Americans are voting today for a new president, the 44th in the history of the United States. About 220 years ago, in the few days before becoming the country’s first President, George Washington, was writing in his diary about having to ‘bid adieu’ to domestic felicity. He was also anxious regarding his ability to fulfil the country’s expectations of him. Although Washington kept a diary almost all his life, most of the writing is dull, a simple record, he himself noted, of ‘where & how my time is spent’.
Washington was born into a Virginia planter’s family in Westmoreland County. While still young he worked as a land surveyor, but during the French and Indian war he was commissioned as a lieutenant-colonel. In 1755, he became commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces. From 1759, the year he married the widow Martha Dandridge, to the outbreak of the American Revolution, he returned to agriculture, developing his Mount Vernon estate that had been inherited from a half brother. He also served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and as a justice of the peace.
In 1775, Washington was elected as commander-in-chief of all the forces, and over the next eight years successfully fought the British. Having resigned in 1783, he retired again to Mount Vernon, but public life was never far away. He presided at a federal convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and two years later was chosen to be President under the new constitution. He was re-elected in 1792 and served until 1797, but declined a third term, and died just two weeks before the end of the century.
Remarkably, given Washington’s importance in the history of the US, he wrote a diary from the age of 16 until the day before he died. Every word has been published, with extensive notes, in The Diaries of George Washington, edited by Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig (University Press of Virginia, 1979), and all six volumes are available online at The Library of Congress American Memory website. The same website also carries photographic images of the handwritten pages.
The beginning of the editors’ introduction is worth quoting: ‘The diaries of George Washington are not those of a literary diarist in the conventional sense. No one holding the long-prevailing view of Washington as pragmatic and lusterless, a self-made farmer and soldier-statesman, would expect him to commit to paper the kind of personal testament that we associate with notable diarists. Even when familiarity modifies our view of the man, and we find him warmer and more intense than we knew, given to wry humor and sometimes towering rage - even then we do not find in these pages what we have come to expect of a diary.’
‘But let us not be unfair to a man who had his own definition of a diary: ‘Where & How my Time is Spent.’ The phrase runs the whole record through. He accounts for his time because, like his lands, his time is a usable resource. It can be tallied and its usefulness appraised. Perhaps it was more than mere convenience that caused Washington to set down his earliest diary entries in interleaved copies of an almanac, for an almanac, too, is an accounting of time.’
A little further on the editors quote John C. Fitzpatrick, who first compiled the diaries, from a letter written in 1924: ‘Now that I have read every word of these Diaries, from the earliest to the last one, it is impossible to consider them in any other light than that of a most marvelous record. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to arrive at a true understanding or comprehension of George Washington without reading this Diary record.’
The introduction also provides useful information on the history of the diary manuscripts. It seems likely, the editors say, that Washington kept a diary during his presidential years (1789-1797), but very few have survived, which is ‘particulary vexing to historians’. More specifically, it is known that he kept diaries in the spring and summer of 1789, but that they have ‘disappeared’. Only two entries for this period survive, and they are among the most interesting to be found anywhere in his diaries, not least because he expresses such self-doubts. Both entries are in the two weeks prior to his inauguration as President on 30 April.
16 April 1789
‘About ten o’clock I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity; and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York in company, with Mr. Thompson, and colonel Humphries, with the best dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.’
23 April 1789
‘The display of boats which attended and joined us on this occasion, some with vocal and some with instrumental music on board; the decorations of the ships, the roar of cannon, and the loud acclamations of the people which rent the skies, as I passed along the wharves, filled my mind with sensations as painful (considering the reverse of this scene, which may be the case after all my labors to do good) as they are pleasing.’
Here is a more typical example of Washington’s diary, from exactly 220 years today.
4 November 1788
‘Thermometer at 58 in the Morning - 75 at Noon and 72 at Night. Morning clear, calm and very pleasant - as the weather continued to be thro’ the day. Mr. Herbert & his Lady, Mr. Potts & his Lady, Mr. Ludwell Lee & his Lady, and Miss Nancy Craik came here to dinner and returned afterwards.’
And here are the last three entries Washington wrote in his diary.
11 December 1799
‘But little wind and Raining. Mer. 44 in the Morning and 38 at Night. About 9 oclock the Wind shifted to No. Wt. & it ceased raining but contd. Cloudy. Lord Fairfax, his Son Thos. and daughter - Mrs. Warner Washington & son Whiting - and Mr. Jno. Herbert dined here & returned after dinner.’
12 December 1799
‘Morning Cloudy - Wind at No. Et. & Mer. 33. A large circle round the Moon last Night. About 1 oclock it began to snow - soon after to Hail and then turned to a settled cold Rain. Mer. 28 at Night.’
13 December 1799
‘Morning Snowing & abt. 3 Inches deep. Wind at No. Et. & Mer. at 30. Contg. Snowing till 1 Oclock and abt. 4 it became perfectly clear. Wind in the same place but not hard. Mer. 28 at Night.’
On 12 December, according to the editors’ diary notes, in the midst of that day’s severe weather, Washington rode out to supervise winter activities on the land, but he got cold and wet. The next day, despite a sore throat, he was outside again marking trees to be cut. On 14 December, he was attended by three doctors, and received various treatments, but died that evening in his bed at Mount Vernon.