Washington's war

"Washington's war" Continued...

Issue: "The Road to Cana," Feb. 23, 2008

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."


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