- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003


By Stanley Weintraub

Free Press, $25, 205 pages


Stanley Weintraub’s tale of George Washington’s days after the Revolutionary War lovingly illuminates a character whose legend nearly obscures his humanity. The man on the dollar bill is, to us in the 21st century, an icon and symbol of the highest aspirations of our nation. To those around him in the 18th, he was that and more. He was not only the fledgling country’s greatest warrior, he was a gentleman, a saint, even a demigod. He was, King George III himself said, “the greatest character of the age.”

“General Washington’s Christmas Farewell” may indeed be Mr. Weintraub’s effort to recapture the humanness of George Washington, and in many respects he accomplishes that end. We see a man who laughs but also shows a temper. Washington is widely regarded as a humble man, but is also very receptive to the accolades admirers bestow on him for his many accomplishments, things for which today a merciless and cynical press would crucify him. Mr. Weintraub uses vignettes to reveal George Washington the human being, but in doing so, makes us aware of how little we know about the man.

In late 1783, the fighting is over. Washington hasn’t been home to Mount Vernon in eight years, and he longs to return to the private life of a patrician farmer. “From a Manhattan wharf to a Potomac jetty just above Mount Vernon was nearly three hundred miles by routes Washington would have to take. Although everywhere along the way he had promises to keep, the primary one was to spend Christmas with Martha. Since he wed Martha Dandridge Custis in January 1759, he had been absent on various missions, and then away for the war, nearly half their marriage.”

The reoccupation of New York and the final signing of the peace treaty with England were the two major obstacles preventing the fulfillment of his humble ambition. Mr. Weintraub follows Washington’s journey from West Point to Mount Vernon, highlighting the many celebrations along the way, spending time most notably in New York, Philadelphia and Annapolis.

The author treats the trip in sometimes excruciating detail, which, while it tends to bog down the narrative thread, actually hints at the frustration Washington must have felt in trying to get home. The pressing matters of war are replaced with questions of the role of a military in the postwar aftermath. The dwindling army hasn’t been paid, and British troops are still garrisoned in New York. The situation there is dicey — the British troops held New York in a state of “no war—no peace” for two years. The takeover of Washington’s troops “seemed shameful” to the British, knowing a ragtag bunch of colonials numbering only about 800 men could never have taken 12,000 of the King’s men. Washington had only a few weeks to overcome these obstacles and still meet his personal schedule.

Mr. Weintraub shows Washington’s idiosyncrasies with subdued humor. Always putting the republic first, Washington’s humility and dedication to service are clear. However, “On his first appointment in 1775, Washington had refused a then-substantial $500 a month for his services. He had never drawn a salary as a commanding general and had asked for none, only for reimbursement of his services, which were substantial, given his aristocratic lifestyle.” Many asides show Washington faithfully recording all of these expenses, from ferry trips to tips.

In one entertaining vignette, Washington personally visits the shop of a known Tory sympathizer who, unbeknownst to Washington’s companions, is actually part of his network of spies. Washington used the ruse of ordering some books on agriculture and farming (intended to be used at Mount Vernon, of course) to pay the man “the last installment of the price of treason.”

All along the journey he is accepted with parades and speeches. “The godlike aura about Washington would intensify as he continued homeward, enhanced by his statuesque presence and his innate dignity.” “Decades later,” Mr. Weintraub writes, “as far off as a small Latin American republic, a visitor would ask a peasant about a familiar bust over the portal of his village church. That is ‘the good Saint George Washington,’ he explained. ‘I confess,’ the tourist reported, ‘that as I passed this church I felt like taking off my hat, and did it—not because of custom, but because I couldn’t help it.’”

One of the more touching moments comes at Washington’s farewell at “Black Sam” Frances’ Tavern. Mr. Weintraub captures the heaviness that Washington felt despite his pressing desire to get the journey home underway. “One crucial (and very personal) farewell still loomed—to his remaining officers.” The invitees to this event milled about the tavern “awaiting Washington’s direction.” Nobody ate, unable to muster the appetite. When the time finally came, he filled a goblet of wine and spoke a few words, his voice breaking. “With a heart filled with love and gratitude I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your later days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”

A few of his men mumbled responses and a few toasts were offered, and then Washington resumed, “I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.” Mr. Weintraub sets the somber scene well, with officers openly weeping and stunned into silence. In comparison, the farewell to his men overtakes his farewell to Congress in raw emotion. Despite the desire to return home and his concern over the weather and many miles remaining, Washington is overcome by his feelings.

We leave Washington as he arrives at Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve. It’s a homecoming worthy of a dramatic Hollywood ending by, as Mr. Weintraub writes, “a practiced actor making his final exit.” Though his book is only 174 pages, a length that might be read in a few hours, Mr. Weintraub paints in short strokes that illuminate, but don’t define. We see Washington’s god-like character, but we also see him slogging through the mundane details of life in the 18th century.

The reader is left with a broader understanding of Washington, but wanting to know more about the legendary man. In a time when wartime partisan politics are especially divisive and ugly, “General Washington’s Christmas Farewell” is a wonderful Christmas story for patriots of any political flavor.

Christopher Jolma is a Commentary editor at The Washington Times.

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