George Washington took an austere view of human relations. “It is easy to make acquaintances,” he once wrote, “but very difficult to shake them off, however irksome and unprofitable they are found to be after we have once committed ourselves to them. . . .” His solution? “Be courteous to all but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence; true friendship is a plant of slow growth.” Not surprisingly, America’s first President became famous for his dignity and reserve; some people felt awkward and tongue-tied in his presence.1
But Pennsylvania’s Gouverneur Morris thought people exaggerated Washington’s aloofness. Once, for the fun of it, he made a bet with Alexander Hamilton that he “could be as familiar” with the stately Virginian as he was with his closest friends. To prove his point, he walked up to Washington at a reception a few days later, put a hand on his shoulder, and cried merrily: “My dear General, how happy I am to see you looking so well.” The reaction was unnerving. Washington “stepped suddenly back,” according to some of the people in attendance, “fixed his eye on Morris . . . with an angry frown, until the latter retreated, abashed, and sought refuge in the crowd. The company looked on in silence.” Morris learned his lesson the hard way; he vowed never to approach Washington so informally again.2
Unfortunately for Washington, many people found him forbidding even when he was trying to be friendly. Members of his own family sometimes felt ill at ease in his presence. His “presence,” confessed Nelly Custis, Washington’s adopted granddaughter, “generally chilled my young companions” and even “his own near relatives feared to speak or laugh before him.” This was because of “the awe and respect he inspired,” she explained, “and not from his severity. When he entered a room where we were all mirth and in high conversation, all were instantly mute. He would sit a short time and then retire, quite provoked and disappointed, but they could not repress their feelings.” It’s not surprising that after Washington’s death, when John Marshall came to write the first serious book about him, it turned out to be “a Mausoleum,” as John Adams put it, “100 feet square at the base, and 200 feet high.”3
Washington was certainly no glad-hander, but he was no stuffed shirt, either. As a youngster he took his farm work at Mount Vernon seriously, but he also had plenty of fun. Spending long hours in the saddle, he came to love horses, riding them for pleasure as well as for work, and came to be regarded as the best horseman in Virginia. He enjoyed fox hunting, as did most planters; attended and bet on horse races, and even bred and raised race horses himself. He did a lot of fishing, too, for fun as well as profit, went to cockfights, and took in circuses whenever he could. When it came to sports, Washington was a good wrestler, and he excelled at games like quoits and rounders, which called for hurling stones and iron bars. He never actually threw a dollar across the Rappahannock River, as legend has it (President Truman said Washington would have been too stingy to do that), but he did throw a stone to the top of Natural Bridge, a 215-foot high rock in the Shenandoah Valley.
In 1772, artist Charles Willson Peale visited Mount Vernon, where he got to “pitching the bar” with some young friends one afternoon. Suddenly, to his surprise, Washington—a forty-year-old colonel at the time—appeared and asked to join in. “No sooner did the heavy iron bar feel the grasp of his mighty hand,” wrote Peale later on, “than it lost the power of gravitation, and whizzed through the air, striking the ground far, very far, beyond our utmost limits. We were indeed amazed, as we stood around stripped to the buff, with shirt sleeves rolled up, and having thought ourselves very clever fellows, while the colonel, on retiring, pleasantly observed, ‘When you beat my pitch, young gentlemen, I’ll try again.’”4 During the American Revolution, a soldier at Valley Forge observed that for relaxation Washington “sometimes throws and catches a ball for hours with his aide-de-camp.”5 But Washington’s recreations weren’t entirely outdoor activities. On rainy days he liked to play cards, making small bets; he took up billiards, too, and became quite proficient at the game. Even more to his liking, however, was dancing. He learned to dance as a youngster, and it became one of his favorite diversions, though his wife, Martha, seems never to have joined him on the dance floor. When he was at Mount Vernon, Washington liked to go to dances in Alexandria, ten miles away. Not all of them met with his approval. In his diary he wrote disparagingly about one party he dubbed “the Bread & Butter Ball” because of its threadbareness. “Went to the ball at Alexandria,” he wrote, “where Musick and Dancing was the chief Entertainment. However, a convenient room detached for the purpose abounded in great plenty of Bread and Butter, some biscuits with Tea, and Coffee, which the Drinkers of could not distinguish from hot water sweet’ned—Be it remembered that pocket handkerchiefs served the purpose of Table Cloths & Napkins and that no apologies were made for either. I shall therefore distinguish this Ball by the stile and title of the Bread & Butter Ball.”6 Washington liked good food and drink (though he was a moderate drinker) at his parties, as well as attractive partners. During the American Revolution, his camp set aside a day of celebration for the signing of a treaty of alliance with France, and at the party that evening, he danced more than three hours, “without once sitting down,” with the young wife of General Nathanael Greene, whose stiff knee kept him off the dance floor.7
When Washington became President in 1789, he was forced to give up or curtail some of his favorite recreations. But from almost the beginning, he took time off from work to keep in shape by riding horseback for a couple of hours each morning and taking afternoon walks. He also “exercised in a Carriage,” as he put it in his diary, taking his wife Martha, and sometimes his two grandchildren, for the fourteen-mile ride around Manhattan, which was then the nation’s capital.8 When Congress was not in session, he took vacations in Mount Vernon, where he could entertain his friends and for a time indulge in one of his greatest pleasures: making daily rounds of his plantation on horseback. Once, just before leaving for Mount Vernon, Washington told the members of his cabinet that he wanted to dispose of all public business before heading south because he wanted “to have my mind as free from public care as circumstances will allow.” He also arranged to have thirty-six dozen bottles of port sent ahead in preparation for the entertaining he planned to do when he got home.9
In 1790, Washington was seriously ill for several weeks, and upon recovering he persuaded two of his associates—Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton—to join him on a five-day trip to Long Island and New Jersey for some sightseeing and fishing. His trip did not go unnoticed. One newspaper reported that “yesterday afternoon the President of the United States returned from Sandy Hook and the fishing banks, where he had been for the benefit of the sea air, and to amuse himself in the delightful recreation of fishing. We are told that he has had excellent sport, having himself caught a great number of sea-bass and black fish—the weather proved remarkably fine, which, together with the salubrity of the air and wholesome exercise, rendered this little voyage extremely agreeable, and cannot fail, we hope, of being serviceable to a speedy and complete restoration of his health.”10 It wasn’t the only fishing trip he worked into his schedule while President. In tours he took of the country soon after taking office, to demonstrate his broadly national outlook at a time when provincial loyalties were still powerful, Washington managed to work in some dancing as well as fishing. In Charleston, South Carolina, he was warmly welcomed one night at a fancy dance party at which he took happily to the floor, and the following night he was vociferously hailed at a concert, where, he recorded in his diary, he was surrounded by “at least four hundred ladies, the number and appearance of which exceeded anything of the kind I had ever seen.”11
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