George Washington Papers

To George Washington from David Humphreys, 1 January 1797

Lisbon Janry 1st 1797.

My dear General

I would not trouble you with an acknowledgment of your friendly letter which I received by the hand of Captn O’Brien, because I could only repeat my sensibility of your kindness & my unalterable attachment to you. I wished not therefore to consume your time in reading a letter which contained only what you knew before—At present, the season of annual festivity seems to encourage me in offering a kind of annual tribute of gratitude & friendship. May you, my dearest & most respected friend, see in your shades (I mean at Mount Vernon also, & not in those below, to which I have as great an aversion of hastening my visit, as you can possibly have to receive it) as many returns of this day as you can wish, & attended with as much happiness as human nature is capable of enjoying.

Although I have not had the opportunity, or rather the pain, of seeing but few of the Gazettes published by the Printer whose name you mention yet I have seen enough to have been provoked at the wanton abuse that has been thrown on you, to have admired at your patience, but not to have been surprised that you have persevered in that system of policy which was dictated by your Conscience, & which has fortunately hitherto preserved our Country from hostility. By about the time when this letter may probably reach you, you will happily have arrived at the period fixed by yourself for your final retirement from public life; in which you have been placed, from the eminence of your Situation, as a mark for the shafts of party slander, malice & falsehood. But be assured (so far as I have had an opportunity of obtaining information) you will withdraw from the political Stage with more applause than ever Actor did before—or, in other words, you may be persuaded, that your moral character is estimated as high, and your public character higher, than at any former period. I have seen your late Address to the People of the U.S. in which it appears to me you have adverted to every very important topic which ought to have been treated of in such a publication. By that production you have, in my judgment, completed the pyramid of your fame. There are however several things which could not have been noticed on such an occasion, which perhaps for your own sake, as well as for that of the present Age & Posterity, ought to be known. Such falsehoods as can be easily arrested in their course, ought to be stopped from floating down the stream of time. And I sincerely think (among other things of perhaps more consequence) it would be proper & useful for you to deny publicly those forged letters which have been published under your signature, as written by you in June & July 1776. The sentiments, at least some of them, are unworthy of you. I more than once spoke to you at Mount Vernon on the subject, and you once wrote to Cary (as well as I recollect) positively declaring them to be forgeries. Still they are published & republished, as genuine. I have now enclosed a rough sketch of which you can avail yourself, or not, as circumstances may seem to justify. The Paper enclosed, as you will perceive, extends likewise to an ulterior end. I have meditated a good deal on the subject, whether it would not be wise for you and profitable for the Public, that you should bear public testimony against the atrocious misrepresentations & falsehoods in general, which have been published during your administation (evidently more with a design to destroy the public confidence in the principal Officers of Government & thereby to disorganise the Government itself, than to injure your personal reputation), together with a kind of apology for your having taken no notice of them, while you continued in office. In taking this measure, or abstaining from it, you must of course be governed by your own feeling & superior judgment. If this letter should not arrive in America until after your retirement, you could modify the Draft enclosed accordingly, or wholly suppress it, if you should think best. For you know I can have no object, but that of wishing your character may appear in its true point of light, and of deterring in a degree impudent & malicious Printers from prosecuting a similar conduct towards your Successors in Office. These, in truth, are two objects, to which I think you cannot with propriety be indifferent.

While I congratulate you in a different manner from what the World in general will (because I am certain I take a greater interest in your happiness than the World, or even most of your friends can do) on your approaching exemption from the troubles of public life, & the prospect of that felicity which you have a right to promise yourself in retirement—I most sincerely regret, on a great number of accounts, that I cannot be a sharer with you in it, in conformity to your most cordial & affecting invitation. And will you permit me to say, one reason of my regret is (I hope it does not arise from vanity) I think I could—by demonstrations of sincere & disinterested friendship for you—and by speaking the true sentiments of an honest heart on all occasions without disguise, as I have always done to you—contribute something to your own enjoyment, in the little social fire-side Circle. But, my dearest Sir, at my time of life when perhaps the moral as well as physical faculties have arrived at that stage when one may reasonably expect to be more capable of serving one’s Country than at [a] former period, and especially when one is possess[ed] of some small share of experience in a particular branch of public affairs, I doubt whether it would be right to retire from public employment. The sense of obligation for that cordial wellcome which you offer shall never be effaced from my breast. And I entreat you to accept my sincerest thanks for the very affectionate manner in which you had the goodness to recall my idea to your remembrance, when you was engaged in the pleasing contemplation of those objects which must naturally occur on your return to Mount Vernon. I do not despair of having the pleasure of visiting you at your happy Seat one day, and of dwelling with interest on the events of former times—while we shall enliven the conversation with anecdotes & observations on the multiplicity of characters & scenes with which we have been acquainted. I would willingly travel a thousand miles for the purpose, if I had not the obstacle I have mentioned to prevent it.

I have now to disclose to you a prospect of domestic happiness which is just opening for myself, and at which I have no doubt you will likewise rejoice. Without farther circumlocution, I am going to tell you, that I propose very soon to connect myself for life with a young Lady of this City. She is the Daughter of a Mr John Bulkeley, an eminent Merchant, of whose name you will probably have heard. The proposed connection is extremely agreeable to every body concerned. If I am not much deceived, the character, manners, good sense, good dispositions & accomplishments of that Lady will entitle her to some portion of the friendly regard of yourself & Mrs Washington, whenever She shall have the happiness of being made known to you. She has, from a long friendship for me, as well as from other circumstances, formed exactly that opinion of you both which She ought entertain.

Perhaps we are disposed to paint our future scenes in too favorable colours. If that be an error, indeed I think it is not only a pardonable, but even an useful, one. The delusion, if it be such, can do no harm—it may do good. Much, very much of our happiness depends upon ourselves. If I shall not be as completely happy as my nature will allow[,] I know it will not be for want of disposition in the Lady in question to make me so. And I am conscious She has it more in her power than any other person with whom I have been acquainted. So much Egotism I have not made use of to any other human Being on the Subject; and this, I am confident, you will have the goodness to pardon on so new, and to me so interesting an occasion.

I believe you know enough of my character to be persuaded that whenever I am able to write any thing which is worth the trouble of being read, it must be dictated by feeling. I write from the heart rather than from the head. If I should survive you, I shall (I believe) complete a poetical work (the outlines of which I have already sketched) with the intention & belief of doing more justice to your character, than many an abler writer (less actuated by feeling) would be able to do. The few detached parts which I have executed, I own please me more than any thing else which I have written. But should my demise happen previous to yours, these fragments will of course be destroyed, together with my other unfinished projects. Still living, or dying, you will always be assured of my affection & gratitude. Mean while, I pray you to present my best Compliments to Mrs Washington & our common friends, and to beleive me, in a peculiar manner, Your sincerest friend & Most affectionate Servant

D. Humphreys

P.S. If this letter should reach you before you should make your last address to Congress, I know not whether it would not be useful (in speaking of our means of defence in general, & particularly at Sea) to recommend the Establishment of a certain Species of Naval Militia. I know not whether the Project be practicable, but believe it is. And is it not very important to devise the most just & efficient means of manning our Ships, even supposing it to be by Drafts for a limited time? Do not all Persons who follow a maritime life, owe their personal Service to the defence of their Country, as much in that way, as the standing Militia does in the land Service? And might not every State be made to furnish its quota in a prompt & decisive manner towards manning a fleet, without our being subject to the evils resulting from enrollment or impress, which are experienced in England & elsewhere?

DLC: Papers of George Washington.


c.1 January 1797


Having not long since observed in your Paper a notification of a work for sale in these words; "Letters of Genl Washington to several of his friends in June & July 1776; containing much information, but little known. The authenticity of these letters has been doubted, but never publicly denied; they bear some intrinsic marks of authenticity:” I take occasion to declare them to be absolutely & wholly forgeries—and I hope you will be persuaded to give as much publicity to this declaration, as you have endeavoured to give currency to that publication. This I request the rather because the letters contain (among much miscellaneous & indifferent matter) some sentiments which were never entertained by me, and which I hold to be utterly foreign to & derogatory of my character.

Whilst I thus think it incumbent upon to endeavour to destroy the circulation of false hood in a single instance, which is the more easily to be done as it seems to depend upon a public denial only; I am not ignorant how impracticable it would be for me to prevent almost innumerable errors, mistakes & falsehoods (which are sometimes so blended & connected with facts as not to be readily seperated) from flowing down from the present Age to Posterity.

I need scarcely explain to you, Sir, perhaps how very inconvenient & disagreeable it is for Persons who are or have been in public Offices (of some moment & responsiblity) to be obliged to pay a public attention or give a particular denial to every misrepresentation that may be published concerning themselves or their conduct. Had I paid such a regard to that object, I should indeed have had little time left to have devoted to the duties of my Office. And I thought no personal consideration (however irksome or distressing a tacit submission to the temporary circulation of misrepresentations might be) ought to be put in competition with the loss of the smallest portion of that time which could be employed in promoting the public good. Neither my time or habits of life allowed me to enter the lists as a public disputant. Nor, if I had possessed sufficient talents & leisure for the purpose, would it have been a pleasant or easy task to have attempted to have refuted the many unfavorable insinuations & imputations on the conduct of the Executive Government of the United States, which (according to my sincere belief) originated entirely in malice, falsehood & a desire to overthrow the present Constitution: because such an attempt might have been protracted into an indefinite political discussion, in the course of which proof & argument might have been answered by declamation & abuse—for you know there are certain Characters, who, however they may be convinced of being in the wrong, are always determined to have not only the last, but also the most irritating, word.

But, for myself, believing that the most essential truth relating to our federal Government & political interests will sooner or later come to be generally known (notwithstanding any attempts to destroy the one & disguise the other) and that their influence will prevail (without any farther agency on my part) to direct my Countrymen to pursue that straight political & moral path which leads to national peace & happiness; I have unspeakable pleasure in withdrawing to those tranquil & in a degree oblivious shades of retirement, where I shall not even know w[hen] tongues addicted to lyes & pens dipped in gall will hereafter be busied with my Character or not. Although it must be owned it is a mortifying circumstance at the moment, to have our most disinterested & best actions represented as merely the effect of sinister & wicked designs; yet having this day finished my public career forever & standing as it were on the verge of two worlds, I firmly hope & trust that none of the envenomed shafts of malignity will be able hereafter to reach me in such manner as to give one moment’s pain. Sequestered as I now shall be from the world, with the certainty of never mingling again in its busy scenes, I dare appeal to the present Age, to Posterity, & to the Searcher of all hearts, to decide whether I could possibly have been actuated by those motives of personal ambition & aggrandisement which have, by some Persons, been ascribed to me. What interest could I possibly have in attempting to give a tone to the Executive Department which did not belong to it? Have I, Sir, any Child, any favorite, any Relation, any courtly Minion for whom I wished to provide by subverting the present well balanced Constitution, and substituting an hereditary Tyranny? The world will with indignation give the lye to such Malevolent insinuations.*

Notwithstanding the diffidence in myself which a knowledge of my own frailties & imperfections inspired at the time when I entered upon the duties of the high office to which I was called by the voice of my Country, I have been so strengthened by the consciousness of the purity of my own intentions, & by the cooperation of my several Coadjutors in Office, as to have been enabled to reach the period fixed for my retirement, with perhaps fewer difficulties & obstacles than I had a right to expect. And notwithstanding the unwearied efforts of a few Individuals to destroy, or at least to weaken, the confidence which my Countrymen had been pleased to repose in me, I have great reason to be thankful for having always experienced, & especially on all critical emergencies, their sincere, zealous & decided support. And this, I presume, was occasioned by a belief on their part, that I could not have any objects to promote, seperate from the prosperity of the Community.

As this is the first Paper which I have addressed to any Person, since the burden of the Executive Government has been removed from me, I was willing to make use of the occasion in mentioning some of the reasons why I had not noticed several publications which have appeared during the course of my Administration, in order that it might remain as a kind of appendix to my public Documents. Having nothing farther to add, I bid you, Sir, adieu.

N.B. The following paragraph may be added or omitted, as it may be designed to make the address more or less personal—"And did you seriously think, Sir, that I was possessed of such littleness of mind as to have established Levees (as you was pleased to call them) from motives of vanity & ostentation; or that I should have continued to receive company at stated times, if I had not found that it was vastly more convenient to give those who might wish to speak to me on occasion of doing in that manner, rather than to suffer myself to be interrupted with visits at every Moment? Or had not I a right to drive t[he] same number of Horses in my Carriage, while [Pre]sident of the United States, which I had been accustomed to do as a private Citizen?

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