Heroes Every Child Should Know - H. W. Mabie

George Washington

On the 4th of March, 1797, Washington went to the inauguration of his successor as President of the United States. The Federal Government was sitting in Philadelphia at that time and Congress held sessions in the courthouse on the corner of Sixth and Chestnut Streets.

At the appointed hour Washington entered the hall followed by John Adams, who was to take the oath of office. When they were seated Washington arose and introduced Mr. Adams to the audience, and then proceeded to read in a firm clear voice his brief valedictory—not his great "Farewell Address," for that had already been published. A lady who sat on "the front bench," "immediately in front" of Washington describes the scene in these words:

"There was a narrow passage from the door of entrance to the room. General Washington stopped at the end to let Mr. Adams pass to the chair. The latter always wore a full suit of bright drab, with loose cuffs to his coat. General Washington's dress was a full suit of black. His military hat had the black cockade. There stood the 'Father of his Country' acknowledged by nations the first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen. No marshals with gold-coloured scarfs attended him; there was no cheering, no noise; the most profound silence greeted him as if the great assembly desired to hear him breathe. Mr. Adams covered his face with both his hands; the sleeves of his coat and his hands were covered with tears. Every now and then there was a suppressed sob. I cannot describe Washington's appearance as I felt it—perfectly composed and self-possessed till the close of his address. Then when strong, nervous sobs broke loose, when tears covered the faces, then the great man was shaken. I never took my eyes from his face. Large drops came from his eyes. He looked as if his heart was with them, and would be to the end."

On Washington's retirement from the Presidency one of his first employments was to arrange his papers and letters. Then on returning to his home the venerable master found many things to repair. His landed estate comprised eight thousand acres, and was divided into farms, with enclosures and farm-buildings. And now with body and mind alike sound and vigorous, he bent his energies to directing the improvements that marked his last days at Mount Vernon.

In his earlier as well as in later life, his tour of the farms would average from eight to twelve or fourteen miles a day. He rode upon his farms entirely unattended, opening his gates, pulling down and putting up his fences as he passed, visiting his labourers at their work, inspecting all the operations of his extensive establishment with a careful eye, directing useful improvements and superintending them in their progress.

He usually rode at a moderate pace in passing through his fields. But when behind time this most punctual of men would display the horsemanship of his earlier days, and a hard gallop would bring him up to time so that the sound of his horse's hoofs and the first dinner bell would be heard together at a quarter before three.

A story is told that one day an elderly stranger meeting a Revolutionary worthy out hunting, a long-tried and valued friend of the chief, accosted him, and asked whether Washington was to be found at the mansion house, or whether he was off riding over his estate. The friend answered that he was visiting his farms, and directed the stranger the road to take, adding, "You will meet, sir, with an old gentleman riding alone in plain drab clothes, a broad-brimmed white hat, a hickory switch in his hand, and carrying an umbrella with a long staff, which is attached to his saddle-bow—that person, sir, is General Washington."

Precisely at a quarter before three the industrious farmer returned, dressed, and dined at three o'clock. At this meal he ate heartily, but was not particular in his diet with the exception of fish, of which he was excessively fond. Touching his liking for fish, and illustrative of his practical economy and abhorrence of waste and extravagance, an anecdote is told of the time he was President and living in Philadelphia. It happened that a single shad had been caught in the Delaware, and brought to the city market. His steward, Sam Fraunces, pounced upon the fish with the speed of an osprey, delighted that he had secured a delicacy agreeable to the palate of his chief, and careless of the expense, for which the President had often rebuked him.

When the fish was served Washington suspected the steward had forgotten his order about expenditure for the table and said to Fraunces, who stood at his post at the sideboard, "What fish is this?" "A shad, sir, a very fine shad," the steward answered. "I know your excellency is particularly fond of this kind of fish, and was so fortunate as to procure this one—the only one in market, sir, the first of the season." "The price, sir, the price?" asked Washington sternly. "Three—three dollars," stammered the conscience-stricken steward. "Take it away," thundered the chief, "take it away, sir! It shall never be said that my table set such an example of luxury and extravagance." Poor Fraunces tremblingly did as he was told, and the first shad of the season was carried away untouched to be speedily discussed in the servants' dining room.

Although the Farmer of Mount Vernon was much retired from the business world, he was by no means inattentive to the progress of public affairs. When the post bag arrived, he would select his letters and lay them aside for reading in the seclusion of his library. The newspapers he would peruse while taking his single cup of tea (his only supper) and read aloud passages of peculiar interest, remarking the matter as he went along. He read with distinctness and precision. These evenings with his family always ended at precisely nine o'clock, when he bade everyone good night and retired to rest, to rise again at four and renew the same routine of labour and enjoyment.

Washington's last days, like those that preceded them in the course of a long and well-spent life, were devoted to constant and careful employment. His correspondence both at home and abroad was immense. Yet no letter was unanswered. One of the best-bred men of his time, Washington deemed it a grave offence against the rules of good manners and propriety to leave letters unanswered. He wrote with great facility, and it would be a difficult matter to find another who had written so much, who had written so well. General Harry Lee once observed to him, "We are amazed, sir, at the vast amount of work you get through." Washington answered, "Sir, I rise at four o'clock, and a great deal of my work is done while others sleep."

He was the most punctual of men, as we said. To this admirable quality of rising at four and retiring to rest at nine at all seasons, this great man owed his ability to accomplish mighty labours during his long and illustrious life. He was punctual in everything and made everyone about him punctual. So careful a man delighted in always having about him a good timekeeper. In Philadelphia, the first President regularly walked up to his watchmaker's to compare his watch with the regulator. At Mount Vernon the active yet punctual farmer invariably consulted the dial when returning from his morning ride, and before entering his house.

The affairs of the household took order from the master's accurate and methodical arrangement of time. Even the fisherman on the river watched for the cook's signal when to pull in shore and deliver his catch in time for dinner.

Among the picturesque objects on the Potomac, to be seen from the eastern portion of the mansion house, was the light canoe of the house's fisher. Father Jack was an African, an hundred years of age, and although enfeebled in body by weight of years, his mind possessed uncommon vigour. And he would tell of days long past when, under African suns, he was made captive, and of the terrible battle in which his royal sire was slain, the village burned, and himself sent to the slave ship.

Father Jack had in a considerable degree a leading quality of his race—somnolency. Many an hour could the family of Washington see the canoe fastened to a stake, with the old fisherman bent nearly double enjoying a nap, which was only disturbed by the jerking of the white perch caught on his hook. But, as we just said, the domestic duties of Mount Vernon were governed by clock time, and the slumbers of fisher Jack might occasion inconvenience, for the cook required the fish at a certain hour, so that they might be served smoking hot precisely at three. At times he would go to the river bank and make the accustomed signals, and meet with no response. The old fisherman would be quietly reposing in his canoe, rocked by the gentle undulations of the stream, and dreaming, no doubt, of events "long time ago." The importunate master of the kitchen, grown ferocious by delay, would now rush up and down the water's edge, and, by dint of loud shouting, cause the canoe to turn its prow to the shore. Father Jack, indignant at its being supposed he was asleep at his post, would rate those present on his landing, "What you all meck such a debil of a noise for, hey? I wa'nt sleep, only noddin'."

The establishment of Mount Vernon employed a perfect army of domestics; yet to each one was assigned special duties, and from each one strict performance was required. There was no confusion where there was order, and the affairs of this estate, embracing thousands of acres and hundreds of dependents, were conducted with as much ease, method and regularity as the affairs of a homestead of average size.

Mrs. Washington was an accomplished house-wife of the olden time, and she gave constant attention to all matters of her household, and by her skill and management greatly contributed to the comfort and entertainment of the guests who enjoyed the hospitality of her home.

The best charities of life were gathered round Washington in the last days at Mount Vernon. The love and veneration of a whole people for his illustrious services, his generous and untiring labours in the cause of public utility; his kindly demeanour to his family circle, his friends, and numerous dependents; his courteous and cordial hospitality to his guests, many of them strangers from far distant lands; these charities, all of which sprang from the heart, were the ornament of his declining years and granted the most sublime scene in nature, when human greatness reposes upon human happiness.

On the morning of the 17th of December, 1799, the General was engaged in making some improvements in the front of Mount Vernon. As was usual with him, he carried his own compass, noted his observations, and marked out the ground. The day became rainy, with sleet, and the improver remained so long exposed to the inclemency of the weather as to be considerably wetted before his return to the house. About one o'clock he was seized with chilliness and nausea, but having changed his clothes he sat down to his indoor work. At night, on joining his family circle, he complained of a slight indisposition. Upon the night of the following day, having borne acute suffering with composure and fortitude, he died.

In person Washington was unique. He looked like no one else. To a stature lofty and commanding he united a form of the manliest proportions, and a dignifed, graceful, and imposing carriage. In the prime of life he stood six feet, two inches. From the period of the Revolution there was an evident bending in his frame so passing straight before, but the stoop came from the cares and toils of that arduous contest rather than from years. For his step was firm, his appearance noble and impressive long after the time when the physical properties of men are supposed to wane.

A majestic height was met by corresponding breadth and firmness. His whole person was so cast in nature's finest mould as to resemble an ancient statue, all of whose parts unite to the perfection of the whole. But with all its development of muscular power, Washington's form had no look of bulkiness, and so harmonious were its proportions that he did not appear so tall as his portraits have represented. He was rather spare than full during his whole life.

The strength of Washington's arm was shown on several occasions. He threw a stone from the bed of the stream to the top of the Natural Bridge, Virginia, and another stone across the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. The stone was said to be a piece of slate about the size of a dollar with which he spanned the bold river, and it took the ground at least thirty yards on the other side. Many have since tried this feat, but none have cleared the water.

In 1772 some young men were contending at Mount Vernon in the exercise of pitching the bar. The Colonel looked on for a time, then grasping the missile in his master hand he whirled the iron through the air and it fell far beyond any of its former limits. "You see, young gentlemen," said the chief with a smile, "that my arm yet retains some portion of my early vigour." He was then in his fortieth year and probably in the fullness of his physical powers. Those powers became rather mellowed than decayed by time, for "his age was like lusty winter, frosty yet kindly," and up to his sixty-eighth year he mounted a horse with surprising agility and rode with ease and grace. Rickets, the celebrated equestrian, used to say, "I delight to see the General ride and make it a point to fall in with him when I hear he is out on horseback—his seat is so firm, his management so easy and graceful that I who am an instructor in horsemanship would go to him and learn to ride."

In his later days, the General, desirous of riding pleasantly, procured from the North two horses of a breed for bearing the saddle. They were well to look at, and pleasantly gaited under the saddle, but also scary and therefore unfitted for the service of one who liked to ride quietly on his farm, occasionally dismounting and walking in his fields to inspect improvements. From one of these horses the General sustained a fall—probably the only fall he ever had from a horse in his life. It was upon a November evening, and he was returning from Alexandria to Mount Vernon with three friends and a groom. Having halted a few moments he dismounted, and upon rising in his stirrup again, the horse, alarmed at the glare from a fire near the road-side, sprang from under his rider who came heavily to the ground. His friends rushed to give him assistance, thinking him hurt. But the vigorous old man was upon his feet again, brushing the dust from his clothes, and after thanking those who came to his aid said that he had had a very complete tumble, and that it was owing to a cause no horseman could well avoid or control—that he was only poised in his stirrup, and had not yet gained his saddle when the scary animal sprang from under him.

Bred in the vigorous school of frontier warfare, "the earth for his bed, his canopy the heavens," Washington excelled the hunter and woodsman in their athletic habits and in those trials of manhood which filled the hardy days of his early life. He was amazingly swift of foot, and could climb steep mountains seemingly without effort. Indeed in all the tests of his great physical powers he appeared to make little effort. When he overthrew the strong man of Virginia in wrestling, upon a day when many of the finest athletes were engaged in the contest, he had retired to the shade of a tree intent upon the reading of a book. It was only after the champion of the games strode through the ring calling for nobler antagonists, and taunting the reader with the fear that he would be thrown, that Washington closed his book. Without taking off his coat he calmly observed that fear did not enter his make-up; then grappling with the champion he hurled him to the ground. "In Washington's lion-like grasp," said the vanquished wrestler, "I became powerless, and went down with a force that seemed to jar the very marrow in my bones." The victor, regardless of shouts at his success, leisurely retired to his shade, and again took up his book.

Washington's powers were chiefly in his limbs. His frame was of equal breadth from the shoulders to the hips. His chest was not prominent but rather hollowed in the centre. He never entirely recovered from a pulmonary affection from which he suffered in early life. His frame showed an extraordinary development of bone and muscle; his joints were large, as were his feet; and could a cast of his hand have been preserved, it would be ascribed to a being of a fabulous age. Lafayette said, "I never saw any human being with so large a hand as the General's."

Of the awe and reverence which the presence of Washington inspired we have many records. "I stood," says one writer, "before the door of the Hall of Congress in Philadelphia when the carriage of the President drew up. It was a white coach, or rather of a light cream colour, painted on the panels with beautiful groups representing the four seasons. As Washington alighted and, ascending the steps, paused on the platform, he was preceded by two gentleman bearing large white wands, who kept back the eager crowd that pressed on every side. At that moment I stood so near I might have touched his clothes; but I should as soon have thought of touching an electric battery. I was penetrated with deepest awe. Nor was this the feeling of the school-boy I then was. It pervaded, I believe, every human being that approached Washington; and I have been told that even in his social hours, this feeling in those who shared them never suffered intermission. I saw him a hundred times afterward but never with any other than the same feeling. The Almighty, who raised up for our hour of need a man so peculiarly prepared for its whole dread responsibility, seems to have put a stamp of sacredness upon his instrument. The first sight of the man struck the eye with involuntary homage and prepared everything around him to obey.

"At the time I speak of he stood in profound silence and had the statue-like air which mental greatness alone can bestow. As he turned to enter the building, and was ascending the staircase to the Congressional hall, I glided along unseen, almost under the cover of the skirts of his dress, and entered into the lobby of the House which was in session to receive him.

"At Washington's entrance there was a most profound silence. House, lobbies, gallery, all were wrapped in deepest attention. And the souls of the entire assemblage seemed peering from their eyes as the noble figure deliberately and unaffectedly advanced up the broad aisle of the hall between ranks of standing senators and members, and slowly ascended the steps leading to the speaker's chair.

"The President having seated himself remained in silence, and the members took their seats, waiting for the speech. No house of worship was ever more profoundly still than that large and crowded chamber.

"Washington was dressed precisely as Stuart has painted him in full-length portrait—in a full suit of the richest black velvet, with diamond knee-buckles and square silver buckles set upon shoes japanned with most scrupulous neatness; black silk stockings, his shirt ruffled at the breast and waist, a light dress sword, his hair profusely powdered, fully dressed, so as to project at the sides, and gathered behind in a silk bag ornamented with a large rose of black ribbon. He held his cocked hat, which had a large black cockade on one side of it, in his hand, as he advanced toward the chair, and when seated, laid it on the table.

"At length thrusting his hand within the side of his coat, he drew forth a roll of manuscript which he opened, and rising read in a rich, deep, full, sonorous voice his opening address to Congress. His enunciation was deliberate, justly emphasised, very distinct, and accompanied with an air of deep solemnity as being the utterance of a mind conscious of the whole responsibility of its position, but not oppressed by it. There was ever about the man something which impressed one with the conviction that he was exactly and fully equal to what he had to do. He was never hurried; never negligent; but seemed ever prepared for the occasion, be it what it might. In his study, in his parlour, at a levee, before Congress, at the head of the army, he seemed ever to be just what the situation required. He possessed, in a degree never equalled by any human being I ever saw, the strongest, most ever-present sense of propriety."

In the early part of Washington's administration, great complaints were made by political opponents of the aristocratic and royal demeanour of the President. Particularly, these complaints were about the manner of his receiving visitors. In a letter Washington gave account of the origin of his levees: "Before the custom was established," he wrote, "which now accommodates foreign characters, strangers and others, who, from motives of curiosity, respect for the chief magistrate, or other cause, are induced to call upon me, I was unable to attend to any business whatever; for gentlemen, consulting their own convenience rather than mine, were calling after the time I rose from breakfast, and often before, until I sat down to dinner. This, as I resolved not to neglect my public duties, reduced me to the choice of one of these alternatives: either to refuse visits altogether, or to appropriate a time for the reception of them. . . . To please everybody was impossible. I therefore, adopted that line of conduct which combined public advantage with private convenience. . . . These visits are optional, they are made without invitation; between the hours of three and four every Tuesday I am prepared to receive them. Gentlemen, often in great numbers, come and go, chat with each other, and act as they please. A porter shows them into the room, and they retire from it when they choose, without ceremony. At their first entrance they salute me, and I them, and as many as I can I talk to."

An English gentleman after visiting President Washington wrote, "There was a commanding air in his appearance which excited respect and forbade too great a freedom toward him, independently of that species of awe which is always felt in the moral influence of a great character. In every movement, too, there was a polite gracefulness equal to any met with in the most polished individuals of Europe, and his smile was extraordinarily attractive. . . . It struck me no man could be better formed for command. A stature of six feet, a robust but well-proportioned frame calculated to stand fatigue, without that heaviness which generally attends great muscular strength and abates active exertion, displayed bodily power of no mean standard. A light eye and full—the very eye of genius and reflection. His nose appeared thick, and though it befitted his other features was too coarsely and strongly formed to be the handsomest of its class. His mouth was like no other I ever saw: the lips firm, and the under-jaw seeming to grasp the upper with force, as if its muscles were in full action when he sat still."

Such Washington appeared to those who saw and knew him. Such he remains to our vision. His memory is held by us in undying honour. Not only his memory alone but also the memory of his associates in the struggle for American Independence. Homage we should have in our hearts for those patriots and heroes and sages who with humble means raised their native land—now our native land—from the depths of dependence, and made it a free nation. And especially for Washington, who presided over the nation's course at the beginning of the great experiment in self-government and, after an unexampled career in the service of freedom and our humankind, with no dimming of august fame, died calmly at Mount Vernon—the Father of his Country.