David Humphreys’ life of Washington, interspersed with Washington’s own comments and reflections, has little value as a biography, but it is important for the light it sheds on the relationship between Humphreys and Washington and for Washington’s own self-evaluation. To Humphreys, Washington is always godlike and the exemplary gentleman and soldier. Washington’s “Remarks,” bracketed with the narrative, offer clues to Washington’s mentality and personal attributes. The editor includes Humphreys’ outlines for the biography, “non-biographical material” from Humphreys’ notebooks, where fragments of the “Life” were found, and notes that are expository and collate the three manuscript segments.
For the “Life” itself, the editor has pieced together sections found in three archives: the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, the Yale University Library, and the Forbes Magazine Collection in New York. Only a five-page excerpt of the “Life” has been previously published, uncredited, in Jedediah Morse’s The American Geography (1789) and subsequently in various magazines and pamphlets. Washington’s “Remarks” were first printed in Scribner’s Magazine in 1893 and then in several historical journals. In this edition, the “Life” and the “Remarks” together total only fifty pages.
It is evident that Humphreys, who solicited and obtained Washington’s permission to write the biography, gave up soon after he started. Undoubtedly, he found himself with an almost insurmountable task, considering the enormous quantity of Washington’s papers and correspondence. Washington himself was transcribing his letters and papers at the time that Humphreys was residing at Mount Vernon; moreover, Washington probably preferred a later assessment of his place in history, and was, therefore, reluctantly cooperative. As it is, Humphreys’ “Life” is no more than a biography based on conversations (oral interviews) over the dinner table and the like. Washington did not want the information he gave Humphreys published as such but only to be used for writing a biography; he requested that the “Remarks” either be returned to him or burned, which instructions were not followed by Humphreys.
Humphreys was one of the many young men who served on Washington’s personal staff during the revolutionary war. While these young men were kept occupied with myriad orders and communications, they formed a lasting attachment with their commander-in-chief. All were careful not to cast any aspersion on Washington’s judgment or personal traits; one who did, Alexander Hamilton, requested a transfer, though the differences between the two men were eventually patched up. Humphreys, in the “Life,” only questions Washington on two points, both of which actually underscore Washington’s virtues. In one instance, he mentions that officers during the war thought Washington exposed himself too much in battle; in the other, when Washington was deciding whether or not he should accept the presidency, Humphreys has himself saying: “You ought, at sometimes, Sir, to look upon the bright side of the picture; and not always to be pondering the objects you find on the Reverse.”
It is known that Washington liked witty conversation and storytelling, and, as Humphreys notes, reserved an hour after dinner for “convivial hilarity.” Humphreys fitted right in. One of the four “Connecticut Wits”—John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, and Lemuel Hopkins were the other three—he wrote satiric poetry and also epics, as did others, on the “rising glory” of America. Humphreys’ first poem, “An Address to the Armies,” was published in 1780. In all, he wrote thirty poems, mostly in the 1780’s. His common theme was the glorification of the struggle for American independence and the promising prospects of the nation’s future. Once he digressed and wrote a play, The Widow of Malabar (1790), a tragedy concerning sutteeism in India. Humphreys did diplomatic duty in Europe from 1784 to 1786, and upon his return resided at Mount Vernon for six weeks. He then served a term in the Connecticut legislature. From November, 1787, to April, 1789, Humphreys lived at Mount Vernon as one of Washington’s family of eight, which included Tobias Lear (Washington’s private secretary), George Augustine Washington and his wife, Frances Bassett Washington (Washington’s nephew and Martha Washington’s nephew and niece, respectively), and two grandchildren of Mrs. Washington. Interestingly, Humphreys mentions Martha Washington only twice: “His health was gradually restored; he married Mrs Custis, a handsome & amiable young widow, possessed of an ample jointure”; and notice of Martha accompanying Washington on a visit to his mother. After the idyllic life at Mount Vernon, Humphreys served as Washington’s secretary during the first year of Washington’s presidency; thereafter, he was minister to Portugal and then retired to Connecticut, where he established a profitable woolen manufactory. Humphreys remained a bachelor until 1797.
Exuding from the pages of Humphreys’ laudation is a Washington who is perfect in every way and who is attentive to duty and reputation and to attending his plantations. Washington at Mount Vernon had a strict routine that he followed, rising at dawn and spending most of...
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