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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
By George Bancroft (1800–1891)
From ‘History of the United States’

THEN, on the fifteenth of June, it was voted to appoint a general. Thomas Johnson, of Maryland, nominated George Washington; and as he had been brought forward “at the particular request of the people of New England,” he was elected by ballot unanimously.  1
  Washington was then forty-three years of age. In stature he a little exceeded six feet; his limbs were sinewy and well-proportioned; his chest broad; his figure stately, blending dignity of presence with ease. His robust constitution had been tried and invigorated by his early life in the wilderness, the habit of occupation out of doors, and rigid temperance; so that few equaled him in strength of arm, or power of endurance, or noble horsemanship. His complexion was florid; his hair dark brown; his head in its shape perfectly round. His broad nostrils seemed formed to give expression and escape to scornful anger. His eyebrows were rayed and finely arched. His dark-blue eyes, which were deeply set, had an expression of resignation, and an earnestness that was almost pensiveness. His forehead was sometimes marked with thought, but never with inquietude; his countenance was mild and pleasing and full of benignity.  2
  At eleven years old left an orphan to the care of an excellent but unlettered mother, he grew up without learning. Of arithmetic and geometry he acquired just knowledge enough to be able to practice measuring land; but all his instruction at school taught him not so much as the orthography or rules of grammar of his own tongue. His culture was altogether his own work, and he was in the strictest sense a self-made man; yet from his early life he never seemed uneducated. At sixteen, he went into the wilderness as a surveyor, and for three years continued the pursuit, where the forests trained him, in meditative solitude, to freedom and largeness of mind; and nature revealed to him her obedience to serene and silent laws. In his intervals from toil, he seemed always to be attracted to the best men, and to be cherished by them. Fairfax, his employer, an Oxford scholar, already aged, became his fast friend. He read little, but with close attention. Whatever he took in hand he applied himself to with care; and his papers, which have been preserved, show how he almost imperceptibly gained the power of writing correctly; always expressing himself with clearness and directness, often with felicity of language and grace.  3
  When the frontiers on the west became disturbed, he at nineteen was commissioned an adjutant-general with the rank of major. At twenty-one, he went as the envoy of Virginia to the council of Indian chiefs on the Ohio, and to the French officers near Lake Erie. Fame waited upon him from his youth; and no one of his colony was so much spoken of. He conducted the first military expedition from Virginia that crossed the Alleghanies. Braddock selected him as an aid, and he was the only man who came out of the disastrous defeat near the Monongahela with increased reputation, which extended to England. The next year, when he was but four-and-twenty, “the great esteem” in which he was held in Virginia, and his “real merit,” led the lieutenant-governor of Maryland to request that he might be “commissioned and appointed second in command” of the army designed to march to the Ohio; and Shirley, the commander-in-chief, heard the proposal “with great satisfaction and pleasure,” for “he knew no provincial officer upon the continent to whom he would so readily give that rank as to Washington.” In 1758 he acted under Forbes as a brigadier, and but for him that general would never have crossed the mountains.  4
  Courage was so natural to him that it was hardly spoken of to his praise; no one ever at any moment of his life discovered in him the least shrinking in danger; and he had a hardihood of daring which escaped notice, because it was so enveloped by superior calmness and wisdom.  5
  His address was most easy and agreeable; his step firm and graceful; his air neither grave nor familiar. He was as cheerful as he was spirited, frank and communicative in the society of friends, fond of the fox-chase and the dance, often sportive in his letters, and liked a hearty laugh. “His smile,” writes Chastellux, “was always the smile of benevolence.” This joyousness of disposition remained to the last, though the vastness of his responsibilities was soon to take from him the right of displaying the impulsive qualities of his nature, and the weight which he was to bear up was to overlay and repress his gayety and openness.  6
  His hand was liberal; giving quietly and without observation, as though he was ashamed of nothing but being discovered in doing good. He was kindly and compassionate, and of lively sensibility to the sorrows of others; so that, if his country had only needed a victim for its relief, he would have willingly offered himself as a sacrifice. But while he was prodigal of himself, he was considerate for others; ever parsimonious of the blood of his countrymen.  7
  He was prudent in the management of his private affairs, purchased rich lands from the Mohawk valley to the flats of the Kanawha, and improved his fortune by the correctness of his judgment; but, as a public man, he knew no other aim than the good of his country, and in the hour of his country’s poverty he refused personal emolument for his service.  8
  His faculties were so well balanced and combined that his constitution, free from excess, was tempered evenly with all the elements of activity, and his mind resembled a well-ordered commonwealth; his passions, which had the intensest vigor, owned allegiance to reason; and with all the fiery quickness of his spirit, his impetuous and massive will was held in check by consummate judgment. He had in his composition a calm, which gave him in moments of highest excitement the power of self-control, and enabled him to excel in patience, even when he had most cause for disgust. Washington was offered a command when there was little to bring out the unorganized resources of the continent but his own influence, and authority was connected with the people by the most frail, most attenuated, scarcely discernible threads; yet, vehement as was his nature, impassioned as was his courage, he so retained his ardor that he never failed continuously to exert the attractive power of that influence, and never exerted it so sharply as to break its force.  9
  In secrecy he was unsurpassed; but his secrecy had the character of prudent reserve, not of cunning or concealment. His great natural power of vigilance had been developed by his life in the wilderness.  10
  His understanding was lucid, and his judgment accurate; so that his conduct never betrayed hurry or confusion. No detail was too minute for his personal inquiry and continued supervision; and at the same time he comprehended events in their widest aspects and relations. He never seemed above the object that engaged his attention, and he was always equal, without an effort, to the solution of the highest questions, even when there existed no precedents to guide his decision. In the perfection of the reflective powers, which he used habitually, he had no peer.  11
  In this way he never drew to himself admiration for the possession of any one quality in excess, never made in council any one suggestion that was sublime but impracticable, never in action took to himself the praise or the blame of undertakings astonishing in conception, but beyond his means of execution. It was the most wonderful accomplishment of this man that, placed upon the largest theatre of events, at the head of the greatest revolution in human affairs, he never failed to observe all that was possible, and at the same time to bound his aspirations by that which was possible.  12
  A slight tinge in his character, perceptible only to the close observer, revealed the region from which he sprung, and he might be described as the best specimen of manhood as developed in the South; but his qualities were so faultlessly proportioned that his whole country rather claimed him as its choicest representative, the most complete expression of all its attainments and aspirations. He studied his country and conformed to it. His countrymen felt that he was the best type of America, and rejoiced in it, and were proud of it. They lived in his life, and made his success and his praise their own.  13
  Profoundly impressed with confidence in God’s providence, and exemplary in his respect for the forms of public worship, no philosopher of the eighteenth century was more firm in the support of freedom of religious opinion, none more remote from bigotry; but belief in God, and trust in his overruling power, formed the essence of his character. Divine wisdom not only illumines the spirit, it inspires the will. Washington was a man of action, and not of theory or words; his creed appears in his life, not in his professions, which burst from him very rarely, and only at those great moments of crisis in the fortunes of his country, when earth and heaven seemed actually to meet, and his emotions became too intense for suppression; but his whole being was one continued act of faith in the eternal, intelligent, moral order of the universe. Integrity was so completely the law of his nature, that a planet would sooner have shot from its sphere than he have departed from his uprightness, which was so constant that it often seemed to be almost impersonal. “His integrity was the most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known,” writes Jefferson: “no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision.”  14
  They say of Giotto that he introduced goodness into the art of painting; Washington carried it with him to the camp and the Cabinet, and established a new criterion of human greatness. The purity of his will confirmed his fortitude: and as he never faltered in his faith in virtue, he stood fast by that which he knew to be just; free from illusions; never dejected by the apprehension of the difficulties and perils that went before him, and drawing the promise of success from the justice of his cause. Hence he was persevering, leaving nothing unfinished; devoid of all taint of obstinacy in his firmness; seeking and gladly receiving advice, but immovable in his devotedness to right.  15
  Of a “retiring modesty and habitual reserve,” his ambition was no more than the consciousness of his power, and was subordinate to his sense of duty; he took the foremost place, for he knew from inborn magnanimity that it belonged to him, and he dared not withhold the service required of him; so that, with all his humility, he was by necessity the first, though never for himself or for private ends. He loved fame, the approval of coming generations, the good opinion of his fellow-men of his own time, and he desired to make his conduct coincide with his wishes; but not fear of censure, not the prospect of applause could tempt him to swerve from rectitude, and the praise which he coveted was the sympathy of that moral sentiment which exists in every human breast, and goes forth only to the welcome of virtue.  16
  There have been soldiers who have achieved mightier victories in the field, and made conquests more nearly corresponding to the boundlessness of selfish ambition; statesmen who have been connected with more startling upheavals of society: but it is the greatness of Washington that in public trusts he used power solely for the public good; that he was the life and moderator and stay of the most momentous revolution in human affairs; its moving impulse and its restraining power. Combining the centripetal and the centrifugal forces in their utmost strength and in perfect relations, with creative grandeur of instinct he held ruin in check, and renewed and perfected the institutions of his country. Finding the colonies disconnected and dependent, he left them such a united and well-ordered commonwealth as no visionary had believed to be possible. So that it has been truly said, “he was as fortunate as great and good.”  17
  This also is the praise of Washington: that never in the tide of time has any man lived who had in so great a degree the almost divine faculty to command the confidence of his fellow-men and rule the willing. Wherever he became known, in his family, his neighborhood, his county, his native State, the continent, the camp, civil life, among the common people, in foreign courts, throughout the civilized world, and even among the savages, he, beyond all other men, had the confidence of his kind.  18

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