The True George Washington: Tastes and Amusements: Arts and Literature

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Arts and Literature

In 1751, at Barbadoes, Washington "was treated with a play ticket to see the Tragedy of George Barnwell acted: the character of Barnwell and several others was said to be well perform'd there was Musick a Dapted and regularly conducted." This presumptively was the lad's first visit to the playhouse, but from that time it was one of his favorite amusements. At first his ledger shows expenditures of "Cash at the Play House 1/3," which proves that his purse would bear the cost of only the cheapest seats; but later he became more extravagant in this respect, and during the Presidency he used the drama for entertaining, his ledger giving many items of tickets bought. A type entry in Washington's diary is, "Went to the play in the evening?sent tickets to the following ladies and gentlemen and invited them to seats in my box, viz:?Mrs. Adams (lady of the Vice-President,) General Schuyler and lady, Mr. King and lady, Majr. Butler and lady, Colo Hamilton and lady, Mrs. Green?all of whom accepted and came except Mrs. Butler, who was indisposed."

Maclay describes the first of these theatre parties as follows: "I received a ticket from the President of the United States to use his box this evening at the theatre, being the first of his appearances at the playhouse since his entering on his office. Went The President, Governor of the State, foreign Ministers, Senators from New Hampshire, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, M.[aryland] and South Carolina; and some ladies in the same box. I am old, and notices or attentions are lost on me. I could have wished some of my dear children in my place; they are young and would have enjoyed it. Long might they live to boast of having been seated in the same box with the first Character in the world. The play was the 'School for Scandal,' I never liked it; indeed, I think it an indecent representation before ladies of character and virtue. Farce, the 'Old Soldier.' The house greatly crowded, and I thought the players acted well; but I wish we had seen the Conscious Lovers, or some one that inculcated more prudential manners."

Of the play, or rather interlude, of the "Old Soldier" its author, Dunlap, gives an amusing story. It turned on the home-coming of an old soldier, and, like the topical song of to-day, touched on local affairs:

"When Wignell, as Darby, recounts what had befallen him in America, in New York, at the adoption of the Federal Constitution, and the inauguration of the president, the interest expressed by the audience in the looks and the changes of countenance of this great man [Washington] became intense. He smiled at these lines, alluding to the change in the government?

There too I saw some mighty pretty shows;
A revolution, without blood or blows,
For, as I understood, the cunning elves,
The people all revolted from themselves.

But at the lines?

A man who fought to free the land from we,
Like me, had left his farm, a-soldiering to go:
But having gain'd his point, he had like me,
Return'd his own potato ground to see.
But there he could not rest. With one accord
He's called to be a kind of?not a lord?
I don't know what, he's not a great man, sure,
For poor men love him just as he were poor.
They love him like a father or a brother,
As we poor Irishmen love one another.

The president looked serious; and when Kathleen asked,

How looked he, Darby? Was he short or tall?

his countenance showed embarrassment, from the expectation or one of those eulogiums which, he had been obliged to hear on many public occasions, and which must doubtless have been a severe trial to his feelings: but Darby's answer that he had not seen him, because he had mistaken a man 'all lace and glitter, botherum and shine,' for him, until all the show had passed, relieved the hero from apprehension of farther personality, and he indulged in that which was with him extremely rare, a hearty laugh."

Washington did not even despise amateur performances. As already mentioned, he expressed a wish to take part in "Cato" himself in 1758, and a year before he had subscribed to the regimental "players at Fort Cumberland," His diary shows that in 1768 the couple at Mount Vernon "& ye two children were up to Alexandria to see the Inconstant or 'the way to win him' acted," which was probably an amateur performance. Furthermore, Duer tells us that "I was not only frequently admitted to the presence of this most august of men, in propria persona, but once had the honor of appearing before him as one of the dramatis personae in the tragedy of Julius Caesar, enacted by a young 'American Company,' (the theatrical corps then performing in New York being called the 'Old American Company') in the garret of the Presidential mansion, wherein before the magnates of the land and the elite of the city, I performed the part of Brutus to the Cassius of my old school-fellow, Washington Custis."

The theatre was by no means the only show that appealed to Washington. He went to the circus when opportunity offered, gave nine shillings to a "man who brought an elk as a show," three shillings and ninepence "to hear the Armonica," two dollars for tickets "to see the automatum," treated the "Ladies to ye Microcosm" and paid to see waxworks, puppet shows, a dancing bear, and a lioness and tiger. Nor did he avoid a favorite Virginia pastime, but attended cockfights when able. His frequent going to concerts has been already mentioned.

Washington seems to have been little of a reader except of books on agriculture, which he bought, read, and even made careful abstracts of many, and on this subject alone did he ever seem to write from pleasure. As a lad, he notes in his journal that he is reading The Spectator and a history of England, but after those two brief entries there is no further mention of books or reading in his daily memorandum of "where and how my time is spent." In his ledger, too, almost the least common expenditure entered is one for books. Nor do his London invoices, so far as extant, order any books but those which treated of farming and horses. In the settlement of the Custis estate, "I had no particular reason for keeping and handing down to his son, the books of the late Colo Custis saving that I thought it would be taking the advantage of a low appraisement, to make them my own property at it, and that to sell them was not an object."

With the broadening that resulted from the command of the army more attention was paid to books, and immediately upon the close of the Revolution Washington ordered the following works: "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," Vertot's "Revolution of Rome" and "Revolution of Portugal," "Life of Gustavus Adolphus," Sully's "Memoirs," 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." From this time on he was a fairly constant book-buyer, and subscribed as a "patron" to a good many forthcoming works, while many were sent him as gifts. On politics he seems to have now read with interest; yet in 1797, after his retirement from the Presidency, in writing of the manner in which he spent his hours, he said, "it may strike you that in this detail no mention is made of any portion of time allotted to reading. The remark would be just, for I have not looked into a book since I came home, nor shall I be able to do it until I have discharged my workmen; probably not before the nights grow long when possibly I may be looking into Doomsday book." There can be no doubt that through all his life Washington gave to reading only the time he could not use on more practical affairs.

His library was a curious medley of books, if those on military science and agriculture are omitted. There is a fair amount of the standard history of the day, a little theology, so ill assorted as to suggest gifts rather than purchases, a miscellany of contemporary politics, and a very little belles-lettres. In political science the only works in the slightest degree noticeable are Smith's "Wealth of Nations," "The Federalist," and Rousseau's "Social Compact," and, as the latter was in French, it could not have been read. In lighter literature Homer, Shakespeare, and Burns, Lord Chesterfield, Swift, Smollett, Fielding, and Sterne, and "Don Quixote," are the only ones deserving notice. It is worthy of mention that Washington's favorite quotation was Addison's "'Tis not in mortals to command success," but he also utilized with considerable aptitude quotations from Shakespeare and Sterne. There were half a dozen of the ephemeral novels of the day, but these were probably Mrs. Washington's, as her name is written in one, and her husband's in none. Writing to his grandson, Washington warned him that "light reading (by this, I mean books of little importance) may amuse for the moment, but leaves nothing solid behind."

One element of Washington's reading which cannot be passed over without notice is that of newspapers. In his early life he presumably read the only local paper of the time (the Virginia Gazette), for when an anonymous writer, "Centinel," in 1756, charged that Washington's regiment was given over to drunkenness and other misbehavior, he drew up a reply, which he sent with ten shillings to the newspaper, but the printer apparently declined to print it, for it never appeared.

After the Revolution he complained to his Philadelphia agent, "I have such a number of Gazettes, crowded upon me (many without orders) that they are not only expensive, but really useless; as my other avocations will not afford me time to read them oftentimes, and when I do attempt it, find them more troublesome, than profitable; I have therefore to beg, if you Should get Money into your hands on Acct of the Inclosed Certificate, that you would be so good as to pay what I am owing to Messrs Dunlap & Claypoole, Mr. Oswald & Mr. Humphrey's. If they consider me however as engaged for the year, I am Content to let the matter run on to the Expiration of it" During the Presidency he subscribed to the Gazette of the United States, Brown's Gazette, Dunlap's American Advertiser, the Pennsylvania Gazette, Bache's Aurora, and the New York Magazine, Carey's Museum, and the Universal Asylum, though at this time he "lamented that the editors of the different gazettes in the Union do not more generally and more correctly (instead of stuffing their papers with scurrility and nonsensical declamation, which few would read if they were apprised of the contents,) publish the debates in Congress on all great national questions."

Presently, for personal and party reasons, certain of the papers began to attack him, and Jefferson wrote to Madison that the President was "extremely affected by the attacks made and kept up on him in the public papers. I think he feels these things more than any person I ever met with." Later the Secretary of State noted that at an interview Washington "adverted to a piece in Freneau's paper of yesterday, he said that he despised all their attacks on him personally, but that there never had been an act of government ... that paper had not abused ... He was evidently sore and warm." At a cabinet meeting, too, according to the same writer, "the Presidt was much inflamed, got into one of those passions when he cannot command himself, ran on much on the personal abuse which had been bestowed on him, defied any man on earth to produce a single act of his since he had been in the govmt which was not done on the purest motives, that he had never repented but once the having slipped the moment of resigning his office, & that was every moment since, that by god he had rather be in his grave than in his present situation. That he had rather be on his farm than to be made emperor of the world and yet that they were charging him with wanting to be a king. That that rascal Freneau sent him 3 of his papers every day, as if he thought he would become the distributor of his papers, that he could see in this nothing but an impudent design to insult him. He ended in this high tone. There was a pause."

To correspondents, too, Washington showed how keenly he felt the attacks upon him, writing that "the publications in Freneau's and Bache's papers are outrages on common decency; and they progress in that style in proportion as their pieces are treated with contempt, and are passed by in silence, by those at whom they are aimed," and asked "in what will this abuse terminate? The result, as it respects myself, I care not; for I have consolation within, that no earthly efforts can deprive me of, and that is, that neither ambitious nor interested motives have influenced my conduct. The arrows of malevolence, therefore however barbed and well pointed, never can reach the most vulnerable part of me; though, whilst I am up as a mark, they will be continually aimed."

On another occasion he said, "I am beginning to receive, what I had made my mind up for on this occasion, the abuse of Mr. Bache, and his correspondents." He wrote a friend, "if you read the Aurora of this city, or those gazettes, which are under the same influence, you cannot but have perceived with what malignant industry and persevering falsehoods I am assailed, in order to weaken if not destroy the confidence of the public."

When he retired from office he apparently cut off his subscriptions to papers, for a few months later he inquired, "what is the character of Porcupine's Gazette? I had thought when I left Philadelphia, of ordering it to be sent to me; then again, I thought it best not to do it; and altho' I should like to see both his and Bache's, the latter may, under all circumstances, be the best decision; I mean not subscribing to either of them." This decision to have no more to do with papers did not last, for on the night he was seized with his last illness Lear describes how "in the evening the papers having come from the post office, he sat in the room with Mrs. Washington and myself, reading them, till about nine o'clock when Mrs. Washington went up into Mrs. Lewis's room, who was confined, and left the General and myself reading the papers. He was very cheerful; and, when he met with anything which he thought diverting or interesting, he would read it aloud as well as his hoarseness would permit. He desired me to read to him the debates of the Virginia Assembly, on the election of a Senator and Governor; which I did?and, on hearing Mr. Madison's observations respecting Mr. Monroe, he appeared much affected, and spoke with some degree of asperity on the subject, which I endeavored to moderate, as I always did on such occasions."

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