The Freeman Letters On George Washington

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Four features of the completed study of May, 1778December, 1783 should be reported. The first is the accumulation of a mass of evidence to show that the winter of 1779–80 at Morristown and Jockey Hollow was a period of far worse suffering than the corresponding months of 1777–78 at Valley Forge.

This evidence is not going to upset tradition. Valley Forge has become emotionally the symbol of patient suffering during the Revolution, and it will remain so, though one finds it somewhat perplexing to know why the hunger and shivering of Morristown have been so nearly forgotten while the miseries of the gloomy camp on the Schuylkill are known to every child in the fifth grade.

The great adventure of co-operation with the French is a second feature of Volume V. An unhappy adventure it was at the outset! Worse bungling than that of Major General John Sullivan in dealing with Comte d’Estaing, the French naval commander, would be difficult to find. After the coming of Rochambeau, cooperation was easier in every way. All that I suggested in my report of January 4 concerning this great French soldier has been confirmed by a review of the evidence. Rochambeau should stand second only to Lafayette among the Frenchmen of the Revolution era to whom the American people are indebted. …

The whole story of American and French co-operation in 1778–82 has present application. At our Armed Forces Staff College, special stress is being laid on the diplomatic function of the senior staff. When this study at the college began in August, 1952, it was the desire of the faculty that this initial chapter in co-operation with the forces of our ally in 1778–82 should be the theme of the opening lecture at the school.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect—and certainly the least familiar—of the operations of the Revolutionary War proves to be the great concentration of the American and French forces on the Virginia Peninsula in the later summer and early autumn of 1781. Personally I was quite unprepared for so finished a military performance as this third feature of the book proved to be. … When one reflects on the difficulties Washington had to overcome because of his financial distress, his feeble transportation, and his officers’ lack of familiarity with French military practices, the concentration ranks with the Trenton-Princeton campaign as Washington’s greatest success in arms. It may be more than that; so far as my limited knowledge runs, this was one of the most efficient concentrations of modern war.

No surprise of the study has been more startling to the author than the fourth of those here considered, the light in which the character of Washington shone at the end of the war. It is an amazing illustration of Browning’s “after last returns the first.” The achievements of Washington are not explicable in any other terms than those of moral integrity that had been his “from his youth up.” As the conclusions are set forth extensively in the introduction to Volume V and in the final chapter of that volume, I shall add no more than this: From the meagre historical evidence available to them, the early biographers of Washington could not trace the delicate and numerous changes that came in his point of view and in his opinion of himself, but in the emphasis they put on his absolute dependability in every moral test, these biographers were much closer to the truth than the “debunkers” ever could hope to come.

[ Freeman then discusses his work on Volume VI. He tells of finding new source material and of making new discoveries, particularly in connection with the efforts to frame a new constitution. He continues: ]

A few of these papers have been examined by students of the period of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 but the bulk of them, I think, was never studied in detail until my young assistant in the Library of Congress, John A. Carroll, began that formidable task early this year. His results—I speak confidentially on this—show clearly that no argument was so frequently advanced in the winter of 1787–88 than that the Philadelphia constitution could be approved because Washington and Franklin had helped to write and had signed it. The country could trust a system of government these two, Washington in particular, had endorsed. Evidence on this point is quite dramatic.

In a different sphere of the research, it has been brought to light, also, that Washington’s financial difficulties after the Revolution were dangerously acute. He was one of the best farmers of his day in Virginia, but he was extravagant and in trying to lease or to sell his greatest asset, his western lands, he demanded more than purchasers would pay. He does not appear in his own ledgers and correspondence as the sagacious businessman he is supposed to have been.

Not to delay you too long, I think you will be amused by one more discovery. Mrs. Martha Washington had little formal education, and in letter-writing she was almost as defective as Washington’s mother. About 1787 there was a marked improvement in the style and in the spelling of Martha’s letters. This remained something of a mystery until Miss [Gertrude R. B.] Richards, one of my assistants, came upon two papers, side by side. One was a careful letter, ostensibly by Martha, in her husband’s handwriting, the other was Martha’s own copy from it—and none too good a copy at that. In other words, the General began to write Martha’s letters and she copied and signed what he had set before her. We shall use these two documents as an illustration in Volume VI.