The True George Washington: Citizen and Office-Holder

Updated September 23, 2019 | Infoplease Staff

Citizen and Office-Holder

Virginia Politics

Washington became a government servant before he became a voter, by receiving in 1749, or when he was seventeen years of age, the appointment of official surveyor of Culpepper County, the salary of which, according to Boucher, was about fifty pounds Virginia currency a year. The office was certainly not a very fat berth, for it required the holder to live in a frontier county, to travel at times, as Washington in his journal noted, over "ye worst Road that ever was trod by Man or Beast," to sometimes lie on straw, which once "catch'd a Fire," and we "was luckily Preserved by one of our Mens waking," sometimes under a tent, which occasionally "was Carried quite of[f] with ye Wind and" we "was obliged to Lie ye Latter part of ye night without covering," and at other times driven from under the tent by smoke. Indeed, one period of surveying Washington described to a friend by writing,—

"[Since] October Last I have not sleep'd above three Nights or four in a bed but after Walking a good deal all the Day lay down before the fire upon a Little Hay Straw Fodder or bearskin which-ever is to be had with Man Wife and Children like a Parcel of Dogs or Catts & happy's he that gets the Birth nearest the fire there's nothing would make it pass of tolerably but a good Reward a Dubbleloon is my constant gain every Day that the Weather will permit my going out and some time Six Pistoles the coldness of the Weather will not allow my making a long stay as the Lodging is rather too cold for the time of Year. I have never had my Cloths of but lay and sleep in them like a Negro except the few Nights I have lay'n in Frederick Town."

In 1751, when he was nineteen, Washington bettered his lot by becoming adjutant of one of the four military districts of Virginia, with a salary of one hundred pounds and a far less toilsome occupation. This in turn led up to his military appointment in 1754, which he held almost continuously till 1759, when he resigned from the service.

Next to a position on the Virginia council, a seat in the House of Burgesses, or lower branch of the Legislature, was most sought, and this position had been held by Washington's great-grandfather, father, and elder brother. It was only natural, therefore, that in becoming the head of the family George should desire the position. As early as 1755, while on the frontier, he wrote to his brother in charge of Mount Vernon inquiring about the election to be held in the county, and asking him to "come at Colo Fairfax's intentions, and let me know whether he purposes to offer himself as a candidate." "If he does not, I should be glad to take a poll, if I thought my chance tolerably good." His friend Carlyle, Washington wrote, had "mentioned it to me in Williamsburg in a bantering way," and he begged his brother to "discover Major Carlyle's real sentiments on this head," as also those of the other prominent men of the county, and especially of the clergymen. "Sound their pulse," he wrote, "with an air of indifference and unconcern ... without disclosing much of mine." "If they seem inclinable to promote my interest, and things should be drawing to a crisis, you may declare my intention and beg their assistance. If on the contrary you find them more inclined to favor some other, I would have the affair entirely dropped." Apparently the county magnates disapproved, for Washington did not stand for the county.

In 1757 an election for burgesses was held in Frederick County, in which Washington then was (with his soldiers), and for which he offered himself as a candidate. The act was hardly a wise one, for, though he had saved Winchester and the surrounding country from being overrun by the Indians, he was not popular. Not merely was he held responsible for the massacres of outlying inhabitants, whom it was impossible to protect, but in this very defence he had given cause for ill-feeling. He himself confessed that he had several times "strained the law,"—he had been forced to impress the horses and wagons of the district, and had in other ways so angered some of the people that they had threatened "to blow out my brains." But he had been guilty of a far worse crime still in a political sense. Virginia elections were based on liquor, and Washington had written to the governor, representing "the great nuisance the number of tippling houses in Winchester are to the soldiers, who by this means, in spite of the utmost care and vigilance, are, so long as their pay holds, incessantly drunk and unfit for service," and he wished that "the new commission for this county may have the intended effect," for "the number of tippling houses kept here is a great grievance." As already noted, the Virginia regiment was accused in the papers of drunkenness, and under the sting of that accusation Washington declared war on the publicans. He whipped his men when they became drunk, kept them away from the ordinaries, and even closed by force one tavern which was especially culpable. "Were it not too tedious," he wrote the governor, "I cou'd give your Honor such instances of the villainous Behavior of those Tippling House-keepers, as wou'd astonish any person."

The conduct was admirable, but it was not good politics, and as soon as he offered himself as a candidate, the saloon element, under the leadership of one Lindsay, whose family were tavern-keepers in Winchester for at least one hundred years, united to oppose him. Against the would-be burgess they set up one Captain Thomas Swearingen, whom Washington later described as "a man of great weight among the meaner class of people, and supposed by them to possess extensive knowledge." As a result, the poll showed Swearingen elected by two hundred and seventy votes, and Washington defeated with but forty ballots.

This sharp experience in practical politics seems to have taught the young candidate a lesson, for when a new election came in 1758 he took a leaf from his enemy's book, and fought them with their own weapons. The friendly aid of the county boss, Colonel John Wood, was secured, as also that of Gabriel Jones, a man of much local force and popularity. Scarcely less important were the sinews of war employed, told of in the following detailed account. A law at that time stood on the Virginia statutes forbidding all treating or giving of what were called "ticklers" to the voters, and declaring illegal all elections which were thus influenced. None the less, the voters of Frederick enjoyed at Washington's charge—

40 gallons of Rum Punch @ 3/6 pr. galn 7 0 0
15 gallons of Wine @ 10/ pr. galn 7 10 0
Dinner for your Friends 3 0 0
13-1/2 gallons of Wine @ 10/ 6 15
3-1/2 pts. of Brandy @ 1/3 4 4-1/2
13 Galls. Beer @ 1/3 16 3
8 qts. Cyder Royl @ 1/6 0 12 0
Punch 3 9
30 gallns. of strong beer @ 8d pr. gall 1 0
1 hhd & 1 Barrell of Punch, consisting of
26 gals. best Barbadoes rum, 5/ 6 10 0
12 lbs. S. Refd. Sugar 1/6 18 9
3 galls. and 3 quarts of Beer @ 1/ pr. gall 3 9
10 Bowls of Punch @ 2/6 each 1 5 0
9 half pints of rum @ 7-1/2 d. each 5 7-1/2
1 pint of wine 1 6

After the election was over, Washington wrote Wood that "I hope no Exception was taken to any that voted against me, but that all were alike treated, and all had enough. My only fear is that you spent with too sparing a hand." It is hardly necessary to say that such methods reversed the former election; Washington secured three hundred and ten votes, and Swearingen received forty-five. What is more, so far from now threatening to blow out his brains, there was "a general applause and huzzaing for Colonel Washington."

From this time until he took command of the army Washington was a burgess. Once again he was elected from Frederick County, and then, in 1765, he stood for Fairfax, in which Mount Vernon was located. Here he received two hundred and eight votes, his colleague getting but one hundred and forty-eight, and in the election of 1768 he received one hundred and eighty-five, and his colleague only one hundred and forty-two. Washington spent between forty and seventy-five pounds at each of these elections, and usually gave a ball to the voters on the night he was chosen. Some of the miscellaneous election expenses noted in his ledger are, "54 gallons of Strong Beer," "52 Do. of Ale," "£1.0.0. to Mr. John Muir for his fiddler," and "For cakes at the Election £7.11.1."

The first duty which fell to the new burgess was service on a committee to draught a law to prevent hogs from running at large in Winchester. He was very regular in his attendance; and though he took little part in the proceedings, yet in some way he made his influence felt, so that when the time came to elect deputies to the First Congress he stood third in order among the seven appointed to attend that body, and a year later, in the delegation to the Continental Congress, he stood second, Peyton Randolph receiving one more vote only, and all the other delegates less.

This distinction was due to the sound judgment of the man rather than to those qualities that are considered senatorial. Jefferson said, "I served with General Washington in the legislature of Virginia before the revolution, and, during it, with Dr. Franklin in Congress. I never heard either of them speak ten minutes at a time, nor to any but the main point which was to decide the question. They laid their shoulders to the great points, knowing that the little ones would follow of themselves."

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