Many pastors have noted the importance of seeing Jesus as fully God but also fully man, fully physical in every way-but some Christians still get embarrassed contemplating Christ as fully a baby and doing all the physical things that babies do. Their delicacy is theologically wrong but psychologically understandable.
We should give less slack to those who think of George Washington as a monument, perpetually frozen-faced as in Gilbert Stuart paintings. The danger of taking seriously the "I cannot tell a lie" fables about Washington's childhood is that we might deify him as sinless. But the "cannot" is also not fair to Washington, because the most impressive thing about him is that he had strong tendencies to sin, as do we all, but he fought them more successfully than most of us do.
George Washington, born on Feb. 22, 1732, could readily have become a rake. The 16-year-old Washington's friends saw him more as a potential womanizer than as a candidate for storybook sainthood. They called him the "stallion of the Potomac" and expected him to run wild. His mentor, Lord Fairfax, warned the young ladies of Virginia, "George Washington is beginning to feel the sap rising, being in the spring of life, and is getting ready to be the prey of your sex, wherefore may the Lord help him."
The sap was rising, but Washington over the next decade worked hard on self-control. As a teenager he wrote a sonnet to one young lady, Frances Alexander, which read in part, "Why should my poor restless heart/ Stand to oppose thy might and power/ At last surrender to cupid's feathered dart." But when she did not surrender, he desisted. Later he courted Mary Eliza Philipse, whom he called "deep-bosomed." She rejected him.
Washington in his early 20s admired passionately a young married woman, Sally Fairfax, and wrote to her that she had drawn him, "or rather I have drawn myself, into an honest confession of a single fact": that she was "the object of my Love." If Washington's story were fiction, some British novelist would have had Mr. Fairfax die in a shipwreck. But in fact, he lived on, and Washington stopped his errant courtship by marrying the recently widowed Martha Custis.
Martha Custis (5 feet tall and plump) may have met George Washington (6 feet 2 inches and muscular, with size 13 shoes) at a dance or party during the eight years she was married to Daniel Parke Custis. She and George Washington had heard of each other for years, but their first substantial meeting came when he was 26, in 1758: She was eight months a widow and he had been tempted to go too far with Sally Fairfax. He proposed to her nine days later.
Their marriage lasted 41 years, until death did them part. Martha had a 4-year-son and 2-year-old daughter from her previous marriage, but George had no children with her. (They did have lots of dogs, with names like Drunkard, Sweetlips, and Truelove.) George Washington may have been sterile, and therefore ready to be the father of a republican country rather than a hereditary monarchy. Other men who did not have offspring (even when the likely physical cause lay within themselves) traded in wives for those they thought could do better. Washington did not.
Washington became known not for being passionless but for refusing to give in to his passions. A printed cotton kerchief from the era praised his "self-command and self-denial." In 1775 he began building an army by demanding the same from his soldiers. At a time when army camps were homes for blasphemy, Washington decried the "foolish, and wicked practice, of profane cursing and swearing." He insisted, "We can have little hopes of the blessing of Heaven on our arms, if we insult it by our impiety and folly."
Washington demanded the appointment of regimental chaplains and commanded his soldiers to "attend carefully upon religious exercises. The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger." Some observers said Washington would lose men by insisting on tough standards, but he understood that the opposite was true. The task of British officers was to make their men compliant. The task of American officers was to show volunteers that the patriotic effort was virtually a holy cause. Only the totally committed could be relied on.
In practice, godly discipline won victories. For example, Washington had his men cross the Delaware River into New Jersey on Christmas Eve 1776 during a storm that the British thought would stop even the best soldiers. Johann Rall, commander of the mercenary Hessian force encamped at Trenton, saw no reason to fortify his garrison or emphasize outposts. When a Tory farmer delivered to Rall a note saying the American army was about to attack him, Rall was intent on his card game and merely slipped the note into his pocket. The next morning Washington's forces routed Rall's men.
Washington's dogged generalship, in comparison with British sloth, again made a difference eight days after the battle of Trenton, when Lord Charles Cornwallis' army pinned Washington's forces against the Delaware River. Cornwallis liked his relaxation and is reputed to have said, "We've got the old fox safe now. We'll go over and bag him in the morning." During the night the American army slipped around the British left flank and was able to rout a British regiment at Princeton.
The following winter, though, was snow-full and victory-less. At Valley Forge in 1777-78, few soldiers had coats, half were without blankets, and more than a third were without shoes. The winter of 1779-80 in Morristown, New Jersey, was even worse. Hungry men surrounded by snow at one point had rations only one-eighth of the normal amount. Finances also were a problem. Rarely during the war were Washington's men paid on time or in full.
And yet, most did not give up. When he furloughed militia soldiers to go home to harvest crops, enough came back to hold the British at bay year after year. Washington, it turned out, was the ideal leader for an army of volunteers: Some who wanted to leave stayed on so as to avoid disappointing him. When others were depressed, Washington buoyed them with his faith that "a superintending Providence is ordering everything for the best . . . in due time all will end well." In 1779, as the war wore on, he bucked up himself: "I hope I shall always possess a sufficient degree of fortitude to bear without murmuring any stroke which may happen."
That fortitude looms even larger when we look at Washington's opponents. Gen. Sir William Howe, based in New York, commanded the main British army through much of the war. He showed little interest in moving to attack Washington, in part because he was absorbed with his mistress, Elizabeth Loring, the wife of a British commissary officer who sought promotion. Worried American Tories even circulated a song: "Awake, arouse, Sir Billy, / There's forage on the plain. / Ah, leave your little filly, / And open the campaign." But Howe waited.
If we follow the chain of command back across the Atlantic, differences between Washington and the lords of London become even more evident. John Montagu, the First Lord of the Admiralty, had a live-in lover, Martha Ray. Entranced with her also was a young ensign, James Hackman, who shot her in the face when she refused to elope with him. Montagu, informed of her death as the British were beginning the campaign that ended in their defeat at Yorktown, flung himself on his bed and cried, "Leave me alone, I could have borne anything but this!"
Contempt for Montagu became open in London as the war wore on. Charles Churchill described him best in the third act of his play, The Duellist: Montagu was "Too infamous to have a friend, / Too bad for bad men to commend." Journalists frequently portrayed Montagu as mixing Admiralty business with personal interest. One satirist had Montagu saying "enchanting devil" as he watched a young woman leave his office, and then immediately turning his attention back to the bribes he used to sustain his sugar-daddy habits: "I must now to business; and try to raise a sum, by advancing some worthless scoundrel over the head of a hundred men of merit."
Montagu's womanizing also affected his relations with officials who reported to him. He made one mediocre officer, James Gambier, a rear admiral; Gambier had pimped for him and threatened blackmail. Some talented officers resigned because, as Captain John Leveson-Gower put it, Montagu "never had any decency." According to the Dictionary of National Biography, "many officers of character and ability . . . refused to accept a command while he remained at the admiralty."
British Secretary of State George Sackville-Germain was responsible for the land war against the Americans, yet he was a homosexual often more preoccupied with his own affairs than with military matters. For example, the British plan for 1777 was to send one army south from Canada and one north from New York City, with a meeting up the Hudson River that would supposedly cut off New England from the other colonies. But Sackville-Germain made a crucial error because of his desire to get into bed with a lover: He hurried off to a country weekend after signing the dispatches to be sent to Canada but not those to New York, and they never were sent.
The eventual result: American forces swarmed against the British army that marched south from Canada and it soon found itself facing failing supplies without hope of help. The final outcome: a British surrender at Saratoga that led France to enter the war on America's side. Sackville-Germain's reputation for sexual and financial lust-in 1779 he faced accusations of pocketing state money-also deprived the British war effort of significant support at home. One contemporary critic wrote, "The most odious of tasks [suppressing a revolt] was assigned to the most odious of instruments."
Sackville-Germain put General Charles Cornwallis, a "special favourite," in charge of the British war effort in Virginia and the Carolinas and made it clear that he would soon get the overall command-but the new British commander in New York, Sir Henry Clinton, disliked Cornwallis and did not want to help along his career. Clinton also was occupied (like his predecessor, Howe) with a pretty mistress whose husband pimped her in exchange for promotion. In 1781 Clinton did not move out of New York to go to the aid of Cornwallis' forces, trapped in Yorktown, until it was too late. One of Clinton's last acts upon leaving Manhattan, however, was to give a copy of his will to his mistress.
Washington, as he grew more famous and beloved in America during the 1780s, also fought against his ego. When he became president in 1789 and traveled from Virginia to the nation's capital in New York City, he was the star of triumphal processions that could have turned anyone's head. Trenton was typical: Women dressed in white lined both sides of the road as his carriage approached. "Welcome, mighty Chief!" they sang in a chorus composed for the occasion, and happily shelved thereafter: "Welcome to this grateful shore! / Virgins fair, and Matrons grave, / Those thy conquering arms did save, / Build for thee triumphant bowers / Strew, ye fair, his way with flowers."
Ships and salutes welcomed Washington to New York and made such an impression that he described in his diary "the decorations of the ships, the roar of cannon, and the loud acclamations of the people." But he then wrote that the acclaim "filled my mind with sensations as painful . . . as they are pleasing." At the height of such adulation Washington, whose church attendance had been erratic, began attending Sabbath worship services regularly. He missed only one during the first 12 weeks of 1790, and on that day the weather was terrible.
In one area Washington did not succeed in fighting against his impulses. He wanted land, lots of it, and for Virginians land meant slaves-but Washington smelled the stench of slavery. In both 1779 and 1786 he planned to get out of the business by selling the Mount Vernon slaves-but then decided that he was morally opposed to selling slaves. Unwilling to take the huge economic loss involved in freeing them-a good slave cost as much as a city lot-and desiring to retain and expand Mount Vernon, he did nothing.
Slavery continued to sadden him: In 1786 he wrote, "No man living wishes more sincerely than I do to see the abolition of it." The seven-year itch came back in 1793 when he wrote to a British agricultural reformer that he would like to free his slaves and rent out most of Mount Vernon to skilled English tenant farmers, who would then hire the ex-slaves. But he could not pull it off.
During his last years Washington did try to renew contact with Sally Fairfax, the object of his love four decades earlier. She and her husband had moved to England just before the Revolution, but in 1798 Washington wrote to Mrs. Fairfax and asked that she return to Virginia. He noted that over the years since her leaving "so many important events have occurred and such changes in man and things have taken place." And yet, "none of which events however nor all of them together have been able to eradicate from my mind the recollection of those happy moments, the happiest of my life, which I have enjoyed in your company." Mrs. Fairfax preserved Mr. Washington's letter, but there is no record of a reply. She never did return.
Washington, despite some unrequited longing, never broke from a conclusion he had reached after comparing his life with that of some unmarried associates: that "domestic felicity" was superior to "giddy rounds of promiscuous pleasure." When he died in 1799 he left a will by which all of the slaves he owned would be freed. But he did not die without fear. His last full sentence reflected newspaper reports he had read about men thought to be dead who were buried while still alive: "Do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead."
Some odes during his last years and since then have made Washington seem like Jesus, sinless in every way. "His glory hath eclips'd the sun," the New Hampshire Recorder proclaimed heretically: "The lustre of his rays so bright, / 'Tis always day, there's no more night. / . . . He's one in Heaven's high renown; / He's deify'd, exalt him high, / He's next unto the Trinity. / My language fails to tell his worth, / Unless in Heav'n he is the fourth." But the story of George Washington, sinner who battled against sin, is more intriguing than any puffery regarding purported perfection.