Kathryn Jean Lopez: More than anything, George Washington wanted to be home for Christmas in 1783. No need for honors or titles. You write, “Washington seemed above human ambition.” Was he? How did he get that way?
Stanley Weintraub: I used the word “seemed” because he wanted always to appear above ambition. When he went to the Continental Congress, which was held to appoint a commander-in-chief for the united colonies at war, he wore his old British colonel’s uniform from the French and Indian War, to demonstrate his experience and seniority. He got the job. When he accepted the position of president of the Constitutional Convention in 1786-87, he knew that it would create a chief-executive position, and that he would be likely to get the nomination. He did. When in 1783 he went home from the war, he wanted very much, after more than eight years in top command, to have some respite from responsibility, to return to his plantation and finish rebuilding Mount Vernon, but the journey home convinced him that the states were much too disunited for a complete withdrawal from public life, and he edited the language of finality from his farewell address to the Congress.
Lopez: How did George Washington manage to get home by Christmas Eve?
Weintraub: Washington got home by horse, wagon, and barges across rivers. He had no idea that he would actually make it by Christmas, but the weather was mild until Christmas Day, when there was heavy snow. By then he was back.
Lopez: Where there moments (and days) it looked like he was not going to get his wish?
Weintraub: Washington’s wish to retire (at least for the present) was genuine, but everywhere he went he realized that the outpourings of respect and admiration were in part to induce him to remain in public life. Yet he knew that stepping down would put pressure on the states to become less selfish and independent. He was determined to get his wish to retire, for both public goals and private desire.
Lopez: How hard was it to piece together the details and chronology of Washington’s long pre-Christmas farewell?
Weintraub: Few letters and diaries survive that detail Washington’s travel home. I used whatever original descriptions remain. He kept no diary then but he did keep expense accounts which survive, and the colonial newspapers covered much of his journey–not from reporters who traveled along–none did–but from local accounts. I went back to this press coverage to supplement the personal documentation. The artistic views painted later were imaginative and often inaccurate, yet still mislead some historians.
Lopez: Martha Washington burned most of her husband’s letters to her (and he was an inconsistent journal keeper)? Any idea why? Did the Washington’s have no sense of the curiosity history we would have for them and the record of events?
Weintraub: Martha Washington was not proud of her writing abilities, especially her spelling. She was also protective of her domestic privacy. Washington on the other hand saved trunks of documents related to the military record, and had them shipped home. I detail this in the early pages of the book.
Lopez: Washington’s final farewell to Congress on December 23 made people weep. Was it his rhetoric? Was it the gravity of the historic moment?
Weintraub: Washington’s first (and final, he hoped) farewell to public life was moving in its simplicity–he wrote it himself–and significant in its recognition of the need for the new republic to have civilian, not military, leadership. Also for its call to the states to give up some precious sovereignty to a central government. The gravity of the moment, besides–his returning to civilian life after more than eight years of being the primary symbol of independence and of union, brought people to tears. Men could shed tears back then!
Lopez: You say that speech to Congress was “the most significant address ever delivered to a civil society.” How so?
Weintraub: The reasons we’ve discussed, as I explain in more detail in the book, made the address the most crucial statement of policy ever delivered in America. It set the nation on the path to civilian government not dependent on a military leadership.
Lopez: Are there any speeches in history comparable to the Washington Dec. 1783 farewell?
Weintraub: There are no speeches like it in American history. Some addresses have more glowing rhetoric that he could furnish. Some set significant policy, like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address or Kennedy’s challenging inaugural address, but Washington set the tone for the republic. His so-called “Farewell Address,” by the way, was never actually delivered. It was published in a newspaper toward the close of his presidency, and largely written by Madison and Hamilton.
Lopez: Are there any politicians today you could envision giving such a speech, having such an impact? Whose return home would bring men to tears?
Weintraub: I can envision no one in our times making such an impact with a speech. The memorable “return home” speech in my time was General Douglas MacArthur’s address to Congress in April 1951–the “old soldiers never die” speech. Some listeners called his resonant address “the voice of God.” I remember it personally because it was two days after I was activated as an army second lieutenant! In the audiotape of my book MacArthur’s War I have the general’s own voice used, not an actor’s. But MacArthur’s advice for widening the Korean War was discredited and he faded from public life. Yet the address remains a magnificent piece of theater.
Lopez: What did Christmas in Mount Vernon look like? Was it typical for an American Christmas of the day-save for the hero general in attendance?
Weintraub: Mount Vernon in 1783 still did not have the now-familiar cupola, or many of its outbuildings. Washington wanted to complete its reconstruction. It snowed heavily on Christmas Day, and it is hard now to visualize Mount Vernon totally isolated by snowdrifts, as it was the day after the general’s return.
Lopez: “His Christmases [were] more hearty than solemn,” you write. What did Christmas mean to Washington?
Weintraub: Christmas to most Virginia planters meant fox hunting, feasts of meat pies, guns shot into the air, Yule logs that meant freedom from work by servants (and slaves) as long as they burned, and festive drinking and conviviality, and “Christmas boxes”–usually a coin or two–for the servants, given on “Boxing Day,” the day after Christmas. Not much churchgoing. Churches were often too far away by horseback and wagon for a family. Washington’s church at Powhick was attended mostly by Martha. He invoked the Deity on occasion in speeches but he was not profoundly religious in the sense of prayer and church attendance. Our traditional Christmases, with Christmas trees, were still decades away.