Prologue PROLOGUE History’s Current
Peering through the doorway into the chamber minutes before
noon on March 4, 1797, John Adams hears whispers and sees the backside of the hero receding down the aisle: his long hair powdered and pulled back into a queue that is tied and tucked into a bag below the nape of the neck, in a style common among the now old men who wrote the first chapter of their country’s history. The back of the head would look much like Adams’s own if not standing a half foot taller. The whispers in the chamber rise to a roar as the great man nears the halfway point between the door to the east and the dais to the west.
“Washington! Washington!” the people packing the
gallery on the north side cry. Soon they will see what no one alive ever has: the title of head of state peacefully passing from one breathing man to another. The thought leaves Adams
Outside the chamber, the
wind blows from the southwest, the direction George Washington will soon ride to his Virginia home, as if nature itself resists his leaving Philadelphia, the country’s interim capital. Adams waits under the cover of the portico connecting the lower chamber of Congress Hall to the old state house now shorn of the rotting steeple that watched over the Continental Congress in 1775, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, when he nominated Washington for commander in chief of the Continental Army. The old stories of Washington’s courage during the French and Indian War had impressed everyone. How
“handsome” he looked in the uniform he wore to the Congress! Even then, Adams
“[His] excellent universal character would command the approbation of all America and unite the cordial exertions of all the colonies better than any other person in the Union,” Adams remembers having told the delegates, while worrying that the people might turn the general into an
In a sense, the people have. They bestow Washington’s name on their children and towns, hang his portrait in their homes, and celebrate his birthday with balls, like the
“splendid but tedious” one Adams attended ten days ago when Washington turned sixty-five. The Philadelphia
socialites have hinted at the advice they would give: rent the house Washington will vacate; dress and act as he would. Disappointment, Adams knows, awaits. The people must adjust to a new kind of president, one who cannot afford to entertain in the same style. No more formal dinner parties with carefully curated guest lists; the company of
“a few select friends” must do. No more driving through Philadelphia’s streets behind six horses; two must suffice. No more congressmen pausing to pay tribute on the president’s birthday, if for no other reason than
the calendar: Adams’s upcoming sixty-second will occur during a recess (he has already checked).
Adams has not
slept in more than a day. The stress has built ever since he heard Washington promise to attend the inauguration. Adams misses Abigail, the wife he left back home in Massachusetts, though even she doubts whether he can
“fill” Washington’s “place.” It is not because of a superior
education, for Adams knows Washington’s schooling ceased around his fifteenth birthday, before he ever attended a college like Adams’s alma mater, Harvard. Nor does Adams think it is because of Washington’s superior character, for
“there are thousands of others who have in them all the essential qualities—moral & intellectual—which compose it.” Washington’s willingness to surrender power merely conforms to a culture obsessed with Cincinnatus, the ancient Roman general who saved the republic only to surrender power and return to his farm. Had Washington lived in another culture or at another time, he might have instead copied Caesar. Where the people applauding in the chamber see selflessness, Adams sees ambition for the same
fame he detests himself for coveting.
What, then, accounts for Washington’s
“immense elevation above his fellows”? The answers, Adams believes, are so obvious as to be overlooked: for example, Washington’s standing six feet tall and looking even taller thanks to the king-sized hands and feet crowning those long, “elegant” limbs. There has never been a choice but to look up to Washington. Hailing from Virginia, the oldest colony and largest state, has magnified his advantage because “Virginian geese are all swans,” or so they tell themselves in the Old Dominion. Wedding the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis thirty-eight years ago has given Washington control over an immense fortune and an unsurpassed reputation for “disinterestedness,” all because he could afford to serve without salary during the war. Having
no biological children—the two Custis grandchildren who have lived with him during the presidency are the fruit of Mrs. Washington’s first marriage—has reassured a people paranoid about hereditary succession and has mostly spared Washington from irritating rumors like the one dogging Adams about positioning his oldest son, John Quincy, as heir apparent. Possessing unusual
“self-command” allows Washington to conceal his fierce temper, even though he often loses control of it behind closed doors. In public, he has “the gift of silence,” a rare talent for pursing his lips and clenching his jaw so as to hide those ugly blackish-looking false teeth and let people imagine instead the wondrous depths of
“rivers whose bottoms we cannot see.”
Washington knows how to leave people wanting more. For their eyes, he has always staged his entrances and exits with
“a strain of Shakespearean… excellence”: the moment in 1775 when he
“darted” out of the room rather than (“modesty” forbid!) hear his name nominated for commander of the Continental Army; the
“solemn” scene eight years later when he resigned his commission after securing America’s independence; the reluctance he manifested before emerging from retirement to chair the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and to accept the newly created office of president in 1789; the prophetic-sounding farewell address he published this past September, weeks before the election so as to deter the electors from giving him the third term he would otherwise have received.
An encore now ensues. As the cheers in the chamber grow louder, Washington walks
faster so as to signal how desperate he is to break free of the trappings of power that have detained him for two terms from Mount Vernon, his beloved Virginia estate overlooking the Potomac River. This time, Adams believes, it is more than an act. Washington staying in office a single day more would endanger his health.
“He must plunge into agriculture and ride away his reflections,” the memories of the controversies and calumnies that he fears have tarnished his reputation.
The country has divided into the parties Washington hoped never to see but can no longer transcend. Federalists have supported his administration; Republicans have opposed it. Both parties have their bases: the Federalists in the North, the Republicans in the South. Both parties have their own presses. Off the Republican ones come stories accusing Washington of betraying the legacy of the American Revolution and of craving a crown. Not being accustomed to criticism makes it harder to bear. The words wound Washington deeper than the public imagines.
“His skin is thinner than mine,” Adams realizes. Some say Washington refused to stand for a third term, in part, because he knew he could no longer carry
every electoral vote as he did in his first two elections.
So it is Adams who has suffered the indignity of defeating the Republican candidate, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, by only
three votes. Finishing second has given Jefferson what the past eight years of personal experience have revealed to Adams as
“the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived”: the vice presidency. Not far from where Washington now sits waits Jefferson, looking about the same height as his fellow Virginian but
powdering his hair only a little and letting the queue hang free over his back. Not since resigning as secretary of state at the end of 1793, after feuding with Washington’s other cabinet members over foreign policy, has Jefferson appeared in Philadelphia. He
“is as he was,” Adams notes, as romantic as ever about the bloodlettings and beheadings known as the French Revolution.
Nothing, it seems, will
“awake” Jefferson from his “golden dreams” and show him that the French Revolution has replaced monarchy not with the liberty he hoped but with the mobocracy Adams dreaded from the start. Four years have passed since Louis XVI, the French king who sent ships and soldiers to support the American Revolution, went to the guillotine and his country, now a republic, went back to war against the United States’ old colonial overlord. Britain has fought on even as Europe’s other royal powers have fallen to the French forces fanning out across the Continent. With Republicans favoring France and with Federalists favoring Britain, the war has accelerated the forces pulling Americans to opposite sides, even as Washington has said the country will take no sides. He has labored to keep America at peace. Maintaining it has required him to ratify with George III of Britain the so-called Jay Treaty, a controversial accord that Republicans denounce as a betrayal of France. To undermine the deal, they have gone so far as to urge the French to meddle in the recent election on Jefferson’s behalf.
Franco-American relations have all but collapsed. There are whispers of war. Already French privateers have declared open season on American shipping.
If war comes, the American people will long for Washington. They will want a general at the helm. Instead, they will have Adams. The years chairing committees at the Continental Congress and conducting diplomacy abroad have brought him to this moment. Down the aisle that Washington has walked—and up the dais where he sits—now goes John Adams. The sword he wears across the waist of a light-colored suit cannot change how he sees himself: a
“short, thick, fat” man insecure over having never worn a sword in battle.
“Adams!” the people cheer, but not as loudly as they cheered for Washington, as if having engaged in the ritual before has dulled their enthusiasm.
“I have been so strangely used in this Country, so belied and so undefended,” Adams thinks. Republicans think him too much a Federalist. Federalists know him to be too much an independent. Even those who have supported his election do not love him. They
“seem to be afraid to approve anybody but Washington.” Only thanks to Mrs. Washington does Adams know he had the
support of her husband in the election.
The faint feeling lingers. Perhaps Adams should say little more than the
oath required for office. The address Washington gave at his second inaugural totaled just 135 words. But silence has never been among Adams’s gifts. Even if it leaves him
“open to scoffs and sarcasms,” Adams must speak his mind. He worries he will not
“get through” it all. On he goes praising the Constitution, insisting that he has no desire to turn the Senate into a House of Lords or the presidency into a monarchy, and warning about the danger of political parties and foreign attachments. Toward the end comes the tribute he has prepared to Washington.
“In that retirement, which is his voluntary choice, may he long live to enjoy the delicious recollection of his services, the gratitude of mankind, the happy fruits of them to himself and the world, which are daily increasing, and that splendid prospect of the future fortunes of his country, which is opening from year to year.” Knowing that people worry how the country will endure without Washington makes it necessary to add this: “His name may be still a rampart, and the knowledge that he lives a bulwark, against all open or secret enemies of his country’s peace.”
The worries for Washington’s health vanish. The old man suddenly looks
“as serene and unclouded as the day.” Washington needs to say nothing in response, for the expression says everything. “Ay!” Adams imagines his predecessor saying. “I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us will be happiest.” The chief justice administers the oath. To the people watching, Adams
bows. There is
“more weeping than there has ever been at the representation of any tragedy.” He looks for a
“dry eye” in the room but can find “scarcely” one other than Washington’s. The number of “ladies” in attendance astonishes Adams. Then the realization strikes: The audience has not come to see Adams’s reign begin. The people have come to witness Washington’s end.
freezing air on the morning of March 9, down the paved streets splitting the brick sidewalks, past the mansions belonging to the wealthiest of the forty thousand or so people who call Philadelphia home, away from the market and circus and theater, beyond the reach of the tidy grid, down the banks of the Delaware River to the southwest, toward the head of the Chesapeake Bay, and onward to the Potomac River, the carriage rolls. Only
“a child within view of the holidays” can appreciate the “happiness” spurring George Washington. He has tried to hide it. “My countenance never yet betrayed my feelings,” he insists. But for months, he has “counted” the weeks and days until this moment: his “release” from the high walls running to the right and left of the three-story house he has rented in Philadelphia. Mount Vernon lies ahead. The journey, he expects, will take about a week. The luggage-laden wagon accompanying the carriage will undoubtedly
slow the pace. So will the women sitting on either side of him.
On one side sits sixty-five-year-old Martha. She is
“dear Patcy” when they are alone, “Mrs. Washington” when in company. With a double chin and dentures she did not have when they wed thirty-eight years ago, she will not miss needing to have her
white hair dressed every day. For many years,
“the first and dearest wish” of her “heart,” he recognizes, has been for the two of them “to grow old in solitude and tranquility together.” Unless she dies before him—and he remarries a much younger woman, which he has vowed never to do so long as he retains
“the faculty of reasoning”—he knows he will never reproduce. The problem, he tells himself, lay with her, never mind the two children she brought to Mount Vernon from an earlier marriage. Having lost them both to disease has made her all the more protective of her grandchildren and all the more worried she will lose those she loves. Between coughs caused by a
“violent cold,” she begs Washington to
“remember” the pet parrot they left behind in Philadelphia.
On the other side come worries for a dog named Frisk from one of the two Custis grandchildren who have grown up with the Washingtons. Nelly Custis, an endearing doe-eyed girl approaching her eighteenth birthday, misses her
“poor little” canine companion. Alas, the carriage could not accommodate the unruly animal. Along with the parrot and many other belongings, Frisk will come to Mount Vernon later by boat, Washington promises, though he personally
“should not pine much if both [pets] were forgot.” At least, he will not have to deal with the other adopted grandchild, Nelly’s brother, fifteen-year-old George Washington Parke Custis (Wash for short), getting
carriage sick again. Allegedly to study, the boy has gone to the College of New Jersey in Princeton.
In his place travels
another namesake: seventeen-year-old Georges Washington Lafayette, a refugee of the French Revolution. Ever since arriving in America in 1795, the tall and thin teenager known as Georges has brought out emotions Washington has struggled to
“reconcile.” First is pleasure because Georges’s upright character conjures memories of his father, the Marquis de Lafayette, who was just a few years older when he sailed from France, risked his noble blood and riches in America’s fight for freedom, and won a place in Washington’s military family and in his heart as
“the man I love.” Second is sadness because the gloomy look creeping across the boy’s face reminds how the seeds of revolution that the older Lafayette brought back to his native soil yielded a bloody harvest that spread beyond his control, forced him to flee the radicals taking power in France, and landed him in the custody of royalist forces who liked him just as little and eventually banished him to the Austrian prison where he has suffered since. Finally, there is lingering embarrassment for the months Washington waited before welcoming Georges into the president’s house for fear of being criticized by pro-French Republicans.
Never did Washington imagine the newspapers would take their
attacks so far.
“Every act” of his life, he believes, has been “misrepresented and tortured with a view to make it appear odious.” For eight years, he fought the British in the field. Now, because he recently signed a treaty with them, “infamous scribblers” hiding behind pseudonyms dare to suggest that he supported the redcoats all along. To prove the preposterous, Benjamin Franklin Bache, the editor of the Philadelphia-based Aurora
, has reprinted old forged letters that first appeared during the Revolutionary War and that, if real, would have unmasked Washington as a halfhearted patriot. Long as he resisted responding to these obvious lies—much as he wanted to trust the people to find truth for themselves— the
“pains” Bache “has taken… to impose [the letters] on the public as genuine productions” have required a response. Part of Washington’s last full day in office went to finishing a letter exposing the falsehoods for the public and
Riding away from Philadelphia has not made the anger over these libels go away.
“To the wearied traveler who sees a resting place and is bending his body to lean thereon, I now compare myself,” he says. “But to be suffered to do this
in peace is, I perceive, too much to be endured by some
.” He recalls the discontent that infected his camp in Newburgh, New York, during the final months of the Revolutionary War. If only the critics now accusing him of having
“cankered the principles of republicanism” could have heard him then, as he persuaded his underpaid officers not to challenge civilian authority,
“just” and “honorable” as their grievances were. If only the critics now accusing him of acting like a king could see him presently riding home to his farm.
“To some whose minds are differently formed from mine,” he thinks, the parades that people along the way wish to give “would have been highly relished, but I avoided in every instance where I had any previous knowledge of the intention.”
At times, he cannot elude the militiamen on
horseback desperate to escort him. One troop accompanies the caravan through Delaware; another meets it in Maryland. The ruts in the road increase as the wheels roll south; the number of
“buildings and other improvements” that one can see decreases. It is always this way when crossing from the North into the South. The chasm between the sections has only grown as states such as Pennsylvania break free of the slave labor system entrenched in the South. Only by rotating slaves in and out of Pennsylvania can one skirt the state’s “gradual abolition” law giving freedom to any person residing in Pennsylvania for six straight months. Word from Mount Vernon is that Washington’s prized chef Hercules, who left Philadelphia earlier, has
disappeared despite his having promised never to run off and despite there being orders to watch him carefully even so. From the road, Washington sends a letter asking if Hercules has shown his face back in Philadelphia. Perhaps he grew too fond of the freedoms he found there.
“If he can be discovered & apprehended,” Washington writes, “send him round in the vessel” that will carry the other belongings to Mount Vernon.
On March 12, the caravan reaches Baltimore.
“Met & escorted into town by a great concourse of people,” Washington notes in his diary, before setting off again the next morning and the morning after that over dirt roads cut through thick woods. The
trees have stood for centuries, long before any of Washington’s ancestors sailed from England for America in the mid-1600s and long before any of his countrymen pushed west over the mountains into the Ohio Country, the wilderness where rivers drain not east back to the Atlantic Ocean but west to the Mississippi, the river marking the United States’ western boundary. Can a divided republic of several million people dispersed across an undeveloped country of vast distances hold together? Only
“experience,” Washington thinks, will reveal the answer. Hope, however, lies ahead.
Almost seven years have passed since Congress voted to create a
permanent seat for the federal government on the Potomac, the river that rises over the mountains not far from the Ohio Country and flows east between Maryland and Virginia toward the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, the river that Adams won sixty-nine of his electoral votes above but only two below. The selection of the Potomac emerged as part of a compromise between representatives from different sections of the country. Where exactly the new capital should go on the river was entrusted solely to Washington’s discretion as president. He settled on a spot just up the Potomac from his Mount Vernon home but just below the falls, the line of rocks and rapids that have thwarted generations of English-speaking sailors seeking to ascend the river.
The four ten-mile boundary lines he plotted compose a perfect diamond-square federal district incorporating land from both sides of the river. The town of Alexandria, formerly of Virginia, anchors the bottom corner of the district nearest to Mount Vernon. On the western end of what was the Maryland side stands the village of Georgetown. Just east of it, out of the V formed by the confluence of the Potomac and its so-called Eastern Branch, rises a new capital city, whose construction Washington has personally directed but whose destiny nature itself, he believes, dictates. The city will be the Union’s core, the heart to which every limb of the country connects. Once the canals being constructed open navigation of the river beyond the falls, the city will draw the West into trade with the East. Once the national university he imagines opens its doors, the city will draw into friendship the finest students of the country, its future leaders from the North and the South.
The sound of
artillery echoes through the woods as the carriage climbs a final hill and enters a clearing where other roads converge upon what, if finished, would be the largest building he has ever seen: the future Capitol of the United States. The outlines of second-story windows have begun emerging in the sandstone walls rising beneath the scaffolding of the north wing, while only an imperfectly laid foundation reveals the location of the south wing. Between the two wings lie empty trenches, out of which a dome and portico must one day grow. The delays and disappointments have detained Washington at his desk deep into the night and have disseminated
“doubt” and “despair” in the “public mind” about the future of the project.
“The year 1800,” he has repeatedly warned, “is approaching by hasty strides.” By the end of that year, the sandstone walls must be ready to house the Congress and the wilderness around them ready to replace Philadelphia as the capital of the United States.
Only the broad
avenues radiating out from the clearing around the Capitol hint at the possibility of a city beyond the ring of trees, at the master plan that the French
“genius” Pierre Charles L’Enfant conceived. Progress would have come so much quicker if only L’Enfant would have subordinated himself to the commissioners appointed to oversee the project. But without their permission, he tore down a private home obstructing one of his precious avenues, as if
“every person and thing was obliged
to yield” to his plan. Such eccentricity left no choice but to dispense with the indispensable planner, even though no one knew how to replace him.
“It is much to be regretted,” Washington thinks, “that men who possess talents which fit them for peculiar purposes should almost invariably be under the influence of untoward dispositions.”
Fording a little creek called the Tiber and following the tree stumps and brush known as Pennsylvania Avenue for more than a mile to the northwest take the carriage into another clearing. As before, artillery welcomes Washington. So, this time, do
“huzzas” from the crowd gathered beside the almost finished off-white-colored stone walls forming the president’s future house. Some have said the
amount of land set aside for the house suits a king better than a president. He disagrees. The office needs room to expand.
“A house which would be very proper for a President of the United States for some years to come might not be considered as corresponding with other circumstances at a more distant period,” when the United States has fulfilled the future he sees for it as a continental empire with this capital city as its center. Only recently has he
grown comfortable using the name his appointees have given the city: Washington.
The honor would have fulfilled the ambitions of the younger self who dreamed of making a name for himself on the Potomac. In search of fame, he went up the river, over the mountains, and into the Ohio Country, where he heard the first shots of the French and Indian War
“whistle” past him in 1754 (“there was something charming in the sound”), miraculously survived Indians surprising and slaughtering the British regulars whom he accompanied the following year (he can still hear the
screams), and glimpsed a future for his country apart from the empires of Europe. This future, he believes, still awaits his country upriver. But it is no longer the future he sees for himself.
That future is downriver. The men who have borne his surname through the centuries have not lived long lives.
“I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my fathers,” he says. Their
bodies lie near his birthplace, on the lower stretch of the river, where the water widens before meeting the bay. He feels his age every time his dentures push out his
lips as if the gold coils wiring the upper and lower ivory bases will spring out of his mouth if he dares unclench his jaw. His last real tooth—the one that fit into a hole in the apparatus and, thus, held it in place—has recently come out. His replacements—actual human teeth affixed to the ivory—wiggle, wobble, and wear away. His face looks distorted, he thinks. His hands are not as steady as they once were. His back stoops. His hearing has weakened but not so much that he does not hear the whispers about his senility.
“His memory, always bad,” has become “worse.” His vision has declined. Objects that look clear in the distance
blur as they near.
From the president’s house, he can see miles down the Potomac as the river flowing east bends rightward to the south and then disappears after Alexandria. Though he cannot see the rest of the road, he has never doubted the destination.
“The remainder of my life (which in the course of nature cannot be long) will be occupied in rural amusements… at Mount Vernon, more than 20 miles from which, after I arrive there, it is not likely I ever shall be.”
The traveler on the road to Mount Vernon today discovers that the Potomac delivers one last surprising twist just before the mansion house. The usually eastbound river traveling south for a stretch past Alexandria makes another and far more dramatic right turn, as if intent on completing a sweeping U. Suddenly downriver is west; upriver is east. The reversal cannot last long, but it persists just long enough, perhaps, to fool a farsighted old man nearing the end of his journey. He might confuse upriver with down; his country’s future with his own; the virgin water coming from the mountains with the water that has already borne his sparkling image toward the bay.
A little more than a year after returning to private life, George Washington will return to public service. The soldier and statesman famous for surrendering power will reclaim the republic’s most awesome title: commander in chief. The man committed to concealing his emotions will feud with his immediate and future successors and will release his fury. The American Cincinnatus, who has played the leading role in what he calls the
“public theatre,” will struggle to read his lines in the twilight. To be fair, there is no obvious script for an ex-president to follow, no modern precedent. The kings of Europe do not surrender their crowns without bloodshed. Louis XVI of France lost his head. In a different sense, Washington will lose his, too.
For too long, the story of Washington’s last years has been squeezed into the margins of manuscripts, if included at all. Writers nearing the end of the greatest American life have already exceeded their word counts, deadlines, and sometimes even the hours allotted to them on earth, as in the case of the man who aspired to be Washington’s most comprehensive biographer, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Douglas Southall Freeman. The
final sentence to flow from Freeman’s pen on the day of his death in 1953 appears at the end of the sixth volume of his biography, which takes Washington only to the end of his first term as president.
The present author, while in no way aspiring to finish Freeman’s work as others have attempted, does dust off the largely forgotten rule that the finest of Freeman’s writings follow: that the biographer should supply readers with
“no information beyond” what his subjects “possessed at a particular moment” so as to present the past with all its uncertainties. This “fog-of-war” style lets the reader view history through the eyes of those who made it rather than through the hindsight of historians convinced of the omniscience of their own narratives. “A biographer,” one learns from reading Freeman, “has no place on the stage. When he has made his bow to his audience and has spoken his prologue, telling what he will try to exhibit, it is his duty to retire to the wings, to raise the curtain and to leave the play to the actors.”
To whom, then, should the chronicler of Washington’s last years cede the stage? Not to the title character alone, for no longer can he control the script the way he once did. No longer can he alone even speak for Washington. The name is no longer his own. It belongs to a rising capital city that must somehow contain the personalities and parties he no longer can. This is Washington’s end. This is Washington’s beginning.