The True George Washington: Citizen and Office-Holder: Honesty

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


There is a very general belief that success in politics and truthfulness are incompatible, yet, as already shown, Washington prospered in politics, and the Rev. Mason L. Weems is authority for the popular statement that at six years of age George could not tell a lie. Whether this was so, or whether Mr. Weems was drawing on his imagination for his facts, it seems probable that Washington partially outgrew the disability in his more mature years.

When trying to win the Indians to the English cause in 1754, Washington in his journal states that he "let the young Indians who were in our camp know that the French wanted to kill the Half King," a diplomatic statement he hardly believed, which the writer says "had its desired effect," and which the French editor declared to be an "imposture." In this same campaign he was forced to sign a capitulation which acknowledged that he had been guilty of assassination, and this raised such a storm in Virginia when it became known that Washington hastened to deny all knowledge of the charge having been contained among the articles, and alleged that it had not been made clear to him when the paper had been translated and read. On the contrary, another officer present at the reading states that he refused to "sign the Capitulation because they charged us with Assasination in it."

In writing to an Indian agent in 1755, Washington was "greatly enraptured" at hearing of his approach, dwelt upon the man's "hearty attachment to our glorious Cause" and his "Courage of which I have had very great proofs." Inclosing a copy of the letter to the governor, Washington said, "the letter savors a little of flattery &c., &c., but this, I hope is justifiable on such an occasion."

With his London agent there was a little difficulty in 1771, and Washington objected to a letter received "because there is one paragraph in particular in it ... which appears to me to contain an implication of my having deviated from the truth." A more general charge was Charles Lee's: "I aver that his Excellencies letter was from beginning to the end a most abominable lie."

As a ruse de guerre Washington drew up for a spy in 1779 a series of false statements as to the position and number of his army for him to report to the British. And in preparation for the campaign of 1781 "much trouble was taken and finesse used to misguide and bewilder Sir Henry Clinton by making a deceptive provision of ovens, forage and boats in his neighborhood." "Nor were less pains taken to deceive our own army," and even "the highest military as well as civil officers" were deceived at this time, not merely that the secret should not leak out, but also "for the important purpose of inducing the eastern and middle states to make greater exertions."

When travelling through the South in 1791, Washington entered in his diary, "Having suffered very much by the dust yesterday?and finding that parties of Horse, & a number of other Gentlemen were intending to attend me part of the way to-day, I caused their enquiries respecting the time of my setting out, to be answered that, I should endeavor to do it before eight o'clock; but I did it a little after five, by which means I avoided the inconveniences above mentioned."

Weld, in his "Travels in America," published that "General Washington told me that he never was so much annoyed by the mosquitos in any part of America as in Skenesborough, for that they used to bite through the thickest boot." When this anecdote appeared in print, good old Dr. Dwight, shocked at the taradiddle, and fearing its evil influence on Washington's fame, spoiled the joke by explaining in a book that "a gentleman of great respectability, who was present when General Washington made the observation referred to, told me that he said, when describing those mosquitoes to Mr. Weld, that they 'bit through his stockings above the boots.'" Whoever invented the explanation should also have evolved a type of boots other than those worn by Washington, for unfortunately for the story Washington's military boots went above his "small clothes," giving not even an inch of stocking for either mosquito or explanation. In 1786, Washington declared that "I do not recollect that in the course of my life, I ever forfeited my word, or broke a promise made to any one," and at another time he wrote, "I never say any thing of a Man that I have the smallest scruple of saying to him."

From 1749 till 1784, and from 1789 till 1797, or a period of forty years, Washington filled offices of one kind or another, and when he died he still held a commission. Thus, excluding his boyhood, there were but seven years of his life in which he was not engaged in the public service. Even after his retirement from the Presidency he served on a grand jury, and before this he had several times acted as petit juror. In another way he was a good citizen, for when at Mount Vernon he invariably attended the election, rain or shine, though it was a ride of ten miles to the polling town.

Both his enemies and his friends bore evidence to his honesty. Jefferson said, "his integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity or friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was indeed in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man." Pickering wrote that "to the excellency of his virtues I am not disposed to set any limits. All his views were upright, all his actions just" Hamilton asserted that "the General is a very honest Man;" and Tilghman spoke of him as "the honestest man that I believe ever adorned human nature."

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