We sit down with the first president and ask him questions submitted by podcast listeners. Listen as Ron Carnegie interprets George Washington.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Today is a special show. Not only are we hosting the first president, George Washington, but we will be asking him questions submitted by our audience. Ron Carnegie is here today, he’s our George Washington interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.
We’re going to begin with a very appropriate audience-sourced question: Is it President George Washington, or General George Washington?
George Washington: I take no offence at being referred to by either name. The position I presently hold of course is President, but I take no offence being referred to as General and many soldiers still do.
Harmony: President Washington then, we’ll start by thinking about the Revolution. What is your greatest regret regarding the Revolutionary War, and if you could change one decision that you made during the war, what would that be?
George Washington: Well it’s unfortunate that we were forced to war in the first place. It had never been our intention to engage in war, or for that matter, to declare ourselves free and independent when matters begun. We were only engaged in endeavoring to preserve our rights as free-born English subjects. The war was forced upon us, and innocent blood was lost at Lexington and Concord when a brother’s sword was sheathed in a brother’s breast.
As to errors I made during the war, Â it is very difficult to limit only to one, ma’am. There are a number of things I wish I may had been able to do differently. There was more than one occasion where, particularly early in the war, where the enemy had taken the advantage from me. Long Island comes to mind immediately.
Brandywine perhaps worse, since they had already flanked me and I was suspicious they may again. Our mistake at Brandywine was doubled in the fact it is our ground. We should have known. We had secured the river, the Brandywine is a river, and we had secured it at the fords where an army can cross the river. But there were two fords north of my line that not myself or any of my officers were aware existed, and there’s no excuse for the enemy to have had a better understanding on the ground than ourselves. It should never have occurred.
Harmony: Thinking back to one particularly trying period in the Revolutionary War, the winter spent at Valley Forge, what was the most difficult part of that winter for you?
George Washington: Well keep in mind that wasn’t our worst winter, which many people seem to believe. Our worst winter of the war was our second encampment at Morristown. Valley Forge, the great difficulties we faced there, which as I say weren’t as hard as Morristown, were; the weather was warmer than seasonable so the ground wouldn’t freeze. Instead of getting snow we were receiving rain. So the ground was muddy, which made it difficult to ship any supplies, it made it difficult for the carriages and wagons to come into the camp.
That was added to by the fact that a number of merchants, black-hearted merchants, were more concerned with the size of their pocketbooks than in the preservation of the Army. So it was difficult at the time to gain food, not only to move it, but to even purchase it because these men hoped to make some great profit from the war.
And we suffered a great deal of illness at the camp. It’s a curse of any army that it’ll always lose more to illness than it loses to casualty, and in those days we were suffering greatly from smallpox. It was some risk to the security of the Army to enter into inoculation. When you inoculate the Army you give them the illness, and so you run the risk that if the enemy discovers that we were engaged in this process, that they could lay upon us and attack us while a portion of our Army was unavailable to us. For that reason the Army was inoculated in thirds so that it was only a third of the Army that was out of service at any given time.
Harmony: After your service in the Revolutionary War, you had the honor of being our nation’s first president. We had two questions from people who wondered what it was like to be the first president. What was a day in the life of the first president like?
George Washington: I have never wished for this office. I very much wish to be removed from it. My hopes had been that I would be allowed to enter into a peaceable retirement when the war with England ended. I only serve presently because I have been called by the nation whose voice I always hear with veneration and with love. When called I can deny her nothing, but I was led to the place of inauguration in New York in the very same sense that the condemned man is led to his gallows.
I do not particularly care for this office and look forward to the day that I’m out of it. And I don’t know who my replacement will be, but I’ll tell you this, whoever he is, he is nearly in and I am nearly out. We’ll see which one of us is happier for it.
As to my day, well that depends on what matter is in front of us. There’s a great deal of work as the Chief Executive of our United States. Â Some of it in ways you might not even imagine. There are a great deal of public dinners that must be had. When I first took office, I had no time to complete any business just because of the number of well-wishers who came to greet me. There were so many of them, I couldn’t see any business done, so I’d been forced to restrict when people can access me.
Certain days of the week for certain hours of the day I allow the public to come to meet with me, and the time they are allotted depends on whether they are simply well-wishers or whether they actually have business with the president. And then I have levees, which are a more intimate gathering where individuals are invited into the presence.
These matters have caused some debate. There are my detractors who argue that this is too aristocratic and that somehow I have considered myself to be a king or separated from the people, which is certainly not the case at all. The only reason for these restrictions is so that I can complete the other business that’s before me as the Chief Executive Officer and that I might still have my eight hours for refreshment and sleep.
Harmony: We had some questions about the office of the Vice President. When was the office of vice president conceived of, and what was your relationship with your own vice president? Did you work together on a daily basis?
George Washington: Well the term vice president is an ancient one. Usually the term “president” relies to a gentleman who presides over something. Often it’s a corporate position. We use the term here in Virginia for our conventions; the five conventions that met. It’s not an unusual term.
Now, as the second to the chief executive, it was created as a purpose to provide a second for when the president is not available or if some ill should befall the president. As to my Vice President, Mr. John Adams, no I did not meet with John Adams frequently.
I don’t wish to speak a great deal on why that is. It has been my intention to not speak in favor or against any of the gentlemen who’ll make their names known as my possible successors. I hold a great deal of influence, but influence is not good government. I don’t intend to influence the upcoming election by speaking in favor or against any of the candidates, and I do not doubt for a moment that my vice president will make his name known as a candidate. It doesn’t fall to me to determine who my successor should be, but rather to the people by way of their representatives in the Electoral College.
Harmony: A new federal government came to life in your first term as president. Do you feel that in the guidance of the behavior of federal employees there ought to be a code of conduct?
George Washington: Certainly, ma’am. And we should choose men by their conduct and always endeavor to serve to choose men who are men of integrity and virtue. When I took this office I made it very clear that I would never allow any officer of the executive branch of government to avoid prosecution or punishment for any wrongdoing or any acts against integrity. We cannot be a spectator in our system of government. So from the lowest freeholder, the voter, all the way up to the Chief Executive Office, every one of these people must be guided by integrity and virtue.
Harmony: Religion, ethics and morals often are cast together. Do you think that the religion of a president or a presidential candidate should be a part of the consideration of his candidacy?
George Washington: Absolutely not, ma’am. A gentleman’s relationship with his creator is the most private relationship that exists. It is not a matter of public business. I have never been a religious bigot, ma’am. I’m fully of the opinion that we will one day be called upon to answer for those decisions of conscience that we had made, but we should never be answerable to one another for those decisions.
Now as to the meaning of your question, I certainly do believe that as we mentioned earlier that any man in government must be guided by morality and virtue. Whether or not morality and virtue can long exist without religion, well that’s a matter that even a scholar wouldn’t debate. A man should, in my opinion, have faith in something, but what that relationship to his creator is, that’s his business and not ours.
Harmony: You said that the office of president is one that you did not relish and that you were eager to end, but when you look back on your presidential service what do you feel is your greatest accomplishment, what are you most proud of?
George Washington: I can’t take any credit for anything that has been achieved these last, well I was going to say seven years of the presidency, but I wouldn’t take credit for anything that may have been achieved these last 53 years I’ve been engaged in public service. What successes we may have received, what honors we may have gained, the thanks that belong not to myself, but rather to the generous interposition of an overruling providence. That’s were our thanks are due.