The popular image of George Washington as unapproachable and rather grim comes largely from his later years, when he'd had time to develop his stoicism and was, frankly, pretty miserable and in constant pain.

His stoicism only partly masked his staggering ambition -- seriously, I love the guy, but you did not want to come between him and HIS DUE, unless your ambition was to become a blot on the ground (really, only Jefferson had the personal weight to stand up to Washington and survive -- I think Jefferson was dead wrong to do so, but I can't deny that TJ was able to pull it off).  But his stoicism did mask, or perhaps even trivialize, his doubts, his uncertainties, and, quite naturally, his personal feelings.  And he was highly emotional by temperament (and not above throwing temper tantrums in private, even into his Presidency, a position that gave him more than ample opportunity to feel frustrated and despairing).

His marriage to Martha was characterized by a deep friendship and understanding, and I'd say that he probably couldn't have done better for himself in his choice, even if Martha hadn't been the richest catch in Virginia.  But there was a particular woman in his life before Martha, Sally Fairfax, whom Washington called "the passion of my youth."

Unfortunately, Sally Fairfax was Mrs. Fairfax -- and married to Washington's best friend.  There's no proof one way or the other whether anything tangible beyond flirtation passed between Washington and Sally Fairfax, but I am inclined to doubt it.  Even as a young man, Washington valued self-control and self-mastery (although these eluded him frequently); and while he was quite capable of rationalizations, I think that "cuckolding my best friend" remained well outside the sphere he would have permitted himself.  Nothing could have come of an affair, in Washington's worldview, other than the affair itself -- an insufficient justification for a little of the old felix culpa, because a wholly personal and transitory one.

But whether he renounced Mrs. F. before dallying with her or after, renounce her he certainly did.  More than perhaps any other trait (even that amazing ambition), it was this ability to swallow or sublimate his personal desires that characterized the man, and elevated him.  He wasn't the best general in the world, although he had some fine moments; he wasn't a flaming genius, although he was bright enough (intellectually, he was nowhere near Hamilton, Jefferson, or Madison -- probably not even Adams).  But what he could do, and what he did do, was suck it up when he had to.  Rather than that silly "I cannot tell a lie" pap (puh-leeze -- Washington lied PLENTY), this is the intrinsic, and rare, honesty that defined him.

And, despite that Washington was a patrician, this was and remains a virtue within the grasp of every human being -- it hangs on choice, not talent.  While Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison pulled each other's pigtails over what the American nation would say yes to, Washington quietly demonstrated that human beings could also say noNo, Washington would not torture prisoners.  No, Washington would not persecute the English and Loyalists once the war was finished.  No, Washington would not silence the press, even when the press attacked him viciously and relentlessly.

No is easy to overlook and to underestimate.  But its presence in our national aegis is an incomparable gift.


The abuses America suffered under English rule may have been, as a rule, largely symbolic.  The abuses American POWs suffered in English detention during the war were not, even by the low standards of the time.  Little food, poisonous food, no food -- possessions robbed -- no room to sit or lie down, except in shifts -- the sick and the dead mixed in with the living, who were outnumbered by the rats -- no provision made for even basic cleanliness -- this was the fate of most prisoners in English hands.  The worst conditions were on the notorious prison ships, rotting hulks too foul to be of any naval utility (the cheerful little ship used as an illustration here was of course not one of these prison carcasses) and so adapted to hold captives.  And the worst ship of these was probably the Jersey, where thousands of Americans died in a few short years due to the cruelty of their treatment.

This is a brief excerpt from the recollections of Captain Thomas Dring, who survived his incarceration on that ship.  Even under these conditions, it is more the implication of them -- the sadness and the hopelessness of being treated in such a manner rather than the treatment itself -- that he cites as the most damning effect.

These poor creatures had, in many instances, been plundered of their wearing apparel by their captors. And here the dismal and disgusting objects by which they were surrounded; the vermin which infested them; their vile and loathsome food; and what, with them, was far from being the lightest of their trials, their ceaseless longing after their homes and the scenes to which they had been accustomed, all combined to produce a wonderful effect upon them. Dejection and anguish were soon visible in their countenances. They became dismayed and terror stricken; and many of them absolutely died that most awful of all human deaths, the effects of a broken heart.


John Andre -- a captain during his appearance in Independence but a major later on -- had the misfortune to be the traitor Benedict Arnold's point of contact for Arnold's offer to hand over the plans of West Point in return for ten thousand pounds.  West Point's schematics were saved only by chance, when an American picket -- which might very well have been trying to rob Andre rather than question him -- discovered the incriminating papers on his person.

Benedict Arnold heard of the arrest in time, barely, to beat feet out of there just minutes before George Washington arrived (Washington's arrival was coincidental in regard to the timing of all the excitement).

So Andre was captured but Arnold safely with the British.  Due to a technicality, Andre had to be tried as a spy -- he had changed out of his uniform into civilian clothes before trying to cross American lines, and that, regrettably, put him in a different and sterner category of justice.  Andre was probably as well-loved by the Americans as by his countrymen; he had made many friends during his stays in New York and Philadelphia, and as a prisoner of war in Pennsylvania (where he gave drawing lessons to the delighted children of the household).  He was an artistically talented charmer who seems to have failed to win over only one person in his life:  the woman he loved, whose persistent rejection had driven him at last into the army, where he intended to find refuge from blasted personal hopes in a glorious career.

The English offered to trade any prisoner in their possession for Andre, but after a setback of this magnitude -- we had lost not just a general, but the hero of Saratoga -- only one man would answer as a trade, and that was Arnold himself.

But Arnold was the one man General Clinton would not give.

Andre was sentenced to death, and he was hanged.  George Washington, although he usually had a cast-iron stomach about these matters, remained indoors after signing the order and did not watch it carried out.  The Americans watching Andre go to his death wept openly.

Meanwhile, General Clinton struggled to find men willing to swallow their contempt and serve under the newly minted English General Arnold's command.

This is a quick sketch Andre made of himself two days before his death.


Even as a young boy, Alexander Hamilton always wanted a war.  A war was almost the only path open to him for distinction, given the miserable ignominy of his birth and his circumstances (too dire to go into in a brief post).  He also always wanted to found an empire, which he saw as the path to eternal fame.

But these were far from his only motivations; and although he admired England's government enormously, and thought that Americans were entirely too subservient to the whims of the common people (ouch!), his broad-mindedness, humanism, and willingness to slap around sacred cows are frequently overlooked.  It's his own fault, really; he talked and wrote incessantly, and he seemed blissfully immune to the realization that, say, a four-hour harangue filled with contemptuous rhetoric might actually annoy people every now and then and get them to turn off their ears.

So, plenty of people thought Hamilton was bold enough personally (in fact, staggeringly presumptuous).  But the boldness of his thinking...this they underestimated.  He still gets labeled a conservative for his refusal to reject England and everything about her after the war.  In fact, his views were a mix of what we would call today conservative and liberal (also true of Jefferson).  Take this tidbit from The Federalist Papers:

The world may politically, as well as geographically, be divided into four parts, each having a distinct set of interests.  Unhappily for the other three, Europe, by her arms and by her negotiations, by force and by fraud, has, in different degrees, extended her dominion over them all.  Africa, Asia, and America, have successively felt her domination.  The superiority she has long maintained has tempted her to plume herself as the Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit.  Men admired as profound philosophers have, in direct terms, attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority, and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America--that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere. 

Facts have too long supported these arrogant pretensions of the Europeans.  It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother, moderation.


A not-so-famous technological innovation of the Revolutionary War was the world's first combat submarine.  Here it is:  The American Turtle!  (The screws are for drilling a hole in the target ship's hull, attaching a timed bomb, and disengaging.)

Its inventor, David Bushnell, was feverish the day of The Turtle's big debut, and so was his brother Ezra.  So a game volunteer, Ezra Lee, offered to take The Turtle out for a ride and see what he could blow up with it.  Unfortunately -- nothing (exploding an English ship would've been really useful right then, as England had a rather overwhelming navy sitting plump by New York City).  The Turtle had no visibility when submerged, and Lee seems to have tried to drill a hole in a rudder, whose material was too tough for the screw.

But it wasn't a dead loss, because when The Turtle surfaced on its melancholy return to base (it held enough air for only about thirty minutes of submersion), it really, really freaked the English out.  All the more so when they sent out some boats to check out what on earth was "bobbing with intent" on the water, and Lee released the bomb.  The English scurried back right quick, the bomb exploded, and England's ships cut their anchors and kept a wary distance for a wee while -- both tactically and strategically irrelevant, but fun!

The Turtle never got a chance for a second mission; it was scuttled during the Continental Army's flight, to keep it out of English hands.


The reasons behind the Boston Tea Party were, as usual with the Revolution, a bit of a tangle.  Of course, we didn't like taxes in general.  And a primary issue was England's right to tax us at all -- but equally offensive was the weighting of the tea tax, with a functional result that tea from London's pet East India Company would be cheaper than our illegally smuggled tea.  Which added up to basically a bribe to pay their tax, and a sharp flick of the nose to colonials who made their money smuggling (translation:  John Hancock).  That the reasons behind the Tea Party were a bit muddied remained reasonably irrelevant until...

...We had our own federal government, and we still didn't wanna pay no taxes nowhen nohow.  Our freshly hatched government was gasping for funds, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton decided that whiskey would be a fine thing to tax.  Pennsylvania moonshiners thought otherwise, and they took up their rifles in opposition. 

Washington slapped them down fast and hard.  The basic argument being:  yes, that government didn't have the right to tax you.  But this government does.


The redcoats probably did not point their toes daintily, and they certainly did not fire into a harmless and peaceful crowd in the notorious Boston Massacre.

Not only were the Bostonians insulting a small squadron of redcoats, they were threatening them -- and not only were the Bostonians threatening the redcoats, but the order to "FIRE" shouted in the chaos seems to have come from the American side.

Sam Adams needed a simple, damning symbol of British contempt, one so shocking in its bald purity that no argument could be constructed against it.  Shooting unarmed civilians filled the bill nicely.

And he had a long history of organizing Boston mobs to do his bidding, so raising one in response to a trivial argument between a redcoat and a local was the work of only a few hurried whispers.

But the fact that the Massacre was an American provocation, even construction, remained a decidedly uncomfortable detail when it came time to try the redcoats for murder.

Embarrassing information might come out -- information that could render the symbolic importance of the whole affair impotent.  Possibly the easiest thing to do would have been to condemn the redcoats as quickly as possible.  And if doing so courted nasty reprisals from England, all the better.

And yet, the inner circle of the Boston Sons of Liberty knew very well that the redcoats, as individual men, genuinely were not guilty of murder.  They were in quite plausible fear for their lives, and they certainly did hear an order to fire, which they did not, and could not, realize had not come from their commanding officer.

Sam Adams's cousin John volunteered for the unenviable task of defending the redcoats.  And he made sure that they were acquitted of all charges...without actually revealing any awkward facts, but rather by pushing a rather delicate argument that doubt remained about too many critical details.

No more sacrifices than were necessary would be placed upon the pyre.

And besides, as rebels and revolutionaries, what we wanted was a war, not a criminal case.


Tax time!  Of course this was a bit of an issue in the Revolutionary War.  And if we have to pay taxes now that we have the right to vote for our representatives directly, we have only our own rhetoric to blame.  ^_^

The Mother Country, meantime, suffered some confusion that among the "English liberties" we demanded was direct representation in Parliament, since such representation wasn't exactly the general rule in England at the time.  Further areas of perplexity:  was it all right for England to pay for our infrastructure, social services, and defense, but magically not all right to try to recoup some of those losses?  Stop muddying the waters and start giving us more face!

Taxation was more a flash-point symbol than a genuine issue in and of itself; Ben Franklin himself dithered on the matter, first reading the mood of his countrymen utterly wrongly (no surprise, he'd been living in London for ages) and positing that only a particular type of tax was offensive.  Nope!  Turns out all of them were!

What was at issue was self-determination, not how many taxes can dance on the head of a pin.

Of course, we didn't like taxes then, and we don't like them now, which made taxation a particularly tasty rallying cry.  But practically the first matter on the docket when Washington came to power was losing some of that depressingly cavernous echo in the federal coffers.  And that meant taxes.  Oh well!


It would be remiss of me not to mention Thomas Jefferson's birthday (even dead people like attention, I am sure), especially given that my home page features a Hamilton quote.  So!  This is for you, Mr. J. -- and a very few of the very many cool things you loved:

A chair that lets you fidget without actually moving

Weird bugs
American animals are big -- BIG, I tell you, Europe, BIG!

Playing in the dirt