by George Washington

edited by John Rhodehamel

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Library of America: New York, 1997

1149 pages

April 2009

The one indispensable man of the American Revolution

[Headquarters Camp at Cambridge, Massachusetts.]

Dear Brother,

... The Want of Arms, Powder &ca, is not peculiar to Virginia — this Country of which doubtless, you have heard such large and flattering Accounts, is more difficient of each than you can conceive, I have been here Months together with what will scarce be believed — not 30 rounds of Musket Cartridges a Man. have been obliged to submit to all the Insults of the Enemy's Cannon for want of Powder, keeping what little we had for Pistol distance.

George Washington
to John Augustine Washington, 31 March 1776
First in War, Peace, Hearts (small)

In the old phrase, George Washington is the one indispensable man of the American Revolution. If there is a single quality that earned such praise among the unsurpassable company of John Adams, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, and many others — I would call it steadiness. Once committed to the cause, Washington held to it. If this seems simple and obvious in retrospect, consider Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Vladimir Lenin: revolutionary leaders all of whom betrayed their respective revolutions; and Benedict Arnold, a revolutionary general whose attempted betrayal fell short.

The clearest instance: some of Washington's contemporaries proposed that he become King, or at least President for life. His example of serving two terms only held by good and illustrious example to most candidates and voters, until Franklin D. Roosevelt not only considered himself above it but managed to achieve additional terms; and because of FDR the Constitution was amended to require compliance.

Washington's loyalty to the spirit of freedom in America, his striving as citizen, General, President, and citizen always to adhere to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, seems rarely comprehended in the American capital in modern times, let alone respected or imitated.

To form a new Government, requires infinite care, & unbounded attention; for if the foundation is badly laid the superstructure must be bad. too much time therefore, cannot be bestowed in weighing and digesting matters well — we have, no doubt, some good parts in our present constitution — many bad ones we know we have, wherefore no time can be misspent that is imployed in seperating the Wheat from the Tares — My fear is, that you will all get tired and homesick, the consequence of which well be, that you will patch up some kind of Constitution as defective as the present — this should be avoided — every Man should consider, that he is lending his aid to frame a Constitution which is to render Million's happy, or Miserable, and that a matter of such moment cannot be the Work of a day.

George Washington
to John Augustine Washington, 31 May 1776
George Washington in his own letters

So what do we have in the Library of America's single, solid volume of Writings by George Washington? 436 documents: mostly correspondence, some speeches and State papers. These cover Washington's years as surveyor, in the French and Indian War, during the rising tide of resistance to British rule, during the Revolution, the creation of the Constitution, as first President of the United States, and in retirement. It is a tiny fraction of all his papers.

Washington is less transparent than most public figures are to biography. Reading all these letters gives me a feeling for his character and personality that his official papers and addresses of course cannot provide by themselves, but also a detailed impression that is difficult to portray biographically. The volume can be dipped into, or read for a particular period or (with the aid of the index) for a particular correspondent (do not miss the letters to Sarah Cary Fairfax from the Indian frontier and again forty years on); but I think it much the best to leisurely read your way all the book through. I particularly like the "Journal of the Yorktown Campaign" of 1781.

A longish letter to Thomas Jefferson on 6 July 1796 discusses anonymous abusive publications; nascent political parties; rotating the planting of clover and wheat; kinds of field peas; and concludes:

If you can bring a moveable threshing Machine, constructed upon simple principles to perfection, it will be among the most valuable institutions in this Country; for nothing is more wanting, and to be wished for on our farms. Mrs. Washington begs you to accept her best wishes, and with very great esteem etc.

Here's a first-hand observer's insight, not in this book, from the great pamphleteer of the American Revolution:

Voltaire has remarked, that king William never appeared to full advantage but in difficulties and in action; the same remark may be made on General Washington, for the character fits him. There is a natural firmness in some minds which cannot be unlocked by trifles, but which, when unlocked, discovers a cabinet of fortitude; and I reckon it among those kind of public blessings, which we do not immediately see, that God hath blessed him with uninterrupted health, and given him a mind that can even flourish upon care.

Thomas Paine
The American Crisis, Number 1; 19 December 1776
widely reprinted, including in —
Collected Writings

A straightforward man, and true patriot. Steady.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson

Constitution at Troynovant
American founding documents,
Declaration of Independence
& U.S. Constitution

Warfare at Troynovant
war, general weaponry,
& philosophy of war


One modernly famous remark attributed to George Washington has been disputed as unsourceable and apocryphal:

Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.

See Eugene Volokh's research & analysis,
Government Is Not Reason, It Is Not Eloquence - It Is Force,
with further interesting discussion.


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