- Historic Sites
May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
“I should be pleased indeed to see you undertake this business,” he told Humphreys; “your abilities as a writer; your discernment respecting the principles which lead to the decision by arms; your personal knowledge of many facts as they occurred in the progress of the War; your disposition to justice, candour & impartiality, & your dilligence in investigating truth, all combining, fit you, when joined with the vigor of life, for this task.”
Humphreys’s “abilities as a writer” were confined to indifferent verse, but some of it was written in praise of the general at whose side he had served: “His voice inspir’d, his god-like presence led./The Britons saw, and from his presence fled.” The general gave Humphreys an apartment and access to his papers, spent hours talking over old times with him, and, when his manuscript was partially complete, agreed to go over it in detail, filling in missing details and offering suggestions for improvements.
In the end Humphreys’s Life was never published in its entirety, and the manuscript was eventually split among several collections. James T. Flexner, the first Washington biographer to make use of even part of it, believed Humphreys “never got beyond an incoherent jumble.”
But Humphreys did complete his manuscript, and in her David Humphreys’ “Life of General Washington” with George Washington’s “Remarks” (University of Georgia Press, $24.95), Professor Rosemarie Zagarri has now published it in full, skillfully reassembled from fragments found in three different archives: the Rosenbach Museum and Library, the Yale University Library, and the FORBES Magazine Collection.
Humphreys’s Life is far more straightforward than Parson Mason Locke Weems’s treacly The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington , but to a modern reader it still seems ornate, remote, and altogether too worshipful: “… so long as the imperial fabric which [Washington] hath assisted to raise shall endure, heroes will be proud to emulate his military virtues, senates continue to inculcate the practice of his political precepts, and infants be taught to lisp the name of their country’s benefactor in the first efforts of articulation.”
Washington clearly did not want it known that he had even cooperated in anything so self-serving as a biography.
Such praise evidently did not unduly embarrass its subject, and the real fascination of this slim volume lies in the general’s “Remarks,” a dozen handwritten pages of suggestions whose overall effect is to add still more of it to a text already heavily weighted toward veneration. Washington clearly did not wish it known that he had ever cooperated in anything so self-serving as a biography and asked that his editorial comments be either burned or returned to him when the author was finished. But he also did not want his suggestions ignored.
For the most part he was candid about himself. He vividly recalls the horror he felt as a young officer in charge of the retreating British troops after the Battle of the Monongahela in 1755: “The shocking scenes which presented themselves are not to be described—The dead—the dying—the groans—lamentations—and crys along the Road of the wounded for help … were enough to pierce a heart of adamant.—The gloom & horror of which was not a little encreased by the impervious darkness occasioned by the close shade of thick woods which in places rendered it impossible for the two guides which attended to know when they were in, or out of the track but by groping on the ground with their hands.” And writing about himself in the third person, he recalls that he subsequently resigned from the British army in part because of “an inveterate disorder in his Bowels.” (His decorous biographer altered this last to “an inveterate pulmonary complaint.”)
But he also wanted to be sure Humphreys’s readers got the full flavor of his achievements. In recounting his adventures during the French and Indian War, for example, he wanted it known that the admiring tribesmen with whom he had battled dubbed him “Town-Taker,” and when Humphreys’s first draft unaccountably left out what to Washington seemed especially good evidence of his selfless patriotism, the general tactfully objected: “Whether it be necessary to mention that my time & Services were given to the public without compensation, and that every direct and indirect attempt afterwards, to reward them [was refused] … you can best judge.”
To no one’s surprise, Humphreys made sure to mention the general’s willingness to risk everything without hope of reward.
It is a pity his Life had to wait so long to see the light of day. It would have made a fine campaign biography—had George Washington ever felt the need of one.