George Washington - Ada Russell

The Seven Years' War


I have given you a detailed account of "Braddock's Rout." and some part of the general story of the colonists' difficulties and distresses at this time from the Indians and the French, as these conditions and episodes were so important in the life of Washington and in the history of the United States; and I have also shown you that England did not play a very brilliant part in the colonists' eyes. But though important in their effects on the subsequent history of Great Britain also, at the moment they seemed to her very small in proportion to the magnitude of the whole issue between her and France. Moreover, it was characteristic of the moment of political and military indifference in English life in which they happened that they should have aroused very little concern. It was also characteristic of Great Britain that she woke up when people least expected her to do so, and won brilliantly a war begun so unfavourably to her. The first episodes of the war, too, were as disastrous as the preliminaries.

Both sides, still without declaring war, made alliances, France with Spain and Austria, Britain with Prussia, and after Braddock's defeat the French expelled the English from their forts on Lakes Ontario and Champlain, and so succeeded in the old plan of linking up Canada with Louisiana. Britain declared war at last—in May, 1756—but did little at first to check French aggression. In 1756, Frederick the Great won some successes for the allied cause, but if Great Britain won anything it was ignominy.

From this state of national humiliation the country was raised by William Pitt, afterward the great Chatham. He said:

"I want to call England out of that enervate state in which twenty thousand men from France can shake her!" and he proved that he was able to do so. No one better shows than Chatham how the whole prosperity and fame of a nation may depend on a single man. Burke said of him: "a name that keeps the name of this country respectable in every other on the globe." He won and maintained the confidence of the country and made it do its best, and he saved the British Empire from the French.

The British Empire in India was founded in 1757, and Frederick the Great forced the French back to the Rhine, while through the genius of Pitt were won the victories of Minden and of Quiberon Bay, where Hawke destroyed the French fleet.

In 1758 Montcalm expelled the British from Ticonderoga, but the whole province of Cape Breton was conquered, and at last in the South the forces of Pennsylvania and Virginia were successfully directed against Fort Duquesne, as you shall now hear.

At the end of 1757 Washington fell dangerously ill and had to be taken home to Mount Vernon, where he passed through a severe illness. During his absence Loudoun gave place to Abercrombie, the first person to appreciate what Washington had all along declared, that for the safety of the borders Fort Duquesne must be reduced. When Washington was recovered he again tried to rouse Virginia in the cause, and in one of his repeated journeys to Williamsburg for this purpose, there befell him in the merry month of May, 1758, another and more fortunate romance. As he rode along, his thoughts bent on serious matters, he was not entirely pleased to be hailed from a gateway of a large house by the owner, a rich planter who had known his father. It should never he said, declared the hospitable old gentleman, that George Washington had passed by the house of his father's old friend without dismounting, and he compelled him to enter, much against his will and only on condition that he should leave directly after the midday dinner; and as they went in Washington told his servant that the horses must be at the door when he rose from the table. The servant, used to rigorous punctuality, duly had them out and was surprised beyond measure when hour after hour passed by and his master did not appear, and by the order at length to unsaddle and put the animals up, for they were going to stay all night.. At the dinner-table Washington had met the lady who was soon to he his wife, Mrs. Martha Custis, a beautiful, charming widow, very wealthy and unusually gifted. Washington made up his mind on the spot that he should like her further acquaintance, and indeed showed unmistakable signs of love at first sight. When in the morning he tore himself away he galloped at full speed to Williamsburg, accomplished his errand and sped back along the homeward road only to draw rein at the "White House," where Mrs. Custis lived, and there be stayed until he became her accepted lover, fixing the date of their marriage for immediately after the fall of Fort Duquesne.

The fresh attempt of British Regular troops to take this little fort was again carried out without much regard for local advice, and Braddock's disaster was repeated, and only then was the undertaking definitely handed over to Washington, who thus had the satisfaction of carrying out his dearest wish. But by what seemed a miracle he found this place, which had given so much trouble, deserted and dismantled, as the success of British arms against the French in Canada had made it impossible for the French to get supplies or reinforcements. He planted the British flag on the still smouldering ruins and the fort was restored and named after Britain's great minister Pitt, one of the early heroes of George Washington. As you all probably know, this was the beginning of the great city of Pittsburgh.

The year 1759 was Pitt's great year, and a marvellous year in British history. Ticonderoga was taken from the French, Fort Niagara fell, thus definitely separating Canada from Louisiana (which France subsequently handed to Spain); and in this year took place the heroic episode of Wolfe's siege of Quebec. All know the story of his sailing up the St. Lawrence and seeking in vain to tempt Montcalm to descend from the lofty heights above the river, while the besieging force gradually wasted away from sickness; his final scaling at night of the Heights of Abraham, whence in the morning he proceeded to battle with the French; and how, shot through the breast, he lay in the arms of one of his officers, who cried: "They run!" "Who run?" asked Wolfe. "The French," cried the officer. "Then," said Wolfe, "I die happy!" He died, but the British entered Quebec, and the following year was to see his victory completed by the capture of Montreal and the end of French rule in Canada.

This same year, 1759, saw the British arms victorious everywhere, and Horace Walpole remarked, probably with a yawn, that one was forced to ask every morning what victory there was, "for fear of missing one."

It was also the year of Washington's marriage, which had taken place on 6th January at the White House. The personal appearance of Washington, "the tallest and handsomest man in the Old Dominion"—he was six foot three inches—and his handsome and imposing-looking bride, dressed in the latest English fashion, with all the great people of the colony, richly clad in silks and fine array, with gold trimmings, old lace, jewels and feathers, made the ceremony a splendid and memorable one.

The newly married pair lived for some time at the White House before moving with Mrs. Washington's two children, a boy and a girl, to Mount Vernon, Washington's stately home.

"I am now," Washington wrote to a friend, "I believe, fixed at this seat with an agreeable partner for life, and I hope to find more happiness in retirement than I ever experienced amidst the wide and bustling world."

It is clear he was no prophet, but he was to enjoy fifteen years of domestic peace before the great time came when all America was in an uproar and he had to bid a long farewell to wife and home. For fifteen years he was to go back to his "plough." He was a princely farmer, being also a tobacco planter, a miller, a merchant importing and exporting directly for his own account, keeping great patriarchal herds of cattle and sheep and spinning his own linen and wool (with the exception of articles of luxury and fashion, which were shipped to his wharves direct from Great Britain). Such was his reputation as an honest merchant that his goods were exempt from customs inspection at the ports to which they were sent. The negro slaves employed on his estate were so numerous that they had their own hamlet in his grounds, and all village industries were practised. The stables were well stocked with choice breeds of horses, the kennels with hounds. They had numerous equipages, including a chariot and four in which they drove on state occasions, a beautiful barge on the river rowed by negroes, a pack of fox-hounds, vast orchards and extensive ornamental grounds. The new Mrs. Washington had the domestic skill of the mother of Washington, and like her husband, loved orderly splendour in dress and appointments, though never stepping beyond the proper frontiers of middle-class opulence and solid comfort of the English sort, and rather more than less elegance than other colonists in their position. If they made what really amounted to a considerable show, it was never so much as their means would have permitted. We must not forget to think of Washington on state occasions as dressed, not in the sober fashion of men of our own time, but in silks or satins, white or daintily coloured; powdered wig, and buckled shoes. Among the Mount Vernon archives are still to be seen written in his own hand orders such as these—"superfine blue cotton velvet for coat, waistcoat and breeches, with fine silk buttons to match and necessary trimmings, with garters for the breeches, fine worked ruffles, riding waistcoats of superfine scarlet cloth and gold lace with plain double gilt buttons"—orders sent to his agents in Great Britain to be forwarded with his more solid consignments.

He never ceased to be an active worker, constantly improving his estate. He rose early, often lighting his own fire and reading or writing by candle-light. At eight o'clock in winter and seven in summer he had breakfast, consisting only of tea and a few "hoe-cakes," made of Indian meal, then departed on horseback to make the round of his estate. Dinner at 2 o'clock was a fairly substantial meal; and was followed a few hours later by tea and then at 9 o'clock by bed. There was considerable society life during the session of the legislature, as the Governors brought over British fashions and nearly always one of the sons of a rich planter would have been sent "Home" for his education and have returned with ideas of the amusements of a very gay period of English life. Thus balls and parties abounded, and the Washingtons, though grave and serious people, did not fail to make punctual appearances at these colonial festivities. To their parish church they went with unfailing regularity and the whole big household of Mount Vernon assembled at family prayers daily.

The sort of figure Washington made in the public mind in the years before the War of Independence may be gathered from the following amusing story: "It was boasted," wrote Mr. Custis, on the occasion of a visit of Washington to New York, "at the table of the British Governor, that a regiment landed from England contained among its officers some of the finest specimens of martial elegance in His Majesty's service—in fact the most superb looking fellows ever landed upon the shores of the New World. 'I wager Your Excellency a pair of gloves,' said Mrs. Morris, an American lady, 'I will show you a finer man in the procession to-morrow than Your Excellency can select from your famous regiment.' 'Done, Madam,' replied the Governor. The morrow came (the 4th of June), and the procession, in honour of the birthday of the King, advanced through Broadway to the strains of military music. As the troops defiled before the Governor, he pointed out to the lady several officers by name, claiming her admiration for their superior presence and brilliant equipments. In the rear of the troops came a band of officers not on duty—colonial officers—and strangers of distinction. Immediately on their approach the attention of the Governor was seen to be directed toward a tall, martial figure, that marched with grave and measured tread, apparently indifferent to the scene around him. The lady now archly observed, 'I perceive that Your Excellency's eyes are turned to the right object; what say you to your wager now, Sir?' 'Lost, Madam,' replied the gallant Governor. 'When I laid my wager I was not aware that Col. Washington was in New York.'"

To complete the picture of the old happy days of peace before the colonies tore themselves apart from Great. Britain, we will lift the curtain of the old House of Burgesses of Virginia at the moment when George Washington first took his seat there. He was introduced by the Speaker with such eulogy, and the applause of the Assembly was so unanimous, that he found in his agitation and humility no words in which to reply. He made three vain attempts, and then the Speaker came to his rescue, saying:

"Sit down, Mr. Washington! Your modesty equals your valour and that surpasses the power of anything I possess."