« ZurückWeiter »
United States, and the improvements of Mr. Sparks only served to hide the real man.” If Washington had been of coarse fibre and heavy mind, this lack of education would have troubled him but little. His great success in that case would have served only to convince him of the uselessness of education except for inferior persons, who could not get along in the world without artificial aids. As it was, he never ceased to regret his deficiency in this respect, and when Humphreys urged him to prepare a history or memoirs of the war, he replied: “In a former letter I informed you, my dear Humphreys, that if I had talent for it, I have not leisure to turn my thoughts to commentaries. A consciousness of a defective education and a certainty of a want of time unfit me for such an undertaking.” He was misled by his own modesty as to his capacity, but his strong feeling as to his lack of schooling haunted and troubled him always, although it did not make him either indifferent or bitter. He only admired more that which he himself had missed. He regarded education, and especially the higher forms, with an almost pathetic reverence, and its advancement was never absent from his thoughts. When he was made chancellor of the college of William and Mary, he was more deeply pleased than by any honor ever conferred upon him, and he accepted the position with a diffidence and a seriousness which were touching in such a man. In the same spirit he gave money to the Alexandria Academy, and every scheme to promote public education in Virginia had his eager support. His interest was not confined by state lines, for there was nothing so near his heart as the foundation of a national university. He urged its establishment upon Congress over and over again, and, as has been seen, left money in his will for its endowment. All his sympathies and tastes were those of a man of refined mind, and of a lover of scholarship and sound learning. Naturally a very modest man, and utterly devoid of any pretence, he underrated, as a matter of fact, his own accomplishments. He distrusted himself so much that he always turned to Hamilton, both during the Revolution and afterwards, as well as in the preparation of the farewell address, to aid him in clothing his thoughts in a proper dress, which he felt himself unable to give them. His tendency was to be too diffuse and too involved, but as a rule his style was sufficiently clear, and he could express himself with nervous force when the occasion demanded, and with a genuine and stately eloquence when he was deeply moved, as in the farewell to Congress at the close of the war. It is not a little remarkable that in his letters after the first years there is nothing to betray any lack of early training. They are the letters, not of a scholar or a literary man, but of an educated gentleman; and although he seldom indulged in similes or allusions, when he did so they were apt and correct. This was due to his perfect sanity of mind, and to his aversion to all display or to any attempt to shine in borrowed plumage. He never undertook to speak or write on any subject, or to make any reference, which he did not understand. He was a lover of books, collected a library, and read always as much as his crowded life would permit. When he was at Newburgh, at the close of the war, he wrote to Colonel Smith in New York to send him the following books : –
1 These facts in regard to Washington's early letters, and to his correspondence generally, were first brought to public attention by the Reed letters, and by the controversy between Mr. Sparks and Lord Mahon. They have, of course, been long familiar to students of the original manuscripts. The full extent, however, of the changes made by Mr. Sparks, and of the mischief he wrought, and of the injustice thus done both to his hero and to posterity, has but just been made known generally by the new edition of Washington's papers now in course of publication, under the supervision of Mr. W. C. Ford. Washington himself, when he undertook to arrange his military and state papers after his retirement from the presidency, began to correct the style of some of his earlier letters. This was natural enough, and he had a right to do what he pleased with his own, even if he thereby injured the material of the future historian and biographer. But he did not proceed far in his work, and the fact that he corrected a few of his own letters gave Mr. Sparks no right whatever to enter upon a wholesale revision.
“Charles the XIIth of Sweden, Lewis the XVth, 2 vols., History of the Life and Reign of the Czar Peter the Great, Campaigns of Marshal Turenne. Locke on the Human Understanding. Robertson's History of America, 2 vols. Robertson's History of Charles W.
Life of Gustavus Adolphus.
Goldsmith's Natural History.
Mildman on Trees.
Vertot's Revolution of Rome, 3 vols. If they are in
Vertot's Revolution of Portugal, 3 vols. estimation.
If there is a good Bookseller's shop in the City, I would thank you for sending me a catalogue of the Books and their prices that I may choose such as I want.”
His tastes ran to history and to works treating of war or agriculture, as is indicated both by this list and some earlier ones. It is not probable that he gave so much attention to lighter literature, although he wrote verses in his youth, and by an occasional allusion in his letters he seems to have been familiar with some of the great works of the imagination, like “Don Quixote.” " He never freed himself from the self-distrust caused by his profound sense of his own deficiencies in education, on the one hand, and his deep reverence for learning, on the other. He had fought the Revolution, which opened the way for a new nation, and was at the height of his fame when he wrote to the French officers, who begged him to visit France, that he was “too old to learn 1. At his death the appraisers of the estate found 863 volumes in his library, besides a great number of pamphlets, magazines, and maps. This was a large collection of books for those days,
and showed that the possessor, although purely a man of affairs, loved reading and had literary tastes.
French or to talk with ladies; ” and it was this feeling in a large measure which kept him from ever being a maker of phrases or a sayer of brilliant things. In other words, the fact that he was modest and sensitive has been the chief cause of his being thought dull and cold. This idea, moreover, is wholly that of posterity, for there is not the slightest indication on the part of any contemporary that Washington could not talk well and did not appear to great advantage in society. It is posterity, looking with natural weariness at endless volumes of official letters with all the angles smoothed off by the editorial plane, that has come to suspect him of being dull in mind and heavy in wit. His contemporaries knew him to be dignified and often found him stern, but they never for a moment considered him stupid, or thought him a man at whom the shafts of wit could be shot with impunity. They were fully conscious that he was as able to hold his own in conversation as he was in the cabinet or in the field; and we can easily see the justice of contemporary opinion if we take the trouble to break through the official bark and get at the real man who wrote the letters. In many cases we find that he could employ irony and sarcasm with real force, and his powers of description, even if stilted at times, were vigorous and effective. All these qualities come out strongly in his letters, if carefully read, and his private correspondence in particular shows a keenness and point which the formalities of public intercourse veiled generally from view.