Revolutionary War Historical Article

George Washington's Sense of Humor

by Donald N. Moran

The influence of art and literature on western culture is not surprising. We see history through the eyes of those artists and writers who record it. They generally follow the thinking of their times. In the 18th century, the depiction of notables was done very seriously, and often in 'dark tones'. Sculptors depicted their subjects in neoclassical positions, The sculpture below depicts George Washington in a typical "Roman God" position.

Not until the advent of the camera do we find the depiction of national figures doing everyday things. President Calvin Coolidge was the first to pose for a motion picture doing some mundane things such as chopping wood, raking hay, etc.

Had we had an artist such as Norman Rockwell two hundred years ago, what a different view of that era we'd have today.

Biographers traditionally find it very difficult to discover the true personalities of public figures. They seem to fall into the trap of describing their subjects by their public image.

The early biographers of George Washington, Weems, Irving, Lossing, Sparks and Freeman all rejected any anecdotes that would, in their thinking, cast a contrary reflection on his image. This was done, not to diminish Washington's image, as a human being, but rather to place him above the common man with common virtues. They were writing about an icon.

Often a good source of information on the character of an individual is found in his correspondence to loved ones. In these letters, not intended for public consumption, one tends to let one's hair down. Unfortunately, George Washington's confident was his wife Martha, and she burned all his letters. A few, that were never delivered have survived and in them one find Washington sharing his most intimate thoughts and fears. Her reason for burning them, never stated, but is thought to be the same as the early biographers ­ preserving her husband's illustrious reputation.

With the passage of two hundred years and only traditional art to provide an image of Washington to us, is it any wonder that we see Washington as a staid, somber, severe, stone faced icon?

This was certainly not the case! Most of George Washington's letters and papers have been carefully edited, in his own time, to reflect the perceived public image. Very few instances of his sense of humor escaped his editors and their proverbial red pens. It is only when you carefully review materials about other individuals do you encounter the missing anecdotes.

One of the first instances in which-Washington's sense of humor is found in a letter to his brother John, written after Braddock's Defeat in 1755. "As I have heard since my arrival at this place, a circumstantial account of my death and dying speech. I take this early opportunity of ... contradicting the first, and assuring you that I have yet to compose the latter."

At the Morristown encampment, during the Revolutionary War, Washington bought a very spirited horse. One of his junior officers, boasting of his horsemanship, volunteered to break in the animal. No sooner had he mounted the horse, when he was thrown head-over-heels to the ground. Washington was so amused by the sight that Wayne Whipple recorded: "General Washington was so compulsed with laughter that it was declared, tears ran down his' cheeks". 2

As the young plantation owner of Mount Vernon, he exhibited his sense of humor in the names he selected for his pack of hunting hounds. Tipler, Truelove, Sweetlips, Singer, Music, Trial and Taster" 3 "

In 1785. Charles III, King of Spain, sent Washington, as a gift, a prized mule. The mule was the subject of much joking on the part of Washington. Probably the result of the long ocean voyage from Spain, the mule was very sluggish and of absolutely no use, other then to consume feed. Washington named him "Royal Gift", had a new stable erected and hoped that the mule would sire a new race of superior draft animals for America.

Unfortunately, Royal Gift scorned the great harem of brood mares brought in for his attention. Washington wrote: " . . . too full of Royalty to have anything to do with a pleneian race", To the Marquis de Lafayette he wrote: ". . . his late royal master, th' past his grand climacteric, cannot be less moved by female allurements than he is or when prompted, can proceed with more deliberation and majestic solemnity to the work of procreation. " 4

While serving as our first President, Washington attended William Dunlap's comedy, "Old Soldier" in Philadelphia. Actor Thomas Wignell portrayed "Darby", a clownish veteran of the Continental Army. When asked by another actor, in regard to Washington's appearance. 'Darby' responded with a soldier's exaggerated impression of the General. "All eyes in the theatre turned toward the Presidential box to witness Washington's hearty laugh". The next day, a Philadelphia newspaper reported the incident.

John Marshall reported this story. He and Washington's nephew, Bushrod Washington, both Justices of the Supreme Court, were summoned to Mount Vernon. They both knew Washington preferred neatness and cleanliness. Being very much covered with dust from the ride, they stopped just north of Mount Vernon for a quick bath in the Potomac and a change of clothes. When they returned ashore they were advised by their embarrassed servant, that at the last tavern they stopped at, they had somehow switched bags with those of a peddler. All that was in the bags were thimbles, scissors, threads, etc.

The state of the spluttering servant and their own predicament, standing there in their all together, brought Marshall and Bushrod to laughter. George Washington, on his daily ride around his plantation overheard the commotion and rode up to them. Marshall reported " . . . when the General saw their dilemma he as overcome by the ludicrousness of the two men that he actually rolled on the ground in merriment." 5

Some letters still exist in which examples of Washington's sense of humor can be found.

When he learned that the Marquis de Chastellux, who had served in the American Revolution as one of The Comte Rochambeau's Major Generals, was to be married. Washington wrote him: "1 can hardly refrain from smiling to find you caught at last. . . now you are well served for coming to fight in favor of the American rebels, all the way across the Atlantic ocean, by catching that terrible contagion - domestic felicity - which same, like smallpox, a man can have only once in his life." 7

During a dinner at Mount Vernon, in 1798, the General learned that a duel had been fought between New York Republican H. Brockholst Livingston and his political opponent Federalist James Jones. He commented "They say the shot Jones fired at his opponent cut a piece off his nose. How could he miss it? You know Mr. Livingston's nose and what a capitol target it is".

Another story told by the General at his dinner table involved his having attended a Dutch Reform Church service at York, Pennsylvania, during the war. "I went to hear morning service in the Dutch Reform Church, which, being in that language not a word of which I understood. I was in no danger of becoming a proselyte to its religion by the eloquence of the preacher." 8

At Valley Forge, after the arrival of the Baron von Steuben., Washington's staff arranged for a German speaking officer, Captain John Walker of the Pennsylvania Continental Line, to act as translator. The Baron spoke no English. On the day that the Baron was to demonstrate his new style of drill, a combination of the British and Prussian methods, modified for the independent thinking Americans. A demonstration company of soldiers from the Pennsylvania Line was mustered in front of Washington's headquarters. Von Steuben sternly told Captain Walker to translate every word exactly as he spoke it. Walker tried to offer a reason why he shouldn't, but the Baron cut him off. Von Steuben issued his first order, and Walker dutifully translated into English. Then the Company Sergeant repeated it in German. A second order was given, and again it went from German to English and back to German. Puzzled, Von Steuben turned and looked at General Washington, who was standing in front of his headquarters. Lt. Colonel Tench Tilghman, Aide-de­Camp to General Washington explained that he had personally selected a Company from the Pennsylvania Line made up of Pennsylvania Dutch - - they did not speak a word of English, only German.

The humor of the situation spread through the ranks and then men started laughing, Washington was laughing and finally so was the Baron. The Company was dismissed. Later Von Steuben started his training with an enlarged Commander-in-Chief Guard, who in turn trained the entire army in the new drill. 9

In 1782 the General wrote to Major Benjamin Tallmadge, "I commend you, however, for passing the time in as merry a manner as you possibly could; it is assuredly better to go laughing than crying thro' the rough journey of life." 10

After the victory at Yorktown, in the military tradition of the 18th Century, Generals Washington and Rochambeau entertained the defeated British Lord Charles Cornwallis, and according to the custom, being asked for a toast, General Rochambeau raising his glass offered: "The United States." General Washington, in turn, gave "The King of France." When Cornwallis's turn came he said, simply, "The King." "Of England," added Washington with a smile, "Keep him there and I'll drink him a full bumper!" 11

When serving as President, the press frequently attacked him and the government with vicious attacks (nothing has changed!). At first the attacks infuriated him, but as time went by, his sense of humor became his best defense. In one recorded incident, his third Secretary of War, James McHenry was being accused, by the press, of stealing from public funds. President Washington wrote to the accused: " . . . and pray, my good sir, what part of the $800,000 has come to your share? As you are in high office, I hope you did not disgrace yourself in acceptance of a paltry bribe - ­$100,000 perhaps?" 12

An interesting document found in George Washington's personal papers, dated April 23rd, 1787, at Mount Vernon, was an agreement with a Philip Bater, a gardener Washington wished to hire, who apparently had a problem with alcohol. It reads: Philip Bater, for, and in consideration of the covenant herein, hereafter, mentioned, doth promise and agree to serve the said George Washington, for the term of one year, as a Gardener, and that he will, during said time, conduct himself soberly, diligently and honestly, that he will faithfully and industriously perform all, and every part of his duty as a Gardener, to the best of his knowledge and abilities, and that he will not, at any time, suffer himself to be disguised with liquor, except on the times hereafter mentioned. In consideration of these things being well and truly performed on the part of said Philip Bater, the said George Washington doth agree to allow him. . . four dollars at Christmas with which he may be drunk 4 days and 4 nights, two dollars at Easter to effect the same purpose; two dollars also at Whitsuntide, to be drunk two days, a Dram in the morning and a drink of Grog at Dinner or at Noon." 13

The agreement is in the hand of the General's nephew, George Augustine Washington and signed by both Bater and the General.

General Washington obviously possessed a sense of humor, even if his contemporaries tried to conceal it from us. These few documented examples only serve to enhance our opinion of the Father of our country.

NOTES:

1. "George Washington, the Pictorial Biography" by: Clark Kinnaird

2. "Washington's Sense of Humor" by: Wayne Whipple

3. "George Washington and Mount Vernon" Long Island Hist. Soc.

4. "General Washington and the Jackass" by: J. H. Powell

5. "Washington and the Theatre" by: Paul L. Ford

6. "George Washington,the Pictorial History" by: Clark Kinnaird

7. Remarks of the Travels of the Marquis de Chastellux: by: William Abbott

8. The Diaries of George Washington - Library of Congress

9. "Festschrift zur Feuer des zwelhundertjahrigen Geburtstags von Baron Friedrich von Steuben"

10. "The George Washington Papers" - Library of Congress

11. "Washington's Sense of Humor" by: Wayne Whipple

12. "The George Washington Papers" - Library of Congress

13. "The George Washington Papers" - Library of Congress

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