Monday, February 18, 2013

The Real George Washington

Vintage postcard with a look at how we view our first president: on a horse!

George Washington is a sort of bronze figure in our nation's memory: a bit of an unsmiling stiff. The kind of figure we see as a sculpture sitting on a horse in a park. It is difficult to illuminate his personality.

One way to get a view of the real man is to read some of his diaries, the transcriptions of which are now available on the web site of the Library of Congress. Washington kept diaries all his life.

One year I discovered these when I was trying to find out if George Washington ever celebrated his own birthday (he rarely did).

He was born in an era when people had to work a lot, for one thing. His journals make mention of fence mending and wood hewing and grain thrashing and lots of other farming things we rarely associate with George Washington. He traveled by horse to other farms to place orders, pay off bills and to collect debts.

Like all farmers he is contstantly noting the weather, for example in this entry from 1760: "Friday Feby. 29th. The Rain continued by Intervals through the Night, and till afternoon when the Wind came to No. West and ceasd, growing clear. Stopd my Plows ... A very great Circle rd the Moon."

It is rare for him to make a colorful comment about a person. But here is one:

"Thursday Mar. 13th. Incessant Rain and No. Et. Wind ... Jack returnd home with the Mares he was sent for, but so poor were they, and so much abusd had they been by my Rascally Overseer Hardwick that they were scarce able to go highlone [on their own], much less to assist in the business of the Plantations." 

His horses meant a lot to him. Just a month earlier he had tried to save an injured horse he clearly liked:

"Feb 22 ... found one of my best Waggon Horses (named Jolly) with his right foreleg Mashd to pieces which I suppose happend in the Storm last Night by Means of a Limb of a tree or something of that sort falling upon him. Did it up as well as I coud this Night.  

Saturday Feby. 23 Had the Horse slung upon Canvas and his leg fresh set--following Markhams directions as near as I coud.

Monday Feby. 25th. The broken Legd. horse fell out of his Sling and by that means and strugling together hurt himself so much that I orderd him to be killd."

It makes this figure we think of as wooden seem very human, to view an overseer as "rascally" and to picture him trying to save the injured Jolly. 

He did go to parties and balls and one in particular during 1760 sounds just peculiar enough to be interesting: 

"Went to a Ball at Alexandria--where Musick and Dancing was the chief Entertainment. However in a convenience Room detachd for the purpose abounded great plenty of Bread and Butter, some Biscuets with Tea, & Coffee which the Drinkers of coud not Distinguish from Hot Water sweetned. Be it remembered that pocket handerchiefs servd the purposes of Table Cloths & Napkins and that no Apologies were made for either. I shall therefore distinguish the Ball by the Stile & title of the Bread and Butter Ball. The Proprietors of this Ball were  Messrs. Carlyle Laurie and Robt. Wilson but the Doctr. not getting it conducted agreeable to his own taste woud claim no share of the merit ot it."

If Washington didn't like weak coffee he certainly would have found a home at his local Starbucks! Interesting to think of him there, sipping the dark brew and journaling on his iPad. Don't you wonder what he would think of us today?

George Washington's Diaries at the Library of Congress

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