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George Washington

“[P]arty disputes and personal quarrels are the great business of the day whilst the momentous concerns of an empire, a great and accumulated debt; ruined finances, depreciated money, and want of credit (which in their consequences is the want of every thing) are but secondary considerations and postponed from day to day, from week to week as if our affairs wore the most promising aspect; after drawing this picture, which from my Soul I believe to be a true one I need not repeat to you that I am alarmed and wish to see my Countrymen roused.”


General George Washington, writing from Philadelphia on December 30th, 1778, in a letter to his friend and signatory to the Declaration Independence, Benjamin Harrison V.

This correspondence, which was penned at the dicey midpoint of the Revolutionary War, of course illuminates the abiding nature of American partisanship and our intermittent anxiety about inflation, debt and national finances. Yet it also gives depth to the psyche of its normally even-tempered author, most especially Washington’s faithfulness, which was as unshakeable as folkloric claims about his honesty. As historian Ron Chernow notes in his biography, “Washington was always reluctant to sign on to any cause, because when he did so, his commitment was total.”

In his text, Chernow bookends this letter which a description of its tense political context, which has some pointed applicability to our own time and picks up exactly a week before Washington penned this note:

On December 23 Washington took a brief respite from his incessant labors and traveled to Philadelphia to confer with Congress about the prospective Canadian invasion… Washington had already asked Martha to meet him in Philadelphia and she had eagerly awaited him there since late November. They would celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary in the city that January… yet the trip would prove anything but a vacation. Staying at the Chestnut Street home of Henry Laurens, Washington got a view of civilian life that would revolt him with an indelible vision of private greed and profligacy. Like soldiers throughout history, he was jarred by the contrast between the austerity of the army and the riches being earned on the home front through lucrative war contracts…

Ever since Valley Forge, Washington had lamented the profiteering that deprived his men of critically needed supplies, and he remained contemptuous of those who rigged and monopolized markets, branding them “the pests of society and the greatest enemies we have to the happiness of America,” as he erupted in one fire-breathing letter. “I would to God that one of the most atrocious of each state was hung in gibbets upon a gallows five times as high as the one prepared by Haman.” Because of hoarding and price manipulation, among other reasons, the mismanaged currency had lost 90 percent of its value in recent months. As he contemplated these problems, Washington was also distraught over popular disunity and wished that the nation could move beyond factional disputes…

More letters from the founders:

  • Mr. Jefferson lends some advice to his teenage grandson
  • Alexander Hamilton sends a request to a friend, asking about girls
  • John Adams writes to his wife about his faltering sense of self-confidence