George Washington was a flirt and a flatterer.
The dour, tight-lipped, stern gums-hurting image of George Washington, who would have been 253 years old today, is dispelled by the Washington seen in Dorothy Twohig's 17-year research into his papers.
In them, George Washington stands revealed as rounder, more human -- a charming man who appreciated women. He liked their company -- to dance with them, sit by them at supper, talk with them and write them long, flowery letters with fulsome sentiments. He proposed to more than one. He paid marked attentions to the wives of his colleagues. "And any man whose pension was denied or late was well advised to have his wife write Washington," says Twohig, who should know. She is the associate editor of Washington's papers at the University of Virginia.
Power, a well-known aphrodisiac, personality and presence attracted women to the brave young cavalier, the general of the American armies, the first president of the nation and the lord of Mount Vernon.
That his love affairs were not always happy ones might be inferred from the warning he wrote from his own experience to his step-granddaughter, a young woman much enamored of the tender passion:
Do not then, in your contemplation of the marriage state, look for perfect felicity before you consent to wed. Nor conceive, from the fine tales the Poets and lovers of old have told us, of the transports of mutual love, that heaven has taken its abode on earth: Nor do not deceive yourself in supposing, that the only mean by which these are to be obtained is to drink deep of the cup, and revel in an ocean of love. Love is a mighty pretty thing; but like all other delicious things, it is cloying; and when the first transports of the passion begins to subside, which it assuredly will do, and yield, oftentimes too late, to more sober reflections, it serves to evince, that love is too dainty a food to live upon alone . . .
The young woman, Elizabeth Parke Custis, was a renegade who married Thomas Law and then later eloped with a Marine from the Capitol Hill Marine barracks near her home. She and Law, a great friend and business associate of Washington's, were eventually divorced. Twohig comments that this letter of advice on the occasion of her marriage to Law was "unsolicited and obviously unheeded."
Several women of Washington's period wrote impassioned verse deifying him.
In return, he wrote letters hardly less effusive. To the slave poet Phillis Wheatley, he wrote his appreciation of "your genius" and he urged her to visit him because "I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations."
He corresponded for some time with the English poet Catherine Macauley Graham, but his longest-running pen pal was the poet Annis Boudinot Stockton, the wife of Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey.
She had written Washington in March 1789:
For will you deny that the Muse is sometimes prophetic -- when you recollect the ardour that almost censured my delicacy -- which impelled me to seize your hand and kiss it when you did me the honour to Call on me in your way to york town . . . in that moment, the very era tho wrapped up in clouds, was present to my view, and my heart hailed you as the Sovreign . . .
On one occasion he wrote, hardly less warmly than she, saying:
The very pleasing Sentiments in which yours is conveyed, have affected my Mind with the most lively sensations of Joy and satisfaction . . . the circumstance shall be placed among the happiest events of my life.
Another time, he wrote to her:
I know not by what fatality it happens that even Philosophical sentiments come so much more gracefully (forcibly I might add) from your Sex, than my own. Otherwise I should be strongly disposed to dispute your Epicurean position concerning the economy of pleasures. Perhaps, indeed, upon a self-interested principle, because I should be conscious of becoming a gainer by a different practice. For, to tell you the truth, I find myself altogether interested in establishing in theory, what I feel in effect, that we can never be cloyed with the pleasing compositions of our female friends . . . you will run no hazard in calculating his Washington's sincerity or in counting implicitly on the reciprocal esteem and friendship which he entertains for yourself.
He urges Stockton to take on as a cause the improvement of:
Federal fashions and national manners. A good general government, without good morals and good habits, will not make us a happy People . . . Is it not shameful that we should be the sport of European whims and caprices? Should we not blush to discourage our own industry and ingenuity; by purchasing foreign superfluities and adopting fantastic fashions . . . ill suited to our stage of Society . . .
And then he assures her -- for whatever reason -- that he's happy with his wife:
You know me well enough, my dear Madam, to believe me sufficiently happy at home, to be intent upon spending the residue of my days there . . .
In Washington's diaries, Twohig "found it amusing and enlightening that in the midst of all the festivities on his tours of New England in the fall of 1789 and his trip to the southern states in 1791, that he would bother to comment on the appearance and count the number of ladies who turned out to do him honor."
Snippets from several letters make Twohig's point:
. . . went to the Assembly in the evening where there were upwards of 100 Ladies. There sic appearance was elegant . . . went to an assembly where there was sic at least an hundred handsome and well dressed Ladies . . . Dined at Col. Langdons, and drank Tea there with a large Circle of Ladies . . . I went to the Assembly where there were about 75 well dressed, and many of them very handsome Ladies -- among whom were a greater proportion with much blacker hair than are usually seen in the Southern States . . . Was visited about 2 oclock, by a great number of the most respectable ladies of Charleston -- and it was as flattering as it was singular.
One story tells of the time when Kitty Greene, the wife of a general, bet Washington she could dance as long as he could. After two hours, she had to retire from the field, and Washington's best foot was still forward.
Even so, Twohig believes he looked but didn't touch. "There's no evidence that he was anything but faithful to Martha Washington. After all, she was a very beautiful woman in her youth, everyone says so, and agreeable for all her life. When they were married, Martha Washington, the young widow of a very wealthy man, was counted as the greatest catch in Virginia."
He wrote the Marchioness Marie Adrienne de Lafayette that:
Of all the correspondencies with which I am honored, none has given me more pleasure than yours, none which I am more desireous sic of continuing, or more ambitious to deserve . . .
But then he adds:
The noontide of life is now passed with Mrs. Washington and myself, and all we have to do is to spend the evening of our days in tranquillity, and glide gently down a stream which no human effort can ascend.
Since 1969, Twohig, associate editor of "The Papers of George Washington," with W.W. Abbot, the editor, has read and collated 135,000 documents. Out of this mammoth study, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, has come the new image of Washington. And it might not be too much to say that Twohig has been added to the long list of women captivated by this intriguing man.
The first volume of the Revolutionary War Series will be published this spring. The first two volumes of the Presidential Series go to press this fall. Already out are the first two volumes of the Colonial Series, the six volumes of the Diaries and the Journal of the Proceedings of the President. The work is financed by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation.