Had you known George Washington in 1774, you might have admired his skill as an Indian fighter, but you would not have predicted he would one day become his country’s paragon of virtue.
No, virtue is not the first word that would have come to mind. Try greedy, perhaps, or cunning. The young Washington was a man on the make. He wanted to get rich. He bought, sold and traded slaves, raffling off some in a lottery and permanently dividing families. After arranging to marry the richest widow in Virginia, Martha Dandridge Custis, he wrote a series of passionate love letters to the wife of one of his best friends. And then there was his insatiable craving for land, which led him to cheat some of the men he had commanded in the French and Indian War out of acreage they had been offered as an incentive to join the fight. As biographer Ron Chernow put it, Washington “exhibited a naked, sometimes clumsy ambition.”
Although virtue was not the right word for Washington, it was the word many men sought to have associated with their names. Virtue carried important meaning in the culture of 18th-century America. Although later generations used virtue to characterize a woman’s sexual innocence, to Washington and his contemporaries, it was a quality accorded great men. Virtue comes from the Latin vir, for man. To be labeled virtuous, a man had to be willing to sacrifice his comfort, if not his life, for the greater good of society. That wasn’t Washington before the Revolutionary War.
Yet by the end of his life, Washington embodied the definition of virtue better than any of the founding fathers. And for good reason—he served without pay for eight years as commander of the Continental Army, and after his victory at Yorktown, he walked away from the power to be a king and returned to his farm. As president, he rejected royal titles thrust on him, choosing instead a more humble “Mr. President.” He could have stayed on as president for the rest of his life, but after two terms he walked away from power again and returned to his cherished Mount Vernon. Perhaps most amazing of all, in his will he freed his nearly 200 slaves—worth millions of dollars in his time. He was the only founding father to do so. Somehow, the ambitious young narcissist had grown to be a man of wisdom and even virtue. The story of how and why Washington made that transition begins with one of his worst moral transgressions—swindling the men who served under him in the French and Indian War.
In 1754, as Britain and France prepared to go to war in the Ohio River Valley, the Virginia House of Burgesses voted to form a full-time provincial regiment. The officer corps was easily staffed, and Washington took over the regiment as colonel. But Governor Robert Dinwiddie anticipated difficulty signing up common soldiers, so he offered an enlistment bonus: Once Britain won control of the Ohio Valley, 200,000 acres of conquered territory were to be divided up among the troops. Dinwiddie made it clear that the land should only be given to common soldiers, not to officers.
The war dragged on until 1763, far longer than anyone had anticipated. And just as Britain signed a peace treaty in Paris, the Indian revolt known as Pontiac’s Rebellion broke out on the frontier. Caught off guard, the British tried to purchase peace by drawing the Proclamation Line of 1763, which prohibited settlers and speculators from encroaching on Indian territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. That, however, was the very acreage Dinwiddie had promised his soldiers. It was also land that George Washington had been eying, hoping to buy up large plots, then subdivide them and sell them to farmers at a profit. “The greatest estates we have in this colony were made…by taking up…the rich back lands,” Washington once advised a neighbor. Rich back lands were now on the other side of the mountains, and Washington didn’t want to miss his opportunity to obtain title to some of them.
With the Crown standing between him and the land he coveted, Washington devised a plan. In December 1769, he petitioned Virginia’s executive council to make good on Dinwiddie’s promise to the soldiers. He filed his petition “in behalf of himself and the officers and soldiers,” signaling his hope that regimental officers would also share in the bounty. Washington asked the council to waive official surveying fees, which were, he said, “much beyond what a poor soldier is able to bear.” Instead, he urged that the veterans be allowed to hire their own surveyor. When the petition was granted, Washington arranged for William Crawford, his associate, to survey the land. In the fall of 1770, Washington and Crawford set off together to tour the bounty lands, located in what is now West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The following year, the executive council distributed 170,000 acres of the land, holding the rest in reserve for future claimants. Fifty-two enlisted men got a total of 20,800 acres, 400 acres each. But 150,000 acres went to Washington and his fellow officers. Washington got 18,500 acres, nearly as much as all the enlisted men combined. Nonetheless, he wasn’t satisfied. He approached several of his fellow veterans and offered to buy up their claims. In these discussions, he spread the false notion that there was a strong “chance of our never getting the land at all.” He convinced his comrades-in-arms to part with their claims for next to nothing, and eventually latched onto an additional 5,000 acres.
Later, when the 30,000 acres held in reserve were allocated, Colonel Washington picked up another 3,000 acres. He also obtained land through a royal bounty program—both directly and by purchasing land from his fellow veterans. (Washington instructed his brother Charles, who represented him in these transactions, to hold down the purchase price by approaching the men “in a joking way, rather than in earnest, at first.”) All told, Washington— who, as an officer, was originally entitled to no land at all—ended up with more than 27,000 acres.
Washington also connived to get some of the best acreage available. The most valuable land lay along rivers, where occasional floods revitalized the soil and where crops could be loaded directly onto boats, avoiding the enormous expense of overland transportation. Virginia officials did not want the first land recipients to grab all the best parcels, so the House of Burgesses decreed that the river frontage of any tract could not be greater than three times its depth (the distance it ranged back from the river). When Washington’s friend Crawford divided up the land, he simply ignored the requirement. Tracts he set off for
Washington ran right along the rivers and extended only a short distant inland. By contrast, other officers generally received about a mile and a half of river frontage, and their tracts ranged as far as five miles back from the river. In setting off Washington’s elongated allotments, Crawford violated the oath of colonial surveyors, which he had conveniently neglected to swear. Washington may have thwarted the intentions of the legislature, but he could not evade the wrath of his fellow veterans. Officers had trusted Crawford and Washington to act as their representatives, but both men had betrayed them. Crawford was soon reporting that the officers were “a good deal shagereend [chagrined]” that Washington had snapped up much of the best riverfront property. The commander of the regiment had received, as even he acknowledged, “the cream of the lands.”
At least one of Washington’s fellow officers, Major George Muse, complained to him directly, in a letter written on Christmas Eve 1773. Muse’s letter is lost to history but it was sufficiently scathing to inspire Washington to fire off a sizzling reply. Washington called Muse “ungrateful and dirty” and accused him of “stupidity and sottishness.” Speculating that Muse must have been drunk when he wrote the letter, Washington reminded him that “drunkeness is no excuse for rudeness” and warned him to expect a violent response if he ever repeated his accusation. Washington also asked sarcastically why Muse thought he deserved more land than the other men: “do you think your superlative merit entitles you to greater indulgences than others?”
That was, of course, a question that could have been asked of Washington.
All in all, the colonel’s behavior had been amoral at best. He had defrauded the very men who risked their lives to fight for him. At the time, Washington was in his early 40s, an age when most men’s moral characters are set for life. But he was about to morph, radically and for the better.
What changed George Washington?
No one can truly understand the inner workings of another person’s mind. And men of Washington’s time tended not to bare their souls and share their feelings about personal matters. But enough evidence exists to make educated guesses about what factors brought about Washington’s moral metamorphosis. They include money, the death of a teenager, infertility and the Revolutionary War.
In 1759, Washington catapulted into the upper reaches of the colony’s unofficial aristocracy by marrying Martha. But he still faced money troubles. In the 1760s, the expensive additions he made to Mount Vernon outdid his ability to pay for them. Then Washington received an unexpected windfall. Patsy, one of Martha’s children by her first marriage, died from an epileptic seizure in 1773. The news was nearly as devastating for Patsy’s stepfather as it was for her mother. For Washington, however, there was a silver lining. Half of Patsy’s £16,000 fortune went to her mother, but English common law granted husbands absolute control of their wives’ property, so the effect of Patsy’s premature death was to rescue her stepfather from great debt. Washington never again had to worry about money.
Wealth does not necessarily secure greed, of course, and Washington might have remained just as acquisitive after Patsy’s death. But something else happened at about the same time: Washington came to the unhappy realization that he would never become a father. He’d spent much of the 1760s assuming that Martha (who was 27 when they married) would become pregnant. But one year succeeded another without children. The reason why may never be known, but one of its results seems clear: By 1770 or so, Washington knew he would never have heirs. Did that recognition make him a less greedy person?
Washington thought so. In drafting his first inaugural address, he wrote, “the Divine Providence hath not seen fit, that my blood should be transmitted or my name perpetuated by the endearing, though sometimes seducing channel of immediate offspring.” This personal misfortune was a boon to the nation, he felt, since “I have no child for whom I could wish to make a provision—no family to build in greatness upon my country’s ruins.” Washington deleted this passage from the final draft of his speech, but it offers a rare insight into the workings of his mind. He seemed to be thinking I will never father sons to carry my name and my fortune into the future. If I am to be remembered by posterity, it will be for my accomplishments as a general and a statesman.
In 1775, not long after Washington came to the realization that he would never sire a dynasty, the Continental Congress gave him a shot at a different kind of immortality by appointing him commander of the American army in the Revolutionary War. Washington accepted the appointment, although he knew that if he failed to defeat the strongest nation on earth, he would likely be hanged as a traitor. He announced that he would serve without pay.
Americans longed for a national hero, and Washington, tall, handsome and brave, fit the bill. He was quickly dubbed “father of his country,” and in time he earned that title with daring military feats—the expulsion of the British from Boston, the hairbreadth escape from Long Island, and the Christmas night crossing of the Delaware, to name just three events from 1776. Washington’s soldiers revered him and in this war, unlike the previous one, he did not let them down, treating them as surrogate sons, constantly pleading with Congress to provide them with better food, better supplies and decent pay.
“I have never left your side one moment,” Washington told his officer corps at the end of the war. “I have been the constant companion and witness of your distress.” This was true. Between the spring of 1775 and the summer of 1781, Washington did not return to his beloved Mount Vernon even once, although no man would have begrudged him the trip.
General Washington served selflessly, and at war’s end, in imitation of Cincinnatus, he lay down his sword and returned to his farm, relinquishing any thought of converting his military renown into political power. After two terms as president, he resigned that post as well. Nor did he entirely reconsider his love of wealth. He spent much of the 1780s battling what he called the “willful and obstinate sinners” who squatted on his ill-gotten western lands without paying him rent. Well into the 1790s, he continued to sell slaves he regarded as insufficiently respectful. Some of them never saw their families again.
Washington wasn’t perfect. He never claimed to be. After his death in 1799, it was his hero-hungry countrymen who proclaimed him a paragon of virtue, and so America’s myth-making proclivity soon turned a very human Virginia aristocrat into a saint. But when the mythology and the hype are stripped away, this truth remains: George Washington performed two extremely rare feats—while changing the world, he changed himself, too.
Woody Holton is a professor of history and American studies at the University of Richmond. He is the author of Abigail Adams, Enslaved Americans and the Revolutionary War and Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.