website points out:

A few months prior, several officers had threatened to mutiny due to Congress’ seeming unwillingness to provide them with adequate funds. Amidst this atmosphere of uncertainty, George Washington decided to offer his parting advice for the success of the new nation before retiring from command. He addressed his ‘Circular Letter to the States’ to the state executives, who all received the letter by June 21. But Washington mainly intended it for the citizenry and the letter was printed and widely circulated by the press.”

Washington warned of the consequences if America failed to live up to its promise:

This is the time of [America’s] political probation, this is the moment when the eyes of the whole World are turned upon them, this is the moment to establish or ruin their national Character forever, this is the favorable moment to give such a tone to our Federal Government, as will enable it to answer the ends of its institution, or this may be the ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the Union, annihilating the cement of the Confederation, and exposing us to become the sport of European politics, which may play one State against another to prevent their growing importance, and to serve their own interested purposes. For, according to the system of Policy the States shall adopt at this moment, they will stand or fall, and by their confirmation or lapse, it is yet to be decided, whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved.”

George Washington

He outlined four things he considered to be essential to the well being and even existence of the United States as an independent power:

1. An indissoluble Union of the states under one Federal Head.
2. A Sacred regard to Public Justice.
3. The adoption of a proper Peace Establishment, and
4. The prevalence of that pacific and friendly Disposition, among the People of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community.”

He then expanded upon what he meant.

As Mt. Vernon summarized his points:

“Washington stressed that the future of the United States depended upon the strength of the Union. In particular, he emphasized the importance of demonstrating indissoluble unity to Europe, for those nations would neither lend money nor engage in peace treaties with the United States if the future of the Union seemed unsure.
Second, Washington insisted that the United States pay back the debt it had accrued during the War of Independence. Recalling the wartime reticence of some states to fulfill Congress’ requests for funds, Washington urged the states to now comply so that the new nation could avoid declaring bankruptcy. Washington similarly advocated for Congress to amply pay the soldiers, officers, and veterans of the Continental Army, declaring it their “debt of honour” to these men for their sacrifices.
Third, he advised that the militia be of a high, uniform standard throughout the nation. Since it was the primary defense of the republic, the militia of every state should be well-outfitted and regularly trained.

Finally, Washington encouraged a peaceful and affectionate relationship between all citizens of the United States, regardless of region. The Union required all people “to forget their local prejudices and policies” and be willing “to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community.”

Washington ended by expressing his hopes for a peaceful retreat from public life.

You can read all of his retirement remarks in his “Circular Letter to the States” here.

March 15, 1783 – George Washington Averts Mutiny

In March of 1783, General George Washington faced a serious threat in the form of a planned mutiny by the Continental Army, then based in Newburgh, New York.

The men were tired, and had not been paid. Washington himself was in a state of constant frustration over having to implore Congress repeatedly to pay his soldiers, but he was also totally committed to the cause of Revolution (and in any event had plenty of his own wealth to sustain him and his family).

On March 10, 1783, Washington learned that his officers planned a meeting on the following day at the Temple of Virtue, a large hall near his headquarters in Newburgh, New York. The purpose of the meeting was to consider an anonymous petition calling for the officers to mutiny if Congress failed to provide them back pay and pensions. As the Mount Vernon website characterizes their demands:

If the war continued, they would lead the army into ‘some unsettled country’ and let the American people fend for themselves against the British. If the war was over, they would march on Congress and demand their pay at gunpoint.”

Washington banned the March 11 meeting, and directed his men to meet instead at noon on March 15. He slipped into the crowded venue and stood before them, reading a nine-page speech to them, now known as the Newburgh Address, in which he sympathized with their demands but denounced the methods they contemplated to achieve them.

The reconstructed Temple [sic] of Virtue—now part of a New York historic site—where Washington unwound an officers’ rebellion.

Washington reminded them he suffered along with them, but thought their solution was irrational. Were they actually willing to leave their wives and children to defend themselves and their property? Or worse yet, how could they contemplate the other option advocated by the petition?

If Peace takes place, never sheath your swords, says he, until you have obtained full and ample justice. – This dreadful alternative, of either deserting our Country in the extremest hour of her distress, or turning our arms against it, (which is the apparent object, unless Congress can be compeled into instant compliance) has something so shocking in it, that humanity revolts at the idea. – My God! what can this writer have in view by recommending such measures? – can he be a friend to the army – can he be a friend to this Country?”

After finishing his speech, Washington then tried to read a letter from Congressman Joseph Jones of Virginia that clearly supported the officers’ demands but also reported on Congress’s desperate financial straits. Stumbling over the opening words, he put on a new pair of spectacles, saying, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.”

At this, many of his officers wept, remembering how much Washington had endured alongside them. The next day, they passed a unanimous resolution commending General Washington for his devotion to them. The mutiny of the officers was over.

You can read the full text of his speech here.

October 31, 1786 – George Washington Opines “Mankind left to themselves are unfit for their own government”

On October 17, 1786, Henry Lee wrote a letter to George Washington apprising Washington of a report from Henry Knox that “a majority of the people of Massachusetts are in opposition to the government, some of their leaders avow the subversion of it to be their object together with the abolition of debts, the division of property and re-union with G. Britain.”

“Light Horse Harry” Lee, by William Edward West, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Washington received a letter from Henry Knox himself on October 23, 1786 about the same situation. Knox wrote:

Our political machine constituted of thirteen independent sovereignties, have been constantly operating against each other, and against the federal head, ever since the peace— The powers of Congress are utterly inadequate to preserve the balance between the respective States, and oblige them to do those things which are essential to their own welfare, and for the general good.”

Henry Knox by Gilbert Stuart, 1806

Washington did not write back to Knox right away, explaining in a letter that December that he had thought Knox would be coming out to Mount Vernon so he didn’t need to write back.

But on October 31, 1786, Washington did respond to Lee, first making the observation:

… the commotions & temper of numerous bodies in the Eastern States … exhibit a melancholy proof of what our trans atlantic foe have predicted; and of another thing perhaps, which is still more to be regretted, and is yet more unaccountable; that mankind left to themselves are unfit for their own government.”

He added further:

You talk, my good Sir, of employing influence to appease the tumults in Massachusetts—I know not where that influence is to be found; and if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is no government. Let us have one by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.”

You can read the entire letter here.

President George Washington here seen as Major General and Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army

October 23, 1789 – First Lady Martha Washington Complains About Restrictions Upon Her

In 2013, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, at a First Ladies Summit in Africa, joked about the White House being like a prison, albeit a nice one. Similarly, in 2018, France’s first lady Brigitte Macron said Melania Trump felt very constrained and didn’t even feel free to go outside due to her role in Washington. 

Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron

They aren’t the first to feel that way. In fact, the very first “First Lady,” Martha Washington, also felt frustrated by her new role in the public eye. In a letter to her niece Fanny Bassett on this day in history, she wrote:

I live a very dull life hear and know nothing that passes in the town – I never goe to the publick place – indeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from – and as I can not doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal -“

You can read her entire letter here.

Martha Washington

September 26, 1785 – Washington Writes Jefferson About Progress on the First Torpedo Boat

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson was serving as Minister to France, having been sent there by the Congress of the Confederation (the governing body of the United States of America that existed from March 1, 1781, to March 4, 1789). While there, he corresponded often with other “Founding Fathers” who were working on the government of the nascent country.

On this day in history, George Washington sent a letter to Thomas Jefferson about a variety of matters, including the efforts of “Captn Bushnals” [David Bushnell] “for the destruction of Shipping.”

David Bushnell

As Washington relates, Bushnel [sic], a Man of great Mechanical powers – fertile of invention – and a master in execution” came to Washington in 1776 for seed money. His plan was to construct a machine to carry a man under water to any depth so that he might stealthily approach an enemy ship, attach a powder keg to it, get safely away, and then cause the ship to be blown up by the keg.

Bushnell called his device “The Turtle.” The Turtle was an oak carved egg-shaped submarine for one man that submerged by admitting water into the hull and surfaced by pumping it out by hand.

Drawing of the Turtle, based on contemporary accounts

Bushnell did attempt using The Turtle during the Revolutionary War against British ships, but was unsuccessful. As a Connecticut online history site recounts, on the night of September 6, 1776, the Turtle, operated by Army volunteer Ezra Lee, made its way through the waters of New York Harbor and conducted the attack. Problems arose, however, when the boring device operated from inside the submarine failed to penetrate the ship’s hull. The torpedo was eventually abandoned and Lee emerged unhurt. The abandoned torpedo detonated about an hour after it was released but did no harm.

While Bushnell never was entirely successful, it was Bushnell that proved gunpowder could be exploded under water, and who made the first time bomb. His ideas also inspired later efforts.

A full sized model of David Bushnell’s Turtle is on display at the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut.

You can read Washington’s entire letter and description of Bushnell’s work here.

Model of Bushnell’s Turtle at the U.S. Navy Submarine Museum