The Freeman Letters On George Washington


Letter of August 11, 1949

As the announcement on June 25 of my impending retirement led to some newspaper discussion of the wisdom or unwisdom of my action, it may not be amiss to state for your information and that of other gentlemen who face retirement within the next decade or so, precisely how it feels to “change over,” or, if you prefer the figure, to “make the plunge.”

I can only say that I think I had made the essential preparation in advance by planning my future work and by developing my avocation. I can understand how bewildered and baffled a man might be if he retired on a drastically diminished income and had nothing to occupy his time. As the circumstances are, I simply have turned from one calling to another, so to speak, with an indescribable gain in interest and in every satisfaction of life.

Perhaps it would not have been possible to make the change much sooner than I did, because of the duties that every citizen had to perform during the war; but if I had known in 1945 how thrilling was the life I could lead as a student, I believe I would have taken the chance of becoming stranded financially and would have begun, immediately after the close of hostilities, to give my entire time to historical and literary pursuits. It has been altogether the most amazing experience of my life to stop suddenly a vocation I had pursued for almost forty years and to pick up instantly where I left off in 1908 as a historical student doing postgraduate work. It almost seems as if I had died and had been reincarnated!

This highly personal statement would not be made but for the publicity that attended my newspaper resignation. I pass now to the report of my schedule of work and of my progress under it. I continue to rise at 2:30 A.M., and to follow virtually the same hours as formerly, with the exception that I break my work period on George Washington with rest from 11 to 11:30 A.M. and from i to 2:45 P.M. This is done to make certain that I am fresh and free of mental fag when engaged in writing. The morning rest period is an excellent investment in breaking what otherwise would be so long a period of continuous composition that the last hours would be unproductive.

On the average day I do nine or nine and a half hours’ work and therefore practically double my former hours of work. I believe the gain in quality is proportionately even greater, because now I can give to research, writing and revision the best hours of the day when my mind is freshest. It is interesting to note specifically that in the month of July I spent 281 hours on the Washington , whereas in May—my last uninterrupted month at the paper—I was able by the sternest effort to work on the book for 143 hours only. This included ten hours each Sunday.

The setting of my work is everything I could ask; my secretary is a highly intelligent young matron who works because she is interested and not because necessity requires. For financial reasons, I do one fifteenminute broadcast a day; and to get the material for this, the radio company has installed in my office here at “Westbourne” the same high-speed teletype machine and the famous “A wire” of the Associated Press that serve the leading newspapers of the country. It is a most remarkable experience to have that wire ticking away at furious pace from 3 to 8 A.M., while I “talk” with Washington and listen to the debate in the Continental Congress. It makes me think often of that line in which Matthew Arnold tells how the East

”… let the legions thunder past And plunged in thought again.”

[Freeman now says he has finished Volume HI, thus passing the halfway mark, and is now finishing checking its footnotes. Volume HI takes Washington’s life from his marriage in January, 1759, to the receipt by the Army on July 9, 1776, of news of the Declaration of Independence.

He resumes:]

The research on this volume has been full of interesting problems. First, of course, was the one mentioned in previous reports—that of “making sense” of Washington’s financial records. I hope we have succeeded in showing why and how he failed as a tobacco grower, and what he did afterwards in building up his wheat crop and his flour trade. He was a bold plunger in real estate speculation and he spent freely, sometimes ostentatiously. The land he received as a bounty—the counterpart of the modern-day soldier’s bonus—was responsible for much of the increase in his real estate. At his death in 1799 he held intact a considerable part of the land he prevailed on the government to grant him for his service in 1754. Incidentally, he never was able to discharge his debt to his principal English merchants—the debt assumed in order to restore “rundown” Mount Vernon—until he got money left his wife by her epileptic daughter who died when she was still a minor.

[ Freeman then remarks that it is surprising to find Washington displaying so much ability immediately after his arrival in army command in Boston on July 2, /775. Nothing in his earlier career indicated that he had the qualities of vision, judgment, patience and managerial ability which he showed after taking command of the army. He resumes: ]