The Gentler Side of George Washington
Among all the places that George Washington visited, lived in, or slept at, there are two that stand out as historically significant, and for incidents that illustrated the softer side of our founding father. If you haven’t visited either Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh (Orange County) or Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan, consider doing so as we celebrate his 285th birthday. You’ll hear some remarkable stories.
A lot has been said these days about the office of the presidency, but we owe a great debt to the man who opted for a shared government rather than accept the title of king after the war. His response to the offer? Something like, “We just fought a war so we wouldn’t be under a king’s command.” No, it should be a “people’s” government. It was at his rented stone headquarters on the banks of the Hudson River where he came to many crucial decisions, composed letters to state officials on his governing suggestions, while running the last months of the war. That refusal to be king was big, but a little-known incident called The Newburgh Conspiracy may have actually led to a very different outcome for the emerging nation.
The Stone House
George Washington’s Headquarters sits at the intersection of Washington and Liberty Streets in the city of Newburgh. Its view of the Hudson is the best in town, and the grounds are peaceful, and have remained very much like it was in the late 1700’s. A recent tour of the interior was a startling reminder of the sparseness of the times, with its simple cots, no décor to speak of — it was wartime, after all) and little luxuries to speak of considering his rank. His rented stone house did however, have two fireplaces instead of the typical single heating and cooking source.
It was here, says Karen Monti, tour guide and professed George fan, where the Purple Heart medal made its first appearance, where spies came and went, and where his army rested during the harsh winter. The Newburgh Conspiracy is a story Monti loves to tell. In March, 1782, Washington heard that his officers were threatening to rebel because of long overdue pay from Congress, this coming at a time when the British threat was at its gravest. Washington went to his men to squash the mutiny and ease their fears, and before he completed his plea, he asked for their patience while he read a letter of support from a Virginia Congressman. From records of the time, we read that Washington took out a pair of “spectacles,” and “off-handedly” explained that they must forgive him as the duties of General had not only turned his hair gray, but that he’d become almost blind. At this example of their leader’s own personal sacrifice, his men fell silent and “openly wept.” Washington gave his word that he would not rest until every soldier got his pay; the officers vowed their allegiance to their leader, and created a bond that would last, and be evident years later at Fraunces Tavern for Washington’s farewell address.
Fraunces Tavern at lower Manhattan, 54 Pearl Street to be exact, is part restaurant, museum, and historic site of Washington’s last gathering as General. On the self-guided tour, visitors can see one of the largest collections of Revolutionary War paintings, and the Clinton Room where the nation’s first American Governor George Clinton celebrated with Washington on what became known as Evacuation Day, the day the defeated British Army left New York City.
It’s in the Long Room where Washington invited his men to join him as he said his goodbyes. It was an “emotional leave-taking” says Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge who was a participant who wrote this detailed entry in his diary, beginning with a portion of Washington’s farewell:
“ ‘With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.’
After the officers had taken a glass of wine General Washington said ‘I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.’ General Knox being nearest to him turned to the Commander-in-chief who, suffused in tears, was incapable of utterance but grasped his hand when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner every officer in the room marched up and parted with his general in chief. Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed and fondly hope I may never be called to witness again.”
Top photo: Clinton Room in Fraunces Tavern
Photos courtesy of Fraunces Tavern and Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site
Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site
Washington and Liberty Streets, Newburgh, NY
Celebrate Washington’s birthday with a family friendly weekend, February 18,19, and 20. Kids activities, appearances by George and Martha.
(Visit the website for other events throughout the year)
54 Pearl Street
New York City
Fraunces Tavern Museum offers FREE guided tours with admission every Friday a 2 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.
There are no guided tours on the following dates:
Friday, February 3
Friday, February 10
Saturday, February 11
Sunday, February 19
No reservation required.