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George Washington

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Washington, who had consented in 1794 to serve a second term as president, now began to weary of the cares of office. The quarrel between Hamilton and Jefferson, leading to the formation of the two great political parties which, under different names, have since divided the nation; the whiskey rebellion in Pennsylvania, which required the whole strength of the government to subdue; the Indian atrocities in the Northwest, resulting in the unfortunate expedition of St. Clair; the opposition to the financial schemes of the Secretary of the Treasury to restore the credit of the country; and the still greater popular disaffection toward Jay's treaty with Great Britain,--these and other annoyances made him long for the quiet life of Mount Vernon; and he would have resigned the presidency in disgust but for patriotic motives and the urgent remonstrances of his cabinet. Faithful to his trust, he patiently labored on. If his administration was not dashingly brilliant, any more than his career as a general, he was beset with difficulties and discouragements which no man could have surmounted more gloriously than he: and when his eight years of service had expired he had the satisfaction to see that the country was at peace with all the world; that his policy of non-interference with European politics was appreciated; that no more dangers were to be feared from the Indians; that the country was being opened for settlers westward to the Ohio River; that the navigation of the Mississippi was free to the Gulf of Mexico; that canals and internal improvements were binding together the different States and introducing general prosperity; that financial difficulties had vanished; and that the independence and assured growth of the nation was no longer a matter of doubt in any European State.

Nothing could induce Washington to serve beyond his second term. He could easily have been again elected, if he wished, but he longed for rest and the pursuits of agricultural life. So he wrote his Farewell Address to the American people, exhorting them to union and harmony,--a document filled with noble sentiments for the meditation of all future generations. Like all his other writings, it is pregnant with moral wisdom and elevated patriotism, and in language is clear, forcible, and to the point. He did not aim to advance new ideas or brilliant theories, but rather to enforce old and important truths which would reach the heart as well as satisfy the head. The burden of his song in this, and in all his letters and messages and proclamations, is union and devotion to public interests, unswayed by passion or prejudice.

On the 3d of March, 1797, the President gave his farewell dinner to the most distinguished men of the time, and as soon as possible after the inauguration of his successor, John Adams, he set out for his plantation on the banks of the Potomac, where he spent his remaining days in dignity and quiet hospitalities, amid universal regrets that his public career was ended.

Even in his retirement, when there seemed to be imminent danger of war with France, soon after his return to his home, he was ready to buckle on his sword once more; but the troubles were not so serious as had been feared, and soon blew over. They had arisen from the venality and rapacity of Talleyrand, French minister of Foreign affairs, who demanded a bribe from the American commissioners of two-and-a-half millions as the price of his friendly services in securing favorable settlements. Their scornful reply, and the prompt preparations in America for war, brought the Directory to terms. When the crisis was past Washington resumed the care of his large estates, which had become dilapidated during the fifteen years of his public life. His retreat was invaded by great numbers, who wished to see so illustrious a man, but no one was turned away from his hospitable mansion.

In December, 1799, Washington caught cold from imprudent exposure, and died on the 14th day of the month after a short illness,--not what we should call a very old man. His life might probably have been saved but that, according to the universal custom, he was bled, which took away his vital forces. On the 16th of December he was buried quietly and without parade in the family vault at Mount Vernon, and the whole nation mourned for him as the Israelites mourned for Samuel of old, whom he closely resembled in character and services.

It would be useless to dwell upon the traits of character which made George Washington a national benefactor and a national idol. But one inquiry is often made, when he is seriously discussed,--whether or no he may be regarded as a man of genius. It is difficult to define genius, which seems to me to be either an abnormal development of particular faculties of mind, or an inspired insight into elemental truths so original and profound that its discoveries pass for revelations. Such genius as this is remarkably rare, I can recall but one statesman in our history who had extraordinary creative power, and this was Hamilton. In the history of modern times we scarcely can enumerate more than a dozen statesmen, a dozen generals, and the same number of poets, philosophers, theologians, historians, and artists who have had this creative power and this divine insight. Washington did not belong to that class of intellects. But he had what is as rare as transcendent genius,--he had a transcendent character, united with a marvellous balance of intellectual qualities, each in itself of a high grade, which gave him almost unerring judgment and remarkable influence over other minds, securing veneration. As a man he had his faults, but they were so few and so small that they seem to be but spots upon a sun. These have been forgotten; and as the ages roll on mankind will see naught but the lustre of his virtues and the greatness of his services.


The best and latest work on Washington is that of the Hon. Henry Cabot Lodge, and leaves little more to be said; Marshall's Washington has long been a standard; Botta's History of the Revolutionary War; Bancroft's United States; McMaster's History of the American People. In connection read the standard lives of Franklin, John Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Jay, Marshall, La Fayette, and Greene, with Washington's writings. John Fiske has written an admirable book on Washington's military career; indeed his historical series on the early history of America and the United States are both brilliant and trustworthy. Of the numerous orations on Washington, perhaps the best is that of Edward Everett.