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Our Greatest Patriot






If American boys and girls were asked to name the one great man in
their country's history whom they would like to have seen and talked
with, nine out of every ten would probably say, "Washington." Many an
old man of our day has asked his grandfather or his great-grandfather
how Washington looked. Indeed, so much has been said and written of
the "Father of his Country" that we are apt to think of him as
something more than human.

Washington was truly a remarkable man, from whatever point of view we
choose to study his life. He left, as a priceless legacy to his
fellow citizens, an example of what a man with a pure and noble
character can do for himself and for his country. Duty performed with
faithfulness was the keynote to every word and every act of his life.

Still, we must not overlook the fact that Washington was, after all,
quite human. Like all the rest of us, he had his faults, his trials,
and his failures. Knowing this, we are only drawn nearer to him, and
find ourselves possessed of a more abiding admiration for the life he
lived.

{63} Washington was tall, and straight as an arrow. His favorite
nephew, Lawrence Lewis, once asked him about his height. He replied,
"In my best days, Lawrence, I stood six feet and two inches, in
ordinary shoes."



During his whole life, Washington was rather spare than fleshy. Most
of his portraits, it is said, give to his person a fullness that it
did not have. He once said that the best weight of his best days
never exceeded two hundred and twenty pounds. His chest was broad but
not well rounded. His arms and his legs were long, large, and sinewy.
His feet and his hands were especially large. Lafayette, who aided us
in the Revolution, once said to a friend, "I never saw so large a
hand on any human being, as the general's."

Washington's eyes were of a light, grayish blue, and were so deep
sunken that they gave him an unusually serious expression. On being
asked why he painted these eyes of a deeper blue than life, the
artist said, "In a hundred years they will have faded to the right
{64} color." This painting, by Stuart, of the bust of Washington, is
said to be wonderfully true to life.

Many stories are told of the mighty power of Washington's right arm.
It is said that he once threw a stone from the bed of the stream to
the top of the Natural Bridge, in Virginia. Again, we are told that
once upon a time he rounded a piece of slate to the size of a silver
dollar, and threw it across the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, the
slate falling at least thirty feet on the other side. Many strong men
have since tried the same feat, but have never cleared the water.

Peale, who was called the soldier artist, was once visiting
Washington at Mount Vernon. One day, he tells us, some athletic young
men were pitching the iron bar in the presence of their host.
Suddenly, without taking off his coat, Washington grasped the bar and
hurled it, with little effort, much farther than any of them had
done. "We were indeed amazed," said one of the young men, "as we
stood round, all stripped to the buff, and having thought ourselves
very clever fellows, while the colonel, on retiring, pleasantly said,
'When you beat my pitch, young gentlemen, I'll try again.'"

At another time, Washington witnessed a wrestling match. The champion
of the day challenged him, in sport, to wrestle. Washington did not
stop to take off his coat, but grasped the "strong man of Virginia."
{65} It was all over in a moment, for, said the wrestler, "in
Washington's lionlike grasp, I became powerless, and was hurled to
the ground with a force that seemed to jar the very marrow in my
bones."

In the days of the Revolution, some of the riflemen and the
backwoodsmen were men of gigantic strength, but it was generally
believed, by good judges, that their commander in chief was the
strongest man in the army.

During all his life, Washington was fond of dancing. He learned in
boyhood, and danced at "balls and routs" until he was sixty-four. To
attend a dance, he often rode to Alexandria, ten miles distant from
Mount Vernon. The year he died he was forced, on account of his
failing health, to give up this recreation. "Alas!" he wrote, "my
dancing days are no more."

Many and merry were the dances at the army headquarters during the
long winter evenings. General Greene once wrote to a friend, "We had
a little dance and His Excellency and Mrs. Greene danced upwards of
three hours, without once sitting down." Another winter, although
they had not a ton of hay for the horses, as Greene wrote, and the
provisions had about given out, and for two weeks there was not cash
enough in camp to forward the public dispatches, Washington
subscribed to a series of dancing parties.

Amid all the hardships of campaign life, Washington was ever the same
dignified and self-contained gentleman. At one time, the headquarters
were in an old log {66} house, in which there was only one bed. He
alone occupied this, while the fourteen members of his staff slept on
the floor in the same room. Food, except mush and milk, was scarce.
At this homely but wholesome fare, the commander in chief presided
with his usual dignity.

For a man so large and so strong, Washington ate sparingly and of the
simplest food. We are told that he "breakfasted at seven o'clock on
three small Indian hoecakes, and as many dishes of tea." Custis, his
adopted son, once said that the general ate for breakfast "Indian
cakes, honey, and tea," and that "he was excessively fond of fish."
In fact, salt codfish was at Mount Vernon the regular Sunday dinner.
Even at the state banquets, the President generally dined on a single
dish, and that of a very simple kind. When asked to eat some rich
food, his courteous refusal was, "That is too good for me." People at
a distance, hearing of the great man's liking for honey, took pride
in sending him great quantities of it. During fast days, he
religiously went without food the entire day.

Washington was fond of rich and costly clothes. In truth, he was in
early life a good deal of a dandy. His clothes were made in London;
and from his long letters to his tailor we know that he was fussy
about their quality and their fit. Even while away from home fighting
Indians and making surveys, he did not neglect to write to London for
"Silver Lace for a Hatt," "Ruffled Shirts;" "Waistcoat of superfine
scarlet Cloth and gold {67} Lace," "Marble colored Silk Hose," "a
fashionable gold lace Hat," "a superfine blue Broadcloth Coat with
silver Trimmings," and many other costly and highly colored articles
of apparel worn by the rich young men of that period. As he grew
older, he wore more subdued clothing, and in old age reminded his
nephew that "fine Cloathes do not make fine Men more than fine
Feathers make fine Birds."

You have noticed, of course, the wrong spelling of certain words
quoted from Washington's letters and journals. These words are
spelled as he wrote them. The truth is, the "Father of his Country"
was all his life a poor speller. He was always sensitive over what he
called his "defective education." His more formal letters and his
state papers were in many instances put into shape by his aids or his
secretaries, or by others associated with him in official life.

If Washington had an amiable weakness, it was for horses. From early
boyhood, he was a skillful and daring rider. He rode on horseback,
year in and year out, until shortly before his death. Many were the
stories told by the "ragged Continentals" of the superb appearance of
their commander in chief at the head of the army or in battle. In
speaking of the battle of Monmouth, Lafayette said, "Amid the roar
and confusion of that conflict I took time to admire our beloved
chief, mounted on a splendid charger, as he rode along the ranks amid
the shouts of the soldiers. I thought then, {68} as now," continued
he, "that never had I beheld so superb a man." Jefferson summed it
all up in one brief sentence: "Washington was the best horseman of
his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on
horseback."



During all his life, Washington was thrifty, and very methodical in
business. He grew so wealthy that when he died his estate was valued
at half a million dollars. This large fortune for those days did not
include his wife's estate, or the Mount Vernon property, which he
inherited from his brother. He was the richest American of his time.



His management of the Mount Vernon estate would make of itself an
interesting and instructive book. Of {69} the eight thousand acres,
nearly one half was under cultivation during the last part of its
owner's life. We must not forget that at this time few tools and very
little machinery were used in farming. At Mount Vernon, the negroes
and the hired laborers numbered more than five hundred. The owner's
orders were, "Buy nothing you can make within yourselves." The Mount
Vernon gristmill not only ground all the flour and the meal for the
help, but it also turned out a brand of flour which sold at a fancy
price. The coopers of the place made the flour barrels, and
Washington's own sloop carried the flour to market. A dozen kinds of
cloth, from woolen and linen to bedticking and toweling, were woven
on the premises.

{70} In 1793, although he had one hundred and one cows on his farms,
Washington writes that he was obliged to buy butter for the use of
his family. Another time, he says that one hundred and fifteen
hogsheads of "sweetly scented and neatly managed Tobacco" were
raised, and that in a single year he sold eighty-five thousand
herring, taken from the Potomac.

For his services in the French and Indian Wars, Washington received
as a bounty fifteen thousand acres of Western lands. By buying the
claims of his fellow officers who needed money, he secured nearly as
much more. After the Revolution, Washington and General Clinton
bought six thousand acres "amazingly cheap," in the Mohawk valley. No
wonder Washington was spoken of as "perhaps the greatest landholder
in America."

Like many other Southern proprietors, Washington had no end of bother
with his slaves. He bought and sold negroes as he did his cattle and
his horses, but, as he said, "except on the richest of Soils they
only add to the Expense." In 1791, the slaves on the Mount Vernon
estate alone numbered three hundred. In this same year, the owner
wrote one day in his diary that he would never buy another slave; but
the next night his cook ran away, and not being able to hire one,
"white or black," he had to buy one. "Something must be done," he
said, "or I shall be ruined. It would be for my Interest to set them
free, rather than give them Victuals and Clooths."

{71} Washington was too kind-hearted ever to flog his slaves, and yet
his kindness was often abused. Fat and lazy, they made believe to be
sick, or they ran away, and they played all kinds of pranks. In his
diary, we read the tale of woe. We are told that his slaves would
steal his sheep and his potatoes; would burn their tools; and wasted
six thousand twelvepenny nails in building a corn-house.

Like other rich Virginians of his time, Washington kept open house.
He once said that his home had become "a well resorted tavern."
Indeed it was, for guests of all sorts and conditions were dined and
wined to their hearts' content. According to the diary, it seemed to
matter little whether it was a real nobleman, or a tramp "who called
himself a French Nobleman," a sick or a wounded soldier, or "a Farmer
who came to see the new drill Plow," all "were desired to tarry," to
help eat the hot roasts and drink the choice wines.

There seems to have been almost no end to the sums of money, both
large and small, which Washington gave away. Through the pages of his
ledgers, we find hundreds of items of cash paid in charity. Here are
a few entries which are typical of the whole: "10 Shillings for a
wounded Soldier"; "gave a poor Man $2.00"; "two deserving French
Women, $25"; "a poor blind Man, $1.50"; "a Lady in Distress, $50";
"the poor in Alexandria, $100"; "Sufferers by Fire, $300"; "School in
Kentucky, $100." His lavish hospitality and his {72} unceasing
charity were a constant drain on his income. Had he not been so
thorough in business, he surely would have been brought to financial
ruin.

After the war of the Revolution was over, Congress having failed to
pay certain prominent officers of the army, an outbreak was
threatened. A meeting was held at Newburgh, New York. Washington was
there. Everybody present knew that he had served without pay and had
advanced large sums from his private fortune, to pay the army
expenses. There was a deathlike stillness when the commander in chief
rose to read his address. His eyesight had become so poor that he was
now using glasses. He had never worn these in public, but, finding
his sight dim, he stopped reading, took his spectacles from his
pocket, and put them on, saying quietly, "You will permit me to put
on my spectacles. I have grown gray in the service of my country, and
now find myself growing blind." It was not merely what the beloved
general said, but the way he spoke the few, simple words. The pathos
of this act, and the solemn address of this majestic man touched
every heart. No wonder that some of the veterans were moved to tears.

One day a schoolboy stood on the stone steps before the old State
House, in Philadelphia, as the first President of the United States
was driven up to make his formal visit to Congress. This small boy
glided into the hall, under the cover of the long coats of the finely
dressed escort. Boylike he climbed to a hiding place, {73} from which
he watched the proceedings with the deepest awe. The boy lived to
write fifty years afterwards a pleasing description of the affair. He
tells us that while Washington entered, and walked up the broad
aisle, and ascended the steps leading to the speaker's chair, the
large and crowded chamber "was as profoundly still as a house of
worship in the most solemn pauses of devotion."

On this occasion, Washington was dressed in a full suit of the
richest black velvet, with diamond knee buckles, and square silver
buckles set upon shoes japanned with the greatest neatness, black
silk stockings, his shirt ruffled at the breast and the wrists, a
light sword, his hair fully {74} dressed, so as to project at the
sides, and gathered behind in a silk bag, ornamented with a large
rose of black ribbon. As he advanced toward the chair, he held in his
hand his cocked hat, which had a large black cockade. When seated, he
laid his hat upon the table. Amid the most profound silence,
Washington, taking a roll of paper from his inside coat pocket, arose
and read with a deep, rich voice his opening address.

Those who knew Washington have said that his presence inspired a
feeling of awe and veneration rarely experienced in the presence of
any other American. His countenance rarely softened or changed its
habitual gravity, and his manner in public life was always grave and
self-contained. In vain did the merry young women at Lady
Washington's receptions do their best to make the stately President
laugh. Some declared that he could not laugh. Beautiful Nellie
Custis, his ward and foster child, used to boast of her occasional
success in making the sedate President laugh aloud.

We may be sure that President Washington's receptions, every other
Tuesday afternoon, were formal. On such occasions, he was in the full
dress of a gentleman of that day,--black velvet, powdered hair
gathered in a large silk bag, and yellow gloves. At his side was a
long, finely wrought sword, with a scabbard of white polished
leather. He always stood in front of the fireplace, with his face
toward the door. He received each visitor with a dignified bow, but
never shook hands, even with his {75} nearest friends. He considered
himself visited, not as a friend, but as President of the United
States.



While President, Washington used to give a public dinner, every
Thursday at four o'clock, "to as many as my table will hold." He
allowed five minutes for difference in watches, and, at exactly five
minutes past four by his hall clock, went to the table. His only
apology to the laggard guest was, "I have a cook who never asks
whether the company has come, but whether the hour has come."

If we may judge from the very full accounts of these grand dinners,
as described in the diaries of the {76} guests, they must have been
stiff affairs. These people probably wrote the truth when they said,
"glad it is over," "great formality," "my duty to submit to it,"
"scarcely a word was said," "there was a dead silence." No doubt
there was much good food to eat and choice wine to drink, but the
formal manners of the times were emphasized by awe of their grave
host. Very few of the guests, both at Mount Vernon and at
Philadelphia, failed to allude to the habit that Washington had of
playing with his fork and striking on the table with it.

It would take a book many times larger than this to tell you all that
has been written about Washington's everyday life. Some day you will
delight to read more about him, and learn why he was, in every sense
of the word, a wise, a good, and a great man,--the man who "without a
beacon, without a chart, but with an unswerving eye and steady hand,
guided his country safe through darkness and through storm."

Every young American should remember of Washington that "there is no
word spoken, no line written, no deed done by him, which justice
would reverse or wisdom deplore." His greatness did not consist so
much in his intellect, his skill, and his genius, though he possessed
all these, as in his honor, his integrity, his truthfulness, his high
and controlling sense of duty--in a word, his character, honest,
pure, noble, great.





Next: A Midnight Surprise

Previous: The Patriot Spy



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