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The Freeman Letters On George Washington

July 2024
15min read

“Washington, and probably Washington alone, kept the Revolution alive.”

Letter of August 11, 1949

As the announcement on June 25 of my impending retirement led to some newspaper discussion of the wisdom or unwisdom of my action, it may not be amiss to state for your information and that of other gentlemen who face retirement within the next decade or so, precisely how it feels to “change over,” or, if you prefer the figure, to “make the plunge.”

I can only say that I think I had made the essential preparation in advance by planning my future work and by developing my avocation. I can understand how bewildered and baffled a man might be if he retired on a drastically diminished income and had nothing to occupy his time. As the circumstances are, I simply have turned from one calling to another, so to speak, with an indescribable gain in interest and in every satisfaction of life.

Perhaps it would not have been possible to make the change much sooner than I did, because of the duties that every citizen had to perform during the war; but if I had known in 1945 how thrilling was the life I could lead as a student, I believe I would have taken the chance of becoming stranded financially and would have begun, immediately after the close of hostilities, to give my entire time to historical and literary pursuits. It has been altogether the most amazing experience of my life to stop suddenly a vocation I had pursued for almost forty years and to pick up instantly where I left off in 1908 as a historical student doing postgraduate work. It almost seems as if I had died and had been reincarnated!

This highly personal statement would not be made but for the publicity that attended my newspaper resignation. I pass now to the report of my schedule of work and of my progress under it. I continue to rise at 2:30 A.M., and to follow virtually the same hours as formerly, with the exception that I break my work period on George Washington with rest from 11 to 11:30 A.M. and from i to 2:45 P.M. This is done to make certain that I am fresh and free of mental fag when engaged in writing. The morning rest period is an excellent investment in breaking what otherwise would be so long a period of continuous composition that the last hours would be unproductive.

On the average day I do nine or nine and a half hours’ work and therefore practically double my former hours of work. I believe the gain in quality is proportionately even greater, because now I can give to research, writing and revision the best hours of the day when my mind is freshest. It is interesting to note specifically that in the month of July I spent 281 hours on the Washington , whereas in May—my last uninterrupted month at the paper—I was able by the sternest effort to work on the book for 143 hours only. This included ten hours each Sunday.

The setting of my work is everything I could ask; my secretary is a highly intelligent young matron who works because she is interested and not because necessity requires. For financial reasons, I do one fifteenminute broadcast a day; and to get the material for this, the radio company has installed in my office here at “Westbourne” the same high-speed teletype machine and the famous “A wire” of the Associated Press that serve the leading newspapers of the country. It is a most remarkable experience to have that wire ticking away at furious pace from 3 to 8 A.M., while I “talk” with Washington and listen to the debate in the Continental Congress. It makes me think often of that line in which Matthew Arnold tells how the East

”… let the legions thunder past And plunged in thought again.”

[Freeman now says he has finished Volume HI, thus passing the halfway mark, and is now finishing checking its footnotes. Volume HI takes Washington’s life from his marriage in January, 1759, to the receipt by the Army on July 9, 1776, of news of the Declaration of Independence.

He resumes:]

The research on this volume has been full of interesting problems. First, of course, was the one mentioned in previous reports—that of “making sense” of Washington’s financial records. I hope we have succeeded in showing why and how he failed as a tobacco grower, and what he did afterwards in building up his wheat crop and his flour trade. He was a bold plunger in real estate speculation and he spent freely, sometimes ostentatiously. The land he received as a bounty—the counterpart of the modern-day soldier’s bonus—was responsible for much of the increase in his real estate. At his death in 1799 he held intact a considerable part of the land he prevailed on the government to grant him for his service in 1754. Incidentally, he never was able to discharge his debt to his principal English merchants—the debt assumed in order to restore “rundown” Mount Vernon—until he got money left his wife by her epileptic daughter who died when she was still a minor.

[ Freeman then remarks that it is surprising to find Washington displaying so much ability immediately after his arrival in army command in Boston on July 2, /775. Nothing in his earlier career indicated that he had the qualities of vision, judgment, patience and managerial ability which he showed after taking command of the army. He resumes: ]

One is forced to the conclusion that Washington’s mastery of endless details of plantation management, his service as vestryman and then as warden, and his multitude of small services for neighbors gave him an equipment which proved adequate in the hour of test on a larger stage. … It seems a strange statement to make, but Washington schooled himself for dealing with Horatio Gates and Charles Lee and Benedict Arnold through the things he had done patiently and not always willingly for a most unusual combination of neighborhood deadbeats and rascals. This is what the record shows; but the reader of 1950, I suspect, is going to be as much surprised as the country was in 1775–76 by the quality of the command Washington exercised during the Siege of Boston. The country, in fact, was so much amazed by his bloodless victory in driving Howe from Boston that the resolutions adopted by the legislature in Massachusetts just before Washington left to meet the threatened attack on New York breathe all the veneration we associate with the Washington of 1797. …

An unexpected problem has developed in connection with the Siege of Boston. This has to do with the identification of old defences and the determination of some of the elevations. Tell it not on Beacon Hill and proclaim it not at a meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society, but Boston, even Boston has forgotten some of her most renowned sites! It is a matter of some difficulty to identify in South Boston the famous Dorchester Heights. I went over them carefully in June and think I established the essential facts, but I received today a letter in which a distinguished gentleman who is helping me determine the elevations confessed, in effect, that he had not been able as yet to find Signal Tree Hill. It’s lost! I shall start to work this week on a new map of the Boston defences because none of those now in existence gives the facts the average reader will want.

Letter of April 12, 1950

[ Freeman remarks that the past five months’ research has been most fruitful and has given him great new respect for Washington’s talents as an army administrator. He continues: ]

More clearly than at the time of my last report, I see that Washington, and probably Washington alone, kept the Revolution alive. He was the only man who combined military experience with infinite patience, inflexible determination, a sound sense of organization, absolute integrity, regard for civil rights and a justice so manifest in every act that even his rivals had to admit his superiority of character. … As I have stated elsewhere, the Revolution never commanded the support of a majority of Americans until it had been won. …

My research since last I wrote you has been particularly in the year and a half during which the Revolutionary cause scraped bottom—November, 1776, to the spring of 1778. Every bad quality in Washington’s subordinates came to the surface then. His most frequent word to describe the state of the public was “languor,” but he might have used a harsher term. I believe that if he had been captured or killed, the Revolution would have collapsed in 1777. As it was, he barely was able to keep the cause alive at that time ^of public doubt, of private selfishness, depreciated currency and tightened blockade.

It is not popular, of course, to say such a thing, but I believe that in the black year of the Revolution there were not more than 500 intelligent leaders—political and military—who were willing to sacrifice all they had and all they hoped to be, for the triumph of America. A most surprising number of men who would have been expected to lead in the establishment of a new nation showed in the hour of disappointment and probable defeat an ambitious, quarrelsome selfishness that mars the traditional picture of a self-sacrificing company of patriots. …

All this means that in writing the life of Washington the emphasis is shifted. Instead of watching step by step the development of Washington’s strategy, which remained essentially and simply that of avoiding a general engagement with a superior force, I have had to describe how he sought vainly to get shoes for his men, how he tried to prod negligent commissaries and somnolent quartermasters, how he had to rid the Army of incompetent officers and to repeat year by year the disheartening task of rebuilding an army that disbanded in December. I have had to deal with the problems of desertion and, above all, with the perplexities of human relationship that involved more arrogance and self-assertiveness on the part of subordinates than was shown in any of the other wars I have studied or witnessed.

Letter of January 4, 1952

[ Here Freeman says Volume V is nearing completion. It will end with Washington’s surrender of his commission to Congress, December 23, 1783. He talks about new material obtained from the Papers of the French Ministry of Marine., in the French Archives Nationales, and mentions material indicating that the real French hero was Rochambeau—“He is as surely a symbol of Franco-American accord as Lafayette ever was—and was self-effacing. Lafayette was not.” He goes on: ]

In an earlier report I mentioned the unpleasant discovery of evidence which might indicate that Nathanael Greene, while serving as quartermaster general, may have been on both sides of the counter at the same moment and may, as an individual, have sold to himself as a government official. Thanks to the kindness of Dr. Bernhard Knollenberg, I have examined the collection of papers of Jeremiah Wadsworth that Dr. Knollenberg acquired and gave to Yale. In some of these papers there is ample proof that Greene and Wadsworth and Barnabas Deane, a brother of Silas Deane, were engaged in some form of secret trading. I am going to have someone go through the whole body of the Wadsworth papers to see what they disclose. Our first sifting yielded nothing of importance.

In the Greene papers at Ann Arbor, I am sorry to say, we found a letter which shows plainly that on one occasion Greene and his Philadelphia partners, who also were his assistant quartermasters general, shipped tobacco to St. Eustatius and brought back duck which was sold “to the Quartermaster.” Unless there was some aspect of this barter not now apparent, the transaction manifestly was improper. It is in the hope it may be cleared up that I am going to have the whole corpus of surviving Greene papers examined. …

As I soon shall be saying good-bye to Washington the soldier, I should like to state that the final view I take of him is that of a man much bolder in spirit than circumstances permitted him to be in strategy. If ever a man had to fight shackled and with one hand tied behind him, Washington did.

He had to overcome every obstacle that could be placed in his way—save one: in maturity, he never had to contend for long with his own spirit. Because he mastered himself, he had the patience to deal with as remarkable a company of ambitious, troublesome, supersensitive and wrong-headed lieutenants as ever gathered under a revolutionary standard. …

For example, it would be difficult to pick much more of a spoiled, pouting, puffed-up boy than Alexander Hamilton proved to be after he married Elizabeth Schuyler. The most significant fact about the life of Washington the Revolutionary leader is not one fact but a thousand, the combined detail of the incredibly difficult situation Washington had to face. Some of his old soldiers may have known a considerable part of what he had to endure but posterity has not ever vaguely sensed what he had to overcome of human pride, shortcoming and perversity. He lived on the brink.

It may be doubted whether there was a time, prior to the summer of 1781, when it could be said with reasonable certainty that the continental cause would survive for six months longer. To what did it owe its continued, if precarious, existence? Beyond all doubt, to the example and character of Washington more than to any single influence.

After struggling for months with the ugly detail of administration and camp diplomacy, it has been a great delight to turn to Yorktown as a full campaign, ready set, as it were, for detailed study according to the new techniques. It probably will be, I may say in passing, the last military campaign of which I shall write in detail. I could not ask for one more interesting. It is a textbook model in the relationship of allies and, above all, in concentration.

How strange that these two aspects of the operations of August-October, 1781, have received so little attention 1 Thanks to Rochambeau, the resources of the French engineering and artillery staffs were placed at Washington’s disposal completely and unostentatiously. Few jealousies were aroused, while the French did . brilliantly several things the inexperienced Americans scarcely would have been able to do at all.

This was particularly true of the running of the first and second “parallels,” as the siege trenches were styled. Washington matched this with a concentration that ranks with the best Eighteenth-Century achievements of logistics, though Washington himself would not have understood what we mean by that overwhipped word. He heard on the fourteenth of August, 1781, when he was on the Hudson, that De Grasse’s fleet was coming to Virginia. One month later, to the very day, Washington rode into Williamsburg in the knowledge that Barras’ French squadron from Newport, the French garrison of that base, all their siege guns, the army of Rochambeau from the New York front, an American detachment of 2,000 men and the baggage of the Franco-American forces were moving toward him. Before the end of September, Washington had all these troops and most of this equipment in hand, and began his advance on the works of Cornwallis at Yorktown. He used every means of transportation he could find and he somehow was able to co-ordinate them. The Revolution produced nothing more remarkable.

[ Now Freeman discusses his plans for 1952 and remarks that the grant last autumn by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation—$10,000 a year for three years—was wholly unexpected. He says that in answer he asked if he might impose a condition: that every penny of the grant would go for books and materials and for pay and travel of his assistants. He asked, further, that the money be paid to the Johns Hopkins University, as the Carnegie Foundation grants are, and he notified the Collector of Internal Revenue that this was an expense account and not for his own use. ]

Letter of September 15, 1952

[ Here Freeman discusses Volume V, just printed and about to be issued. He discusses his exploration of the French archives, and goes on: ]

Four features of the completed study of May, 1778December, 1783 should be reported. The first is the accumulation of a mass of evidence to show that the winter of 1779–80 at Morristown and Jockey Hollow was a period of far worse suffering than the corresponding months of 1777–78 at Valley Forge.

This evidence is not going to upset tradition. Valley Forge has become emotionally the symbol of patient suffering during the Revolution, and it will remain so, though one finds it somewhat perplexing to know why the hunger and shivering of Morristown have been so nearly forgotten while the miseries of the gloomy camp on the Schuylkill are known to every child in the fifth grade.

The great adventure of co-operation with the French is a second feature of Volume V. An unhappy adventure it was at the outset! Worse bungling than that of Major General John Sullivan in dealing with Comte d’Estaing, the French naval commander, would be difficult to find. After the coming of Rochambeau, cooperation was easier in every way. All that I suggested in my report of January 4 concerning this great French soldier has been confirmed by a review of the evidence. Rochambeau should stand second only to Lafayette among the Frenchmen of the Revolution era to whom the American people are indebted. …

The whole story of American and French co-operation in 1778–82 has present application. At our Armed Forces Staff College, special stress is being laid on the diplomatic function of the senior staff. When this study at the college began in August, 1952, it was the desire of the faculty that this initial chapter in co-operation with the forces of our ally in 1778–82 should be the theme of the opening lecture at the school.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect—and certainly the least familiar—of the operations of the Revolutionary War proves to be the great concentration of the American and French forces on the Virginia Peninsula in the later summer and early autumn of 1781. Personally I was quite unprepared for so finished a military performance as this third feature of the book proved to be. … When one reflects on the difficulties Washington had to overcome because of his financial distress, his feeble transportation, and his officers’ lack of familiarity with French military practices, the concentration ranks with the Trenton-Princeton campaign as Washington’s greatest success in arms. It may be more than that; so far as my limited knowledge runs, this was one of the most efficient concentrations of modern war.

No surprise of the study has been more startling to the author than the fourth of those here considered, the light in which the character of Washington shone at the end of the war. It is an amazing illustration of Browning’s “after last returns the first.” The achievements of Washington are not explicable in any other terms than those of moral integrity that had been his “from his youth up.” As the conclusions are set forth extensively in the introduction to Volume V and in the final chapter of that volume, I shall add no more than this: From the meagre historical evidence available to them, the early biographers of Washington could not trace the delicate and numerous changes that came in his point of view and in his opinion of himself, but in the emphasis they put on his absolute dependability in every moral test, these biographers were much closer to the truth than the “debunkers” ever could hope to come.

[ Freeman then discusses his work on Volume VI. He tells of finding new source material and of making new discoveries, particularly in connection with the efforts to frame a new constitution. He continues: ]

A few of these papers have been examined by students of the period of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 but the bulk of them, I think, was never studied in detail until my young assistant in the Library of Congress, John A. Carroll, began that formidable task early this year. His results—I speak confidentially on this—show clearly that no argument was so frequently advanced in the winter of 1787–88 than that the Philadelphia constitution could be approved because Washington and Franklin had helped to write and had signed it. The country could trust a system of government these two, Washington in particular, had endorsed. Evidence on this point is quite dramatic.

In a different sphere of the research, it has been brought to light, also, that Washington’s financial difficulties after the Revolution were dangerously acute. He was one of the best farmers of his day in Virginia, but he was extravagant and in trying to lease or to sell his greatest asset, his western lands, he demanded more than purchasers would pay. He does not appear in his own ledgers and correspondence as the sagacious businessman he is supposed to have been.

Not to delay you too long, I think you will be amused by one more discovery. Mrs. Martha Washington had little formal education, and in letter-writing she was almost as defective as Washington’s mother. About 1787 there was a marked improvement in the style and in the spelling of Martha’s letters. This remained something of a mystery until Miss [Gertrude R. B.] Richards, one of my assistants, came upon two papers, side by side. One was a careful letter, ostensibly by Martha, in her husband’s handwriting, the other was Martha’s own copy from it—and none too good a copy at that. In other words, the General began to write Martha’s letters and she copied and signed what he had set before her. We shall use these two documents as an illustration in Volume VI.

[ A writer working under foundation grants can have Internal Revenue Bureau problems, as Freeman found out. He tells about it: ]

A grant for a specific historical project manifestly is not expected to develop into a study of the rulings of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, but in the present instance, exactly that has happened.

At the beginning of 1952, when the Guggenheim Grant became effective, I notified the Collector of Internal Revenue of this district that the money had been voted, through Johns Hopkins University, and that I would assume that I should not report it as income because I received none of it personally. I added that even if I had to report it as income, I would counterbalance it by entering it as expense. To my consternation, there came back a letter which set forth this extraordinary policy: The whole of the grant might be taxable as personal income in the year in which it was voted; and even if this were not done, it was doubtful in the extreme whether I could charge off the amount of the grant year by year as expenses.

If, from the research, a book developed, then the expenses of research were chargeable against the revenue from the copyright, not against current taxable income. It might be necessary for me to amortize the grant and the other expenses over the life of the copyright. I figured that this would clear my account at the age of 91, and I saw, as everyone would, that insistence on this ruling would put an end to my enterprise. …

This was too serious a matter to be met with surrender or acquiescence. I sought the best counsel I could get and, by happy chance, found in our leading Richmond law firm a man who had been one of those who wrestled with the problem of General Eisenhower’s copyright. We were lucky in two other particulars: I had assigned the copyright of George Washington to the publisher, and, second, in accepting the Guggenheim Grant, I had stipulated that I personally would use none of the money for my own compensation or living and travel expenses, and I had requested that the grant be disbursed, as the Carnegie funds had been, through Johns Hopkins University. On this basis, counsel asked for a ruling and not long ago he received it.

All question of amortization of the copyright was put aside; the grant was said to be taxable, if at all, over the three-year period instead of in the year of the grant; and, though the tax officer did not formally rule that the grant could be charged off as expense, because that issue was not before him, he said unofficially that when it did arise in connection with the tax return for 1952, he would rule so.

I am no lawyer and do not understand all the ramifications of the case but it seems to me the matter has importance to foundations in this: If a grant is made to an institution of learning and is used entirely for the expenses of research on a project, and not for the living of the grantee, then it is not subject to taxation or to amortization against the life of a copyright if the copyright has been assigned. This will not be of any help to a man who receives a grant to keep him in food and raiment while he is making a research, but it may be protective where the grant is used only for expenses.

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