In every country boasting a history there may be observed a tendency to
make its leaders or great men superhuman. Whether we turn to the legends
of the East, the folk-lore of Europe, or the traditions of the native
races of America, we find a mythology based upon the acts of man gifted
with superhuman powers. In the unscientific, primeval periods in which
these beliefs were born and elaborated into oral and written form, their
origin is not surprising. But to all who have studied the creation of a
mythology, no phase is a more curious one than that the keen, practical
American of to-day should engage in the same process of hero-building
which has given us Jupiter, Wotan, King Arthur, and others. By a slow
evolution we have well-nigh discarded from the lives of our greatest men
of the past all human faults and feelings; have enclosed their greatness
in glass of the clearest crystal, and hung up a sign, "Do not touch."
Indeed, with such characters as Washington, Franklin, and Lincoln we have
practically adopted the English maxim that "the king can do no wrong." In
place of men, limited by human limits, and influenced by human passions,
we have demi-gods, so stripped of human characteristics as to make us
question even whether they deserve much credit for their sacrifices and
But with this process of canonization have we not lost more than we have
gained, both in example and in interest? Many, no doubt, with the greatest
veneration for our first citizen, have sympathized with the view
expressed by Mark Twain, when he said that he was a greater man than
Washington, for the latter "couldn't tell a lie, while he could, but
wouldn't" We have endless biographies of Franklin, picturing him in all
the public stations of life, but all together they do not equal in
popularity his own human autobiography, in which we see him walking down
Market Street with a roll under each arm, and devouring a third. And so it
seems as if the time had come to put the shadow-boxes of humanity round
our historic portraits, not because they are ornamental in themselves, but
because they will make them examples, not mere idols.
If the present work succeeds in humanizing Washington, and making him a
man rather than a historical figure, its purpose will have been fulfilled.
In the attempt to accomplish this, Washington has, so far as is possible,
been made to speak for himself, even though at times it has compelled the
sacrifice of literary form, in the hope that his own words would convey a
greater sense of the personality of the man. So, too, liberal drafts have
been made on the opinions and statements of his contemporaries; but,
unless the contrary is stated or is obvious, all quoted matter is from
Washington's own pen. It is with pleasure that the author adds that the
result of his study has only served to make Washington the greater to him.
The writer is under the greatest obligation to his brother, Worthington
Chauncey Ford, not merely for his numerous books on Washington, of which
his "Writings of George Washington" is easily first in importance of all
works relating to the great American, but also for much manuscript
material which he has placed at the author's service. Hitherto unpublished
facts have been drawn from many other sources, but notably from the rich
collection of Mr. William F. Havemeyer, of New York, from the Department
of State in Washington, and from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
To Mr. S.M. Hamilton, of the former institution, and to Mr. Frederick D.
Stone, of the latter, the writer is particularly indebted for assistance.