George Washington Quotes on the Revolutionary War: The Man, the Myth

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George Washington Quotes on the Revolutionary War: The Man, the Myth

George Washington looms large in the history of the United States. So much of the man of Washington, however, has been lost to the myth of Washington. We’ve all heard the stories: he never told a lie, he chopped down a cherry tree, he had wooden teeth. But these are just stories, cooked up by later generations to instill a sense of pride in what it means to be American. How, then, should we approach the real Washington? While we might not be able to get to the bottom of this problem in a blog post, examining a few key George Washington quotes from the Revolutionary War can give us some insight into the man and what he thought about the country he was helping to forge. 

Taking the Helm With a Point to Prove

“As to pay, Sir, I beg leave to Assure the Congress that as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to have accepted this Arduous emploiment at the expence of my domestk ease & happi⟨ness⟩, I do not wish to make any proffit from it.” 1

Washington had spent his entire life trying to earn entry into the upper crust of Virginia society. He was born to a father who was well off, but not aristocratic; he made a decent living as surveyor, but didn’t strike it rich; he married into a wealthy family, but didn’t have the pedigree of birth; he tried, unsuccessfully, for years to get recognition as an officer in the British army, rather than the Virginia militia. 

All of this hurt his pride and sense of honor.2

To show that he was the genteel Virginia planter he had always yearned to become, he declined to be paid for his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. He couldn’t have people thinking he needed the money, after all. 

In fact, Washington had pulled this move when serving in the Seven Years’ War. After having resigned over concerns with his rank, he agreed to rejoin the Virginia militia as an officer under the British general Edward Braddock on his march to meet the French in the Ohio country. “I can surely say,” Washington wrote William Byrd, a wealthy Virginia planter whose life Washington surely wanted a piece of, “I have no expectation of reward but the hope of meriting the love of my country and friendly regard of my acquaintances.” 3

As a young man, Washington was clearly concerned with his reputation, at least among the elite of tidewater Virginia. Decades later, after he’d acquired the trappings of the life he’d so long sought, Washington still seems to have felt the need to defend his honor by rejecting payment, expecting only the gratitude of those for whom he fought.       

A Military Man

“Brothers, I am a Warrior.” 4

For practically his entire life, Washington had dreamed of military glory. When he was a mere boy of eight, his step-brother Lawrence (whose life and death played a large role in Washington’s development) joined the Virginia regiment.5 As young boys have always done, Washington surely watched, envied, and emulated the successes of his older sibling. In just two years, Lawrence made the rank of major – the same rank that Washington would hold ten years later after joining the regiment himself. 

By 1752, Washington was 20 years old and a major in the Virginia militia. The next year young George made the harrowing 300 journey to the Ohio country to deliver a message to the commanding French officer. For his troubles, which nearly cost him life, Washington received acclaim from as far away as London.

In 1754, now a colonel, Washington, while leading 300 of his fellow Virginians into the Ohio country, attacked a French scouting troop, kicking off the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in the colonies).6 Over the next four years, Washington showed an impressive combination of determination, bravery, and willingness to threaten resignation if he didn’t get his way. 

Though he spilled a lot of ink to the governor of Virginia explaining his qualms about his rank and squabbles with other commanders, he did prove himself a leader during one of the British’s most disastrous defeats of the war. Led by General Braddock, the British had walked themselves into an ambush and began taking heavy fire from French and Native American forces on both sides of their formation. After the leading officers were downed by the musket fire, Washington clambered onto a vacant horse and tried to rally the men. 

Despite later finding several bullet holes in his jacket, Washington wrote to his mother, “I escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side of me.”7 

Even after he resigned his rank from the Virginia forces, he seemed to consider himself a military man. Years later when posing for a portrait, even after the ease of landed life had made its way into his love handles, he still squeezed into the uniform he’d worn as a svelte 20 something, determined to look the part of a soldier. 

The Birth of Vaccination Leads to the Birth of a Nation

“That the Army may be kept as clean as possible of this terrible disorder [small pox], I have recommended it to every State, which is to send Troops to the Army in this department, immediately to begin upon the innoculation of their Recruits, and to continue till they have gone thro’ the whole … We intend for the present to keep the Matter as much a Secret as possible, and I would Advise you to do the same.” 8

A precursor of vaccination, inoculation was a process by which physicians inserted the excretions of a smallpox blister into a cut on the patient’s arm. Though, unlike modern vaccination, the process was dangerous. If the inoculated individual survived, they were effectively protected against smallpox moving forward. 

Due to these dangers, in 1776 the Continental Congress had attempted to put the kibosh on inoculation within the 13 rebelling colonies. But, that kind of backfired. Like most military conflicts before the advent of modern medicine, disease killed more soldiers in the American Revolution than cannon or musket fire. And, in the first year of the conflict, smallpox was a chief contributor to the death tolls. 

Showing the true side of his military genius, Washington went against Congress and ordered all troops in the Continental Army inoculated against smallpox in 1777. While it seems simple enough to the modern reader, this was no small feat in His Excellency’s day. Historians estimate that around 25% of American troops had previously been exposed to the virus, either through infection or inoculation. That left a whopping three-quarters of his troops, stretching from New England to Georgia, that needed to be inoculated. 

To get this done, Washington showed an enormous amount of trust in his officers. In February of 1777, Washington communicated in secret with his commanders, giving them orders on how to carry out the mass inoculations of their men.9 

This mandate by Washington saved countless lives. But he did not simply talk the talk, as shown by a letter in which he describes the inoculation of his own wife: 

“Mrs Washington is now under Innoculation in this City; & will, I expect, have the Small pox favourably—this is the 13th day, and she has very few Pustules.”10

A Revolutionary Contradiction

“The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their houses and farms…” 11

In his writings, Washington made several references to the ‘slavery’ that would await Americans should they lose the war. It apparently never occurred to him (nor many others of the revolutionary generation) that equating their relationship with the British to slavery when, he himself owned slaves, was, well, pretty shitty.

The fact of the matter is, Washington officially became a slave owner at the age of 11. At an age when most of us are trying to figure out algebra, Washington had the lives of eight people signed over to him. When his father, Augustine, died in 1743, George inherited 280 acres and these eight slaves. Over the course of his life, Washington would continue to buy and inherit slaves. By 1799, 317 enslaved people lived on Mount Vernon’s grounds.12

Even his backing of Gradual Abolition and the clause in his will which declared that all the slaves he owned should be freed upon the death of his wife, Martha, allowed Washington to make the most of the institution while he was alive. Sadder still, once Martha passed, all the slaves of Mount Vernon were not freed, as 150 of them were ‘dower slaves,’ meaning they belonged to Martha (and thus George). Martha never freed these men, women, and children, and instead forced them to be divided up and sent to live on the land owned by her four siblings.13   

The Tax Man

“It may be laid down as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even his personal services to the defence of it, and consequently that the Citizens of America (with a few legal and official exceptions) from 18 to 50 Years of Age should be borne on the Militia Rolls, provided with uniform Arms, and so far accustomed to the use of them, that the Total strength of the Country might be called forth at a Short Notice on any very interesting Emergency.” 14

Clearly, before the United States had even won its independence, Washington was envisioning a nation in which every citizen contributed to the whole via taxes and a proto-draft. While anti-taxation rallying cries have become much of what lives on in public memory about the revolution, the man we remember as its leader viewed taxes as necessary. 

He later put his money where his mouth was. During his first term as president, a revolt, now known as the Whiskey Rebellion, broke out in western Pennsylvania over increased taxes on whiskey. While the newly minted federal government hoped to use these taxes to reduce the debt the young nation had accrued during the revolution, the farmers and distillers who faced the brunt of the tax felt it was unjust.15 So they did what they did the last time a less-than-equitable tax was passed – rebelled. 

Intent on ensuring the power and authority of the federal government, Washington raised 13,000 militia men to squelch the uprising.16 In what Washington biographer Alexis Coe has deemed “the biggest overreaction of his life,” Washington, now in his 60s, rode along with the small army he had raised.17 While the rebellion fell apart before any violence erupted, Washington proved his point – the federal government, and the taxes it imposed, were legitimate. 

Animal Lover

“General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.” 18

George Washington loved animals, especially dogs. He loved dogs so much, in fact, that when the dog belonging to General Howe, the head of the British forces Washington was actively trying to kill, wandered into his camp, Washington made sure the little guy made it home safe and sound. 

Over the years, Mount Vernon played home to various breeds, such as Newfoundlands, terriers, spaniels, and, Washington’s own GMO, the American Foxhound.19 That’s right, Washington invented a dog breed. A dedicated hunter, Washington wanted “a superior dog, one that had speed, sense, and brains.” So, he set out trying to make his own breed. What he called Virginia Hounds, and are today recognized as American Foxhounds, were the product of his mad science.20  

While George may have become interested in dogs for their utility in hunting, he and Martha certainly seem to have become the kind of annoying dog people we still like to make fun of today, giving their dogs names like Tipsy, Mopsey, Truelove, Ragman, Vulcan, Madame Moose, and, my personal favorite, Sweetlips.21 

His love of animals went beyond dogs. Apart from the ubiquitous farm animals, Washington made Mount Vernon home to cats, mules (which old George also bred), bison (which George wanted to breed), parrots, bees, goldfish, and even once brought in a camel to entertain guests.22  

Though Washington definitely had a more utility-driven relationship to animals than most of us do today, there’s no denying he was his day’s version of an animal lover.

An Unbelievable Abdication 

“Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action.” 23

When George Washington relinquished his power over the American forces at the end of the war, he truly shocked the world. In a time when European monarchs and their empires dominated arguably half the globe, giving up control over an army, especially a victorious one, was unheard of.

Mimicking the story of Cincinnatus, a retired Roman general who dusted off his shield and sword to lead Roman forces to victory and then gave up command and returned to his farm after the war had been won, Washington hoped his actions would inspire virtue in other citizens of the new republic.

It worked. There’s even reports of those present at the ceremony in Annapolis, Maryland weeping as Washington relinquished his post.

Across the Atlantic, King George III himself said that Washington would be “the greatest man in the world” if he went through with the plan.24

Sources on George Washington Quotes and the Revolutionary War

  1. John L. Smith, Jr., “45 Genuine Washington Quotes During the Revolutionary War,” allthingsliberty.com
  2. Peter Stark, Young Washington: How Wilderness and War Forged America’s Founding Father (New York: Harper Collins, 2018), 190-191.
  3. Stark,Young Washington, 192.
  4. John L. Smith, Jr., “45 Genuine Washington Quotes During the Revolutionary War,” allthingsliberty.com
  5. “Washington’s Military Career,” pages.drexel.edu
  6. “Chronology: Early Military Career,” georgewashington.si.edu
  7. “Chronology: Early Military Career,” georgewashington.si.edu
  8. John L. Smith, Jr., “45 Genuine Washington Quotes During the Revolutionary War,” allthingsliberty.com
  9. Amy Lynn Filsinger and Raymond Dwek, “George Washington and the First Mass Military Inoculation,”  https://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/GW&smallpoxinoculation.html
  10. Smith, Jr., “45 Genuine Washington Quotes During the Revolutionary War,” allthingsliberty.com
  11. “Washington Quotes on Military,” mountvernon.org
  12. “10 Facts About Washington & Slavery,” mountvernon.org
  13. Alexis Coe, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington (New York: Penguin Books: 2020), 204.
  14. “Washington Quotes on Military,” mountvernon.org
  15. “Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794): Welcome,” guides.library.duq.edu/whiskeyrebellion
  16. “Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794): Welcome,” guides.library.duq.edu/whiskeyrebellion
  17. Coe, You Never Forget Your First, 157
  18. John L. Smith, Jr., “45 Genuine Washington Quotes During the Revolutionary War,” allthingsliberty.com
  19. “Soldier, Statesman, Dog Lover: George Washington’s Pups,” mountvernon.org
  20. Denise Flaim, “By George: A Founding Father and his American Foxhounds,” akc.org/expert-advice/dog-breeds/by-george-washington-american-foxhounds/
  21. “Soldier, Statesman, Dog Lover: George Washington’s Pups,” and “Dogs,” mountvernon.org
  22. “The Animals on Geroge Washingtn’s Farm,” mountvernon.org
  23. “Washington Quotes on Military,” mountvernon.org
  24. “George Washington’s Resignation,” msa.maryland.gov

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