The True George Washington: Social Life: Humor
The foregoing allusion to Washington's conversation is undoubtedly just. All who met him formally spoke of him as taciturn, but this was not a natural quality. Jefferson states that "in the circle of his friends, where he might be unreserved with safety, he took a free share in conversation," and Madison told Sparks that, though "Washington was not fluent nor ready in conversation, and was inclined to be taciturn in general society," yet "in the company of two or three intimate friends, he was talkative, and when a little excited was sometimes fluent and even eloquent" "The story so often repeated of his never laughing," Madison said, was "wholly untrue; no man seemed more to enjoy gay conversation, though he took little part in it himself. He was particularly pleased with the jokes, good humor, and hilarity of his companions."
Washington certainly did enjoy a joke. Nelly Custis said, "I have sometimes made him laugh most heartily from sympathy with my joyous and extravagant spirits," and many other instances of his laughing are recorded. He himself wrote in 1775 concerning the running away of some British soldiers, "we laugh at his idea of chasing the Royal Fusileers with the stores. Does he consider them as inanimate, or as treasure?" When the British in Boston sent out a bundle of the king's speech, "farcical enough, we gave great joy to them, (the red coats I mean), without knowing or intending it; for on that day, the day which gave being to the new army, (but before the proclamation came to hand,) we had hoisted the union flag in compliment to the United Colonies. But, behold, it was received in Boston as a token of the deep impression the speech had made upon us, and as a signal of submission."
At times Washington would joke himself, though it was always somewhat labored, as in the case of the Jack already cited. "Without a coinage," he wrote, "or unless a stop can be put to the cutting and clipping of money, our dollars, pistareens, &c., will be converted, as Teague says, into five quarters." When the Democrats were charging the Federalists with having stolen from the treasury, he wrote to a Cabinet official, "and pray, my good sir, what part of the $800.000 have come to your share? As you are high in Office, I hope you did not disgrace yourself in the acceptance of a paltry bribe—a $100.000 perhaps." He once even attempted a pun, by writing, "our enterprise will be ruined, and we shall be stopped at the Laurel Hill this winter; but not to gather laurels, (except of the kind that covers the mountains)."
Probably the neatest turn was his course on one occasion with General Tryon, who sent him some British proclamations with the request, "that through your means, the officers and men under your command may be acquainted with their contents." Washington promptly replied that he had given them "free currency among the officers and men under my command," and enclosed to Tryon a lot of the counter-proclamation, asking him to "be instrumental in communicating its contents, so far as it may be in your power, to the persons who are the objects of its operation. The benevolent purpose it is intended to answer will I persuade myself, sufficiently recommend it to your candor."
To a poetess who had sent him some laudatory verses about himself he expressed his thanks, and added, "Fiction is to be sure the very life and Soul of Poetry—all Poets and Poetesses have been indulged in the free and indisputable use of it, time out of mind. And to oblige you to make such an excellent Poem on such a subject without any materials but those of simple reality, would be as cruel as the Edict of Pharoah which compelled the children of Israel to manufacture Bricks without the necessary Ingredients."
Twice he joked about his own death. "As I have heard," he said after Braddock's defeat, "since my arrival at this place, a circumstancial account of my death and dying speech, I take this early opportunity of contradicting the first, and of assuring you, that I have not as yet composed the latter." Many years later, in draughting a letter for his wife, he wrote,—
"I am now by desire of the General to add a few words on his behalf; which he desires may be expressed in the terms following, that is to say,—that despairing of hearing what may be said of him, if he should really go off in an apoplectic, or any other fit (for he thinks all fits that issue in death are worse than a love fit, a fit of laughter, and many other kinds which he could name)—he is glad to hear beforehand what will be said of him on that occasion; conceiving that nothing extra will happen between this and then to make a change in his character for better, or for worse. And besides, as he has entered into an engagement ... not to quit this world before the year 1800, it may be relied upon that no breach of contract shall be laid to him on that account, unless dire necessity should bring it about, maugre all his exertions to the contrary. In that same, he shall hope they would do by him as he would do by them—excuse it. At present there seems to be no danger of his thus giving them the slip, as neither his health nor spirits, were ever in greater flow, notwithstanding, he adds, he is descending, and has almost reached the bottom of the hill; or in other words, the shades below. For your particular good wishes on this occasion he charges me to say that he feels highly obliged, and that he reciprocates them with great cordiality."