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Characteristics Of George Washington

( Originally Published 1916 )

Von Braam and Washington

Washington began to be a soldier in his boyhood. During the British campaign against the West In-dies, Lawrence Washington, George's half-brother, made the acquaintance of a Dutchman, named Jacob von Braam, who afterwards came to Virginia. These young men were great heroes to the ten-year-old George. Von Braam took the lad in hand and began his military education. He drilled him in the manual of arms and sword exercise, and taught him fortification and engineering. All the theory of war which Washington knew was gained from von Braam; the practice he was soon to gain in the field.

Washington's Athletic Skill

Many stories are told which show Washington's athletic skill. During a surveying expedition he first visited the Natural Bridge, in Virginia. Standing almost directly under it, he tossed a stone on top, a distance of about two hundred feet. He scaled the rocks and carved his name far above all others. He was said to be the only man who could throw a stone across the Potomac River. Washington was never more at home than when in the saddle. " The general is a very excellent and bold horseman," wrote a contemporary, " leaping the highest fences and going extremely quick, without standing on his stirrups, bearing on his bridle, or letting his horse run wild."

After his first battle Washington wrote to his brother, " I heard the bullets whistle about me, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound." But years after, when he had learned all there was to know of the horrors of war, he said, sadly, " I said that when I was young."


Punctuality was one of Washington's strong points. When company was invited to dinner, he made an allowance of only five minutes for variation in watches. If the guests came late he would say : " We are too punctual for you. I have a cook who does not ask if the company has come, but if the hour has come."

In a letter to a friend he wrote: " I begin my diurnal course with the sun; if my hirelings are not in their places by that time I send them messages of sorrow for their indisposition."

A letter to his sister, Betty, shows his businesslike manner : " If your son Howell is with you and not usefully employed in your own affairs, and should incline to spend a few months with me in my office as a writer (if he is fit for it), I will allow him at the rate of 300 a year, provided he is diligent in discharging the duties of it from breakfast till dinnertime. . . I am particular in declaring before-hand what I require, so that there may be no disappointment or false expectations on either side."

His Stepchildren

Washington's relations with his stepchildren show a very pleasant side of his character. We find him ordering from London such articles as " 10 shillings' worth of toys, 6 little books for children beginning to read, 1 fashionable-dressed baby to cost 10 shillings, and a box of gingerbread toys and sugar images, or comfits." Later he sent for " 1 very good spinet," for Patsey, as Martha Parke Custis was called.

His niece, Hariot, who lived in the Washington home from 1785 to 1796, was a great trial to him. " She has," he wrote, " no disposition to be careful of her clothes, which she dabs about in every hole and corner, and her best things always in use, so that she costs me enough."

One of the characteristics of a truly great man is his readiness to ask pardon. Once when Nelly Custis, Mrs. Washington's granddaughter, was severely reprimanded for walking alone by moon-light in the grounds of Mount Vernon, Washington tried to intercede for the girl.

" Perhaps she was not alone ; I would say no more," he said.

" Sir," said Nelly Custis, " you have brought me up to speak the truth, and when I told grandmamma that I was alone, I hoped that you would believe me."

" My child," said Washington, bowing in his courtly fashion, " I beg your pardon."

His Temper

Stuart, the portrait painter, once said to General Lee that Washington had a tremendous temper, but that he had it under wonderful control. While dining with the Washingtons, General Lee repeated the first part of Stuart's remark. Mrs. Washing-ton flushed and said that Mr. Stuart took a great deal upon himself. Then General Lee said that Mr. Stuart had added that the President had his temper under wonderful control. Washington seemed to be thinking for a moment, then he smiled and said, " Mr. Stuart is right."

His Smile

The popular idea that Washington never laughed is well-nigh exploded. Nelly Custis said, " I have sometimes made him laugh most heartily from sympathy with my joyous and extravagant spirits."

When the news came from Dr. Franklin in France that help was promised from that country, General Washington broke into a laugh, waved his cocked hat, and said to his officers, " The day is ours ! " Another story is to the effect that while present at the baptism of a child of a Mr. Wood, he was so surprised to hear the name given as George Washington that he smiled. Senator Maclay tells of his smiling at a state dinner, and even toying with his fork. Various sources testify that a smile lent an unusual beauty to his face.

At one time, as Washington entered a shop in New York, a Scotch nursemaid followed him, carrying her infant charge. " Please, sir, here's a bairn was named after you."

" What is his name? " asked the President. " Washington Irving, sir."

Washington put his hand upon the child's head and gave him his blessing, little thinking that " the bairn " would write, as a labor of love, a life of Washington.

While at his Newburgh headquarters the General was approached by Aaron Burr, who stealthily crept up as he was writing, and looked over his shoulder. Although Washington did not hear the footfall, he saw the shadow in the mirror. He looked up, and said only, " Mr. Burr! " But the tone was enough to make Burr quail and beat a hasty retreat.

A man who, well for himself, is nameless, made a wager with some friends that he could approach Washington familiarly. The President was walking up Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia, when the would-be. wag, in full view of his companions, slapped him on the back and said, " Well, old fellow, how are you this morning? " Washington looked at him, and in a freezing tone asked, " Sir, what have I ever said or done which induces you to treat me in this manner? "


After Washington's retirement from the Presidency, Elkanah Watson was a guest at Mount Vernon. He had a serious cold, and after he retired he coughed severely. Suddenly the curtains of his bed were drawn aside, and there stood Washington with a huge bowl of steaming herb tea. " Drink this," he said, " it will be good for that cough."

Washington possessed in a peculiar degree the great gift of remembering faces. Once, while visiting in Newburyport, he saw at work in the grounds of his host an old servant whom he had not seen since the French and Indian war, thirty years before. He knew the man at once, and stopped and spoke kindly to him.


Any collection of anecdotes about Washington is sure to refer to his extreme modesty. Upon one occasion, when the speaker of the Assembly returned thanks in glowing terms to Colonel Washington for his services, he rose to express his acknowledgments, but he was so embarrassed that he could not articulate a word. " Sit down, Mr. Washington," said the speaker, " your modesty equals your valor, and that surpasses the power of any language which I possess."

When Adams suggested that Congress should appoint a general, and hinted plainly at Washington, who happened to sit near the door, the latter rose, " and, with his usual modesty, darted into the library room."

Washington's favorite quotation was Addison's "'Tis not in mortals to command success," but he frequently quoted Shakespeare.

Taste for Literature

His taste for literature is indicated by the list of books which he ordered for his library at the close of the war: "Life of Charles the Twelfth," Life of Louis the Fifteenth," " Life and Reign of Peter the Great," Robertson's " History of America," " Voltaire's Letters," Vertol's " Revolution of Rome," " Revolution of Portugal," Goldsmith's

Natural History," " Campaigns of Marshal Turenne," Chambaud's " French and English Dictionary," Locke " On the Human Understanding," and Robertson's " Charles the Fifth." " Light reading," he wrote to his step-grandson, " (by this I mean books of little importance) may amuse for the moment, but leaves nothing behind."

His Dress

Although always very particular about his dress, Washington was no dandy, as some have supposed. " Do not," he wrote to his nephew in 1783, " conceive that fine clothes make fine men any more than fine feathers make fine birds. A plain, genteel dress is more admired and obtains more credit than lace or embroidery in the eyes of the judicious and sensible."

Sullivan thus describes Washington at a levee : " He was dressed in black velvet, his hair full dress, powdered, and gathered behind in a large silk bag, yellow gloves on his hands ; holding a cocked hat, with a cockade in it, and the edges adorned with a black feather about an inch deep. He wore knee and shoe buckles, and a long sword. The scabbard was of white polished leather."

After Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, Washington said to his army: " My brave fellows, let no sensation of satisfaction for the triumphs you have gained induce you to insult your fallen enemy. Let no shouting, no clamorous huzzaing increase their mortification. It is sufficient for us that we witness their humiliation. Posterity will huzza for us."

While there are many stories which show Washington's straightforwardness, here is one which shows much diplomacy. He was asked by Volney, a Frenchman and a revolutionist, for a letter of recommendation to the American people. This re-quest put him in an awkward position, for there were good reasons why he could not give it, and other good reasons why he did not wish to refuse. Taking a sheet of paper, he wrote :

C. Volney needs no recommendation from Geo. Washington.

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